Finding Beauty In Life and Death

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I’ve seen more than my share of death. As the calendar moves relentlessly forward I have had to watch the passing of my elders, the people who loved and guided me when I was a child. Of late I have seen far too many of my peers leaving this earth as well. Death is inevitable and yet still such a frightening and unwanted state for most of us. We cling tenaciously to life even as we understand that not one of us is immortal.

A friend posted an article that defined the ways in which one might experience a “good” death. It was filled with all sorts of ideas that might work if one has the luxury of knowing that the end is near because of an illness that points in that direction. For many death is more sudden and unexpected, making it impossible to take charge of the event as described in the article.

My mother always spoke of being ready to die at any moment. She did not broach this topic in a morose manner, but rather from the standpoint of living life in such a way that no matter what might happen she would be ready whenever her time on earth was over. She did this with several routines from which she rarely diverged and from open discussions about her preferences long before there were any signs that her death was drawing near. As a result her passing was beautiful, and done on her terms just as she had always wished.

Mama never let a single day end in anger or hurtfulness. She asked for forgiveness for her transgressions which were always of the very minor variety anyway. She communicated her love for the people that she knew daily. There was no need at the end of her life for her to make an act of contrition to either God or family members. We already knew as I’m sure God did as well that she was sorry for anything that she had done that hurt anybody.

My mother expressed her desires to refuse all artificial means of prolonging her life on many occasions. She only hoped to be as free of pain as possible, but beyond that she insisted that we not take any extraordinary measures. We therefore felt comfortable conveying her wishes to her doctors who all smiled in agreement with her wisdom.

Mama lived a faith filled life that never wavered. She believed with all of her heart that our earthly home is only temporary and imperfect. She looked forward to an eternity of peace and happiness with God. On her last day of life she had an angelic glow and a beatific smile as she motioned toward heaven whenever we asked how she was feeling. She believed that her reward for a life well lived was coming soon. She had no anxiety and her peacefulness spread to each of us who visited with her in those final hours.

One by one the people who had meant the most to her came to pay their last respects. She made each visitor feel her love as she held hands and did her best to help them to accept the inevitable. She orchestrated final moments that none of us would ever forget, and gave us a gift of peacefulness that is unimaginable. In fact, even the nurses who cared for her in the ICU felt the joyousness that she projected. One of them cried as she left her shift, telling me and my brothers that she had never witnessed such a blessed ending to a life. She understood as we did that my mother had chosen this way of spending her final hours by living her entire life in preparation for the end.

My mother was always a caretaker who sacrificed for the needs of others. She asked for very little for herself and she certainly had moments when she was filled with all of the human frailties that we have. Somehow she always found her way back to a kind of inner peace and a total dependence on God to comfort her. She never asked Him for things or even to take away her sorrows or pain. All she wanted from Him was a bit of help in managing her attitude toward whatever was happening. Sometimes it took awhile, but always she found the serenity that she sought.

Mama’s life was difficult from beginning to end and yet she was one of the happiest people that I have ever known. From the time that I was a child she explained her joy by reasoning that she was able to tackle any challenge because she always knew that God was not going to leave her to act alone. Even, and perhaps most especially, in death she had a certainty that He was with her and that the best was coming. She was never angry with Him for the difficulties that mounted at her door. She accepted her travails as being a part of life.

I understand that it is difficult for many of us to curtail our anger, resentments, suffering and sorrow. Life can appear to be very cruel and death is often prolonged and painful. Keeping the faith and finding a way to smile even under the worst of circumstances can seem impossible, and yet I saw firsthand the power and beauty of my mother’s unwavering determination to be in charge of her life and her death by choosing an attitude of trust, faith, hope, and joy. She showed me and those who knew her how to have a beautiful death. I only hope that I will be able to follow her lead whenever that day comes for me.

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“Without Forgiveness There Is No Future”

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“If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”– Desmond Tutu

“Without forgiveness, there is no future.” – Desmond Tutu

During the summer months a nice breeze finds blows into my backyard along about dinner time,  so my husband and I usually enjoy our dinner outside each evening. We talk and enjoy the birds that find their way into the trees on our property and onto the fountain that they use as their personal birdbath. We hear the voices of neighbors who are bustling about on walks or doing a bit of work while the temperature is bearable. We linger at our seasonal dinner table until the sun is about to set and then we go back inside to end our evenings with reading or a television program before we retire for the night.

The big three channels are filled with silly summer offerings that are of little interest to us, a waste of our time. We search instead for more riveting fare and for that Netflix and Amazon Prime are difficult to beat. Recently we encountered a movie starring Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana called Forgiven that proved to be both entertaining and enlightening. It was set in South Africa in the days just after apartheid became illegal and Nelson Mandela had been elected President of the country.

In a spirit of unity Mandela had insisted that it was a time for reconciliation between all of the people so that they might all move forward together. He appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, a group tasked with examining crimes against humanity that had taken place in the past and determining how to deal with the both the victims and the perpetrators in a fair and compassionate way. Archbishop Tutu was a brilliant choice for this endeavor because he had worked tirelessly for social justice for most of his life, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

The movie uses a fictional character played by Eric Bana to portray the racist and murderous nature of those who had previously inflicted murderous treatment on the native peoples of South Africa. The film creates a storyline to demonstrate the intent of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in which Forest Whitaker as Desmond Tutu is frustrated by discoveries of mass graves and extreme violence. In the process Tutu becomes personally interested in the tragedy of one mother whose daughter simply disappeared on day never to be heard from again. He promises the woman that his commission will find the answers that she is seeking even while he struggles to fully understand what happened.

Archbishop Tutu receives a letter from a prisoner, the Bana character, seeking amnesty for his crimes. The convicted murderer is vile and violent, unrepentant for the horrific things he has done, virtually challenging Tutu to maintain his composure and his belief in the ultimate goodness of all people. The movie is a thoughtful and well acted commentary on mankind itself.

As I watched the plot unfold I found myself contemplating the differing schools of thought regarding how to deal with violence, racism, and other evils in the world. Some like Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela chose models of kindness and reconciliation as a tool to bring people together. Others in history have eschewed such behaviors for aggressive militancy. Today we appear to be in a time in which passive resistance is out of fashion, and instead an unwillingness to even consider alternate points of view is the more popular problem solving methodology. Those who find ways to expose flaws and judge without understanding are winning the day and I find the trend to be difficult to stomach. My personal heroes are people like Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Tutu.

In my own country I find it difficult to watch the ways in which we are tearing one another apart. The trend has been simmering for some time and now it is in full blown mode. I was certain that President Donald Trump would be rejected for his bullish ways, but instead he has been viewed by many as a kind of hero for his brash insults. Now we have some candidates for the Democratic nomination for President vying to bring down even those who mostly share the same points of view as they do.

Frankly I was quite embarrassed when Kamala Harris chose to publicly chastise Joe Biden for his past even as she insisted that she did not really think he is a racist. If that is true then I wonder why she felt it necessary to even bring up the matter. I was stupefied when the very person who began the “food fight” of the debate condemned what she saw as the childish behaviors of the other candidates. Even more confusing to me is the fact that her popularity has suddenly increased as many see her antics as a breath of fresh air rather than the bullying that it is. 

I am quite saddened by today’s political environment. It seems to be propelling us backward in time rather than pushing us forward. I do not believe that it will bring us to solutions to our problems nor will it heal the divisions that are growing like an ugly crack in the windshield of a car. We desperately need a peacemaker to step forward to lead our country back into a place of forgiveness. As Archbishop Tutu so brilliantly contends without it there is no future. 

Forgiveness

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When I was twenty years old I became the caretaker for my mother when her bipolar disorder sent her into a psychotic state. At the time I was sorely ignorant of mental illness and lacking confidence in my own abilities to assess the situation and advocate for the very best care for her. I would make a decision regarding her therapy that would haunt me for well over forty years. I allowed my own instincts to fold under pressure from her doctor mostly due to my ignorance and non confrontational nature. I agreed to a treatment for her that I knew she would hate. I did not have the courage to stand my ground and insist that the doctor try something else. Nonetheless I learned from this incident and grew exponentially into a person who would never again be influenced to act against my own sense of right and wrong. Sadly, even though I changed I was never quite able to forgive myself and whenever my mother’s illness reared its most profound ugliness she would remind me again and again of what she saw as my betrayal of her. It took a great deal of internal reflection and wise counseling for me to finally accept that I was worthy of mercy.

Each of us has a story of something that we handled badly, something that we replay in our minds over and over again as though we might somehow change the outcome or at least assuage our guilt. On a rational level we know that we just need to genuinely apologize to anyone whom we have hurt, and then demonstrate through our actions that we have genuinely learned and changed. If we are willing to become better then there is little reason to continue to berate ourselves or to be reminded by others of our transgressions. Forgiveness should mean that our faults will never be mentioned again, and yet we all know of situations in which an offender is never allowed to fully transform because someone continually thinks of them as the incarnation of their sins rather than their contrition.

In the gospel of a few Sundays ago Jesus had died, risen from the dead and was with some of his apostles once again. Lovingly he chose not to remind them of how some of them had denied him when he most needed their support. He did not focus on the moments when their human frailties caused them to react badly. Instead he loved them for coming back to him and demonstrating their belated faith in him. It did not matter what had happened in the past because he knew that they loved him at that moment.

The Christian message is one of forgiveness, and yet so many of us pridefully hold grudges against people whom we believe have hurt us. Particularly in today’s society once an individual has displayed egregious behavior we tend to forever hold that person in infamy even when he/she makes attempts to repent. It is a prideful thing that we do forgetting that each of us has fallen from grace at one time or another. We want understanding for ourselves without granting it for those whom we have stereotyped with a broad brush of negative judgement.

Certainly there are acts that seem unforgivable and make it almost impossible to associate with any kind of absolution. When we think of the Holocaust we sense a special kind of evil that only God himself might unravel and pass judgement upon, but for the most part the hurts that we inflict on ourselves and others can be reversed. When people truly attempt to become better it is important that like Jesus we embrace them as they have become rather than what they used to be. Continually reminding them of the past is as cruel and hurtful as any wrong that they may have done.

I’ve always been impressed by stories of forgiveness and the people who demonstrated great love and compassion to those who had wronged them. They abound in our history, but of late they are the exception rather than the rule. Abraham Lincoln understood that if our country was to survive as a union we would have to have to embrace the people who had attempted to rebel against the nation, forgiving them for what they had done and moving forward without continually chastising them. Of course he was tragically assassinated and the resulting tendency to punish has bled over into the current political environment. As a society we focus on missteps rather than the evolution of character. It is not what a man or woman may have once done in a moment of thoughtlessness that should matter, but rather what kind of person he or she has ultimately become. 

I am a huge fan of Robert Downey Jr. not just because he is a highly entertaining actor but because I believe him to be a good man. There was a time when his addictions were so severe that he almost lost himself and his career. He was slowly dying in a haze of drugs and alcohol that made him unreliable. Nobody trusted him even after he had done much work to rehabilitate himself. He could not get the insurance necessary to land even a minor part in a motion picture. It was Mel Gibson who was fighting demons of his own who came to the rescue, offering his own money as faith in Robert Downey, Jr. Ultimately Downey’s career was resurrected, but the loveliest thing about him is that he never forgot the kindness form Gibson who also became a pariah because of an outburst when he was drunk and under the influence of his own mental illness. Downey has appealed to the motion picture industry and one time fans to demonstrate some compassion for Mel Gibson just as he was given. He understands as well as anyone that life is a continuum, a journey in which we struggle to become better versions of ourselves. He knows how important it is to cherish those who make great efforts to change.

We seem to forget that Jesus modeled forgiveness again and again. The stories of his mercy resound in the Bible, and yet even many who profess to believe in his words turn their backs on those who fall. It sometimes feels as though our society has become a judgmental nag when what we really need is more absolution. The strongest people in our world are not the ones who are unwilling to see the goodness emerging in a fallen soul, but those who embrace those who change with love and clemency. 

You Are Where You Belong

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Everything you did brought you where you are now, where you belong.

—-Bran, Game of Thrones

Both the books and the HBO series of the epic Game of Thrones have been an international success making countless individuals famous and wealthy, not the least of which is the author, George R.R. Martin. Like The Lord of the Rings the story serves as a kind of fantastical history of mankind with a cast of characters with both godlike abilities and disappointing human frailties. GOT as it came to be known is made exciting with dragons, magic, battles and intrigue but at its heart is the story of people. It is one gigantic metaphor for all that each of us endures as we march steadfastly on our personal hero’s journey.

I once wrote an extensive paper about my paternal grandfather for an oral history/folklore class. I interviewed the patriarch of my family over a period of countless hours learning as much about the facts of his life as possible, as well as determining the overriding theme of his existence as revealed by his words and the things that he chose to remember. By the time that I made my recordings he was over one hundred years old and had experienced the most incredible events of the twentieth century which he often used as a comparison to the nineteenth century into which he was born. While his life was filled with hardship and abandonment much like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones he harbored little ill will toward those who had chosen to neglect him, instead patterning his life after those he most admired.

Grandpa often spoke of everyday heroes like the grandmother who raised him with a kind of reverence for nature and people. He was apt to recall a strong man from his childhood community who performed unbelievable feats. He borrowed his name and his greatest admiration from an uncle who had graduated from West Point. He regaled us with stories of people of honor and integrity as though they had been gallant knights of old. He almost pridefully boasted of his own prowess in being immune to the ravages of the smallpox epidemic that overtook his town as well as his determination to boldly walk away from what he believed to be his drunken ways. He journeyed alone from one place to another until he found his ultimate purpose in life which was to love and care for the fair maiden, Minnie Bell, his wife and my grandmother. He was loyal to her and to his children, and he overcame one challenge after another with the overriding belief that his journey was exactly as it had been meant to be.

I cut my teeth on stories from my grandfather and the fairytales that my father read to me. My own life was punctuated with tragedies that changed my course again and again. While I am at heart a person of routine I had to learn how to adapt to sudden and unexpected changes just as we all do. Life is never a straight open road, instead it is a series of twists and turns and rocky pathways. We have to not only be willing to endure the surprises that await us but also to deal with them. Like my grandfather I not only learned how to don my armor in difficult times, but also how to appreciate how each little alteration of the journey seemed to lead me to people and places that I was destined to encounter. Everything brought me to this very moment in time and I know that it is exactly where I belong.

Each of us is a character in our own epic story in which we meet villains, heroes, brave knights who protect us. We are sometimes betrayed, but more often we find comrades who stand beside us through the worst that nature or mankind throws in our paths. We ourselves falter and learn and grow. We are surprised by those who rise to occasions when we had underestimated their bravery. We are humbled by those who seem lost and then fight to redeem themselves. We find true love when we least expect it. We learn how to appreciate the best of our days because we understand that there will also be those that leave us exhausted and bereft. If we are wise we are flexible and willing to embrace change for it is as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.

The stories that we tell, that we read, that we cherish have only so many themes, so many literary devices. No matter how fantastical they may be, in the end they are based on our common human experiences and they center on people and how they adapt to the forces that enter their lives. Our history is in fact a personal tale that should remind us of our imperfections and the power of mercy and redemption in moving us forward.

We are living is strange time. All the progress of mankind should be making us happy but instead the world is tinged by discontent. We are walling ourselves off inside our castle keeps, when our knowledge should tell us that eventually the things that we most fear will find a way inside. We need to be open to alliances with those who differ from us and we must develop alternative ways of thinking. We need to search for the real heroes who are often the quiet ones rather than those who boast. Mostly we must remember that each of us has a grand purpose that is not nearly as ordinary as we may believe. Let us rejoice and be happy in the good that we have done and show mercy when we falter, never forgetting that we are just where we belong.

Turning the Other Cheek


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Think of someone who has hurt you badly. Remember the feelings that their actions caused you to feel. Now try to visualize forgiving them, offering them mercy for their wrong doings. In some cases it is an almost unimaginable thing and yet we are told the eye for an eye of the old testament was replaced by the turning of the other cheek in the new. Jesus told us to love one another unconditionally, even those who have wronged us. It’s an idealistic state of mind that is so incredibly difficult to achieve. We think of monsters whose actions were so egregious that it is impossible to feel anything other than loathing towards them, but I suspect that Jesus was talking less about such instances and more about the everyday encounters that we have with people who hurt us in small ways. Most of the ugliness that we endure is more in the realm of misunderstandings that pure evil.

I don’t believe that we are ever asked to be generous in our thoughts of people who knowingly and maliciously inflict emotional or physical harm on anyone, but rather to attempt to understand those who annoy us or to at least accept those whose differences confound us. We all agree that we dislike bullies and yet we sometimes unwittingly take on the characteristics of such boorish individuals when we ostracize someone because we don’t like or share his/her beliefs. We may complain about those who judge on the basis of the many isms and then classify someone in terms of characteristics rather than character.

I’ve often found that my initial impressions of people based on little real evidence have been very wrong. That rich snooty looking girl in my class was exceedingly nice. The older woman with whom I worked turned out to be tons more fun than many younger folks. That man with grease under his fingernails and a tough exterior on his face was kind and generous. The class clown was hiding deep hurts. The mom who cussed me out was deeply worried about her child. The newly released convict with a shaved head and tears tattooed all over his face became one of my greatest protectors and allies. The guy with Make America Great Again stickers plastered all over his car was doing more for those in need than any die hard liberal I have ever known. In other words we often see only the surface of a person and then feel anger or aversion toward them. I think that our command to love them is a command to know them before shutting them out of our lives.

I have a nice circle of friends and acquaintances. They are all good people as far as I can tell. I’ve been lucky enough to have had few encounters with ugliness, but when they occurred it was difficult to even consider the idea of forgiveness. I don’t think that we are ever expected to just lie down and endure the pain that comes with some people. We can and should walk away from them. It is unhealthy to submit to evil. They key to the kind of love that the Bible speaks of is to forgo the same kind of hate that has been inflicted on us and to be open to the idea of possible redemption.

I often think of the the examples that Jesus gave us. He forgave one of the thieves who hung on a cross next to His but did not ask the other thief to likewise beg for mercy. In other words we don’t have to deal with those who have no remorse for their horrific actions, but we also should not descend into the same kind of hate that they spew forth. Turning the other cheek sometimes means just removing them from our lives or at least keeping them at bay.

I am still working on having a forgiving spirit with a couple of people that I have known. One of them hurt my mother and the other hurt my daughter. I think it might have been easier for me to show them kindness and mercy had they aimed their barbs at me rather than two people that I loved. My protective instincts made me want to answer their ugliness with mine. Instead I removed them from my life. I’m still working on quelling the anger that I feel toward them. My Mama Bear instinct looms large, but I’ve come close to reaching a point of just pitying them for being so broken in spirit that they felt the need to tear down another person to feel better. Perhaps one day I may even feel some kindness toward them, because that is certainly the ideal way to be, but for now just keeping their evil away from me and those I love is the best that I can do.

Each of us is imperfect. We have weaknesses that show forth from time to time, but most people really do try very hard to be loving and kind to everyone. It’s not a bad goal to attempt to achieve. When we have a lapse perhaps we need to remember to be forgiving of ourselves as well and then try again. That’s really what all those words about love that Jesus spoke are all about. It’s not up to us to do as much judging as just remembering that we all make mistakes and have flaws that we can work on together rather than at odds. As we approach the Lenten season perhaps taking the time to better understand someone that confounds us is a more worthy sacrifice than giving up sugar or staying away from Facebook. In fact, perhaps a lovely thing to do might be to hold out an olive branch to someone who annoys us. This is what I believe was meant by turning the other cheek.