Our Fallen Unity

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When I was growing up my mom became emotional every December 7. With tears welling in her eyes she would attempt to describe the fear that she felt upon learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the confidence that the nation gleaned from President Roosevelt’s address to the nation. In all honesty I was hard pressed to understand why she remembered that event each year with such great reverence. I’d listen to the repetition of her story and view it through the lens of ancient history rather than that of the life changing event that it was for her. It was not until I experienced the assassination of President John Kennedy that I began to have a fuller appreciation of why it was so important to her to never forget what had happened in her own youth.

When the horrific events of 9/11 unfolded in real time as I was getting ready to go to work seventeen years ago, I realized for the first time just how soul searing a violent act against our country felt. In that moment I knew how my mother had felt on December 7, and why she was never able to forget the shock of what had happened. Like her, I now find myself reliving the horror of September 11, and it never fails to leave me untouched by a kind of grief and longing for the world as it had appeared to be before that fateful day.

Of course, I like most of my fellow Americans had been far too blissfully ignorant of the undercurrent that had been building toward that brazen act of terrorism that might as well have been called an act of war. I was enjoying my life as never before, having reached a peak in my career, and measuring my contentment with a host of friends and the arrivasl of my first grandchildren. The times were so good, almost perfect, and my worries were few. I was far too busy living the good life to worry about signs that things were not as right as I thought. Suddenly on that September day I felt my confidence and even my trademark optimism collapse along with the twin towers. A kind of fear that I had rarely known invaded my psyche, strangling the fairytale world that I had created for myself.

I remember wondering if our country would ever again be the same, and in many ways that concern was well founded. I tend to believe that most of the political problems that our country faces today rose to the forefront on that day. In the ensuing seventeen years they have become more and more complex because of the divides in the way the citizenry viewed the event. Literally one fourth of the present population was not even born on September 11, 2017. Another significant portion was to young to really understand what was happening. Then there are those who watched the attack unfold forming the differing reactions that are inevitable given our human complexities.

I tend to believe that those who are of a more conservative bent are not really racist or any of the other isms that are bandied about so frequently. Instead they were simply shaken to the very core of their beings on that day. They see progress as being a way to reinstate the sense of security that they felt before that day. Others have a perspective of hoping to defeat terrorism by providing a sense of contentment and justice to more people. They truly believe that if we try to be understanding and make life better for everyone that we will finally be able to live in peace. Then there are the youngest among us who have moved on to other issues that seem far more important than dealing with terrosism. It is the friction, the push and the pull, between contrasting solutions that is causing the rancor and distrust between us.

In many ways the events of September 11, 2001, did so much more than take down two buildings and kill thousands of innocent people. It damaged all of the citizenry. We are scarred and our wounds still have not healed. The terrorists accomplished the unthinkable in turning us on one another. I doubt that even they ever thought that the ultimate result of their attack would create a psychological battlefield within families, friendships, cities, states and the nation. Essentially we have yet to come to terms with our biggest fears therefore everything that we touch is tinged with distrust.

I am reminded of my teaching days whenever I witness the misunderstandings between individuals with differing opinions that are now so commonplace, and often filled with hatefulness. It occurs to me that everyone is chattering, but nobody is taking the time to quiet the scene and make a genuine effort to hear and understand what each person is trying to voice. We can’t get to the heart of the issues because there is so much confusion about what people actually believe.

I suppose that if we were to really learn anything from 9/11 it would be that we are far more vulnerable than we ever thought we were. We all suffered in some way on that day. We internalized our emotions and considered ways to move forward, but we weren’t willing enough to share what we were thinking. As our pain grew we allied ourselves with those who appeared to be like minded and turned our backs on those whose beliefs differed. Over time we fell into the trap of justifying ourselves by vilifying anyone with whom we did not agree. The battle lines were drawn, and few among us have the courage to admit that in many ways we have all been wrong and in many ways we have all been right. Our real enemies have won, while we bicker among ourselves.

I had a more difficult time thinking about 9/11 this year than ever because our nation is so fractured. I even attempted to push it from my mind until my granddaughter interviewed me for a school project. All of my old emotions came rushing back into my mind. It was as though I was watching those terrible images all over again. Then on the anniversary of the event I cried as I heard the national anthem being played at the 9/11 memorial site. My chest heaved as I watched a New York City firefighter ring a bell for the fallen. I was reminded of how united we had been for a brief moment. I thought of President George W. Bush climbing onto a pile of rubble and assuring the rescue teams and all of New York City that we heard their plaintive cries. We were the United States of America, the united people ready to do whatever it took to restore a sense of well being.

Somewhere along the way we forgot what we had set out to do. We lost our way. Now is the time to open our hearts and our minds and to remember who we really are as people. We should not fight with each other anymore. If we are to honor those who lost their lives, then we must find ways to get along or the very foundations of what we most cherish will fall. 

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Atonement

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I often joke that I may have to spend some time in purgatory when I die before earning a place in heaven. I note that I can rock along for quite some time doing my best to be a good person and then I do or say something not so nice that cancels some of my kindnesses. Truth be told I’m about average when it comes to my humanity. Like the scores of people who came before me and those who inhabit this earth with me I make mistakes. Such is the inevitability for most of us.

Now and again I see another soul who seems to have achieved a bit more perfection. Both of my grandmothers would fall into that category. They were generous, loving guileless women, but I have often thought that being isolated from most of the ugliness of the world as they were may have helped them not to back slide. Women today spend decades out in an often unforgiving world and the temptation to fight back sometimes leads to anger and invective of the sort that my grandmas never invoked. I believe that I will ultimately be forgiven for my lapses because I also firmly feel that my God is all about redemption. I mean, isn’t that more or less what Jesus told the world as He died on the cross?

I have been reminded of the power of honest contrition by admissions of weakness by heroes of mine like Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, and John McCain. All three made it clear in their writings and orations that they sometimes failed to follow their own principles. They spoke of making faulty decisions. In other words they were as human as any of us, which I suspect was also the case of my grandmothers, not withstanding my idealized image of them. As humans we are filled with imperfections and contradictions. When all is said and done the question becomes how we have attempted to live the majority of our days, and whether or not we have been willing to admit our transgressions and attempted to change.

My mother and my teachers all taught me that to sin is human, but to ask forgiveness is divine. They also insisted that once I demonstrated true contrition it was important that I move forward rather than eternally looking backward at my failings. I was schooled in the idea that I should love all of my fellow men, and that my hatred should be aimed at behavior that I found to be egregious, not people. That’s an admittedly difficult formula to follow, but it became a glorious model to use in my work as an educator. I was able to separate the flaws from the person, and deal with behaviors while still caring about the child.

We are in a cycle of judgmental excess, all around. We even take our self righteousness to the extreme of looking back in history and condemning entire civilizations and ways of thinking. We forget the rule of social science that tells us that generalizations are rarely acceptable in assessing humans. We also forget how different the world was from ours even a hundred years ago.

I have been watching the Amazon Prime series Lore and have been taken by the ignorance and superstitions that were prevalent in the world of my ancestors. Scientific and medical knowledge was so antiquated. Philosophies were often based on superstitions. People were generally uneducated much like my two sweet grandmothers who were unable to read or write, much less understand scientific and sociological intricacies. I find it oddly ridiculous that in our modern era there are so many who would overlay our own knowledge and understanding on people who often lived in isolation with little or no education simply because they appear to have behaved badly in a past that was as human as the present.

I also have a problem with pointing fingers of judgement at historical figures who attempted to atone for admitted transgressions and mistakes. It is so easy to insist that none of us would ever have been willing to follow bad leaders, but then we will never know if that is true or not. We cannot possibly put ourselves totally in the shoes of someone from another time and place. We would have to become them in every sense of the word, and of course that is impossible. Instead of looking backwards and admonishing people who lived in times far different from ours it is up to us to look forward. We can do that by learning from the past. Reading and studying with an open mind will teach us how to find the best thoughts and ideas. If we are to be fruitful in our quest for a more equitable society then we must spend more time constructing than tearing down, finding the good and building on that foundation.

I saw a group of students from Harvard who asked a professor what they might do right now to begin to foster positive change in our society. His answer stunned them a bit, but it was brilliant. He suggested that they take full advantage of their educational opportunity by becoming persons who have knowledge and the ability to think critically. He challenged them to acquire the tools that they will one day need to become great leaders, He spurned the idea that they spend their time protesting before they knew enough to come to reasoned decisions.

I also seem to go back to the folksy wisdom of my mother who was indeed a brilliant woman. In her times of clarity she understood human nature as well as any sociologist or psychologist. She often told me that people evolve over time, and that life is a journey through many seasons, all of which make us better people if we are willing to grasp the importance of each. She noted that youth was a time for observing and learning. She spoke of knowing when and how to grasp the reigns of leadership and when to pass them down to the next generation. She felt that a wise person would understand that we are all hoping and dreaming and failing. Each of us is an imperfect being with the potential for greatness. Our journeys in that direction challenge us to be humble and compassionate and forgiving. She always believed that there is an overwhelming goodness to this earth that beats with one heart. If that is our focus we will find happiness and purpose, even as we falter.

Only Time Will Tell

33750316_1843978448978317_6669086996591280128_nThere was a time when I believed that the first twenty years of the twentieth century were boring, a bit of a snooze. I have since become wildly fascinated with that time in history because it was responsible for perpetuating so many changes and problems that are affecting us even to this very day. Learning more about my grandparents has also enlivened my interest in this particular time because it ultimately had such a profound influence on me.

As children all four of my grandparents grew up in homes without plumbing or electricity. Neither of my grandmothers had enough education to know how to either read or write. At the dawn of the twentieth century they were both still wearing long dresses that modestly covered their legs, and women in the United States did not yet have the right to vote.

My European grandparents were subject to the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a conglomerate so vast and diverse that ruling it was unwieldy, leading to laws that prohibited the use of their native tongue and culture. Life in Slovakia was difficult but moving to the United Sates of America brought the promise of possibilities. Thus my grandfather bought a one way ticket to Galveston, Texas on a steamer that he boarded in Hamburg, Germany only a couple of years before the outbreak of World War II. What an adventure that must have been!

After working on all sorts of odd jobs, scrimping and saving every penny, and living all alone in a boarding house near present day Minute Maid Park in downtown Houston he was able to send for my grandmother. The two of them worked in the fields of a farm near the Houston Ship Channel and in the wooded forests near Beaumont just as oil was being discovered.

The little country of the United States that was still somewhat of a joke to the powers in Europe was on the move with an industrial revolution and an inventive spirit that thrust the United States into the modern era. Towns were being lit by Mr. Edison’s marvel known as electricity and two brothers had flown a plane for the first time in North Carolina. Mr. Ford was making cars affordable for the common man and people were marveling at having running water and working toilets inside their homes. It was an exciting time when the sleepy giant known as America was waking up and stretching its limbs.

My paternal grandparents were both working in Oklahoma where oil and almost free land was luring people from all parts. They would meet each other in a boarding house crowded with people seeking a living and, if lucky, even riches. Wild and crazy places like Tulsa and Houston were booming at a time when everyone seemed to be on the move in search of something.

Back in Europe the winds of war and revolution were blowing ominously in ways that would ultimately change the face of not just that country but places as far away as the Middle East and Africa as well. By 1914, everyone was honoring alliances and choosing sides in a battle that was supposed to end all battles once and for all. Modern warfare reared its ugly head producing weapons more terrible than anything ever before seen.

In the middle of it all the Communist revolution unseated the Czar of Russia and locked the world into an idealogical and political battle between Communism and Capitalism that continues to this day. My Slovakian grandfather was said to have been eternally grateful to be safe in Texas rather than locked into a lifestyle that would have limited his options and those of his children had he stayed in his native country. 

In 1918, the world experienced one of the worst outbreaks of influenza in history. Research into the disease did not lead to a cure in time to save the millions who died, but would create a better understanding of how such diseases are spread and lead to the discovery of antibiotics that would help to stem the tide of future outbreaks.

By 1920, women in the United States finally had gained the right to vote. Along with this victory came short skirts and other once unimaginable freedoms. Their homes began to fill with modern conveniences and appliances that made daily routines easier to perform. Radios provided instant news from the world and travel became available to even the common man and woman thanks to Mr. Ford.

In the meantime the treaty agreed upon at the end of World War I created unresolved problems across the globe that still echo in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, not to mention much of Europe. The United States was seen as less of a backwater nation and more of a possible partner in world affairs, and the spirit of innovation accelerated along with an emphasis on more universal education for both men and women.

The stage was being set in motion for my parents to be born and to live far more prosperous lives than their parents had ever known. The city of Houston continued to attract men and women with a pioneering spirit and a willingness to take audacious risks. It was not the boring and quaint time that I once imagined it to be, but in fact was exciting and bursting with some of the most important changes that humankind had ever known.

We often hear the men and women of the World War II era being called “the greatest generation” but there is great evidence that those who navigated the first two decades of the twentieth century like my grandparents may well have been even better. They were members of the transitional forces that led the way to modernity, unafraid to enter brave new worlds.

My Grandpa Little often spoke of experiencing the wonders of that era firsthand. He recalls seeing a city lit up with lights for the very first time. He remembers the first radio broadcast that he ever heard. He brags that he went from a tiny home with no plumbing and no electricity to using a television in the comfort of his home to view a man walking  on the moon. He did this all in a single lifetime. 

I sometimes wonder if the first twenty years of the present century will bring the same sense of awe to future generations. What is happening now that will still have an impact on the world in a hundred years and will we be remembered for being creative and courageous? Sometimes I fear that we are guided more by a tendency to cling to the past than a willingness to imagine the future. Only time will tell if we possess the same can do spirit that so defined the first years of the modern age .

Learning From the Past

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I was not born when it happened, but it was close enough to the time when I entered the world that I often heard about it. It was during the reign of terror brought on by Adolf Hitler that book burnings became common place in Germany. Any writing that Hitler and his men thought to be counter to their beliefs was deemed inappropriate, confiscated and burned in the public square. The idea was to eliminate works that might cause citizens to ask questions, to actually think. Books and philosophies have been banned in other eras and societies as well. It has been the topic of dystopian novels and movies depicting dark governments where freedom is obliterated in favor of a set of ruling beliefs. It is something that we particularly find abhorrent here in America, but nonetheless such extreme control sometimes creeps in, often with good intentions. We have learned that there is a very fine line between judging the appropriateness of the written word, and becoming authoritarian in controlling it. If we are to protect our freedoms we must be very careful in our approach to ideas that we find uncomfortable.

It is one thing to avoid certain books or authors on a personal level, and quite another to suggest that particular writings be removed from the public domain. I may find the Shades of Grey books to be offensive, but I would never suggest that others who enjoy them be denied the pleasure of reading them. The rantings of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf are impossible to accept, but I plowed through them just so I might know how the mind of a true fanatic actually works. Often our best option with volumes that disturb us is to become more familiar with them. As the godfather said we should keep our friends close and our enemies closer. There is much to be learned from the words of those with whom we disagree. We may never embrace their philosophies, but we know what they are thinking which is always a good defense.

Lately we have a kind of policing of writings that is far from being akin to the Nazi methodologies, but nonetheless should be troubling to all of us. The latests dust up is over the Little House on the Prairie books from Laura Ingalls Wilder. In a series of stories written for children Ms. Wilder described her life with a pioneer family moving west. She spoke honestly of the people and events that she encountered and for many decades now the volumes have been a favorite among readers, even spawning a long running and successful television program. For her efforts a literary award was even named in her honor, but recently the society of librarians who distribute the distinction decided to erase her name from the prize because of a perception that her works demonstrate racist and mysoginistic tendencies. The parsing of her words and ideas has even led to suggestions that schools named for Ms. Wilder be changed, and some question the appropriateness of reading them to children.

I find myself feeling a tiny bit squeamish about all of this, especially since the judgement of the books doesn’t appear to take into account the realities of a bygone era. Instead of using the tales to demonstrate how far we have gone or to hold discussions of how offensive some common ways of past thinking were, we want to just wipe the author away as though none of what she described actually happened. Children really can handle the truth, and usually do it better than some adults. It might be shocking to hear Ma Ingalls making disparaging comments about Native Americans, but think of what a teachable moment reading about it might be for youngsters. When Pa takes off his belt to whip one of the kids yet another dialogue about changing ways of discipline might ensue. It is important that our young understand that in judging historical events we are almost certainly going to encounter ways of doing things that seem foreign in today’s world. It’s a fairly certain bet that our own times will have elements that confuse and confound the people of the future. We are slowly but surely changing and evolving and approaching situations differently than our ancestors did. It should not hurt us to learn about their ways, but instead should enlighten us.

Whenever I read books written in a time passed I always consider the influence of the people and events that were taking place then, not now. Our manners and even our language adapt over the decades. I often wonder how shocked my great grandparents would be if they were suddenly plopped down into the twenty first century. They died without ever having electricity or running water. They lived in the wilderness in an atmosphere of quiet. They had little education and never traveled far from home. Their experiences were limited to a tiny geographical area. They did not enjoy the educational opportunities that we today take for granted. With such a limited worldview it is likely that they may have had philosophies that would make me cringe, but I would not be comfortable judging them because they were not exposed to as much diversity of thought as I have been.

Read the books from Laura Ingalls Wilder or not. It is an individual prerogative. Don’t however indict her for an honest telling of a time when minstrel shows were common and thought to be fine entertainment. Don’t call her racist simply because some of her characters were afraid of the Native Americans that they encountered. Don’t parse her every word to find omissions or slips of the tongue that appear to demonstrate a hidden agenda. I suspect that she was simply a talented writer who wanted to tell her story of a time and people that even she understood were not without flaws. In fact she made her characters very human and did not mince words in pointing out their problematic features. She should be applauded for that, not condemned.

So far nobody has suggested banning or burning Ms. Wilder’s books but a bit of a dust up of indignation has indeed occurred. If we let the ruckus go too far we might find ourselves obliterating the magnificent works of Mark Twain or even William Shakespeare. We need to be certain that our goal is only to critique, not to banish. Every voice must be allowed in the spirit of freedom, otherwise we run the risk of overstepping the bounds of liberty.

Life has changed in so many ways. My mother-in-law often told of the time that her father was beaten by a teacher when he misbehaved at school. She proudly noted that her grandmother demonstrated her disapproval of the punishment by summarily whipping the offending educator with a buggy whip. We know that such behavior would have ended badly for both women in today’s world, but the memory is expressive of just how much we have changed. My mother-in-law was one of the most nonviolent people I have ever known. To attribute bad behavior to her because she repeated the story would be absurd. Perhaps we need to think about things that trouble us with less judgement and more joy in realizing that we have moved beyond such beliefs. Use the past as an educational tool, not a whipping post.

Better Angels

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I’m not one to advocate fighting, especially among family and friends. A colleague once told me that I would probably be able to find something good about anyone, including Charles Manson. I suppose that I am the way I am because I so value life, and believe that each of us has the potential for great good. Nonetheless we are also imperfect, and I try to remind myself that I do not have all of the answers and neither does anyone else. Our humanity leads us in many different directions, and often it is only in retrospect that we are able to determine whether or not we have always chosen the best pathways for living. Each of us is so complex as is the world in which we live as well as the long history of mankind. I feel that we must be far kinder and less judgmental that we often are. Somehow of late we have become a very divided nation with each side virtue shaming the other. The rancor that I see is toxic, and even more troubling is that all too often anyone who attempts to bridge the ever growing gaps is viewed as lacking in values.

Mark Twain once said something to the effect that the two most important moments in a person’s life are when he/she is born and when he/she discovers why. I love the idea that each of us has a purpose, and firmly believe that it often takes us a very long time to know what that may be. In my own case I suspect that my suffering has lead me to be far more understanding and compassionate than I might otherwise have been. Losing my father taught me how fragile life truly is. My mother’s mental illness showed me that each of us has a kind of brokenness, some more severe than others. I learned to embrace people just as they are, not as I wish them to be. I have been humbled by the realization of my own imperfections. I have embraced the power of listening to each person’s story and learning from what I have heard. History speaks to the truth that humankind has struggled for centuries to survive and to understand the world’s many mysteries. That epoch journey has been wrought with both failures and glorious successes. I suspect that if we were to analyze every single person who has ever lived we would find it to be true that even the most gloriously amazing individual still had a share of doubts and mistaken beliefs. It is who we are, and something that we seem to forget from time to time.

So here we in 2018 fighting like Cain and Abel all across the world, hurling invective at one another to the point of insisting that anyone who doesn’t agree with our opinions is no longer a friend. We are defensive and angry and unwilling to stop our ranting long enough to realize that as a nation we have become our own worst enemies. It seems as though the warnings that my seventh grade teacher proposed over five decades ago have come to pass, for she was prescient in urged us to be wary of the power of propaganda. She taught us how to watch for it, and insisted that it was all around us, even when it was not apparent. It was a shocking revelation, but one that I have never forgotten. I see its impact now more than ever before, and realize that we are being manipulated into turning on people that we once may have loved simply because their ideas do not conform with ours. It is a truly sad state of affairs and it has caused me to grieve and to feel a sense of desperation as I attempt to draw people that I know back together. The din of the rancor has become oppressive and I have worries about where it will eventually end that might never otherwise have occurred to me.

In the midst of the darkness I have discovered a small ray of hope. I have heard about a group called Better Angels, an organized effort to bring disparate forces together in a spirit of understanding. The idea behind the movement is to sponsor what are known as red and blue conversations between groups of Republicans and Democrats. Participants agree to discuss issues in a highly structured environment that focuses on listening. The gatherings are weighted equally with people from both sides of the political spectrum, and kept somewhat small so as to allow each person time to speak. Using a number of formal structures there is an agreed upon topic and the emphasis is on simply hearing each point of view. Only one person speaks while everyone silently considers what is being said. It is not a debate, but rather an opportunity to learn from one another. Nobody is allowed to speak out of turn or launch into heated arguments. It is a controlled and quiet attempt to find understanding, areas of common ground and possible solutions. Those who have participated have generally reported feeling enlightened and far more open to considering new ways of thinking. The system is so powerful that many teachers and university professors use it in their classrooms to invoke more critical thinking and less emotional argument.

I have personally participated in similar groups in past years. They were not affiliated with Better Angels but they were constructed in a similar manner. Generally there were a very small number of people in the groups and there was no effort to keep them balanced, but there was a very structured set of questions and rules for speaking about them within a limited amount of time. Usually one person served as a mediator who insured that everyone followed the rules. Such situations almost uniformly resulted in more listening than talking, serving to quiet the mind and open possibilities that had not previously been considered. They worked to build a sense of team and family even among very different individuals.

I believe that we have been approaching our shared problems in the wrong manner. We only hear what we wish to hear in an atmosphere of shouting and accusations. We align ourselves with like minded people and unfairly judge those with whom we disagree. We behave as though we have it all figured out when the truth is that every problem is filled with complexities that require consideration of many different ideas. In truth it is only when we quiet our own souls and begin to listen to everyone that we will ever find ways to agree on solutions. My guess is that much like our ancestors we will have to make compromises that may not perfectly suit us, but which will settle our differences just enough to make progress. The better angels that live inside our souls need to overcome the demons that are leading us astray.