Do Not Be Dismayed

pexels-photo-414752.jpegDo not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world.

All things break. And all things can be mended.

Not with time, as they say, but with intention.

So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.

The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.

      —-L.R. Knost

Just before Easter last week there were big storms in Texas. At the very moment that the rain began to come down in heavy bursts over our home an interior shower occurred inside the house. Water was pouring from the vents in our kitchen, laundry room and hallway. Of course our first thought was that we must have had a terrible leak in our roof since the timing of the incident corresponded with the rain.

As it turned out it was our hot water heater that was sending the torrent through the ceiling down the walls all the way to the bottom story of the house. Our upstairs bathroom was spouting moisture like a sieve and the carpet in the area nearby was saturated. Luckily we were able to turn off the gas and the water connected to the offending appliance and allay some of the damage. Nonetheless we will have a number of repairs ahead to insure that no mold grows inside the walls and to fix the door jam to the bathroom that is now so warped that the door won’t close.

Of course we have little reason to rejoice over the expense and inconvenience of this household accident, but the reality is that it might have been far worse had it happened while we were away from home or sound asleep. We actually feel rather lucky and, as my niece remarked, we may even get some nice changes to the house that we will ultimately enjoy.

An irony of the whole situation is that only an hour or so before the incident my husband had crowed about the fact that our health insurance had covered all but a pittance of a very expensive ultrasound that he recently had to check on an artery in his brain. We laughed that we will probably spend as much as or more than the cost of that test in getting our home back to normal. I thought of how my mother would have seen the situation in her characteristically optimistic way. I could almost hear her saying, “Isn’t this wonderful? Because you didn’t have to spend so much on the medical procedure, you will have enough to repair the house. Isn’t God good?”

The fact is that all things break. Entropy is a fact of nature, organizations, societies and humans. Each of those things can also be mended unless the damage is extraordinarily severe. We just need the will to take care of whatever problems we face, and if we do it with a smile rather than a grumble we feel a bit less of the pain.

One of my favorite books is Things Fall Apart, a tragic tale of pride, conquest, and man’s inhumanity to man. It is a lyrical story written by a gifted African author who outlines the effect of  arrogance in a clash between an inflexible man and political and economic forces too strong for him to overcome. It is a classic tragedy in three parts that speaks to our very human flaws. It’s theme of broken promises and spirits is all too often the stuff of the human experience. When things are left to simply rot there is a kind of darkness that descends.

Only months ago my city was literally under water. It felt as though we were engulfed in a situation from which we would never escape. There was billions of dollars of damage to people’s homes and schools and churches, but even more to their psyches. For a time I truly worried that it might be impossible to bring our gasping area back to life, until I saw person after person, group after group rolling up their sleeves to help perfect strangers. The love that was present in every corner brought a light of hope that was both miraculous and up-lifting. Somehow we all knew that we were going to be fine, and sure enough slowly but surely things are moving back to normal and we are basking in the intentional love that was showered on us by both friends and perfect strangers. In our moment of deepest tragedy we saw the goodness in mankind in all of its glory.

There is something truly wonderful about people when in times of dire distress. They generally find ways to come together to solve problems, repair broken dreams and get back on the right track. We are almost always more good than we are bad, but sometimes we get so busy arguing over how best to be that way that a kind of darkness descends over our intentions and we lose our direction. We seem to be in that state of mind right now.

We have many problems that we need to address, but we are so busy arguing with one another that we get nothing done. Our brokenness is impeding our efforts. We are forgetting to love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. We are bogged down with our feet of clay. Our inflexibility is making all of us unhappy. We are forgetting to focus on what we have in common rather than where we disagree. The broken world will stay that way until we are willing to spread light rather than shouting at one another.

We have citizens who worry about the next health issue, but we do little to ease their fears. There are young immigrants who live in the shadows wondering if they will be sent away to countries that they do not know. Our schools are not as safe as we had once hoped they would be. We have threats from around the world. There are far too many broken souls with addictions and mental illnesses. There are many questions that we must address, and that will only happen when we work together like people did in my city when it felt as though we were all going to drown.

We proved here that we can be all one people. Perhaps we need to try doing this on a truly grand scale. If our politicians can’t fix what is broken, then we need to begin the process of mending ourselves. It can take place one person at a time, one moment at a time. All we need do it stop our shouting and get to work.

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Opening Our Ears, Eyes and Mouths

flat,800x800,070,fThere is a video of four little babies loving and hugging one another that has gone viral. It is a precious demonstration of the innocence that is in our human natures that sometimes becomes twisted and ugly in some of our fellow humans as they grow into adults. I suspect that the clip is popular because it reminds us of how we dream for the world to be, devoid of bigotry and hatefulness. Sadly we know that no matter how hard we wish for such a reality, it will probably never completely occur, but what if we did indeed have a way of extending the goodness that lies in our hearts just a bit more? Would we do our best to make such a thing happen or would we choose instead to take an easier path in life?

We have seen instances of people throughout history who have decided to be the change they desired to see in the world. They did not turn away from challenges to demonstrate love and justice, and often they were ridiculed and even persecuted for their courage. Jesus showed us the way and the truth about how we should all live, and for his efforts he was nailed to a cross and killed as though he was a common criminal. Abraham Lincoln held fast to a belief in the dignity of all men and was murdered. So too did Gandhi die because of his determination to speak for those without a voice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lead his people to their rights as humans and citizens of this country all the while understanding how dangerous it was to do so. The greatest individuals of all time have overcome their fears to stand up for goodness, but there have also been instances when those unknown to us have been unafraid to be noble. Every single day someone somewhere is facing down evil and moving the dial just a bit closer to the kind of loving perfection that we all wish to see.

I find it heartbreaking when we witness hurtful behaviors and we simply allow them to happen. We turn our backs, close our doors, draw the blinds, pretend that we did not see or hear the transgressions. We do not wish to invoke the ire of the people around us. We don’t want to make waves, and so we remain quiet, making excuses for those who embarrass or hurt others with their actions. These days we even invoke the premise that the end justifies the means, even as those means are truly vile. We advocate strength in numbers and informally join groups even when those groups do things that we know are wrong. We don’t wish to be shunned, so we allow the infractions to occur, pretending that they really aren’t so bad even when we know that they are.

It is when the vast majority of us close our eyes and put our fingers in our ears in the face of a wrong that evil takes root among us. The leap from being a highly educated and cultured society to gassing innocents for simply being of a certain kind is not all that great, and when it happens we realize that we have lost control of a situation that might have been stopped if only we had been forthright in the beginning. History has taught us time and again that the line between civilization and anarchy is often very fine, and bullies will take advantage of our failure to enforce it.

I have tried to give the president of our country the benefit of the doubt. I have wanted to believe that perhaps his comments have been sensationalized by a press that does not like him, but far too often he gives me little reason to support him in his baseless tirades against certain groups of people. I’ve thought that perhaps he does not know how to properly voice his ideas properly because his vocabulary and knowledge seems so limited, but now I simply think that he is in truth a very mean spirited person, a bully, and a bigot. What bothers me even more than the horrible things that he says is that there are actually those who applaud his ugly ideas, and sadly some who dislike what he says but are unwilling to say so.

The most recent example of this came from a discussion of how to deal with immigration, a topic that has brought out some of the most egregious comments from the president. The fact that he used a guttural term like “shithole” to describe certain countries was not as horrible as the inference that it would be preferable to limit immigration to those who come from so called better places. The meaning behind such statements is appalling knowing that there was once a time when my own grandparents and mother were thought to be unworthy of citizenship in this country by prejudiced individuals who called them dirty and ignorant. They came from a part of eastern Europe that has historically been thought to be home to lazy people not worthy of admiration or respect. My mother never fully forgot the sting of the insults and rocks hurled at her for no reason other than her heritage. It is painful to me to consider that the leader of our country would still be categorizing people based on their nation of origin, economic state, or educational opportunities rather than seeing each of us as equal in the eyes of God. I had thought and hoped that such thinking was a thing of the past, but I have learned that I was wrong.

What truly worries me is that so few of the men and women in the Republican party have remembered the model of Abraham Lincoln and risked their careers to say and do what is right. Some who have no trouble standing up to the wrongful thinking of Democrats seem to have become sheep with regard to President Trump. If they actually agree with his sentiments, then they are a very cold hearted group that has forgotten what this country was supposed to represent to the oppressed peoples of the world. The message that they are sending is not one about protecting the American people and our way of life, but one of exclusion and prejudice. No matter how the president’s remarks are parsed or what exact words he used it comes back to the idea that we don’t want to provide opportunities and safety for citizens who do not fit a certain profile, and I have to strongly disagree with that kind of thinking.

I have written my two Senators and urged them to step forward and demand that the president cease and desist his campaign of disgusting pronouncements, but I have little faith that they will even read my comments much less act on them. In the meantime we are hurting and demeaning individuals who like my grandparents only want a chance at a fair shake.

This country was not founded by the squires and noblemen of Europe, but by the second sons, the downtrodden, the persecuted, those who realized that their home countries held little promise for them. Over time they came to our shores one by one eager to make something of themselves, and many did just that Their resumes would not have been likely to enchant someone based on merit, but they proved themselves when given a chance. This has been the exceptional story of our nation. This is what has made us great to this very day, not some imagined vision of isolation and unwillingness to learn from one another.

We cannot build walls around ourselves and expect to thrive and find happiness. It didn’t work when kings built moats and stone structures and it won’t work now. The world is a vibrant place with ideas pulsing in every corner. A truly visionary leader understands that we have a place in the larger community, not if we hold sway over everyone else, but by becoming part of the conversations about what each of us has to offer. We were at our best when we saw ourselves as helpers rather than dominators. We changed the world with our goodness, not our brute strength. Every time we have become confused about our role it has gone badly, and right now our president seems to think that a he alone knows how to keep our country safe. History shows us the folly of such thinking, We can’t keep looking away. It’s time for all good men and women to come to the aid of our country. We have to open our eyes, our ears, and our mouths.

Embrace the World

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The world may seem like a fairly ugly place right now if one only looks at the headlines. We’ve got President Trump railing about “Rocket Man” at the United Nations, and in return North Korea threatens to attack our country. There are riots in cities and on university campuses, and the mere mention of political topics tends to elicit hate filled arguments. We speak of building walls to keep people out, and watch helplessly as violence appears to be routine. Civility seems to be a thing of the past, and some might argue that it never really existed. There is much talk about how horrid our ancestors were and how much of the population is following in their footsteps. It’s enough to make one believe that we are going to hell in a hand basket, and in fact there are those who predict that the end of the world as we know it will be coming very soon.

Somehow I manage to hang on to the belief that we humans are not nearly as bad as some would have us think. I see far more signs of goodness than hate. I recently learned of a story about high school students who donated thousands of gift cards to their arch rivals at a football game last Friday. The kids had heard that their opponents had suffered more than most in the recent floods in the Houston area, and they decided to do their part to provide them with a bit of relief. What started as a minor effort turned into a very big deal, and it’s not the only instance of service and good works that I have seen of late. In fact, I have been impressed in particular by the efforts of young people in attempting to help their fellow Houstonians during a difficult time.

I have been watching the ongoing story of rescue efforts in Mexico after the horrific earthquake that has claimed so many lives. The heroic efforts to save those buried under the rubble of fallen buildings has kept me holding my breath and praying for both the victims and those who spent days without rest in a race to find as many survivors as possible. It has been touching to see the crowds signaling for silence so that the teams would be able to hear the sounds of cries for help.

In Puerto Rico the destruction from the recent hurricane has been frightening and without power and instant aide it has fallen to ordinary citizens to begin the process of bringing the island back to life. The people have been moving downed trees, picking up rubble and rescuing people trapped by floods. Rather than complaining, they assert that they are ready to do whatever is needed to help their friends and neighbors. Their spirit is something quite wonderful to see.

I hear so many people claiming that we have been overtaken by negativity and hatred, but what I witness day after day is just the opposite. On a regular basis I see teachers working extra hours and spending huge chunks of their paychecks to help their students. In turn I witness students volunteering to care for the elderly, visit the sick or help with animals that have been abused. Complete strangers have come from as far away as Australia and Norway to assist my city after the devastation of hurricane Harvey. Sure there have been a couple of incidents of looting and thievery, but on the whole the response has been good and generous.

I enjoyed the movie Wonder Woman because its theme was one of hope and faith that mankind even with so many imperfections is ultimately a loving species. I believe that to be quite true. My experience has always been that there will be people who provide and that nobody is ever completely alone. It is in our natures to want to be generous. We listen for those cries of help and we respond.

It would be quite easy to be cynical and to close ourselves off from perceived threats, but I choose instead to embrace the world with optimism. We may have some rough times, but ultimately our goodness as humans always seems to find a way of winning the day. We definitely won’t have a chance at happiness if we immerse ourselves in negativity. We have to be willing to trust that our fellowmen and women will mostly be good people with the same kind of dreams that we have.

One set of beliefs insists that we are all born sinful and that we have to be saved. I prefer to think that each of us comes into this world as innocent as can be and that we have the opportunity to become even better as long as we keep trying. There are few people who are lost causes, and most of them are either mentally defective or have been so abused that they have only learned to hate. We need to deal with people on an individual basis rather than making assumptions that they are representative of entire groups or populations.

We have many problems that will only be solved if we learn how to talk with one another again and begin to trust that we each have good intentions but different solutions. If we are able to dialog and work together we will learn how to live with a variety of ideas and actually like them. We have to think of how to keep our nation safe without being unjust. There must be ways to have a fair and controlled immigration system without building walls. We have to consider alternative points of view and ask ourselves how we will meet the costs of programs that we find to be important. All issues are complex and we must be willing to admit that no one of us has all of the answers. Sometimes the best solutions come from the diversity of our opinions.

We might start by taking the time to look at the state of our world without so much hyperbole. The truth is that our goals are much more alike than they are different. We somehow find ways to solve the most difficult of problems when disasters strike. Perhaps we might consider what it is about our instant responses that makes us more cooperative and willing to set aside differences. Maybe it is the simple fact that we don’t overthink when we must react quickly. We just do what seems most needed and important at the moment, and don’t fret over what the consequences will be. Maybe our instincts to be helpful and unselfish are the ones that we should be following most of the time. Let’s have a bit more trust in human nature. I think we may find that we really can count on our fellowman more often than not. We people are actually rather kind. I like knowing that.

End the Pain

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Most of the students whom I have taught over the years were Hispanic. They have been delightful, hard working and determined to make the most of their lives. Many of them were the first in their families to graduate from high school and then they went on to earn degrees from colleges or become certified to perform certain trades. They epitomize the kind of individuals that we hope will take the reins of leadership in the future. I have been profoundly honored over the years to teach and serve them and their families.

Now and again I encountered a gang member or someone intent on causing trouble but those kinds of kids were the rare exception and I have grown to love the gentle and giving natures that my kids have brought from countries south of our border. I never bothered to find out who was here legally and who was not, but when I was the testing coordinator it became all too apparent who was not a citizen because they did not have Social Security numbers. So many of the students in that category were incredibly talented and hard working. I worried about their immigration status constantly. I watched some of my proteges crying and greatly distressed when they received acceptances and scholarships from prestigious universities because they feared that leaving the state of Texas might reveal their status and place them in danger of being deported, so they often stayed within the boundaries of home rather than taking risking travel.

The most heart crushing aspect of their situations was that the vast majority knew little or nothing about the countries from which they had come. They were brought here by their parents when they were far too young to remember the worlds of their births. They grew up in the United States of America speaking both English and Spanish, but they were bonafide Americans through and through. Being here is what they know, and while they were children they had little idea of the danger they were in. It was only as they grew older that they began to realize the uncertainty of their situation. It might be argued that they need to be sent back because their parents’ broke the law, but I would posit that it is ludicrous to punish them for something that they did not do. We were lax and lazy and unwilling to reform our immigration laws. We allowed time to elapse to the point where it really is too late to do anything other than make them all legal.

There were bipartisan attempts to pass laws that would have permanently reformed immigration, but they were defeated and resulted in some Congressmen like John McCain and Marco Rubio who sponsored the bill being treated like pariahs. The truth is that they were the true heroes along with the other six lawmakers who had the good sense to understand that we could not continue ignoring the problem.

I worried when President Obama created DACA for the Dreamers by executive action. He had to know as I did that all it would take to eliminate the safety net was to get someone in office whose political philosophies did not mesh with his. It was apparent that the plan might one day be rescinded because it was not a law. It was wrong to mislead so many and have them believe that they were finally safe. In fact I watched an episode of the program Nightline in which it was noted that President Obama actually jumped the gun with DACA because Congress was literally on the verge of passing a law that would have protected the Dreamers. When Obama grew fearful that it might not go through he issued his executive order and essentially killed the idea of actually passing a law. So in some ways everyone has a bit of guilt with regard to this issue and that includes those of us who vote because we became complacent.

I suspect that President Obama wrongly assumed that Hillary Clinton would follow him into the presidency and give the Dreamers more time and protection. Now the issue has come to a head, and it’s time for all lawmakers and voters to face the music and devise a bipartisan plan that is fair and just and that takes a good hard look at all of the issues. This will require political compromise, not rancor. It is time to settle this once and for all and admit that these young people did not break the law and that they are simply victims of legislative laziness and lack of foresight.

We the People must challenge both Republicans and Democrats to work this out. Reforming immigration laws to help the Dreamers should not be a political football. It must take into  consideration of the needs of a group of young people who are presently terrified. All grandstanding has to be set aside, and that includes blistering commentaries from those who want to make political hay. Such harangues will not get things done the way they need to be approached. Instead all of us who understand the realities of the situation in which so many young people now find themselves must exert political pressure on all lawmakers to do whatever it takes to resolve the issues and produce a reform plan that is both realistic and sympathetic.

I have never believed in punishing young people for the sins of their fathers or grandfathers. If we were to adhere to such a way of operating few of us would be accepted by society. Instead we must consider what will happen to young men and women if they are suddenly ushered out of the country that has been their home for decades. Put yourself in their shoes and consider how you would feel if you were abruptly told that you were brought here illegally when you were still a child. Would you be happy about being sent to live in Slovakia or Italy or France or any foreign place from whence your parents might have come? Of course you would not. It would be a most disturbing prospect. We need to reassure the Dreamers that we have no intention of allowing such a thing to happen. It would be a travesty of the highest order.

I happened to watch a program about the division of India the other evening. Fourteen million people were displaced as a result of an order that suddenly created Pakistan and independent India. Those of Muslim descent who had lived for their entire lives in territory belonging to India felt the need to move and vice versa. Lives were totally wrecked and the death toll from the partioning was inexcusable. We have to use our common sense and not be tied to black and white arguments, but must take into account shades of grey. As both a parent and a teacher I found again and again that sometimes rules must  be changed to make any sense whatsoever. This is one of those times, and this is the moment when we must make the protections ironclad by creating a law that forever eliminates the fear that has stalked these young people for far too long.

In the name of humanity this we must do. We here in Houston have learned the value of every single life in the last couple of weeks. One of our own was a Dreamer who actually died while attempting to rescue others. He was extraordinarily heroic, but he was also not so different from the other young people who were brought illegally into this country before they were old enough to even realize what was happening. They are good solid citizens, the kind of people who will always help in an emergency. We need them here. We want them here, so please members of Congress put the animosities aside and create the law that you should have passed long ago. End the pain now!

Remembering A Wonderful Life

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The classic movie It’s A Wonderful Life considers the difference that one individual might make in the world. The premise is that if the hero had never lived everything in his town would have turned out differently. It demonstrated that while each of us only touch a limited number of lives, our impact is nonetheless profound.

I was thinking about this when the new RAISE immigration plan was announced. I wondered what might have happened if such a law had been in effect when my grandfather first wanted to come to the United States from Austria Hungary. He had only minimal education and no real skills beyond a willingness to do the most detestable of jobs. His English was minimal. He came with little more than the clothes on his back and did the kind of manual labor that is brutal and dirty. He was frugal and saved money until he was able to send for my grandmother. She had even less to offer our great country than he did. She spoke no English and her education was virtually nonexistent. Once she had arrived she worked as a cook, a cleaning lady and at a bakery until she began to have children and then she rarely left her home again. My grandfather eventually settled on a job at a meat packing plant. He cleaned carcasses and equipment, hardly a grand career but certainly a noble way to provide for his family. From his meager salary he built a tiny house for which he paid cash and there he raised eight children.

According to the point system of the RAISE plan Grandpa would hardly have been a candidate for immigration. There was little to indicate that he would be of great economic use to the United States. I am rather certain that he would have been denied entry to our nation. What a loss that would ultimately have been.

All four of my grandfather’s sons served proudly in the military during World War II. During their lifetimes they worked hard at their jobs, rarely missing even one day of work. Two of them were employed by the United States Postal Service and two worked for Houston Lighting and Power. His daughters held a variety of positions that included teaching, doing research for a high blood pressure study, serving the United States Postal Service and working at a Naval Station. Their children, my grandfather’s grandchildren, were even more remarkable. Among them were accountants, teachers, managers, businesspersons, firefighters, and engineers. In fact my brother coauthored the program for the navigational system of the International Space Station. I wonder who would have done that if my grandfather had never come here?

It’s difficult to imagine how different the lives of countless individuals might have been had my grandfather never been granted permission to immigrate to the United States simply because his education was lacking, his skills were so basic and his English was wanting. On the surface he most certainly may have appeared to be a risk, and yet he was a proud American who encouraged his children to always work hard and be their very best. When many citizens were struggling to survive during the Great Depression he kept his family safe in a home that he had build one section at a time, paying for each addition as he went. He was frugal and refused to even accept even charitable gifts, insisting that he wanted to earn whatever he had. He was exactly the kind of American that has made this country great, but with a law like RAISE he might never have stepped on our shores.

With each successive generation his successors have become ever more important contributors to American society. There are medical doctors and those with PhD’s in public health and mathematics. There are teachers, accountants, nurses, electricians, business people, builders, athletes, ministers and scientists. The talent pool that has come from him has widened and the future of his great great grandchildren appears to be even brighter. His was the American dream and it was fulfilled beyond even his own expectations. Certainly it has made a difference to the country in a measurable way, but what if he had never been allowed to come?

My grandfather’s story is not that unusual. It has been repeated many times over in the history of our nation. Individuals who came with little or nothing to recommend them went on to build families whose impact was monumental. If we were to take away all of their contributions how different would our land be? How can we ever know who among us will be the teacher that we need, the inventor who will make our lives better, the leader who will find solutions to our biggest problems? Each of us traces our ancestry back to some distant place and in most cases the person who first ventured here was desperate to find a better way of life, but did not appear to be outstanding on the face of things. How can we use a point system to determine which people will ultimately have the best impact on our land?

I have taught thousands of immigrant children. Many of their parents spoke no English, but they were good people who did their share of work, often the dirtiest and least desirable. Like my grandfather they wanted a better life for their children and sacrificed greatly to make it happen, many times by working multiple jobs. Among my students from such families are college professors, medical doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, police officers, soldiers, fire fighters, mechanics, builders, accountants, biologists, chemists, mathematicians, physicists, psychologists, public health administrators, computer programmers, public administrators, school principals, counselors, lawyers and even politicians. In a single generation they have fulfilled the hopes of their parents and are actively contributing to society in thousands of ways. They are the true face of immigration, not the hopeless gang members and welfare takers that fear mongers sometimes portray them to be. 

I respectfully submit that we should carefully consider what we might be missing if we restrict immigration to our country as outlined in the RAISE bill. Skimming what appears to be the cream of the crop from various foreign nations may or may not be the answer to a better economy. Sometimes the desire that comes from someone desperate to improve his/her condition cannot be measured by a rubric, just as the worth of my grandfather might have been considered rather low. What made him a good candidate for consideration was the “ganas” burning inside his belly. All he needed was an opportunity to demonstrate just how valuable he truly was. Thankfully he was given that gift and what a difference it has made to the United States.

We certainly want the best for our nation but we need to consider the consequences of limiting ourselves to rubrics that fail to recognize the intangible values that make truly good citizens like my grandfather and his descendants. The issue is far too complex to delineate with numbers. Human beings will surprise us again and again. We need to be open to thinking outside of the box, because it is beyond the confines of our imaginations that the best things happen. Let’s keep our lives wonderful and welcome the tired and the beleaguered. From them may come just the people that we have been waiting for.