Turning the Other Cheek


photo of woman with nose ring
Photo by Bran Sodre on Pexels.com

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.

Advertisements

A Joyful Presence

heart shaped red balloon
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Eileen and her big family lived within sight of the church and school that I attended when I was growing up. She was a beautiful girl with long blonde hair and a welcoming smile. She was also very smart with a level of confidence that I was still hoping to find back then. By the time that we were in high school we were scheduled for the same classes with the same teachers and our friendship blossomed.

Eileen sometimes got to take her family’s  van out for a drive, thus becoming the designated chauffeur for our group. She’d take us to Friday night football games, days at the beach, and now and again a special concert like the time when we saw the Beach Boys. I adored her and counted myself lucky for being invited to partake in so many fun times with her and the rest of our friends. Some of the very best times of my teenage years were spent with Eileen.

Of course things change after graduation. Eileen and I went our separate ways. From time to time I would hear about what she was doing and where she was living. I knew that she had become a nurse and ended up in Washington state. I suppose that I should have made an effort to contact her to see how her life was going, but the world intervened and created a busy schedule for me. I was caring for two daughters, teaching, taking classes, and being a caretaker for my mother.  Somehow I barely kept up with my responsibilities and so I never found the time to reach out to Eileen. Nonetheless I often thought of her and remembered how much fun she had brought into my life. I hoped that she was doing well.

It was not until our fiftieth high school reunion that I saw Eileen again. She was as beautiful and as sweet and friendly as ever. She had a daughter and a handsome husband who seemed to adore her. She enjoyed living in Washington State and was hoping that some grandchildren might be in her future. We traded addresses and reignited our friendship on Facebook. I so enjoyed catching glimpses of her world. Over time I learned just how faith filled she was.

Eileen battled breast cancer for a time after I was once again in contact with her, and during that time she inspired those of us who read her optimistic posts that demonstrated her determination and belief that God was by her side. We rejoiced when her weeks of treatment resulted in a positive outcome, and celebrated even more when she announced the birth of her first grandchild. As when we were both young, I found myself in awe of this wonderful woman who somehow offered hope and happiness even in her darkest hours. It was so fitting that life appeared to be falling into place for her with long golf games and photos of lovely moments with her grandchild.

It never occurred to us that Eileen’s cancer might return, but it did. The news was difficult to accept, but as always seems to be the case with Eileen she was soon attempting to soothe our concerns. She stoically insisted that she had the very best doctors as well as the comfort of God to guide her through her latest journey with cancer. Even with her courageous spirit we saw how hard it was for her and so we began to pray.

Eileen keeps us updated on her progress. Some weeks leave her exhausted and without even enough energy to let us know how she is. Others seem to revitalize her. Always she tells us how wonderful God is and how she has doctors in whom she places all of her confidence. Inevitably I find myself thinking of her all day long, praying each morning and evening that the outcome of her battle will prove to be positive and with as little pain as possible.

Recently one of our classmates started a prayer chain for Eileen. It didn’t surprise me at all to learn how beloved she was. She has always been a generous and giving person to virtually everyone. She is open and honest in ways that few of us possess, so much so that I still find myself wanting to be more like her when I finally grow up. I want more than anything for the power of love that we are directing her way to gird her and comfort her.

It amazes me how neither time nor distance has the power to destroy the feelings that we have for another person. Eileen was and will always be quite special to me. She kindly took the gawky unsure teenager that I was under her wing. She made me laugh and feel good about myself at a time when I sometimes thought that I would always be a misfit. She still has the power to make my day with her smiles and her serenity. She is truly a joyful presence, a living angel. I only hope that she knows just how much she has impacted so many lives and how ferociously we are praying for her.

Nothing Is As Simple As It May Seem

sliced of citrus lemons
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Some folks see the glass as half full, others as almost empty. Our views of the world are complex and the product of the totality of our experiences. If people have generally been kind and loving to us we are prone to feel confident that most of the time we will be in the company of goodness. If, on the other hand, our history has been one of physical or mental abuse we will be wary and less inclined to trust. Our thoughts and opinions often reflect the ways in which we have lived.

I’ve seen children who were aggressive or withdrawn with whom it was difficult to form a relationship. Their defenses evolved from hurts that were inflicted upon them. They learned to be wary, more cautious because they were expecting the hammer to fall at any moment. We often see such people as being troublemakers or loners when in truth they are simply protecting themselves.

As an educator I wanted to know why a child was either aggressive or unnaturally frightened. I generally found in each case that there were valid reasons for such behaviors. As my mom often told me, a student who goes home to a private hell is rarely interested in doing homework or studying for tests. They have to deal with far more important issues of safety.

I recall so many stories that still make me cringe when I think of them. I had a student who thought nothing of telling me to  F… off whenever I gave him a directive. I eventually learned that he had witnessed his father killing his mother. After his dad went to prison he was essentially orphaned and angry at the world. When I demonstrated patience and understanding his vulgar language disappeared. By treating him with respect I convinced him to reciprocate. It took a great deal of time and patience to work with him, but it was worth the efforts because he eventually developed into a delightful person. With unconditional love from the aunt who adopted him and concern from his teachers he emerged scarred but no longer filled with rage.

So it is with everyone. If we do not understand a person or his/her point of view it would be well for us to learn more about what has made him/her that way. In almost all cases a person’s background reveals much about them and why they think and act in certain ways. We are indeed complex beings and our reactions are part of a complicated history.

I can still see the faces and recall the stories. The boy who seemed not to care at all actually cared so deeply that he cracked. The girl who was loud and obnoxious was protecting herself from more sexual abuse than she had already endured. The young man who appeared to hate everyone felt that he was unwanted by his parents. The girl whose grades fell precipitously was filled with fears and self loathing because she had constantly been told that she was worthless.

On the other hand those whose lives are filled with love and security tend to be successful barring some mental disease or addiction. They delight their teachers and their friends. They work hard and find success. They are assured that people care about them like the young man who was tempted to follow the lead of gang members but was brought to his senses by his parents and the members of his church. When he saw how much they loved him in spite of his fall from grace he was moved to do the right thing. He ultimately became the very good man that the adults in his life had believed him to be.

We generally respond to love, so I wonder sometimes why we don’t use more of it to solve some of the problems that plague our society. We are too quick to judge and even to condemn without ever learning what is behind actions and beliefs that are contrary to our own. Nobody likes to be judged unfairly, and yet we see it being done all of the time and we rarely speak up when we see it happening.

While I’m not one for creating trouble, I also believe in defending the misunderstood. I’ve often become the voice of someone who is the victim of unjust judgements. I advocate for taking the time to develop understanding and compassion. That does not mean feeling sorry for people or defending evil, but rather walking just long enough in their shoes to learn what is driving them. Sometimes when we take the time to do this, we find, as I have on so many occasions, that their actions follow quite logically from what has been happening to them.

Think of all of the questions that we face in society, and ask yourself why there are so many different reactions and answers. When you begin such exercises you soon realize that very little is as simple as it may at first seem. Then you are ready to work toward find real solutions.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

activity adult barbecue bbq
Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

When I was growing up I was surrounded by boy relatives. I had two brothers who instantly bonded with each other and dozens of cousins who were male. I remember being relegated to stereotypical female roles in our play time or being left out entirely when it came to sports or opportunities like scouting. I never wanted to be more like the boys, but I often dreamed of having a few more girls in my midst. I even wished for a sister to make things more even in my family. Since that never happened I had to learn to cope with things as they were, and I looked outside of my little world to find friendships with girls who might become like the sisters that I longed to have.

I had two female cousins but one of them lived in another city and I rarely had occasion to see her. She was also six years younger than I was and in the world of children that seemed like a gap too large to bridge. It was left to my other girl cousin to bring me the kind of companionship for which I longed.

Since she was a tiny bit older I idolized her and thought that every single thing about her was exceptional. She was beautiful with her blue eyes and perfectly proportioned features. Her golden girls brushed her shoulders and accentuated her loveliness. She was also smart, seeming to know about the world in ways that I had never encountered. I was so in awe of her that I was reluctant to share my insecurities with her. Instead I spent many years attempting to turn myself into a carbon copy of her, a futile effort given that there was little about me that was like her. It would be years before I was able to embrace myself just as I was and love her more for the beauty of her heart than her outward appearance. She indeed became my soul sister or “sister cousin” as she likes to say. We share an unbreakable bond, not to mention a long history of shared experiences.

I also found girl friends with whom I became so close that they might have been called “sisters from other mothers.” These have been the women with whom I was able to share my deepest feelings in an almost spiritual way. Some have been more reserved than others in what they are willing to discuss, but all of them have provided me with moments of understanding that only another woman can provide.

I love my brothers dearly, and my husband is undoubtedly my best friend, but sometimes I need to say and do things that are somewhat confusing to men. I have to vent some strange feelings, maybe even be a bit catty. My imperfections need a safe haven in which to exorcise themselves and the most special female friends are those who know and understand that when I make my revelations I am only clearing my head, thinking out loud, trying to free myself of poisonous thoughts. They let me carry own without judgement. They realize that once I have said the unthinkable I feel better and am ready to move on to being a very good person. Men don’t always understand such things. They want women to be angelic. They may become uncomfortable, offended or hurt if we let out our inner demons.

It’s funny how there are certain women  with whom we feel the safe kinship that allows us to be so honest. My cousin has ended up being one of those people. My mother-in-law was amazingly another one in whom I was able to confide without fear of recrimination. My friend Pat and I were sounding boards for each other and now I find that I can be the same way with her daughter.

In a kind of unique twist of fate I have rekindled the same kind of relationship with an old high school friend who had been one of the bridesmaids in my wedding and with whom I had essentially lost contact for almost fifty years. She moved to Atlanta and became a highly successful business woman. I became engrossed with raising my daughters, caring for my mother, and devoting myself to teaching thousands of students. We never meant to ignore each other, but life stepped in and kept us so busy that the years went by and it one day seemed as though perhaps a longterm friendship between us was simply not meant to be.

Then came Facebook, our fiftieth class reunion and retirement from our occupations. Suddenly there was a way for us to come back into contact. At first it was just a comment here and there on social media. Then came a phone call now and again. Eventually we were talking as though our last meeting had been only a few days before. The connection that we had felt in the long ago was as strong as ever. Even with our differing lives we had somehow remained the same, two people who could be totally ourselves without worrying about what the other might think. It was a glorious feeling to reignite our kindred spirits.

I had a meltdown last week. I needed to make some tacky comments just to get them off of my chest. I wanted to complain about some silly things just because. When I attempted to launch into a tirade with my husband as a sounding board confusion ensued. I needed a special woman to hear me. My friend in Atlanta became that person. We complained and laughed and ended a long conversation feeling a thousand times better and way more optimistic. More than anything it felt so good to know that I had found another person who would let me be the good the bad and the ugly versions of myself and still love and understand me. It was grand.

I adore my husband, my brothers, and the men who are my friends, but I also know that now again only the ear of just the right woman will do. Luckily I have some darn good “sisters” to whom I can turn.

Ignoring the Distractions

yellow heavy equipment
Photo by DapurMelodi on Pexels.com

My foray into genealogy has provided me with a clearer understanding of the history of at least one branch of my family. My paternal grandmother was a Smith, descended from John William Seth Smith and Christina Rowsee. Her roots center on Kentucky, Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Despite the southern bent of her background she was not a child of Dixieland. In fact, her father was a soldier in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers. Still her hard scrabble story was typical of the people from those places who lived in an era during which life was often uncertain and harsh.

Grandma never had the time or the opportunity to take advantage of education, leaving her illiterate but not unwise. She possessed a folk knowledge and a strength that came from living in corners of the country that were often untouched by modernization. She embraced what she saw as her role in life, that of a partner in the daily contest for survival. Little in her life was easy, and yet she was a happy and content person, not out of ignorance but out of a feeling that she had enjoyed the fruits of progress in the march of time.

She reveled in the joy of knowing that her son had achieved levels of education and success that were beyond her dreams. She took pride in having plumbing and electricity in her home as she recalled times when such things were yet to become the norm. She took little for granted and was a model of thrift even going so far as to make clothing out of the flour sacks that held the lovely white ingredient for her biscuits and pies. She was a woman who straddled the agrarian society of her birth and the industrialized wonder of her later years, and she marveled at the glory of it all.

I try to imagine the kind of life that she and those who came before her must have led. I recall so well her folksy manner of expressing herself that seemed quaint and of another time even in the early nineteen sixties. Memories of her ways have become for me a kind of link to her parents and how they must have talked and believed. I witnessed the hint of her Kentucky background even though she never actually lived there. Like the earnest and hard working folk who struggle to this very day in that part of the country, she was never afraid of long days filled with sacrifices and back breaking labor. She was a survivor, someone who gallantly faced whatever came her way with determination and a sense of wonder, but still she worried. It was as though she understood all too well the fragility of life. She knew how quickly all for which she had worked might go away.

Kentucky has been in the news of late with sweeping generalizations about its nature as a state. We’ve been hopelessly focused on an event in which nothing really happened until our collective anger and beliefs set our discourse on fire. We’ve aligned ourselves with one side or another without actually knowing anything about the players in this farcical debacle. We’ve drawn conclusions and made judgements based on soundbites of a few seconds and photographs taken out of context. In an instant we’ve turned on a group of young boys and even more so on each other. Our outrage and indignation has occupied our thoughts for days which is ironic given that if we want to focus on Kentucky there is a far graver issue of which we barely speak.

Much of the state of Kentucky is reliant on coal mining, an industry that is slowly dying and causing its workers to die as well. Entire generations of people have worked in the dark cramped caves filled with dust that invades their lungs and quietly begins to ravage their bodies. We have eagerly taken that coal to run our electrical plants. Coal has fueled the very progress that so awed my grandmother. It has kept the northern climes warm in the dead of winter. We have given little thought to the price of our modernization. We don’t worry much about the people who have been left to face harsh economic times and even worse medical problems that are decimating young men who never realized what the act of working each day would do to them.

The real tragedy related to Kentucky has nothing to do with a few teenagers who may or may not have reacted well to a supercharged situation. It is instead to be found in the towns where the mines and the factories have become empty shells. It is to be witnessed in the rising numbers of people with are literally suffocating as they attempt to breathe with their damaged lungs. The fact that we are not outraged for them on a national level speaks to the twisted ways in which we find ourselves viewing the world these days. We have somehow got it wrong all the way around as we quibble over nothing while real problems fester.

My great grandfather who served in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers was sick and tired after the Civil War. He eventually hid himself away in the remote forests of Arkansas where he quietly tended his land. He had seen and buried the dead at Shiloh. He must have understood the horrors that come when we lose our way in anger. I suspect that if he had the chance he would caution us to calm down and strive for more understanding and compassion.

We are all far more complex than the sides that we choose, the uniforms that we wear, the work that we do, the places where we live. Life is a continuum, a marathon, an opportunity. It’s time that we once again learn how to move forward from our mistakes and agree to disagree now and again without pushing each other away. There are very real problems that we must tackle, and none of that will happen when we are distracted and filled with anger. It’s past time to prioritize. There are coal miners needing our help, young people watching to see how we guide them, issues crying for our attention. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and reach across the chasms.