As Unique As A Star

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One of  my former students posted a meme that really struck a chord with me. It went something like this, “How cool is it that the same God who made mountains, and lakes and galaxies thought that the world needed one of you as well.” Indeed every single person is as special and unique as a star or a snowflake or any other of the Lord’s inventions. Some shine a bit more in the world’s eyes, but even the most private and unknown individual has someone who loves and appreciates him/her as deeply as does the Creator.

I suppose that one of the things that makes me the most sad is when a person forgets that he/she is loved. I realize that depression is often caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and requires more than just tender loving care to combat, but I also wonder how we can assure the people for whom we care that they need never feel alone.

Teens are particularly susceptible to such severe sadness that they too often decide to kill themselves to ease the pain that they are feeling. We know that they are sometimes subjected to hormonal changes and bullying behaviors that tear down their confidence and sense of worth. The question is how to reach them before they become self destructive, or even worse violent toward others.

We’ve seen far too many instances of our young people losing all hope. Often they have hidden their feelings from even those closest to them, but in most cases there are clues that should cause us not just to worry, but to take some form of action. Sadly our general knowledge of mental health is sorely lacking, and the resources that we need are often not available. When we add stigmas and misconceptions along with mind altering drugs to the problems we are looking at a volatile cocktail that poses the distinct danger of not ending well. 

In my care taking of my mother and my work as a teacher I was continually frustrated by a system that is more likely to launch into debates about guns than to consider the root causes of the mental illness that leads young people to a state of hopelessness. A psychiatrist once told me that we spend more money on our pets and our diets than we do on treating mental problems. Families who attempt to get necessary help for a loved one are often thwarted at every turn.

There was a recent case of a young woman who was threatening schools with violence. She had become obsessed with the shootings at Columbine High School and indicated that she was going to do something as spectacularly violent. Her saga ended in her own suicide which  provided some relief for those who were fearful of what she might do, but I was disturbed by the fact that she had somehow been allowed to reach this point at all. It is difficult to understand why those who knew that she was out of her mind, had not been able to get her the treatment that she needed before she resorted to such extreme actions. In a proper world there would have been no question that she was in dire need of care. If she had shown symptoms of a heart disease or diabetes she would have been hospitalized, but we generally have a very different attitude toward mental illness.

I would love to see the day come when celebrities host telethons to raise money for mental health. I would be thrilled to witness research projects focusing as much on cures for depression as for cancer. Surely we must see that such diseases of the brain are as painful and horrific as those that affect the other parts of our bodies. Good psychiatrists and therapists should be as honored and funded as cardiologists. Each person’s well being must be top priority. We need to find better ways of insuring mental health.

We have a tendency to look away from the mentally ill person who is living under a bridge or begging on a street corner. We don’t want to hear about the family member who is struggling with anxieties or sadness. We think that a diagnosis of mental illness is akin to treatment by voodoo or witch doctors. We simply don’t want to face the reality that so many are suffering from illnesses that should be treatable if only we had the will to make it so. Until we change we can take away guns and drugs and sharp objects and there will be some so seriously intent on violence to themselves or others that they will still find ways to carry out their missions.

We start conversations about mental illness, but rarely finish them. We pay lip service to finding comfort and cures for families that deal with such things, but then quickly forget to follow through. We can have conferences and send out a few million dollars to help, but until we get very serious about such issues the violence that we see so often will not go away. We will lose too many of our loved ones to the overwhelming sadness that makes them forget how special they are and how much they are loved. It’s way past time for making this a top priority. Every one of us is worth the efforts that we must mount. 

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The Metaphor

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In early spring our yard was a mess. Weeds filled the flowerbeds and the lawn. Our neglect of simple maintenance was in full view. It was time to begin the restoration process in earnest if we were to reclaim what had once been a lovely sanctuary for birds, bees, and ourselves. We spent whole days pulling the offending stray plants, adding new soil, spreading mulch, and fertilizing grass, roses, azaleas, and hibiscus. We had to rebuild barriers to keep the nutrients where they belonged, instead of allowing them to run into the street when it rained. To do that we hauled heavy stones, one after the other for hours. By the time we had completed our tasks we were covered with scratches and scapes, insect bites and allergic reactions. Our backs ached and our hands were worn, but the view from our windows was enchanting. With the help of God and nature we had created a bit of heaven on earth.

It was during the renovation phase that I found myself thinking of the past, and the kind of hard labor that our ancestors had done. I viscerally felt what it must have been like to haul stones to build some magnificent structure, or to be bent over in a field under a hot sun. My work had been brief in the grand scheme of things, but many humans spent their entire lives engaged in brutally harsh conditions, and they didn’t have the luxury of retreating inside an air conditioned home at the end of the day. I felt a kind of kinship with them, and an appreciation of their efforts.

As I labored I somehow thought of people who had been forced into cattle cars and taken to concentration camps to either be worked to death or killed immediately for no real reason. I realized that there had been individuals as old as I am among the prisoners, and I understood that they would have had to prove their mettle or die. I am certain that I would not have made it more than a week or so before being tapped for extinction. I felt their pain as I pushed back my own, and wondered why we humans are sometimes so cruel.

As I grow older I feel the presence of God and our human history all around me. I now have the time to slow down and think. I realize both the beauty and the ugliness of what we have wrought in ways that eluded me when I was raising a family, working, and balancing a million different responsibilities. Now I see the past, the present and the future with far more clarity. I appreciate small things that I had ignored before. Seeing a butterfly flit across my yard makes my day exhilerating. Hearing the joyous giggling of the children on my street is all I need to make even a dreary day seem perfect. My needs are little, and I find happiness in the most unexpected places.

Just as we were completing the reclamation of our yard I learned that the glorious Notre Dame cathedral was on fire. I had never seen it in person, but I have an image of it in my mind from the countless times that I have viewed it in the photos from friends and family who traveled there. I have visited its smaller reproduction at Notre Dame University. As a Catholic Notre Dame has always been a symbol of my faith, and as a human it has spoken to the efforts of humankind to rise from the muck of the earth toward heaven. Seeing it in flames tore at my heart and left me pondering for days and then weeks. The event was a metaphor, a symbol, a message that I needed to consider.

I thought of how nothing about our humanity is a forever thing. We are from dust and to dust we shall return. We create things and ideas and sometimes seem to have little need for higher powers than ourselves. It is possible to live a very good life without religious fervor, but I often wonder if such an existence is missing something essential. We are a truly great species, but we are also flawed. We can build soaring structures that stand for centuries after we are gone, but without attention they become cracked and weak, just as do our hearts and souls when we become more enchanted with power and wealth than with the needs of our collective humanity.

I saw a commentary from a stranger asking why God had allowed the destruction of the cathedral. Wasn’t the Lord after all powerful enough to save it if he is actually real? I thought of how Jesus had performed miracles but did not use his abilities to save himself from an excruciating death on the cross. That is not how any of it works. God does not prove himself in that way, and yet somehow I heard a message whispering from the ashes of Notre Dame, a lesson or reminder of how we are supposed to be.

On the day after the fire there were videos of people of all nations, economic status, political persuasions, and religions holding hands and singing in a united sense of determination. I viewed a photo of the inside of the church demolished save for the altar and the cross. I felt it was truly God’s way of telling us that even as we sometimes attempt to destroy ourselves, he never leaves us. I thought of Jesus reminding us again and again that we need only remember to love one another and we will have understood his teachings and the reason why he lived and died among us.

I believe that there is hope for us in the burnt structure of Notre Dame. The grand lady will indeed rise again just as we humans keep finding our way even as we sometimes become lost. What we have in our souls is the capability to bend the arc of our history in the right direction as long as we remember that our first duty is to love.   

Thoughts and Prayers

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Losing someone suddenly and unexpectedly shocks the entire system. One moment the world seems to be filled with promise and the next everything feels as though it has changed. That late night call announcing the accident that took the life of a friend or family member in many ways feels like death itself. The visit from the police to announce that a dear one has been killed by a stranger is a gut punch. Many of us have experienced such life changing events, so we know only too well how the specter of that horrific moment changes us, hovers over us, burrows into our souls.

For most of my life I have relived the moment when I first learned of my young father’s death. I went to sleep dreaming of the family gathering at the beach that lay ahead and awoke to learn that the gathering would take place behind a curtain of sadness and tears inside our living room. I was only eight, but even a child understands the horror of such things. My emotions ruled me for a very long time. I was afraid, angry, hopelessly confused and unhappy. The shock of my father’s death left a gaping wound inside me and the members of my family. I felt as though I was suddenly an entirely different person than the one I had been only hours before I received the horrific news.

I have always understood the deep seated emotions that bury the survivors of such tragedies. The process of healing is a long and difficult road, made even worse in instances when the cause of death is violent. Each time I hear of a mass shooting my heart becomes heavy for the survivors who must pick up the wounded pieces of their lives. I know how long their journeys will be and how different they will feel. I want to tell them that it will take much time for their emotions to feel normal again. I want to hug them, help them, do something for them, but what am I to do from so far away? My only recourse is to keep them in my thoughts, pray that they will find the comfort that came to me in my own time of need.

I have been reading about the tortured souls who lost friends or family members in school shootings. They once seemed happy, content, set for good things in life, but the horror of their situation ultimately overcame them. They were unable to cope with the feelings of depression, guilt, frustration that strangled the very life out of them. They may have covered the depth of their despair with smiles or perhaps they simply surrendered to the hopelessness that they felt. Each of us who hear of them wonder what we might have done to help them, even knowing that there was little that strangers such as ourselves have the power to accomplish. We fall back on the only positive thing that we have. We think of them and pray for them and for their families. We feel their pain and maybe donate to an organization dedicated to helping those stricken with grief. We may even write a letter to a Congress person suggesting changes that will make tragedies less likely. In the end, however, our thoughts and prayers seem to be the best that we have to offer, even as we sense that they may not suffice.

It was the thoughtfulness of the people in my community that ultimately saved me from the brooding and the desperation that I was feeling after my father’s death. My recovery was slow and the compassion of those around me was relentless. I was fully aware of the love that came my way and it ultimately healed me. Knowing that people cared enough to mention me and my family in their prayers meant everything to me, and over the years I have been calmed by the heavenly petitions of devoted individuals who sincerely asked that God watch over me. I have found great serenity in the kindness of prayers.

There are those who would spurn the very idea of thoughts and prayers, insisting that they are little more than worthless utterances that accomplish nothing. I would insist nonetheless that I know their power from personal experience. I truly believe that I might have been lost were it not for the loving support that came from thoughts and prayers directed at me. They told me that I was not alone, that people truly cared about my well-being. Thoughts and prayers are not to be mocked.

I am greatly saddened by the deaths of those left to survive the ashes of mass shootings. I pray for those who have endured the unimaginable horror of such events. I pray that we will find ways to make such occasions more and more unlikely in our country and throughout the world. I pray that we will have the wisdom to find solutions. I pray that we will all understand the complexities of the human spirit and that we will be open and honest in our communications with each other, especially our children. I think and I pray because it is important to do so.

I have a dear friend who keeps a prayer journal. She places the names of those whom she is remembering on Post It notes. Beside the name she writes a brief description of the needs of that person. When she prays she refers to those little slips of paper and personally thinks of them during her very busy days. She is a beautifully selfless and faith filled woman whose sincerity has helped many survive unspeakable ordeals. I believe that the real power of what she does is found in the love that she provides those who are wounded. There is something quite comforting in knowing that another person is taking the time to pray for us. It provides us with hope.

Do not underestimate the power of thoughts and prayers. They have moved mountains and seemingly prompted miracles. We need them.

A Hard Headed Bunch

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I truly enjoy talking with young people. They are filled with high energy, adventurous spirits, and a sense that anything is possible. Today’s youth are attuned to the environment, justice and a sense that change is not just inevitable, but something very good for all of us. They think about the world at large, not just the tiny corner in which they live. They are worried about the future and dedicated to improving it. They are anxious to get started, ready to demonstrate that they’ve got the chops to take on responsibilities. I love their enthusiasm and I remember when I felt their way.

I’m slower than I once was. Most of what I will accomplish in this life is behind me. I am in my golden years when I have time to think deeply and critically rather than to react. I have years of experience under my belt that have taught me to be cautious before proceeding with any plans. I analyze and search for unintended consequences. I still have ideas and things to say, but I am less certain that I have all the answers than I once was. I’m not yet ready to simply sit by the wayside and hand over the running of things to another generation, but I understand that it’s time to begin the process of doing so little by little. There is a time and a season for everyone, and I know that the young folk will soon be running the show, and deciding how things are going to be. It is the natural way of things that has been moving history forward since the beginning of time.

There has always been a tension between the young and the old, the future and the past, change and the status quo, the progressive and the conservative The differences sometimes appear to create a dangerous gap between generations into which much anger is hurled.

I was on the precipice of my adult journey at a time filled with excitement and promise, but also war and uncertainty. I leaned toward radical thinking about how to fix problems and run things. I was ready to make sweeping changes that I felt were necessary in a time that still seemed so old fashioned. Some of my elders called me and my peers by names meant to be insulting. To this very day we bear the weight of the negativity of the labels meant to define us. Our young men were sent to war, but we were not supposed to have any say in why and how that was happening. We were deemed too young and ignorant of the way things work to be worthy of a hearing. In our youthful exuberance we made mistakes that have been held against us to this very day. The term “baby boomer” is almost an insult to some, meant to define an entire generation of people as somehow selfish and ridiculously inept.

Of course in our hearts we know that such generalizations are inaccurate and unfair, and yet we continue to look at our youth and attempt to categorize them without ever having taken the time to consider their points of view, to think about the way that the times and the society has molded them. We wave off their concerns and laugh at the seeming ridiculousness of their ideas, rather than congratulating them on taking the time to consider solutions for problems that they see. Some among us saddle them with tags that are meant to disparage them and stuff them into square holes in which they rarely fit. We interrupt them in mid sentence to insist on the ridiculousness of their thoughts, after all they have no experience at living so how can they possibly know what we all need?

Few of us are well enough versed in history to know that with the exception of a few men like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, our Founding Fathers were relatively young men, some of them barely in their twenties. They were bristling with a sense of injustice and filled with revolutionary ideas. It was in fact their youthful points of view that concocted a whole new way of governing. It might be true to say that the thought of a rag tag group of people taking on the might British Empire was both audacious and absurd, and yet with a firm determination they somehow became victorious. They were left with so many questions, so many ways to make mistakes that might cause their creation to tumble down before it ever got started. Indeed the imperfections of what they had done were soon apparent and yet the crux of their idea has endured.

History is in many ways the same song with endless verses. We change and modernize but return to the identical themes, the recurring refrains. Many of the young want to revolutionize the way we live and to do so quickly. The older among us are more cautious, wanting to take things slowly. They see problems and often suggest that doing nothing may in fact be the best alternative, Why change?

We are at one of those watershed moments in which one group thinks that we are doomed if we do not move with speed and another insists that things are mostly fine and hardly in need of an overhaul. One side feels a sense of urgency and another is worried that we will wreck everything if we throw caution to the wind. In such environments there tends to be more shouting at one another than listening and considering differing points of view. Historically wars have sometimes begun this way.

There is usually genuine sincerity in both sides of a disagreement, good points to be made all around. A gifted leader knows how to accommodate as many ways of thinking as possible. Everyone gets a bit and we all mostly win. Such political genius is difficult to find, but when it is present mankind gets to the moon in a few short years, people work together for a common cause.

An image from my youth often comes into focus in my mind. The war in Vietnam is raging. There are so many questions about why we are there and what we hope to accomplish and how we will do it. Young people are protesting what they see as injustice. They are camped at the Lincoln Memorial when the President of the United States comes to visit them. He is wise enough to ask them what they are thinking, but then he virtually ignores what they have to say, arguing more than listening. They too don’t seem to realize that this man is making an effort to come hear them out. They turn on him with blinders and an unwillingness to give him the benefit of the doubt or to learn about his point of view. There is an impasse.

We seem to have rotated into a time during which all sides cling to their preconceived notions and ideas with little hope of respecting one another. We prefer confrontations to conferences, arguments to discussions. We slap epithets on people and refuse to allow them to be more complex than our simplistic classifications. We worship cults of personality rather than ideas. We’ve been here before, and often such atmospheres of disagreement don’t end until we have grown weary of hurting each other. We humans can be a very hard headed bunch.

It remains to be seen how we will eventually proceed. Somehow the future keeps repeating our past.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

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My father read to me from the time that I was very young. He repeated the lilting phrases of classic poems and shared the words of fairytales and fables. He told me that there were lessons to be learned from literature, and that in olden times the stories were used to teach children. So it was with the tale of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. I was fascinated by the young shepherd boy who amused himself by pretending that wolves were attacking his flock. Each time he yelled, “Wolf, wolf!” the townspeople would run to his aide only to find him laughing at them. When a real wolf actually appeared and he cried out for help nobody came because they no longer believed a thing that he said. My father cautioned me to always be truthful and to use my words carefully lest I be viewed as someone who lies. Even in my very young state of mind I understood what he was saying.

Over the years I have done my best to be an honest person, but along the way I have met those who speak falsehoods. Sometimes those folks have actually gotten by with their half truths and exaggerations and it has infuriated me. I’ve wanted to reveal their fabrications and leave them looking like the hurtful individuals that they were. Most of the time though I simply cut them out of my little world, walking away glad I that I learned of their deceit early enough to save myself. Of late I am teetering a bit because I am discovering more and more secrets about people that I might have heretofore trusted. My caution and cynicism is growing by leaps and bounds as even the press and people once thought to be role models are outed as liars. I chide myself for forgetting my father’s cautionary words and getting caught being made a fool.

I don’t know if the present state of the world is really any different than it always has been, but with all of the information that we have I can’t decide if we know too much or too little. Maybe my nativity and ignorance was actually bliss, or maybe it fooled me in potentially dangerous ways. Whichever is the case I now find just a bit of that bliss being threatened by my unwillingness to quickly accept all of the stories that I hear as fact. I have grown wary and suspicious which may be to my benefit, but also feels a bit cranky.

Even the most unknown person now has many vehicles by which he or she may become instantly famous. A viral tweet or Instagram photo has the power of reaching the entire world. We take bits and pieces of information and form instant opinions about people and situations that we do not truly know. Many times the very ideas that we support are being held together by exaggerations if not outright lies. We become pawns in a game that can turn dangerous if we are too ready to believe. We have seen many such examples in the news, and yet we too often remain gullible, particularly when the person or persons speaking have points of view that reflect our own. We fall for propaganda without enough thought or attempts to seek the truth.

I don’t know anything about Jussie Smollett. I have never watched Empire and I might never have even heard his name before he reported that a hate crime had been perpetrated against him. At first I paid little attention to the affair other than to feel a bit sad that anyone had been as cruel to him as he asserted they had been. Of course the story did not end there. We soon learned that Mr. Smollett had manufactured the entire scenario in a crazed plan to gain attention and perhaps become a more popular and well known figure. Now even folks like me know a bit more about him, and sadly he is more infamous than famous. He will be remembered as someone who lied about a very serious situation.

There are truly hateful acts being played out all around us. We indeed need to find the evil doers who would espouse violence against anyone for reasons of race, religion, sexual orientation, or politics. They need to be punished for their transgressions and made examples of how not to act. When someone like Jussie Smollett deliberately lies about such serious matters he hurts anyone who has ever attempted to right the wrongs of hate crimes. He diminishes the chances that victims will be believed and evil doers will receive justice. He becomes one more boy who cried wolf and lessens the possibility that we will pay attention to cries for help in the future. When the members of the press run with his story without vetting it, the issue becomes even worse. We have all forgotten the idea of waiting for evidence before forming opinions, making it easier for someone like Mr. Smollett to connive to fool us.

We’ll soon forget Mr. Smollett. He will become but a blip on our radar, but the memories of his falsehoods will tinge our sense of trust. Those who are truly hateful and who would actually hurt people with whom they do not agree will celebrate a seeming victory without realizing that we all came out losers in this affair. Once again we showed how divided we are and how unwilling to give even an inch we have become. All we have seen is indignation rather than a willingness to look inside our own hearts. The press and the pundits are using this story to bolster their already formed opinions rather than reflecting on how they are in many ways the very people who are driving such acts of desperation.

The story of the boy who cried wolf would not have lasted as long as it has if it did not somehow speak universally to our human natures. We seem to have ignored its message of late and forgotten ideas like searching for facts before accepting tales as truth. We are routinely favoring and indicting individuals and groups without taking the time to search for truth. It is definitely time to be more wary.