Look for the Helpers

look for the helpers

I suppose that I am showing my age by admitting that much about the world today feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me. I hear a constant refrain of complaining about virtually every aspect of society. Gratitude for what we actually have is rarely mentioned. Instead grumbling about every little thing is the mode. I find the whining to be contrary to my nature and unlikely to bring answers to the real problems that we face.

I have no doubt that we are always in need of improvements, but I think we would get a great deal more accomplished if we would stop all the trash talk that is hurled back and forth and just get down to observing what is right about the world and using that information to correct the difficulties that need improvement. Instead we can’t even seem to get through a natural disaster or tragedy without folks ramping up our divisions instead of highlighting our goodness. The true test of our mettle is not to be found in the mistakes that we humans are bound to make, but in the positive contributions that we offer over and over again.

These days we allow the media and people with an ax to grind to create a number of self fulfilling prophecies of doom. When horrific events occur we spend far too much time highlighting “might have beens,” angry mobs, unintended slips of the tongue, and other such mistakes rather than looking for the helpers, finding the light. The truth is that from the beginning of humankind’s adventures on this planet there has been a kind of duel between those who would hurt us and those who would sacrifice for our welfare. In truth the later far outnumber the former but we tend to give more attention to the ugly side of life, especially of late.

When I was in a classroom I found that each group of students that I encountered was a microcosm of reality. The vast majority of children were well behaved and willing to learn. Invariably I encountered a kid who was filled with venom and determined to run the show with his/her unacceptable behavior. When I was somewhat inexperienced with such things I tended to engage in battles of wills that rarely ended well. It took me quite a while to learn that focusing on the goodness of the youngsters in my classroom was a far wiser thing to do. I took away the very attention that the trouble makers desired and instead heaped it upon the students who always tried to do the right thing with only minor lapses now and again.

I did not totally ignore the young people with major problems whose cries for help were masked in aggressiveness. I understood that their ugly behaviors were indicative of needs that had to be somehow met, but I also did not engage in public combat with them. I refused to turn my classroom into an unending debate over what was wrong. Instead I continually highlighted what was right and good. I looked for the goodness and embraced it publicly while working on the troubles quietly.

I suppose that we almost naturally pay more attention to outliers than to the average. A story of a single doctor who hurts patients trumps one about the thousands of miracles taking place every single day with the help of dedicated physicians. We see the flaws more quickly than the overall appearance of a situation. When a disaster strikes somewhere the big story is what the victims did not get rather than the overflow of kindness from countless strangers wanting to help. We make the mistake of lumping entire groups of people into baskets of “deplorables”  when a single gunman shoots up a venue. Like the first year teacher we yell at the entire class and punish them for bad behavior even as we know that most of them are not guilty of anything at all.

I am still haunted by memories of hurricane Harvey that hit my city of Houston with a vengeance. I was terrified during those days of unremitting rain. I watched images of the city filling with water as though some heavenly presence had forgotten to turn off a giant faucet. What I loved most about the local news coverage is that every single story focused on the helpers. We saw everyday heroes rescuing people that they did not know. There was a joint effort both during and in the aftermath of the disaster to reach out to anyone in need. While there might have been mistakes made it was not the time to belabor points about what should have or could have been done differently Instead we were treated to a vision of the very best of people and it helped us to weather the storm. By looking for the helpers we realized that we would ultimately be okay.

I don’t mean to paint an unrealistic picture of the world that does not include evil for it is most certainly present. What I do know is that horrific people and horrific acts are an aberration. Most immigrants are good, Most teachers are dedicated to their students. Most police officers are working to keep us safe while risking their own lives. Most teenagers want to become outstanding adults. Most humans try to be the best possible versions of themselves. While we have many imperfections they are not the whole story of who we are and yet they are the ones that we see in every headline and newsflash. They bring notoriety to the few who are bad while ignoring the good. Maybe when we see them our first inclination should be to avert our gaze and look for the helpers. It is in the goodness of people that we will find the answers to the problems that we hope to solve.     

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They Just Set Women Back

St Frances Cabrini

For many years in my adult life I was a member of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church. I spent some of my happiest times there, making lifelong friends who literally changed me for the better. At one point I even became one of the Directors of Religious Education which was a groundbreaking move for the parish which had before only employed nuns in such positions. I was honored to have been chosen, but always felt humbled and a bit lacking in the ability to fill the shoes of the two inspirational religious ladies who had come before me. Not everyone in the community was happy with having lay people in charge of such an important program but the times were changing and it was incredibly difficult to find nuns willing to work at such jobs.

My co-leader and I met with a great deal of opposition and worked for an abysmally low salary. The Parish Council had yet to realize that they needed to balance out our pay with the reality that they were not furnishing us with a house, car and food as they had done for the religious women who before had literally lived at the church in a makeshift convent. Because I was able to make four times more working as a teacher I eventually left that job and upon my departure recommended my dear friend Pat as a replacement and that they actually pay her more than the four thousand dollars a year that they had given me. They understood and deferred to my wisdom in both choosing Pat and providing her with an income that was worthy of all of the hard work that the job required.

While I was St. Frances Cabrini Church I was always a bit too busy to learn much about the woman for whom the parish was named. It was not until much later that I took the time to read about her and that is when I understood that I should have made more effort to unravel her story while I was still in charge of the religious education of so many children. Indeed her life should be an inspiration to people of all faiths.

St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was born in Italy the last of thirteen children near the midpoint of the nineteenth century. The times were quite difficult for her family which was hardworking but barely able to live adequately due to grinding poverty. Most of Mother Cabrini’s siblings died before reaching adulthood and she herself was always in poor health. Nonetheless she possessed a great faith in God and decided to dedicate her life to helping others by joining a religious group.

At first St. Frances was rejected by several orders because she was deemed too weak to handle the routine and rigors of religious life, but she persisted and finally found a place to begin her religious life. She proved to be incredibly dedicated to helping the poor. So much so that her work caught the eyes of the bishops in her country. They asked her to travel to the United States of America where millions of Italians were going in hopes of finding a better way of life. Unfortunately they rarely moved beyond New York City itself and the conditions in which they lived there were almost as bad as those they had left behind. Mother Cabrini agreed to lend her compassion and abilities to get things done for them.

While in New York City she worked tirelessly to help not just Italian immigrants but those of all kinds who were pouring into the country from all over the world. She founded schools, hospitals and orphanages that made a stunning difference in the lives immigrants struggling to get a foothold in the new land. She found time in the midst of her work to become an American citizen and before long she was taking to her talents to other cities and states like Chicago and places as far away as Colorado. In spite of recurring illnesses she was a tireless advocate for the downtrodden and by the time of her death at the age of sixty eight she had accomplished wondrous things for the poor. Eventually she would be named a saint by Pope Pius XII and be known as the patron of immigrants, the first ever American citizen to have such an honor.

Recently the wife of the mayor of  New York City headed an effort to honor women who had contributed to the development of the metropolis in a drive called She Built NYC. The intent of the program was to choose a group of women who would have statues erected in their names to correct the unbalance of male versus female icons. A committee was formed to determine who the outstanding women might be. In order to include the voice of the people of NYC a contest was held and not so amazingly St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was the unmatched winner. Sadly the committee chose to ignore the votes and instead choose four women who did not even appear on any of the ballots that people sent to them. This was done with no explanation and has thus infuriated many of the people who had supported St. Frances Cabrini, particularly because she was such an advocate of the immigrant. Instead of honoring the peoples’ choice the committee decided to go with an abortion activist and two drag queens whom they deemed to be more in keeping with the intent of the project. 

I am saddened that the work of a woman as dedicated and giving as St. Frances Cabrini would somehow be considered less important and perhaps less woke than those with more radical contributions to the city. If the committee had always been looking for only those women who had upended traditions then that should have been made clear from the outset. Instead the title of the the drive is She Built NYC, and it is impossible to argue that building schools and hospitals for immigrants is not as meaningful as being a rebel. Thus a furor has arisen within the city of New York and across the country.

I have no problem with honoring unconventional women but I would argue that leaving one’s native country and traveling to New York City in the early years of the twentieth century to work in the bleak conditions of Italian ghettoes was as challenging a task as one might ever accept. To deny Mother Frances’ contribution to the City of New York because she was not audacious or minority enough is certainly to miss the essence of her work. This was a woman whose character was made of steel and she should be serving as an inspiration to women all over the world. It would have been courageous and proper for the committee to choose her, especially given that so many thought of her when considering who best deserved the honor. I’m sorry to say that the committee blew it in some contrived way of appearing to be progressive. Their efforts will forever be tainted by the kind of stereotyping that has challenged women for all time. They just set women back.

They Were Victims Too

Dayton shooter

I saw a news story along with comments from readers that really bothered me, but not for the reasons that most people would imagine. It was a piece about the parents of the Dayton shooter. They had posted obituaries for both their son, the young man who killed nine people, and their daughter, who was one of the victims. Each obituary was rather commonplace in the ways in which they described the lives of the two individuals. What riled those who read them was that the one for the murderer told his story as though he were some beautiful son that the parents had lost all too soon. People were so upset that the local newspaper pulled the obituary for the shooter and the mother felt compelled to explain herself and apologize.

Most of the comments regarding the obituary were quite vile with little or no respect for the grieving parents. It made me shudder to read them and to realize how vindictive people actually are. Of course there is much anger over what happened, but only one person was compassionate enough to point out that the parents of the perpetrator of the tragedy were suffering a great loss as well. They are wondering how things could have gone so terribly wrong in their son’s thinking. They are remembering the person they thought he was and trying to understand how he became so vile. It must be indeed quite horrific for them, and acknowledging their own grief in no way underscores the tragedy.

As a mom I loved my daughters from the first moments that I felt the changes in my body telling me that I was carrying them in my womb. Over the months I delighted in their kicks and the movements that they made to tell me that they were alive and well. When I first saw their faces after their births I literally cried with joy. I counted their fingers and their toes and felt the creases in their skin. Over the years my heart swelled as I watched them grow into fine young women. Neither of them matured without making mistakes, but we got past them because I loved them always. So it is with almost every mother on earth, even when children disappoint beyond measure.

I once had a student who went haywire in a classroom, cursing and assaulting a teacher. Before he calmed down he threatened several other faculty members and an assistant principal. Eventually he lost steam and sat forlornly in a conference room waiting for his mother to take him home after being expelled. He was one of my favorite students so I was heartbroken over what had happened. I went to talk with him and he immediately began to cry, proclaiming that he knew that I now hated him. I insisted that I would always love him but also hate what he had done. I could forgive him, but not his act of violence. He understood exactly what I meant.

When Jesus was condemned to die on the cross the people who had once celebrated him taunted and jeered with venom. They turned on him completely, and even his apostles hid with shame and fear of having been associated with him. His mother, however, never wavered from loving him. She stood by him until the very end of his life. This is what mothers do.

I am also reminded of a story that my dear sweet Uncle William told me. Here in Houston decades ago there was an horrific story of mass murder. A crazed man enlisted two young teens to bring victims to him. They brought unsuspecting males to a house in Pasadena where they were sexually abused, tortured and then killed. They helped the man dispose of the bodies along the beaches of Galveston and in a storage facility in southwest Houston. The accounts made the national news because they were so horrific.

One of the teens who worked with the murderer was Elmer Wayne Henley. He lived on my Uncle William’s postal route. My uncle regularly saw him and was shocked by developments because Elmer Wayne had always appeared to be such a good boy. He took care of his aging mom and provided her with the extra income that she needed as a single parent. My uncle spoke of how proud Elmer Wayne’s mother had always been of him. Even after the news of his part in the horror became fodder for gossip, Elmer Wayne’s mom spoke of the wonderful son that she knew. Until her death she did not turn away from him. It’s what mothers do.

I wish that we as a society might be able to separate the sins of a son or daughter from the love of a parent.  Perhaps if we were more inclined for compassion in such situations we might have less anger, hate and violence in our society. One of the most touching stories I have ever heard came when Amish school children were killed by a crazed man who had a family of his own. There were threats being made on his wife and children as the anger over what he had done raged. Members of the Amish community made it known that they felt as much compassion for his family as they did for their own. They embraced the woman who was as shocked as they were over what her husband had done. They extended a hand of love and sympathy. They truly understood that there was much grief to go around.

I weep for the victims of the Dayton shooting, but I also cry for the parents of the man who committed the crime. I don’t know how much they ultimately had to do with how their son turned out, but I am certain that they too lost so much on that day. It does not hurt us to allow them a bit of dignity as they grapple with the confusion and sorrow that must surely be relentlessly stalking them. If their comments about their son seemed inappropriate it is most likely because they really don’t know what to think or how to act. Their shock is a great and maybe even greater than ours. It’s time we all begin to choose kindness over revenge when dealing with the families of killers unless it is proven that they were accessories to such crimes. They are victims too.

A House Divided Will Not Stand

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Most of my life has been dedicated to educating young people. Even though I am no longer in the classroom I still teach mathematics to a number of teens including my grandchildren. As an educator and mom I always felt duty bound to address both the academic and emotional needs of the young folk who are in my charge. I take my responsibility to care for them quite seriously. Most do just fine, but now and again I encounter an individual who is gravely troubled. Some of those sorts are actually scary. I sense that they are so disturbed that they are capable of outbursts that are harmful. It is difficult to reach them and so I confer with their parents who almost always admit that they are afraid of their own son or daughter. Things rarely end well with such teens and I always have a sense of defeat in such cases even though I have gone to great lengths to help.

I remember one student in particular who has always haunted me. He had been sent from one household to another from a very young age in an effort to improve his behavior. He found a measure of solace with his grandparents where he lived a quiet life on a farm. Things began to turn around for him during that time and he was calmer and happier than he had ever been. Sadly his grandmother had a heart attack and died. His grandfather felt unable to care for him alone. He was sent back to his mother who was struggling with her own emotions. He spiraled down into a state of depression and anger that resulted in violent outbursts both at home and at school. His mother and step father admitted that they were so fearful of him that they took turns sleeping lest he kill them while they slept. His mother sincerely loved her boy and wanted to help him but had no idea what to do.

It literally made me cry to think of how horrific it was to be that young man. I wondered what sickening thoughts raced through his mind. I worried less about what he might do in my classroom and more about what might ultimately become of him. He and I bonded somehow and I spent many hours in conferences with him and his mother hoping to help them both to resolve his many issues. They took my advice to find professional help but the road to the boy’s recovery was long and twisted. Even after he left my care I often thought of him and found a measure of solace in not hearing reports of his downfall or demise. I told myself that in his case no news was probably good news. I like to think  that he found his way and is living a good and loving life.

Our news feeds are littered these days with stories of violence and terrorism. In so many cases the individuals perpetrating such destruction are young men who are filled with abusive anger. They have allied themselves with groups that practice hate and vengeance against societies that they believe have somehow betrayed them. They convince one another that their heinous acts are justified. They are generally miserable loners who feel uncomfortable in normal circumstances. The demons that rage in their heads tell them that the loathing that they feel is reason enough for  killing. They do not see their victims as innocents, but rather as part of a vast horde that has abandoned them and left them to make their way alone.

If we are to deal with the issue of mass shootings it will take far more than simply enacting some legislation to curb the sale of guns or to arm and secure ourselves. We have to strive to get to the root causes of the hatred that foments instances of random killings. We have to use many different means to forestall such violence before it erupts. That will require vigilance and a willingness to provide necessary treatments and interventions for those who sit stewing on the fringes of society.

It is not difficult to identify such persons. In virtually any school or work setting or neighborhood where they reside there are observant people who know of their potential to blow a fuse at any moment. We all need to agree to alert authorities whenever we sense that something about an individual is not quite right. We can no longer afford to ignore the signs because in virtually every case of a mass shooting there have been people who worried about the perpetrators. It’s time that we take their concerns seriously. The red flags that go up in our minds must be investigated and as a society we are bound to take action before really bad things happen.

There were teachers and students and parents who complained to school administrators and law enforcement about the two young men who killed at Columbine. The mother of the shooter at the elementary school in Connecticut had told friends that she needed help dealing with her son. Many who knew the killer in the recent El Paso attack recounted instances in which he had expressed his desire to do violence on others. Somehow nothing was done in any of these cases until it was too late. Perhaps it is because we often worry more about infringing on the rights of a single individual rather than the safety of the many. Perhaps the time has come to crack down hard on any form of threatening behavior.

We also need to be more aware of the kinds of groups that preach hatred and violence and do everything we can to eliminate their influence particularly on our young. They search for individuals who are desperately searching for a sense of belonging. They prey on the anger and feelings of abandonment that such souls often have. We all must be aware of the existence of such organizations and root them out. They must be condemned for the hatred that is theirs.

As a nation we must also begin to tone down our own disagreements with one another. Of late I have found it painful to watch our supposed leaders behaving with such a lack of honor and decorum. Our young are watching and sadly emulating, and lest anyone think that the bad form is coming from only one person or party or direction I would respectfully submit that it has found a place on all sides. There are too many people dusting up anger in efforts to gain power or viewers or business of some kind. The divisiveness is tearing us apart and fomenting violence in unstable people. It’s time that all good men and women do their part to encourage us to come together. The old saw that a house divided will not stand is still very true. Anger and violence whether in word or deed only begets more anger and violence. Our rhetoric and tribalism must end. Generalities are not only useless but may become lethal. It’s time we insist on a return to kindness. 

Free to Pursue the Truth

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The truth is found when men are free to pursue it.” —-Franklin Roosevelt

So we have a football player objecting to all sorts of American flags and many conservatives objecting to him. We have baristas at Starbucks asking law enforcement officials to leave because they are triggering other patrons. This person bothers that person and before long we are removing books from libraries, taking down crosses and monuments, refusing to shop or eat in certain places. How about just calming down and allowing each individual the right to his/her own thoughts, occupations, and choices? As long as nobody is being hurt why do so many of us come unglued? The thought patrol is making it feel dangerous to express ourselves publicly, because even the most benign ideas have the potential of being misunderstood, misinterpreted, and considered offensive. The mere choice of a wrong word may unintentionally cause pandemonium.

The quote that I chose to use at the beginning of this post might be construed to be sexist because it applies the word “men” to all humans. The idea of freedom to pursue the truth in today’s world often involves narrowing the parameters of what and who a person may choose to study. Unlike the days of my youth when I was encouraged to consider multiple points of view including before drawing conclusions, these days it has become risky to admit to actively searching out the merit of diverse ideas. Now there is a kind of closed mindedness requiring each of us to choose a particular side and then eschew all others. It flies in the face of all that I was taught to view as the pathway to wisdom.

I’ve learned over the years that there is rarely perfection in any person, organization, nation. As humans we make mistakes. Judging anyone or any group or any idea with a snapshot of only one moment is a ludicrous act. Instead we have to consider the totality to truly understand the nature, the character of all human pursuits. Each of us grows and evolves and changes over time as do even organizations. It matters less what someone did or said as an adolescent than how that individual eventually chose to live. Few of us would pass muster if the only yardstick for determining our morality were to view a few random moments from our youth. So t0o it often is with people who have spent decades in the public view. Our question should always be how they have changed to become better versions of themselves, not how they once were. The same is true of our country.

What I have always loved the most about being a citizen of the United States is my right to express myself without fear of being incarcerated or ruined. I have always understood that I had to follow certain guidelines with regard to my job because when I spoke, even in the private sector, I was still representing my employer. Nonetheless I always felt comfortable in supporting causes that I believed to be important. Mostly nobody really cared one way or another if I differed with them. Of late, however, it suddenly feels very different. People seem compelled to argue with me and tell me that they are disappointed whenever my views differ from theirs. Complete strangers come unglued by the mere mention of certain hot topics, even when I point out that I am attempting to hear the voices of as many different philosophies as possible before drawing conclusions.

It has become fair game to be close minded. Even in our universities where free thinking was once the norm, we shut down alternative discussions in the name of making everyone feel unsafe. Our debates are no longer ways to display differing ideas, but rather showcases for solidarity. Nobody wants to stray from the party line lest they be derided for abandoning the mutual cause. The result is a kind of stagnation of thought that is preventing solutions to very real problems and causing fear among those who genuinely wish to carry on lively discourse to find the truth.

I become wary whenever I hear the same phrases being mindlessly repeated again and again. I know that I am in the midst of propaganda rather than receiving facts. I have to explore different sources on my own, hoping that there will be people who have been willing to speak rationally about various topics even as they worry that their words may land them in a world of trouble.

We still have liberty in our country, but it does not feel as comfortable as it once did. The thought police are everywhere making it feel a dangerous game to engage in meaningful dialogue. As a nation we are far too busy pontificating rather than asking questions and then really listening to the answers. Sloganeering has become the fashion and in the process it is eroding the very freedoms that the grand experiment begun by the founders of this nation had hoped to achieve. So far we have yet to completely cross the line into tyranny, but our freedoms are threatened from both the far right and the far left. It’s time we demonstrate the courage to protect our precious liberties by letting those who would constrain our thoughts know that we are not so easily intimidated or bribed into submission. We are thinking people who want facts and information, not politicized propaganda.

Our process for selecting leaders has become as silly as a high school popularity contest or a beauty pageant. We don’t need clever soundbites, or demonstrations of insulting behavior. We need concrete ideas that are likely to actually become solutions to looming problems. We also need leaders who will accept our many differences and then use well thought out judgement to work for all the people, not just a small slice of supporters. It’s time for each of us to once again feel free to pursue the truth.