Peace On Earth

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We have a human longing for peace on earth, goodwill toward all people. Somehow it feels as though such sentiments are little more than an ideal, a dream, and yet we are driven to at least try to make the world a better place. Ironically much of the rancor that occurs as we do our best to create harmony arises from our differing interpretations as to how to achieve such a lofty goal. We are only too aware of limited resources and the role that they play in our everyday relationships. We desire to be fair, but we also have tendencies that drive us to protect ourselves and those that we love. The tension between wanting to be magnanimous and satisfying our need to feel safe has been the enigmatic force that pushes and pulls us, and often leaves us quibbling rather than working toward a common good.

History has demonstrated time and again that there are indeed very good people sacrificing themselves in the service of others, but there are also evil doers who care little for anyone but themselves. Somehow we have to be astute enough to identify who is who lest we fall for propaganda and promises that rely on our fears and our darker sides. At the same time we cannot be naive about the ways of the world lest we become martyrs to noble causes without the grit to overcome the darkest aspects of human nature. Progress toward the peace that we so desire sometimes requires defensive measures that invoke violence. Thus is the conundrum of human history.

Watching the news these days makes it very difficult to believe that we will ever again find a measure of calm. There are hot spots all over the planet, and they have nothing to do with climate but rather everything to do with our grievances. We have battles between rich and poor, this religion and that, the powerful and the powerless, male and female, the educated and laborers, one nation and another. It’s difficult to find a place anywhere on earth that is immune to the disagreements that result from our diversity of opinions. It can be quite disheartening to watch the rancor playing out even as we pray for love and kindness to be the order of the day. We wonder and worry about the future and what it may bring.

Then we witness the death of a very good person like George H.W. Bush. We have the opportunity to see the entirety of his life. We hear his philosophies and mull over his words. We realize that there is indeed reason for optimism. We see that in spite of sharing our own tendencies to make mistakes and wrong choices he managed to live a life mostly comprised of forgiveness, compassion and a willingness to adjust his course when he needed to rethink his ways of meeting the world. We realize that qualities like honor, service, devotion to family never really go out of style. We see that true courage is not brash or insulting, but rather quietly committed to a cause. We learn from a man like President Bush that being a leader means cherishing those that we lead. We find that embracing defeat makes us champions. Somehow in viewing the life of such a man we find the hope that we have been seeking.

I doubt that we will change overnight simply because we have been reminded of how to bring out our better natures, but somehow I suspect that we will pause long enough to rethink the course of our nation and our world. We will begin to remember what is most important and we may even learn to get along again. We will search for the good rather than focusing on grievances. We will ask not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them. Then we will be back on the path to peace.

Somehow we humans keep repeating the same choruses over and over. We fight for a time and then grow weary. We work together for a time and then grow jealous. We forget those who struggle and then remember to work as hard for them as we do for ourselves. The patterns seem to repeat themselves with regularity, but we don’t have to be caught in a wheel of fortune over which we have no control. We can become more peaceful bit by tiny bit, but it will require a willingness to open our minds and to be more forgiving,

I read a profoundly wise article recently that spoke to the idea that it is often our self righteousness that leads to the battles between differing factions. We fail to see the reasons why people believe as they do. Instead we condemn them for what we see as faulty thinking. We spew epithets at them and posture as though we are somehow better. The anger between each side only grows. Sometimes the most difficult stance that we may ever take is simply to be nice even when we are being misunderstood.

I think that this is the essence of the message left to us by Jesus Christ, and whether or not we believe that He was indeed a savior and the son of God His example shows us exactly how to behave toward one another. In this season that celebrates His birth we should learn about and think about His life because it was a model of what is best in each of us. If we do nothing more than celebrate Him as a great historical figure we should still emulate His way of life, for it was profoundly wise. He demonstrated how to find peace on earth good will toward men by embracing and forgiving even those who have wronged us. It’s a difficult task, but one that will lead us closer to the world we desire.

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What’s In A Word?

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I get a big kick out of looking at all of the cute t-shirts in tourist spots like Estes Park, Colorado. Some of them are quite hilarious. On my most recent visit there I saw a shirt that made me roar with laughter. It featured two bears gazing down at a human camper who was unknowingly the subject of the bears’ conversation. One remark was, “Let’s eat. Bob.” The other was “Let’s eat Bob.” Thus noting the importance of punctuation.

Of course I chuckled over that one and would have instantly purchased the shirt but for the fact that it came in a putrid green color that made me look as though I had some kind of serious disease. Nonetheless, it made me think about how easily our words can be misinterpreted, especially in these days in which misunderstandings are so commonplace. One unfortunate word choice or misplaced comma can make a world of difference in how people view remarks. When dealing with the written word from times past it can become even more unsettling. We have a tendency to view commentaries from our own perspectives rather than taking the time to consider that there have been different ways of expressing ideas in different places and eras. What may seem just fine in a certain place or time, my appear to be rude or out of style in today’s world.

I’ve been reading all sorts of ridiculous claims from people who are finding offense in the strangest places. In one instance a national news and editorial outlet noted what they saw as blatant racism in the old Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special. The source of the angst was that Franklin, the little Black child, was sitting all by himself on one side of the table. I suppose that one might draw some conclusions about that, but the fact is that the character was introduced into the Peanuts family by Charles Shultz in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The intent of the cartoonist was to demonstrate that we are all one big family, not to discriminate. I feel relatively certain that Mr. Shultz would be appalled to think that his always loving cartoon might have offended someone.

I’ve also heard of people becoming upset with some of the classic Christmas stories and songs. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has come under particular fire for featuring bullies and because Rudolph’s father was ashamed of him. Those who complain about it miss the point that Rudolph eventually became a hero, demonstrating that differences are powerful, not something of which to be embarrassed. Even a small child seems to understand the moral of the story, but some adults are fretting over ideas that I don’t think there are really there. What I would suggest is that those who don’t like the story or the song simply choose not to watch.

I saw a number of comments on Facebook about how virtually every well known Christmas carol might be misinterpreted depending on one’s point of view. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town might actually show Santa to be a peeping and a stalker according to one way of viewing the song. I even read a story about someone who thought that White Christmas is a homage to far right extremists. Maybe those who think such things should watch the movie with Bing Crosby and Danny Kay to set the record straight. And so it goes,,,Deck the Halls insults gays, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is too suggestive for children, Santa Baby is about gold diggers. It’s enough to make one run screaming from the room.

It all makes me wonder how often I have unwittingly insulted someone. I write lots of word all the time. It seems certain that I have probably made people angry when my intent has never been to do so. We live in very sensitive times.

I appreciate the classes that I took as part of my college studies. Most of my professors in English, History and Psychology classes emphasized the necessity of learning more about the lives of the people in particular places and times. Without that important background information we have no context for their actions and remarks. The world has definitely changed from one decade to another and with those evolutions have come different ways of understanding the exact same words and ideas. Grass used to refer on to the green stuff that grows on lawns. By the twentieth century it was commonly used to speak of marijuana as well was the term “pot.” The word gay once only meant a form of happiness, now it is used to refer to a group of people and their sexual orientation. We add words and meanings to our dictionaries constantly, but we too often ignore the original ways that people spoke. We forget history and react as though we are the first and only generation to inhabit the earth.

I suggest that people take a chill pill unless utterances are egregiously vile and meant to be that way. When I don’t like something I simply choose to eliminate it from my world, abut I also attempt to be understanding. It doesn’t bother me that some people do not believe in the same meaning of Christmas that is mine. I’m all for wishing people Happy Holidays, Happy Kwanza, Happy Hanukkah or whatever works best for them. Diversity is a beautiful thing, but so is a “live and let live” attitude. Let’s just spread love during this holiday and everything will be so much better.

The Stops and Starts of History

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I suppose that I view the world a bit differently than the younger folk do. My seventy years on this planet give me a different sort of perspective. I am less anxious about the state of the planet than I once was, and I see time as a long continuum in which a few years here and there are simply time for the continual corrections that we humans make to our environment. Real change takes time, and often we never actually see the final product of our efforts. History teaches us that nonetheless we have a way of righting ourselves even after momentous upheavals.

I was reading that the sixth century might have been one of the most horrific in humankind’s timeline. It seems that a volcanic eruption and earthquakes around the world created a cloud that enshrouded the earth. During that time people in the Northern hemisphere lived in a frigid climate and literally endured dark days. Crops failed and there was widespread famine. To make things worse an outbreak of bubonic plague spread like wildfire during the same era decimating the population even more. Nonetheless people persisted and managed to rise from the ashes. It is a story that repeats itself in one form or another throughout the course of history.

With all of our flaws and imperfections we move forward, jolt backward, make mistakes and accomplish wondrous things. For the most part our intentions are good even when our decisions are bad. We sometimes get fooled by evil, but almost always crush the darkness that festers in our midst. We slowly find ways to be better, to do better.

My husband watches all of those programs on Netflix about the two world wars that threatened all of humanity during the twentieth century. One of them featured the stories of pilots in World War II who dropped bombs on German targets. For the most part their goal was to destroy military bases and industrial plants that produced arms. Toward the end of the conflict it had become more and more apparent that the only way to finally stop the Nazis was to hit them hard in the heart of their government in Berlin. There was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth before the Allies finally agreed to bomb the city. Everyone understood that civilians would be affected along with high ranking government installations. It was with grave doubts about the ethics of such a maneuver that the campaign began. While it was ultimately effective in ending the war and the slaughter, there were those who wondered if we humans had crossed a line over which we might no longer claim the high road.

I suppose that we might debate the pros and cons of almost anything that people have chosen to do. Ultimately the merits of our decisions lie in future outcomes. President Lincoln understood that ending the Civil War required a more committed military offense that would most certainly affect many lives badly. This very kind man had to use great force to insist on peace. The irony of such realities is illustrative of how difficult it is for each of us to know what to do in difficult times.

Our world faces many problems, but it isn’t the first time that this has been the case, nor will it be the last. I am confident that we will work our way toward solutions one way or another, only to discover new concerns as we progress. It is doubtful that we will ever achieve perfection or even come close to pleasing everyone, but we will certainly try our best to reach a kind of consensus. We may quibble and accuse one another of evil motives along the way, but eventually we will realize that our strength lies in using our differences to compromise and effect ever closer approximations to the perfection that we seek but rarely achieve.

There is a kind of hysteria that is breeding in our midst. I see evidence of it in the emails that somehow find their way into my account. If I were to take their messages to heart I would be a nervous wreck because they are designed to incite my anger and worry. What I know from experience is that we do not need or want to throw all caution to the winds and make hasty decisions and laws that are not grounded in consideration of many points of view. I have learned that it is almost always dangerous to follow a single way of thinking with the exception of certain principles such as the idea that murder is wrong. Even in that regard I have learned to ask questions such as, “Would it have been wrong to kill Adolf Hitler to stop his murderous rampage?” In other words even the most clearcut beliefs are wrought with exceptions. Thus it is to our advantage to consider the concerns of those who would express reluctance to follow a particular path. Ultimately, however, we have to choose some kind of resolution and that is when the imperfections become the most clear. We have to weigh the good against the bad, and often accept that not every aspect of what we hope to achieve will be perfect. It is likely that we ill need to go back at some time in the future to remedy the flaws.

Thus it is with life. Whether in the microcosm of a family or the reach of a government we humans attempt to bring order to the chaos that seems to stalk us. Just when we resolve one problem another arises. We must learn to have patience with ourselves and with each other. Most of all it is to our benefit to be understanding and willing to consider ideas that don’t fit exactly into our personal ways of viewing the world. Things will shift and change and work their way toward our mutual happiness. History has many stops and starts but we humans invariably move forward just a little bit more.

Get the Ball Rolling

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My two greatest fears are drowning and burning in a fire. I have had nightmares about both scenarios since I was a young child. I suppose that my fear of fires began when a man on our street died in his bed as his house became a blazing inferno. I vividly recall seeing the damage to his home and watching him being wheeled out with a sheet over his body. I was probably no more than four or five years old when it happened. I stood by my mother as I witnessed this tragedy, but never spoke to her of the horror that I felt. I only internalized the terror that it wrought in me, and worried about what I might do if my own home one day went up in flames.

I have smoke alarms and a ladder upstairs under a bed that can be used as a way of getting out through a window if the exit routes are blocked. I am very conscious of sounds and smells in the night and I used to drill my daughters when they were still children so that they would know what to do in the event of a fire. While the thought of losing my home to fire is one of my worries, I still feel as though the odds of it happening are unimaginable. I suppose that nonetheless my phobia has led me to closely follow the stories of wildfires in other parts of the country and to wonder if any such event might ever happen to me.

I have been both horrified and saddened by the most recent fires in California. The videos of individuals fleeing in their cars past walls of flames, burned out vehicles and structures reduced to ash is incredibly frightening. I find myself thinking about those images and the unfortunate souls trapped in a kind of hell on earth as they attempt to save their lives. The fact that so many did not make it, is sobering. One minute these folks lived in a delightful town that was truly a kind of paradise and the next all hell broke lose with little or no warning. They have returned to a landscape that not even a war might duplicate. There is literally nothing left of their material lives other than the clothes on their backs.

While still being alive is dear compensation given so many who have died and are missing, it is little comfort to think of having to start over from the ground up. So many questions and fears must be overtaking their minds. They have literally lost the sense of security that usually comes with having a home filled with all of the memories of a lifetime. How will they ever again sleep peacefully at night? Where will they go? Will they be able to stay and still feel safe? How will the world ever feel the same again?

I have no idea what we all might do to help these souls, but I suspect that if each and everyone of us became committed to sending them hope and supplies and funds for rebuilding their lives the goodness might help to assuage some of the that sadness must be overwhelming them at this moment. I know that those in Houston who lost their homes to the floods of Hurricane Harvey were bolstered by the kindness of both friends and strangers. While they still flinch when it rains and relive the moments when they had to flee their homes, they all tell of the ways in which people gathered like a village to ease their pain and suffering. It was in such human compassion that they found the courage to begin their lives anew.

I’d like to think that we will suspend our negative commentaries about what they might have done more to prevent those fires in the first place, or suggestions that they had somehow chosen places to live that were not meant to be inhabited. When water or fire is consuming your home it is not the time to hear lectures on what should have been. Instead voices of understanding and love are what is needed. Luckily there always seem to be caring souls among us, but in such extreme cases we need even more of them. It is up to us not to just have feelings but to help in constructive ways.

Here in the Christmas season many people search for families and individuals whom they might help in tangible ways. I’d like to suggest that the people in California who have lost so much represent a most noble cause. We might set aside a certain amount of money each day in December to be sent to organizations that will be helping in the rebuilding process. We may want to purchase a single household item each day to send to some family or group. How wonderful would it be to buy a book each day to ship to schools and libraries? One person doing this might not make a dent in the needs, but if our whole nation worked together like so many did in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey, just think of how much more quickly the affected people might return to at least a semblance of normalcy. Such programs might be organized through schools or churches for maximum effect. Whole families may want to forego a present or two in order to instead purchase necessities for the people affected by the fires. Those with building skills might offer their services. College students could urge their fraternities, sororities and clubs to make the burned out families their special projects.

It’s up to us now not to criticize, but rather to find constructive ways to help. There will be plenty of time later to determine what changes must happen and how to insure that they take place. In times like this fault finding means little. Compassion and empathy and meaningful help are the things these unfortunate souls need. Let’s get the process started.

Policing Our Information

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Long ago I was a daily subscriber to The Houston Post, a newspaper that ceased to exist after a time. It’s competitor, The Houston Chronicle, had never had great appeal to me, but in the aftermath of the Post’s failure I began to have the Chronicle delivered to my house each day. When I moved to a new home about thirteen years ago I was so busy with work and other responsibilities that I decided to only sign up for weekend delivery. Even then I hardly had the time to stop to read all of the Sunday sections. The paper often lined the bottom of my trash can without ever having been adequately digested. With the advent of online news sources I was more likely to sit with my laptop on my knees while I sipped on my morning tea and munched on my breakfast. I eventually decided to stop the delivery of a newspaper to my home and instead subscribe to national sources offering coverage on my computer.

A couple of Sundays ago when I visited with my in-laws I noticed a copy of the Sunday Houston Chronicle lying on their kitchen counter. I was horrified to see how much it had shrunk in size. It looked more like something that might be distributed on college campuses by the journalism students than the local news source of the fourth largest city in the United States. I suppose that it has come to this dire end because of people like me who abandoned the paper when it became more of a vehicle for want ads and inserts from merchants than a purveyor of good quality information. In fact, such appears to be the fate of many newspapers around the country.

It makes me sad to watch the demise of good old fashioned reporting in local papers because there was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a journalist. I dreamed of gathering information on the happenings around my city and then writing stories about them. I imagined one day garnering the respect of a byline with my name on it. The thought of being a newspaper reporter sounded exciting and important to me. Never did I imagine that news outlets would find themselves struggling to stay afloat, even in places with large populations. I did not conceive of a revolution in electronic reporting that would displace almost all but the most notable newspapers with online information delivered to computers in nanoseconds.

Not even when I got my first home computer was I able to foresee the future as it unfolded. Things changed so quickly that I hardly noticed what was happening. In the nineteen nineties when I was earning an advanced degree my professors urged me to learn about email and the Internet. Both methods were still clunky and not so easy to use, but I proudly complied and thought of myself as being modern and adventurous. By the turn of the century things were progressing online at warp speed and inventive minds were finding more and more ways to simplify the process of garnering information so quickly and easily that even small children learned how to use the worldwide web. It was a brave new world that was exciting and intoxicating, and it was being used more and more often in ways that most of us never thought possible.

Suddenly we were instantly linked to people all around the world with only a few keystrokes. Those old fashioned news sources made of paper that invariably contained old information by the time they were delivered seemed outdated and inconvenient and even overpriced given that they were so late in providing us details about the world’s happenings. I suppose that only those who contrived ways to stay relevant have remained robust, and even they must worry that the day may come when the marvelous invention of the printing press will seem as insignificant as a horse drawn plow or a buggy, the kind of things relegated to museums.

When Facebook came along it was initially the domain of college students, a way to get to know and communicate with more people than ordinary means allowed. By sharing photos and messages it was supposed to bring people together, and for a time that’s mostly what it did. Eventually adults long past their younger years entered the fray, and users began to realize the power of the comments on those walls. Facebook became a vehicle for presenting points of view, and setting up discussions. It was almost inevitable that it would also be a way of sharing news stories and political opinions. Editorializing and propaganda and stories whose veracity was questionable found their way onto people’s feeds without even asking. With information flooding in from hundreds of unnamed sources it became more and more necessary to fact check virtually everything that appeared on the Facebook walls. It also lead to abuses by information gathering sources that then used their data to target certain users with political propaganda.

By now everyone has heard the accusations of attempts by the Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election by using Facebook and other outlets to spread false information. Mark Zuckerberg has defended his organization by noting that his original intent was to do good by bringing people together, and to that end he did not want to become a judge and jury for who and what should appear in the newsfeeds of his billions of users. Nonetheless he has been criticized for not being more vigilant in monitoring the information that subscribers send and see on their walls.

I’m rather libertarian when it comes to any form of censoring. I find the idea of having someone determining what I may see on my Facebook page to be far more frightening than knowing that some of what is there is false and misleading. I would prefer taking the time to fact check on my own than to be limited by some kind of algorithmic board that scans the offerings and comments. While I understand that there is some exceedingly contemptible and frightening information being passed along as truth, I stand by the idea that it is up to each of us individually to decide what we choose to accept as fact versus fiction. In fact, I think that even if Facebook were to totally change it’s standards tomorrow by only allowing greetings and photos of family and puppies there would still be places where shenanigans rule.

Teachers have told me for my entire lifetime to beware of propaganda which may be found even in old fashioned newspapers and on television and in the speeches of our politicians. We’ve had the rainmakers and traveling medicine peddlers forever. Those who bang on drums and attempt to fool us into believing fake ideas have been around since the beginning of time, and one way or another we humans have had to be careful not to fall for their snake oil routines. It’s in our own best interests to always and without exception be wary. If something sounds too incredible to be true, it’s possible that it actually is a tactic to mislead us. There are so many ways to unfold the veracity of ideas, and we have to learn how to use them before following our emotions rather than our reason. We must always be willing to determine fact rather than opinion, truth rather than lies. We shouldn’t require Facebook to be our police and more than we asked that of our old newspapers. That’s why we have the ability to think. Let’s put that talent to use rather than asking a stranger to do it for us.