Unleashing Horror

tsar-bomba1I am a child of the Cold War. I grew up hearing an air raid siren every Friday at noon. I practiced crouching under my desk along with my classmates in readiness for a possible nuclear attack. I watched movies that featured apocalyptic scenarios and creatures that had grown out of proportion from exposure to radiation. I saw reports of individuals building bomb shelters and observed adults worrying about the Cuban Missile Crisis. The threat of attack from Russia seemed to be a fixture of my childhood and teen years. Somehow the danger was so insistent that I and most of my peers actually began to ignore it. Of greater importance to us were the young men being drafted to fight and sometimes die or be injured in Vietnam. Violence was featured on the nightly news programs that entered our living rooms each evening, but we never became immune to the horrific images that we saw. Instead we grew weary of the constant hints that one day our world might explode. More than a few of us became peaceniks ready to do whatever it took to keep our country and our young men and women out of harm’s way.

For a time things settled down into an illusory peace. It felt as though the whole world agreed that we all loved our children too much to keep fighting. Unfortunately the lull in the militarism was brief and once again we have a generation of young people who have literally spent their entire lives hearing of wars, terrorism and the threat of nuclear annihilation. It is a horrible place for them to be. It takes great mastery to shelter our kids from the worry of horrors. Even with our best efforts they will no doubt hear of the realities of the world just as I did, and it will worry them.

There is great saber rattling taking place between the United States and North Korea that is frankly far too reminiscent of the fear mongering that forced me and my classmates to endure those drills underneath our desks. The power of nuclear warfare that was unleashed at the end of World War II has been a specter that won’t quite go away. The arms race has placed dangerous weapons in the hands of tyrants capable of doing very unexpected things. This makes for great tension and requires great diplomacy and skill in reading the minds of those who would harm us. We are presently engaged in a nuclear chess game with potential consequences that are almost unbearable to consider.

It would have been impossible for my generation to spend all of our time concerned that one day our civilization as we know it might be wiped out with the push of a button. We had to believe that our leaders and the leaders of other nations would take their responsibilities for the safety of their people seriously. John Kennedy and the men and women that he had assembled in his cabinet proved to be more than worthy of the task. They averted what might have been a disaster of Biblical proportions. The true story of the thirteen days in October in which they stared down the Russians is one of courage and rationality. I think that after that particular occasion most of us continued to live our lives confident that we would never have to actually witness another nuclear attack like the one that was rained down on Japan. We grew more and more aware that with great power comes even more responsibility. Our leaders seemed up to the task.

I hate to admit this but many of my old childhood fears have come back to haunt me since President Trump has decided to take such a belligerent stance in reaction to learning that North Korea has the capability of attacking the United States. The game that he and Kim Jong Un are playing is high stakes, and we can only hope that it will remain in the realm of schoolyard taunting. The leader of North Korea is young and notoriously unstable. He may have little real appreciation for the consequences of launching a nuclear attack, but President Trump is of my generation and he should know full well that even thinking about such a thing is worrisome. His words may be designed to scare Kim Jong Un, but I wonder if they also might push the dictator to demonstrate that he is not afraid. Dealing with someone known for being unpredictable takes great finesse and I am not convinced that remarks about destroying a country are the best way to prevent the ultimate tragedy.

I find myself holding my breath just a bit but also trying to grasp why we humans would ever have put ourselves into such a precarious position. Surely we have evolved enough to realize that the horror of war never ends well for anyone, and yet here we are again dealing with evil in its worst forms, all so that a few may keep or seize power.

I would feel far more comfortable if the men and women that we have elected to lead us would show signs of coming together in such dangerous times. Now is not the moment to argue with one another, but rather a moment for uniting to find ways to keep the world safe. The idea that one individual is allowed to voice his opinions without counsel or a filter is appalling to me. Where are the profiles in courage that we so desperately need?

Innocents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were killed and injured because their leaders boasted that they would never surrender if it meant losing every man, woman and child. Even when it was apparent that the war had been lost the Japanese kept fighting, and so the decision was made to put an end to the conflict in the most terrible possible way. I shudder each time I think of what happened. A door was opened to unspeakable horrors that have threatened mankind ever since. Our goal should be to insure by hook or crook that nobody ever again has to endure such terror. Instead we seem intent on building our own arsenals even as we dare others to invest in their own. We appear to be at a standoff which is good, but what happens if someone finally decides to test the fates?

In the past when we still remembered how truly terrible a nuclear strike can be we asked ourselves who we wanted as our protector in the event of a possible nuclear holocaust. We have tended to neglect such thoughts of late. Perhaps it is time that we assert ourselves once again and be certain that there will be a steady hand at the helm. If that person is indeed President Trump, then more power to him, but if it is not then I urge the members of Congress to speak up now. We are all depending on cool heads to prevail. Let us pray that this crisis too will pass. God help us all if anyone makes a mistake. God help us to find the kind of men and women who have brought us safely through danger in the past. I want to believe that we will rise to the challenge. Our children are depending on it.

The Very Best Way

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There are so many things in life over which we have little or no control. Rain may ruin the outdoor party that we planned. A loved one may die leaving us feeling alone and bereft. We may not get the job that we so wanted to land. The candidate that we worked so hard to get elected loses. Someone we thought was a friend betrays us. We may be diagnosed with a life threatening disease. A criminal steals from us or even worse murders someone about whom we care.

Each of us will face terrible moments throughout our lifetimes that have the potential to leave us feeling devastated and powerless. We will find ourselves wanting to whine or cry or rage about our bad luck, but the truth is that we are not alone in facing great challenges. It is part of the human journey to encounter difficulties. It is our reaction to such things that determines how we will feel about ourselves and the people around us. If our only thoughts are of anger or self pity we may be continually whining that life is unfair. If on the other hand we accept that everyone faces disappointments, we might instead think less about our misfortune and more about what we might do to deal with the realities of the situations.

Last fall I learned that one of my favorite cousins was dying. He had battled heart disease for decades and had tried multiple medications, surgeries and life style changes. His doctors told him that he had run out of options. His heart was failing and there was nothing anyone might do to change that reality. He was sent home to spend his final days. Amazingly whenever I spoke with him he kept his ever present sense of humor and made me laugh in spite of wanting to cry for him. He spent his last days saying his goodbyes to the people that he most loved. He prepared for his passing in every possible way, and made it clear that he was ready for what was to come.

I always loved my cousin. We had shared our childhood together and had so many stories of the fun times that we had experienced. I knew that he was a very special person, but I found myself nonetheless in awe of his faith and the way in which he so unselfishly gave so many of us the gift of peace and comfort. He had taken what might have been a horrific time and somehow transformed it into something beautiful and inspiring. In the process he had actually seized control of his life rather than allowing his circumstances to dictate his reactions.

My own life has been disrupted on so many occasions. Losing my father was life changing, but my mother demonstrated so much courage and determination to keep our family safe that I was able to keep moving forward with a sense of security. Later when she was overtaken by bipolar disorder I was  given a role that I did not want. I was put in charge of her care by default. I made a number of mistakes, but ultimately learned how to get her the help that she needed and how to monitor her progress. It was neither fun nor easy to spend four decades watching her go up and down again and again, but I knew that I would always be able to get her back on the right track if I did what I had to do. Eventually my brothers joined me in keeping her as healthy as possible. As a result our memories of our mother are filled with far more happiness than sorrow. We found a sense of accomplishment in knowing that we never let her down.

Now I’m faced with a new challenge. My husband had a stroke that was quite serious. My first instinct was to cry and feel quite sorry for myself, but ultimately I understood that the only aspect of the situation that I might control is my own attitude. I’m doing whatever I can to encourage him to adopt a healthier lifestyle, and I’m determined to enjoy each minute of each day. I’ve quickly learned that true joy comes from within myself, and I am finding ways to bring it into the open in the very simplest of ways.

We all get those terrible blows that seem to be so unfair, and it is only natural for our first reactions to be negative. Sometimes it appears to us that other people have it so much easier than we do. The truth is that when we begin to learn more about others we generally find that everyone is dealing with pain, illness, problems. The people who seem to be the happiest are often that way mostly because they have chosen to smile rather than to wallow in negativity. They understand that they have choices about how to live, and they choose joy.

At the end of her life my mother had little of material consequence. She kept her life quite simple  often out of necessity. She had lost her husband at the age of thirty. She battled mental illness for decades. She was told that she had lung cancer that was too far advanced to treat. A lesser person might have felt beset upon, but she continually spoke of how blessed she had been throughout her life. She was proud of her accomplishments that included raising three children alone all of whom had advanced college degrees. She loved the members of her family and was confident that they would always stand beside her, and she was absolutely correct in that assessment. She spoke of her adventures and travels with a big smile. She felt that hers had been a full and remarkable journey. She was as satisfied and content as she might have been if she had accumulated vast amounts of power and wealth. She had all that she ever needed, because she had chosen to be the mistress of her thoughts.

I have a friend who is attempting to simplify his life. During the month of July he began to remove many of the possessions that seemed to be occupying far too much of his time and attention. Each day of the month he donated the number of items that corresponded to the date. By the end of the cycle he was scrambling to find thirty one things that he no longer needs. It was such a freeing experience that he plans to repeat the process in August and until he no longer feels as though possessions are impeding his happiness. I think that his is a delightful idea that all of us might consider, and we might also begin to apply it to our attitudes as well.

If we feel as though life is terribly unfair and that we are continually on the wrong end of luck, then maybe it’s time that we begin to change the way that we think about our situations. We need to ask ourselves what we might adjust or do to reorient ourselves. Perhaps we might begin with small steps and then slowly accelerate our efforts as time goes by until our attitudes begin to lean toward the positive exponentially. To do that we will need to be as good to ourselves as we are to the people around us. We have to be willing to extend our sphere of kindness to everyone.

It may take time for the dividends to pay off, but when we begin to see that we really do have the power to determine our own destinies everything becomes more beautiful, even in the midst of trouble. We will learn how to refocus our fears and our pain and our anger in ways that make us feel good about ourselves. We will begin to view the world from a perspective that makes us feel powerful rather than powerless. Those who have mastered this art will tell you that it is the very best way to live.

Honesty

deep-sorrowI do my best to maintain an optimistic outlook on life, particularly in public. I often write about how to enjoy the simple aspects of existence and speak of the positive effect that my faith has on me. Recently my husband had a stroke that has profoundly changed our lives. He has a seventy percent blockage in his brain that is not treatable, so the possibility of his having another stroke is strong. In his first foray he was lucky enough to be in the company of our entire family and was near a great hospital. There were no residual effects of the attack, so now he is driving again and performing most of the tasks that he did before the incident. Still, his doctor has warned us that the possibility of a second stroke in the ninety days after the first one is very high. All in all this news has left both of us floundering, but determined to do whatever it takes to keep him healthy.

With the support and love of friends and family we are attempting to carry on and enjoy each moment of each day with a new appreciation. I am not one to surrender to challenges and so the fighter in me has come to the fore. So many people have mentioned how wonderful and inspiring I appear to be. This worries me just a bit because I imagine that other folks who are also struggling with horrific situations may misunderstand my strength and wonder why they don’t seem to be able to muster the courage and hopefulness that I demonstrate. I suspect that in my quest to never surrender to the dark feelings that creep into my mind, I may have inadvertently presented a picture of myself that is not complete. Because I strive to be honest and to help those who are really hurting I think that it is important for me to unveil some of the angst and horror that has stalked me since the day that I saw my husband lying helplessly on the floor.

I’m not nearly as brave as I sometimes appear to be. I’m about as human as they come and as such I have been shaken to the very depths of my soul. There have been moments when I had never ending conversations with God in which I was generally begging Him to lift the burdens from my shoulders. Eventually those prayers became less and less demanding and finally led me to ask for the strength to do whatever I need to do. First, however, I had to rage at the heavens. Thankfully I believe that God is quite understanding about our weaknesses. Before I was able to hand myself back over to Him I went through a very dark period of doubt and fear. It is what most of us do. It is part of our makeup to question and falter. He waits patiently for us to trust Him once again.

I have spent quite a bit of time inside my closet feeling very sorry for myself as I wailed in grief for all that I thought that I had lost. My confidence was shaken. My plans were dashed. I was afraid and angry and confused. I felt as though I would not be able to take another breath. I also felt guilty for being so selfish at a time when my husband needed me so. I chided myself for even considering my own feelings. It took me quite a long time to sort things out in my mind and compose myself once again.

I have always been a control freak. I abhor situations that are uncertain. The specter of a future that I cannot plan is unnerving and for a time it paralyzed me. I thought of my life as being over in a sense. I felt that the joy that I had shared with my husband in our travels would be a thing of the past. I imagined us living in a chronic state of panic. I was intensely jealous of family and friends who had the luxury of continuing their lives as though nothing had happened. I felt very alone and vulnerable.

I knew that it would be impossible to continue along such a path of despair. I slowly began to use my talents and resources to regain a semblance of control over our lives. I know that I can’t repair the occlusion in my husband’s brain, but I am able to create a diet that will help him to lose weight and keep his blood pressure low. I have the power to support him as he takes his medications and to keep our home as happy as possible. I have had to remind myself of my own belief that the best moments in life are actually the simple pleasures that come our way. I have begun to rejoice over dinners in our backyard, times with family, pleasant moments with friends. I try to find something upbeat about each day and mostly I have learned to express the loving feelings that I have for people as soon as I experience them.

One thing I know for sure is how very much I love my husband. I feel almost as though we are dating again. I like holding his hand and smiling at him. I find that spending time with him is what is most important  right now, no matter where we go or what we do. It’s funny how just sharing a joke or walking together makes both of us incredibly happy. A trip to Walmart can be as much fun as an extravagant trip.

I count my blessings literally every second now. I try not to let the inevitable irritations that come my way bother me, but now and again I lose my cool. I still find myself worrying more than I should but I’ve learned to be kind to myself. I am far more conscious of other people and my empathy for their suffering has increased a hundredfold. I spend my time controlling what I can and letting go of the rest. For now I need so little. All of the things that I dreamed of one day owning seem rather inconsequential. On some days I feel as though I am floating aimlessly in shark infested waters, and I try not to be fearful. A bit of bad news here and there has the power of sending me back to my closet to cry, but I know now that I will somehow somewhere find the strength to come back out and face the demons that stalk me.

I am no better nor any stronger than anyone else. I make the same mistakes and have the same questions that have plagued humans for eternity. I try to think less of myself and more about others. I rein in my tendencies to overthink the future. Right now I am fragile but I am also strong. Thus is the irony of the human spirit.

I appreciate the compliments that my friends shower upon me. They really do help me to keep going. The people who truly care about me have been indispensable. They have encouraged me and helped me to understand that we are never as alone as we might imagine. There is much goodness in the world if only we ask. Sometimes we need that helping hand and most people are only too willing to extend it. We just have to be willing to admit that none of us are capable of being perennial towers of strength.

I am fine for now, but I am quite certain that something will come along to shake my resolve once again,. I will try to remember that it is okay to lose one’s way from time to time. The important thing is to face the emotions that work to bring us down. In admitting our weaknesses we actually become stronger, and we learn how to overcome the feelings that are holding us back from being our best selves. As for me, I am choosing to find the beauty in my new situation and to grab whatever joy I might find. Time slips by far too quickly to spend it in a state of dread or pessimism, but we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we temporarily fall victim to an horrific case of the blues. So long as we do our best to cope with whatever situation we are facing, we will make it again and again.

Take Another Shot

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I have a habit of watching Dr. Phil on OWN while eating my lunch. I am quite interested in the quirkiness of human nature and so I find his program to be informative and enjoyable. Recently it featured a father who was attempting to reach out to his estranged children. The man had admittedly done some horrible things to his kids in the past, but he had reached the point of wanting to repair his relationship with them. Most of his children were willing to give him a second chance, but one of the daughters indicated that she would never be able to get over his angry words to her in a letter that he once sent. Dr. Phil argued that there was no way to change the past, and that the only means of moving forward would be to start with a clean slate devoid of recriminations.

This reminded me of a meme that I had seen on Facebook. It said that life is like a camera. We should focus on what is important, capture the good times when able and develop from the negatives. Ultimately we always have a chance to take another shot if we don’t like what we’ve seen of ourselves before.

As a teacher I often encountered students who wanted to just give up and run away from their problems. They had been so battered by disappointments and failure that they thought it impossible to ever find the success that they so desired. It became easier for them to just quit expending any kind of effort. Being the class clown or a withdrawn rebel felt more secure that risking the possibility of falling short again.

We see people who appear to be doing well and we all too often attribute their success to innate abilities, luck, wealth, privilege or other outside forces. If we took the time to really get to know them we would no doubt find that they work hard at improving themselves and their attitudes. As the KIPP Charter school mantra explains there are no shortcuts in life.

I particularly enjoy a Gatorade commercial that focuses on how some of the premier athletes overcame failure. Michael Jordan didn’t make the high school varsity basketball team so instead of just resigning himself to his fate he practiced and kept trying until he managed to prove that he was worthy. J. J. Watt was a football team walk-on whose penchant for hard work eventually made him a super star.

I know a young man who loves sports but is rather small for collegiate or professional teams. Still he wanted to be on the Rice University football team. When he approached the coach with a request to try out nobody thought that he had a chance. He was dwarfed by the other players even though he was muscular. He was just so incredibly short that it seemed that he would be of little practical use to the team. Nonetheless he was persistent and proved to both the team and the coach that he was serious. He began to train and practice with the group and had soon earned their full respect. He worked as hard and long as anyone and never requested any special favors. He was willing to take the same blows and critiques as his larger teammates. The coach soon realized that this athlete was incredibly special and gave him a shot.

The moral of all of these stories is that we always have time to change and find unique ways to fulfill our hopes and dreams. We really do have the power to transform and become better versions of ourselves. It is never too late to be what we want to be, but it will take effort and concentration.

We often sideline ourselves by being distracted by life events that are not all that important. As the meme suggests we must focus on what we really want to accomplish and understand that  doing so will most assuredly take hard work and sacrifice. Very little in life comes easily for anyone, even those who appear to be floating effortlessly through every challenge. I have found that we don’t often see the blood, sweat and tears that those around us are expending. A perfect example came to me when I learned that several of my high school classmates had literally made themselves ill attempting to be outstanding students. I had assumed that they were simply way smarter than I was because they appeared to catch on to concepts so much more quickly than I did. I found out that they were working so hard that they stressed themselves into anxiety attacks and exhaustion. They had to learn how to balance their physical, emotional and intellectual pursuits just as I did.

We are often inclined to only recall the negative aspects of our daily routines. If something bad happens to us we forget the hours of delight that we enjoyed before we were beset with a negative experience. We all too often judge our lives based on what we don’t have rather than what we already possess. We forget to capture the good times and don’t always remind ourselves that our cares and woes are mostly just temporary.

Nobody among us is immune to mistakes. Every single person messes up at some time or another. We feel guilt and regret over our disasters when the correct response should be to learn from them and then move on. I have generally found that I became stronger from my failures than I might otherwise have been. They not only grounded me but also taught me important lessons. As long as we are able to grow from our misfortune, we will be able to put it behind us. If on the other hand we just dwell on the negativity and wallow in self pity we will be trapped in a state of sorrow and maybe even despair.

It’s humbling to find ourselves in situations in which we are struggling. We all want to feel good about ourselves and that is a difficult thing to do if we just can’t seem to get some task right. We worry that we are less than and our confidence takes a ding. The best among us know that this is the time to take another shot. They have learned that with determination and a willingness to keep trying they will eventually conquer even their gravest fears.

I love superheroes like Batman. He was filled with angst because of terrors from his childhood. In spite of being enormously wealthy he was unable to tap into the person that was trapped inside his soul. Not until he faced his demons and worked to overcome them was he able to release his full potential. It is like that for all of us. We have the power or the force if you will to accomplish incredible things if only we think of that camera and the many shots that we have to find our ultimate inner beauty.

Woke Up This Morning

sunrise-sky-blue-sunlight-67832I woke up this morning. Isn’t that grand? I know that it sounds rather ordinary but there is a certain mystery and beauty about the act of sleeping and then rising at the end of our dreams. It demonstrates a total sense of trust because in truth we are very vulnerable when we are snoozing, and yet in my country we mostly have the privilege of following the rhythm of life for all of our days without worry or harm.

Some of us have insomnia from time to time. Mine comes and goes often with the seasons, the stresses in my life or the amount of caffeine that I have consumed during the course of a day. I’ve learned certain tricks to keep the sleepless nights from becoming habitual, but in truth I simply don’t doze as much as I once did. My days grow longer as a result, and I always find ways to enjoy them like watching the hummingbird in my backyard flit from one plant to another. He’s a cute little thing who’s so quick that you have to really concentrate to catch him performing his antics. He’s mostly around when the bigger birds are busy with whatever it is that they do in the middle of the day. When they return to dominate, my hummingbird takes shelter in some hidden corner of the garden.

When an EMT was rushing my husband to the hospital recently he spoke of the sleep disturbances that firefighters continuously endure. He noted that he had been out on four different runs the night before. He explained that the body begins to react to the constant interruptions of slumber. He reasoned that he would one day need a desk job so that he would be able to enjoy more regular habits. He asserted that fighting fires and driving ambulances is a young man’s game that becomes more and more difficult over time.

I’ve often heard that doctors who are continuously awakened by emergency phone calls from patients generally live a bit less longer than the rest of us. They indeed learn early in their training to exist on far less sleep than everyone else, but it has a negative effect on their overall health. We don’t often stop to think about that when we make those middle of the night requests for their services. I understand that much of the time now patients are told to go to an emergency room or a group of doctors work together to create schedules that only require nighttime vigilance now and again to prevent those constant interruptions. I suppose that they have finally quite wisely decided to do something about the dangers of getting too little sleep.

We humans have been wary of the dark since the beginning of time. Things go bump in the night. Surrendering ourselves to a state of oblivion is necessary for our health but can also be frightening. There are indeed times when we sense the danger in doing so.

I once spoke with a young man whose family was trapped by the high waters that resulted from the collapse of the levees in New Orleans and surrounding areas in the wake of hurricane Katrina. He and his parents somehow managed to get to the top of a freeway overpass. He said that other people were there as well. They took turns sleeping because gators were lurking around not to mention other people with devious intent. He recounted how difficult it was to relax enough to finally reach a state of slumber. He said that he was exhausted but unable to surrender for fear of what might happen when he became unconscious. In many ways falling asleep is the ultimate show of confidence because we just don’t know what will occur while we are out.

I am reminded over and over again of the shock that I felt upon learning that a friend’s husband had died in his sleep. When he failed to get up long after his usual time for rising, she went to check on him and realized that he was not breathing. There had been no signs that something was wrong, no warning of the impending tragedy. While it was definitely a very peaceful way of going, it actually haunted me for a quite some time and reminded me of something that my mother had always done.

She had made a habit of telling me and my brothers how much she loved us before she went to sleep each night. If we had exchanged cross words during the day she apologized whether it had been her fault or not. She insisted that loving words should be the last ones we ever heard, and she followed that way of doing things until the end of her own life. I suspect that she sometimes wished that she had been able to tell my father just how she loved him before he died in his terrible car crash. She learned from that horrible time that we can’t take anything for granted, not even that we will see each other when the sun rises at the start of a new day.

Since my husband’s stroke the happiest part of my mornings comes when he opens his eyes and walks downstairs with a big smile and a greeting. My heart literally fluters with gratitude that both of us are still here and my prayer is that we will be for many days to come. Still I’ve made it a habit of late to do as my mom taught me and express the gratitude and affection that I feel for the people who walk with me in this life.

Our rest revitalizes us and prepares us for the work to come. It should also be a time when we close our eyes confident that we love and are loved, that we forgive and are forgiven. We should celebrate the miracle of each new day that we are allowed to see. There is so much beauty in the people and the world around us. All we need do is open our eyes and soak it all in.