The Power of Thankfulness

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I rarely ask other people for favors. I have a tendency to just gut out difficult situations on my own. I suppose I’ve always been that way. Perhaps I picked up that trait from my mom who was an exceedingly independent woman. Amazingly I save any requests that I may have for God. In fact, I suppose if my prayers were recorded they would sound a bit too much like a wish list. Mostly my supplications are for people that I know who are sick or suffering in some way. I never actually mention things that I need. Still, I recently realized my heavy reliance on favors from the Lord when a friend posted a meditation suggesting that we all spend one day simply thanking God for the blessings that He showers on us. I decided to accept the challenge and it was truly life changing.

I happened to be in Colorado taking a mini-vacation when I set out to notice my bounty rather than to focus on my wants, so it was rather easy to find wondrous moments of appreciation. I began with a thank you just for waking up on that day. Then I expressed my gratitude for being in the company of my loving husband, my best friend. Suddenly I the idea really caught hold and I was feeling joyful over having nice warm clothes to wear and fresh food to eat for breakfast. I was on a roll before I ever left our hotel room for which I also felt great cheer because I knew that there were homeless folk on the streets of downtown Denver who might have been thrilled to stay in such luxury.

And so it went all day long. I thanked God for the gloriously magnificent mountains that provided a majestic view. I was happy for the sun and the blue sky. I began to notice all sorts of tiny things that I might otherwise have overlooked or taken for granted, like the smiles that people exchanged with me. I began to see the glory of the world around me with new eyes. It was as though I was a newborn child experiencing life for the first time. I can’t even begin to describe how calm it made me feel. My normal tendencies toward anxiety melted away and I felt a happiness that was pure and without any conditions. Not even little irritations that might normally have made me a bit irate were able to touch me.

I have to admit that I even found myself feeling particularly thankful for the friend, Paula, who posts daily prayers and meditations that I scan but too often don’t take fully to heart. I was so glad that her passage for that day had somehow caught my attention just enough that I had decided to take the challenge. It provided me with the kind of awakening that I genuinely needed in that moment. It also taught me to take the time each day to be as fully aware of the bounty of my life as I am of the problems that I must face. I have literally changed my approach to God and to each day and found that it feels so good.

I suppose that it is only human to dwell on worries and concerns. There are even times when the world crowds in on us with such force that it is difficult to ignore the tragedies and horrors that come our way. In those moments we need help from God and any person who is willing to step forward, and we should not hesitate to reach out for any assistance that we might find. Nonetheless, we still would do well to take note of our blessings even in the most terrible of times. Focusing only on what we need rather than taking stock of what we already have can leave us feeling depressed and incapable. When we take the time to notice the gifts that we have, we realize that many of the tools that we need to survive are already in our hands.

My mother was always filled with joy and gratitude. She cherished the most utterly simple moments and didn’t seem to notice how much she lacked in material wealth. If I took her to visit her sister she was as happy as if I had given her on a grand vacation. She thought that a glass of milk and a few vanilla wafers was an extravagance. She constantly insisted that she was one of the most blessed individuals in the world even though she was a widow with bipolar disorder and an income so low that it barely covered her expenses. She read her Bible every single day and never failed to point out how generous God had been to her.

I sometimes felt irritated that she was so childlike in her appreciation for life. It seemed almost nonsensical that anyone with the challenges that she had should be so happy. I suppose that I did not truly understand the power of being thankful for the most basic blessings that we enjoy. I thought of her on the day that I was purposely looking for good things and realized that such optimism is incredibly up lifting. I knew then that it had been the secret to my mom’s ability to survive. It was the key to her selflessness and contentment.

I’ve been more and more careful to spend my days celebrating the glory of my life. It has completely changed my outlook for the better. When something bad happens I find myself looking for the silver lining. When I feel overwhelmed I take a deep breath and feel thankful that I am alive enough to still be in the race. Instead of feeling sorry for myself because so many that I have loved have died, I speak of how lucky I have been to have known them. My world is now filled with more rainbows than dark clouds. I have more energy for dealing with the inevitable worries and tragedies that come my way.

I still know that I can petition God for favors if need be. I understand that my requests may not always be fulfilled in the ways that I had hoped. I have learned over a lifetime that I don’t always get what I want, but sometimes I get what I need. I thank God just for being around to hear my complaints and my pleas. Then I move forward with thankfulness. 

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Anyone Can Do It!

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In all of my years of teaching mathematics the refrain that heard most often was, “I’m no good at math.” My job became to convince my students that anybody has the ability to learn the algorithms and fundamentals of math given a willingness to invest time and effort.

We all know someone who has a natural ability with all things mathematical. In my own case it wasn’t me. It was my brother. I had to go home from school each evening with my math book and my notes and work through problems until a light bulb lit up inside my brain. Sometimes that took just a few minutes and other times it took a couple of hours, but in the end I mastered one concept after another.

Most of my students have insisted that it is impossible to study for a math test. They are accustomed to memorizing facts for their liberal arts classes and they tell me that one will never know what problems will be on the quiz. Therefore they assume that working sample problems is fruitless, but I insist that it really helps. Just as doing reps in the various sports generally brings about improvement in muscle memory, so too does practicing mathematical ideas help imprint problem solving methods on the mind.

It took me several years before I understood the value of homework in math. I used to grudgingly do the problems as quickly as possible and I was unwilling to ask questions about things that I did not comprehend lest I be regarded as being not so bright. I was literally in college before I understood the value of asking my professors for help. I not only became more enlightened, but I also became known by them which was a big plus in my large university. I encourage anyone who is struggling with anything, particularly mathematics, to take full advantage of tutoring opportunities with teachers. It is one of the keys to mastering skills that may at first seem far too difficult.

I like to think that my own struggles with mathematics in my early years led me to being a better and more understanding teacher. I know how it feels to read a word problem and draw a complete blank. I recall tearful sessions with my mother after school when I would insist that I was never going to be good at solving problems. She taught me how to first work with the words, taking them apart enough to discover what I was being asked, and then applying the knowledge that I had learned. With pictures, highlighters and diagrams I now find that I am able to tackle any challenge, but it wasn’t so until I followed my mom’s advice.

I have a granddaughter who used to think of herself as being a bit slow on the uptake when it came to math. It bothered her that her brother never seems to have a problem to immediately understand even the most difficult concepts. She and I talked for a long while about my own struggles when I was her age, and she took my advice regarding the value of hard work in mastering her math lessons. Last year she was anxious about the end of course Algebra I exam that she would have to take. She spent hours studying definitions, processes and different types of problems. Whenever she came up with an incorrect answer she found out why and then worked dozens more until she was consistently getting the correct answers. In the end she received one of the highest scores in her class, but more importantly she learned that it is not only possible to study mathematics, but preferable indeed.

Confidence is usually the element that is missing whenever a student who is bright in every other way does poorly in math. At some point in time he/she has become convinced that it is useless to even try. Such students truly believe that they are missing some gene that would allow them to do better. They take tests feeling defeated before they have even lifted their pencils. It’s up to their parents and teachers to help them to find the good feelings that they need to do well with mathematics, and to show them how to work hard to get there. That means eschewing a temptation to tell the young ones that they come by their dread of mathematics naturally because difficulty with math runs in the family. There is little worse than instilling such fear.

We have to be certain not to create self fulfilling prophecies in our young. It is possible to master mathematics slowly but surely and often with a great deal of work. It is no different than practicing a butterfly stroke or learning a new techniques for drawing. It takes patience and determination in some cases, but it can be done. I have watched hundreds of my students become adept in a subject that had previously been terrifying for them. My job was not to trick them, but to show them the way.

The best mathematics teachers that I have known all rejoice when someone who has struggled finds the light. There is no better feeling. If I were able to accomplish one thing in my lifetime it would be to replace comments like “This is too hard. I can’t do it. I’ve always been terrible in math.” with ideas that speak to the value of practice, asking questions and being positive. One day I hope to hear more of “I don’t get it now, but I know I will. I know that anyone can do it.”   

Share the Love

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A little boy named Austin Perine has captured the hearts of our nation. He’s an adorable tyke who was recently featured on CBS news because he saves his money to purchase food and drink for homeless people. He wears a red cape and a blue tee shirt emblazoned with the words Share Love when he is carrying out his mission of mercy. To say that he is absolutely precious is an understatement. He has brought smiles and hope to countless individuals in Birmingham, Alabama and now Facebook is abuzz with his delightful story.

Austin is a sweet boy who says that he one day wants to be President Austin so that he might help even more people. I suspect that he is well on his way to at the very least becoming a remarkable adult. While he may have been born with a gentle nature, the truth is that his generosity most likely comes from the lessons he has learned from the adults in his life. It is a fact that those of us who are older teach and mold the little ones that we encounter. Barring some kind of mental illness, most children bloom and blossom under the care of good people. Sadly children are also sometimes destroyed by abuse both emotional and physical. Just as Austin will probably one day be a great man because of the loving and positive influences in his life, so too will children living in an environment of hate and hurt often become the next perpetrators of violence and ugly thought.

While nothing is ever certain, a child’s environment at the earliest ages is a powerful force that is very difficult to change once it has become the model. Certainly history and literature are filled with stories of people who found their way out of horrific situations, and most of us know someone who through sheer will has been able to change the direction of his/her life. No human is automatically condemned to following the damaging ways of bad parents, but freeing oneself from such influences is perhaps the most difficult behavior imaginable. Relatives, neighbors, teachers, friends, ministers all have opportunities to help those who are attempting to overcome abuses and corrupted thinking. We never really know when we might be just the spark to foment positive change in someone who wants to be a better person.

I tend to study abusive behaviors and ask myself what may have happened to a person to make them so mean. I recall one of my students who was arrogant, abrasive and seemingly unwilling to conform to societal rules. Conferences with his mother revealed that she and her husband were actually afraid to sleep at night lest he kill them while they slumbered. Still she loved her boy and simply did not know how he became the way that he was.

I subsequently had a long conversation with the young man. As I listened I found a tale of a tortured soul. His mom had been extremely young when he was born and unmarried as well. She had little desire to devote her life to him at the time and so she left him with her own parents and went about growing up. The boy’s days with his grandparents were idyllic. He spoke of living on a farm with them and learning how to care for animals and grow crops alongside his grandfather. His grandmother adored him and taught him to love God and all people. He was incredibly happy and had little desire to live any other way, but fate was not so good to him. First his grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack and as the boy told it, this was the worst day of his life.

He would listen to his grandmother crying at night and he so wanted to console her but didn’t know how. He was as frightened as she was, but somehow the two of them found a way to carry on until his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. She very quickly fell into a state of weakness that kept her in bed on most days. She died within months, leaving the boy to an uncertain future.

His mom came to care for him. She had matured by then and realized that she loved her child and wanted to make a good life for him. It was quite an adjustment because he had to move from the farm to an apartment in a bad part of a city. At first everything was great between his mother and him, but then she met a man that she thought she loved. He moved in with them and was actually fairly nice at first. but before long he was beating both the boy and his mom. Life became hellish as he cowered in his room fearing that one of them might one day be murdered by the tyrant. For whatever reason his mother failed to protect either him or herself, so he learned how to fight back. He became strong, unwilling to back down when the man became enraged.

By the time the boy’s mother finally found a way for them to escape from the monster with whom they had been living the boy was completely changed. He felt alone and even unwanted. He vowed never again to let anyone hurt him either physically or emotionally. That meant building a wall around his heart, even with his mom.

After a time his mother found a very nice man to love. She hoped that things would change for the better, but the boy had lost his willingness to trust anyone. He was still angry that God had taken his grandparents. He was angry that his mother had once given him away. He was angry that his mom had waited so long to defend him from the harm of the man she had brought into their lives. Even though the new “father” was always kind and loving, the boy believed that one day it would all fall apart, and so he would not allow his anger to subside.

Because I listened and because I understood, the boy began to do well in my class, but he literally gave hell to other teachers. Before long his actions had become so egregious that he was expelled. He came to may classroom to say goodbye. He was crying, his wall completely gone. All he really wanted was to be able to believe once again that someone loved him. I told him that I did and that I furthermore believed that his mother did as well. I urged him to make peace with her and his stepdad who was genuinely concerned. I promised him that I would pray for him and never ever forget him. I have kept my word, but I worry about him and wonder what ultimately became of him. I hope that he remembered just enough from his grandparents to feel good about people once again. I wanted so much to be the spark that may have helped him, but I also understood that he had so much baggage that might never be undone.

There are very good souls in our midst like Austin Perine. He is sharing the love that he himself has known. Follow his example and share yours.

So Beautiful To Me

pexels-photo-658687.jpeg“She woke up every morning with the option of being anyone she wished. How beautiful it was that she always chose herself.” —-Unknown

I was a gangly, awkward girl all the way through high school, so shy that I often hid in the library pretending to do homework so I wouldn’t have to mix it up with my fellow classmates in the cafeteria each morning. I often found myself wishing that I was more like this girl or that. There was the beautiful young woman with that almost electric smile, the sweet person who was able to talk with anyone. All of them had something that I wanted and thought that I would never have, a car, a boyfriend, tons of confidence. I was a mound of teenage angst, and all the while so was everyone else but I had little idea that they were as confused and self conscious as I was.

Ultimately I grew up, literally overnight. When my mother had her first and scariest mental breakdown I found myself mostly on my own in finding her the care that she needed. My love for her was so strong that I was able to pull strength from deep inside my mind that I never thought that I had. At first I simply copied the attitudes of the women that I knew and admired for their courage. Eventually muscle memory trained from encounters with doctors and bankers and such transformed me into my own person. I no longer needed to pretend to be someone. I knew that I was someone.

I met a married a remarkable man who loved to tell the story of how he was “thunder struck” from the moment that he first saw me. He became my best friend and my muse. He thought that I was beautiful just as I was and that even my imperfections were made me unique. I was hardly the kind of person who would turn heads in a room full of people, but he convinced me that loveliness begins from inside and radiates outward with little relationship to external features. It is an aura derived from depth of character and inner determination to live life with joy.

I vividly recall the very day when I totally embraced and chose myself. It had started with an unremarkable daily routine of washing my face and brushing my teeth. I was in the process of hopelessly attempting to tame my fine fly away hair when I caught a unique glimpse of my image in the mirror. It was as though I was seeing myself with a new set of eyes, and I realized how much I liked me. I smiled at the realization that even if I had the option of being anyone I wished, I would choose myself. It was a stunning moment that transformed me forevermore. It was as though I had unlocked the power that had always been there, but I had never before realized.

Over time I worked with young adolescents in middle schools and high schools. I saw their unsteadiness firsthand, and understood that even the most self assured among them was in truth filled with self doubts and sometimes even self loathing. Trying to fit into our own skin is a painful developmental process that takes as much time to achieve as physical or academic growth. Researchers into such things now know that our brains are not fully developed until well into our twenties and even then some of us take a bit longer. Just as babies meet their milestones at varying ages, so too do we adults find and believe in ourselves at different times of life. Sadly there are those who sometimes never reach a point of fully appreciating their own essences.

Of course it is in our natures to question ourselves from time to time. The stresses of living bear down on us and cause us to become dissatisfied. We look over our fences and invariably find grass that is greener than ours. There is always someone who ages more gracefully, drives a better car, lives in a more exclusive neighborhood, earns more money. If we spend a lifetime of comparing we are continually wishing to be someone other than ourselves. We never quite reach that joyful moment of truly liking ourselves and wanting to be no other, or we interrupt our contentment with waves of jealousy.

I once read a book whose title now eludes me that posited a theory that even if we were to have multiple opportunities to think and act in ways other than the ones that we initially chose we would in all probability react to various people and events in much the same way. In other words we each view the world based on our genetics and environmental realities, and those factors guide our thinking through a series of motions and emotions that slowly but surely teach us how to be. We become ourselves through trial and error, and hopefully learn to accept ourselves with whatever strengths and weaknesses we may have. As mature adults we work with what we have to make the changes that we desire. We learn to use our best traits not so much to make ourselves more attractive, but to better the world around us. The most lovely among us are those who have been able to think less about how they may appear and more about how to help the people they encounter.

I now enjoy and embrace the opportunities to be with the individuals who once walked the halls of my high school with me. We have all grown older and wiser and far more beautiful than ever before. Our thoughts are not of who seems to have done the best, but simply of each other’s welfare. We know and like who we are as individuals and we revel in the well being of every member of our group. Looking back we are able to see that our blessings have outweighed our trials. All of us know that our thinning hair and expanding waists do not define us. The wrinkles on our faces and wear and tear on our hands are badges of honor, bearing witness to our hard work and compassion. The mistakes we have made attest to our adventurous spirits. We smile at the images in the mirror without seeing the flaws or wishing that it were that of someone else. It is beautiful to choose ourselves.

Yesterday Today and Tomorrow

default-1464355425-834-scientists-believe-they-have-explained-the-great-flu-outbreak-of-1918A hundred years ago in the fall of 1918, there were many who seriously wondered if the world was coming to an end.  A great war was still raging in Europe and decimating the young male population. Across the globe there was unrest and a general feeling that life would never be quite the same again. The worst surprise of that autumn was to come in the form of a tiny virus not yet visible to the human eye with the microscopes of the day. It would lead to an outbreak of influenza that eventually killed as many as five million people worldwide and hundreds of thousands in the United States. One sneeze from an infected person had the potential to infect ten thousand, and for a time nobody knew what to do.

It appears to have begun at a military base in Kansas where it was first thought to be little more than the typical seasonal outbreak of illness. It soon became apparent that the new strain was unlike anything doctors and biologists had ever before seen. It started with coughing and a fever that quickly grew ever more severe. It filled the lungs of the ill with so much fluid that they literally drowned. Before long there were not enough beds or doctors for the affected, and not enough coffins for those who died. During the months of September and October of that year the disease spread like wildfire, sparking dire accusations that the Germans had somehow planted germs in the bodies of soldiers fighting in the trenches. The fact that German troops were just as susceptible to the sickness did not allay the fears of those who were losing loved ones and friends so rapidly that it felt as though there was nothing that was going to stop the rampage of death.

More American citizens died during those weeks than in all of the wars of the twentieth century, and yet there was no cure, no idea of what the cause might be. For some reason the virus was more likely to spare the very young and old, but was most deadly for strong and healthy adults in their twenties and thirties. It would be years later before researchers found the virus that had wreaked such havoc on the population, and began to understand that the sickness had burned itself out when those who survived became immune without any form of medical assistance. Our understanding of such diseases grew over time, but always there continues to be a silent fear that something similar may one day return to infect humanity like a plague.

I had never heard about the horrific influenza of 1918, until I read a book shared by my daughter. She is a nurse and science teacher who has a great deal of interest in such things, and she thought that I might find the topic interesting as well. I was stunned to learn about the horrific events and to realize that none of the older people I had known who would have been young adults during that period had ever mentioned the event. I was particularly surprised that my grandfather who was well known for his vivid stories of the past had not brought up the topic. Since I was unaware of that part of history I had not known to quiz him about what he remembered regarding that sad chapter, and so I was not privy to his eye witness account.

Historians conjecture that this particular episode must have been so personally horrific that those who had endured it did not want to speak of it again. Perhaps it was the impetus for the roaring liveliness of the twenties when people appeared to throw all caution to the wind. Living through such tragedy must have caused people to view the world much differently than they otherwise might have. Most certainly they would have wanted to blunt the memories that must have been quite horrific. When the next decade of frivolity was followed by a worldwide depression and eventually another war, the personal stories of illness and death might have seemed trivial to them by comparison. In truth, they would have been right to wonder if the bad news would ever stop, and when it finally did they most probably decided never to speak of it again.

My father-in-law served in Korea during the war there. He has only mentioned what he saw there once in all of the years that I have known him. His eyes filled with tears as he recounted his experience and his voice was shaky. It was much too painful a memory for him to think about for very long. I have noticed that my uncles who fought during World War II were just as reluctant to share stories of their adventures as were my peers who fought in Vietnam. I suppose that there are events that are so horrible that we prefer to bury the thoughts of them deep within our psyches. It is simply too much to dwell on them for very long. 

I suspect that those who were witness to the 1918 influenza epidemic simply did not want to speak of the unspeakable. They lost loved ones and friends in a matter of days and weeks. They worried that the horror might return at any moment. To dwell on their heartbreak and fears would have been unbearable and so they did not include mention of the outbreak in their tales of living. The story languished until curious souls began to ferret out the details and bring them to light once again. What is a curiosity for those of us removed by a hundred years was all too real for those who were there when it happened.

Each generation has its share of tragedy. For those of us who grew up just after World War II the events etched permanently inside our brains include the good, the bad and the ugly. We recall with clarity exactly where we were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It pains us to think of the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy that made is wonder if anarchy was going to rule the day. Many of have personal tragedies that affected us as well, the death of a father or hearing that a friend was killed in Vietnam. We smile when when we think of the first man to walk on the moon, and recoil at the vision of the twin towers in New York City falling like toy constructions before our eyes. These things affect us and change us and our ways of viewing the world, but we don’t often speak of them because the thoughts associated with them are too powerful and emotional. I suppose that the reality is that no matter how conversant we are there are no words sufficient to describe such things, and so we are silent just as my grandparents were about so much of the history that affected them.

Today we have new worries, but mostly go about our business hoping and praying that none of our biggest concerns will ever take place. Our natures compel us to be optimistic and to carry on even when situations seem dire. Like Scarlett O’Hara we believe that tomorrow will be a better day and we concentrate our thinking on the future rather than the past and the present. It’s how we survive. Still, there is something so fascinating about events like the influenza epidemic of 1918, that we can’t avert our gaze. We have to look if only for a moment so that we might remember that we are not immune to the same kinds of heartbreaking situations that plagued our ancestors. We are as human as they were, and we can only hope that when faced with tragedy we will respond well and not be judged too harshly for any mistakes that we make.

It’s all too easy to form opinions of what might have or should have happened. but we will never know what we might actually have done if we had faced similar hardships. It must have been a dark time, but somehow those who came before us found a way to keep moving forward without focusing too much on a past that they could not change. Perhaps we might learn from them and embrace each new day as an opportunity rather than dwelling on the heartache of the past. Yesterday is gone, today is an opportunity, and tomorrow allows us to repair any mistakes we have made. It’s the cycle that keeps the story of humanity alive.