Decency

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I was a young twenty something when Richard Nixon was president. I never liked the man, and used my vote to register my contempt. My emotions toward him were admittedly base and immature. I’d flinch at the very sight of him, and I managed to extend my dislike to his wife and children. I realize now that my disdain was often irrational because in retrospect I have taken the time to learn more about him and his time as the president. In that study I see that he actually did some very good things for the country, but back in the day he could do nothing right in my eyes. I even cringed when one of my favorite entertainers, Sammy Davis, Jr., supported him.

I watched the Watergate investigation with a certain level of glee and celebrated Nixon’s darkest hour when he was forced to resign his office. I watched him leave the White House will nothing less than exuberant self satisfaction. In my mind he had earned his  too long in coming humiliation. I gladly wiped him out of my mind and was overjoyed that he decided to live out the rest of his life rather quietly out of the public eye. I had no desire to hear from him again.

When Richard Nixon died it was a newsworthy event in spite of his transgressions. The airwaves were filled with images of people honoring him and his family. Being a person who is interested in such things from an historical perspective I watched the proceedings with little emotional attachment. After all, this was a man whom I had never liked even though the passage of time had warmed my heart to him a bit more than when I was still a very young adult. Nonetheless, I recall feeling disgusted when I witnessed one of Nixon’s long time friends and allies breaking down in a fit of emotion and tears at the funeral. I sarcastically poked fun of the man only to be chastised by my husband Mike in a manner that he rarely uses with me. He derided me for lacking sensibility at such an emotional time. “His friend has died!” he reminded me. “Show some compassion for the people who have lost someone that they love.”

I was shocked because Mike had never been a Nixon fan either, but I understood in that moment that I was exhibiting a lack of basic decency. There are lines of decorum that just don’t need to be crossed, and I had gone too far in my criticism of Nixon with my churlish commentary. He was dead and the funeral was a time for those who genuinely loved and respected him to demonstrate their feelings. After all, his daughters insist to this very day that he was always good father. Friends admired him and loved him. Who was I to poke fun at their genuine emotions?

I am still not a fan of President Nixon, but I have studied him and his administration enough to understand that while he had many imperfections he also did some very good things. His insecurities and fears ended up ruining his reputation, but he was more of a tragic figure in the Shakespearean sense than a truly evil man. There were very good things that he did like opening up relations with China and brokering peace in the Middle East. In fact it was he who ended the Vietnam War that I so loathed. As a young person I was far too generally incensed to take the time to parse his good traits and separate them out from his bad. In the end he allowed his own demons to overtake his reason, but that did not make him a totally evil man in the sense that I judged him back then. He was merely a human filled with both good instincts and glaring imperfections.

I’ve thought about the intemperate insults that I hurled at the people who were grieving the loss of President Nixon as I’ve listened to the immature and unnecessary rantings of President Trump regarding John McCain. While I too have been guilty of hyperbolic criticism of people I would like to think that those in high office might be more circumspect in their utterances, particularly once a person is dead. At this point there is little reason for Trump to continue to stew over the differences that he and Senator McCain had. If nothing else a sense of decency should lead him to let go of his anger.

Sadly our nation is engaged in a long winded and petty brawl in which anyone is fair game for insults and jibes. Almost every politician is sorted and categorized into narrow estimations of character that mark him/her as good or bad depending on point of view. There is no room for considerations of the continuum of reality in which we all exist. In truth the idea of either totally vilifying or adoring any individual is absurd, and leads to illogical assessments of important decisions. It might be a natural trait of exuberant youth to be more emotion driven, but we all need to grow up at some point and learn how to think without melodramatic outbursts. Right now those who show moderation are often thought to be without ideals, and yet it is likely that they are the true adults in the room. Perhaps that is why someone like Senator John McCain is a conundrum not just to President Trump but to most democrats as well. He was a man who considered each issue on its own merits, not from the perspective of a set of values frozen in concrete.

It was once said of me that I am capable of finding good in everyone, even an evil person like Charles Manson. That is indeed true of me because I have learned that every person who lives is an amalgam of both good and bad. Some learn how to tame their ill natured tendencies and others are defined by them. Perhaps the route that each of us follows is formed by the ways in which people see us and we then see ourselves. Our humanity is complex and who we ultimately become as individuals is determined by a million different things. Perhaps the good in us wins out because people are willing to see it, just as the bad sometimes seizes the day because our negative traits are the only things that define us in people’s eyes. 

If we have any hope of being a nation of integrity, then we must begin to publicly acknowledge good acts when we see them regardless of who is performing them. We need to stop the practice of turning people into incomplete caricatures of themselves, and instead admit to both their positive traits and their flaws. It would also do us well to return to adherence to a bit of decency befitting of logic and compassion.      

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Inspiration

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I just got around to viewing First Man and I was once again reminded of what an incredible feat the journey to the moon actually was. The movie highlighted the primitive nature of the systems that existed back then making the accomplishment even more impressive than any of us imagined at the time. The movie’s focus was on Neal Armstrong so it almost minimized the efforts of thousands of individuals who made the event possible, and it gave only a brief nod to President Kennedy’s role in supporting the program and inspiring to help in the effort. In truth it was his leadership that created a sense of purpose and urgency to the idea of traveling to the moon.

John Kennedy had a way with words, or at least his speechwriters did. His talent was delivering them in such a way that we all wanted to get onboard with his ideas. He united most of us in realizing that we had the brains and the wherewithal to get the job done. He created a lovely picture of what such an accomplishment would be, and he challenged us to support the journey. In that regard he was a true leader, someone who garnered enthusiasm for a cause without denigrating those who were a bit wary. He made it seem patriotic and wonderful, and remarkable individuals like the astronauts reinforced his thoughts. They were men of high character and intelligence who had served their country and were willing to possibly sacrifice their lives for a lofty goal. That was the real beauty of Kennedy’s ability to rally all of us.

When Neal Armstrong stepped on the moon in July of 1969, John Kennedy was long dead but those of us who had heard his clarion call for the space program understood that he was in many ways the founder of the celebration. The whole world watched those grainy images with a sense of awe, and those of us in the United States felt great pride in the remarkable accomplishment. We knew that some of the best minds in the country had worked long and hard to accomplish the unbelievable. We celebrated not just Neal Armstrong and his crew, but also the best of mankind’s determination and abilities. We remembered with reverence John Kennedy’s words that first inspired us to believe that the impossible was truly possible.

I think of challenges that we have today and I realize that what is lacking is a brilliant leader with the ability to bring us together in common cause. Winston Churchill was able to do this for his country in one of the darkest hours of Great Britain. Franklin Roosevelt kept the people of the United States utterly devoted to the cause of bringing freedom and peace to a warring world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the plight of Blacks in our country into crystal clear focus and brokered change without violence or threats. Then there was Abraham Lincoln who desperately worked to keep the country together and to right the wrongs of the past. Each of these individuals had a gift, an ability to describe a brilliant future with stirring words and practical plans. Sadly today’s revolutionary ideas are being voiced in such a way as to alienate half of the population.

Our leaders are not only at odds with each other but at odds with huge swathes of the citizenry. They patronize us by insinuating that we are not capable of taking care of ourselves, so they must do the job for us. In their quests to push their plans forward they demand and foment fear rather than inspire. Whether speaking of the need for a border wall or ways to deal with climate change they use scare tactics and hurl insults at anyone who dares to disagree with them. They seem to be urging us to go their way or take the highway. This is hardly the way to take care of problems if the great leaders of the past are any indication.

I’m a believer that we do indeed need to address climate change but I also feel that we need to do so with a realistic goal in mind. To simply say that we have to completely wean ourselves from fossil fuels without actually having an idea of how to do that other than vague outlines is frightening. People have hundreds of questions that are either being ridiculed or ignored. I find myself feeling like the boy who noticed that the emperor was stark naked while the rest of the crowd acted as though they did not see the problem. We have to consider the consequences both intended and unintended of any actions that we choose to take or not take. That only makes sense. To rally behind either the climate change deniers or those with militant half baked ideas its the wrong course to take. Sadly our leaders are lining up behind one faction or another without steering us in a clear path and making us part of the solution process. We have to understand that rushing headlong into a brave new world is frightening for most people. There is a way to get things done one step at a time without throwing away our way of life. We just have to provide realistic alternatives that may actually work and then get the populace on board by explaining rather than lecturing.

Our young have always been impatient and revolutionary. It was young men who designed our country’s government, but their radical enthusiasm was often tempered by those who understood the need for a bit of caution. Our history is one of moving incrementally toward positive change with a few instances of exponential bursts led by extraordinary people who understood how to help people understand both the problems and solutions without patronizing or ignoring or insulting.

We can keep our union, fight a war for all humanity, bring justice to forgotten people and send a man to the moon. We are not afraid of a cause, but we need a leader who knows how to help us understand our individual roles in the solutions. It has been done before. Perhaps now more than ever we must search for the person who works for the good of all mankind, not just a select group that already agrees with all that they have to say. So far I don’t see such a person on the horizon, but surely there is someone and hopefully he or she will step forward.

A Hard Headed Bunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hypocrisy

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Sunday’s readings at church spoke of those who are hypocrites in their judging of others. It admonished each of us to first consider our own shortcomings before pointing out those of the people around us. The word “hypocrite” comes from a Greek word meaning actor. In other words hypocrisy involves pretense, an attempt to show ourselves to be better than we actually are. In today’s world hypocrisy abounds, particularly in the political world. There’s more self-righteousness and judging in society at large than happens inside a county courthouse. Indignation abounds and most of those who participate in such behavior seem to believe that they have the answers to every problem and that those who disagree with them are evil doers who must be stopped. It’s enough to drive one a bit crazy.

While there are times when we must come to a consensus regarding someone’s guilt or innocence most of the time the conclusions that we draw about others are faulty estimates of petty grievances at best. We form instantaneous opinions about all sorts of situations, and don’t spend much time attempting to find the truth or concentrate on excising our own flaws. We see a photo of a teenager looking ominous in a hoodie and wonder what mischief lurks inside his soul. We catch a glimpse of a boy wearing a MAGA cap and what appears to be a smirk and instantly decide that he must be cold hearted and racist.

I remember meeting a man who had a shaved head, very pale skin and a kind of grimace on his face. Without knowing one iota about him I began imagining that he looked very much like a white supremacist. I felt uncomfortable around him and wanted to leave before getting past the introductions. Once I got to know him  I realized that nothing could have been farther from the truth than my initial observations. He was bald because he lost his hair at a early age, he just happened to have a very light complexion, and on the day that I met him he was in great pain because of an injury. Once I talked and worked with him I realized that he was kind and understanding and a staunch defender of the rights of all people. He was a truly wonderful man, and I felt embarrassed that I had been so quick to use a number of stereotypical signals to size him up.

I’ve sadly seen conclusions being drawn about individuals again and again, but even worse is when I see instances of people turning on former friends or even family members simply because they do not share the same beliefs about how to solve the problems that plague us. Often the two sides actually desire the same outcome, but have conflicting ideas about how to accomplish the goals. Examples of abound of such instances whether speaking of income inequality or immigration. The trouble with our present state is that we judge and judge again.

One the the things that most angers me is a kind of two headed monster. On the one hand there are devout Christians who spout hateful rhetoric, and on the other hand there are people pretending to be compassionate champions of justice who slam and poke fun Christian beliefs. Both parties are so busy being holier than thou that nobody appears to notice the contradictions in their arguments. They simply babble on hurling accusation after accusation all the while posing as defenders of righteousness. 

Today is Ash Wednesday in the Christian world. It’s the beginning of Lent and for the next forty days people will try to atone for their bad behavior. Many will pray or make sacrifices by giving up Facebook, or television or sugar. Few will consider engaging in self reflection and asking themselves whether or not they have been too quick to judge others. They will neglect to do the things necessary to first change themselves. The real challenge that we all face is to help even those who seem to be lacking in the characteristics that we most admire. The only way to do that is to first be honest about our own behavior.

Instead of casting stones we should be making stone soup, a savory brew made from the lovely variety of the people in our world. If we want to truly show that we are good we will be slow to anger and hypocrisy. We don’t need to beat ourselves up or wear hair shirts, but we can certainly learn to forgo our opinions until we have truly attempted to understand.

In anticipation of Lent I went to a Mardi Gras party hosted by my dear friends Dickie and
Tim in Galveston. We feasted on Dickie’s famous gumbo and imbibed in wine and hurricanes. We talked and laughed and then gathered on the street in front of the house to watch a parade with bands and floats and hundreds of people from every walk of life. There were smiles abounding and everyone loved everyone else in that moment with no thought of appraising appearance or behavior. It was just a nice celebration that made us all feel warm and happy. In many ways it was a reminder of how we should try to be all of the time, just enjoying the delight of life and taking those images to heart for when we need to refresh ourselves.

On this Ash Wednesday let’s do our best to look first in the mirror and then make a plan to spend the next forty days embracing the people that we encounter. Let’s try to wipe out our own hypocrisy and see if it helps others to work on theirs.

The Reckoning

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart

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There is a political fire storm raging in our country today over the question of when life begins. In  particular the crux of the argument is whether aborting a baby from the womb is murder or simply a form of birth control, a reasonable choice for women’s health. It has seemingly reached a tipping point in which each side is ferociously secure in its beliefs, certain that the other side is unfair and perhaps almost evil. It has become a bitter fight with so much conflicting rhetoric that it confuses those who heretofore paid little attention to the arguments and the legislation supporting them. At the heart of the furor is the question of the definition of life. It is in that complex consideration that the true meaning of abortion lies, and as of this moment the emotionally charged effect of the differing opinions does little to help us determine the moral path forward for our nation and our world. 

Like many Americans I waffle back and forth between the Pro Life and Pro Choice positions. I feel that I understand the considerations of each side and so I have tended toward the neutral stance of insisting that I would never have had an abortion because I do believe that it is murder, but if someone doesn’t think as I do it would be okay. I have been challenged by both Pro Life and Pro Choice individuals to take a stand, to quit be so wishy washy. Instead I have kept a quiet profile and chosen not to reveal what I truly believe. It has been a bit uncomfortable, but I have done so in the name of keeping the peace. After all, who really wants or needs to know what I think? Why should I rock the point? Whose mind am I going to change?

Suddenly I find myself feeling quite uncomfortable as the issue becomes more and more volatile. I don’t know exactly how to react because it all seems so personal, hinging on questions that can only be resolved in the individual heart. Then I think about certain generalizations that persist in our society, namely that murder is wrong and just because someone is able to justify it does not make it right. I ponder our history of slavery and wonder how many people kept quiet about its practice simply because they felt that it was none of their business and it was, after all, legal. I worry that I’m mostly afraid of being ostracized if I state my true feelings, and my peacemaker personality urges me to remain silent.

Then I recall an incident from my young adult life when a large group of us looked on in horror waiting for the police to arrive while a man was mercilessly beating his wife. His children were screaming for help and yet we were frozen in a kind of fear of doing what we knew to be right. It took a “ good ole gal” from Buffalo, New York to show us what courage really is. She marched past us and forced her way into the apartment to rescue the tiny children and their mother. I still recall the feelings of guilt that I felt for having been such a coward while also being struck with awe over the woman’s courage.

I find myself wondering if the time has come for each of us to step forward to do what we believe to be the right thing. I worry that simply giving voice to our beliefs in the voting booth may not be enough to resolve this issue once and for all. I even consider that perhaps it is far too murky to ever find a clear cut solution. Still, it seems that those of us who are indeed part of the silent majority sitting on the sidelines must at some point come to grips and decide where we stand. Because my own feelings are so complex, I realize that finding the right path is going to be dangerously difficult.

I do believe that life begins at conception. To argue over life in terms of the ability of the fetus to survive without help is a convenient way of denying what I believe to be the truth. So I am one of those who believes that abortion is a form of murder. Nonetheless, I truly understand that as with anything there may be some extraordinary situations that require an abortion to save a mother’s life. Fortunately such incidents are rare, and generally approved by  both doctors and theologians. I learned in my religion classes of long ago that saving a mother is always tantamount to sacrificing her for a child.

I also understand that for whatever reason many very good women have had abortions. I view them with great compassion and understanding. I do not believe that they should be considered pariahs. In fact, I have a dear friend who has quite courageously admitted to having an abortion. She is openly discussing the many conflicting emotions that she felt both at the time and over the ensuing years. She now councils women who have walked in her shoes. She celebrates her own reconciliation and helps others to find theirs. My hesitation to go all in for the Pro Life positions lies in my own feelings for women who for whatever reason have taken this emotion charged step.

The key to the discussion lies not so much in judging decisions of the past but in moving forward into the future and doing the right thing. As with the issue of slavery we need to rid ourselves of a moral wrong, but we must not dwell incessantly on the past. We also need to carefully define those moments when abortion becomes a medical necessity for the safety of the woman. In addition, we have to take into account how to care for any children who are unwanted by being willing to foster or adopt them. We must support and provide forms of birth control that will be available to all women without extraordinary costs or sacrifices.

I do believe that each of us must look into our hearts and decide on this issue one way or another and be willing to stand for our convictions. We need not bring our differences to a warlike state, but instead demonstrate a willingness to understand the genuine feelings involved in the questions. We need to rid ourselves of insulting slogans and posters and silly hats of one sort or another and get down to the business of hearing and considering the merit of each argument. In the end our greatest treasure, our humanity, is at stake. I hope that we find a way to do the right thing. I believe that we may be at a watershed moment of reckoning. We may each find ourselves being called to task. It’s time.