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.

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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.

Ignoring the Distractions

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My foray into genealogy has provided me with a clearer understanding of the history of at least one branch of my family. My paternal grandmother was a Smith, descended from John William Seth Smith and Christina Rowsee. Her roots center on Kentucky, Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Despite the southern bent of her background she was not a child of Dixieland. In fact, her father was a soldier in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers. Still her hard scrabble story was typical of the people from those places who lived in an era during which life was often uncertain and harsh.

Grandma never had the time or the opportunity to take advantage of education, leaving her illiterate but not unwise. She possessed a folk knowledge and a strength that came from living in corners of the country that were often untouched by modernization. She embraced what she saw as her role in life, that of a partner in the daily contest for survival. Little in her life was easy, and yet she was a happy and content person, not out of ignorance but out of a feeling that she had enjoyed the fruits of progress in the march of time.

She reveled in the joy of knowing that her son had achieved levels of education and success that were beyond her dreams. She took pride in having plumbing and electricity in her home as she recalled times when such things were yet to become the norm. She took little for granted and was a model of thrift even going so far as to make clothing out of the flour sacks that held the lovely white ingredient for her biscuits and pies. She was a woman who straddled the agrarian society of her birth and the industrialized wonder of her later years, and she marveled at the glory of it all.

I try to imagine the kind of life that she and those who came before her must have led. I recall so well her folksy manner of expressing herself that seemed quaint and of another time even in the early nineteen sixties. Memories of her ways have become for me a kind of link to her parents and how they must have talked and believed. I witnessed the hint of her Kentucky background even though she never actually lived there. Like the earnest and hard working folk who struggle to this very day in that part of the country, she was never afraid of long days filled with sacrifices and back breaking labor. She was a survivor, someone who gallantly faced whatever came her way with determination and a sense of wonder, but still she worried. It was as though she understood all too well the fragility of life. She knew how quickly all for which she had worked might go away.

Kentucky has been in the news of late with sweeping generalizations about its nature as a state. We’ve been hopelessly focused on an event in which nothing really happened until our collective anger and beliefs set our discourse on fire. We’ve aligned ourselves with one side or another without actually knowing anything about the players in this farcical debacle. We’ve drawn conclusions and made judgements based on soundbites of a few seconds and photographs taken out of context. In an instant we’ve turned on a group of young boys and even more so on each other. Our outrage and indignation has occupied our thoughts for days which is ironic given that if we want to focus on Kentucky there is a far graver issue of which we barely speak.

Much of the state of Kentucky is reliant on coal mining, an industry that is slowly dying and causing its workers to die as well. Entire generations of people have worked in the dark cramped caves filled with dust that invades their lungs and quietly begins to ravage their bodies. We have eagerly taken that coal to run our electrical plants. Coal has fueled the very progress that so awed my grandmother. It has kept the northern climes warm in the dead of winter. We have given little thought to the price of our modernization. We don’t worry much about the people who have been left to face harsh economic times and even worse medical problems that are decimating young men who never realized what the act of working each day would do to them.

The real tragedy related to Kentucky has nothing to do with a few teenagers who may or may not have reacted well to a supercharged situation. It is instead to be found in the towns where the mines and the factories have become empty shells. It is to be witnessed in the rising numbers of people with are literally suffocating as they attempt to breathe with their damaged lungs. The fact that we are not outraged for them on a national level speaks to the twisted ways in which we find ourselves viewing the world these days. We have somehow got it wrong all the way around as we quibble over nothing while real problems fester.

My great grandfather who served in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers was sick and tired after the Civil War. He eventually hid himself away in the remote forests of Arkansas where he quietly tended his land. He had seen and buried the dead at Shiloh. He must have understood the horrors that come when we lose our way in anger. I suspect that if he had the chance he would caution us to calm down and strive for more understanding and compassion.

We are all far more complex than the sides that we choose, the uniforms that we wear, the work that we do, the places where we live. Life is a continuum, a marathon, an opportunity. It’s time that we once again learn how to move forward from our mistakes and agree to disagree now and again without pushing each other away. There are very real problems that we must tackle, and none of that will happen when we are distracted and filled with anger. It’s past time to prioritize. There are coal miners needing our help, young people watching to see how we guide them, issues crying for our attention. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and reach across the chasms.

In Search of Morality

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What kind of person do we most admire, someone who possesses sterling character traits or an individual who gets things done no matter what? It’s an important questions with repercussions as to how we decide to raise our children, what kinds of bosses we want to have, and the direction that we wish to traverse in our personal and public lives. At first glance our instincts tell us that it’s a no brainer to assume that we all most likely prefer persons who possess the kinds of qualities that we associate with good values, but if we think just a bit it occurs to us that sometimes those kinds of folks are often overcome by thuggish and rude bullies who demand their way or the highway. If we have a particular goal in mind we may find ourselves leaning toward the pushy sort rather than someone who is kind and soft spoken. We actually bend our own rules in favor of action.

I once worked for an organization lead by a charismatic individual whose style was boastful and audacious. He had a very bad habit of verbally deriding his supervisors and workers on a regular basis. Ironically he demanded a host of positive character traits from his employees including loyalty and compassion when he rarely demonstrated the same qualities in his dealings. The turnover among those who worked for him was enormous because he was known for delivering regular verbal tongue lashings. Surprisingly his business thrived even as his reputation as a tyrant became legendary. The irony was that he pushed his way to success on the backs of very kind people that he had chosen to fill the jobs that he had. While I despised his tactics, I had a certain level of admiration for his accomplishments. I began to understand that we sometimes need different skill sets in the various situation that we encounter, but it worried me that we accepted his brutality.

That being said, I have also worked for exceptional persons who were able to combine a tough will with an accommodating personality. These men and women were known for being competent leaders who always succeeded while also being pillars of all of the positive character traits that society treasures. They led by example and viewed themselves as motivators and coaches training the next generation of executives. They were kind, trustworthy and understanding. Going to work for them each day was a pleasurable experience. Most of us toiled just a bit harder than we might have out of respect for them. They often exceeded goals and expectations without ever demeaning even those who had made mistakes. They behaved like the patriarchs and matriarchs of a big happy family.

In poll after poll whether it be with ordinary citizens or historians the most admired President of the United States for all time is invariably George Washington with Abraham Lincoln coming in a close second. What these two illustrious men shared was an unimpeachable character. They were strong and courageous, but also steadfast in being the best sort of people. Of course neither man was perfect, nobody among us ever is, but they followed a code of conduct that was based on respect and honor. Both men did their best to form decisions based on the good of the country rather than what may have personally made them more powerful. George Washington in particular decried the very thought of being referred to with the salutations associated with royalty. He wanted the presidency to be a position by and for the people, not some exalted throne of power. He even insisted on limiting his time in office lest a precedent of unending authority be set. He was essentially a good and wise man who understood that our president was in essence a servant of the people.

Throughout history we have seen bullies devoid of motivations other than personal aggrandizement rule to the detriment of the common good. While they may have initially appeared to be saviors, the true natures of their goals inevitably became the ruination of the places that they governed. The glee with which they had once been viewed became desperation as a kind of rot overtook their every command. In truth while it takes a certain level of unfettered strength and audacity to be a leader there must also be a foundation of goodness to guide the decisions. Flawed character ultimately leads to selfish acts that destroy everyone in their paths.

As parents, educators, teachers, adults it is up to us to demonstrate the importance of morality to our young. We must always realize that when we preach one set of ideals but live by another our children notice and become confused. They may appear to be distracted by play and the trappings of childhood, but in reality they are always watching and learning from us. If we truly value certain character traits and want to instill them in our young then we must do our best to regularly follow them. Turning a blind eye to bad behaviors simply because doing so gives us something that we desire leads both us and our youth down a slippery slope from which we may one day find ourselves struggling to escape.

There are indeed truly good people who combine the very best of the qualities that we humans most admire. They know when and how to be tough, but also demonstrate compassion and flexibility. They are the true leaders, the ones whom we cherish and attempt to emulate. It’s time that we begin searching for such people in our midst and cast aside the crooks and bullies and rude and unethical people who seem to be so in vogue these days. The future of who our children is ultimately riding on our decisions.