Better Angels

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I’m not one to advocate fighting, especially among family and friends. A colleague once told me that I would probably be able to find something good about anyone, including Charles Manson. I suppose that I am the way I am because I so value life, and believe that each of us has the potential for great good. Nonetheless we are also imperfect, and I try to remind myself that I do not have all of the answers and neither does anyone else. Our humanity leads us in many different directions, and often it is only in retrospect that we are able to determine whether or not we have always chosen the best pathways for living. Each of us is so complex as is the world in which we live as well as the long history of mankind. I feel that we must be far kinder and less judgmental that we often are. Somehow of late we have become a very divided nation with each side virtue shaming the other. The rancor that I see is toxic, and even more troubling is that all too often anyone who attempts to bridge the ever growing gaps is viewed as lacking in values.

Mark Twain once said something to the effect that the two most important moments in a person’s life are when he/she is born and when he/she discovers why. I love the idea that each of us has a purpose, and firmly believe that it often takes us a very long time to know what that may be. In my own case I suspect that my suffering has lead me to be far more understanding and compassionate than I might otherwise have been. Losing my father taught me how fragile life truly is. My mother’s mental illness showed me that each of us has a kind of brokenness, some more severe than others. I learned to embrace people just as they are, not as I wish them to be. I have been humbled by the realization of my own imperfections. I have embraced the power of listening to each person’s story and learning from what I have heard. History speaks to the truth that humankind has struggled for centuries to survive and to understand the world’s many mysteries. That epoch journey has been wrought with both failures and glorious successes. I suspect that if we were to analyze every single person who has ever lived we would find it to be true that even the most gloriously amazing individual still had a share of doubts and mistaken beliefs. It is who we are, and something that we seem to forget from time to time.

So here we in 2018 fighting like Cain and Abel all across the world, hurling invective at one another to the point of insisting that anyone who doesn’t agree with our opinions is no longer a friend. We are defensive and angry and unwilling to stop our ranting long enough to realize that as a nation we have become our own worst enemies. It seems as though the warnings that my seventh grade teacher proposed over five decades ago have come to pass, for she was prescient in urged us to be wary of the power of propaganda. She taught us how to watch for it, and insisted that it was all around us, even when it was not apparent. It was a shocking revelation, but one that I have never forgotten. I see its impact now more than ever before, and realize that we are being manipulated into turning on people that we once may have loved simply because their ideas do not conform with ours. It is a truly sad state of affairs and it has caused me to grieve and to feel a sense of desperation as I attempt to draw people that I know back together. The din of the rancor has become oppressive and I have worries about where it will eventually end that might never otherwise have occurred to me.

In the midst of the darkness I have discovered a small ray of hope. I have heard about a group called Better Angels, an organized effort to bring disparate forces together in a spirit of understanding. The idea behind the movement is to sponsor what are known as red and blue conversations between groups of Republicans and Democrats. Participants agree to discuss issues in a highly structured environment that focuses on listening. The gatherings are weighted equally with people from both sides of the political spectrum, and kept somewhat small so as to allow each person time to speak. Using a number of formal structures there is an agreed upon topic and the emphasis is on simply hearing each point of view. Only one person speaks while everyone silently considers what is being said. It is not a debate, but rather an opportunity to learn from one another. Nobody is allowed to speak out of turn or launch into heated arguments. It is a controlled and quiet attempt to find understanding, areas of common ground and possible solutions. Those who have participated have generally reported feeling enlightened and far more open to considering new ways of thinking. The system is so powerful that many teachers and university professors use it in their classrooms to invoke more critical thinking and less emotional argument.

I have personally participated in similar groups in past years. They were not affiliated with Better Angels but they were constructed in a similar manner. Generally there were a very small number of people in the groups and there was no effort to keep them balanced, but there was a very structured set of questions and rules for speaking about them within a limited amount of time. Usually one person served as a mediator who insured that everyone followed the rules. Such situations almost uniformly resulted in more listening than talking, serving to quiet the mind and open possibilities that had not previously been considered. They worked to build a sense of team and family even among very different individuals.

I believe that we have been approaching our shared problems in the wrong manner. We only hear what we wish to hear in an atmosphere of shouting and accusations. We align ourselves with like minded people and unfairly judge those with whom we disagree. We behave as though we have it all figured out when the truth is that every problem is filled with complexities that require consideration of many different ideas. In truth it is only when we quiet our own souls and begin to listen to everyone that we will ever find ways to agree on solutions. My guess is that much like our ancestors we will have to make compromises that may not perfectly suit us, but which will settle our differences just enough to make progress. The better angels that live inside our souls need to overcome the demons that are leading us astray.


To Infinity and Beyond

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Dear Mr. President,

I hear that you want to create a Space Force as the sixth branch of the Department of Defense. I’m not sure what particulars that you have in mind, so I wanted to make a few comments and ask a few questions. First and foremost I simply wonder why such a step even seems necessary. I mean it’s not as if space is suddenly crowded with military type drills that threaten the world. The International Space Station is perhaps one of the greatest and most peaceful joint ventures ever attempted, a scientific research lab for the world if you will. It appears to be doing fine without need of defense, and I don’t see enemy nations attempting to overtake it any time soon. It takes quite a bit of public effort to get there, so we shouldn’t have to worry that there will be some sort of stealth invasion in the near future.

Does this mean that the Pentagon will have to become the Hexagon? Can we really afford to spend taxpayers funds to rebuild when we have a perfectly good space campus right here in Houston, Texas called NASA? In case nobody told you we actually have a nice layout that is already staffed with engineers and scientists and even some well trained astronauts who are tan, fit and ready to travel into outer space. The unit has been a bit neglected of late with lowered funding curtailing their activities, but they have a fairly impressive resume of accomplishments. They’ve sent men to the moon more than once and they have already managed to get live photo feeds from Mars. Would these guys become the first Space Cadets? As the originator of the Space Force might you become Space Cadet in Chief?

I hear that your generals are against this plan. It seems that they are up to their eyeballs in wartime efforts here on earth and don’t feel that they have either the manpower or the finances to begin such a daunting project. Besides, they are not totally sure about the purpose of such a grand move. They are a bit befuddled by the suddenness of the announcement and the vagueness of the details. They worry about using human and monetary resources when the need might be better met by other governmental agencies. Is there really a demand to defend space, and do you understand that the universe is a really big place. Are you willing to expand our military to infinity and beyond?

I find myself wondering if you know something that the rest of us don’t know. Is there finally proof that aliens have indeed been to visit earth? If so, are there plans to include rules for them in future immigration plans? Will we need to confer and collaborate with other nations since this would be a worldwide problem? If so, then perhaps you may want to make nice with the members of G7 since you dissed them a bit at the last conference. Then again I wonder if you are attempting to keep aliens from coming here or if your plan is to keep most of the world from going into space. Will all of this necessitate a wall? What will it look like and what are your enforcement plans?

My guess is that there may actually be young people who would like to become members of the Space Force since becoming an astronaut is so difficult. Will there be local recruiting stations or will the troops be created from those in the five branches of the military that already exist? Has anyone come up with an idea for a uniform, a song, and maybe even an academy? Will there be annual football games featuring Army vs. Space? It sounds as though there is some potential for a great deal of fun along with the hard work.

I know that our veterans are struggling in so many ways. Do you think that you will be able to improve life for them while still generating enough interest and funding for a whole new branch? Just sayin…

My understanding of the Constitution is that Congress will have to approve such a change. Have you discussed the issues and possibilities with them or was this simply one of your spur of the moment ideas that popped out of your mouth without aforethought? I’m not trying to be rude, I was just taken by surprise and I wonder if the members of the House and Senate may have felt the same way. With so many real issues to tackle does this actually appear to be the right time for something that surely can wait until things are a bit calmer? I mean, we are rather overwhelmed these days paying for seven hundred dollar a night shelters for immigrants among other things.

Finally I just have to ask because it is driving me crazy. Is it even remotely possible that you are in fact a representative from another planet? I’m a very observant person and there are times when you don’t seem to be one of us. You struggle with the English language and your ideas are often way out there. I often find myself scratching my head in wonderment that you are so disconnected to the realities right here on earth. There is a different kind of nature about you that I at first attributed to the fact that you grew up in a kind of bubble inside a wealthy home in New York City, but what if you are indeed the first of many from a world to come. After all you do have a kind of hypnotic effect on many people who are willing to support you almost mindlessly. It reminds me a bit of old sci-fi movies like The Invasion of The Body Snatchers”

Anyway, I would love to have a few more details about the Space Force as I’m sure most Americans and citizens of the rest of world would as well. Please keep us informed insofar as possible. Be aware the big moves done too quickly tend to freak us out. Also remember that you are not supposed to be singlehandedly changing the face of the nation. Your job is to manage what is already here and to work with the duly designated lawmakers in Congress. I sometimes think that you have become a bit confused in that regard.

A Hero Indeed

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I grew up on a rather heavy diet of reading, and my first forays into the written word were fairytales followed by stories of the lives of the saints. I admittedly felt that perhaps those icons of religion were more superhuman than I thought possible, and so the ones like St. Theresa and St. Augustine who were flawed like I was became my favorites. Eventually I developed an addiction to biographies of famous people in which I learned of the human frailties of some of my heroes who nonetheless impressed me with their courage. In those critical moments when the world needed them to overcome their weaknesses, they rose to the occasion. Profiles In Courage was like a kind of historical Bible to me that outlined some of the finest stories of humans who were willing to risk everything to do what they believed was right. I suppose that I learned much about character from the many volumes that I devoured, and in the process I began to believe that there are special people among us who have the same imperfections that we all possess but also a moral foundation and strength that separates them from the pack.

The list of my heroes is long and eclectic but one of the traits that all of them shared was a willingness to admit to wrongs. They understood their own imperfections and fought internally to eliminate them, but in their humanness they sometimes lost those battles. Mostly though they were able to follow a path of righteousness no matter how difficult it sometimes became. People like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Gandhi have sometimes been picked apart by people who have concentrated more on their mistakes than on the totality of their dedication to justice and compassion. I prefer instead to view them from an assessment of their willingness to make difficult and even dangerous decisions in order to do what they believed to be right.

Sometimes it seems as though we have a dearth of heroes in today’s world. I admire Pope Francis for his loving candor and I think that Jimmy Carter is one of the kindest people on the planet, but in general there is far too much tribalism and anger. Those who apologize for their missteps are often deemed to be weak or wishy washy. Instead we seem to prefer people who barrel ahead with bravado even when it is obvious that they are wrong. We mistake anger for courage, bullying behaviors for strength. From out of the crowd of puppets and posers a true American hero has emerged, and his name is John McCain.

John McCain is an interesting fellow. He’s from a military family who expected him to serve his country, something that he initially did willingly but with little enthusiasm. It was not until he became a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War that he began to truly understand what it means to be a patriot. His injuries were so extensive that to this very day he is unable to lift his arms to comb his own hair. When offered the opportunity to be freed simply because he was the son of an important military figure, he insisted on following the tradition of going in proper order. After much torture he broke at one point, a fact that haunts him to this day, but on the whole he demonstrated a kind of bravery that few of us would have been able to muster.

Upon his return to a normal life after the war was ended he struggled to know what to do with his life. His marriage foundered, another flaw for which he takes full credit. When he finally found himself he knew that he wanted to be a public servant and began a decades long career as a Senator from Arizona. His military background led him to believe in the necessity of working with his colleagues rather than fighting them. He often disagreed with their ideas, but was willing to find ways to allow everyone to win for the sake of the country. He was admired by his fellow lawmakers regardless of party affiliation and created lasting friendships along the way. He was a principled man who believed that it was indeed possible to stand for certain ideals without ignoring differing points of view and finding common ground.

Twice John McCain decided to make a run for President of the United States. In 2000 he lost his party’s nomination to George W. Bush, but came out on top in 2008. He had wanted to choose Joe Lieberman as his running mate but was talked out of that idea by his handlers, a moment that he still regrets. His campaign never really got off of the ground because he lacked the charisma of his opponent Barrack Obama, and his own party viewed him as being weak, lacking the kind of fighting spirit for which they were searching. He instead gave them fairness even to the point of defending Obama against false accusations. The fact that he was a good man seemed to have little appeal to the electorate.

John McCain has continued to be his own person, even as his party has taken a direction so unlike him. He votes according to his conscience, a trait that is all but lost in the present political arena. He voices his beliefs even when they are unpopular. He refuses to be beholden to the pressures of a base or the leader of any party, and while I may not always agree with his ideas, I am in awe of his conviction. Now he is dying and in his last moments on this earth he continues to show us how we should live. He is truly among the greats in my estimation and I hope that other politicians are taking note of his character because men and women like him are all too lacking.

I would like to think that the madness that is present day Washington D.C. is temporary, and that one day we will come to our senses as a nation and insist that our country be run by men and women who understand the necessity of working together for the welfare of all of us. I would like to believe that collegiality and respect will return. John McCain has demonstrated how to do that throughout his lifetime. Notwithstanding comments from our current president, he is indeed a hero.

A Tortured Mind

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My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by multiple doctors. There was no cure for her disease, but there were pharmaceutical treatments that worked for a time and then invariably had to be adjusted. She faced a lifetime of dealing with a chronic illness that required both patience and vigilance, which was not always easy because there were moments when she was not a pleasant person at all. In those instances she was unable to sleep, and lost track of time. She was filled with paranoid ideas and conspiracy theories that she felt compelled to share in the middle of the night. Her explosions of emotion and fear sometimes resulted in vile utterances that were difficult to hear. My brothers and I not only had to be forceful in providing her with the care that she needed, but had to worry about what she might do or say to get herself into a difficult situation with strangers who might be frightened by her aggressive and strange behavior. It was a battle that we fought for her for well over forty years.

I was thinking of my mom and the problems associated with her mental illness when the firestorm over Roseanne Barr erupted last week. The egregious and racist nature of Ms. Barr’s tweet about Valerie Jarret left me loathing her even more than I already did. I think I only watched her show one time back when it was the original series. I loved John Goodman, but I was unable to identify with the crudity of Roseanne. In other words I was not a fan. Still, I knew many people who loved the show and I had to admit that she had a certain talent even if I did not appreciate it. “To each his own” was my reaction to her fame and popularity while I generally ignored her and knew little about her.

When she and her former cast returned for a reboot of the sitcom I found myself wondering why we have so little originality these days that we keep returning to old ideas. Perhaps it is a longing for a quieter past, a time before 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the civil war of words and political ideas that is so prevalent today. I wasn’t sure what the rationale might be, but I saw no harm in giving a particular segment of the audience the kind of comedy that they wanted while I watched The Middle.

Then came the Roseanne firestorm after her rambling ugly tweets resulted in her firing by ABC. To be clear the First Amendment protects her from punishment by the government, but not from repercussions at work. In fact, all of us would do well to understand that our public statements can and often will be seen as a reflection on our employers who have every right to let us go if they feel that we have gone too far. I can’t imagine anyone believing that Ms. Barr did not go too far. As an educator I recall instances when we meted out severe punishments including expulsion to students who voiced similar racist comments. There are certain lines over which none of us should ever cross, and if we do we must expect to pay the consequences.

By her own admission Roseanne Barr suffers from bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. When she attempted to excuse her horrible tweets by noting that it was the middle of the night and she had taken Ambian I found myself wondering if she was in the throes of a manic episode. It was probably not her sleep aid that caused her rants, but rather her disease and the fact that it does not allow her to sleep the way she needs causes her to lose all caution with regard to what she says and does.

My mother once described bipolar disorder as an illness that caused her to say and do mean things when she didn’t want to do. She explained that she felt a compulsion to strike out at people that she was unable to control even when she tried. I know that I was the victim of her hurtful behavior many times over, but I understood what was causing the disturbances. People outside of the family simply found themselves wounded to the point of wanting to avoid her all all costs.

I in no way defend Rosanne Barr. I find her to be a foul mouthed and hateful person. Even if her tweet was indeed intended to be a joke it was far too ugly to be humorous. Her thoughts rarely change, so I believe that the essence of what she believes is contained in them, and that spirit is highly toxic. My mother was truly like two different people. When she was well everything about her was delightful and loving. It was only when she was sick that a kind of darkness prompted by fears came forth. On the whole she was a good person. I can’t say the same about Ms. Barr who seems to take delight in putdowns and shaming no matter what the situation.

An even more ridiculous argument in Roseanne’s favor is to point to others who are just as guilty of horrific comments and note that they have not been fired. That is akin to saying that just because someone else hasn’t been called to task for bad behavior, nobody should be. It is a circular defense that simply does not fly.

Our entire society is a bit sick right now. We need to be honest with ourselves and step back a bit before we find ourselves up against a wall from which there is no retreat. In many ways we have lost our national honor and are all too often guilty of perpetrating disgusting behaviors by our silence and even misguided support of acts and utterances that we know to be wrong. If we do not get a grip on this situation it will overtake us, for surely we are being manipulated by powerful forces whose only goal is to have power.

I actually feel sad for Roseanne Barr even though I find her to be despicable. I think that she is crying for help and nobody is really listening. I hope that those who love her will see the signs of her tortured mind and get her the relief that she needs. That will require a dose of kindness and medical attention. Hopefully her horrific pain won’t just be ignored, and I pray that we will not further divide ourselves by foolishly agreeing with the wanderings of her very sick and tortured mind.

No Excuses

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An old feature from CBS popped up on my Facebook page. It catalogued the most crime ridden cities in the United States and described what the infractions were. There were a few surprises on the list, but mostly they consisted of the usual suspects that are traditionally havens for criminals. What was more interesting was the commentary from readers that followed the article as people attempted to determine what actually causes deviant behavior and how we might find ways to curb it.

I’m not a sociologist or expert in criminology, but I spent my lifetime working to educate youngsters, and what I have found is that most of the kids who became lawbreakers shared certain commonalities that had little to do with their economic situation other than placing them in the line of temptation. In the vast majority of cases the kids were from broken homes that had become structureless, without guidance. Often they as well as their parental figures used addictive drugs and joined gangs as a way of belonging. Their lives were focused on getting from one moment to the next as easily as possible. They were not interested in school and no doubt would have simply dropped out were it not for truancy laws. Many of them were marking time until they reached the age of sixteen when they would no longer have to cope with rules that made it illegal for them to leave the world of education. They generally had few positive role models and they almost always laid the blame for their plight on society rather than themselves. They were angry and believed that they had the right to better lives, but were unwilling to do the hard work to take advantage of opportunities. It was heart breaking to watch them becoming more and more adrift and influenced by forces that would ultimately lead them into a very dark world.

As teachers we did our best to motivate them, but we were often uncertain as to how to most effectively help them to escape the bad habits that were bringing them down. We had only a few hours of influence each day and we knew with certainty that when they left us there was no telling how much trouble awaited them. There were many schools of thought as to what we needed to do.

I remember one administrator who felt that only by setting down clear rules and consequences for ignoring them would we ever rescue them. He actually encouraged us to give them after school detentions because at least in that way we would be keeping them safe just a bit longer as well as teaching them that some actions are unacceptable and will be punished by society. He often followed some of the teens home if he thought that they might get into trouble along the way. He indeed saved a large number of individuals, but others only rebelled even more. I began to realize that there was no one approach for everyone.

At the same school we had a coach who used to bring old cars and park them in front of the gym. At the end of the day he invited students to join him for lessons in repairing autos. He had quite a following and many of the youngsters who stayed might otherwise have been up to mischief. Instead they were inspired to learn a trade that would bring them the success that seemed to otherwise elude them. There were fine arts teachers and those who taught science who similarly engaged the interests of children who had once been without any kind of direction.

I also noticed that once some of our kids went to church they changed dramatically. Many of the priests and ministers in the area actively recruited our students with promises of food, fun and fellowship. When they learned Christian principles they began to think about their own lives and actions and even influenced the adults in their lives. The loving concern that they found in those churches felt even more powerful than the gangs and quite often wrought amazing changes in our students.

In my final years in education I worked with the KIPP Charter Schools and their many mantras emphasized hard work, good behavior, goal setting and a willingness to never offer excuses for bad choices. The aim of the schools was to offer students a positive pathway out of poverty and sometimes toxic lifestyles. The route to success was grounded in a focus on education and a belief that with effort anything is possible.

Every single day the students were challenged with rigorous academic work that did not allow them to fall behind. The long days kept them focused on learning with little time for frivolous or criminal pursuits. Those who broke the rules were punished quickly and according to the nature of their actions. Sometimes they were even expelled on a probationary basis until they were able to prove that they were willing to adhere to the standards.

Parents were as much a part of the design as teachers. The adults worked hand in hand to insure that the values of character and industry became an integral part of the youngsters’ lives. While not every individual made it, the majority did and overcame countless obstacles to earn degrees and certifications that lifted them out of poverty and danger.

Poverty alone is not the problem. My brothers and I grew up poor, but we had a mother who never allowed us to wallow in pity or anger. She insisted that we study and work hard. She modeled exemplary character and emphasized that with the will we might accomplish anything. She instilled optimism into our natures and taught us that lack of material wealth did not define us or make us less than even the wealthiest person that we might encounter. Mostly she showed us that sacrifice and honesty were noble qualities that would carry us far. She would have been horrified if we had become so jealous of others that we thought it was somehow our right to steal from them or harm them.

We certainly need to give the poor in our country a lift upward, but helping their children to become self sufficient producers cannot be accomplished with money alone. Instead it requires our efforts to demonstrate how they might survive in positive ways. We must show them the value of hard work and provide them with role models and inspiration. It is a daily task requiring a multitude of good people including their parents.

Dr. Ben Carson often speaks of his own troubled childhood in Detroit where he lived in the midst of temptations that might have lead him into dangerous behaviors. His mother was not willing to simply allow him to waste his life, and so she became a force that changed the trajectory of the person he would become. She pushed him to use the talents that he had by being adult enough to be in charge. She devoted her life to demonstrating to her sons that they had the power within them to become better and better versions of themselves.

I suspect that they key to reduction in crime is to be found in lovingly and firmly guiding children from the time that they are very young, never allowing them to become hopeless, protecting them from forces with evil intent, and slowly showing them how to focus on learning how to use their talents for good. This is a job for parents, teachers, religious groups, and mentors who are willing to demonstrate that the world is a good and inviting place that wants to embrace them. We have much work to do.