Make America Kind Again

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I have always believed that my country is built on kindness for the most part. Certainly there have always been mean, evil and violent people, but in truth they have lived on the fringes of society. To a large extent they have been rightly or wrongly ignored up until recently. There have also been unjust policies in the history of our country, but we have always seemed to eventually rid ourselves of them and attempted to be fair. Lately, however, being fair, calm, kind seems almost out of style. We all too often judge someone who is quiet or willing to hear all sides of an argument and even change as someone who is wimpy or without moral compass. Our admiration tends toward the fighters among us, the more belligerent souls who seemingly take delight in tearing people down and hurling insults at those with whom they disagree. Large numbers of the population of the United States see them as people of great strength and more and more often their ways are being emulated by even our young.

My nature is to be quiet and respectful. I am always willing to listen to all aspects of a particular situation. I am quite flexible and open to changes even of myself. I suppose that I may be viewed as someone who is not particularly strong, but I know when I need to be tough and I have exhibited grit whenever life demanded it from me. For the most part I have tried to never be unkind to even those who have hurt me. Instead I honestly attempt to understand why they felt they needed to be ugly. I generally find that such tortured souls are hurting inside, and their taunts are more often than not a disguise in which they hide their own weaknesses.

The most courageous people that I have ever known whether through personal experience or the study of history have been persons who possess what I see as all of the finest human qualities. They have eschewed boastfulness and attempted to be infinitely fair. They are rarely guilty of deliberately hurting another. Often they are quite humble and unwilling to boast of their own accomplishments. I admire them because I see them as being the very sort of people that we might use more of in today’s divisive and insult ridden environment. I believe that the last thing we need are bullies and loud mouths. It’s time that we search for those who honestly strive to be of service to humanity rather than themselves.

In the final months and weeks of his life Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. grieved over evidence that there were still so many people who believed that his adherence to nonviolence was a weak way to solve problems. He admitted to his own frustrations but held on to his insistence that it would only be through passive resistance that we would ultimately find a way of living together in unity. His focus was on looking to a future about which he often dreamed. He understood he might never see perfection but he still saw a vision of a promised land and it was not marred by divisions and hatefulness.

One of the most telling aspects of John McCain’s character came when he was running for president against Barack Obama. I’ll never forget when a woman accused President Obama of vile things and McCain immediately corrected her, insisting that Obama was a good man and explaining that he only disagreed with Obama on how to get things done. Some saw that as being wishy washy. I saw it as being akin to the courage that he demonstrated when he was a prisoner of war. Senator McCain became a great man in my eyes at that moment and for the rest of his life he did not disappoint me in that regard even though there where times when I did not agree with his political ideas.

I feel the same about Senator Mitt Romney. People attacked him for his willingness to change his stance on certain issues in the light of changing times and new information. Frankly I think that anyone who is so hard headed that he/she will not budge even when data clearly demonstrates wrong thinking is somewhat irrational. I am wary of such people because I have found over and over again that very little in this life is etched in stone. There are exceptions to virtually every rule or argument and being open to ideas is in fact a sign of strength, not weakness.

In our last presidential election I honestly felt that neither candidate sincerely cared more about the people than themselves. The result of that contest has lead us to a low point in our nation’s history, but I fear that if things had been different it may not have been any better. Now we have a room full of candidates vying to see who can be the most audacious and many of them attack the very principals and characteristics of each other that I find the most genuine. They appear to be taking a page from the playbook of boastful loud mouths and that worries me intensely.

I believe that bullies, mass shooters, racists, and other vile individuals are an aberration. They do not represent our country and yet they are getting the center of the stage, and foolish people seeking power accuse the rest of us of being complicit in creating them. There is a media push to make us believe that the ugliness that we see is commonplace and typical of certain groups of people. The truth is that what the vast majority want is to make America kind again. If we manage to do that then it will also be great. Kindness does not mean allegiance to one political party or another. It means looking for good men and women who respect and understand us without rancor for those with whom they disagree. It means looking for humble and flexible people who are courageous enough to admit when they are wrong. Surely there are many such souls in our ranks. Now is the time to find them. Let’s insist on making America kind again.

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A House Divided Will Not Stand

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Most of my life has been dedicated to educating young people. Even though I am no longer in the classroom I still teach mathematics to a number of teens including my grandchildren. As an educator and mom I always felt duty bound to address both the academic and emotional needs of the young folk who are in my charge. I take my responsibility to care for them quite seriously. Most do just fine, but now and again I encounter an individual who is gravely troubled. Some of those sorts are actually scary. I sense that they are so disturbed that they are capable of outbursts that are harmful. It is difficult to reach them and so I confer with their parents who almost always admit that they are afraid of their own son or daughter. Things rarely end well with such teens and I always have a sense of defeat in such cases even though I have gone to great lengths to help.

I remember one student in particular who has always haunted me. He had been sent from one household to another from a very young age in an effort to improve his behavior. He found a measure of solace with his grandparents where he lived a quiet life on a farm. Things began to turn around for him during that time and he was calmer and happier than he had ever been. Sadly his grandmother had a heart attack and died. His grandfather felt unable to care for him alone. He was sent back to his mother who was struggling with her own emotions. He spiraled down into a state of depression and anger that resulted in violent outbursts both at home and at school. His mother and step father admitted that they were so fearful of him that they took turns sleeping lest he kill them while they slept. His mother sincerely loved her boy and wanted to help him but had no idea what to do.

It literally made me cry to think of how horrific it was to be that young man. I wondered what sickening thoughts raced through his mind. I worried less about what he might do in my classroom and more about what might ultimately become of him. He and I bonded somehow and I spent many hours in conferences with him and his mother hoping to help them both to resolve his many issues. They took my advice to find professional help but the road to the boy’s recovery was long and twisted. Even after he left my care I often thought of him and found a measure of solace in not hearing reports of his downfall or demise. I told myself that in his case no news was probably good news. I like to think  that he found his way and is living a good and loving life.

Our news feeds are littered these days with stories of violence and terrorism. In so many cases the individuals perpetrating such destruction are young men who are filled with abusive anger. They have allied themselves with groups that practice hate and vengeance against societies that they believe have somehow betrayed them. They convince one another that their heinous acts are justified. They are generally miserable loners who feel uncomfortable in normal circumstances. The demons that rage in their heads tell them that the loathing that they feel is reason enough for  killing. They do not see their victims as innocents, but rather as part of a vast horde that has abandoned them and left them to make their way alone.

If we are to deal with the issue of mass shootings it will take far more than simply enacting some legislation to curb the sale of guns or to arm and secure ourselves. We have to strive to get to the root causes of the hatred that foments instances of random killings. We have to use many different means to forestall such violence before it erupts. That will require vigilance and a willingness to provide necessary treatments and interventions for those who sit stewing on the fringes of society.

It is not difficult to identify such persons. In virtually any school or work setting or neighborhood where they reside there are observant people who know of their potential to blow a fuse at any moment. We all need to agree to alert authorities whenever we sense that something about an individual is not quite right. We can no longer afford to ignore the signs because in virtually every case of a mass shooting there have been people who worried about the perpetrators. It’s time that we take their concerns seriously. The red flags that go up in our minds must be investigated and as a society we are bound to take action before really bad things happen.

There were teachers and students and parents who complained to school administrators and law enforcement about the two young men who killed at Columbine. The mother of the shooter at the elementary school in Connecticut had told friends that she needed help dealing with her son. Many who knew the killer in the recent El Paso attack recounted instances in which he had expressed his desire to do violence on others. Somehow nothing was done in any of these cases until it was too late. Perhaps it is because we often worry more about infringing on the rights of a single individual rather than the safety of the many. Perhaps the time has come to crack down hard on any form of threatening behavior.

We also need to be more aware of the kinds of groups that preach hatred and violence and do everything we can to eliminate their influence particularly on our young. They search for individuals who are desperately searching for a sense of belonging. They prey on the anger and feelings of abandonment that such souls often have. We all must be aware of the existence of such organizations and root them out. They must be condemned for the hatred that is theirs.

As a nation we must also begin to tone down our own disagreements with one another. Of late I have found it painful to watch our supposed leaders behaving with such a lack of honor and decorum. Our young are watching and sadly emulating, and lest anyone think that the bad form is coming from only one person or party or direction I would respectfully submit that it has found a place on all sides. There are too many people dusting up anger in efforts to gain power or viewers or business of some kind. The divisiveness is tearing us apart and fomenting violence in unstable people. It’s time that all good men and women do their part to encourage us to come together. The old saw that a house divided will not stand is still very true. Anger and violence whether in word or deed only begets more anger and violence. Our rhetoric and tribalism must end. Generalities are not only useless but may become lethal. It’s time we insist on a return to kindness. 

I Needed This Reminder

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One of the best aspects of being retired is that I now have time to ponder more than I did when work required me to adhere to a strict schedule. I am able to read more and even to indulge in moments of sitting in silence with my thoughts for long stretches of time. I still serve my many grandchildren with my educational expertise whenever they require a bit of guidance or encouragement with their studies. Each summer I read the same books that they are assigned for their pre-advanced placement and advanced placement classes, so that I might help them to analyze and discuss the works when they return to school in August.

One of my grandsons is reading Martin Luther King Jr. I Have A Dream: Writings & Speeches That Changed the World edited by James M. Washington. When my daughter requested that I familiarize myself with the text so that my grandson and I might talk about its implications I was more than eager to delve into the heart of the essays. I have long considered Dr. King to be one of the greatest orators and most influential leaders of the twentieth century and indeed the entirety of history. He is a hero of mine, one of the people I would love to meet when I eventually make it to heaven.

I grew up in the era during which Martin Luther King Jr. did his incredible work. In the year I was born Dr. King was ordained a minister following in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather. He had been a child during the Great Depression, growing up in Atlanta, Georgia when segregation was still very much a fact of life for blacks just as it still was for most of my own youth. In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation was unconstitutional Dr. King was the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama and I was about to head to the first grade.

A year later, in 1955, Rosa Parks famously refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man, an act for which she was arrested. Her brave action led to a boycott and Martin Luther King Jr. was elected president and voice of the efforts to integrate the buses in Montgomery. By then I was joining droves of Baby Boomer children in second grade classrooms that were still mostly segregated in spite of the earlier Supreme Court ruling. I would overhear rumblings of discussions from my father and grandfather who believed in those days that children should be sent from the room when politics were the subject of conversations. I was a nosy child who would hide behind a wall listening to their voices as they spoke of the coming changes.

In 1957, President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard to allow nine black children to enter a previously all white school in Little Rock. I did not watch or witness the historic moment on television back then, but I vividly recall the many times that my dad and granddad talked about it when we visited my grandparents’ farm in Arkansas. That year Martin Luther King Jr. was elected as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and  the reach of his crusade for justice widened. I would enter the third grade at the same time that those little children so bravely struck a blow for freedom in Arkansas. I was not totally unaware of the importance of that school year in the struggle to end segregation but I would not be affected by it in the little bubble that was my neighborhood.

The work to break the hold of Jim Crow laws and segregational policies continued throughout my elementary and middle school years. By the time I entered high school the Civil Rights movement was in full force and Dr. King had become one of its most admired voices. The concept of non-violent passive resistance was being used to integrate restaurants and universities and to expand the voting power of black citizens. Just before I entered my second year of high school the famous march on Washington D.C. captured my attention and I listened to Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech with rapt admiration. I was hooked by its message and forevermore there would be no turning back to the ugliness and injustice of segregation for me. I was a devoted disciple of Dr. King and would hang on his every word and action. His influence over me would be enormous.

Just before I entered my senior year of high school President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Sadly the arc of justice was still far from complete. In college I would become more and more passionate about causes of equality and fairness. My generation was literally taking to the streets to protest all signs of legally condoned injustice. The laws of separate but equal were no more, but the seeds of racism still grew like weeds and I was eager to pluck them wherever they grew.

In the spring of 1968, I was planning my wedding when I heard the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I had been washing dishes when the word came and I remember slumping onto the floor in front of the sink where I sobbed uncontrollably. I was devastated beyond words and wondered how our country would be without the conscience and profound thoughts of this great man. His insights stay with me and guide me for the next fifty years of my life.

I am a seventy year old woman now. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and influence have been a defining force for me even to this day. Reading his speeches and essays once again has brought me to tears and helped me to consider both the progress and the difficulties that remain in the long fight for justice. We have yet to achieve his dream, and of late we seem even to have slid back into a kind of ugliness that he had hoped to one day eradicate.

If Dr. King were still alive today he would be a very old man. I wonder what he might say about the state of our union. There are certainly things of which to be proud, but the work is not done. Would we be farther along in our progress if we still had his voice of reason and love, or would he be discouraged that we still have remnants of violence and hate? Whatever the case, reading his words has enlivened my own spirit and told me that the road to making his dream a reality is a worthy albeit difficult pathway.

As I write this I am gratified in knowing that my grandson is unfamiliar with concepts of segregation. I love that he innocently sees no color in his friends. The fact that I have to explain the evils that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of indicates to me that we have indeed moved the arc of history ever closer to the ideals of agape which Martin Luther King so eloquently explained as “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return…when we rise to love on the agape level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves us. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. With this type of love and understanding good will we will be able to stand amid the radiant glow of the new age with dignity and discipline. Yes, the new age is coming”      (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Facing the Challenge of a New Age, 1957)

I needed this reminder!

Free to Pursue the Truth

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The truth is found when men are free to pursue it.” —-Franklin Roosevelt

So we have a football player objecting to all sorts of American flags and many conservatives objecting to him. We have baristas at Starbucks asking law enforcement officials to leave because they are triggering other patrons. This person bothers that person and before long we are removing books from libraries, taking down crosses and monuments, refusing to shop or eat in certain places. How about just calming down and allowing each individual the right to his/her own thoughts, occupations, and choices? As long as nobody is being hurt why do so many of us come unglued? The thought patrol is making it feel dangerous to express ourselves publicly, because even the most benign ideas have the potential of being misunderstood, misinterpreted, and considered offensive. The mere choice of a wrong word may unintentionally cause pandemonium.

The quote that I chose to use at the beginning of this post might be construed to be sexist because it applies the word “men” to all humans. The idea of freedom to pursue the truth in today’s world often involves narrowing the parameters of what and who a person may choose to study. Unlike the days of my youth when I was encouraged to consider multiple points of view including before drawing conclusions, these days it has become risky to admit to actively searching out the merit of diverse ideas. Now there is a kind of closed mindedness requiring each of us to choose a particular side and then eschew all others. It flies in the face of all that I was taught to view as the pathway to wisdom.

I’ve learned over the years that there is rarely perfection in any person, organization, nation. As humans we make mistakes. Judging anyone or any group or any idea with a snapshot of only one moment is a ludicrous act. Instead we have to consider the totality to truly understand the nature, the character of all human pursuits. Each of us grows and evolves and changes over time as do even organizations. It matters less what someone did or said as an adolescent than how that individual eventually chose to live. Few of us would pass muster if the only yardstick for determining our morality were to view a few random moments from our youth. So t0o it often is with people who have spent decades in the public view. Our question should always be how they have changed to become better versions of themselves, not how they once were. The same is true of our country.

What I have always loved the most about being a citizen of the United States is my right to express myself without fear of being incarcerated or ruined. I have always understood that I had to follow certain guidelines with regard to my job because when I spoke, even in the private sector, I was still representing my employer. Nonetheless I always felt comfortable in supporting causes that I believed to be important. Mostly nobody really cared one way or another if I differed with them. Of late, however, it suddenly feels very different. People seem compelled to argue with me and tell me that they are disappointed whenever my views differ from theirs. Complete strangers come unglued by the mere mention of certain hot topics, even when I point out that I am attempting to hear the voices of as many different philosophies as possible before drawing conclusions.

It has become fair game to be close minded. Even in our universities where free thinking was once the norm, we shut down alternative discussions in the name of making everyone feel unsafe. Our debates are no longer ways to display differing ideas, but rather showcases for solidarity. Nobody wants to stray from the party line lest they be derided for abandoning the mutual cause. The result is a kind of stagnation of thought that is preventing solutions to very real problems and causing fear among those who genuinely wish to carry on lively discourse to find the truth.

I become wary whenever I hear the same phrases being mindlessly repeated again and again. I know that I am in the midst of propaganda rather than receiving facts. I have to explore different sources on my own, hoping that there will be people who have been willing to speak rationally about various topics even as they worry that their words may land them in a world of trouble.

We still have liberty in our country, but it does not feel as comfortable as it once did. The thought police are everywhere making it feel a dangerous game to engage in meaningful dialogue. As a nation we are far too busy pontificating rather than asking questions and then really listening to the answers. Sloganeering has become the fashion and in the process it is eroding the very freedoms that the grand experiment begun by the founders of this nation had hoped to achieve. So far we have yet to completely cross the line into tyranny, but our freedoms are threatened from both the far right and the far left. It’s time we demonstrate the courage to protect our precious liberties by letting those who would constrain our thoughts know that we are not so easily intimidated or bribed into submission. We are thinking people who want facts and information, not politicized propaganda.

Our process for selecting leaders has become as silly as a high school popularity contest or a beauty pageant. We don’t need clever soundbites, or demonstrations of insulting behavior. We need concrete ideas that are likely to actually become solutions to looming problems. We also need leaders who will accept our many differences and then use well thought out judgement to work for all the people, not just a small slice of supporters. It’s time for each of us to once again feel free to pursue the truth.

First Do No Harm

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I live in Texas along the Gulf coast. My father spent his teenage years in Corpus Christi, Texas, a place where he met his best friends and from hence he learned his love of fishing. He longed to return there to live one day, but he was never able to find a job, so Houston was the next best thing for him.

I grew up visiting Corpus Christi often and hearing my dad’s stories of how wonderful the place was. On top of having it’s own unique culture and feel, it is only a hop, a skip, and a jump from Laredo, a border town with Mexico. As a kid and then as a young adult a trip to Corpus Christi sometimes was the gateway to a quick jaunt to the other side of the Rio Grande. Things were quieter and safer then, so families traveled back and forth between the United States and Mexico with little or no fanfare.

I was raised in a Catholic family which meant attending Catholic school. Back in the day our Catholic parents believed that it was their duty to send us to the nuns and priests for our education. We not only learned the three Rs, but also studied the foundations of our faith, which included discussions of the Ten Commandments and sin.

I sat in classrooms with many of the same kids for years. We became like brothers and sisters. I never noticed that our last names read like a roll call of the United Nations. I did not even think to classify my classmates as Italians, Hispanics, Czechs, Germans or such. We were all just peers seeing each other at school Monday through Friday and then again at church on Sunday. I was probably in my sixties before it fully occurred to me that names like Luna and Villagomez indicated Hispanic heritage of some sort. I seriously just saw people as people because of my upbringing.

My mom and her siblings were first generation Americans who were often taunted not just for their ancestry from Slovakia, but also for their religious beliefs. Nonetheless they eventually melted into the great big pot known as the United States of America, and followed both the customs of both their country and their religion quite earnestly. My brothers, and cousins and I were taught to love our nation and our church as well. Mostly we were cautioned to view life as beautiful and sacred. My mom always asserted that people are people and our differences are usually only skin deep. She believed that inside our hearts we are all pining for the same things.

I’ve been rocking along for my seventy years living the way I was raised with a devotion and gratitude for my country, my state, my church, my family, my friends, and all people. For most of my life I enjoyed a career as a teacher, and many of my students were recent immigrants just as my mother had been. Most of them had come from countries in Central and South America. They struggled with many of the same issues that my mom had faced, and so I felt a particular impetus to help them to feel welcome and beloved in their new home. I also realized that some faced the additional challenge of being so called illegals. They had been brought to Texas as children without any of  the proper papers. They grew up in a state of fear that they might one day be forced to return to a place that had become foreign to them. They were the “Dreamers.”

Of late politics have pushed two issues to front and center, namely immigration and abortion. Ironically those topics are at odds with the way I was taught to think, which is to value human life above all else. On the one hand, I worry about the people fleeing to our borders in attempts to escape hopeless lives, and on the other hand I am increasingly appalled by the almost blasé attitude of the murder of unborn children. The irony for me is that quite often those who are concerned about the immigrant issues think of abortion as simply a matter of choice rather than violence, while those who are adamantly opposed to the influx of immigrants without limits are often deeply saddened by abortion. Somehow I see the two has having much in common, and find it difficult to understand the inconsistencies in current thinking.

I was therefore rather excited to learn that there is a group of pro-life women known as the New Wave Feminists who are demonstrating their genuine concerns for all people and all life by raising funds to bring the immigrants now being held at the border the kind of supplies that they so desperately need. In other words, they are putting their beliefs into action rather than simply complaining about the situations. Their spokesperson, Herndon De la Rosa has expressed their thinking quite beautifully, “We are pro-life because we care about the inherit human dignity of every living person, inside the womb and out,” Herndon-De La Rosa says. She feels a heightened responsibility to not look away from people at the border because “as a Texan . . . it’s happening in my backyard,” she notes. “All are vulnerable and all are human beings.” (National Review, July 8, 2019)

We have too many politicians these days who seem to believe that being bipartisan or using consensus to solve problems is a sign of weakness. They think that there is only one possible way of seeing issues, and anything less than total victory for their causes is unacceptable. As  a result, much of the humanity that I was taught to treasure is being hurt while the fights between ideas rage on. We are indeed all human beings and all vulnerable. Our instinct should be to first do no harm, and then find a way to hammer out a way of dealing with our differences in a manner that considers the value of all humans.

I am not so naive as to think that any of our problems will be easily solved or that our solutions will be perfect, but the reality is that both the living and the unborn are suffering even as we rant and rave with one another. Surely it is time to consider that we will ultimately be stronger by remembering to love while we determine how to honor the inherent dignity of all persons both living and unborn. Long ago we got it wrong when we allowed slavery to continue as we began our country. Perhaps it’s time that we learn from our mistakes of the past and move forward together.