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.

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“Without Forgiveness There Is No Future”

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“If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”– Desmond Tutu

“Without forgiveness, there is no future.” – Desmond Tutu

During the summer months a nice breeze finds blows into my backyard along about dinner time,  so my husband and I usually enjoy our dinner outside each evening. We talk and enjoy the birds that find their way into the trees on our property and onto the fountain that they use as their personal birdbath. We hear the voices of neighbors who are bustling about on walks or doing a bit of work while the temperature is bearable. We linger at our seasonal dinner table until the sun is about to set and then we go back inside to end our evenings with reading or a television program before we retire for the night.

The big three channels are filled with silly summer offerings that are of little interest to us, a waste of our time. We search instead for more riveting fare and for that Netflix and Amazon Prime are difficult to beat. Recently we encountered a movie starring Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana called Forgiven that proved to be both entertaining and enlightening. It was set in South Africa in the days just after apartheid became illegal and Nelson Mandela had been elected President of the country.

In a spirit of unity Mandela had insisted that it was a time for reconciliation between all of the people so that they might all move forward together. He appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, a group tasked with examining crimes against humanity that had taken place in the past and determining how to deal with the both the victims and the perpetrators in a fair and compassionate way. Archbishop Tutu was a brilliant choice for this endeavor because he had worked tirelessly for social justice for most of his life, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

The movie uses a fictional character played by Eric Bana to portray the racist and murderous nature of those who had previously inflicted murderous treatment on the native peoples of South Africa. The film creates a storyline to demonstrate the intent of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in which Forest Whitaker as Desmond Tutu is frustrated by discoveries of mass graves and extreme violence. In the process Tutu becomes personally interested in the tragedy of one mother whose daughter simply disappeared on day never to be heard from again. He promises the woman that his commission will find the answers that she is seeking even while he struggles to fully understand what happened.

Archbishop Tutu receives a letter from a prisoner, the Bana character, seeking amnesty for his crimes. The convicted murderer is vile and violent, unrepentant for the horrific things he has done, virtually challenging Tutu to maintain his composure and his belief in the ultimate goodness of all people. The movie is a thoughtful and well acted commentary on mankind itself.

As I watched the plot unfold I found myself contemplating the differing schools of thought regarding how to deal with violence, racism, and other evils in the world. Some like Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela chose models of kindness and reconciliation as a tool to bring people together. Others in history have eschewed such behaviors for aggressive militancy. Today we appear to be in a time in which passive resistance is out of fashion, and instead an unwillingness to even consider alternate points of view is the more popular problem solving methodology. Those who find ways to expose flaws and judge without understanding are winning the day and I find the trend to be difficult to stomach. My personal heroes are people like Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Tutu.

In my own country I find it difficult to watch the ways in which we are tearing one another apart. The trend has been simmering for some time and now it is in full blown mode. I was certain that President Donald Trump would be rejected for his bullish ways, but instead he has been viewed by many as a kind of hero for his brash insults. Now we have some candidates for the Democratic nomination for President vying to bring down even those who mostly share the same points of view as they do.

Frankly I was quite embarrassed when Kamala Harris chose to publicly chastise Joe Biden for his past even as she insisted that she did not really think he is a racist. If that is true then I wonder why she felt it necessary to even bring up the matter. I was stupefied when the very person who began the “food fight” of the debate condemned what she saw as the childish behaviors of the other candidates. Even more confusing to me is the fact that her popularity has suddenly increased as many see her antics as a breath of fresh air rather than the bullying that it is. 

I am quite saddened by today’s political environment. It seems to be propelling us backward in time rather than pushing us forward. I do not believe that it will bring us to solutions to our problems nor will it heal the divisions that are growing like an ugly crack in the windshield of a car. We desperately need a peacemaker to step forward to lead our country back into a place of forgiveness. As Archbishop Tutu so brilliantly contends without it there is no future. 

It’s Complicated

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I recently freaked out over the results of my annual bone density test. I have had osteoporosis for years which isn’t too surprising because it is rampant on both sides of my family. For two years I injected myself daily with a drug called Forteo. It was a pain to carry the medication in a little bag that kept it cold no matter where I went. I had to bring my prescription papers to airports and check with hotels to be sure that I would have a refrigerator in my room. The shots themselves were easy and I had no side effects, so essentially all went well. I was exhilarated when a followup bone scan revealed that I had grown so much bone that I no longer had osteoporosis.

I set out with determination to keep my bones strong. I took double doses of calcium pills and included every form of natural calcium that I could put in my diet. I took vitamin D to help with absorption and gave up sodas lest they have a negative impact on my progress. I walked for miles and miles and went faithfully to a gym. It was hard work, but for a good cause, and I was feeling better than ever. When I went for my bone scan this year I expected to have wonderful results, but that is not what happened. The had osteoporosis returned. I had lost some of the bone that the Forteo had grown.

I ranted on Facebook and worried about what my future might be. I saw myself in a wheelchair like my aunts. I even went so far as to mentally redesign my home for what I was sure would one day be my handicap status. I went for an injection of Prolia that my doctor prescribed, but I felt defeated. I wondered if my efforts were of any use. Finally I sent a message to my doctor asking about my pathway forward after I did hours of research on the Internet. His response was call me in for a conference and walk me through the complexities of my situation.

After a thirty minute talk I understood what was happening, why it was so, and how to move forward. I had not seen all of the facets of my situation, and my doctor clarified them for me and left me with hope and optimism. He reminded me that above all I was still very young, even at the age of seventy, and that there were already people diligently researching solutions for my problems. He indicated that within the next ten years he believes that we will see amazing results that may eventually make the symptoms of severe osteoporosis a reality of the past.

My personal difficulty and its sweet analysis by my physician has caused me to think about even bigger problems that the world faces, and to understand that we all too often get tunnel vision about a particular situation. We want quick fixes, instant answers based on a limited vision of all of the ins and outs of a particular question. We base our analyses of what is happening on our incomplete knowledge of the present with little regard to what may happen in the future. We forget just how complex every single human interaction truly is. Nothing operates in a vacuum. To believe that we only have to do X,Y and Z to set things right is ridiculous. We in fact need those people who can help us to see all facets of a situation rather than just what we wish to see.

As a teacher I learned quickly that there is no one size fits all magic pill for turning a classroom into a dynamic place. Things change from one minute to the next. Each person is individual and requires a unique approach. So it is with questions about immigration, abortion, climate change, the economy. The truth is that we need to hear from all sides, not just those with which we agree. It would be a profound mistake to silence the voices of people who are able to see the glitches in political ideas. We should be loathe to shout down anyone who asks us to consider a slightly different way of thinking.

When we speak of immigration there appear to be two very distinct ways of dealing with the issue, but in reality each side is a little bit right and a little bit wrong. Unfortunately neither is willing to admit that there is something to be learned by incorporating a plan that is a fusion of the best ideas of progress and caution. Somehow we have to either hold the line and build a wall, or welcome everyone with open arms. We categorize sides as all good or all bad depending on our point of view. We rarely stop to think that everyone truly cares about people and what will happen to them, they just see the solutions a bit differently. We actually need to truly and respectfully hear each voice and then make difficult and complicated decisions. 

So it is with any question that we face. We have to curb our desires to just jump in with whatever fad or idea that makes us feel good for the moment. As with my doctor we need to seriously analyze all of the possible outcomes with seriousness and respect for opposing ideas. We can’t just fall for imagery and emotions. When sorting life we have to remember that it’s complicated.

We Can Do Better

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The truth is that there is a price for everything and that is no more apparent than in education. Few parents are able to afford the cost of private schools for their children, so the vast majority of our youngsters attend public schools. The bulk of educational expense lies in teacher salaries and benefits. Budgets are tight because the only flow of income to pay for all of the people and things needed to run a great academic program is found in taxes and a bit of federal money and grants. Parents sometimes chip in with fundraisers for a few extras. On the whole educational funding is a balancing act wrought with so many difficulties. Teachers want and deserve a fair wage commensurate with their education, knowledge, skills and experience. Schools need a certain level of educational resources all of which require additional money. At the same time citizens are only willing to accept so many taxes before they rebel even if it means cutting back on school funding. The tug and the pull is never ending, and a source of great concern both for educators and parents.

One has to be somewhat altruistic to accept teaching as a vocation. It requires not just an initial degree, but continual certifications and retraining, aspects of the job that are necessary and almost always paid for by the teachers themselves rather than the schools. Few classrooms are stocked with all of the materials necessary to keep students learning on the cutting edge, and so almost every teacher that I have ever known spends vast amounts of his/her own money to supplement what is provided. Teachers work longer hours and more days than most people realize, and often do so with little fanfare. It’s a difficult job, and I have witnessed former engineers, accountants and sales people run from its challenges after thinking that changing to a career in education would be a lark.

We see teachers across the country walking out of their classrooms to draw attention to the problems that exist. They are enduring the brunt of insults to insure that the future of public education is assured, because it is certainly true that if the conditions get bad enough the entire system will begin to fail just as it is already doing in certain corners. If we are to provide the best for all of our children, then we must get serious about the kinds of changes that we need. It’s a new world with a new way of doing things and a box of chalk and an eraser won’t cut it anymore. Nor will a salary that borders on insult be sufficient to attract the kind of teachers that our children need and deserve.

In the Houston area and other parts of Texas there are schools where the students are consistently failing. Instead of getting to the heart of the problems inside their walls the suggestions run from shutting them down to turning them over the charter programs. Perhaps thinking out of the box is the way to go, but it will take innovation, dedication from gifted educators, support from parents, time, patience and money. There are many success stories on the educational horizon, but they arose from a willingness to invest heavily in the lives of underserved populations. Drawing upon research and lessons learned there are no doubt answers to the problems, but it will require honesty and a willingness to address the staff, the facilities, the procedures, the role of parents and the students from the ground up. It may even require creating schools within schools whereby the buildings house smaller groups of youngsters who never fall through the cracks because they become part of an educational family. It may also mean providing financial and educational incentives to teachers so that the best of them will be willing to work with the most challenging populations.

It’s fairly well understood that the problems that plague failing schools are complex and include the reality that some children come from environments in which there is little understanding of the value of education. When parents become an integral part of the process the changes are almost magical. The heart of the KIPP Charter Schools lies in the commitment of parents, teachers and students to a daily routine of rigor with a goal of getting to and through college. There are more than just teachers driving the program, including counselors who follow the progress or lack of it from pre-school all the way through earning a college degree. The mantra “Once a KIPPster always a KIPPster.” is very real and every person who works in one of the schools takes the challenge to heart. The schools are kept purposely small so that everyone knows everybody. It is a true team and family atmosphere. The organization also provides opportunities for advancement paid for by the system. The best of the best have the opportunity of being awarded thousands of additional dollars in the form of stipends for excellence. At five year intervals teachers are honored with travel vouchers as well. These may appear to be small things but they drive the enthusiasm and dedication that teachers must have to make it for the long haul.

It’s time that we rethink how we treat our teachers and our students. We need to begin to redesign the way we do things and that doesn’t mean forcing the experience to revolve around standardized testing. It has nothing to do with dismantling the pension programs or simply purchasing a few computers. It will take a willingness to set things aright with funding, hard work and support from all of us, not just those who have children. Our future demands that we do a better job.

Sound and Fury

texas-church-shooting-victims-comp-18-1530_bf40109d18256874b2e36df40ca16083.nbcnews-fp-1200-800Death is as much a part of the human experience as birth and all of the milestones in between. We never know exactly when our time here on earth will end unless we consciously choose to take our own lives. Even then our bodies may resist the harm that we inflict. We may awake to find that we have been saved. If we or a loved one contract a terminal illness we may begin to prepare for the inevitable fate, but still there is an uncertainty. Miracles do indeed sometimes happen. Thus we all understand that while death will be our ultimate end, it is up to each of us to make the most of the interim that defines our time here on earth.

It is in the goodness of our natures that we find the desire to make the world a better place. Our unselfish tendencies nurture the people that we encounter. It prompts us to put ourselves in harms way to save strangers. It urges us to share our bounty with the less fortunate. It results in democracy, justice and integrity. Each of us possess the traits of angels, but in our humanity there is also a dark side. Just as Cain allowed his jealousies to overcome his better instincts, so too do we find that within our same glorious minds we have thoughts that frighten us. Most of the time we control our baser sides, and so most of us are generally very good. Sadly, now and again we witness evil on a grand scale and it both frightens and befuddles us. We want to control it and drive it away, but we have yet to completely eradicate it. Even in the heavenly realm we are told that Lucifer fell from grace. We wonder how we can ensure a more peaceful world if the humanity of mankind continues again and again to bend in the direction of hate.

We have grown weary of witnessing death that results from the hands of individuals with warped minds. We understand that the enormity of their actions is complex and not easily addressed, but our instincts tell us that surely there must be ways to curb the violence that dominates the headlines all too often. Because of the infinite diversity of our backgrounds and thinking we have a difficult time agreeing on how to proceed in the face of mass murders that make schools, churches and entertainment venues unsafe. We respectfully take off our shoes, walk through x-ray machines, have our purses searched for potentially harmful items, follow speed limits, put our phones away while we are driving, limit our personal freedoms for the safety of the whole. We may find such intrusions to be annoying, but we endure them nonetheless because we believe that they are designed to help the greater good. Even though we also understand that any rules have an element of imperfection, we would rather try to prevent crimes than to ignore them.

There is a great debate over guns in our country that runs through a spectrum from those who would demand that nobody be allowed to own them to those who insist that it is a guaranteed right to possess any number or type of firearms as long as an individual has not been legally deemed unfit to do so. Each time a monster chooses to murder innocents with a gun we are horrified and the old debates ensue, but we are unable to find an answer because we seem to fear that one extreme or another will win the day. We appear to be incapable of engaging in a discussion that will lead to a compromise. We are at a standoff that accomplishes nothing. 

The arguments are all too familiar. We hear that those who kill are anomalies, and even if all of the rest of us were to surrender our guns tomorrow evil would still find a way to perpetrate foul deeds. We hear that people kill, not guns. We are told that in the immediate aftermath of tragedies we should not dishonor the dead with political discussions. We are urged to have more conversations of how to deal with the mental illnesses that so often fuel the rage of killers. It is suggested that we create stricter laws regarding the numbers and kinds of firearms that anyone may possess. We are urged to make the purchase of guns more difficult so that we will have fewer of them in our midst. We are reminded that criminals never follow laws anyway, so why have them. The arguments stretch on and on, and so we cry and mourn for those affected by tragedies, but remain at a stalemate regarding how to prevent them.

We see mass murders happening at an all too frequent rate, and we wring our hands in agony and fear that we may not be as safe as we would like to be. We don’t quite know what to do. We wonder and worry that any effort that we make will be in vain, and yet surely we have enough intellect and courage to devise a plan that will at least quell the violence even if it does not eliminate it entirely. We grow weary of the arguments and unwillingness to tackle an obvious problem. We understand that our leaders adopt points of view that they believe will get them reelected rather than being willing to venture into discussions of a plan aimed at ultimately reducing the probability that innocents going about their daily business will needlessly die.

I have prayed with all of my heart that those in whom we entrust the functioning of our nation will begin to listen to not just those who support them, but also those who disagree. Each of us must have a voice and yet there are all too many occasions in which those in power ignore half of the citizens. It has become the accepted way of doing things and as such little is ever accomplished. At any given moment in political time far too many feel disenfranchised. When they protest they are ridiculed. We are expected to take sides and then remain loyal to a particular set of beliefs no matter how questionable they may become. While engulfed in sound and fury signifying nothing, terror rains down on us, unborn children die, we fight even with those that we love.

I have been filled with great sadness of late. It is not a place where I wish to be. My innate nature is to be happy and optimistic. I believe with all of my heart that people are truly good. I have seen proof of this on a grand scale during the floods that threatened to destroy my city. I have celebrated after our baseball team won the World Series and noted how magnificently we came together without thoughts of our differences. I know that it is very possible to set aside our polarities and work together. The outcomes of our efforts will no doubt be imperfect but my mathematical mind tells me that it is possible to make closer and closer approximations to a perfection that may one day save lives.

Far too many of us are abrogating our rights to having a voice in our government. We shy away from discussions among ourselves. We are too busy to tell our representatives how we feel. We take our freedoms for granted and somehow believe that silence is preferable to making waves. We walk away from those whose opinions are different from ours rather than calmly engaging in discourse. We are afraid of disagreements and close our ears to ideas that conflict with ours. We wait for change rather than attempting to create it. We accuse those who demonstrate their concerns of being unpatriotic rather than pausing to understand what is bothering them. We fall prey to propaganda and soundbites rather than becoming truly informed. We all feel that something is very wrong but we fear what may occur if we pay attention for too long. Deep in our hearts we abhor what is happening but we are not willing to endure the process of setting things aright again.

I recently had a discussion with someone who had become disenchanted with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas because of his defiant speech at the Republican National Convention. Ironically I had always disliked the senator until the moment when he chose to stand up for his own beliefs. I still disagree with most of his ideas, but I thought it rather remarkable that he was willing to do the unthinkable by urging  members of his party to vote their consciences rather than blindly following the crowd. I was quite sad when he eventually fell in line for fear of alienating his party and losing his position. I would have preferred that he remain steadfast in feeling that we must stop the rock solid allegiances to people and philosophies even when we realize that they are hurting our country.

I cannot be certain that there is one action that will help to curb the gun violence that so plagues us. We need to address not just the ownership of guns but other issues as well. We continue to be confounded by the prevalence of mental illness. We must discuss the abuse of young children and the violence to which they are often exposed which leads them to become troubled adults. We should be willing to consider many different points of view and then craft a plan that at least attempts to consider changes in the ways that we presently do things. Some argue that we must have restrictions on who is able to migrate to our country in the interest of national safety, but those same people do not believe that we should also place restrictions on gun sales and ownership. There is a bit of disconnect in such logic that we must study. Perhaps there is a middle ground for both issues if only we have the willingness to begin a process of national healing. I’m not sure what it will take to convince us of the need to try, but I believe that it is what we must do.