Thinking Inside the Box

clichés-900x675“It’s such a cliche,” she says. “I am weary of platitudes,” he complains. “That comment was so trite,” they observe.

I often see such statements in the quibbling that arises in discussions involving politics or religion. The putdowns are intended to be an assessment of the quality of ideas rather than a sound rebuttal. There is more emotion than rational thought in such outbursts, more insult and arrogance than counterpoint. The use of snide commentary has become fashionable in the modern world of tweets and soundbites. The more outrageous the idea, the more memorable it becomes and so we eschew the old ways of using parables and fables and familiar sayings or themes to explain our human natures. Instead we search for originality and condemn the laziness of quoting ancient ideas.

The dictionary tells us that a cliche is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

“the old cliché “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.””

synonyms:

platitude, hackneyed phrase, commonplacebanality, old saying, maximtruism, stock phrase, trite phrase; old chestnut

“a good speechwriter will steer clear of clichés”

As someone who strives to string words together in unique ways there is probably no greater disappointment than to be considered trite, and yet I know full well that much of what I communicate is as old as the dirt on the ground. There are few totally original ideas. The themes and phrases that we use tend to simply be variations on ways of expressing ourselves that were actually invented eons ago. Furthermore, there is a usefulness of maxims that rings true through the centuries and captures our imaginations even though we have heard them many times before. The best of the old sayings are powerful educational tools perhaps because they are so familiar.

Each day those who watch television find hundreds of possible viewing choices, many of which feature programming that is quite original, modern, even avant guard, and yet in the month of December it was the Hallmark Channel that achieved the highest ratings. This of course was due in the main because of the 24/7 airing of Christmas films most of whose plots were as easy to predict as the fairytales of our childhood. They featured characters who had become lost and eventually found, families that were united in love, communities where the spirit of the season was bright. The stories were predictable and filled with the commonplace, all of which viewers enjoyed with unadulterated delight. They provided an often wished for break from the anger and confusion of our present day situations, and the comfort of the familiar that is all too often missing in the angst driven programming that is the fare of more critically acclaimed features.

The fact that such mundane movies were so embraced should tell us that people are generally weary and prefer light hearted positive messages over the portrayal of the complexities of life that daunt us in the real world. The public is voting for a break from gritty depictions of trouble, and instead choosing hackneyed positivity because sometimes we simply need a time out and a return to the familiar.

Cliches have in fact served as potent truisms whether in the form of fables or films throughout history. They are teaching tools that help us to remember and reflect on important ideas. Just because they are so on target that they are often quoted does not make them useless, but rather timeless and memorable. They provide us with a compact way of expressing important thoughts when our own minds are unable to create new phrases. There is a usefulness in them that we should not eschew simply because they are old and well known, or because they express ideas with which we do not agree.

There are indeed times when we find ourselves at a loss for words. When we hear of a mother who has lost a child or a spouse whose mate is dying, we often find it difficult to know what to say. We turn to the old masters who somehow found the brilliance to create comforting phrases that have a universal appeal throughout the ages. To argue that they make a comment moot simply because they have been used before is a kind of cliche in and of itself. It is a smug put down without really addressing the actual situation. The person who does such a thing may feel superior, but is in reality showing little original thought. An insult is rarely an effective argument as we see all too often in social networking.

There is a disconcerting haughtiness in the insinuations of those who mock the use of time honored phrases that is frankly disturbing to me. It is as disquieting as suggesting that one way of living is superior to another. In reality the abundance of variety speaks to the human need to be free to choose, a reality that we should respect rather than mock.

I would so love to see 2018 become the year of understanding and acceptance. It would be grand if we were somehow able to put an end to so much division and unwillingness to allow everyone to live and let live, and we might start by listening to the intended meaning of what people say rather than parsing their words for significances that are more in our minds than theirs. Our constant critiquing and arguing has become so loathsome that we find ourselves wanting to tune out and tune in to make believe worlds where everything comes out well in the end. We prefer staying inside the security of the box to venturing into unknown thoughts.

The truth is that if we worked just a bit harder to be open to differences of opinions and ideas we might indeed find closer approximations of the happy endings portrayed on those Hallmark movies. The platitudes that our mothers and fathers and teachers taught us were not meant to be nags, but guidelines for living more fully. There was a reason why they became so popular that everyone was repeating them, and they may in fact provide us with ways of better enjoying our human experience. Let’s not be so quick to dismiss them or the individuals who remind us of their power. We needn’t snicker with superiority. We all have much to learn.    

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The Season of Love

Christmas-LoveI’m celebrating my seventieth Christmas this morning and in another eleven months I will enjoy a birthday that makes me a septuagenarian. That’s a great number of December twenty-fifths, and somehow they have always been of great comfort to me even in years filled with tragedy. Christmas for me is bigger than me or any individual. It represents a brief moment when the vast majority of the the people in the world pause to celebrate, some for religious reasons and others just to have a good time. Whatever the motivation the season is all about showing our love for one another. It reminds us that our purpose here on earth is bigger than our individual needs and wants. From the humble beginnings of a baby born in a stable came a revolution in thought that eclipses even the greatest generals and politicians of history. Whether one believes in the sanctity of Jesus or not, there is little disagreement that His message of compassion and understanding is the key to peace on earth, goodwill toward all.

Perhaps my all time favorite Christmas card was a cutout of the word “Love” with the simple message, “Love was born at Christmastime.” I suspect that it moved me so because I had just delivered my own little girl only days before receiving it. I understood then as I do now that each tiny person who comes into to this world has the potential to be an apostle of Jesus’ message of unconditional love. Our challenge in life is to demonstrate kindness and understanding and to use our talents and our blessings for the good of all mankind. It is a daunting task, but one that brings us much joy when we make the attempt and find even a small level of success.

Even more so than Valentine’s Day, Christmas is all about love. As we gather with family and friends we demonstrate our humanity and its glorious potential. We celebrate each special person remembering those who have passed through this life before us and dreaming of those who are yet to come. We exchange gifts as an outward sign of our feelings for one another. We feast on our bounty as a way of sharing and enjoying our blessings. We send greetings to those who have touched our lives. We assess our yearly progress in becoming better persons who follow the message of giving and sharing and loving.

The world is an enormous place. Many among us have beliefs far different from our own. Christians celebrate the coming of the Savior. Jews continue to follow traditions as they await the fulfillment of a promise. Muslims follow the teachings of their Prophet. The nonreligious seek answers to life’s great questions in the words of philosophers and intellectuals. Our commonality lies in our very human quest to be good people whether for purposes of salvation or simply because it is the right thing to do. Christmas day is a time to embrace all of our brothers and sisters without judgement or self-righteousness. It is a moment to enjoy our individual uniqueness and to celebrate our own journeys through life.

There are those who are suffering on this day. It is up to us to remember them as well and to do whatever we can to help them. Maybe that means little more than brightening their day with a quick phone call or the delivery of food or a small gift. We’ve all endured Christmases that were bleak and challenging, but somehow even the most horrible situations have a way of turning around as long as we just keep trying.

Whether one believes that the little baby who so changed the world was truly the Son of God or just a very wise teacher, His words to us were always so simple to understand. By example and deed He demonstrated that every person is important and worthy of our love. Whether it be innocent children or those with whom we disagree He taught us to forgive and embrace everyone. The traditions of the Christmas season were all invented by people who followed Him to commemorate all that is best in our natures. The trees and sparkling lights are signs of the amazing power of life. The gifts are symbolic of our naturally giving natures. The food and the celebrating point to the fact that happiness is all around us and is meant to be shared.

So on this Christmas day of 2017 my hope is that each of us will find the spirit of love and peace that was born in Bethlehem so long ago. For over two thousand years mankind has been attempting to emulate better and better versions of our humanity. We have certainly missed the mark over and over again, but the most important point is that we continue to try even as we falter. Live your life today as though it is your grand opportunity to truly become the message of this season. Spread the love.

A Habit That Bears Repeating

c2ebannerWe are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit. —- Aristotle

The best among us are real. They are people who do not just seem to be good, but are. Most of them quietly live the entirety of their time on earth with little fanfare. They repeatedly strive to work hard and be nice. We know that we may implicitly trust them. While they may have small weaknesses as all humans do, their flaws are incidental and insignificant with regard to the totality their character. They are generally humble and unlikely to seek glory. They are the kind of people who inspire and make a difference, expecting no thanks for what they consider to be just the way we should all behave. They are men and women of principle who do not judge but instead set high standards for themselves that they strive to follow at all times.

We have all known such individuals. The best within our personal circles have been relatives, friends, teachers, coworkers, neighbors. We recall the kindnesses of people who impacted our lives in ways great and small. I see a parade of beautiful faces belonging to those who taught me by their actions how to enjoy an exceptional and purpose driven life. Excellence was indeed a habit for them, and even when death or circumstance revealed the innermost secrets of their lives there was no shocking news or evidence of hypocrisy in their stories. They were exactly what we thought them to be.

I suppose that there is nothing more disheartening than finding out that a person believed to be admirable is in actuality a fake. It is more than a stab in the back. It is a blow to the heart. We fill with anger and even grief when a personal icon’s shadow life is discovered. It is betrayal of the highest insult and even though we may find it in our graciousness to forgive such persons, our trust in them is never quite as complete as it once may have been. It is a hurt that leaves permanent scars.

Our humanity is so complex. Each of us falters. We have weaknesses, flaws that mar our search for perfection. We understand lapses now and again but we generally cannot bear hurtful actions that are repeated. We feel that they become the defining habit of an individual and make it difficult for us to believe them even when they tell us that they will change. Thus we may wish a Harvey Weinstein success with his publicly vocalized intent to seek help for his egregious behavior, but his history tells us that we need to be wary. We may want to believe that someone like Donald Trump is in reality a good Christian man, but his hateful public comments indicate that he is not as loving as we wish him to be. We may not desire to judge such men, but we certainly should be wary of choosing them to lead and represent us.

I was reading an editorial recently in which the writer spoke of our recent tendency to choose our leaders on superficial characteristics that she called “the personality of bling.” In other words more and more often these days we are drawn to people who are just shiny objects rather than persons of high character. We are more concerned with winning than doing the right thing. We overlook horrific traits in the name of gaining power, rather than calling out wrong even when it may mean that we will lose. We look away even in our private circles allowing bullies to operate with impunity. We are afraid to stand up for what is right lest we become the outcasts. We berate men and women like John McCain and Donna Brazile for speaking the truth because we don’t want to make waves that might result in upheaval and change. Our silence and tacit approval of men and women that we know to be egregious only encourages them to repeat their bad actions again and again. It also sends an horrific message to our children.

As a teen and young adult my generation fomented rebellion against a system that was wrought with hypocrisy and even hate. The head of the FBI, the chief law enforcer, hid personal secrets while invading the privacy of others and spreading false rumors to bring them down. One of our presidents obstructed justice. Much of our society was segregated and unjust and racist. We were taught one thing and then observed another. Our instincts told us that we had to rise up against the evils that we saw. When we did we were characterized as spoiled and lazy, a label that would haunt us for the rest of our days.

For the sake of our future and the education of our children it is imperative that we repeatedly represent ourselves with habits that are honorable and worthy of respect. This means that we cannot make excuses for behaviors that are harmful. If we want excellence to be our defining characteristic as individuals and as a nation then we can no longer advance false and insulting arguments that defend horrific actions. We must condemn anyone who distorts truth and goodness whether it be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or a member of our own family. We simply can no longer afford to cast stones at those who sacrifice their own reputations to reveal the underside of anyone who is manipulating us. To allow ourselves to be abused by heroes or relatives or bullies is akin to self harm. Our silence and acceptance only allows the bad behaviors to grow. As generally very good people we must begin to heal again and head in a positive direction by removing the fears associated with speaking out.

Long before the terrible shootings at Columbine High School there were teachers and students and parents who reported concerns about the two young men who ultimately became mass murderers. The individuals who stepped forward were questioned and harassed more than the boys who were the objects of their worries. In journal entries one of the killers laughed at how easily he fooled everyone with his charms and bragged about twisting their stories to make it appear that he was being beset upon rather than being the real bully. He might have been stopped if his accusers’ stories had been accorded more respect. Instead the school administrators and even the police suggested that the behaviors were just typical teenage antics.

It’s time for all of us to truly honor character once again. There are many moral people in our midst. In fact I believe that such individuals are the majority. Sadly we are lacking in leadership from the best among us and instead honoring those who fool us with empty promises and bombast. We allow hateful people to proclaim their Christianity even while lying and espousing harmful and selfish ideas. We have permitted ourselves to accept a double standard all in the name of winning. It is time for each of us to insist on excellence of character once again. It is a habit that bears repeating.    

What Would Jesus Do?

15245699_GHer name is Rosa Maria. She is ten years old and has cerebral palsy. She’s just had gallbladder surgery and is being released from the hospital with her aunt by her side. She wears a pair of pink fuzzy slippers and a balloon waves over the hospital bed on which she is being transported. She is confused and frightened because an armed man walks behind her. He is a member of ICE and is taking the little girl to a detention center because she is an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States when she was only three months old. Her mother brought her across the border so that she might get the medical care that she will need for all of her life. Her grandfather and her aunt are legal and they take her to her appointments just as she was brought to San Antonio for her recent surgery. She will go to the detention center without her aunt or her mom. She will be kept there, alone and wondering what is happening. It can’t be easy for her. She is young and innocent but she is being treated like a criminal.

Maritza lives in northeast Houston. She attends Furr High School and is one of the top students. Her modest home flooded when hurricane Harvey dumped fifty one inches of rain on Houston. The rooms are now empty and life is difficult for her family, but Maritza’s mom urges her to make the most of each day in spite of the family’s problems. Maritza is also an undocumented immigrant. She was planning to enroll with the government to extend her grace period for being here. Because of the rains Maritza was unable to meet the deadline for submitting the paperwork. She had been waiting for information from her school, but it was so damaged that it did not open in time for her request to be honored. Now Maritza worries that she will be deported and all of her hopes and dreams will evaporate. She had been on track to attend a Texas university and earn a degree, the first in her family to do so. She is a good girl who had nothing to do with her illegal entry into the country. She has studied hard and worked to be a model citizen even though that distinction is not offered to her. She had hoped that Congress would offer an extension to the young undocumented students of Houston, but they have refused.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said that it is not compassionate to offer amnesty to those who have broken the immigration laws. He and the President and many members of Congress concur that those who flaunted the rules must pay for their crimes. So Rosa Maria and Maritza and others who have known no other home than the United States presently live in fear of being sent to countries of which they have little or no familiarity. Their lives have been upended and they continually live in fear of the moment when someone will knock on their doors and take them to a detention center just as was done with Rosa Maria. Their ultimate fates are uncertain, dependent on a Congress that has shown little inclination to work together to accomplish anything, much less pass a permanent law that will protect them. They worry that they will become victims of the current anti-immigrant ardor that has taken hold of so many citizens, most of whom care little about the personal stories of those affected.

There is a kind of coldness of heart, a meanness that is sweeping the land in a so-called effort to make America great again. Many citizens view the immigrant situation through a narrow lens that does not allow for exceptions. Surprisingly a fair number of those who are so adamant that the undocumented should be sent to their original homes have never even met any so called illegals. They have little idea of the human cost of decisions that do not consider the unexpected consequences of their thinking. They suggest that they might be willing to offer a DACA like law for the young people, but only if it includes the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico and if there are strict penalties for those who came here without documentation as adults. Sadly it appears that none of those things will garner enough votes to pass, and so the fates of Maritza and Rosa Maria and others like them hang in the political balance.

I live in the Houston, Texas metropolitan area. It is estimated that that ten percent of the students in the Houston Independent School District are undocumented and were brought here by their parents at a time when they wee too young to have any idea of what was happening. They have lived here for the entirety of their lives and know no other ways. They speak English and have adopted many of our customs in addition to those of their parents. They cheer for the Astros, the Texans, the Rockets and the Dynamos. They wear western gear when the rodeo comes to town. They enjoy going to movies and shopping at the mall. They have friends at school and teachers who care deeply about them. They like to eat Whataburgers and buy groceries at HEB. They feel as American as any of their peers and yet they hide the secrets of their situations. For a time after President Obama signed DACA through an executive order they felt safe. They began to dream. Many of them went to college and earned degrees. They have been working and living decent and productive lives. Now a shadow hovers over them. They have no idea what they will become of them. President Trump gave Congress six months to pass legislation to fix the problem. The clock is ticking and no solution appears to be on the horizon. Nobody seems willing to budge from their ideologies to help them. They can only wait and hope but their fears grow with each passing day.

Rosa Maria still sits alone in a detention center without her mother or the love and protection of her family. It is heartbreaking to attempt to imagine what a nightmare this all must be for her. It is difficult to understand how uncaring the adults who have done this to her appear to be. Sometimes we need to remember that forgiveness is not a sign of weakness. One of the last acts of Jesus before He died on the cross was to forgive the thief who expressed his sorrow. I have always believed that this was a very purposeful act designed to show us that how we also should behave and to help us understand that nobody should be forever doomed for actions done in the past, particularly when they had no control over what happened. If we ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” I have little doubt that the answer is couched in mercy.

It’s past time for all of us to demonstrate enough compassion and trust in our fellow man to grant people like Rosa Maria and Maritza the peace of mind that they so need. We must urge our Congresspersons to think beyond their own prejudices and find it in their hearts to model kindness for all of us. I have grown weary of the fighting and ugliness that so permeates our world. It’s time for a change and this is a good place to start.

In the Course of Human Events

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Back when I was teaching in South Houston I had unusually large numbers of students who were Seventh Day Adventists. They were particularly sweet, hardworking and respectful pupils who made my job so much easier. I always appreciated that their parents had taught them values that included being thoughtful and compliant with regard to my classroom rules and routines. Mixed in with them were a number of hardcore gang members who seemed ready by their very natures to challenge me and thus divert my time and attention from the task of conveying and facilitating knowledge to all of my young charges. The gang members stood out with their swagger and their stealth ways of showing their allegiances. The children devoted to their particular religious tenets made themselves known in another way that we teachers accepted not as defiance but as their right with regard to certain features of the Bill of Rights. Namely, they sat quietly in their seats each morning while the rest of us stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

It was a given that their unobtrusive gesture of belief was something to be respected and perhaps even admired, and so nobody ever questioned their right or even their intent. There were no discussions, nor judgements. Instead we simply did our thing each morning and they did theirs. For me there was something quite beautiful about the freedom of it all, and the fact that we honored their freedom without making a big deal out of it. None of those kids had to have any form of proof of their religious belief on file. They might just as well have simply been frauds who took advantage of our largesse. We understood that it was really none of our business to question their views one way or another. It simply was what it was and it all passed quickly and without incident every single morning.

Over time I worked in many different schools and there was always the accepted actuality that we would not force our own religious or political or social beliefs on our students. We were to be respectful of individual thinking one way or another, and for the most part all of my colleagues defended the freedoms of the students, mostly without fanfare or drawing embarrassing attention to students who required special dispensations. We understood the importance of being fair and impartial.

Now a huge brouhaha has been dusted up over some rather inappropriate comments from the President of the United States of all people regarding players in the NFL and other sports who choose to take a knee rather than stand for the National Anthem. It is unfortunate that our leader appears to have neglected to thoroughly read and understand the full contents of the Bill of Rights, for it is rather clear that those athletes have as much right to make a political point by refusing to stand as my students did. The President may not agree with them or even like what they are doing, but to call them “sons of bitches” and suggest that they be fired is way out of line, and all Americans should call him out for doing so, regardless of their feelings about the players’ methods or intent. The fact is that the athletes have a right as Americans to express their discontent, and instead of mocking them our leaders should be proud that the Constitution with its Bill of Rights is still working as it was intended to do.

Of course the owners of the teams also retain the ability to employ whomever they wish. Players are regularly sent packing for a host of reasons, most of which deal with their abilities to perform their duties well. In truth if one of the owners wished to require their employees to stand during the opening ceremonies of each game he/she would be well within the guidelines of employment, but they need not respond to the whims of the President in making such determinations. It was wrong of President Trump to intimidate the owners with his remarks and his tweets which were undoubtedly made to garner political capital.

The question of how best to define patriotism has been argued since the very beginnings of the United States of America. There are those whose ideas are more narrow and confining. They insist that we will work best as a republic if we all agree to always honor our country and our leaders. Others feel that what is best about America is the ability to voice concerns without retribution. They see symbolic resistance as the highest form of patriotism, for it harks back to the Founding Father’s insistence that no authoritarian government has the right to tread on the rights of the individual. Our country began with revolution against a tyrannical government. The writers of the Constitution were determined to make certain that no one individual or group would have the power to insist that we think in lockstep. In this regard President Trump has overstepped his bounds. While he too has the right to disagree with the athletes who are mounting a protest, he surely is wrong when he disparages them for exercising their rights as citizens. Furthermore, his bullying tactics with regard to the team owners are both embarrassing and questionable. He would do well to retake a Civics course before mouthing off so publicly. He might also consider reacting the way we did when I was teaching whenever we encountered individuals whose beliefs were different from ours. We always understood that it was their right to question conventional thinking, and that our duty was to provide them with a safe space for doing so.

We will each react a bit differently to the protests among our professional athletes. The Constitution provides us with the protections to do so. We may turn off the games if we feel strongly enough. We may join them in taking a knee. We may even just choose to quietly ignore the whole incident and celebrate the wondrous idea that we have the power to make our own choices regarding such things in this country. It does not defile our national honor whenever any citizen exercises his or her rights. In fact it dramatically demonstrates that we are a truly free people.

Our military has fought for liberty from the time that those first shots were fired at Lexington and Concorde. We haven’t always created a perfect form of government, but we have worked hard to make it better. We haven’t always chosen the right sides, but we have somehow been able to recover from our mistakes and improve our ways of doing things. We will never reach the goals of a more perfect union if we are unwilling to pause now and again to question the way we do things and to discuss methods for being certain that every man, woman and child has a voice and a sense of security.

Our Founding Fathers were radicals in the world in which they lived. Their ideas were audacious for the time. I suspect that if they were around to comment they would insist that the players be allowed to have their moment to shed a light on issues that worry them. They would also encourage President Trump to be less domineering and pejorative, and far more willing to stop his tirades long enough to find out why these men feel so strongly about their concerns that they are willing to endure the wrath of their fans and the leader of the nation. It’s time for all Americans to insist that our president work for the good of all, not just the few that form his base of voters. That is what our founders intended, and that is the way it should work.

Frankly I am weary and I know that most of my fellow Americans are as well. I agree with Senator John McCain that it is well past time to dispense with all of the quibbling and attempt to remember what this country is supposed to be about. It’s a watershed moment in which we must set aside our hatefulness and invective and begin again to consider the diversity of needs that we have. Most of all it should be the duty of all to protect our First Amendment rights regardless of our own beliefs, for they are far more important than pledges or anthems or routines. Sometimes in the course of human events it becomes necessary to speak out.