Explorations of Our Being

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What is this mind that we humans have? How does it work and how much of it goes unused because we have yet to tap into the totality of its power? Why is there a disconnect between how I see myself from the point of view of my thoughts and how I really appear in my physical reality? What causes some of our memories to remain vividly intact for all time and others to fade into oblivion? What happens when a mind becomes muddled, filled with extreme sadness, fears or paranoid thoughts? These are questions that have confounded me for years. They are the kind of queries that have guided the thoughts of brilliant individuals and ordinary souls for centuries. Somehow we have obtained more and more of a grasp on our physical being over time but clear knowledge of the complexities of our brains still remains somewhat elusive.

We humans don’t simply react to the world around us. We contemplate it sometimes to the point of obsession. We have an innate desire to dream, analyze and restructure. There is no reason for us to enhance the world beyond our most basic physical needs and yet we do. We don’t simply endure the unfolding of our lives but instead reflect on all that has happened to us, sometimes with joy in such remembrance and sometimes with great sorrow.

Memories are a remarkable aspect of our humanity. We quite often retain vivid pictures of things that we have experienced even decades after they occurred. Ironically the very incidents that we would most like to forget because of the pain that they brought us are sometimes the ones that remain the clearest in our minds. What is it about trauma that etches it so deeply in our psyches?

On the day of my father’s death I was only eight years old and yet I can recall details about every aspect of that horrific event from the time that I awoke to hear my mother weeping until the end of the evening when she and I cried in each other’s arms. I can see colors and hear sounds as though all of my senses were somehow heightened in a way that I had never before experienced. Even more than sixty years later thoughts of that day bring feelings so visceral that they still cause pain.

So too it has been with more generalized occurrences that impacted the whole of society with profound consequences. I know exactly where I was sitting and what I was doing when I first heard of the assassination of President Kennedy. I do not know if we had a Thanksgiving dinner that year but I can tell you where I was and what went through my mind when I watched the president’s funeral procession and witnessed the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.

I still catch my breath when I think of the planes flying through the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I literally get a flutter of anxiety in my heart when I picture their dramatic collapse. I hear the screams and feel the terror that filled my thoughts in the split second in which I realized the reality of what was happening.

Over the years it has been the most horrific moments that have stayed permanently embossed on my psyche. I am filled with grief when I think of the first time that I truly understood the extent of my mother’s mental illness. It coincided with the first landing on the moon which is only a blur in my mind compared to the recollections that I retain of her pain.

I am haunted by images of the flooding from hurricane Harvey in my beloved city and the aftermath of destruction in the homes of family members and friends. I still get a catch in my throat when I think of how I felt when I saw what had happened after hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, a place I think of as a sister city.

So it goes with my memories. I barely recall the details of my college graduation or even my carefully planned wedding but I can describe the tiniest of particulars on the last days of my mother’s life. I wonder what it is about my mind that clings so tenaciously to thoughts of events that I would prefer to forget. What kind of chemical or physical reactions occur in our brains that causes such impressions to stay with us? What is it about our very humanity that stirs us to contemplate such things?

I try not to become too obsessive about such ideas. I purposely busy myself when my ruminating ventures into territory that is too dark and yet I am fascinated by the mere possibilities of unlocking the inner workings of our complex being. Understanding the mind was at one time forbidden fruit. Now we have discovered so much about how it all works and yet there is still so much mystery when it comes to comprehending the most spiritual aspect of our being. Exploring the territory of our very being has been the quest of philosophers, physicians, scientists and theologians and still we are in the dark when it comes to the how and why of our deepest thoughts.

  

Do I Dare?

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The seventy fifth anniversary of the liberation of the people imprisoned in Auschwitz touched my heart. Somehow I realized for the first time that the horror of that place only ended four years before my own birth. What had always seemed like a far away event was actually something that happened shortly before the beginning of my lifetime. It hit me hard to think of the people who had endured the horrors of that place and I found myself wondering as I have often done how I might have acted if I had been caught up in the maelstrom of evil that overtook so much of Europe in those years.

I had always believed that I would have been safe from any of the repercussions of the Nazi terror, but a DNA test proved me wrong. I indeed have a small percentage of genetic compatibility with those who are descended from Eastern European Jews. Would I have been classified as someone who needed to be erased from society? Would the fact of my grandmother’s and mother’s mental illnesses have further increased my likelihood of being sent to a concentration camp? Who knows? I shudder to even consider such a consequence just for being born, and yet that was the fate of millions who had done nothing more than bear the mark of traits that Adolf Hitler and his crazed followers deemed unworthy of human respect.

More important to me than the possibility of being among the numbers herded onto trains and sent to an unthinkable hell is the question of whether or not I would have had the courage to do something to help those whose human rights were being abused in the most savage ways. I’ve always wanted to think that I might have helped them in some way either by speaking out or taking part in some sort of underground movement intent on providing aide. It’s easy to imagine such a thing in theory but actually being brave enough to risk everything would have been daunting. I’m honestly not certain that I would have mustered the courage to to the right thing.

For that reason I was incredibly inspired when I learned the story of Stanislawa Leszczyńska, a midwife who resided in Poland during the Nazi occupation. Stanislawa and her family were quite active in helping the Jews who had were living in abysmal conditions in the overcrowded ghetto where they had been separated from the rest of the population. For a time their work went unnoticed but eventually they were discovered and Stanislawa ended up a prisoner of Auschwitz.

While she was there she offered her services as a midwife, doing her best to improve the unsanitary conditions that lead to many childbirth deaths. The routine way of doing things was to kill the babies as soon as they were born and to force the women to watch their newborns being drowned in a bucket. Stanislawa refused to participate in such murder and it is believed that she managed to save at least a thousand babies who might otherwise have been killed. Many women who gave birth in the camp credit Stanislawa with keeping both them and their children alive. 

I cannot even imagine the kind of fearlessness that it took for Stanislawa to threaten the safety of her life and that of her family in an effort to do what was morally right. She might easily have turned away her gaze and pretended that she was unaware of the monstrosity of what was happening to the people in her town. She and her family would never have seen the inside of Auschwitz had they simply protected themselves through inaction. When she was caught and sent to a camp she might have chosen to quietly follow the rules in order to insure her own survival but once again she challenged authorities and ignored commands that she knew were immoral. How she got away with her brazen actions is a kind of miracle.

There are amazing people in the world who refuse to worry about negative consequences in the crusade for justice. They literally risk their own lives in the pursuit of right over wrong. It is never an easy thing to do and while I want to believe that given the same circumstances I would be willing to surrender my own freedom to help those being wrongfully abused, I wonder if I would instead quietly accept the status quo out of fear. Being a Thomas Moore, a Martin Luther King, Jr., or an Oskar Schindler is risky and often deadly business. It’s so much easier to just look away and pretend that nothing is happening.

The world is riddled with problems even today. Dare I talk of them or do something constructive to correct them? I have friends willing to speak their minds while I often shudder with the fear of being misunderstood or ostracized if I were to openly do or say what I believe to be right. Stansilawa Leszcynska inspires me. Do I dare be like her?

Your Worst Nightmares

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We were gathered together at my daughter’s home on a Saturday evening. It was just my two girls, two grandsons, my only granddaughter, and I deciding to play a board game. One of the boys brought out a box labeled Your Worst Nightmare. He said that he thinks that I once bought it for him. I don’t remember doing that, but it sounds like something that would appeal to me. Anyway, the premise of the game was to rank four things in order of how scary they are from greatest to least, then try to guess how someone else’s list might look. It was fun and created lots of laughs but I did a terrible job of determining what other people’s fears were. Nonetheless the little entertainment got me to thinking of what is most frightening to me and why is it so.

I suppose that the most terrifying nightmare I have ever had or thought about having revolves around the idea that I am driving across a high bridge over a deep river and somehow end up careening from the structure into the darkness of the water with only seconds to free myself from the constraints of my seatbelt, find a way to open a window, and then somehow swim to safety. In those dreams I never get past the fight to get out of the car but then I never actually drown either. I don’t know how long the dream actually lasts but I wake up shaken and exhausted whenever it occurs which luckily is infrequently.

Supposedly such a nighttime vision indicates feelings of loss of control. In my own car I suspect that they stem from my father’s death inside a car that plunged into a ditch. He died immediately upon impact so there was never a question of escape for him, but I suppose that I still have a strong desire to be able to change the course of events that lead to his death. Getting out of my own car and swimming to safety is a metaphor for being able to somehow prevent him from taking the fateful drive that ended with his heart stopping and mine breaking.

Our fears are sometimes irrational, but more often than not they are somehow related to traumas we have actually experienced. I fear being caught in a burning building because I witnessed a man being carried lifeless from his home after it caught fire. Later one of my cousins died in his bed when he fell asleep smoking. It would not be irrational for me to sense the need to be careful and to have a plan in the event of a fiery outbreak. Thus I always rehearse an escape route just to be safe wherever I go.

I can’t explain why I fear snakes as much as I do. I have had no negative experiences with them other than one occasion when I disobeyed my grandmother and came upon a frightful sight of snakes infesting a lake. They did not hurt me, but their image makes my heart race whenever I see a snake, no matter how harmless it may actually be. Perhaps it is just a primal thing or maybe a feeling of guilt for having ignored my grandmother’s instructions.

Likewise all of  the dentists that I have visited have been painless save for the cost of their procedures and yet the mere thought of going to an appointment makes my heart beat faster and a feeling of dread spreads through my entire being. Maybe it was a scene from the movie Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier that planted a seed of terror in my mind or perhaps I just find the tools of the dental trade to be similar to Medieval instruments of torture. Indeed dentists are some of the nicest people that I know who bend over backwards to keep me free from pain. I really don’t know why they scare me so.

Our fears are personal and not always easily understood which is why we all did so poorly in the game that asked us to determine how well we knew the fears of others. Nonetheless it was quite enlightening to learn about what actually terrifies another person. Everything from being dumped by a friend or lover to working in a cubical can make someone break into a cold sweat, while walking through a graveyard at midnight might be little more than a fun adventure.    

We humans are undoubtedly complex and what we don’t like can be as individual as what pleases us. I have a niece who would be totally comfortable having nonpoisonous snakes roaming around her house. My husband thinks that visits to the dentist are a piece of cake. My brother ran into burning structures for a living. On the other hand those same individuals might dread speaking in front of an audience which I actually enjoy. Our nightmares are often simply reflections of traumatic events or feelings from our lives. In my own case loss of control is what drives my greatest fears and no doubt my need to be in charge of my own fate has its foundations in the one moment over which I had no power, the death of my father.

Few of us actually sit around morosely worrying over things that go bump in the night but our dreams are windows into the sub conscious part of ourselves that lie in wait to frighten us while we sleep. It’s all a quite normal process but actually admitting to things that seem irrational is a difficult thing to do. Playing a game with people that we trust helps us bring our worries to the surface and sometimes even helps us to laugh when we feel as though we are about to cry. A bit of honesty in the name of fun can be a therapeutic way of understanding ourselves and the people that we love. It also reminds us that each of us is very human.

It’s Time to Clear the Rubble

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On September 11, 2019 the citizens of the United States once again remembered the events of 9/11. Somehow overcast weather in my city matched the solemn feelings that most of us have on this day each year as we recall where we were and what we saw with vivid clarity. It was an unbelievable, unexplainable moment when it became clear beyond a doubt that so much of who we are and what we believe was vulnerable and under attack.

I usually write and post a blog about this event more appropriately on its actual anniversary, but this year I found myself struggling for words to describe the evolution of my thoughts over the ensuing eighteen years since that day. Instead I simply read the touching feelings of others and felt that visceral punch in the gut that hit me almost two decades ago when we were still a somewhat naive citizenry. On that day we grieved together both for those who had so suddenly and tragically died and for the death of our innocence.

In the aftermath of the tragedy we stood together as a nation in our resolve to show the world that we would not be defeated by evil. We thought that we had the strength to overcome the forces that hoped to divide us, and at the time it seemed as though we would remain united and strong. At first it was our collective grief that kept us together, but over time it was our fear that began to tear us apart. We had different ideas about how to proceed forward and our debates became more and more brutal and personal until our discussions were no longer dialog but instead vicious arguments. Our united front crumbled as surely as the twin towers had done leaving us in a chronic state of war with one another. Instead of building our nation stronger than ever we became our own worst enemies.

In the eighteen years since 9/11 we have taken our political discussions to new lows. It’s been awhile since we showed respect for the offices of our government. There were those who hated George W. Bush and demeaned him in cartoonish ways. There were those who hated Barack Obama and demeaned him in racist ways. Now there are those who hate Donald Trump and demean him to the point of attempting to drive him from office. Our Congress is paralyzed by the infighting and unwillingness to compromise in a bipartisan way that is good for the country. It is now fashionable to destroy those who think differently by ravaging their character and their beliefs. In other words, whether we realize it or not, those men who so viciously attacked our nation on September 11, 2001, have accomplished more than just killing three thousand souls and bringing down two buildings. They have punched a hole into the very heart of democracy, and we have played into the their hands with our unrestrained anger which we now focuses inward rather than at the true source.

We began by restricting freedoms for safety’s sake and then we began pointing fingers here in our own country as though knowing who to blame for the tragedy might somehow make us feel better. Our debates ran the gamut from invoking punishing retribution to demonstrating kindness to our enemies. We were in new territory, not really knowing what to do. So many mistakes were made just as throughout all of history. We were so anxious to resolve our troubles that we let our impatience get the best of us. We were being ruled more by emotions than logic. Our feelings overtook us and led us to lose our focus. Every little thing was steeped in hyperbole that eventually evolved into propaganda.

We felt very lost and confused and when we turned to the media for understanding they only fanned the flames of our divisions. Soundbites became our arguments and dissolved into petty catch phrases that offered no real solutions. The media had a field day with our worries and our feuding, making hay from our fears and driving us further and further apart.

On the morning of the eighteenth anniversary of 9/11 the headlines in most of the major news outlets were not about remembering that horrific event but about clashes with the White House and innuendo about members of Congress and the Supreme Court. Stories of 9/11 were in small print, hidden among headlines about celebrities and sports. This alone told me much about where we find ourselves eighteen years after perhaps the most horrific moment in our country’s history.

It is long past time for all of us to regain our wits and demonstrate the true strength of this country that is found in good people everywhere. We are not the stereotype that some would have us believe we are. Ours is a flawed history just as that of every other country in the world, but it is a story based on an idea of freedom and dignity that we are still attempting to perfect. We must choose to be the people that we want to be rather than a fearful mob focused on degrading the very foundations of our country. We need to insist on a return to logic and calm in our national debates and understand that sometimes we only progress by accepting compromises. We each must be willing to address the needs of a changing world and do so with dignity.

There is great truth in the adage that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It is time that we work together and without rancor. Eighteen years have done great damage to our republic. While we were arguing the rubble in New York City was cleared and magnificent structures were erected in its place. We need to begin the process of doing the same for the government of our country otherwise those terrorists will have won. We can’t allow that if for no other reason than to be certain that those who died did not do so in vain. It’s time to clear the rubble.

They Were Victims Too

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I saw a news story along with comments from readers that really bothered me, but not for the reasons that most people would imagine. It was a piece about the parents of the Dayton shooter. They had posted obituaries for both their son, the young man who killed nine people, and their daughter, who was one of the victims. Each obituary was rather commonplace in the ways in which they described the lives of the two individuals. What riled those who read them was that the one for the murderer told his story as though he were some beautiful son that the parents had lost all too soon. People were so upset that the local newspaper pulled the obituary for the shooter and the mother felt compelled to explain herself and apologize.

Most of the comments regarding the obituary were quite vile with little or no respect for the grieving parents. It made me shudder to read them and to realize how vindictive people actually are. Of course there is much anger over what happened, but only one person was compassionate enough to point out that the parents of the perpetrator of the tragedy were suffering a great loss as well. They are wondering how things could have gone so terribly wrong in their son’s thinking. They are remembering the person they thought he was and trying to understand how he became so vile. It must be indeed quite horrific for them, and acknowledging their own grief in no way underscores the tragedy.

As a mom I loved my daughters from the first moments that I felt the changes in my body telling me that I was carrying them in my womb. Over the months I delighted in their kicks and the movements that they made to tell me that they were alive and well. When I first saw their faces after their births I literally cried with joy. I counted their fingers and their toes and felt the creases in their skin. Over the years my heart swelled as I watched them grow into fine young women. Neither of them matured without making mistakes, but we got past them because I loved them always. So it is with almost every mother on earth, even when children disappoint beyond measure.

I once had a student who went haywire in a classroom, cursing and assaulting a teacher. Before he calmed down he threatened several other faculty members and an assistant principal. Eventually he lost steam and sat forlornly in a conference room waiting for his mother to take him home after being expelled. He was one of my favorite students so I was heartbroken over what had happened. I went to talk with him and he immediately began to cry, proclaiming that he knew that I now hated him. I insisted that I would always love him but also hate what he had done. I could forgive him, but not his act of violence. He understood exactly what I meant.

When Jesus was condemned to die on the cross the people who had once celebrated him taunted and jeered with venom. They turned on him completely, and even his apostles hid with shame and fear of having been associated with him. His mother, however, never wavered from loving him. She stood by him until the very end of his life. This is what mothers do.

I am also reminded of a story that my dear sweet Uncle William told me. Here in Houston decades ago there was an horrific story of mass murder. A crazed man enlisted two young teens to bring victims to him. They brought unsuspecting males to a house in Pasadena where they were sexually abused, tortured and then killed. They helped the man dispose of the bodies along the beaches of Galveston and in a storage facility in southwest Houston. The accounts made the national news because they were so horrific.

One of the teens who worked with the murderer was Elmer Wayne Henley. He lived on my Uncle William’s postal route. My uncle regularly saw him and was shocked by developments because Elmer Wayne had always appeared to be such a good boy. He took care of his aging mom and provided her with the extra income that she needed as a single parent. My uncle spoke of how proud Elmer Wayne’s mother had always been of him. Even after the news of his part in the horror became fodder for gossip, Elmer Wayne’s mom spoke of the wonderful son that she knew. Until her death she did not turn away from him. It’s what mothers do.

I wish that we as a society might be able to separate the sins of a son or daughter from the love of a parent.  Perhaps if we were more inclined for compassion in such situations we might have less anger, hate and violence in our society. One of the most touching stories I have ever heard came when Amish school children were killed by a crazed man who had a family of his own. There were threats being made on his wife and children as the anger over what he had done raged. Members of the Amish community made it known that they felt as much compassion for his family as they did for their own. They embraced the woman who was as shocked as they were over what her husband had done. They extended a hand of love and sympathy. They truly understood that there was much grief to go around.

I weep for the victims of the Dayton shooting, but I also cry for the parents of the man who committed the crime. I don’t know how much they ultimately had to do with how their son turned out, but I am certain that they too lost so much on that day. It does not hurt us to allow them a bit of dignity as they grapple with the confusion and sorrow that must surely be relentlessly stalking them. If their comments about their son seemed inappropriate it is most likely because they really don’t know what to think or how to act. Their shock is a great and maybe even greater than ours. It’s time we all begin to choose kindness over revenge when dealing with the families of killers unless it is proven that they were accessories to such crimes. They are victims too.