The World At Our Fingertips

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I’m not going to tell stories of walking a mile uphill through the snow to get to school when I was young. The fact is that I lived in a flat city with a rather temperate climate and the distance to my school was only a matter of blocks. My journey was a short and rather pleasant affair. What was the most difficult about learning fifty or sixty years ago involved doing research for papers or my debate class. The only way to get information beyond the outdated set of encyclopedias that my father had purchased before he died was making a trip to the library.

Of course the old way of doing such things was to be armed with lots of paper and index cards to jot down information by hand, starting with notes about where to find the books and periodicals that I needed. I’d begin with the card catalog and then pray that the items that I wanted would actually be in the library. About seventy five percent of the time some other fortunate soul would have already checked out what I had hope to find. Even worse was when I eagerly turned the pages of a magazine only to discover that someone had vandalized it by tearing out the very sections that I most desired to read. Research was a frustrating and time consuming project that often took hours on a sunny Saturday when I would have preferred to be anywhere but inside a library.

Unfortunately for me this mode of getting the data for my papers continued through both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in college. I never formally enjoyed the luxury of using the Internet to learn or gather information while I was still a student but I watched it become ever more sophisticated and capable of housing a vast array of ideas and processes unlike anything the world had ever before seen. Now it seems as though I can use this marvelous technological advance to self teach myself about virtually anything and hardly a day goes by that I do not take full advantage of it, all in the comfort of my home without ever having to get out of my pajamas or put on my shoes.

I suspect that people in my age group marvel a bit more over the Internet than young folks who have grown up taking it for granted. I often find myself considering how much more I might have accomplished in life if I had not been bogged down by the time consuming process of searching for information when I was still a student. Now I am able to find multiple sources and points of view on virtually any topic as long as the wifi is operating wherever I happen to be.

Of late I’m a YouTube geek when in comes to Pre-AP Pre-Calculus. In an effort to better prepare students for AP Calculus the methods for teaching and learning the fundamentals of Pre-Calculus have changed. When I was still in high school such a course didn’t even exist and even when I attended college the depth and breadth of what I learned was not equivalent to today’s course. Since I never taught mathematics beyond Algebra II, and that was over twelve years ago, I have had to update my knowledge so that I might better prepare my grandsons for their tests. I’ve turned to the Internet for my own tutoring sessions and the experience has been rather remarkable. There are a number of dedicated souls who film themselves explaining the various concepts and they have illuminated me time and again when I felt a bit confused about a particular way of doing things. I do believe that it might be totally possible to learn the full scope of high school mathematics simply by going online each day and then practicing the processes just a bit.

I never dreamed that there would be so much knowledge easily available for anyone desiring to partake of it. I continually find answers to my own questions about the world around me. I’ve learned to search for multiple sources and to check the credentials of the persons providing the narratives that I read. It doesn’t take long to realize that some of the information is false or a bit inadequate so I never rely on a single site but in general the entire world of knowledge is there for the taking at anytime of the day or night and I can’t think of anything more wonderful.

Through the lens of the Internet I’ve seen the world, found my ancestors, listened to lectures, enjoyed music and learned how to cook delicious meals. The possibilities are seemingly  limitless and so I marvel at how lucky we are in this day and time. Even someone who is homebound still has access to knowledge. We need go no farther than the room where our computer or laptop is housed to find works of art and great thinkers. It’s breathtaking to think how lucky we are.

Even as I write this blog there is much concern over what may happen if the coronavirus spreads through our country causing schools to close and isolation to become the temporary norm. People wonder how they will spend their time, what they will do with their children. I suggest that they go to the Internet for ideas. There is a whole cornucopia of ideas just waiting to be discovered. Passing time these days is just a moment away. Learn how things work. Read great literature. Study the history of a time and place. The possibilities are limitless. There is so much to learn and it’s become so easy to find. The world is at our fingertips.

I Am the Median

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From a statistical point of view my life has hovered around the median. I represent continuity and moderation and a mix of conservative and progressive points of view. While my life was tragically made a bit unusual for the times in which I lived by my father’s early death, that anomaly was mediated by the environment in which I grew into an adult. I am a product of a small and insular neighborhood in a time when my native city of Houston was still more of a town than a city. My life was guided by routines and traditions that rarely varied. There was an entire village of people both familial and unrelated by blood who watched over me. I grew strong and happy and so loved that I was ready to tackle any challenges that came my way. As an adult I was so busy attempting to reconstruct my own sweet world for my children that I barely noticed how much the times were actually changing.

When I was seven years old I was uprooted from everything and everyone that I had ever known to accompany my family on a journey west where a quiet revolution of opportunity and change was overtaking people like a fever. My days there were painful because I had lost the anchor of extended family and friends that always made me feel so secure. I was among people who were so busy building dreams that they had little time to welcome us. I went to school each day feeling nameless and misunderstood. Ironically my father felt the same way at his work. None of us ever fit in to the race for something unknown that so dominated life in the part of California that would one day be the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Before long we all just wanted to be back home in Texas.

With little more than a wing and a prayer we slowly made our way back to what we had known. Along the way my father searched for a job. His efforts to find work lead us all the way back to Houston, and for the very first time in a long time I recall feeling quite relieved even though we had not yet settled into a permanent home. My father’s deadly car accident left my mother bereft and scrambling to create a sense of continuity for all of us. Luckily we had returned to the people for whom we had longed when we were far away and they gathered in unison to help us every step of the way. Oh, how I loved them and still do!

My mother wisely returned us to the very neighborhood from whence we had moved only months before. We were welcomed like the Prodigal Son. Our life began its constant revolution around church, school, family and friendships. There was a lovely sense of calm about the way we lived. We stayed in the same house until all of us were grown and on our own. We had the same neighbors for years. It was rare for anyone to move away back then. When we went to church each Sunday we saw the familiar faces of people who smiled and greeted us by name. We attended the same school with the same kids who are friends with us even fifty years later. Each Friday evening we visited my maternal grandmother in a gathering that included all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. In the summer we traveled to visit with my paternal grandparents on their farm.

We constantly heard stories from our elders about the history of who we were that carried little nuggets of expectation without being overbearing. At church we learned about the comfort that is always available from God and the ways of compassion and love that Jesus taught the world. Our teachers and our parents spoke openly to us about both the greatness and the imperfections of our country, urging us to always remember our responsibility to maintain a healthy democracy.

We were always a bit behind the fads and movements along the two coasts of the country. We were more inclined to study how things went there before jumping into the idea of adopting radical change without much thought. Our lives were slow and steady like the tortoise. We knew that we would eventually get to our desired destinations, but we did not want to lose sight of more important things like family and friends along the way.

Suddenly it seemed as though both the innovations and the cautions that were brewing along the two poles of our nation roared up around us, forcing us to see the world through different eyes. The titans of media and advertisement from the east coast were burrowing into our brains with television. The movie moguls influenced us with films. Finally the masters of Silicon Valley invaded our lives with computers and smart phones and a burgeoning social media. People began moving around and moving up. Extended families had less and less time for each other and friends were often on the go. We woke up one morning and the city of Houston had become the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country.

Some of what happened while we were sleeping was very good. There were breakthroughs in civil rights that were imperfect, but steps in the direction of equality. Women were provided more opportunities than ever and their voices began to be heard. We acknowledged that love is love regardless of whether the people who express it for one another are man and woman or man and man, woman and woman. Medicine and science made our lives easier and our affluence grew.

At the same time we have lost many things as well. Our neighborhoods flux and flow to the point that the relationships that we form there are constantly changing as people move from one place to another. Our extended families are in far flung places and gathering our relations together becomes more and more complex. Our churches and our beliefs are continually challenged. We fear for our children to play outside alone. We argue and rankle with one another and wonder if how far we change is enough or too much. We feel as though we are being ruled by extremes, either far too cautious or far too willing to upend all that we have known. We have lost our sense of history and our willingness to accept that none of us, not even ourselves, are free from the taint of bad decisions or hurtful behaviors. We judge and decry those who do not share our own philosophies. We honor those who boast and demean while turning our backs on the people who live with quiet dignity and respect. It feels as though we are somehow being manipulated by some unseen hand as though we are merely robots. None of it feels good, and some of us long for the good old days not because we are unaware of the problems that some people faced while we were comfortable, but because we need to bring the village of diverse people who loved us back together once more. We need to feel that sense of chest bursting pride in our families and friendships and churches and cities and states and our country that might have once brought us to a sense of belonging to something special.

We have many folks attempting to understand our thinking and our motivations and I suspect that they are getting us all wrong. They tend to make assumptions about us based on their own backgrounds rather than ours. Suddenly I find myself feeling untethered much as I did when I was seven years old in an environment so different from what I had always known. I understand how it must have been to be my father daring to dream, but realizing that he did not quite fit into a way of life so unlike his own. I am the median, an average person with a big heart and a dream of embracing the people to both the right and the left of me in a hug that says,  “You might want to know how folks like me really feel rather than foisting your ideas on everyone. Your constituency reaches from sea to shining sea and there is a great deal in the middle that you are yet to understand. Maybe it’s time for you to learn.”

The Pause

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I’ve had to develop patience over the years. My instinct is to react to situations without thinking, allowing my emotions  to guide what I say and do. I had to learn to curb such tendencies when I became a wife, a mother, an educator. Letting my emotions range free without any filters was dangerous to the well being of those with whom I lived. Brutal honesty can hurt as much as a blow to gut. I had to practice using the art of the the pause which is why I recently kept a quote that found it’s way to my Facebook wall. It went something like this, “Pause before judging. Pause before assuming. Pause before accusing. Pause whenever you are about to react harshly and you’ll avoiding saying things and doing things you’ll later regret.”

The advice is not particularly unique but it is certainly profound. If only we took the time to think before reacting we would avoid a world of pain and hurt and guilt. Who among us hasn’t made that comment that stung someone we loved or respected to the point of creating a wedge between us? How often have mental or physical harm been inflicted in the heat of a moment? Undoing such damage is almost always more difficult that taking that little breath, counting to ten, waiting until our anger subsides to deal more rationally with a  situation.

The biggest regrets that I have are all centered on hurtful utterances that I made in the heat of a moment, or accusations that I hurled without evidence. I have judged and assumed like everyone and even though I was sometimes perfectly justified, in most cases I would have been saved great misunderstandings if only I had stopped to get information before jumping to conclusions.

The worlds of social media tempt us to strike out against people and ideas that offend us without pausing to consider whether voicing our opinions is of any positive use. There is more than enough ugliness and bullying without contributing more. What does it really matter if someone has an opinion different from our own? Why do we feel compelled to insert our own feelings? Do we really believe that we are going to change minds?

I have to admit that I often lose control and type in responses that I know are meaningless to the people who will read them. They will stick to their ideas and mine will have no impact other than to anger them. I do damage to our relationship which in most cases is far more important than the differences that we have. I have had to remind myself again and again to stop before pressing the keys to my computer in a fit of anger. I’ve learned to use more discretion with my instinctual tendencies.

As a teacher I learned the importance of presuming innocence until guilt was proven. It was easy to think that a difficult child was the perpetrator of a classroom crime based simply on past infractions, but all too often quick judgement lead to conviction of an innocent. I was always happy when I gathered all of the facts before coming to a final judgement. It saved both me and my students many times over. I was sometimes accused of being too soft, too lenient, but in the end I was always fair.

My mother once described her bipolar disorder as a disease which caused her to say ugly things that she did not mean, but felt compelled to utter. I find it interesting that she saw her mental illness as the lack of an ability to pause before reacting. Perhaps her definition says something about our human tendency to let lose with our feelings without stopping to reign them in. Maybe when we forget to pause we are exhibiting a kind of irrationality that we should be able to curb unless we are afflicted with a disease of the brain.

Children naturally have outbursts until they eventually learn how to control themselves. We need to be as aware of our own thoughtless behaviors as my mother was. We have learned the niceties of human interaction and we need to practice using them more. If we were all to follow the simple advice of the quote that so resonated with me we might have far fewer misunderstandings. Curbing our anger is a worthy cause.

There are surely times when truth must be told and no feelings spared. There are causes worthy of our indignation, but we must learn to differentiate between occasions when our input may bring about positive change and when we are simply wasting our breaths on trivial matters. Learning when to react quickly and strongly and when to slow things down is a powerful lesson that we might all want to review. 

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

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My father read to me from the time that I was very young. He repeated the lilting phrases of classic poems and shared the words of fairytales and fables. He told me that there were lessons to be learned from literature, and that in olden times the stories were used to teach children. So it was with the tale of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. I was fascinated by the young shepherd boy who amused himself by pretending that wolves were attacking his flock. Each time he yelled, “Wolf, wolf!” the townspeople would run to his aide only to find him laughing at them. When a real wolf actually appeared and he cried out for help nobody came because they no longer believed a thing that he said. My father cautioned me to always be truthful and to use my words carefully lest I be viewed as someone who lies. Even in my very young state of mind I understood what he was saying.

Over the years I have done my best to be an honest person, but along the way I have met those who speak falsehoods. Sometimes those folks have actually gotten by with their half truths and exaggerations and it has infuriated me. I’ve wanted to reveal their fabrications and leave them looking like the hurtful individuals that they were. Most of the time though I simply cut them out of my little world, walking away glad I that I learned of their deceit early enough to save myself. Of late I am teetering a bit because I am discovering more and more secrets about people that I might have heretofore trusted. My caution and cynicism is growing by leaps and bounds as even the press and people once thought to be role models are outed as liars. I chide myself for forgetting my father’s cautionary words and getting caught being made a fool.

I don’t know if the present state of the world is really any different than it always has been, but with all of the information that we have I can’t decide if we know too much or too little. Maybe my nativity and ignorance was actually bliss, or maybe it fooled me in potentially dangerous ways. Whichever is the case I now find just a bit of that bliss being threatened by my unwillingness to quickly accept all of the stories that I hear as fact. I have grown wary and suspicious which may be to my benefit, but also feels a bit cranky.

Even the most unknown person now has many vehicles by which he or she may become instantly famous. A viral tweet or Instagram photo has the power of reaching the entire world. We take bits and pieces of information and form instant opinions about people and situations that we do not truly know. Many times the very ideas that we support are being held together by exaggerations if not outright lies. We become pawns in a game that can turn dangerous if we are too ready to believe. We have seen many such examples in the news, and yet we too often remain gullible, particularly when the person or persons speaking have points of view that reflect our own. We fall for propaganda without enough thought or attempts to seek the truth.

I don’t know anything about Jussie Smollett. I have never watched Empire and I might never have even heard his name before he reported that a hate crime had been perpetrated against him. At first I paid little attention to the affair other than to feel a bit sad that anyone had been as cruel to him as he asserted they had been. Of course the story did not end there. We soon learned that Mr. Smollett had manufactured the entire scenario in a crazed plan to gain attention and perhaps become a more popular and well known figure. Now even folks like me know a bit more about him, and sadly he is more infamous than famous. He will be remembered as someone who lied about a very serious situation.

There are truly hateful acts being played out all around us. We indeed need to find the evil doers who would espouse violence against anyone for reasons of race, religion, sexual orientation, or politics. They need to be punished for their transgressions and made examples of how not to act. When someone like Jussie Smollett deliberately lies about such serious matters he hurts anyone who has ever attempted to right the wrongs of hate crimes. He diminishes the chances that victims will be believed and evil doers will receive justice. He becomes one more boy who cried wolf and lessens the possibility that we will pay attention to cries for help in the future. When the members of the press run with his story without vetting it, the issue becomes even worse. We have all forgotten the idea of waiting for evidence before forming opinions, making it easier for someone like Mr. Smollett to connive to fool us.

We’ll soon forget Mr. Smollett. He will become but a blip on our radar, but the memories of his falsehoods will tinge our sense of trust. Those who are truly hateful and who would actually hurt people with whom they do not agree will celebrate a seeming victory without realizing that we all came out losers in this affair. Once again we showed how divided we are and how unwilling to give even an inch we have become. All we have seen is indignation rather than a willingness to look inside our own hearts. The press and the pundits are using this story to bolster their already formed opinions rather than reflecting on how they are in many ways the very people who are driving such acts of desperation.

The story of the boy who cried wolf would not have lasted as long as it has if it did not somehow speak universally to our human natures. We seem to have ignored its message of late and forgotten ideas like searching for facts before accepting tales as truth. We are routinely favoring and indicting individuals and groups without taking the time to search for truth. It is definitely time to be more wary.  

Building Bridges

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Our ability to think and to communicate is the great gift of our humanity, but it can also be the source of our most horrific misunderstandings. We are each products of a unique set of circumstances blended together into a complex a stew of heredity and environment. The way we view the world and its people is the product of hundreds of interactions in our personal lifetimes. A single word or statement is interpreted through a lens of DNA and experiences that twists and turns what we believe we are hearing. Two people in the same place at the same time may walk away with entirely different interpretations of the same utterance or idea. Unless we take the time to hear the rationale or emotion behind another’s thinking we may misunderstand them in ways that lead to schisms between us.

We live in a world of almost unending words and talk. At every turn of modern life we see, or hear or read of events and commentaries. We are inundated with facts and opinions. How we interpret them depends on the totality of our life’s journey. How we use and decipher certain words is determined by our individual circumstances. A single utterance may be subject to a multitude of translations in the minds of those who witness it.

Words have power and there are those who have a gift for using them to bring momentous change. Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used such talent for the benefit of humankind. Tyrants like Adolf Hitler used speech to create a nightmarish world. We are continually being tempted with words that reach into our hearts and cause us to hope, but what inspires some is abhorrent to others.

“Make America Great Again” means hundreds of different things depending on who is hearing that phrase. For some it is a reminder of a time when our country fought for the very life of a world overtaken by evil. To others it is a call for a return to injustices wrought upon members of the Black community. There are those who think it means having jobs and security and serenity. Still others insist that it is meant to deny freedoms to those escaping harsh conditions and hoping for better lives. Some even hear it as little more than a slogan designed to entice us, but having little or no actual effect on our realities. In other words like a gigantic game of “telephone” we hear many different versions from the exact same words and then we imprint our own translations onto our judgements of the people around us who are making their own determinations. In fact we are most likely running the risk of grossly misinterpreting what each person’s thinking actually is.

What most people want is quiet. They have little or no desire for debates and discussions and too much information. They prefer to fill their lives with pleasant images and thoughts. They want to hear about happy things. They wish to keep their lives as uncomplicated as possible. They have enough problems on the personal level that they don’t really have the time or the energy to deal with the complexities of the world. They simply want things to run as smoothly as possible.

While there may have been a day and time when people lived and died without feeling the impact of anyone much farther away than a few miles, today’s world is indeed a kind of global village. When a butterfly flaps its wings in the Middle East we hear it and feel it. The oceans that once seemed to insulate the United States from the problems of the rest of the world are no longer effective in keeping us out of the fray. Walls neither real or virtual will ever be able to turn back the clock and provide us with a sense of security because the global genie is out of the bottle. Technology has linked us with words and images and the means of destroying each other. We are being forced more than ever to find ways of communicating our needs and working together for the sake of all of humankind. We may not like that this is so, but it is part of our new inescapable reality. Because of this increasingly our communication with one another will become ever more complex and subject to misinterpretation.

So what can we do if we don’t want to descend into a tower of babble that continually tears us apart? How do we learn to live with our new normal without shattering our relationships? Perhaps the answer is to be found in quieting our minds so that we will be able to finally discern what others are attempting to tell us. Maybe we need to investigate the idea of compromise and understand the power of making deals. Perhaps some of the old platitudes from the past that so abound exist because they actually made sense. If we take away all of the gilt of our progress and listen only to the wind and the beating of our hearts we may find that our desires are not as different from one another as they may at first glance seem. It may remind us of our need to work together and to get along.

There are a few saintly individuals who are so good that they almost seem to be devoid of the imperfections that plague the rest of us. There are evil individuals whose black hearts make us cringe but they are definitely in the minority. For the most part everyone else is about the same regardless of our superficial differences. We may have a variety of ideas about how to make the world a better place, but our intentions are generally aimed for the good. It is only our solutions for problems that may differ. Perhaps its time for us to quit arguing and begin building bridges of understanding starting in our own families and communities and moving ever outward from there.