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. 

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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. 

An Encyclopedia of Knowledge

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Discovering something brand new is quite exhilarating, and with the Internet it is far easier to do ever before. There was a time when a family set of encyclopedias often formed the basis of new learning, and many a curious person spent large amounts of time scanning the pages of those glorious collections of facts and ideas. Even the old volumes that were somewhat outdated still offered a cornucopia of information about the world in a time when the only other alternative for vicarious exploring was the library. Many a child lucky enough to live in a house with a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica held a world of excitement from “A to Z” at the fingertips.

Of course those old collections of Wikipedia like information have gone the way of the dinosaurs making it less and less necessary for young children to learn how to spell “encyclopedia” from Disney character, Jiminy Cricket. The Internet has taken the place of those rows of volumes that grandly announced that certain homes were purveyors and supporters of knowledge, and the extravagant investment in companies like Britannica or Compton or World Book was physical proof of dedication to learning.

There were often installment plans for encyclopedias back in the day. Patrons would purchase one volume at a time on a monthly payment plan. Each beautifully bound book would arrive along with a bill. My own father being consumed with a devotion to knowledge, books, and libraries had signed on for a set of Compton encyclopedias that were of dubious age by the time my brothers and I had learned to read. Nonetheless, most of the historical information was sound, and they became a kind of centerpiece in our family library that was lovingly stored in bookcases that lined our hallway. When my dad died, purchasing books became a luxury replaced by regular visits to the library. The encyclopedias became cracked and the pages began to rot. At some point my mother must have decided to divest herself of them because I don’t know what eventually happened to them.

Now the Worldwide Web is my go to source of quick research. As with the old books that I used, I have to be a bit wary of what I see, and I must check data against multiple sites. I find that there is always at least one address that contains quite accurate and up to date facts. It’s like living inside the great library that once graced Alexandria. I can lounge in my pajamas and munch on my breakfast while traveling through a virtual universe. Nothing is beyond my scope, and I revel in the excitement of it all.

I often think of my father and how intrigued he might have been by the technology that makes it so easy and affordable to discover faraway worlds and cultures. A good laptop provides more data at a far lower price than even the best encyclopedia. I can almost picture my dad surfing from one topic to another and enjoying all of the latest innovations with the same glee that he demonstrated for his prized books. He was a futurist who enjoyed reading about travels to the moon in an era in which such thoughts seemed to be the purview of dreamers. He had a wanderlust that he satisfied with his vacations and subscriptions to The National Geographic Society. He devoured literature and history, and never seemed to be able to find enough reading material to satisfy his voracious appetite. Having so much available with a few strokes of his fingers on a keyboard would have no doubt made him as giddy as a child on Christmas day.

Like my father I am perennially searching for interesting new ideas, and my trusty laptop is one of my most valued possessions. It takes me to places both sought out and unexpected. Each day I find that I am surprised by the new learning that it brings my way. I am admittedly as addicted to its power to transport me as my dad was to the books and the libraries that satisfied his academic thirst.

A good example of how the Internet sates my curiosity occurred recently when I was reading an article and an image popped up in a corner of my screen that distracted me for its color. As soon as I had finished the essay I clicked on the photo. It was the first in a series of slides about human towers. It seems that each year in Catalonia thousands of people converge to enjoy the tradition of watching organized groups take turns building a “castell.” These castles  are formed by creating a foundational base called a “pinya” upon which two additional bases are built before people then climb as high as nine to twelve feet into the air to form a tower of humans. Each group wears white pants and a solid colored shirt of a single color. Around their waists are sashes that also serve as a means of climbing. The process involves arranging the strongest and sturdiest of the members on the bottom level and then slowly moving upward until the lightest and most acrobatic form the summit. Then the process is reversed, all in a smooth flowing and systematic manner.

The photos that I saw were stunning in their beauty and so tickled my curiosity that I did additional research and learned about the history and terminology of this traditional event. I became quite intrigued by the difficulty of creating this human work of art, and wondered why I had never before heard of it. I suppose that next I will find some videos that show the process from start to finish.

We often complain that all of the technology that surrounds us is taking too much of our time or invading our privacy. We don’t stop to realize just how wonderful it has been in helping us to quickly and conveniently learn about the world in which we live. While the Internet has the power to drive us apart, it also might be the very thing that ultimately brings us together. We now have the capacity to see how true it is that we humans are amazing and to understand how much alike in our dreams we really are. Those dusty encyclopedias were once our bridges to understanding, but the new peddlers of information found at the stroke of a few keys are far more glorious.   

Mastering Our Machines

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Our high tech world is glorious until it is not. We are surrounded by machines that are designed to make our lives easier, and most of the time they do. When something goes awry, however, we go into a tizzy. Our links with the world suddenly create chaos and frustration. We’ve perhaps taught Alexa to turn the lights in homes off and on at particular times, but when the Internet goes down we have to scurry again to do things by hand. Our phones keep us linked to the world wherever we go, but in a power failure they are as useless as bricks once they lose their charges. Without all systems working in tandem our computers and cameras and irrigation systems go awry. We are reduced to doing things by hand in the old fashioned ways. We get frustrated and because of that the tasks become more difficult than they need to be. The beauty of our mechanized world is glorious, but when it fails to deliver it adds to our angst.

We now take much of our progress for granted. In just a little more than a century the world has changed so much that our ancestors would not recognize the earth that they once inhabited. My own grandparents had no electricity or even indoor plumbing in the homes of their youth. They rode from place to place in horse drawn buggies. Their homes were heated by fireplaces and cooled by open windows. They communicated with far away friends and relatives with letters that often took weeks to arrive. They witnessed radical changes in their adult lives that transformed their daily routines. By the middle of the twentieth century they were literally in awe of all that they had witnessed, and spoke of seeing the first lights and hearing of the first planes with a kind of reverence.

My own lifetime has been dominated by a kind of inventiveness that was almost unimaginable. I am from the first generation that grew up with daily doses of television. I watched mankind venture into space when such feats seemed to be the stuff of science fiction. I worked in a building that headquartered IBM in my city and I recall entire floors of computer equipment that was less powerful than the laptop that I own today. The phone that I used as a child was tethered to the wall by a cord. Now I carry my means of communication inside my purse, and wear a watch on my wrist with powers that would have made comic book heroes of old green with envy The advances in science and technology came so quickly and regularly that we almost take them for granted, so much so that we become discombobulated when something causes them to fail.

The old ways seem ancient and yet it was not that long ago that we were hanging clothes on lines to dry in the sun. Television was limited to three or four channels that often went off the air at midnight. Student research required long hours culling through books in libraries and writing notes on index cards. Calculations were done with paper and pencil or maybe gigantic adding machines with a hand cranks. Somehow we managed without our current raft of devices that have become commonplace, and we’re not quite sure how we did that.

My father-in-law uses a computer that is somewhat out of date. He owns a big screen television and subscribes to a cable provider. His cell phone is quaint because it is not of the smart variety. He has accepted the newer technology only reluctantly, and usually has to rely on his son when problems with his devices occur. He admits that sometimes the new fangled machines frustrate him more than they help. He marvels at what they do, but wonders if it is worth it to try them given that he has done without most of them for ninety years.

I suppose that I might be more inclined to my father-in-law’s way of thinking were it not for my husband. He likes to be a pioneer in the use of all that is bright and shiny and new. He seems to think that he inherited that trait from his grandfather who was always the first on the block to try the latest inventions. He reads Wirecutter regularly and watches the Apple announcements with regularity. His computer reminds him of events and keeps track of business. He’s souped up our home with devices that automatically do all kinds of tasks. He enjoys discussing and installing innovations with my brother and one of my nephews. It all works quite nicely, and admittedly makes life easier, but when it goes amiss he grows frustrated.

I suppose that I most enjoy being able to write with a word processor. I recall all too well the pain of attempting to type on an electric typewriter. One slip of the finger on the wrong key required an application of a white liquid to hide the error. My printed copies were always filled with little polka dots that shouted out my incompetence with a keyboard. I much prefer the forgiveness of my laptop that gives my papers the appearance of perfection.

Once my essay is done I load it onto a website that schedules my work to appear at a certain time on a particular date. It is a lovely process that allows me to enjoy my favorite hobby of writing. Nonetheless, things do regularly go wrong, and then, like my husband I become anxious and irritable. Glitches steal my time and my joy. I bemoan the horrors of things that do not work, forgetting about how hard the same tasks actually used to be.

Our technology is grand, but I suppose we have to be careful not to allow it to overwhelm us. It’s okay to spend a day without cable television. We can wash our dishes by hand if the dishwasher breaks. We don’t really need our phones every minute of every day. Sometimes it’s actually good to take a moment to just enjoy the world without the artificial sounds and workings of machines. Putting them aside for a time stills the soul and puts us back in touch with our connections to nature and the universe. We need to now and again remind ourselves that we should be the masters of our machines, and not the other way around.