Facing Our Fears

pexels-photo-1134204Fear is a normal human instinct that serves to keep us alert and safe when it is present in healthy doses. Unfortunately we humans all too often obsess over our fears and turn them into anxieties that crowd our minds with dark possibilities. The worries over Covid 19 combined with civil unrest and a national election have collided into a kind of atomic bomb of concern that is affecting people in different ways depending on their personal experiences. 

Appearances are often misleading because there seems to be a continuum of beliefs about our present situation that run the gamut from near inability to function normally to outright disbelief that there is any real danger. As our society navigates through the daily updates on numbers of sick and dying from the virus and the status of protests and demands we each react in slightly differing ways that eventually seem to gel into associations and groups. Because it is in our natures to protect ourselves from whatever we deem to be problematic we end up seeing those outside of our own belief system as being part of the problem. We worry that the ranks of those who dissent from our way of viewing the situation will swell and change our world in questionable ways and so we attempt to change minds even as we realize that the only people listening already agree with us. It becomes a zero sum game that all too often results in the loss of friendships and the surprise that our relationships were so fragile that a national crisis tore them asunder with little effort. 

In truth we miss the reality that everyone is actually afraid, even those who boast of their daring and appear to ignore precautions. Each of us is demonstrating what most bothers us and political forces are playing on our deep seated worries. There are those who do not deal well with death and suffering and those who fear changes in society. There are those who fear loss of economic well being and those who fear that changes will not be enough to rid society of injustice. There are those who fear that our country is not as exceptional as we once believed and those who fear that our exceptionalism is being destroyed. The list of fears is too weighty and complex to describe in a single tract but it is enough to divide us if we allow it to happen. 

I am reminded of a time when I was beginning a new job at a new school. I was rather nervous because I only knew the principal and two women who had decided to move to the campus with me. I was slated to speak to the faculty on my first day and I stewed over what to say and how to appear to them. The principal had warned me that the environment was tense and fractured so I chose my words and even my wardrobe with great care. I wore a nondescript black pantsuit on which I placed a good luck pin that a very dear friend had given me the weekend before. It was a gold star that she said would remind me that I was going to do healing work and that God and people who knew me would be wishing me all the best. 

Things didn’t go as well as I had hoped. There was great tension among the members of the faculty and much suspicion of who I was and why I was there. I did my best to be friendly and I indeed found kindred spirits with whom I am still friends to this very day but there was a rather large contingent of people who were quite obviously wary of me so it became my goal to find out what fears were in their hearts and why they viewed me as a threat. 

It took a great deal of time and patience but by listening rather than lecturing I began to break through the icy reception I had received but there were still those who held back from accepting me as anything but a potential enemy. Nonetheless I persisted in efforts to hear their voices and one day as one of the teachers most opposed to me vented her frustrations in a tirade of anger I suddenly felt tears streaming down my cheeks, not because I felt threatened but because I truly understood the source of her pain. I took her hands and told her how sorry I was and then she exclaimed, “Then why did you choose to put us down with that stupid star pinned to your chest like you were the new sheriff in town? Why did you humiliate us before you even knew us?” 

All too often we see or don’t see another person’s reality. We form judgements from our own experiences and sometimes we are completely off base. When we see glaring differences that seem to be at odds with what we believe to be right we would do well to patiently set our preconceived notions aside and attempt to get to the heart of the fears driving each of us. We may find that we want the same things but have conflicting ideas about how to get there. 

Each of us have triggers that raise our worst fears to the surface of our minds. Losing people through death or misunderstanding are two of  mine. Unwillingness to Ignore the pain and suffering around me is another. When I react to the issues facing us those fears direct me either consciously or subconsciously just as the fears each person determines how he/she will behave. We all worry about losing something whether it be a loved one, a job, a home, a freedom or an election. If we bear that in mind when someone is ranting or seemingly ignoring the gravity of a situation we may be able to finally understand. It will be in that understanding that we achieve the common ground that we need to finally be able to work together. 

 

Celebrate Our Young

It seems like years ago since I attended a concert of music from Game of Thrones with three of my grandsons. It was a lovely evening with a happy crowd dressed in t-shirts and costumes celebrating the series. We sat outdoors under the stars listening to a performance that brought back memories of watching the story of power and intrigue unfold over the course of many years. It was fun and innocent. None of us had any idea that within a few months so much would change in our real world. On that night we were mostly filled with the joy of being together.

During the intermission I had a lengthy conversation with my grandson Jack who is a student at Texas A&M University majoring in computer science. He will graduate in May 2021 if all goes well and will soon be entering the very adult world of work. On the night of the concert he was very much engaged in thoughts of the coming presidential election. He had done his homework on each candidate of the democratic party as well as the presumptive presidential candidate Donald Trump. He was well versed in a number of issues that he believed would have an enormously consequential impact on his future and that of his peers. I was impressed by the depth of his understanding of history and his research into the economic, environmental and social problems that he believed should be foremost in voters’ minds as they make the all important decision of which individuals to trust with the leadership of the country.

While he and I agreed on most things I tended to have a much more conservative view of how to deal with the most pressing problems while his ideas were more radical. Without mentioning what I was thinking I politely listened while somewhat patronizingly thinking that he would soon enough learn that most people are disturbed by revolutionary sounding ideas. Nonetheless he was so passionate and so armed with facts and data that I found myself thinking about our little discussion for weeks after that evening. I even did some research of my own and I found that he was not off base in terms of troubles with higher education, an uncertain economic future for his generation, and major concerns about the environment that are being mostly ignored. I had to admit to appreciating the fact that he cared enough about our nation to want to make it stronger and more secure for the future, not just the here and now.

Interestingly I engaged in a bit more emotional repartee with my granddaughter Abby on Christmas Day. She too knew her stuff and felt compelled to curb my own ignorance of certain ideas. Perhaps the two of us became a bit more territorial in protecting our beliefs but once again I found myself pondering all that she had said and I did a bit of studying and soul searching in the ensuing days and weeks.

Then there was a pandemic and an upheaval of the world so rapid that we were hardly able to keep up with what was happening around us. The economy which had appeared to be so strong reacted in ways that my grandson had actually predicted. Our inability to adjust quickly enough to contain the virus harkened some of my grandson’s doomsday scenarios that I had initially thought to be rather extreme. The veil of civility in our society seemed to be torn in two and I witnessed the kind of divisions and ugliness of which my granddaughter had spoken. I realized both of these young people were far more in tune with reality than I had been in my fantasy world that sought blue skies and happy thoughts as a way of dealing with troubles. I found myself realizing that dismissing our young as immature, fragile and out of touch would be a huge mistake.

If we really study the history of the world we learn that the most revolutionary ideas that change the landscape often come from those who are quite young. Jesus was only thirty three when he was crucified like a common criminal because his teachings seemed so radical. Upstarts like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison played key roles in the American Revolution. The list of thinkers who challenged the way we view things is long, but the common factor in each case is that sometimes a young person is able and willing to upend the status quo. Perhaps it is because they have not yet become rigid in their thinking or because they are willing to experiment and take risks. We would be wise not to dismiss them without consideration. After all it was a young boy who saw that the emperor had no clothes, and only he had the courage to voice that truth.

I hear so many older adults insulting the knowledge and logic of our youth. They imply that most teens and twenty somethings are ignorant of the way things are supposed to work. They push their ideas aside with a kind of disdain. They act as though it takes aging to reach a point of logic and leadership. They want things to stay the same or even to return to an earlier more nostalgic era. They have somehow forgotten or neglected to learn that the arc of history is long and ever changing. We not only can’t go backward but undoubtedly would not want to unlearn the truths that have improved our lives from those of our ancestors. The future belongs to the young. Our goal should not be to control their minds but to encourage their thinking and innovation.

A few years back I was greatly disturbed by President Obama’s idea of changing the systems for space travel. I felt that he was dismembering NASA in a way that would preclude a promising future for unlocking the secrets of the universe. I watched our astronauts hitching rides to the International Space Station and I was angry. I did not believe that the idea of continuing our exploration with private companies would lead to anything but failure. It seemed as though a nail had been driven into NASA’s coffin. I could not have been more wrong.

During the height of the pandemic the most promising and optimistic event was the SpaceX launching of a rocket that took American astronauts safely to the International Space Station and returned them back to earth with precision. The combined forces of SpaceX and NASA proved to create a powerful resurrection of our national space program. It had an energy that had been dwindling at NASA for years. It demonstrated that doing things the way they have always been done is not necessarily the best way. Innovation and out of the box thinking is what has always kept the world moving forward.

Our young people have ideas. They love our country and our world. They are anxious to make a better life for all of us. They may sound a bit frightening in their enthusiasm but we should never hush their voices. Among them may be the very ideas that take us to the next level of realizing true greatness. Celebrate our young.

Healing Our Wounds

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We should be able to have differing opinions about just about everything as long as our ideas are not hurtful. It should not matter to anyone what religion a person follows or even if that individual chooses not to believe in God as long as nobody is prevented from having their own views about faith. Many people came to the shores of North America because they were being persecuted for holding beliefs that ran counter to those of the majority. Some were part of abused religious groups, others sought economic opportunity, and still others had encountered troubles of some kind from which they needed to flee. Eventually a band of enterprising men created a new type of government that they called the United States of America. It was to be a democratic republic with liberty and justice for all.

Sadly from the beginning there were folks left out of the equation, namely women and slaves. While there were some among the founders who thought that slavery would rather quickly become a thing of the past, the actual passage from from bondage was a long time coming. The country resisted votes for women until the twentieth century in spite of Abigail Adams’ entreaties that the ladies not be forgotten. Struggles for true equality and justice for everyone have tended to take far longer than might ever have been thought. Protests and resulting push back are as much a part of the national environment as the Fourth of July and apple pie. There always seems to be someone for whom the American experience is incomplete as well as someone who is unwilling to change regardless of the reasoning or the unfairness.

The kind of protesting and unrest that we are presently experiencing is actually nothing new in the grand scheme of our history. What makes it feel more discomfiting is its scope and reach in a time of pandemic. In truth it is often moments of economic or political uncertainty that create the rationale for publicly voicing concerns that have been quietly festering. Fears and discomfort with the status quo come to a head and boil over into protests and those demonstrations often result in violence. We need look no farther than the anger of the American colonists to find the DNA of disruption that follows years of quiet resignation. It has appeared over and over again when frustrations with inaction become too much to bear. Inevitably there will be those who choose sides and even those who decide to simply look away in the hopes that it will just go away. 

Right now any opinion that anyone holds is bound to be annoying to someone on the opposite side. Relationships are severely tested as the arguments fly back and forth. Sometimes the war of words becomes so intense that it devolves into personal attacks and accusations. Each side sees itself as being the most patriotic force for the good of all when the fact is that everyone is ignoring the obvious idea that we are supposed to embrace differences, not engage in uncivil wars. We should be able to engage in debates and then walk away as friends.

If we all truly believed that all men (people) are created equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness we would want to know whenever someone or some group feels that their most basic rights were not as equitable as they should be. Taking note of their concerns would be highest form of reverence for democracy and patriotism. We would want our country to be its very best and we would understand that when one among us is suffering we  all need to render aid. We would not place our selfish interests or even our personal beliefs before insuring that the very heart of our grand experiment in freedom continually becomes a bit more perfect.

We just laid John Lewis to rest, a man who became a Freedom Rider in a time when people like him were not allowed to travel on a public bus in the deep south. He was beaten and threatened and jailed simply for sitting peacefully next to white citizens. He understood the necessity of breaking through the indifference to the horrific practice of segregation. He had to shed light on a problem that should have been obvious even without his actions. So too did women wanting to vote spend time in jail after being harassed for championing their cause in the streets of America. These were courageous souls who should be seen as the true descendents of the revolutionary spirit of old. They are the founding men and women of a more perfect union.

it pains me that we allow ourselves to be manipulated into accepting a picture perfect fairytale account of the history of the United States when the true story of brave men and women unafraid to fight for a better version of ourselves is a far more worthy narrative. The battles to make our country an honest and true example of its ideals are worthy of honor. The changes that have moved us closer and closer to being exceptional should be celebrated, not deplored. 

There are indeed outstanding moments in our history and they began with a hard fought, violent and bloody revolution against tyranny. The true patriots of our country rose again to defeat those who would have torn our union asunder and to free people who should never have been enslaved. Time and again we have mounted efforts to rid ourselves of imperfections in our freedoms and even to fight against tyrants abroad. We are moving ever closer but there are still problems to be addressed. Those who alert us to such things are in fact the very souls who love our country enough to want to make it better. We need not hark back to a more imperfect time but instead look forward to doing whatever it takes to continue to heal our wounds.

Truth Is Beautiful

green tree photo
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I want to be left alone. I want to fix things that are broken. I want to just be happy. I want to express my anger about the state of the world. I want to turn away from conflict. I want to have the courage to stand firmly with my principles. I want to get along with everyone. I want to speak out when I see injustice. I am caught in a conundrum, a moment in time when I might cling to wishful thinking or face the realities that I witness happening around me. It would be so much easier to turn off the news, ignore my Facebook and Twitter accounts and just live peacefully in my home blissfully unaware of any difficulties stalking humanity. Unfortunately my curiosity would no doubt get the best of me if I were to make such a choice and ultimately I would be compelled to seek information and truth. My delightful ignorance would be interrupted and once again I would begin thinking about the actual complexities of life.

I’ve been watching the bots and the trolls at work on social media and on YouTube and Internet sites that purport to speak the unvarnished truth. They rile us up with doctored images and false stories. I often wonder from what hole in the ground they operate. They take many forms and present themselves with many names and faces and then spread their poisonous ideas like a virus. I wonder if they are laughing at us as we accept their premises. Do they take delight in watching us turn on one another as we share and discuss their often outrageous posts?

Much of our thinking these days is being directed by anonymous souls who live in faraway places. They purposely want to pull us apart and sadly they are quite good at what they do. It does not help at all that even some of our leaders are as addicted to their devious propaganda as we are. Instead of seeking accurate sources of information we too often find it easier to just cling to a single phrase to sum up the knotty realities that daunt us. We prefer quick fixes and quick answers and then divide ourselves into warring camps when there is a strong probability that there is a much better middle ground. We do not have to settle for “either/or” anymore than I must choose to be either uninformed and content or knowledgable and dissatisfied with the status quo.

We rarely have honest discussions anymore. Each side is busily planning a response to conflicting points of view rather than carefully listening to the other side. It is as though we are engaged in a national debate competition designed to find winners and losers rather than to determine ways to find answers. We see ourselves as opponents rather than understanding that we are all engaged in an attempt to make the world a better place. One side is demanding change and the other is worried that change will cause loss of some kind. One side is revealing uncomfortable truths about history and the other is concerned that talking about such things is hateful.

By now my readers know that my mother suffered from mental illness as did her mother. It was a carefully guarded secret in the family with much denial defining the reaction to what had taken place. Since I was the person first charged with getting help for my mom I had to face truths that were painful. For more than a decade I hid my mother’s situation from the outside, pretending that all was well. Whenever my mother needed care I called in sick to my jobs and told my bosses that I had a very bad bug. Nobody beyond my closest family members and confidants had any idea of my mother’s chronic cycle of bipolar disorder. We tiptoed around the truth of the situation.

It was not until I finally hit a concrete wall that I blurted out my story to a random coworker and finally received the understanding that I needed. I no longer had to hide my secret in the shadows and with my openness came valuable information and comfort. While some people looked askance at my new found honesty most began recounting their own experiences with mental illness. I soon learned that I was not alone and I began to develop a network of individuals who supported me in the care of my mother. I doubt that I would have been capable of dealing with her sometimes frightening behavior for decades had I kept the situation under wraps. My openness and the willingness of others to hear me even when it felt uncomfortable gave me the strength to care for my mother for over forty years.

Sadly there were still those who squirmed when hearing about my mother’s situation. They chose to ignore her symptoms and to engage in a game of pretense. They even believed that I was in some ways dishonest and hateful for talking of my mom’s illness. They could not understand what they saw as my betrayal. They preferred to act as though the great big elephant in the room was only my imagination.

In many ways this is what I see happening today. There are many who are unwilling to discuss and tackle harsh realities and others who would rather cling to a rosy picture even if that image is not true. They worry incessantly about changes that will require sacrifices and do not want to hear of skeletons in the closet of history. They simply want to be left alone, be happy, turn away from conflict, just get along in a superficial manner.

Sadly we would all love a utopian way of existence but since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden we humans have had to endure more difficulties and unhappiness. Nonetheless whenever we pause long enough to actually work together everyone improves just a bit more. Even baby steps can make a difference. Perhaps the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement are the concrete walls that have hit us all in the collective face. They are urging us to begin the process of hearing what we need to hear and not just what we want to hear. Even seemingly ugly truths can become beautiful when we use them to make the changes we have needed all along. Truth is beautiful.