Turning the Other Cheek


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Think of someone who has hurt you badly. Remember the feelings that their actions caused you to feel. Now try to visualize forgiving them, offering them mercy for their wrong doings. In some cases it is an almost unimaginable thing and yet we are told the eye for an eye of the old testament was replaced by the turning of the other cheek in the new. Jesus told us to love one another unconditionally, even those who have wronged us. It’s an idealistic state of mind that is so incredibly difficult to achieve. We think of monsters whose actions were so egregious that it is impossible to feel anything other than loathing towards them, but I suspect that Jesus was talking less about such instances and more about the everyday encounters that we have with people who hurt us in small ways. Most of the ugliness that we endure is more in the realm of misunderstandings that pure evil.

I don’t believe that we are ever asked to be generous in our thoughts of people who knowingly and maliciously inflict emotional or physical harm on anyone, but rather to attempt to understand those who annoy us or to at least accept those whose differences confound us. We all agree that we dislike bullies and yet we sometimes unwittingly take on the characteristics of such boorish individuals when we ostracize someone because we don’t like or share his/her beliefs. We may complain about those who judge on the basis of the many isms and then classify someone in terms of characteristics rather than character.

I’ve often found that my initial impressions of people based on little real evidence have been very wrong. That rich snooty looking girl in my class was exceedingly nice. The older woman with whom I worked turned out to be tons more fun than many younger folks. That man with grease under his fingernails and a tough exterior on his face was kind and generous. The class clown was hiding deep hurts. The mom who cussed me out was deeply worried about her child. The newly released convict with a shaved head and tears tattooed all over his face became one of my greatest protectors and allies. The guy with Make America Great Again stickers plastered all over his car was doing more for those in need than any die hard liberal I have ever known. In other words we often see only the surface of a person and then feel anger or aversion toward them. I think that our command to love them is a command to know them before shutting them out of our lives.

I have a nice circle of friends and acquaintances. They are all good people as far as I can tell. I’ve been lucky enough to have had few encounters with ugliness, but when they occurred it was difficult to even consider the idea of forgiveness. I don’t think that we are ever expected to just lie down and endure the pain that comes with some people. We can and should walk away from them. It is unhealthy to submit to evil. They key to the kind of love that the Bible speaks of is to forgo the same kind of hate that has been inflicted on us and to be open to the idea of possible redemption.

I often think of the the examples that Jesus gave us. He forgave one of the thieves who hung on a cross next to His but did not ask the other thief to likewise beg for mercy. In other words we don’t have to deal with those who have no remorse for their horrific actions, but we also should not descend into the same kind of hate that they spew forth. Turning the other cheek sometimes means just removing them from our lives or at least keeping them at bay.

I am still working on having a forgiving spirit with a couple of people that I have known. One of them hurt my mother and the other hurt my daughter. I think it might have been easier for me to show them kindness and mercy had they aimed their barbs at me rather than two people that I loved. My protective instincts made me want to answer their ugliness with mine. Instead I removed them from my life. I’m still working on quelling the anger that I feel toward them. My Mama Bear instinct looms large, but I’ve come close to reaching a point of just pitying them for being so broken in spirit that they felt the need to tear down another person to feel better. Perhaps one day I may even feel some kindness toward them, because that is certainly the ideal way to be, but for now just keeping their evil away from me and those I love is the best that I can do.

Each of us is imperfect. We have weaknesses that show forth from time to time, but most people really do try very hard to be loving and kind to everyone. It’s not a bad goal to attempt to achieve. When we have a lapse perhaps we need to remember to be forgiving of ourselves as well and then try again. That’s really what all those words about love that Jesus spoke are all about. It’s not up to us to do as much judging as just remembering that we all make mistakes and have flaws that we can work on together rather than at odds. As we approach the Lenten season perhaps taking the time to better understand someone that confounds us is a more worthy sacrifice than giving up sugar or staying away from Facebook. In fact, perhaps a lovely thing to do might be to hold out an olive branch to someone who annoys us. This is what I believe was meant by turning the other cheek.

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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. 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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When I was growing up I was surrounded by boy relatives. I had two brothers who instantly bonded with each other and dozens of cousins who were male. I remember being relegated to stereotypical female roles in our play time or being left out entirely when it came to sports or opportunities like scouting. I never wanted to be more like the boys, but I often dreamed of having a few more girls in my midst. I even wished for a sister to make things more even in my family. Since that never happened I had to learn to cope with things as they were, and I looked outside of my little world to find friendships with girls who might become like the sisters that I longed to have.

I had two female cousins but one of them lived in another city and I rarely had occasion to see her. She was also six years younger than I was and in the world of children that seemed like a gap too large to bridge. It was left to my other girl cousin to bring me the kind of companionship for which I longed.

Since she was a tiny bit older I idolized her and thought that every single thing about her was exceptional. She was beautiful with her blue eyes and perfectly proportioned features. Her golden girls brushed her shoulders and accentuated her loveliness. She was also smart, seeming to know about the world in ways that I had never encountered. I was so in awe of her that I was reluctant to share my insecurities with her. Instead I spent many years attempting to turn myself into a carbon copy of her, a futile effort given that there was little about me that was like her. It would be years before I was able to embrace myself just as I was and love her more for the beauty of her heart than her outward appearance. She indeed became my soul sister or “sister cousin” as she likes to say. We share an unbreakable bond, not to mention a long history of shared experiences.

I also found girl friends with whom I became so close that they might have been called “sisters from other mothers.” These have been the women with whom I was able to share my deepest feelings in an almost spiritual way. Some have been more reserved than others in what they are willing to discuss, but all of them have provided me with moments of understanding that only another woman can provide.

I love my brothers dearly, and my husband is undoubtedly my best friend, but sometimes I need to say and do things that are somewhat confusing to men. I have to vent some strange feelings, maybe even be a bit catty. My imperfections need a safe haven in which to exorcise themselves and the most special female friends are those who know and understand that when I make my revelations I am only clearing my head, thinking out loud, trying to free myself of poisonous thoughts. They let me carry own without judgement. They realize that once I have said the unthinkable I feel better and am ready to move on to being a very good person. Men don’t always understand such things. They want women to be angelic. They may become uncomfortable, offended or hurt if we let out our inner demons.

It’s funny how there are certain women  with whom we feel the safe kinship that allows us to be so honest. My cousin has ended up being one of those people. My mother-in-law was amazingly another one in whom I was able to confide without fear of recrimination. My friend Pat and I were sounding boards for each other and now I find that I can be the same way with her daughter.

In a kind of unique twist of fate I have rekindled the same kind of relationship with an old high school friend who had been one of the bridesmaids in my wedding and with whom I had essentially lost contact for almost fifty years. She moved to Atlanta and became a highly successful business woman. I became engrossed with raising my daughters, caring for my mother, and devoting myself to teaching thousands of students. We never meant to ignore each other, but life stepped in and kept us so busy that the years went by and it one day seemed as though perhaps a longterm friendship between us was simply not meant to be.

Then came Facebook, our fiftieth class reunion and retirement from our occupations. Suddenly there was a way for us to come back into contact. At first it was just a comment here and there on social media. Then came a phone call now and again. Eventually we were talking as though our last meeting had been only a few days before. The connection that we had felt in the long ago was as strong as ever. Even with our differing lives we had somehow remained the same, two people who could be totally ourselves without worrying about what the other might think. It was a glorious feeling to reignite our kindred spirits.

I had a meltdown last week. I needed to make some tacky comments just to get them off of my chest. I wanted to complain about some silly things just because. When I attempted to launch into a tirade with my husband as a sounding board confusion ensued. I needed a special woman to hear me. My friend in Atlanta became that person. We complained and laughed and ended a long conversation feeling a thousand times better and way more optimistic. More than anything it felt so good to know that I had found another person who would let me be the good the bad and the ugly versions of myself and still love and understand me. It was grand.

I adore my husband, my brothers, and the men who are my friends, but I also know that now again only the ear of just the right woman will do. Luckily I have some darn good “sisters” to whom I can turn.

Ignoring the Distractions

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My foray into genealogy has provided me with a clearer understanding of the history of at least one branch of my family. My paternal grandmother was a Smith, descended from John William Seth Smith and Christina Rowsee. Her roots center on Kentucky, Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Despite the southern bent of her background she was not a child of Dixieland. In fact, her father was a soldier in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers. Still her hard scrabble story was typical of the people from those places who lived in an era during which life was often uncertain and harsh.

Grandma never had the time or the opportunity to take advantage of education, leaving her illiterate but not unwise. She possessed a folk knowledge and a strength that came from living in corners of the country that were often untouched by modernization. She embraced what she saw as her role in life, that of a partner in the daily contest for survival. Little in her life was easy, and yet she was a happy and content person, not out of ignorance but out of a feeling that she had enjoyed the fruits of progress in the march of time.

She reveled in the joy of knowing that her son had achieved levels of education and success that were beyond her dreams. She took pride in having plumbing and electricity in her home as she recalled times when such things were yet to become the norm. She took little for granted and was a model of thrift even going so far as to make clothing out of the flour sacks that held the lovely white ingredient for her biscuits and pies. She was a woman who straddled the agrarian society of her birth and the industrialized wonder of her later years, and she marveled at the glory of it all.

I try to imagine the kind of life that she and those who came before her must have led. I recall so well her folksy manner of expressing herself that seemed quaint and of another time even in the early nineteen sixties. Memories of her ways have become for me a kind of link to her parents and how they must have talked and believed. I witnessed the hint of her Kentucky background even though she never actually lived there. Like the earnest and hard working folk who struggle to this very day in that part of the country, she was never afraid of long days filled with sacrifices and back breaking labor. She was a survivor, someone who gallantly faced whatever came her way with determination and a sense of wonder, but still she worried. It was as though she understood all too well the fragility of life. She knew how quickly all for which she had worked might go away.

Kentucky has been in the news of late with sweeping generalizations about its nature as a state. We’ve been hopelessly focused on an event in which nothing really happened until our collective anger and beliefs set our discourse on fire. We’ve aligned ourselves with one side or another without actually knowing anything about the players in this farcical debacle. We’ve drawn conclusions and made judgements based on soundbites of a few seconds and photographs taken out of context. In an instant we’ve turned on a group of young boys and even more so on each other. Our outrage and indignation has occupied our thoughts for days which is ironic given that if we want to focus on Kentucky there is a far graver issue of which we barely speak.

Much of the state of Kentucky is reliant on coal mining, an industry that is slowly dying and causing its workers to die as well. Entire generations of people have worked in the dark cramped caves filled with dust that invades their lungs and quietly begins to ravage their bodies. We have eagerly taken that coal to run our electrical plants. Coal has fueled the very progress that so awed my grandmother. It has kept the northern climes warm in the dead of winter. We have given little thought to the price of our modernization. We don’t worry much about the people who have been left to face harsh economic times and even worse medical problems that are decimating young men who never realized what the act of working each day would do to them.

The real tragedy related to Kentucky has nothing to do with a few teenagers who may or may not have reacted well to a supercharged situation. It is instead to be found in the towns where the mines and the factories have become empty shells. It is to be witnessed in the rising numbers of people with are literally suffocating as they attempt to breathe with their damaged lungs. The fact that we are not outraged for them on a national level speaks to the twisted ways in which we find ourselves viewing the world these days. We have somehow got it wrong all the way around as we quibble over nothing while real problems fester.

My great grandfather who served in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers was sick and tired after the Civil War. He eventually hid himself away in the remote forests of Arkansas where he quietly tended his land. He had seen and buried the dead at Shiloh. He must have understood the horrors that come when we lose our way in anger. I suspect that if he had the chance he would caution us to calm down and strive for more understanding and compassion.

We are all far more complex than the sides that we choose, the uniforms that we wear, the work that we do, the places where we live. Life is a continuum, a marathon, an opportunity. It’s time that we once again learn how to move forward from our mistakes and agree to disagree now and again without pushing each other away. There are very real problems that we must tackle, and none of that will happen when we are distracted and filled with anger. It’s past time to prioritize. There are coal miners needing our help, young people watching to see how we guide them, issues crying for our attention. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and reach across the chasms.

Seeing the Unseen

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The Netflix movie Roma is the quiet story of a young housekeeper and nanny living in nineteen seventies Mexico City. In an artistic masterpiece we watch her devoting every day to the service of the wealthy people for whom she works in a world in which she seems almost invisible and voiceless, unable to exert any control over the trajectory of her life. Nonetheless her beauty and strength illuminates the dreariness and uncertainty of the lives of the family that she serves even as she is all too often taken for granted. Roma is a triumph in its ability to portray the harshness of life for those who toil under the yoke of barriers created by the often immutable restrictions of class, but it also demonstrates the immutable importance of seemingly invisible individuals who work on the periphery of society.

The movie touched my heart and my mind in deeply moving ways and caused me to think of how many souls have journeyed through life almost without notice due to their status in the socio-economic pecking order. Their desperation is quiet and even misunderstood, while their dedication is under appreciated, and yet they sometimes demonstrate more character than those for whom they toil. Like all humans they have dreams that all too often go unfulfilled leaving them faceless in a crowd that wrongly defines them. They lose their distinct complexities in favor of generalizations, if they are even noticed at all.

My paternal grandfather somehow escaped even the notice of a census taker until he was well into his forties. The story of his early life is a blank slate making it seem as though he simply appeared from nowhere one day, a kind of cipher left to his own resources due to circumstances beyond his control. My maternal grandfather spent over thirty years traveling to a thankless job of cleaning the blood and entrails from the floor of a meat packing plant. I wonder if anyone ever realized that he was a very bright man who spent a portion of his weekly salary purchasing books that he read each evening after a day of work that left his legs and back aching, or was he simply the guy who picked up the messes that others left behind?

I think of the mother of one of my students who dropped him off at the school each morning wearing her McDonald’s uniform, a detail that embarrassed the son enough that he tried to deny that he was related to her. Then there was the yard man who drove through the carpool line pulling the trailer holding the tools of his trade and the source of income for his family. His son proudly boasted that his father was more than just someone who cut grass. According to the boy his father was an artist and a brilliant businessman. I wonder how many of us teachers with our college educations somehow felt a bit of superiority over these industrious souls. Were we guilty of chiding our students with threats that they might one day be reduced to menial jobs if they did not study? I heard such taunts quite often, comments meant to spur determination that may have unwittingly insulted the efforts of our students’ parents.

I recall the stories from my pupils of mothers and fathers who worked as many as three jobs within a single day. These souls existed on less than six hours of sleep and tortured their bodies with physical labors that left them scarred and broken. They set their pain aside for the sake of their families only to all too often be viewed by society as lazy folk who had done nothing with their lives. I wonder how many of them were thought to be little more than faceless bodies in an uneducated and unworthy mob. Were people suspicious of them, unwilling to see them as the hard workers that they were?

All too often we fail to really see the people who do not seem to be like ourselves. It does not occur to us that something as simple as where one is born may have incredible consequences in determining the course of life. We unwittingly stereotype people without truly knowing who they are. Like the family employing the young servant in Roma we see them in a kind of caricature when the truth is so much deeper. We create invisible, but powerful, barriers between ourselves. The man who mows our lawn or the woman who cleans our home is a provider of a service, not someone to be thought of as an equal, and yet the reality is that we are far more like our caretakers than we choose to accept. We are dependent on each other, and yet we rarely acknowledge the bonds that we share.  Our humanity should unite us, but the artificial structures upon which we build our societies often drive us apart.

Every single person is a unique gift to our world. Perhaps if we were to have a better understanding of that idea many of the problems that we face might be resolved. It is difficult to unravel the complexities of living, but we might begin with one person at a time. If we consciously strive to appreciate and acknowledge everyone with whom we interact we might begin to create more unity and understanding. Who knows where such a process might ultimately lead when we attempt to see the unseen?