In Defense of Boys


My time as a child was filled with boys. I had two brothers and a gaggle of male cousins. The only other girl, Ingrid, and I were the only girls at extended family gatherings, at least until the guys began to marry. When I became a mom my world changed completely when I had two girls. I sometimes wondered if my husband felt overwhelmed by all of the estrogen. As a grandmother I was back to what I had known as a young girl when six of my seven grandchildren turned out to be boys. I adjusted to the rough housing and gross jokes quickly because the habits of young males were all quite familiar to me. 

I have to note that neither my brothers nor my cousins ever treated me as though I was somehow less than they were just because I was a girl. The only abuse that I sometimes endured from them came in the form of crass jokes that I soon enough learned to laugh about. All of those guys celebrated my successes and encouraged me to reach for all of my dreams. When I met my husband the supportiveness continued on steroids. I grew up believing that I was one hundred percent equal to any man which is why I find myself wanting to defend young boys these days from a kind of implied assault from rabid feminism. As sometimes happens the effort to create a level playing field for women has at times resulted in some people believing that the only way for girls to rise up is to pull down the guys. Because of my own positive relationship with boys I find this kind of thinking not only to be troublesome, but more pervasive than it needs to be.

Of late, and in particular during Women’s History month, I have read a number of opinion pieces that are tearing into parenting practices for young boys and even the record of male accomplishments in the past. It is as though our society is in attack mode when it comes to maleness and that worries me for the sake of the boys as well as the girls. It’s important that we keep our perspective when it comes to raising our children and preparing them for the adult world. We have to remember that there are physical and psychological differences between all children and most especially between males and females. Teaching each person how to become healthy and happy requires individualization and an appreciation of diversity.

We sometimes hear of the battle of the sexes, and in truth we should not think of the realization of goals as being a kind of war. Certainly there are instances when girls are abused or harassed by men, but we all know of cases when women have taken advantage of good men as well. We should be aware of such outlying behavior, but also admit that for the most part the relationships between boys and girls, men and women is more akin to my own positive experiences. Our goal in raising our children should be to continually emphasize a spirit of mutual respect between all people regardless of sex. We only create more tension by insisting that boys are somehow a privileged lot who must be humbled so that girls will finally get their turn.

I go to the gym five or six times a week and I am steadily becoming stronger but I can’t help but notice that even the weaker men who use the weight machines before me are capable of lifting poundage that is far beyond my capacity. I don’t believe that this is because we have somehow given men more opportunities and encouragement for physical development, but because they have a different genetic and physical structure. When it comes to intellect the playing field is much more equal. Through hard work I was able to rise to the number one rank in my high school class. I did that not because someone held back the young men so that I would make better grades, but because I put in a bit more effort. Nonetheless, I always understood and appreciated that the males in my classes were as capable as I was. I just ended up with a slightly higher GPA than they did. In the end we were generally equal in abilities.

I had every opportunity accorded to the men both in college and in my career. I made my own choices and when I encountered the occasional male chauvinist pig I ignored him and worked even harder. Mostly the males with whom I worked pushed me to advance and be successful just as my brothers and boy cousins had. Ironically I was more likely to find problems with women than men when it came to road blocks on the job, so I’ve always wondered why our society is more and more often setting up barriers for boys while opening the gates for women.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the efforts of women to tackle male dominated jobs, and I am a realist when it comes to accepting the fact that there will be those who still harbor very old fashioned ideas about the roles of men versus women. I just want to be certain that in our enthusiasm to remember the women we do not steamroll the men. Progress is of little value if it comes at the cost of damaging half of the population.

So as we celebrate the advances of women and do our best to continue the progress that has been made, let’s all agree not to trample on the boys in our enthusiasm. We need for all people to be able to make the best of the talents and intellectual abilities that they have. Our goal should be to raise each child in an environment that motivates and inspires. Our focus should be more on the future and less on the mistakes and injustices of the past. If we are constantly indicting the boys for sins that we worry that they might one day commit we will stifle them in nonproductive ways just as was sometimes done in the past with girls.

Girl power is wonderful, but so is boy power. Together we can make a better more equitable world, but if we continually devolve into quibbling and put downs we haven’t got a chance. It’s time to work for everyone in a spirit of fairness. That’s how we create the adults who will one day be able to carry on the work of humankind.


The Strength Of Joining Forces


Last Thursday was International Women’s Day. Coincidental with that event were a number of articles and programs dedicated to women’s issues. Among them was a piece discussing a women’s conference that was held in Houston, Texas back in the nineteen seventies. It was attended by the feminist stars of the day including Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan, and Gloria Steinem. My good friend Marita was among the thousands of attendees and she gushed for weeks about what she had seen and heard. With her ever present Irish humor she also purchased a couple of towels at the event bearing an image of a pig and the words “male chauvinist pig.” She impishly presented them to her husband and mine causing all of us to laugh because neither of the two men had a chauvinist bone in their bodies. They were instead very supportive of both of us and proud of whatever path we chose to travel.

Marita ultimately became an attorney and I went all in for education. We were independent women who wanted different things which to me was the real point of women’s rights. Sadly not everyone, including Marita agreed with my thinking. In fact, one of the surprises of the Houston Women’s Conference was that it ended up with a schism among the ladies that has never really healed. As Gloria Steinem explained there was a rival conference across town designed to discuss issues important to women with more fundamentalist religious views. It was chaired by Phyllis Schafly and is sometimes credited with being the moment of when the religious right movement was born.

Ms. Steinem recently opined that the conference that should have launched a huge shift in women’s rights ultimately fizzled when the report that they sent then President Jimmy Carter was never addressed, but the fever of conservatism actually caught fire and began to burn brightly. “We lost,” she recently proclaimed. The conference that had been so hopeful for her became the important meeting that was seemingly forgotten.

I recall thinking at the time that the competing meetings represented a tendency of women that has been troublesome for centuries. Namely, for some reason too many of us of the female persuasion seem to believe that we must achieve all or walk away with nothing. We continually compete rather than compromise and our divisions make progress more difficult than it needs to be. We might find true power if only we were willing to honor all women regardless of differences. Instead we quibble and lose our advantage of numbers. We are not only fighting the status quo, but also battling with each other.

As someone who taught in middle school for a number of years I vividly recall the verbal spats between the girls that often became ferocious. In their adolescent frenzy they formed cliques that were akin to battle lines and attacked one another with hurtful wars of words. On any given day I was drying tears and attempting to arbitrate between conflicting groups and vicious comments. In some ways the continued divisions in the world of women remind me of those junior high days.

I suppose that if we had the power of going back in time to redo critical moments I would suggest to the female leaders of both the left and the right that women need to genuinely join hands to honor one another. It should not matter what choices each female makes, but that every girl is supported in her quest to live life to its fullest. I was intensely proud of Marita not because she was a lawyer, but because she achieved her own personal dream. I marvel just as much over my friend Linda who stood by her belief that the most important work that she might ever do was to be found in caring for her family and home. I have found few people as dedicated as she is and I am continually humbled by her example.

The truth is that many progressive women will fiercely defend a Muslim woman wearing a burka, but then poke fun at a fundamentalist Christian female who is pro life, somehow never noticing the hypocrisy of such thinking. At the same time, some very religious women are unwilling to accept or understand those who support Planned Parenthood or a lesbian lifestyle, They seemingly forget the parts of the Bible that tell them not to judge and to follow the commandment of love. There is a great wall between the two sides with most of us stuck in the middle feeling like I did when I attempted to quell the furor between my middle school girls. Until women everywhere stand up for each other without judgement or rancor we will all feel as if we have failed just as Ms. Steinem does.

The truth is that we really have come a long long way, but we still have problems that we must address. Culture is very difficult to change, but it is happening. There are now more women attending universities than men. Women are more and more often choosing majors and careers that were once male dominated. The barriers keeping women from breaking the glass ceiling are falling away. It’s a far better world for women than it was back in the nineteen seventies. That conference really didn’t fail after all. We have much to celebrate, and we need to do so together.

I long for the day when we women are capable of honoring Condoleeza Rice along with Hillary Clinton, Sara Palin with Elizabeth Warren. Our heroines should not be just those who think like we do. They should be all women who become successful at whatever they have chosen to do. The true women of distinction do not fit into a particular mold, but instead represent every possible point of view. Their strength is not found in their philosophies but in the capacity to love and survive.

Neither of my grandmothers were able to read or right, and yet they are two of the most powerful women that I have ever known. They taught me that I have the capacity to be as strong as any man. The showed me how powerful love can be. They helped me to understand the importance of honoring every single person.

I suppose that I will never forget a time when my grandmother Minnie Bell took me to see one of her Arkansas neighbors, a woman with ten children who lived in abject poverty. Before we arrived Grandma cautioned me to treat the lady with the utmost respect. She insisted that I was about to meet one of the greatest people ever, and in fact I was so taken by my grandmother’s admonitions that I was able to see past the dreary environment in which the woman lived. Instead I noticed her understated elegance and heard the intelligence in her conversation. I suppose that my grandmother in spite of her lack of education was a bit wiser than many of the leaders of various political movements aimed at women. She had the right idea and I have never forgotten the lessons that she taught me. We women are capable and beautiful just as we are. If we stop long enough to actually listen to one another I think that we will begin to make the progress that we seek. There is power in our diversity, strength in joining forces.

Finding The Godliness Inside

screen-shot-2016-02-09-at-3-31-32-pmThe calendar can be quirky at times and this year is especially so. We found ourselves celebrating Valentine’s Day and ushering in the Lenten season on the same Wednesday this week. When Easter rolls around we will celebrate that holiest of religious feasts right alongside April Fools Day. Sometimes the heavens enjoy a bit of humor or perhaps just a bit of irony.

I’ve long believed that donning a hair shirt and beating my chest on the first of the forty days before Easter is a rather fruitless task. In fact I generally dislike the idea of the inwardness of artificial sacrifices such as giving up sweets or eschewing joyful celebrations during Lent. For that reason I find it particularly appropriate that Valentine’s Day reminded us to show our love on the very day that Lent began. In fact it served as a hint of what the season should be all about.

I’m not suggesting that we shower loved ones with gifts and cards and boxes of chocolate, but rather that we imbue our forty days of reflection with daily doses of efforts to love even the seemingly unloveable. Perhaps the most productive thing that we might do as we prepare for the joy of Easter is to emulate the life of Jesus, who over and over again in His teaching emphasized the best of our human attributes like compassion, forgiveness and love. Even a nonbeliever must admit that His philosophy was punctuated with a kindness and understanding that is all too often missing even among His most faithful followers. Self proclaimed Christians all too often ignore His message even as they pronounce their self righteousness. Our human tendency to hypocrisy becomes especially noticeable whenever we cloak ourselves in indignation and anger.

It’s fine to prepare for Easter by denying ourselves certain luxuries that we do not need as long as we couple those sacrifices with loving gestures. Now is the season to forgive and to choose to understand. Perhaps through self reflection we might consider the possibility of learning more about people with whom we disagree. This is a time to begin to openly dialogue with people that we have hurt or even those who have hurt us. This is when we should begin reaching out to those who are suffering, and they are many. We should be conscious of our prejudices and close mindedness and work to be less judgmental. Doing such things is always difficult and definitely more meaningful that denying ourselves a piece of cake.

Humanity is suffering all around the world and there are good people working hard to help them. If each of us chose to do something small but remarkable not just everyday during Lent, but all throughout the year think of how much things might improve. Surely we see opportunities for doing good everywhere that we go. Letting a car move in front of us in a traffic jam may literally make someone’s day. Telling the cashier at a crowded store how much you appreciate his/her courtesy may be all that they need to feel less harried. Helping a neighbor with a task or even just shouting a greeting will lift spirits. Responding to anger with love may calm a precarious situation. Attempting to really see a differing point of view will enlighten. Stopping to take a breath and just smile even on a difficult day will make you feel so much better and it will bring a bit of joy to those around you. These are the kinds of things that will make Lent more meaningful and all persons of good will might begin to focus more on acts of kindness than solitary denial.

I suspect that I would want to live like Jesus even if I did not believe in God. Every aspect of His story was an act of love. He was a kind of rebel who was willing to lose His very life in pursuit of what was right. He embraced lepers and sinners and outcasts of every sort while pointing to the artifices of self righteousness that were more centered on ridiculous rules than the needs of people. I have always believed that if He were to return to earth today He would patiently demonstrate one more time the simplicity of His message of love. He would teach us how we must be more aware of those among us who are suffering, and show us how to minister to their needs.

It’s comforting and easy to link ourselves only with those with whom we agree. What is far harder is also loving those whose ideas we abhor. We demean ourselves and lose our credibility when we crawl into the gutter with them and spew the same brand of hatefulness that is their stock and trade. We need not allow them to bully or harm us or those around us, but we also do far better when we fight them with reason rather than engaging in wars of ugly words and insults. Even as they spit in our faces, we must stand honorably and without rancor, never willing to simply run away from defense of the least among us.

Look around and you will find beautiful examples of individuals who carry the spirit of love in their hearts wherever they go. Learn from such beautiful souls. Practice being like them and remember to be kind to yourself if you fail. Each day is another opportunity to try again to overcome the frailties that plague us and to reach outside of ourselves. The true spirit of Lent is found in our efforts to be more and more like the godly natures that live inside our souls.


Our Better Instincts

38869597_303They were a sweet family with a good home, and best of all they were happy. But then came war, unsafe conditions. Bombs went off continually so close by that they could hear the falling rubble created from the blasts. They were on the wrong side of the fight. Sooner or later the invaders were bound to get to their street, their house. Sleep began to elude them. Their small children continually cried. They knew that they had to leave no matter how much they wanted to stay. They became refugees, members of a wandering group of people from war torn parts of the world searching for a safe place to live. They are unwanted in many places, thought to be pariahs, criminals, maybe even terrorists. All that they seek is safety, a new start, a place to call home.

It would be easy to simply ignore these desperate souls. After all, what have they to do with us? We have our own problems. We have yet to help all of our own people. They are foreigners with beliefs so different from ours. We barely have the resources that we need for the people who are already here. How can we possibly stretch ourselves any more? Besides, what if they are not really just good people caught in a bad situation? What if their intent is to harm us? Why should we risk our own safety for theirs? What’s in it for us? Will they even be able to work, or just be drains on our social programs? These are the questions that plague us and there are few clear answers. In truth there is a certain level of risk in taking in strangers from lands far away. It takes a leap of faith to consider both the problems and possibilities and still agree to do what seems to be the most humane action. What if we choose wrong? How will we live with that?

Thus is the difficulty that we face. Across the world the population of refugees from violent places continues to grow, and with it so do both our fears and our desires to be compassionate. The stakes are high for everyone concerned, most especially those waiting hopefully for someone somewhere to provide them with the breaks that they need to create better lives. While we debate the merits of inviting some of these people into our cities and towns, they are growing ever more discouraged and wondering if anyone truly cares about their situations.

I spent my life working with people, albeit young people. Human nature tends to be the same whether dealing with adults or children. Individuals have certain basic needs that must be met or they begin to react in unpredictable ways. They must feel safe and that means providing them with an environment that is as free of dangers as possible. It requires that they have food to abate their hunger and at least the bare necessities to protect them. When those things are lacking they are unable to rise to higher levels of development. Each day is a quest just to make it to the next. Survival is the only idea that captures their attention. Being continually subjected to a search for the most essential of our human needs takes its toll. Some will give up and wither away. Others will grow angry and lash out at a world that feels so unfair. Many simply persist until they somehow manage to change their circumstances.

As a society we never truly know how anyone will react to extreme difficulties. There are no doubt cases over which we have no power to inspire the good, but for the most part we do in fact have the opportunity to become positive influences. Some people are psychopaths or sociopaths who will not respond to our kindness. Even our best efforts with them may be ineffective and we may not be able to detect them until it is too late and they have done great harm. Generally speaking, however, the vast majority of humans will react positively to encouragement and compassion. When someone provides our fundamental needs and we are treated with respect, we are filled with gratitude because it is in our natures to want to be accepted members of society. Once we feel safe we are ready to contribute to the rest of mankind.

I watched a Frontline program on PBS which featured a number of refugees seeking asylum in different parts of the world. They had been ordinary souls before their homelands were torn apart. They shared a common desire to be understood and accepted by people willing to provide them with a new start. They had done desperate and even illegal things to protect themselves and their families from the violence in their home countries, each with differing levels of success. One family had quickly found relief in Germany. They were welcomed by the community and began the process of learning the language and adapting to the culture. They are now studying so that they might secure better employment. They want to be far more than just drains on the governmental programs. They work at difficult and menial jobs while they become more educated. They watch as their children forget the old ways and embrace the new. It seems that those who are not just welcomed by the locals, but are also actively supported and educated are happier and doing better than those placed in dreary camps with nothing to do all day long. Having someone believe in their worth has been the key to helping them to become part of the community.

When I teach mathematics the first thing that I do is build confidence. We humans can’t operate if we feel discouraged. Psychological barriers impede progress, so they must be dealt with from the outset. The same is true of refugee populations. What are they to think if people are reacting negatively to them without ever knowing who they are?

President Obama often suggested that much of the hatred in the world begins with rejection by society. In that idea he is correct. We tend to become who the people around us tell us that we are. If we are constantly criticized and given no occasions to define ourselves we sometimes believe the hateful slurs that we hear. We doubt our own abilities and fall prey to the truly evil who tantalize us with offers of being somebody important. All dictators, anarchists and terrorists use the worries of people to recruit their minions. If those of us who are good do not reach the hearts and minds of the needy, someone with nefarious intentions will, exacting a terrible price on all of us.

We have to open our eyes to the suffering of the world. We must work together to ensure that the downtrodden are able to find the peace that they seek. We cannot ignore their plight and then pretend that we are doing so just to protect ourselves and those we love. We will always have individuals who turn against us even when we are kind. Because that sometimes happens does not indicate that we should suspend humane treatment. It would be akin to saying that just because there is a chance that we might die in a car accident, we should never get inside an automobile again. We have to overcome our fears, and deal with the consequences of each individual decision that we make. This has been our human conundrum since the beginning of time. What is certain is that we cannot isolate ourselves from harm, but we do have the power and the responsibility to help as many souls as possible to find good and worthy lives.

While we are arguing over who should come to our shores there are hundreds of people living in want and fear. We can’t assist every one of them, but surely we can do more than we have done most recently. If we were the ones in need we would hope and pray that the better instincts of humans would find a way to help us. Perhaps it is time for us to consider what each of our responsibilities should be in this regard.


A Time To Remember

prodigal_sonI grew up in Catholic schools and we were not exactly Biblical scholars. I understood the gist of the stories and parables in that great book, but I would be lost if I had to name the chapters and verses that contain various elements. Still I have enough familiarity with the four books that comprise the volume that I am able to relate both the history in the Old Testament and the story of Jesus in the New. What I learned is that Jesus was all about love and redemption. Over and over again he pushed back against the rule oriented Pharisees and preached the importance of understanding that He had come to remind us all that God is open to each and every one of us and that it is never too late to ask for forgiveness.

Jesus was often misunderstood by the people of His time which ultimately resulted in His being hung from a cross like a common criminal. So it is little wonder that even people who profess to be experts in the interpretation of His words might come up with ideas that appear to be more in line with the Pharisees than with Jesus. Somehow we can all hear or read the very same passages and come up with differing interpretations of them. It’s been happening for centuries and no doubt will continue as long as we humans attempt to unravel the instructions of how best to use Jesus’ instructions for how to behave toward one another.

One of my favorite parables was that of the Prodigal Son. Jesus told this story after the Pharisees and other critics suggested that He was often sinful in the selection of people with whom He associated. They disliked that Jesus was friends with tax collectors and women of dubious character and such. They worried about how He flaunted the religious laws by performing miracles on the Sabbath. They felt that Jesus too often excused bad behavior when He should have instead condemned it. What they didn’t appear to understand is that Jesus was preaching a new way of living that promised every human a pathway to amnesty regardless of how egregious their sins might once have been. Somehow large numbers of people who purport to be loving Christians have forgotten this message and instead use fire and brimstone passages from the Old Testament to defend their unforgiving stances on various issues.

The whole idea of illegal immigration, and in particular the Dreamers is a perfect example of how very religious people have somehow become unwilling to even consider the idea of forgiving those who broke the law or those who were brought to our country without consent when they were children. We have forgotten the story of the the Prodigal Son, perhaps the most powerful tale that Jesus ever related. In it he spoke of a very wealthy man who had two sons, one of whom became impatient to receive his inheritance and asked his father to give it to him immediately. The errant son took his father’s treasure and went away with it, forgetting about his family and living a profligate life. After losing everything he was starving and desperate. He came back home with the intention of begging his father to take him back as a servant to earn his keep. Instead when the loving father saw his son returning he rushed out to meet him, instructing the servants to clothe his child in fine robes. He not only forgave his son but planned a celebratory meal for him. When the other son who had been faithful to his father heard what was happening he was irate, questioning why his brother should be honored when he had been so thoughtless. The father reminded the angry son that a parent’s love is unconditional and that by prostrating himself the prodigal son had demonstrated his willingness to change and seek forgiveness.

I think of this parable whenever the subject of illegal immigration is mentioned. I realize that we cannot as a nation continue to allow people to break the law without consequence, but there are people here who came for very good reasons which we may or may not understand. They have lived peacefully among us, working hard and doing their best to fit into our society. Since we did little to turn them back initially they have little hope of returning to their native countries and finding a livelihood because they have been gone for too long. The truth is that we sat back for decades and did nothing to stop them. Now many among us want to simply turn their backs on these people and send banish them without any thought to what doing so may mean. There are even some who wish to punish their children who were brought when they were too young to even understand what was happening. Like the Pharisees so many Americans and lawmakers only see the rules and not the humanity of the situation. They shout down any plan that might rectify the status of these individuals without giving them actual citizenship, but requiring them to come out of the shadows. They speak of amnesty as if it is a dirty word rather than one that Jesus Himself would no doubt have appreciated given His propensity for forgiving people thought to be hopelessly broken. 

I tend to believe that our political leaders who continually oppose all immigration plans that propose even a smattering of forgiveness are mostly concerned about losing political power. They don’t seem to realize that their unwillingness to bend and compromise even a bit is only exacerbating the problem. They spread silly ideas that they should not concern themselves with the fate of immigrants rather than the safety of Americans. They point to the lawlessness of those who would cross our borders without permission and insinuate that most who come here are criminals. They raise the fears of our citizens by suggesting that terrorists will be coming if we do not have a hard line. Instead of telling us what chain immigration is and why we have it, they just make us afraid of it. They point to criminals who came here through chain immigration as though such incidents are the norm. They constantly speak of rules that must never be broken, forgetting how often Jesus did just that to emphasize our need to be compassionate and loving. They conveniently forget the ultimate message of redemption by His death on the cross.

As I write this the government shut down for a short time because our leaders were at an impasse. A few days later they grudgingly agreed to a short term fix, but left all of the big problems for another day. Who knows how well those discussions are going to go given the fact that we haven’t had many bipartisan moments in years. We appear to no longer be able to compromise. I suspect that if our Founding Fathers had been this way we might all still be part of the British Empire like Canadians. They would have argued infinitely and gotten nowhere, which is where we are now. 

There are those who want to lay blame for the state of our union and I would like to suggest that there is plenty to go around to everyone including those of us who vote. Of late we have turned our backs on anyone who has shown the desire to bring the country together for the general good. While we are bickering real people are being hurt and we are forgetting about all of those beautiful parables that Jesus taught us, and yet Jesus Himself would be loving and understanding even of those of us who have sometimes forgotten or ignored His message. Maybe the time has come to remember it the way it was intended to be.