What If?

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What if the people of the world decided to quit relying on someone else to fix all of the problems and we started taking care of things on our own without being asked or paid or honored for our efforts? What if we started by greeting everyone that we pass, noticing what others need and then quietly taking care of them? What if we opened our hearts and our talents to making the world around us better?

What if it became a habit for each of us to keep the environment clean? What if we were always equipped to clean up garbage along the roadsides and in the oceans? What if we got everything looking good and none of us ever again littered the environment?

What if every person found someone to help on a daily basis? What if we understood that if doesn’t take much to make a difference? What if we began to use the power of our collective good will?

What if we really managed to be free of the negative aspects of our human natures? What if we were able to rethink our priorities and work together without being forced by guilt or laws? What if we changed the world without a single selfish desire?

I’m an admitted dreamer. I think of the possibilities of human interaction if only we were able to fully harness our most positive powers and negate those that create problems. I love to think of a time when our intelligence evolves to a point at which we instinctively know what we must do to help one another and to honor our earth. I see examples of the kind of behaviors that I long to see multiplied millions of times over and I imagine a more perfect world. I still believe that we have the power to be our best selves but that we all too often refuse to make the sacrifices and do the hard work that must be done.

I recently saw a group of people working at the ocean to eliminate garbage from the beaches and the water. They removed mountains of debris that had been thrown away by thoughtless people. I wondered why we can’t all agree to come together regularly to sweep our waters and their banks just as we clean our homes. I thought of how we should not have to pay people to do this work when so many of us are able bodied enough to form daily crews that labor all over the world to make the waterways pristine and then keep them that way. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever think it proper to throw paper or cans or bottles or balloons or any object into our precious resource of life. It seems logical and right and just for all of us to be participants in the efforts to once and for all rid our waters from the garbage with which we have so blithely and unthinkingly polluted two thirds of our world. I wonder what if…?

I constantly worry about our young and the way in which we educate them by moving them along a preconceived pathway to knowledge that makes learning feel harsh and unpleasant for so many. I see our society missing the mark by making the act of learning a project filled with stress and sometimes even punishment. We act as though every child is just alike with our scopes and sequences that drive them like cattle from one concept to another whether or not they have mastered the previous ones. We make them feel stupid. We cause them to question their worth. We make them anxious at a time when they should be experiencing the joy of exploring the world around them. I wonder how we might make the act of acquiring knowledge a happy endeavor by tailoring more individualized programs that take differences into account. I long for a kind and gentle kind of school experience that builds children up one by one rather than consigning them to a kind of conveyor belt style education. I wonder what if…?

I see and hear of people who are lonely, bullied, abandoned, feeling hopeless. I think of how they are often treated as though they are somehow less than human. I know that many of them even lose faith in themselves. They become lost souls who turn to drugs and alcohol to ease their pain. In the worst case scenarios they use anger and violence in a perverse way to feel better about themselves. I find myself wondering why we did not notice them earlier when they were still young and open to change. Who was it who beat them down? Why was there no one to counteract the harm being done to them? I think of a world in which we are each like guardian angels watching over even those who are strangers to us. I see wonderful people taking those who are abused under their wings. I consider how incredible it would be if we were to all make efforts to help save a life. I wonder what if…?

Such thoughts may sound naive when faced with the ugly realities of the world and yet there have always been individuals who left the fray and simply dug into the work of making a difference even if its impact was small. That one piece of garbage that we remove from the street becomes a clean sweep when multiplied millions of times over each day. That one child who feels the power of mastering a new skill becomes an army of confident people when multiplied a millions of times over each day. That frightened soul who heals by the touch of kindness becomes a member of a confident, happy and productive society when multiplied millions of times over each day. What if we finally decided to see what might happen if we all agreed to do such things every single day? What if, indeed?

Our Hunter Gatherer Past Present and Future

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Attempts to understand the many conflicts between people across the world can be rather confusing. Sadly most of them occur because of perceived religious or ethnic differences. Race is often seen as a dividing factor when in reality the genetic differences between one group of people and another are generally superficial. The reality is that when taken down to a biological level we homo sapiens are more alike than different. The things that divide groups generally have more to do with environment than biology. Mankind’s history is sadly one of creating alliances to maintain or grab power and using manmade concepts like ethnicity or religion as rationale for struggles to get a fair share of the world’s resources.

Survival has always lay at the heart of the human experience. Our ancestors moved from place to place in search of food and shelter for thousands of years before learning how to take control of nature through farming. Suddenly the idea of claiming the land and settling down became a way of life for much of the world’s population. Obviously  this new advance created unexpected problems that are still the focus of most of the problems that plague us today. Determining who gets what and how to divide resources is the stuff of politics and conflict particularly as the population grows. Over the course of history the concept of survival of the fittest has all too often meant the ones with the biggest clubs and the most stuff.

Our genetic ancestors were often a violent bunch not so much because of the DNA that they carried as for the need to fight for food and a place to sleep at night. Scientists have found the remains of people from tens of thousands of years ago that show signs of blunt force trauma. Life was often brutish and short for those from whom we descended. It’s likely impossible for any of us to truly understand what kind of daily challenges they faced. We judge them from a perspective of hindsight.

Wars between people still rage today. Most of the problems in the Middle East center on religious differences that take the form of political ideologies. All across the globe we humans argue over sociological concepts and their effects on the fair distribution of resources and justice. We create alliances and rant about differences when the reality is that what we all really want is a place to call home that is safe and filled with the comforts that we need to survive our time on this earth. We long for the freedom to be left alone even as we cling to relationships. We are living breathing contradictions and keeping us all happy seems to be an almost impossible task. Thus we can’t seem to all settle down into peaceful coexistence in spite of one valiant attempt after another throughout the long stretch of history.

There are only so many ways to tell a story. There are major themes that tie together the human search for peace and tranquillity. When all is said and done the king is not so different from his servant. The things that separate us from one another have very little to do with our natures, but everything to do with how we view each other. We create artificial structures and definitions in our attempts to explain things that we don’t understand. Sometimes that process leads us to false conclusions and grave misunderstandings.

In a sense we are all still hunter gatherers of a sort. From the time that we are young we begin the training that we will need to one day leave our homes in search of work that will provide us with the funds that we need to purchase our food and clothing and necessities. Our daily grind may be less dangerous than that of the primitive people from whence we descended, but the idea of finding a way to survive is still the basis of our endeavors.

The most remarkable thing about humans is that we long to for lives that are more than just an unending repetition of work. We are innovative and our creations have given us incredibly rich and remarkable existences that were unimaginable to our ancestors. History has not been just about our wars with one another. It has also included our better natures and the creation of arts and sciences. We have used our remarkable intellect to impose our will on medicine and music. We have civilized our barbaric ways so much that we are gravely appalled when we see evidence that we have not evolved as much as we would like to think that we have.

Our human past is filled with both horrendous mistakes and great advances. We often learn through trial and error. Our best efforts seem to occur whenever we set aside our differences and operate from a sense of concern for a common good. None of us are perfect and neither are our decisions, but it is possible to rise above anger and fear. Such moments created the Magna Carta, freed slaves, and eliminated murderous tyrants.

As I look around today I see a preponderance of alliances formed out of concern for a world that seems to be out of sync. It’s difficult to know how to think or feel. We are weary of the battles with one another because we instinctively understand that we should not be enemies. We want the same things but have different ideas about how to achieve them. Sadly the old ploy of dividing us into warring camps is being used rather effectively all across the globe. Our ethnicities, religions, socio economic statuses and political leanings are part of a grand power struggle that is in fact little different from all such maneuvering in the past. It’s a dangerous game that we should refuse to play.

I will continue to speak out against the death penalty but I will not turn my back on those who believe that it is an effective tool to fight crime. I believe in the tenets of my Catholic faith but I will not use them to hate those who think I am deluding myself with religion. I respect the human made differences in philosophies and ways of living because I understand that when all is said and done they are only superficial aspects of our most basic desires. People are breathtaking and the fact that they represent so much variety makes them all the better. Perhaps one day we may even learn how to hunt and gather in peace.

Can We Just Laugh?

64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Arrivals

The Saudi Arabian government has cracked down on freedom of expression. Those who speak against the government often find themselves being questioned, jailed or worse. One noted journalist left his birth nation out of fear and then felt compelled to write about the events that he saw unfolding with his fellow countrymen who voiced their concerns. His wife became so afraid of what might happen to her because of her husband’s views that she asked for a divorce to protect herself and her children. The man nonetheless continued to speak out about abuses of freedom and ill treatment of dissidents. Eventually he found new love and decided to remarry. When he visited the Saudi embassy in Turkey to complete the necessary paperwork he was never again seen alive. Eventually his dismembered body was found, leading many to believe that he had been silenced by the government that he had been criticizing as a warning to those who dared to speak their minds.

In Hong Kong citizens have been protesting the prohibitive excesses of the Chinese government. The once democratic and free city that operated under the wing of Great Britain now struggles under the excessively restrictive rules of China. Those who dare to defy the government are being publicly beaten into submission. While here in the United States those who dare to side with the demonstrators in Hong Kong are finding that doing so can bring unexpected consequences. 

It’s seemingly unthinkable for those of us who live in the United States to imagine living in a place where we have to watch every word that we utter or write lest we be chastised or ostracized or imprisoned. We live under the assurances of our Constitution and the free speech that our Founding Fathers thought essential to a healthy democracy, and yet there is a kind of shadow hovering over our public interactions that is ruled by mobs intent on controlling what we believe. In the world of tweets and social media comments those who stray from conformance with certain opinions are sometimes figuratively pilloried in the public square.

Much that occurs on the platforms of social media worries me. I am appalled by the rush to judgement that occurs with the flick of  the fingers on a keyboard. The anonymity that we believe we have often leads to cruel and bullying behaviors from perfect strangers who somehow delight in raising our ire with the things that they do and say. Luckily a true hero emerges now and again from the sound and fury of the ether.

I have been an avid fan of Ellen DeGeneres from the time that she first emerged as a talented comedian. I find her to be an honest and loving person with a heart of gold. She’s also quite funny which makes her daily program a fun way to spend a bit of time escaping from the stresses of the world. She is lighthearted and one of those people who mostly stays away from controversy which I appreciate because I have grown weary of encountering everyone else’s political commentaries wherever I seem to go.

On a recent weekend Ellen was invited by her friend, Jerry Jones, to attend a Dallas Cowboys football game where she shared Mr. Jones’ private box with former president George W. Bush and his wife Laura. Ellen admitted that she had a good time even though she is more of a Green Bay Packers fan and to her delight her team actually won. Like any average person being treated to such a grand afternoon she took selfies of herself cutting up and laughing with President Bush and posted them proudly on Twitter.

What should have been an innocent bit of fun turned into a controversy as people excoriated her for daring to even talk to someone like Bush much less have a good time with him. The process of raking Ellen over the coals went berserk despite the fact that she had done nothing wrong other than be polite and appreciative of the hospitality that she received at the game. She behaved in a perfectly respectful manner but so many thought she should have instead ignored the Bushes or even expressed her disdain for having to be with them.

To her credit Ellen used the platform of her television program to clarify her feelings. She courageously told her audience and those who had criticized her that her friends do not have to agree with all of her views to be embraced by her. She admitted that she actually likes George Bush and that his beliefs have nothing to do with their relationship. Once again she proved her mettle in standing up to her detractors and in the process she demonstrated the content of her character. In that moment she became a role model for all of us who are weary of the often illogical and violent divisiveness that is tearing our society apart.

This is not Saudi Arabia nor is it Hong Kong. It is the United States of America and heretofore our nation has mostly been tolerant of different ideas. Sadly many among us more and more often choose sides and steadfastly ignore and despise any thoughts that diverge from their own to the point of insulting and even ostracizing those with whom they disagree. There is so much anger in the public square that many American citizens have grown wary of expressing themselves and often rightfully so because there are extremist groups who actually believe that certain ways of thinking should be illegal.

Our country is treading a very thin line that must never lead to the muting of individual opinions and actions. We must always be free to associate with whomever we desire and to freely state our points of view. It would be wise for everyone to remember that it is never a good idea to strive to be of one voice. We need our dissenters and our revolutionaries. Who knew that one day we would also realize that we sometimes need a brave comedian to remind us of the importance of respect and tolerance and the power of a good laugh?

Life

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October is respect life month. It seems intuitive to think that every human would respect the life of another and yet the headlines are filled with evidence that such is not always the case. In fact, we are all too unable to even agree on the definition of life. One simple definition based on scientific theories is that life is “ the property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and inanimate matter, manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating from within the organism.”

The religious definition of life is that  our life as a human begins at the time of conception. Using the more scientific definition above it is easy to see that functions originating within the embryo begin the processes that define an organism as living rather than dead. The legal definition of life has become more and more convoluted, depending on the politics of the people from which it is encoded. There is much disagreement as to whether a clump of cells inside a woman’s womb are the essence of a person or little more than a gooey mass. The controversy is at the center of ethical discussions that are far from resolved.

For those who believe, as I do, that life begins at conception it is unarguable that purposely doing anything to harm or bring death to an embryo or fetus is murder. Such beliefs make abortion unacceptable for me and a vast segment of the population. When we hear of the millions of babies who have been killed in the name of women’s health or rights or whatever euphemisms one might use, it is an unbearable thought. If I witnessed someone being killed in the street I would immediately call for help to intervene. I would willingly serve as a witness at a trial for the perpetrator. I would be considered a hero for doing so, and yet if I protest the use of abortion for all but those cases in which a mother’s life is in danger, I am viewed by many as a kook or, even worse, someone who is heartless and unkind.

I actually feel somehow complicit in something that is very wrong because I tend to be more than reluctant to speak out against a practice that I think goes against the very nature of all that is decent. I worry more about what people may think of me if I reveal my thoughts or attempt to influence theirs than about the fact that I am by omission providing my acceptance of something that I feel is wrong.

Our society sends so many mixed messages about life. We are willing to convict someone who kills a pregnant woman and her baby for two murders, but we do not consider the work of an abortionist to be a crime except under the most extreme circumstances. We have no problem arresting someone for killing or cruelty to animals and yet some argue that abortion should be legal all the way up to the point of birth.

I not only cannot abide by such thinking, but I am feeling more and more guilty for not working to end such barbarous practices. I suppose that admitting such a thing will cause me to lose friends, readers, people that I love, but somehow I don’t feel I can continue to look the other way as though I do not see. If I am to show respect for human life then it must include the child who is growing inside a mother’s womb.

There is a brilliant writer named Kevin Williamson. He is a Texan who was adopted after his birth mother gave him up. He is a master of words and a joy to read. I do not always agree with him for he is far too conservative in some areas, but I always appreciate his total mastery of expression. Perhaps because of his own circumstances he is unapologetically pro life. He often considers out loud what his own fate would have been had his birth mom decided to simply end her pregnancy rather than carrying him full term and giving him to a family that wanted him. For the world it would have been the loss of great talent at the very least, and the extinction of a beautiful individual at most.

Mr. Williamson was hired by The Atlantic not long ago, an honor of which he was quite deserving. The magazine wanted to bring more political balance to its readers which is a worthy cause in these days of so much division. Sadly Mr. Williamson did not last a week at the job. Other writers and many of the readers protested his views on abortion and loudly exclaimed that his very presence was triggering their anxieties.

In particular Mr. Williamson had once been interviewed about abortion and during the conversation he admitted, like me, that he felt that abortion was murder. The interviewer then remarked incredulously that if it were indeed murder then all those involved including the woman would be tried for murder and given the appropriate punishments. He asked if that would be okay with Mr. Williamson who answered the ridiculously hypothetical question by saying that he supposed that would have to be so. From that point forward he became known as the man who thinks that women who have an abortion should be tried and punished for murder which was hardly the whole truth of the purposeful entrapment by the reporter.

We must respect life and we must also respect the deeply held feelings of those who have strong beliefs that abortion is wrong. We honor those whose faiths do not allow them to stand for the pledge of allegiance. We let girls of the Muslim faith wear head coverings to schools where head gear is against the rules. We constantly defer to religious beliefs but freak out whenever someone admits a strong feeling against abortion even though they base their beliefs on conscience. We argue with them. fire them and make them feel as though they are somehow mean. In truth nothing is further from the truth. Pro-life proponents are simply demonstrating the respect for life that they believe begins at the moment of conception and continues util the last breath. There is nothing egregious about that.

Respecting the Young

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I recall once reading quotes from ancient Greeks in which they expressed derision toward the teenagers of the time. Adults all too often have expectations for youth that are unrealistic and hardly in line with adolescent development. While it is true that seventeen and eighteen year olds often took on great responsibilities in earlier times, it is also undoubtedly as fact that those same adolescents also made mistakes from which they had to learn valuable lessons. The time between sweet sixteen and about age twenty five is wrought with both wonderful opportunities and major struggles. Becoming a happy and healthy adult is no small feat, especially in today’s world. Sadly those of us who are well beyond those young years often forget how fraught with anxiety and challenges they can be.

I worry constantly about our young. Our world does not always treat them kindly and they are still working to perfect the life skills that will enable them to survive in the on their own. The process of growing up is a grand adventure on many levels and one of the most uncomfortable moments in life on others. Teens and young adults will make many mistakes before they finally figure things out, and it is up to those of us who are older to support them in their efforts, even when they appear to go astray. Many a young person’s life has been unduly scuttled because the adults around him/her lacked compassion and understanding.

I watch grown people who should know better deriding young folk who are earnestly expressing their points of view. Instead of congratulating them for caring enough to form opinions and speak out on certain issues there are those who insult them and even suggest that they should be ignored. A more reasonable reaction would be to have an honest and respectful conversation with them about their concerns rather than insulting them or simply writing them off as too immature to know have a meaningful opinion.

While I think that Greta Thunberg from Sweden has taken the wrong approach in scolding entire generations with a broad brush of disdain, I applaud her interest in bringing attention to the problems of climate change. She is quite sincere in her worries and she deserves to be heard even if we find her ideas hyperbolic and even a bit insulting. In fact, when a teen expresses the most anger and frustration that is the very time when they must be heard. In those moments they are thinking out loud and letting us know that they are attempting to make sense of the world as they know it. Simply writing them off only confounds their anger and does little to help them learn how to channel their anxieties into constructive ideas.

In the past I’ve written about the boy with the MAGA cap who was raked over the coals by adults who should have known better. They made assumptions about him based on a single image that could not possibly have told his full story. It was very wrong of the press and the world of social media to publicly scold him without really knowing him. As it turned out he was unfairly taunted and then judged by standards that most adults would have a difficult time achieving.

Then there is the young man from Parkland High School in Florida who has spoken about against guns. He has been ridiculed and insulted in grossly inappropriate ways simply because he espouses a point of view with which many disagree. Instead of complimenting him for taking the time to attempt to solve a problem that personally affected him and his classmates, he has been continually maligned.

As an educator I watched young teens do very stupid things that got them into much trouble. They were the ones who got caught and often the punishments given to them far outweighed the nature of the crimes they committed. In the most extreme cases too much emphasis was placed on retribution toward them rather than using the instance as a teachable moment. The adults in charge did indeed change the course of the youngsters’ lives, but not in the intended way. They took good kids who had done something wrong and turned them into hardened criminals. Without compassion and counseling they broke and felt as though their lives were so ruined that there was little reason to continue along a path of righteousness.

My grandfather was a storyteller. I loved sitting with him and hearing his tales that always held a kernel of wisdom. Hearing him speak was a calming and learning experience. You might say that he had been around.

  Once he told of a time when he was working in a general store as a young boy. Times were hard then and there were families that were unable to afford even the basic necessities. Many of them ran up tabs with the owner of the store with promises of repayment once things got better. One man in particular owed so much that the proprietor of the store had to deny the man anymore credit. The poor soul ended up stealing a bag of flour in desperation and my grandfather witnessed the crime.

Grandpa felt compelled to tell the owner of the store what had happened and soon enough the sheriff arrived. The lawman and my grandfather went together to confront the man who had purloined the flour. When they got to his house they found a chaotic scene in which the woman of the house was attempting to make bread. Her children were so hungry that they were eating balls of raw dough. When the sheriff saw what was happening he looked at my grandfather, winked, and suggested that my grandfather must have been mistaken in thinking that the unfortunate father had stolen anything. My grandfather understood the sheriff’s reasoning instantly and nodded in assent that he had been wrong.

We would all do well to follow the sheriff’s lead and demonstrate more compassion, particularly with teens and young adults. Our first thought should always be to help them to become better versions of themselves. Stern insults and harsh punishments are not the answer. It’s up to us to be better than that.