A Quiet Revolution

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Sometimes it’s good to get away from the never ending information stream that surrounds us on a daily basis. Even with a concerted effort it can be almost impossible to drown out the the noise that has become so much a part of life in the world today. We are literally exposed to an overload of news and opinions that swirl so closely together that it becomes difficult to differentiate between the two. Fact becomes opinion and opinion becomes fact. We find ourselves growing cynical in an upside down universe where believing is sometimes fueled by misinformation and propaganda posing as truth. We feel overwhelmed, and attempt to cope by purposely creating a “time out” for ourselves, a brief moment in which the sound and the fury is silenced so that we may sort out our thoughts and renew our spirits.

Thus it was a couple of weeks ago when I traveled to a an enchanting campground in Arkansas just outside of Hot Springs. The view from my trailer was gorgeous and tranquil, so much so that I suspect that my blood pressure went down several notches. An added bonus was that I had no cell phone coverage or Internet. I was essentially ignorant of the happenings in the world outside of my little cocoon, save for the brief moments each morning when I visited the ranger station to check on family and friends. At first it was uncomfortable and even a bit frightening to be so cut off from the barrage of information,  but I soon found myself feeling a sense of well being and independence. I did not miss all of the furor and rancor and editorializing that sometimes feels so unavoidable. I relaxed, communed with nature, and even allowed myself to enjoy a few foods that I had cut out of my daily regimen. I slept like a bear hibernating in a cave, and felt an inner peace with myself and the world.

Then came the news of the senseless shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. It raddled my new found feeling of security, and thoughts of what had happened rolled around in the back of my head even while I tried to maintain the lovely distance from anger and hate that I had been enjoying. I wanted to speak of what had happened, but I remained mute lest the emotions of joy and tranquility that I had would be replaced by sorrow and anxiety. I pushed my feelings down as far as I possibly could and did my best to retain the sense of well being that my little retreat from reality had been providing me. I found myself wanting to wander off in the forest that encircled our campground in the hopes of finding refuge in some Thoreau like cabin in the woods where I might live my life immune from ugliness. Of course, I understood that such a world is in truth an impossible dream. A voice in my head was calling me back to a place where reality lurks, a place where people struggle and suffer and find little ways to keep a hold on happiness and optimism even when cynicism appears to be the best armor.

I came home and threw myself into performing mundane tasks that required me to avoid the television, the radio, the Internet. Still I was unable to escape the dreadful feeling of how much more divided our nation has become, and how our differences are causing so much unnecessary anguish. There are lost souls among us whose diseased brains taunt them to do despicable things. There are purely evil people whose putrid hate compels them to hurt innocent people who have nothing to do with the imagined slights that make them rage. We have an epidemic of incivility and fury that is making those of us who are stable to feel somehow uncertain, and those who are sociopaths to feel entitled to violent retribution. It is unsettling and frightening when even the people who are supposed to be our unbiased reporters and those designated to be our leaders only know how to respond by arguing and accusing one another of outrageous sins. Little wonder that we are witness to a level of murderous aggression unlike anything that I have witnessed in all of my years on this earth.

I want so badly to find a level of wisdom to impart that will literally change the course of our present history. I have hoped and prayed that there will be a tipping point after which we bind our wounds and join hands in a united effort to insure that the precious lives of good people will not be cut short when they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our children should not have to practice lockdowns in their schools. Churches and synagogues and temples should not have to form emergency committees whose job is to take action if a shooter interrupts a worship service. We should not have to carry clear purses to big events lest to insure that no weapons will be used to destroy others. There is really no excuse for our willingness to  accept that occurrences of violence are now simply part of the way things are. We should not feel compelled to arm ourselves in places that should bring us joy.

How can we expect the unhinged among us to remain calm and without rancor when we are fighting with one another at every turn? Why are some of our politicians inciting unrest, suggesting that being tough and angry is the only way to solve our problems? We are pushing and shoving one another with words and actions. We are engaged in a kind of national anger fest that sees no end. For now there are flareups of murder here and there, but if we do not find some way to seek our common good I have come more and more to fear that we will find ourselves engaged in a real civil war, not just one of words. I now find myself praying continuously that there will be a revolution of good people to bind the wounds of our country and bring us together to quell the sickness that festers in dark places.

I grieve for the souls who were killed in Pittsburgh, good people who were only trying to honor their God. I grieve for anyone who has been a victim of the kind of unspeakable tragedies that occur far too often. I challenge all people of loving hearts, and I believe they are many, to convince our leaders that we will no longer just sit back and tolerate the hate. I want to see a swell of support for kindness, in the style of the peaceful and measured protests that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once led. We need to join hands with all people of the world regardless of religion, political affiliation, sexuality to demonstrate our intent to being civility and kindness to the forefront. We must work together to fix the real problems that we face, and let those who would thwart our efforts know that we are no longer interested in fighting and bickering. We must much honor those whose lives have been lost by becoming better than the evil. We must forego the hysteria, and bring order to our world. Love must prevail.

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Dealing With Loss

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We all face a time of grief. Nobody is immune from the human destiny of death and loss. We build deep and loving relationships with people even as we know that one day we may have to live without them. Death and the emotions that it engenders are a kind of curse from which we cannot escape. When a beloved dies we are deeply affected and must bear the cycle of sorrow that descends upon us. How well we cope may be quite different from one person to another. It is a very personal and private journey which truly cannot be judged. The hurt is real and tangible.

We often wonder if it is better to lose someone suddenly or after a long illness during which we have had time to prepare. The truth is that both scenarios are traumatic. Loss is loss no matter how it happens, and it is something that we never really get over. Instead we allow ourselves to express our sadness in our individual ways and then we find the means of coping and moving on with our lives. When our depression becomes chronic and paralyzes us we need to seek help, but often don’t even realize that our suffering has overwhelmed our ability to find a way to heal.

I am now an orphan. Both of my parents are dead. One was killed suddenly when I was a young child. It has been sixty two years since his accident, but the memories of that trauma are as vivid today as they were back in 1957. I am not obsessed with the death of my father, but I do indeed miss him. When I was eight years old I felt scarred by the loss, but even then I understood that I had to find a way not to be perennially sad and scared. I found the solace that I sought in my studies at school. I suppose that it was inevitable that I would turn to reading and learning as a means of coping with my hurt because these were things that I fondly associated with my dad. In my childlike way I made it out of the abyss of depression by attempting to become the kind of person that I believed he would have wanted me to be.

I rarely spoke of my struggles until I encountered my mother-in-law who also quite unexpectedly lost her father in a hunting accident. Her dad was only a bit older than my father had been when he died, and she while in her twenties was still quite young when the tragedy occurred. Over tea and cookies she often told me stories of how great her father had been, and how his life had inspired her to be better in her own. Ironically we both had dealt with our sorrows by focusing on improving ourselves in honor of the men that we so loved.

I was an old woman when my mother died, eligible to retire from my life’s work of teaching. My mom had been afflicted with bipolar disorder for decades and in her final years my brothers and I had become her caretakers as her health also began to decline. I saw that she was not as energetic as she had once been and she was coughing constantly. The tissues that she stuffed into the trash were often tinged with blood, and still I refused to accept that she was going to die even with so much evidence. When her time came she insisted that she was ready and made me and my brothers promise that we would not resort to extraordinary means to extend her life. She was prepared for her fate, and so at peace. At the time I suppose that I was very much in denial and I walked through the days after her death in a kind of fog devoid of any visible emotions. Inside I was a basket case and believed that I had to find something to fill the vacancy in my heart left by her departure. That’s when I turned to writing, and I suppose it is what fuels me to this very day.

I still miss both of my parents and often find myself wishing that they were still around, even as I know that all was as it was meant to be. I rely on beautiful memories of them to sustain my desire to be with them once again. I turn my focus to constructive activities that push me outside of myself whenever my reveries lead to dark places. It is what we humans do. We love even knowing that one day that special recipient of our care and concern may be gone. We work to make them proud of the ways in which we carry on their legacies, because they do live in our very souls. As long as we breathe they are never completely gone.

I suppose that I love The Lion King because it so poetically outlines the circles of life that define our days here on earth. We find joys, relationships, purposes in spite of our disappointments, feelings of loneliness and sense of being adrift. The way of the world is both to be joyful and to suffer. Mostly we are continually finding ways to carry on in the face of adversity. For some like me and my mother-in-law that may mean embracing the mantle of responsibilities. For others it may involve learning how to relax and have fun. It doesn’t really matter how we choose to cope as long as we find a way.

I would like to think that I am a strong person, but I know that there have been times when I have felt utterly defeated by the realities of being a human. I have remembered and grieved. I have begged God to have pity on my poor wretched soul. I have arisen from the ashes again and again like a phoenix, and yet I still don’t really know how to comfort someone who is struggling with the death of a loved one other than to express my condolences. I know all too well that each of us has to find our own ways of dealing with the ultimate test of our endurance, being left behind when someone we love dies. It is incredibly hard, but we will heal. A warm hug or an understanding word of encouragement always helps. Be that person who brings kindness and hope.

God Knows Where I Am

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I have had two passionate causes in my life. One was made by my own choice. The other was forced upon me by circumstance. Both of them have been major forces that weaved through every single day of my adulthood and seemingly defined my purpose here on this earth. One is a popular political football of sorts, often discussed but rarely resolved. The other is almost taboo, the sort of topic carefully whispered about, and almost always entirely misunderstood. Of course I am speaking of both the education of our young people and the almost haphazard way in which we deal with those among us who are mentally ill.

Those who know me well and those who read my posts understand that I have devoted myself to helping students and their teachers to find quality classrooms and educational standards that include learning how to think critically and how to lead meaningful lives. While there are still great problems with schools and universities that include both methodologies and financial considerations, I am far from alone is voicing both my concerns and my ideas for approaching them. Teachers, professors, parents, and the students themselves are quite vocal about their expectations for preparing each generation for the future. As such education is a subject that quite often finds its way into political discourse. There is much debate over financing and structuring of our public school system, and such discussions while slow to cause actual changes still manage to keep a modicum of attention on one of the most important issues in our country.

On the other hand, mental illness and how we deal with it is a kind of orphan. It is one of those exceedingly uncomfortable subjects that make us squirm even at the mere mention. Furthermore it is maddeningly misunderstood by those who have been fortunate enough not to experience its crushing effects. It is a disease with physical origins that are not as easy to see as a case of diabetes or a heart attack. The science around it is still in its infancy compared to other medical issues. There are few massive institutions like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that are dedicated to unlocking the secrets to combating mental illness. The funding for those who choose to enter the world of psychology or psychiatry is generally well below that of other medical fields, and, speaking of fields, we never see athletes donning a color to promote support and awareness of those individuals and their family members who fight relentlessly and alone to care for loved ones ravaged by mental illness. It is all too easy to believe that nobody is particularly concerned about those who endure diseases like chronic depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and other forms of mind numbing illness. Instead we look away from those that we all too often blithely categorize as “crazy.” In fact, I am certain that I lost many of my potential readers in the first paragraph of this blog as soon as I mentioned mental illness.

I have not secreted the fact that my dear mother had bipolar disorder nor that me and my brothers became her lifelong caretakers in an odyssey that lasted from 1969 until her death in 2011. It was often a frustrating journey punctuated by a seeming lack of concern by a society that all too many times shunned our mother when she was most in need of support. A lack of doctors, hospitals, finances and most of all understanding complicated our search for a kind and compassionate resolution to her needs and ours. Along the way we encountered dedicated professionals who were as troubled as we were like Dr. Thomas Brandon and Dr. Jary Lesser, but we also found many who had been so chewed up alive by the laws and the lack of funding that they had become far too cynical to be of help. We learned who the people were that we could trust, and realized that their numbers were far fewer than we had hoped.

On this past Sunday I received a text from my youngest daughter insisting that I watch a documentary on Netflix called, God Knows Where I Am. Without revealing any spoilers she simply said that it was sad but quite good, so I decided to end what had been a glorious day spent with my grandsons by viewing the film. I soon learned that it was the story of a woman who was found dead inside a vacant farmhouse, seemingly the victim of starvation. Amazingly she had filled several spiral notebooks with daily descriptions of her strange saga including a final declaration that included her name, Social Security number, and designation of where she wished to be buried. What investigators ultimately found is that the victim, Linda Bishop, was from a middle class family that had been filled with love and delightful experiences. Linda was well educated and possessed a personality that garnered her many friends. She married, had a daughter whom she adored, and eventually divorced. The rest of the tale devolves into a brutally heartbreaking saga of her crushing fall into mental illness and the ways in which our current system of dealing with cases such as hers totally failed both Linda and her family.

As I watched the film I found myself feeling as though it was my own mother’s story and that of me and my brothers. I was able to relate to every segment of the unfolding tragedy. My stomach clinched into the old familiar knot that often plagued me whenever my mom was particularly sick. I have been to all of the same dark places that Linda Bishop’s loved ones have been. I know from my own experiences how much truth lies in this documentary, and I hope beyond hope that enough people will watch it and embrace it so that a kind of revolution will begin aimed at fixing a very broken system that too often leaves everyone concerned in a state of abject fear and dejection.

My brothers and I were lucky enough to keep my mother from the kind of harm that overcame Linda Bishop, but it was a battle that we waged virtually every single day, and mostly alone. It was a fight not just for her life but our own. I know that we made many mistakes, but ultimately we slew the dragon of ignorance and lack of concern that made every step of the way more difficult that it need have been. I will speak out for those who have mental illnesses and for their families until I draw my last breath. I will never quite understand why it is not yet one of the most important causes in our world, but I will not let the lack of interest stand in my way of bringing awareness. For now I simply implore everyone to watch God Knows Where I Am. Surely it will tear at your heart.

Promote Love

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I have only recently returned from a ten day camping trip with dear friends. For most of the time I had spotty phone service and little access to the Internet. It forced me to forego my addiction to receiving instant news alerts and to reading political comments and commentaries during this election cycle. I found that my vacation from the noise and chaos of the world allowed me to quiet the anxieties that I sometimes feel about the state of the world. It also helped me to slow down my responses to events that might otherwise have angered me. By listening to the wind, the birds, and the beating of my own heart rather than the chaos that has become so commonplace I found a kind of wisdom and ability to calm my emotions. It made me realize that the world really is too much with us. We have in many ways become as raucous and disturbing to the peace as the flock of crows who sometimes babbled overhead as I sat near a beautiful lake eating my meals.

If I were to only be exposed to my friends and the members of my family I would never see or hear hate. The people in my sphere are good and kind, just as I found the individuals that I encountered in my travels to be. Most of us only desire to live our lives with as little drama and ugliness as possible, but we are all too often reminded again and again that there are indeed tortured souls who are filled with murderous anger and venom. I often wonder what has made them this way. Surely they were at one time innocent children. Were they abused, taught to be hard hearted? Did their minds become infected with illnesses that were ignored and left untreated? Were they abandoned by society in some way, alone and afraid? What led to their evil acts of violence? Why did they feel compelled to hurt innocents who had nothing whatsoever to do with causing them to have so much anger seething inside of them? How did their minds become so tortured?

I have come to believe that much of the murderous rage that we witness is caused by the twenty four seven barrage of information and talk that is suffocating us. Headlines are created to garner our attention. The more salacious they are the more likely we are to be curious about them. Yes, we have a president who stokes the fires, but the news outlets are more than happy to constantly give him the attention that he so voraciously seeks rather than learning how to ignore his rudeness. Perhaps if they took away his audience he might change his ways.

We can’t watch an awards show without hearing unwanted political commentaries from people who somehow believe that their opinions should matter to us. There is to much talk, talk, talk, most of which resembles a disagreement among kids in middle school. Seemingly all of us are guilty in one way or another of judging people by the ways in which they vote. We are at war with those with whom we disagree in ways that are destructive to our society, our friendships and our families. Instead of seeking common ground our words are used mostly to insult and push away anyone who differs from our own ways of thinking. Sadly, the level of self righteous indignation is fueling the violent responses of those whose minds have somehow become twisted, incomprehensible and filled with hate.

So what can we do to help the situation? Simply turning our backs on the problems will do little. We cannot ignore the reality that something must be done, but we also need to approach the matter in a way that demonstrates our willingness to value the differences that we have. We can indeed reshape the environment, but it will not be easy nor will we rid ourselves of all evil. The one thing that we can control is the way in which we choose to react to people who appear to be so aggrieved that they are shouting in true pain. Rather than insulting them, perhaps it is time that we ask them what they really need.

On a recent Sunday the Gospel story told of Jesus traveling to Jericho where He encountered a blind man named Bartimaeus  who begged the Lord to pity him and help him to see. The crowd yelled at Bartimaeus and told him to be quiet. They wanted nothing to do with the wretched man, but Jesus stopped, listened to his pleas and healed him.

We need to follow that example. It is so easy to just write someone off because we do not like what that person does or says. We meet their anger with our own and often hurl insults at them or even turn our backs on them, leaving them to grow more and more isolated and desirous of vengeance. We tell ourselves that helping people who are overwrought is none of our business, sometimes even when they are members of our own families.

I read an ironic description of the man who sent pipe bombs to democrats. It was from one of the members of his family. The man told of how sweet the his cousin had always been. He then went on to note that things had changed in the last three to five years. The world fell apart for the man now charged with attempted murder. He lost his business and had to file for bankruptcy. He was living inside of his van which was plastered with outrageous political messages. He worked as a pizza delivery man, a job usually populated by younger individuals. He had frequent run ins with the law and made unrealistic boasts about his talents. Those who knew him realized that something was very wrong and yet they did little more than shake their heads. He had not seen many of his relatives in over five years. Still, nobody seemed willing to reach out to him and ask what they might do to help him. He turned to a strangers in a twisted political world for the comfort that he sought. What if instead, someone who truly loved him had been willing to ask him what he needed? Might the direction of his life turned just by being noticed? 

We will never know. Indeed he may have pushed everyone away in spite of their efforts. Sometimes evil cannot be persuaded to change. That is when we must punish violent acts. Still I think that it would benefit all of us to begin to approach the sound and fury that surrounds us with more compassion and less anger. I think of an episode of the famous literary detective Hercule Poirot that I watched not long ago. In it he solves a murder before it even takes place, saving an unfortunate friend whose life was falling apart from total ruination. It’s time that we return to love, even for those that we do not understand,. We must notice the suffering people among us even when they appear to be ugly and unhinged. Let the crows be raucous. We should be kind. Promote love even for those we do not understand. Maybe in the process we will prevent evil from taking root in a misguided and tortured mind.

The Tragic Hero

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The tragic hero is a staple of literature. From the earliest Greek authors we learn of individuals whose feet of clay lead them down paths of destruction. Somehow we are taken by such characters, wanting to love them while hating their actions. Shakespeare mastered the art of creating sympathetic but flawed protagonists, like Hamlet. With a grave foreboding our stomachs clinch as we watch his descent into a hell of his own making. Thus it is with one story after another.

We know the literary formula, but even though we have seen it again and again we find ourselves hoping and praying that such tragic figures will somehow see the light before it’s too late. We pray for their redemption even as we helplessly watch them slide into a kind of evil that need not happen. There are no happy endings for them either in the realm of fiction or real life.

I’m addicted to Better Call Saul, a spinoff from the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad series. It is the story of a likable soul named Jimmy McGill. Jimmy got into a scrape when he was a teenager, much to the chagrin of his older brother, Charles, a highly respected and successful lawyer. Over time Jimmy seemed to get his act together. He worked in the mailroom of his brother’s law firm while earning a law degree from a questionable but legitimate school in Samoa. He’s a cheerful and impish sort who seems to be naturally loved by the people he encounters including his girlfriend, Kim, so when he finally becomes a lawyer he fully expects to work in his brother’s law offices. When his bid for a position is denied because Charles does not trust him, we get our first hint of trouble. Our since of foreboding, well trained as it is from previous forays into tragedies, tells us that things may not work out as well for Jimmy as he and we may have initially thought.

Of course those of us who watched Breaking Bad already know that Jimmy McGill will somehow morph into Saul Goodman, a sleazy lawyer working for clients who represent the underbelly of society. Even as we enjoy seeing Jimmy as an affable fellow our stomachs clinch at the thought of what he will become. As the series progresses we want to warn him to beware, and he disappoints us with his slow decline, all the while blaming everyone but himself for his woes. It’s the kind of thing that all tragic heroes do.

We’ve all seen the same kind of individuals in real life which is what makes the artistic inventions of authors, screenwriters and movie directors seem so accurate. These tortured souls are people with so much potential who somehow believe that their bad behaviors are justified by the unfairness of their lives. Instead of taking the high road, they take shortcuts and bend laws and morality. The ultimate tragedy of their lives is the waste of what might have been a truly good person, and all too often they leave wreckage in the wake of all of their relationships. They don’t seem to realize the pain and suffering that they cause for those who truly love them. Often they don’t seem to realize how broken they actually are. They are the adulterers who won’t stop their philandering, the addicts who are unable or unwilling to fight their demons, the abusers who think everyone else is the problem. Sadly, not only are their lives miserable, but so is everyone else caught in their horrid world until they find the courage to make a clean break.

I have had students who were amazingly lovable, but totally irresponsible and dishonest. They disappointed again and again, even when they appeared to be headed for a change of heart. I’ve had friends who married people who were quite wonderful as long as things went their way, but as challenges entered their lives they wandered from the straight and narrow. It is emotionally crushing to be around people that we want so badly to trust, knowing that to do so would defy common sense. Walking away from our tragic heroes is even harder to experience than watching their downfalls. Our hearts tell us to give them one more chance, while our heads remind us that they have failed us so many times before.

I’m not certain what causes a seemingly wonderful person to lose his or her way. Often there is great tragedy in the background, but sometimes they have had what most of us would consider to be a good life. There are sociopaths among us and we have yet to understand how to help them to change. Few efforts in this regard have been entirely successful. The question becomes who most deserves our compassion, and the best answer is usually that we must help the innocents that they harm. We might still love them, but there comes a moment when we can’t accept their bad behavior. We have to push them out of our lives, lest we become unwilling collaborators in their deviant behaviors.

We find characters like Jimmy McGill AKA Saul Goodman all too realistic. We love and hate them all at once. Art is sometimes brilliant at imitating life. The truth is that they are not heroes at all.