Facing Our Fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Truth Is Beautiful

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Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Trouble

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I have not said much about the death of John Lewis even though I have wanted to do so. I’ve been a bit too weepy thinking about his life story to be able to put my thoughts on paper in a coherent manner. Losing one of the last of the big Civil Rights leaders has brought back so many memories of a lifetime ago. I had thought or perhaps wanted to believe that the racial animus of my childhood was long gone. I actually believed at times that Congressman Lewis may have been exaggerating the extent of modern day problems  with race. All of that changed in the last few years as I observed an underbelly of our nation that seemed to be festering and growing like a toxic virus. I have been stunned by racism that I have seen and heard that should have died long ago. I knew that we have yet to complete the journey to justice and equality for all that he fought for so courageously for all of his life.

John Lewis was a young man when he decided to join in the struggle for freedom alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jim Lawson, and others. He was so passionate about the cause that not even multiple arrests and life threatening injuries were able to dampen his spirit. He marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday only to be viciously attacked. His skull was crushed but not his fervor. He often admonished all of us to engage in such “good trouble.”

When John Lewis was asked to speak at the famous march on Washington D.C. he prepared a speech that was so incendiary that his elders asked him to tone it down. He learned from them and always lived their creed of nonviolence and persuasion. He became known as a genuinely kind person. People described him as compassionate and sweet but he remained a fighter for the good of all people for the totality of his life.

I once visited Selma with a group of minority students. We stood in front of the church where John Lewis and others had gathered for their ill fated march to Montgomery, Alabama which was short circuited as they went over the rise of the Edmund Pettus bridge. They were greeted by law officers and snarling dogs who set on them with clubs, beating them to the ground. It was one of the ugliest moments in the history of our country and it changed the hearts and minds of people around the world.

As I walked across the bridge with my students so many years later I felt the spirit of those people who fought so valiantly for their right to vote. We were a motley group with our crew of black and brown students being led by mostly white teachers. We attracted a bit of attention and eventually we were even followed by a clearly marked sheriff’s car. When we got to the crest of the bridge I became breathless as I stared down its length and imagined how those brave souls, including John Lewis, must have felt on that fateful day.

Eventually our journey took us to Montgomery, Alabama where we once again reenacted history by walking toward the State Capitol building. I literally felt the living presence of the souls who had endured such “good trouble” to make the rest of us aware of the problems that they faced. I felt honored and humbled to walk in their shadows.

Now one of the greats among us is gone but I believe we can learn from him. I would tell the Black Lives Matter movement that their message is important but they need to be more tactical in the things they do and say. The protests of the era when John Lewis was young always had a specific message and purpose. They were respectful and nonviolent. They were not damaging to communities. They won the respect of the world with their passive resistance.

Today’s protests too often lose their focus. Looting never helps the cause no matter how many attempts there are to rationalize it. Destroying property only plays into the hands of the very people who have racist views. Being distracted by monuments and statues draws attention away from the real issues and results in only cosmetic changes. John Lewis understood all of these things and if the new era of protestors have any thought of honoring him they will study and follow his way of doing things. They will focus on voting rights and other systemic changes, not trivial symbolism.

It’s easy for a city to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee but if they do not also discuss changes that provide justice for Black Americans little will actually change. The Black Lives Matter movement is gaining support all over the world but it must be careful not to overdo. People become easily bored with a continual cadence that is not backed up with a seeable, doable plan. Now is an opportunity to honor a great man, John Lewis, by asking what he would do and then agreeing to make some “good trouble” with a clear goal that everyone can understand.

    

We Are Not the Enemy

aerial photography of house field and trees covered with snow
Photo by Mohan Reddy Atalu on Pexels.com

When the news of Covid-19 first sent warning signals I decided that I would write about its effect on my little slice of the world each day. I have often wondered what life was like for my grandparents who were young adults during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and it occurred to me that if any one of them had recorded observations and thoughts about the deadly virus our family would have a priceless treasure. I love reading first person accounts of historic events. They provide an emotional context to factual renderings. Hard times come alive with stories of everyday life and survival. Thus I pledged to devote my blogs to our current situation until things simmered down and we began a process of returning to a more normal state of affairs. It never dawned on me that I would still be recording commentaries about the pandemic in the later weeks of July with no real end in sight.

I suppose that I believed that we might somehow slow the spread of the virus by shutting down for a short time. I hoped that the heat of summer would somehow burn the virus out giving us a reprieve until the winter months when hopefully we would have a vaccine. My daughters were not nearly as optimistic as I was but I tended to believe that they were viewing the world as though the sky was falling. They insisted that because we were not working together as a nation things would surely go awry. They witnessed guidelines being ignored, people believing in all manner of crazy theories, and a president who preferred to paint a happy picture of our progress in fighting the virus rather than facing the facts.

I hoped the purveyors of gloom were wrong but even the doctors that I consulted cautioned me that the trends of contagion were still moving in an upward direction. They advised me to hold steady to my isolation and safety procedures until the end of June and then I saw an exponential explosion of positive cases and hospitalizations in my own backyard. I had to face the reality that the new Covid-19 world order would be with us for many more weeks and possibly even months unless we find a way to bury our divisions and work as a united country. Unfortunately I see no way forward with that idea and so I am gravely disheartened.

I hear people turning to prayer and I certainly do my share of talking and listening to God, but I do not think that there will be a sudden miracle to make all of this end. Neither God nor the virus play favorites which is why bad things sometimes happen to good people. God has instead given us our minds to think things through and determine a good course of action. He has taught us to be unselfish, never ignoring the most vulnerable among us. He exhorts us to be loving in our care of one another. These are the things I believe him to be telling us.

My mother and my grandmothers taught me that God is present in every human soul. My mama said that when we ignore or mistreat even the most seemingly deplorable person we are slapping the face of God. I have grown up believing that idea and attempting to be a peacemaker in times of trouble. I believe that we desperately need someone who has the power to bring us together, not drive us apart. When our scientists and medical experts are accused of lies and greed with respect to Covid-19 we are indeed far away from my desire of walking together in our time of great sorrow. When people defy the dictates to dance in a bar while people are dying in nearby hospitals my heart cries out. I wonder where the common sense and compassion have gone.

It should be apparent to everyone that we are in trouble on multiple fronts. There are refrigerated trucks in several states waiting for the bodies of the dead. The military is setting up field hospitals. Our medical workers are being pushed to the limit. Our hospitals are running out of protective equipment. Our teachers are fearful of the chaos that may ensue when schools reopen. Crime is on the rise in our cities. Our minorities are bearing the brunt of essential work and illness. Our criminal justice system is sick. Millions have lost their jobs and will soon see their unemployment checks end, not because they are too lazy to look for work but because they cannot find employment. People are on the brink of being evicted with no place to go. Businesses are failing. Our once strong nation is badly wounded mostly because we have been unwilling to patiently take measures to stop the spread of the virus as a group. It is so widespread now that we cannot even keep track of where it is attempting to go. We fight and bicker and unfriend one another rather than joining in a nationwide effort to stem the tide of Covid-19 no matter what sacrifices it may take to do so.

Now I am truly worried. Politics rather than rationality have overtaken our response to the virus. Our progress has been set back by weeks, maybe even months.Our situation is the worst it has been. Winter is coming and we have yet to speak of what that might mean. I wonder if our lack of a unified effort will result in a destruction of our healthcare system, our economy and our educational infrastructure that will take decades to repair. My happy instincts are being pushed aside by reality. I want to climb to my rooftop and warn everyone of what I see happening but I suspect that I will not be heard. I don’t know what it will take to bring our country to its senses but I believe things will become even more grim before we get there. Perhaps this is a time of reckoning that will either crush us or demonstrate the moral character that we have mustered in tough times of the past. I surely hope and pray that we will sooner rather than later understand that Covid-19 is our enemy, not one another. 

This Is What Keeps Me Awake At Night

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In the beginning we were mostly very nice to one another. We came together not just as a nation, but as a worldwide community. We worried as much for the people of Italy as we did for ourselves. We applauded our healthcare workers at the end of their daily shifts. We found ways to do good things for people that we didn’t even know. We followed the rules and the precautions for staving off the virus with great care. We marveled at the flights of the Blue Angels as they flew over our city to thank those on the front lines of the battle with Covid-19. We grieved over every death and felt great compassion for those who became ill. We were willing to extend financial help for those who lost their jobs. Our sense of empathy was great and it felt good to be part of a human community that was so loving and caring.

Then some of us began to lose patience. The Lieutenant Governor of Texas suggested that we needed to go back to normal quickly. He blithely announced that he and other older Americans would be willing to die to help the young to reclaim their lives. The President of the United States appeared to grow weary of the daily briefings on the virus and the lack of a miracle disappearance of Covid-19 as he had so hopefully predicted. Armed groups asserted their right to freedoms including not being forced to wear masks in public. States began to reopen even as they ignored the guidelines of health professionals for doing so. Life seemingly resumed and then a Black man attempted to spend a twenty dollar bill that looked suspicious. The police were called and before an hour had passed that man lay dead as a result of overt brutality. Riots broke out first across the nation and eventually across the world. Our community spirit was finally rent in two.

As I sit in my home I number the days that I have been isolated. It is now well over 100 revolutions of the sun that have kept me inside save for a delightful three day interlude in which I drove around the Texas hill country and sat eight feet away from my daughter and her family for some much needed family connection. I have taught remote classes with my tiny band of students and I have enjoyed Zoom conferences with family and friends. Mostly though I have had to find ways to make my days meaningful as I do my best to help in the effort to eliminate the virus as much as possible.

At first I marveled at the kindness of humans but of late I have been deeply saddened by the selfishness and lack of compassion that I witness. I wonder why those who have pensions and savings and jobs that provide them with financial security have so little concern for those who are unemployed. Why are they not urging our president and Congress to continue to provide the jobless with the help they so desperately need during this time? Why does anyone think that it is a good idea to simply abandon thirteen percent of the American people who want to work but can’t find employment no matter how hard they try?

Our Black and Hispanic citizens are literally bearing the brunt of Covid-19. They are getting sick and dying in numbers far greater than the white population. So why would so many among us not even attempt to understand the frustrations that they are feeling? Does this really seem to be a time for accusing them of being responsible for the rise in cases of the virus when we know that people went to crowded bars and beaches? Does it make sense to smear the attempts of our Black citizens to demonstrate their frustrations and only see the small number of dissidents who have made the cause sometimes violent? Should all of those peacefully gathering for justice be viewed as a group of thugs? What is the reasoning for favoring hunks of metal or stone fashioned into icons glorifying people who fought to keep the ancestors of our Black neighbors enslaved over living breathing humans who are in great pain? Does this actually seem like a time to threaten dreamers with a reattempt at ridding our country of DACA so that they might once and for all be deported? What kind of people would celebrate a threat to repeal the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic? How has our society become so cruel that a wealthy old white man rides in his golf cart shouting “White Power” and our president applauds him? How can we continue to ignore our elderly who are virtual prisoners in their rooms in nursing homes because some of us refuse to do what is needed to end the rise of Covid-19 cases? What are we doing to help the mentally ill and addicted who have had an interruption of their therapies? These are the things that sadden me.

I honestly care little about myself. My days on this earth have not always been easy, but mostly they have been good. I am happy with my life and the people who have shared it with me. I have been most fortunate. I worry most about those who are truly suffering and feeling so alone. I grieve that my country is lost in a morass of ugliness and selfishness and unwillingness to spread both the wealth and the sacrifice in such a dire time. I see such difficult weeks ahead for our young whose lives are so upended and so uncertain. Their educations and their hopes and dreams and plans are on hold. Nothing is as it once was save for the lucky ones who have the gift of health and economic security that allows them to carry on as though the pandemic is little more than an inconvenient hoax created by forces that want to frighten us. For so many this moment is all too real, and it is for them that I worry. It is about them that I write. It is impossible for me to ignore them as though they do not matter.

I am weary because I feel as though I am shouting into the wind. I do not think that I have changed a single mind with the essays that I hoped would enlighten people to at least think a bit differently than usual. I see the divisiveness of beliefs growing harder and more immovable than ever before and that frightens me more than the possibility of becoming sick. Perhaps this moment in time is only the beginning of a series of events that will ultimately change the world. It may be that we will all have to endure much hardship to reach the other side. This is what keeps me awake at night because I do not believe that it had to be this way.