Another Ding, Another Scratch

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I saw a woman on television laughing about a dent in her car and philosophically shaking off her concern by exclaiming, “Another ding, another scratch, just another chapter in the story.” I had to laugh along with her because in truth she had summed up life quite brilliantly with that little utterance. It seems as though each of us carries dents and scars on both our bodies and our minds that ultimately contribute to becoming the persons who we are. In spite of our own efforts to take control of things, we are continually blindsided by accidents of nature and disappointments from relationships. As we travel through our individual stories we experience collisions with diseases and toxic people, along with all of the regular intersections and interactions that bring the wear and tear that is a normal part of being human.

Some of the things that happen to us are quite natural. As children we may skin our knees or break a bone or two. We form friendships and experience disappointments. We learn and dream and if we are truly lucky we get through our childhoods without too many traumas or losses and work on embracing adulthood. We search for loving friends and partners and attempt to fulfill the dreams and goals that push us to become better each day. We may choose wrong and have to rethink our plans or accept that someone that we loved has betrayed us or simply grown weary of us. If we are lucky our troubles are average, and our health is good so that we make it to our so-called golden years of retirement. We grow older and feel the aging of our bodies a bit more. We must say goodbye to departed friends and look a bit less toward the future and more at finding contentment in each day. Eventually every single one of us reaches an ending, and if we are lucky we will be able to look back on what we have accomplished and the relationships that we have fostered with a sense of contentment and maybe even a bit of pride.

The truth is that living is a bit more complex than that. We are faced with challenges at times that feel almost unbearable. It becomes difficult to write them off as just another ding or scratch. We feel as though our collision with some horrific force has totaled us out, reduced us to heaps of junk. Unless we are extraordinarily lucky each of us has faced a moment in which we might even ask God where He is because we feel so alone in our pain and suffering. I have had my own share of troubles that threatened to overwhelm me, events so terrible that they rendered me almost useless for a time. In those moments I had to rely heavily on faith, hope and love wherever I was able to find it. I was always humbled in learning who my most loyal angels were, because often they were not the people to whom I had given the biggest chunks of my heart, but instead unexpected souls who miraculously came to my aide. Of course there were also a handful of people so reliable that I was able to call on them time and again to rescue me from many difficult situations.

I recently watched a movie called Hostiles. I had not heard of it before, but it had a good cast with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, as well as a very decent Rotten Tomatoes rating. It is a western and thanks to my Uncle Jack I grew up loving those kinds of stories. This one reminded me a bit of the old John Wayne movie The Searchers, but with a more modern and philosophical twist. While there was plenty of adventure, the tale was mainly about people caught up in the kind of accident of life that transforms them and provides them with the answers that they have needed. It speaks to the idea that sometimes in our most tragic times we find the faith, hope and love for which we have been searching.

An event can be so unnerving that it causes us to reassess everything that we have believed about ourselves and the people around us. It rips us apart and threatens to destroy us, but we somehow find what we need to repair ourselves and come out whole again. The process of fixing our very souls can be gut wrenchingly painful and lonely. We may not even want to continue down the road because the darkness does not allow us to see what lies ahead. We may cry out and hear no response, lie down and wish it all to be over. That is when we somehow find the tiniest bit of encouragement as though the hand of God Himself is reaching down to rescue us.

We humans are fragile creatures who are nonetheless stronger than we realize. For centuries we have endured the dings and scratches and wrecks that mar our journeys, but also provide us with the character that makes our stories more real. Still there are those among us whose suffering is so intense that they cannot repair themselves alone. They need someone to help them to restore the faith and hope that they require to continue into the future. Love is the panacea that they seek. We need to be aware of them and be the person who gently demonstrates the compassion for which they have been searching.

We all have a ding here, a scratch there, and sometimes a big gaping hole. Some of our injuries are of our own making, but most come from out of nowhere like a speeding Mack truck driven by a drunken driver. We endure collisions that test us more than we believe that we are capable of handling. That is when we often feel the most alone, but in truth there is always someone who will miraculously help if only we allow them to hear our cries. As humans we have two duties. One is to humble ourselves just enough to ask for assistance, and another is to be ready to provide aide whenever someone calls. If we follow these guidelines we are less likely to wind up forgotten and alone in the junkyard of life. We have the power to rewrite our stories and those of the people around us. When we embrace our dings and scratches they take on a lovely patina that brings out the true beauty of life.

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A Frontier To Explore

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The newest studies show that suicide is on the rise in every corner of America. This month alone has been punctuated by the self inflicted deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two celebrities who appeared to have it all. Those tasked with helping us to maintain mental health are almost at a loss for words regarding what causes such incidents and how we may prevent them in the future. It is a problem that has plagued mankind for centuries and we still find ourselves scratching our heads in confusion and horror whenever we learn of someone ending their life in such a hopeless fashion. It is in our nature’s to want to help, but so often the incidents come as a surprise even to those closest to the victims.

I suppose that I have always been thankful that my mother’s bipolar disorder never lead to suicide because I know for certain that there were times when her depression was so deep that she was paralyzed inside a deep dark mood. She would close herself off from the world and sit in her house sleeping and crying and feeling frightened and hopeless. There was little that we were able to do to brighten her outlook other than getting her to professional help as quickly as possible. Sometimes that was made more difficult by the fact that her energy level was so low that she was unable to dress or care for herself and didn’t think that it was even possible to make the journey to the doctor’s office. We learned after multiple such episodes that it was critical to push her, because once she received the appropriate treatments and stayed under our watchful eyes she would soon enough return to a better state of mind.

Mama’s psychiatrists always worried about suicide even to the point of suggesting that we take away obvious means of harming herself whenever she was in such a state. They also insisted that we not leave her alone. During those times she would stay at one of our homes and we would take vacations from work to watch over her. We were told by more than one doctor that Mama’s unrelenting faith in God was no doubt a factor in preventing her from ever once making an attempt on her own life. In that regard we were fortunate.

Not every tortured soul who considers suicide is so apparently depressed as my mother was. Sometimes they even appear to be happy, successful and in love with life. There may be very close friends or family members who are more acquainted with their moods, but most of us see them as quirky or a bit erratic emotionally at most. Often they are so stoic and gifted at hiding their true feelings that we have little sense that they are in trouble. Those are the complex cases that most baffle us. We scratch our heads when we hear of their deaths wondering what clues we may have missed.

The brain and its chemistry is so intricate. We have yet to uncover its mysteries or ways to successfully control its problems. If only we knew more we might one day be able to eradicate much of the hurt and pain that mental illnesses inflict not just on the individuals who have them, but on their families as well. Even when every conceivable effort is made to deal rationally and medically with diseases of the mind, there are so many ways that things may go wrong. Attempting to address such issues with routine methods may or may not work. Since most incidents of depression, mania and such are chronic rather than acute it becomes a lifelong battle, and just when one method seems to be working something changes in the physiology that requires new approaches. In many ways our work with such diseases is still in the very experimental stage. There is so much that we still do not know, and while we ponder such questions the suicide rate is rising.

When famous people kill themselves it sheds a light on a problem that is rampant in our society, but all too often hidden from view. We brag about our children’s accomplishments, but we don’t like to mention when they suffer from depression. We hope so much that we can just treat their symptoms and move on to normalcy that we sometimes overlook signs that all is not as well as we may think. I know that in my mother’s case we foolishly hoped and prayed over and over again that we had once and for all conquered her illness. We were shocked and disappointed so many times when her symptoms reappeared, even though all logic should have taught us that our vigilance and her treatments would have to be a lifetime commitment.

I have a daughter who also suffers from depression. She learned much from watching her grandmother. She also knows the pitfalls of treatment for her own disease. The medications and therapies that she receives lift her mood so well that she becomes convinced that she is cured. She wants to abandon the drugs that cause her to gain weight and to endure other uncomfortable side effects. She doesn’t like the idea of being part of a chemistry experiment. So even with her own medical training and the history of our family she does what so many persons with a mental illness do. She stops her treatments in the hopes that she doesn’t really need them anymore. When her symptoms return she realizes the mistake she has made and returns to a lifestyle that she is certain few would understand. Luckily she has a family who supports her and understands the dangers associated with her depression.

As a society we desperately need to come to grips with all forms of mental illness. They are real and not just the product of someone’s imagination. They are frightening to those who have them and those who love someone who has them. As a whole the mentally ill are treated badly. We tend to run away from them rather than support them. We make them feel isolated and misunderstood. When we speak of their difficulties there is a tendency by those unfamiliar with such illnesses to suggest that they are somehow just indulging in selfish behaviors. We often push them to “get a grip.” They hide their pain in the shadows and now and again they simply do not have the energy to continue to deal with the confusion that they feel.

I’m of the mind that mental illness is perhaps the biggest problem in our society today. I would love to see us place as much enthusiasm and dedication to conquering diseases fo the mind as we did for reaching the moon. It would be go grand to gather the greatest minds in a generously funded program whose sole purpose is to conquer mental illness. I believe that if we unlock the means of treating such illnesses many of our woes will evaporate. We must make heroes of those who work to repair the mind. Until we do we will continue to see mass shootings, criminal behaviors, addictions, and suicides. It should be clear that mental illness is the frontier that we most need to explore and understand.

Save the Children

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When my mother was only three or four years old her mother had a mental breakdown. The full details of the event are sketchy, but the certainty of what happened to my mom is very clear. The little tyke loved her mama and felt safe with her. When medical personal came to the house, restrained her mother, and then drove away in an ambulance the child that my mother was felt confused and betrayed. This event had a lasting impact on her that was so traumatic that it haunted her the rest of her life. She often spoke of the disdain that she felt for her father whom she held responsible for what she viewed as the imprisonment of her mom. She insisted that her mother had been a good woman who did not deserve the horrific treatment that befell her. Unlike her older siblings she was never able to accept that her mama had been very sick and in need of treatment. She had been so very young when she was torn from her mother’s loving care that it impacted the very essence of her thinking. The scars left by the separation never healed.

My youngest daughter endured a similar situation that was less dramatic but nonetheless frightening to her. When she was not yet three years old my husband contracted a fungal disease that required hospitalization and a long regimen of chemotherapy. Our family was thrown into a kind of chaotic state when we learned that the disease was often fatal. We spent months in a new routine of hospital visits and uncertainty. Years later my girl endured a bought with severe anxiety and depression. Her psychiatrist asked what had occurred at around the age of three that had seemingly caused the her to have an enduring sense of uncertainty and fear. He noted that something had so affected my daughter that she had buried deep seated emotions that were finally coming to the surface and causing her despondency. It was shocking to learn that something that had happened more than a decade earlier that was seemingly resolved had such a profound affect.

Young children see and hear and feel far more than we sometimes know. They are aware of what is happening around them to a larger extent than we imagine, but they do not always have the capacity to interpret the interchanges with their environment, particularly when the security represented by a parent is taken from them. They are unable to fully express the need for the warmth and love of a mother or father that is so essential to their healthy development. It is critical that they have all of their most basic needs addressed, and there is generally no better person to do that for them than a parent who genuinely cares for them. So much of the basic personality is formed during early childhood and every event plays an important role in development. As children we all cling to our parents and look to them to supply our most essential needs. When that relationship is suddenly severed children lose all sense of safety. Unless they are carefully counseled and loved the event will have a lifelong impact.

My father died when I was eight years old. People often marvel that my memories of the days following his death are so crystal clear. I am able to vividly recall people, conversations, the weather, and most of all my own jumbled feelings. I was far more aware of what was happening that the adults around me ever imagined. That being said, without the maturity of adulthood I am certain that I often misinterpreted my situation, and not in a good way. I became a fearful child, someone unwilling to take risks. I was afraid of people and life. It would take me twenty or more years to overcome the shock and awe of the sudden loss of someone that I so loved, and I became a somewhat neurotic and sad little girl. It was only through my study of childhood development and my association with truly caring people that I was able to eventually lay all of the demons that had so haunted me to rest.

For these reasons I am both appalled and concerned for the welfare of immigrant children who are currently being separated from their parents. I realize that we have laws, and the adults who come here illegally are breaking them. In that regard there are many needed discussions regarding the issues, but it seems certain to me that taking children away while their parents are being processed is deeply wrong. The consequences of such inhumane decisions will impact these little ones for decades. The trauma that our government is inflicting on them is morally untenable, as anyone familiar with children understands. In spite of efforts to provide food, beds, education, games and other such amenities to care for them the one thing that the little ones require is missing. They must have their parents to feel secure. What we are doing is so egregious that we simply cannot justify the actions with by quoting laws or even the Bible. We must know that we are bending the truth and God’s word when we attempt to do such things.

I love my country and believe in its innate goodness. It has of late been overtaken by an incivility that is toxic. There seems to be an attitude that winning is more important than being just. The good people in our midst are being pushed aside by bullies, and the ideals of honor and respect are all too often being eschewed by those who insist on all or nothing in their political dealings. As citizens we must join together in the common cause of decency, following the lead of heroes the world over who insist on standing for what is right rather than what will make them popular. We must end the ugliness by demonstrating our best natures. Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of our country. We can no longer allow tactics that so scorch the earth. If we don’t save the children of the world regardless of the circumstances we are doomed to a dark future. Our best hope is in finding our natural goodness again and doing what we know to be right.

Shifting Responsibility

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Our country was founded by rebellious people, many of whom were descendants of folk who were having a difficult time in Europe. They were people that might be referred to today as “deplorables” from religious sects that had been persecuted, poor who came as indentured servants, youngest sons who would never inherit land, adventurers who wanted to try something new, troubled souls who barely escaped jail or a hangman’s noose, fatherless boys and girls called bastards. Each and every person who came here was looking for opportunity, a chance to reboot and make something of themselves. What they found was a harsh environment very unlike the places from whence they had come, but they carved out a place for themselves and many times made good on their desire to make something of themselves in a way that would not have been allowed in their homelands. By the time of the revolution that created the whole experiment called the United States of America many generations of people had only known life in the colonies. They bore the independent characteristics of their ancestors who had long ago settled there. They had been taught to be wary of infringements on their rights, and so when the king of England pushed harder and harder to get them to finance wars with untold taxes, they pushed back and eventually chose to break completely.

It’s important that we note the characteristics of our beginnings whenever we attempt to understand the political thinking of today. We were a nation of people who were very consciously concerned that too much interference from the government might lead to the same kinds of prohibitions and problems that had driven many of their ancestors here in the first place. The Constitution itself along with the Bill of Rights were designed to keep governmental interference as much at bay as possible. Because of the very nature of the people who began this experiment in democracy, it is difficult and maybe even a bit ridiculous to compare our nation to others. We are quite simply put very different from them.

Admittedly there were glaring flaws in the first iteration of our laws. The fact that women were not given the vote and slavery was legal were egregious mistakes that haunt us to this day. Still, creating unity among so many disparate voices and ideas took compromise without which we might still be part of the British commonwealth and only a fraction of the size that we are today. It’s been an uphill battle to set thing right, particularly with regard to the souls that we enslaved and their descendants. The incremental tendencies built into our Constitution can be frustrating, but they are also a bulwark against hasty legislation that has the power to dilute our freedoms.

We are a young country compared to our European counterpoints and more diverse in every possible way. Pulling all of us together in a common cause is not easy, especially as we deal with problems that our forefathers could not have foreseen. Still beneath all of the quibbling and unwillingness to work together that rises up again and again, there is a belief that somehow we will ultimately find a way to mend the injustices and grievances that have been part of every government that has existed since the beginning of time. There is no perfect ideology, nor is there a sin free group of people. As humans our flaws create problems that we sometimes allow to fester until we grow weary and realize the necessity of finding solutions. Thus we engaged in a revolution that freed us from the greedy grasp of the crown, and then later fought each other over the question of slavery that should never have taken so long to address.

Today we are a global nation as are all places on earth. It is virtually impossible to be isolated from the symbiotic nature of our world. We must take part in discussions and resolutions dealing with places seemingly so far away that they have little to do with us. Additionally we have questions specific to our own country that need to be answered. Juggling all of the modern day political responsibilities is a balancing act indeed, and it plays out against a backdrop of considerable numbers of people who share the same fears of losing freedom as the people who long ago shoved King George out of their lives. On the other side is a growing group that wants government to take more responsibility. The debates over which type of political system is best is seemingly a reiteration of questions that created the glorious cause so long ago.

Front and center of our national angst is the growing trend of violence in our schools. There are so many layers to this issue that believing that any one thing will solve the problem is little more than wishful thinking. That being said we all have a sense that something, and perhaps many things must be done sooner rather than later. We know that we cannot live in the fear that is overtaking us nor can we allow the murderous copycats to continue their ways.

Among the many ideas making the rounds these days is to hold parents liable if their children use guns that they have left unsecured. This idea ranges from giving them monetary punishments to actually charging them as accessories to murder. As someone whose ancestor fought in the American Revolution I find myself shuddering at the very thought of such an invasion of freedoms. I also base my belief on the decades long relationships that I have had with teenagers as an educator. One thing that I know for certain is that young people can be quite shocking in the things that they do, even when they are being carefully monitored by loving and caring adults. There is almost a kind of secret life in the years of adolescence when young people are experimenting and involving themselves in pursuits that would in no way be reflective of the lessons they have been taught at home and in schools. Most of us if we are honest would attest to doing things that now cause us both regret and a modicum of shame. We would not have told our parents what we were doing and are thankful that we made it through our experimental stages without getting into serious trouble.

What I am saying is that even with locked gun cabinets and responsible training there will always be teenagers who find ways to break the rules. Holding parents legally responsible is a very slippery slope unless it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the parents were so lax that they actually encouraged the bad behaviors. There is a huge difference between giving a teen alcohol to drink and then allowing him/her to drive and having that same teen stealthily take a family gun from a closet to do harm to others. It might be argued that the gun should have been locked away, but even then how is it possible to prove that the gun was just lying around so cavalierly that it was an open invitation to disaster? Teens never fail to amaze me. They watch adults using combinations and memorize the numbers. They find keys to unlock forbidden doors. Unless the parent is alert twenty four hours a day and essentially following a teen’s every single move, there will be times when they lose control.

In most cases the parents of shooters are as shocked and overwhelmed with grief as anyone. They must truly wonder what they did nor did not do to be such failures. I can’t even imagine having to walk in the shoes of a parent whose child has become a monster. To further their own anguish by insisting in a court of law that they also be held accountable seems to be a violation of all of the freedoms that we want our country to represent.

There are bad seeds among us. We need to deal directly with them. We can create laws that restrict their access to weapons and public places, but surely we do not want to be so vindictive as to send their parents to jail as well. Unless it is certain that adults actively contributed to perpetrating violence punishing them further has no place. We must attack this issue from other angles that are in keeping with the intent of our forefathers. Our fears must not allow us to be unjust or to shift responsibility. 

A Time For Honest Reflection

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Santa Fe High School is practically in my back yard. I see it each time I travel to the beach in Galveston. It is situated along a stretch of road that is dotted with interesting sights, most of which are antique/junk stores, gas stations, fast food places, used car lots, bars, and many dilapidated houses and trailers with trash strewn yards. In the midst of an almost chaotic looking scene is the school, neat and orderly and usually quiet. I have at times found myself wondering who is inside and what is happening there as I quickly drive by eager to seen the sun and surf that is only a few miles away. I almost always quickly forget about my musings, distracted by the fun that I always seem to find along the Texas coast. I don’t think about Santa Fe again until I am once more driving along the highway that passes by a slice of the town. Still I consider the people of Santa Fe to be my neighbors, so it is with an especially heavy heart that I find myself grieving over the violence that took place there last week.

I believe that most of Americans are decent people, and as such we all want to find answers that will finally help to stop the murders that have become far too numerous in our nation’s schools. We want solutions and we need them sooner rather than later. Sadly it appears that we are so divided in our ideas that we may have to endure more deaths until we finally become so weary of the repeated massacres that we get serious enough to make things happen. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the problem is that there are no easy one size fits all fixes. Instead the issues that we must face are complex and laden with many questions. We may make mistakes as we seek to move forward, but surely the time has come to at least begin to try. That requires that we quit yelling and screaming and insulting one another so that we might successfully tackle this issue, or we are doomed to repeat the deadly scenarios again and again. Our efforts will require patience and understanding and a great deal of love.

One of the things that I have noticed is that we are quick to desire almost instant passage of legislation, some of which may or may not actually work. Instead we need to bring together stakeholders at every level including teachers, administrators, students, parents, grandparents, law officers, lawmakers, and, yes, even gun owners as well as those who would eliminate guns. We have to agree to work with trust and flexibility and honesty so that the end results will be effective. If it costs a great deal of sacrifice to make the needed changes, then so be it. All of us should be willing to pay the price of restoring safety and peace of mind to our schools and places of public gathering.

Guns always seem to be at the top of the list for creating a safer world, and they are certainly a topic that must be discussed. There are definite changes to the law that might help, and we need to be willing to consider such ideas and act on them. Nonetheless, the gun is simply the means of violence, and not the only thing causing so many problems. More important is attempting to understand what the driving force for such horrific incidents may be, so that we may get to the root of the evils that are lurking among us. We have a number of disturbing cultural problems that we can no longer ignore, for they are contributing to societal woes that are creating chaos.

We must ask ourselves why young men in particular act out in such murderous ways. Is it something happening or not happening in the home? Are our educators missing the signs of a disturbed mind or just ignoring behaviors that should be addressed? Does our media inadvertently or purposely glorify mass shootings? Are the games that we allow our children to play for hours on end doing something to affect their brains in a very negative way? Are we to blame for fomenting so much divisiveness and anger between ourselves rather than demonstrating ways of getting along? Is there too much or too little religion in our society? Have we lost our way and confused our young in the process? Have our schools become too stressful or do our students need to engage in more hard work? Are we doing enough for mental illness or do we look away when we see someone who is suffering? Are our movies and televisions programs providing destructive examples for our us and our young? What is missing? What do we need?

There is also the subject of building our schools in such a way that they provide safe spaces in the event of any emergency. We may have to invest in upgrades like stronger doors and locks not just at entrances and exits but also for each classroom. Schools need to have guidelines such as keeping doors locked at all times with only faculty and staff members having keys which they must always carry on their persons. Some campuses have already instituted policies that require anyone entering to pass through metal detectors. Students must carry clear backpacks. Staff members need to inspect lockers regularly. All adults must be in the hallways during passing periods. Visitors must enter through a series of locked doors. Student clothing cannot be baggy or capable of hiding weapons. Such measures may sound over the top, but they are doable. and I have been in schools where they have been successful.

What we do not need are armed teachers. Such an idea will only compound the problems. I shutter to even think about such a situation. I can think of hundreds of ways that doing this sort of thing will actually backfire.  

At least for a time we cannot be lax, nor can we just continue to do what we have always done. We must be willing to admit that no one thing will be effective. We also need to begin to model caring attitudes for our children because they ultimately learn from what they see. Unfortunately, they are witnessing far too much rancor, and few of us are innocent in that regard.

As a mother and an educator I learned rather quickly that continually insulting or degrading someone does not result in improved behavior. To the contrary, it generally breeds discontent and urges to get even. Right now we are in the midst of considering anyone with whom we disagree or who appears different from ourselves to be deplorable. In truth we humans are simply unique individuals each of whom wants to be heard and accepted just as we are. The message we are sending our children is that half of the population that does not concur with our beliefs is horrific. With our votes we are encouraging to our elected officials to be inflexible and aggressive in their dealings with one another. We seem to want to indict entire groups for behaviors of a few whom we disapprove. We are so busy fighting with one another that we are hardly noticing the effect it is having on our children. All too often our response is to shun anyone whose ideas do not mesh with our own, rather than getting to know them better so that we might realize that they are actually good people.

We have much work to do. From what I am seeing we don’t yet seem ready to suspend all of our preconceived notions in order to ultimately do the right thing. Until we reach that point I fear that we will continue to see needless deaths. We are in dire need os thoughts and prayers, but they must begin to focus on asking God to guide us to the solutions that we so desperately need. This is a time for honest reflection.