Living History

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If only we had a crystal ball that would accurately foretell the future, we might know exactly how to proceed in any situation and most especially during times like those in which we presently find ourselves. Of course we know that no such thing exists and even if it did we might still find ourselves feeling anxious, uncertain and out of control as we wait for a shoe to drop. In truth there are no magic formulas for making the best decisions in a given situation, but there are ways to consider alternatives and then choose a course of action to follow based on rational data. Of course since nothing is perfect there is always a chance that mistakes will happen, making it necessary to adjust as needed.

Humans are part of an intricate web of differing ideas, philosophies, dispositions. Two people might look at the same problem and see it differently. In the luxury of hindsight we may eventually know who was right and who was wrong but in the moment it is impossible to be one hundred percent certain about anything we do. In truth life is a procession of trial, error, correction, and hopefully ultimate success.

I have always enjoyed reading about history. There are certain events whose consequences were so epic that it’s easy to feel as though I am viewing a horror scene in which I know that the boogey man is hiding from the unsuspecting people who are about to get the scare of their lives. I wonder how many Americans from the south would have seceded from the union if they had known the toll of death and destruction that they would endure. Would the people of Russia have revolted against the Czar had they realized the decades of privation and fear that would follow? How many Germans would have supported Adolf Hitler had they seen what would ultimately happen to their country? Would our founding fathers have allowed slavery to be legal in their new nation if they had realized the full consequences of such a decision?

It is always easier to assess a given moment in history once we are able to see the whole picture. We become aware of how things might have been made better. In the heat of the moment we are all too often ruled by more by our emotions, our needs, our personal inclinations than by rational analysis. We desire to find the easy answers even when they are few or nonexistent. Most of the time the situations in which we find ourselves are not dire enough to warrant much of our attention and so we blithely choose sides mostly with those who think exactly life ourselves without giving much thought to alternative ideas. We find comfort in groupthink because it is never easy to be that extraordinary person who goes against the grain of society.

So here we are with all of our human abilities and talents that are tainted by our frailties and fears. We hear the noise of opposing solutions all around us and we are confused as to how best to proceed in light of a worldwide pandemic. There are so many points of view to consider that we feel overwhelmed. We crave simplicity for a complex question. So perhaps we might take a cue from Mr. Rogers and look for the helpers, the people who are working on the front lines all across the globe to save lives. We need to listen to their stories and learn from them, for they are the ones who are living the nightmare in real time while we are isolated in our homes.

During the early years of World War II the United States was decidedly isolationist. It was only after the attack on Pearl Harbor that our nation went to war. We were quite unprepared and our first forays into battle were alarmingly unsuccessful. I have little doubt that the American people felt overwhelmed but they found ways to change the course of history with their sacrifice and determination. They looked to the brilliance of men like Admiral Nimitz and General Eisenhower and supported those who were on the forefront of the war. It took time and treasure and changed everyday life but they were willing to support those who were on the forefront of the war.

We have been asked to isolate ourselves to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19 that has the potential to send our healthcare system into a death spiral. The men and women of medicine are telling us what they need and far too many of us are questioning them and suggesting that what we are hearing from them is little more than scary propaganda, but in truth they are the experts, the generals and the troops who are in the trenches. They should be a primary source for our decision making for the time being. We can worry ourselves with elections and personal causes later. For now we need to rally around them with everything in our power knowing that our sacrifices are small compared to theirs.

Our food supply continues to flow even if we find ourselves lacking some of the luxuries that we once enjoyed. Our children are still learning from parents and teachers who greet them from a distance. Many are continuing to work from home but there are far too many who have lost their jobs, their sources of income. We cannot forget them but we can reassure them that as we shelter in place for now we intend to care for them now and help them to rebuild their lives once the danger has passed.

It is true that our economy and those of countries around the world are reeling. Our work will not be done even when this epic moment has passed. We have to be ready for the long haul just as our parents and grandparents were in World War II. We can’t get too anxious to return to normalcy. Doing so might ruin all of the efforts we have made so far. This fight is bigger than any single individual. It is about all of humankind and each of us has an important role to play. Let us hope and pray that we are choosing to listen to the right voices, the helpers who are risking their own safety to protect us. Listen to what they have to say and be wary of anyone who appears to be more concerned about their own reputations and popularity.  

We are living history from moment to moment. May God help us to do it right.

Living In the Twilight Zone

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Do any of the rest of you feel as though we have been caught in an infinite loop of The Twilight Zone? I know I do. I find that I awake each morning feeling rather good until my brain reminds me that nothing is exactly as it was only a couple of weeks ago. I won’t be planning a camping excursion any time soon nor will a trip to the grocery store be as unremarkable as I had grown accustomed to it being. As long as I am in the quiet and safety of my home I don’t feel anxious at all but as soon as I turn my attention to the outside world I am stunned by the extent to which we are all grappling with the unknown and my cockeyed optimism is rattled just a bit more.

I keep thinking of Rod Serling’s greatest stories and how they have stuck with me even though they seemed to be only the stuff of science fiction, unlikely to ever transpire. There is the tale of the young woman stuck in her New York apartment as the world is slowly and painfully coming to an end. Then I remember episode featuring a man who is a lone survivor of some cataclysm making the best of the situation by planning to read away his loneliness only to drop and break the eyeglasses that allow him to see. When I see the photos of empty shelves in grocery stores I am reminded of Serling’s take on the effects of panic in a cautionary story of a once friendly neighborhood that turns on itself at the first sign of trouble. Those shows had a way of stunning us with their shocking endings but we never thought that any of the creative scenarios might possibly come true.

Let’s face it. Despite all of our past grumblings about the unfairness of the world most of us would be more than happy to rewind to September 2019 if only we might never have to face the unraveling of the world that has slowly enveloped all of us in fear. It’s difficult to go the the dark possibility that maybe things will never be quite the same again. If there were indeed a way to undo all that has happened would we remember how it felt to be threatened with loss and privation? Would we be more willing to be appreciative of our good fortune and then share it with those who have not been as lucky? Would we be more attuned to working together to solve problems. Would we always be generous and less wasteful, eager to slow down to enjoy our families and our friends? Would we treasure life more now that we have seen how fragile it and our institutions can become? Would we be able to see how destructive our hubris can sometimes be and begin to value our differences?

The human experience is riddled  with instances of grave mistakes as well as stunning victories over injustice and evil. We seem to slowly work our way toward better versions of ourselves as long as we don’t get lost to temptations that interfere with our focus. We work best together when we are willing to tap into our more enlightened natures by a willingness to admit that we rarely have all of the answers. Perhaps we have been moving too quickly of late. Maybe we have been to busy competing with one another and building resumes of our accomplishments that are not particularly important. We have scurried about too quickly, forgetting to take the time to be still and hear the beating of our hearts and see the simple beauty that surrounds us.

This is indeed the most incredible event of my lifetime and I have seen quite a bit in my seventy one years. It has the potential to define us in the long stretch of history. We will eventually move on from this, but will we have learned from it? I know that I have been continually reminded of the wonderful people who are part of my life during the last few weeks. I have felt their love surrounding me. I want to cherish that feeling and never forget what it has meant to me. My hope is that the whole world will find renewed pleasure in the simple act of spreading kindness and understanding every moment of every day.

I am not so naive as to believe that this is a kumbayah moment in which humankind will shed every aspect of its darker side. People have endured plagues, wars, economic depressions and holocausts many times in the past and yet we still haven’t found a way to prevent those things from ever happening again. We fall back into our bad habits again and again which is why I find it somewhat hypocritical to denounce our ancestors when our own modern track record is not free from sins. Instead we must attempt to learn from mistakes and rectify them as best we can.

We’ve seen hoarders and thieves and individuals who have attacked Asians in the misplaced belief that they are somehow responsible for our present woes. At the same time we have witnessed even more signs of generosity, courage, brilliance and understanding. When all is said and done these are the qualities that will remind us of who are and should be as the human race.  Our questions right now should not dwell on judging others, but rather on how each of us might help. These are the things that will provide us with the optimism we need to build the future and take us out of the twilight zone.

   

Explorations of Our Being

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What is this mind that we humans have? How does it work and how much of it goes unused because we have yet to tap into the totality of its power? Why is there a disconnect between how I see myself from the point of view of my thoughts and how I really appear in my physical reality? What causes some of our memories to remain vividly intact for all time and others to fade into oblivion? What happens when a mind becomes muddled, filled with extreme sadness, fears or paranoid thoughts? These are questions that have confounded me for years. They are the kind of queries that have guided the thoughts of brilliant individuals and ordinary souls for centuries. Somehow we have obtained more and more of a grasp on our physical being over time but clear knowledge of the complexities of our brains still remains somewhat elusive.

We humans don’t simply react to the world around us. We contemplate it sometimes to the point of obsession. We have an innate desire to dream, analyze and restructure. There is no reason for us to enhance the world beyond our most basic physical needs and yet we do. We don’t simply endure the unfolding of our lives but instead reflect on all that has happened to us, sometimes with joy in such remembrance and sometimes with great sorrow.

Memories are a remarkable aspect of our humanity. We quite often retain vivid pictures of things that we have experienced even decades after they occurred. Ironically the very incidents that we would most like to forget because of the pain that they brought us are sometimes the ones that remain the clearest in our minds. What is it about trauma that etches it so deeply in our psyches?

On the day of my father’s death I was only eight years old and yet I can recall details about every aspect of that horrific event from the time that I awoke to hear my mother weeping until the end of the evening when she and I cried in each other’s arms. I can see colors and hear sounds as though all of my senses were somehow heightened in a way that I had never before experienced. Even more than sixty years later thoughts of that day bring feelings so visceral that they still cause pain.

So too it has been with more generalized occurrences that impacted the whole of society with profound consequences. I know exactly where I was sitting and what I was doing when I first heard of the assassination of President Kennedy. I do not know if we had a Thanksgiving dinner that year but I can tell you where I was and what went through my mind when I watched the president’s funeral procession and witnessed the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.

I still catch my breath when I think of the planes flying through the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I literally get a flutter of anxiety in my heart when I picture their dramatic collapse. I hear the screams and feel the terror that filled my thoughts in the split second in which I realized the reality of what was happening.

Over the years it has been the most horrific moments that have stayed permanently embossed on my psyche. I am filled with grief when I think of the first time that I truly understood the extent of my mother’s mental illness. It coincided with the first landing on the moon which is only a blur in my mind compared to the recollections that I retain of her pain.

I am haunted by images of the flooding from hurricane Harvey in my beloved city and the aftermath of destruction in the homes of family members and friends. I still get a catch in my throat when I think of how I felt when I saw what had happened after hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, a place I think of as a sister city.

So it goes with my memories. I barely recall the details of my college graduation or even my carefully planned wedding but I can describe the tiniest of particulars on the last days of my mother’s life. I wonder what it is about my mind that clings so tenaciously to thoughts of events that I would prefer to forget. What kind of chemical or physical reactions occur in our brains that causes such impressions to stay with us? What is it about our very humanity that stirs us to contemplate such things?

I try not to become too obsessive about such ideas. I purposely busy myself when my ruminating ventures into territory that is too dark and yet I am fascinated by the mere possibilities of unlocking the inner workings of our complex being. Understanding the mind was at one time forbidden fruit. Now we have discovered so much about how it all works and yet there is still so much mystery when it comes to comprehending the most spiritual aspect of our being. Exploring the territory of our very being has been the quest of philosophers, physicians, scientists and theologians and still we are in the dark when it comes to the how and why of our deepest thoughts.

  

Loss

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“Loss” is a four letter word not meant to be a pejorative like the infamous ones that sometimes get us into trouble, but with a meaning so profound that it has the power to leave us unable to function in any normal way. Like the layers of an onion loss takes on deeper and deeper significance as we get closer to its core, and like that same onion it sometimes makes us cry. For me, loss is the ultimate trigger for stress whether it is directly affecting me or someone that I love.

Loss can appear to be superficial as in the inability to find something important, a receipt, a jacket, a favorite book, a prized heirloom. I grow anxious whenever I can’t find something that I treasure.

Somewhere in the move from my house of over thirty years to the one where I now reside I lost a gold charm bracelet that my husband had given me when we were dating. A heart dangled from the forged links and engraved on it were the numbers signifying our first date with the words “Now and Forever” reminding me of our infinite bond of love. My stressors went into high gear when I ultimately accepted the fact that it was gone and I grieved that I would never see it again, but it was in the final analysis only the loss of an object, a symbol of something far deeper than the thing itself. Still, I know that when we lose something special it saddens us and justifiably so.

When the walls and ceilings of my rooms were flooded by the sudden rush of hot liquid from my hot water heater I became a messy gooey ball of stress. My imagination became a fertile ground for turning this inconvenient bit of loss into a major event. I worried that mold would grow in the nooks and crannies of my walls rendering my house unlivable and unsaleable. I could not rest until I had ripped carpet and sheetrock from the the wettest areas. My impatience in finding someone who would quickly repair the damage grew into full blown anger. The situation consumed the thoughts of my days and nights. I had to remind myself that it was only a temporary loss, one that would eventually be set right. I calmed the beast roaring inside my mind with the truth that I had only lost things, replaceable stuff.

The greatest loss is the death of loved ones. Nothing ever really fixes that. Time superficially heals but the pain but grief lives inside the heart. Such tragic loss is the most difficult aspect of our human experience, even when we actually believe in a more glorious afterlife. We soldier on without the people who have gone before us but we never really forget them and in moments that come and go we remember how much it hurts to accept that we will never see them again. Such is loss that produces more than just stress. It tears at our very souls.

Loss is all around us. Even when it happens to someone else we feel the pain and stress that comes with it. We know that it engenders powerful emotions whether it is the loss of something seemingly insignificant or of a living being. We instinctively empathize with the person who is undergoing distress over loss because we too have felt such emotions and we understand.

Loss is such a small word and yet it stalks us like a powerful monster. We lose hope, confidence, reputation, control. We struggle with fears of loss. Like the nightmare that it sometimes is, loss creates anxieties and worries. It is a trigger that has the power to temporarily or permanently undo us, but our nature is to fight against its inclinations. We do our best to deal with it until the next time that it returns.

January presented itself with loss. I was unable to find the mate to a set of earrings. That was annoying but not the worst situation. When both a beloved aunt and a magical cousin died within days of one another I felt the weight of true loss. I grieved for myself but mostly for those closest to these incredible women, their immediate families who are struggling with the enormity of their losses. I felt the horror of those who lost their homes in a freak explosion that occurred early one morning. I saw a long road of repair and possibly even momentous change ahead for them. I awoke to the terrible news that two of my most wonderful friends had lost the use of their own bodies when they had strokes. I cried with the nation over the untimely death of Kobe Bryant and the eight souls who perished with him.

I suppose that loss is perhaps the greatest trigger for stress in our lives. When it piles on us we lose our sense of direction. We find it difficult to find the way out and yet we also know from experience that we need not be defeated. It may take time and great patience but we can find escape the darkness that has descended upon us. The loss may be forever but the way that we react to it can and does become more bearable.

Winter came in January, a time when some among us endured losses both great and small. We take a deep breath. We embrace one another. We find ways to soothe our souls. The cycle continues and we continue down the road of life knowing that we will eventually find the peace and tranquility that will set us in the right direction once again.  Loss challenges but we need not allow it to defeat.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

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Try to imagine the time when you were fourteen, fifteen or sixteen years old. Did you know much about the world? Were you confident? Did you do some stupid things? How would you have reacted if you had been picked up by police who accused you of a heinous crime? What might you have done or said if they wore you down after more than twenty four hours of interrogation without your parents or an attorney being present? What if they told you that all you had to do is go along with a story about people that you did not know and then you would be allowed to go home? Who among us would have held up under such intense pressure? How much worse do you think it might have been if you were poor and Black or Hispanic. Such was the situation of five teenage boys in New York City on an April night in 1989 after they had been partaking in a raucous game in Central Park called “wilding” in which they harassed passersby, sometimes going a bit too far but mostly just letting off steam.

New York City was a crime ridden shell of what it is today back then. The public had grown weary of the muggings and violence that were a daily occurrence. The failing economy of the city at that time created extreme economic divisions. There was a tension between the haves and have nots that was almost certain to blow. The situation exploded on that April night of 1989, when a young woman who had been jogging was found near death in Central Park. There was an immediate urgency to find the perpetrators of the crime and a sense that somehow the young men who had created havoc that same night must surely be the ones who had done this egregious act.

The police created a scenario in their minds and then without any physical evidence convinced themselves that some of the young men that they had rounded up early must indeed have been the thugs who had done the violent deed. With no substantiation other than a hunch they began to grill five young men only two of whom knew each other at the time. They lied to the teens telling them that others had implicated them in the crime. In spite of the boys’ claim that they knew nothing of the matter the lawmen persisted in their insistence that they would get the truth that they wanted one way or another. Promising a route home if the exhausted teens cooperated they fed each one details that were created to frighten them into making taped confessions each of which contained conflicting stories. Only one boy never implicated himself or any of the others because his mother rushed in to rescue him from the invasive interrogation but even he was doomed.

Thinking that the worst was over after providing the forced statements each teen was shocked upon being charged with the rape and the violence associated with the incident. Thus began a prolonged journey through the court and prison system for five young men who maintained their innocence in spite of what they had said on tape. They became known as the Central Park Five and their story is one of incomprehensible injustice.

Antron, Raymond, Kevin, Yusef, and Korey would be tried in both the media and the courts. They became reviled symbols of all that was wrong with society. They had essentially been found guilty from the moment that the police learned of the raped and battered woman in the park. They were damned every step of the way and without the resources of money, good lawyers and parents who understood how things worked they were left to a kind of mob rule. Needless to say all five were found guilty in spite of a case so weak that it should never have resulted in indictments. The four who were younger were sentenced as juveniles and one, who was sixteen at the time of the crime but seventeen when he was found guilty, went straight to Riker’s Island as an adult.

Antron, Raymond, Kevin and Yusef spent seven years imprisoned. Korey endured thirteen years during which time he was brutalized multiple times. All had been robbed of their youth and any promise of the future until a serial rapist finally admitted to the crime for which they had been convicted. In a dramatic turn of events the actual perpetrator was able to provide police with details that only someone who had committed the crime would have known. Additionally his DNA matched that found on the victim at the scene of the crime. Eventually the five young men who had suffered so needlessly were exonerated and years later the city of New York gave them financial compensation for the mistake that had been made.

I have not been able to get this story out of my thoughts. I watched a documentary of their saga by Ken Burns called The Central Park Five and a limited series titled When They See Us. Both features were stunning in their depiction of an horrific injustice that is no doubt less uncommon than any of us would like to believe. In spite of the eventual outcome every one of the young men were scarred in ways that will never be erased by either apologies or restitution. Mostly I found myself thinking that something like this might easily have happened to so many of my former students who like these innocents might appear to be of a sort that is not even close to who they are. The color of their skin, the places where they live, their lack of income are often indictments by a world unwilling to seek the full truth. Our society has a dangerous tendency to act based on little or no facts. We follow outrages without thought, rushing to disaster like lemmings running toward the edge of a cliff. It happens over and over again.

I’d like to think that we might learn from such miscarriages of justice. I want to believe that we will adhere strictly to the idea that all Americans are innocent until proven guilty. I pray that we have learned the importance of protecting the rights of all people without prejudice. What worries me most is the feeling that we have yet to fully embrace such wisdom. We still have to fight for the rights of young men like Antron, Raymond, Kevin, Yusef and Corey. I pray to God that their numbers will be few. In the meantime I recommend that The Central Park Five and When They See Us should be required viewing for all Americans.