Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives


2 Comments

I ALMOST WISHED I HAD DIED

lighthouse in storm

One of the major adjustments I have had to make as a retired Sociology professor is no longer having a captive audience for my carefully considered observations of American society: The problems and the joys. I do love writing this blog, which does not require the same degree of objectivity, but let’s face it. I am no Dan Rather (whose daily contributions to Facebook I look forward to reading). Thanks to social media, I am but one tiny voice buried in the cloud of articles hourly produced by everyone with a computer, cell phone or camcorder and an opinion to share. So, to be perfectly clear, I am writing today not to be read, or “heard,” or even to keep in touch with the world. I write today because I must. For me.

I do my best thinking when I write. This blog is for me, but if you want to read it, challenge it, agree with it, or ignore it…just feel free. But do not think that I am trying to take on the world. I no longer have that kind of energy. I just want to try to get all that I have internalized about our social environment outside of my head and heart. I am in sensory overload from being bombarded with angry, hurting, hating, yelling, profane, lying, manipulative messages from the world outside my apartment.

As I write this, I have received 13 emails already that are unsolicited ads for things I don’t want, don’t need, or don’t agree with. I am a registered Independent, so both Republicans and Democrats feel free to email and/or call me with requests for financial and electoral support. I am so very grateful for those quiet, caring people who are all around me when I turn off the tv, the computer and the radio and get out and share time with them. I don’t answer the phone if I don’t recognize who is calling, and I don’t open any mail not from family or friends (or bills I know I owe). When it all gets to be too much, I listen to my classical piano CDs, or drive down to the river and just sit in the quiet, now cool afternoon and breathe fresh air.

Many of my friends no longer really want to talk about politics. Life is so full and rich, relationships thrive and laughter once again seems normal, when I am with my neighbors and friends. So long as we don’t talk about politics.

Yes, there are pressing issues that must be addressed, must be advocated for. Babies in cages. Chronic pain patients losing their pain medications, physicians and pharmacists being threatened. Members of all three groups committing suicide at ever higher rates. Private prisons being filled with drug users who could become productive citizens again with the right treatment, but whose prison terms will leave them right back where they began and worse. Families, communities and organizations being divided by political differences. More problems than any one person or organization can possibly resolve. More finances needed to be directed toward rebuilding communities devastated by nature. It seems overwhelming. I can’t address all the things I am deeply concerned about, and I feel frustrated and guilty for neglecting the ones I can’t get to.

Yet deep in my soul there is a calm, quiet place in the midst of this storm. A place where I know that all is not lost. That there are wonderful people in my world, and in the greater world in general. People who value honesty, integrity, caring, and excellence, the beauty of the gift of our natural world, and the shared intimacy with a loved one in a monogamous relationship. People who know that we cannot be truly human without being part of a community that works, plays, and worships together. People who accept me as I am, and who are in turn accepted by me as they are.

That is the beauty I see in my world, and it is more important to me and to my well-being than money or status. Because I live in a community where this beauty shines brighter than all the noise of the media and the political world, I regain my will to live on a daily basis. Once again, I can accept that I can only fight these battles on one front at a time, and trust that others will work where they are best suited to deal with other battles.

God did not bring us this far to abandon us. Today, I was tempted to say that I wished I had died five years ago, when undertreated chronic pain had brought me so near to that end. Then, I would not have had to see the devastation being brought about in my country. But I cannot wish that. These five years have been a great gift, and I have gotten to meet and work with people whose willingness to make a difference…no, not just willingness. Determination. Whose determination to make a difference to those who are being marginalized, stigmatized, pushed aside and left to die is greater than any I have seen in this country in my nearly 78 years. Policies we have lost by reversal in the last two years cannot compare to what we are gaining in finding the deepest good within ourselves and our families, friends and neighbors. In our communities and states. Soon, hopefully, in our nation once again.

Yes, it is hard and frustrating. But we come from good stock from all over the world. Our ancestors knew worse times and better times than these, but they persevered. We know that, because we are here. The way ahead is in our DNA: not in specifics, but in inner strength and outer relationships.

I am so glad I lived to see it begin.


1 Comment

PONDERINGS ON THE FIRST YEAR OF MY SECOND CHANCE AT LIFE

justinhighrockGlancing over the titles of the posts in this blog site since it began just over a year ago, I am once again amazed at where my journey has taken me. Before it began, when I no longer had the will to keep fighting the illness and pain, I thought my life was (finally) over. Pain/medical management, along with an ever-expanding group of loving friends and the patience of an understanding God, restored not only my will but also my ability to rejoin the human race. I am not the same person I was before, but then who of us can claim to be the same as our younger selves?

First of all, for example, I had to adjust to the “new normal.” It was important to regain my ability to take care of myself, while also accepting that I was still somewhat limited, physically and mentally. I read an article recently about chronic pain resulting in a loss of gray matter in the brain on an annual basis, exceeding by at least 3 times the average for a healthy aging person. Sometimes I am actually aware of my thought processes searching for a new route to the data stored in my brain–data on what I used to know, and on how to accomplish certain activities. Some data seems lost to me for good. Some activities remain beyond the scope of my physical and/or mental ability. I often think in terms of “before the end of my pain and illness” and “after I began my new life.”

Then there is the issue of anger. I don’t remember when it began, but by late adolescence/early adulthood I frequently found myself swallowing what grew from a lot of diffuse anger to a frightening amount of rage. I soon realized that my words that were intended to convey merely a little displeasure were interpreted by others as threateningly angry. I began to be afraid of letting my anger out, fearing the results for both myself and others. Not knowing what to do with the bottled up anger, which only increased at a rate positively correlated to my growing sense of powerlessness, I truly believed myself to be a terrible person.

I divorced, believing that getting out of the world to which my husband had introduced me would allow for room within which I could regain some control of my life. My only response to those with whom I had been raised and who, with me, believed divorce to be a sin, was “God and I have agreed that murder and suicide are not viable alternatives.” However, what I found was that gaining control of my life meant two important things: 1) I could no longer blame my now ex-husband for the problems in my life; and 2) the anger was still there, still threatening to me.

So I still felt like a terrible person. A very angry, terrible person. But, given the chance, the human psyche can be a wonderful thing….

One hot summer night in South Carolina, as I tried to fall asleep after coming home from an adrenaline-filled 2nd shift as the nurse in the county jail, I had a waking dream that remains as real and memorable today as it was that night 33 years ago. I was in a dark, dank underground passageway, listening to the bone-chilling maniacal laughter that seemed to be coming from everywhere. The ghostly faces of demons faded in and out of sight against the walls of the passage. I was already panicked when a strong voice announced “Follow me. I am going to show you who you really are.” My degree of panic accelerated, as I replied “Thanks, but no thanks! I already know who I am, I don’t like it, and I don’t need you to show it to me.” Despite my strong resistance, however, I found myself moving relentlessly toward the end of the passage, accompanied by the mind-bending laughter. The Voice said nothing. I dug in my heels, trying in vain to avoid the forward motion toward what appeared to be a castle-type wooden door (you know, the kind with a rounded peak on top instead of a straight edge). As I came nearer, the door began to swing open inwardly, and at first all I could see was a soft, embracing light. It was quiet and peaceful in that room—powerfully so. Still against my will, however, I crossed the threshold.

There, in the room, sat a lovely and graceful woman on a vanity bench, dressed in a floor-length layered white dress, brushing her long and lustrous hair while looking into the mirror. “Who…..” I began, and she turned to me just as the Voice returned to say “She is you.” “Impossible!” I replied. “That cannot be!”   “It can, and is.” The Voice said.

And I returned to full consciousness, in my own room, stunned. Now I know that Freudians will look one way at this story, and Christians (whether or not schooled in psychology) will have their own interpretation. Just for the record, I personally prefer the latter, with a compelling use of Jungian archetypes.

dreamer

That being said, although it did not all happen overnight, I began to take control of my life and incredibly wonderful things happened to me. Though without funds and resources, I was able to return to college and move on to earn my PhD fully funded by grants and scholarships. I did my research in South Africa, where I returned to teach for a total of seven years. What a privilege all that was, supplied for me almost through no effort of my own but because of my goals, rather than as an enticement to follow the wishes of my donors and mentors. It was incredible—unbelievable. How could I ever repay this huge debt?

I was truly a changed person in many ways. What remained with me was the anger. During the college years I could cover and ignore it because I was so blissfully happy. In South Africa, I recognized the sources of my adult anger: injustice, inequality, abuse of power, violence against the powerless–these all fueled my rage. Only now I had learned how to take the energy from that rage and use it, as an advocate and activist. I could do that whether the victim was me, or entire groups of disenfranchised people. I used the anger, but I could not use it up. It remained with me. Where could I find an antidote?

Nelson Mandela suggested an idea that stays with me. mandelaAfter being released from prison and being in the public eye for some weeks, he was asked how he could possibly not be bitter about his unjust 27 years in prison. His simple reply was “If I bring the bitterness and anger out of the prison with me, then I am still in the prison.” My problem, however, is that acting on that statement must be much more difficult than he made it seem. After living for seven years in the middle of a revolution, death all around me and immanently possible, my anger had fueled a lot of action but was still very much with me. (Along with something like a veteran’s PTSD, later). But Mandela became my first black President (I was a permanent resident of South Africa, because I did not expect to return to the States) and I realized that with the influx of well-educated exiles returning home, my role was no longer necessary. Fourteen months later I returned to my own home.

It was home, but not the home I expected. I have written elsewhere how very much like South Africa during apartheid the attitudes of my country had become. It has become even more so since that post. As I write, I am still grieving over the Charleston massacre, and what it means about my beloved country. I find that the anger I feel is appropriate to the situation, and not overwhelmed by the old, built-up rage.

It is here that I finally come to the point of this article.

I have learned that managing built-up rage as well as new anger is a skill that can be learned and must be practiced. I have my own meditation and calming exercises, others will choose what works for them. But the anger must be met first of all with my decision not to be ruled by it, followed by a plan of appropriate ways to either use it or let it go. I’m not a psychologist so I will not attempt a therapeutic explanation—it is only my need to order my thoughts by sharing them that drives me to write this article.

Letting go of the anger is not enough. The empty place that is left must be filled with something strong enough to help protect against the anger when it wants to return. Again, I had begun to see the answer in South Africa.

One day I was talking to an African lady, in one of the townships which was engaged in an uproar (euphemistically referred to as “unrest” by the S.A. media) and not really a safe place for a strange white woman to be. Our conversation, however, went something like this:

Woman: Why don’t you come in the house and stay with us? You will be safe here.

               Me: Why would you offer me safety, when my presence could endanger you and your family? Why do you even trust me in your home?

Woman: Because first you are a human being, and we only survive if we look out for each other. But mostly it is because I can see that you love us so much that you suffer because we suffer.

The woman’s ability to offer unconditional love, and to accept it unconditionally, was the antidote I sought and one that I had spent many years trying to keep from controlling my life by banishing it. I could love, on condition that it be understood as a feeling and not a commitment. I had long stopped believing I was loveable because I was unable to believe the words of those who said they loved me. Therefore I could not be in control of my life if I depended on love, right? People can hurt you. I thought I did not need love. Yet in the words and actions of the woman described above, I saw what was important both to me as a person, and to me as a social advocate. I had to learn a lot about my emotions.

I have been home from South Africa for 19 years now, 17 of those years having been spent working 60-80 hour weeks and not making much headway with the deliberation and meditation required to learn things about love and anger that would have made my life much easier. About love, I have learned that it, too can be a deliberate decision and commitment, and that it also must be practiced faithfully and responsibly. The really difficult part of love has been learning to accept it, and learning to accept caring help when I need it. A friend once described me as being “rabidly independent,” which is not really so funny, when I think about it.

It took the overwhelming pain of my arthritis and disc disease, along with several other physical problems, to make me retire two years ago. The following year was a nightmare of pain and near helplessness. It was only after the successful efforts of my physicians to restore me to functionality that I realized the gift I had been given in meeting–and surviving–my greatest fear. Thanks to the loving care of special friends, including physicians,  I know it is safe to accept help from people who care. I am slowly accepting that I am loved by people that I love. I still have a long way to go.

It is important to me, however, to acknowledge something else of great importance that I have learned. That is, in working to try to make a difference in my reachable world, I need to try to confine my anger to my own energy needs and use my love to guide my work with others. And to let the anger go afterwards, and to hold to the love unconditionally. Too much of my anger has spilled into my words and actions in advocacy, and not enough of the love that sparked my need to respond.  There is already too much anger in our nation.  I don’t need to add mine.

None of that means that I believe I should not be angry with the world that spawned a young man who would be proud to kill people at prayer. None of that means that I will just forget about it. But I am going to have to love my country an awful lot, unconditionally, to keep my anger from depriving me of seeing all of its citizens as equally deserving of my efforts to respect the spark of humanity I do not see because of my anger, even if I cannot love what they have done. My words must reflect both my anger at the injustice and my concern for all the players.

Charleston Post

It’s hard. I am not very good at it yet. But I have made the commitment to try.


3 Comments

A 21ST CENTURY FAIRY TALE

THE OWL, THE ELEPHANT, THE DONKEY AND THE DREAMER
It was a fine summer day in the Magic Forest, where a Wise Old Owl, perched on the limb of one of the lovely old oak trees, kept turning his head (as owls are wont to do) to peer wide-eyed at the impressive sight behind him. Just that morning, he had come upon a huge stone wall through the middle of the forest, and no matter how high he flew, he could not get over it to the other side. Nor could he discover an end to the wall, in either direction. It was now well into the morning aowlnd the owl, being a nocturnal creature, was ready to call it a night and go to sleep. Unfortunately, he could not rest. The puzzle of this huge wall was in itself distracting enough – but what was on the other side?

Even though he had turned his back to the wall, he was unable to resist turning his head to look at it, time and time again. After a while, he began to discern what appeared to be a door, or a closed gate in the wall. The more he focused on the potential opening, the more clearly it began to take shape. Finally, it seemed as though a huge wooden door, shaped and hinged much like the door of a medieval European castle, was now as solidly embedded in the wall as the wall itself was an unchanging and solid part of the landscape. The magical nature of this phenomenon did not bother the Wise Old Owl, because he was perfectly aware that he lived in a magical forest, where strange things sometimes happened.doorway of truth

But the occurrence of strange things in magical forests is usually a sign that something of importance is coming into being. Being wise, the owl knew this to be a fact. So, giving up the idea of sleep altogether, he flew to the door in the wall to investigate. The first thing he determined was that it was very real and very solid, as he was quite elderly and in his sleepy state he misjudged his flight pattern and bumped into it. Rubbing his sore beak with the edge of a wing, he cautiously approached the wall on foot. He tried the latch, (did I mention that he was a very tall owl?) to see if he could open the door. He could not. Next, there appeared a keyhole just below the latch, and in his wisdom, the owl understood that the door was locked. Lacking the key, he would not be able to open it.

Just as he was gathering himself to fly back to his perch in the oak tree, the wall delivered a final manifestation – a sign shimmered into place above the door. Peering through the morning sunshine, the owl sounded out the letters:

T–R–U–T–H

The Wise Old Owl grew very excited. Because of his wisdom, he had always sought Truth. And now here it was, just on the other side of this locked door in an impenetrable wall. Surely, as old and as wise as he was, he could review all of his knowledge and past experience and discover how to open the door to Truth. So he set his mind to it.

Meanwhile, crashing his way through the Magic Forest, there came a very large, very noisy and very ponderous elephant. Upon seeing the wall, exactly where it had never been before, (and he remembered this, because he was an elephant and as everyone knows an elephant never forgets) he became enraged, lowered his head, and charged the wall….. And charged the wall again, and again, until he knocked himself silly and had to sit down.elephant

Determining that the elephant was now quiet and still enough to hear him, the Wise Old Owl asked the Large, Strong Elephant if he could see the door. Once the stars from banging his head against the wall cleared, sure enough, the elephant could clearly see both the door, and the sign above it: TRUTH. He gingerly stretched out his sore trunk, and tried the latch.

“It’s locked” the Owl told him. “Any lock can be forced open” the elephant grumpily responded, still convinced that his wealth of size and power was the answer to everything.

“Listen to me! I not only have the experience of this particular wall and door, but I have reviewed all of the learning and experience since the beginning of time in the Magic Forest,” trilled the Owl. “If you will hear what I know, perhaps we can open the door.”

“Nonsense,” replied the Elephant. “Only my strength and persistence will open the door.”

Several days later, after multiple periods of alternating rest, arguing, and failed attempts to open the door of Truth, the Owl and the Elephant were joined by another wanderer in the Magic Forest. The Burdened Donkey, a descendant of the very colt that carried Jesus the Messiah into Jerusalem on that famous Passover week, had found her way through the forest to the Door in the Wall. Her entire life had been one of compassion and advocacy for the burdens of others; as well it should be for one of her noble ancestry. She cared nothing for power or size, though in all honesty she thought a little wealth would have been nice, in order to have something to share with those who had nothing at all.     donkey

The Burdened Donkey readily became part of the group, despite stating quite firmly that the others were wasting their time. She insisted that if they gathered more seekers to the wall, whoever – or whatever — controlled the Magic Forest would have to hear their combined voices seeking Truth, and unlock the door.

Weeks later, our trio of Truth Seekers were each even more determined than ever that he or she alone had the right answer to opening the Door. But they were still on the wrong side of the Gateway to Truth when a beautiful, radiant human-like creature seemed to just suddenly appear in their midst. OK, sorry – that phrase was a little too Biblical for a fairy tale. The Dreamer/Adventurer appeared like a mirage taking shape before their eyes (Better?). This rare being was androgynous, (a blend of male/female, not either-or) but only when appearing in its magical, ephemeral state. It will be correct to refer to the being as s/he.

enlifghtened being

S/he was actually more able to see and understand the Wall and the Gateway to Truth better than the other three combined. Being a dreamer, s/he could imagine possible solutions from ideas that the others had overlooked, because even though they had a lot of combined knowledge and experience, they lacked the gift of imagination. Because they therefore lacked the gift of dreaming, they also lacked the magnificent will to risk adventure. So the Dreamer might have added surprising and wonderful routes to the search for Truth, but the four Seekers nevertheless each continued to argue that their own talent was the sole means of opening the Gate, and to individually try old and new ways to unlock the door.

Almost another year passed, and one late night our quartet of seekers was once again outside the door of Truth. As usual, the Owl was perched on his oak tree limb, his back to the Door. The Elephant stood in front of the owl and to his right, where there happened to be more room to accommodate his huge size. To the owl’s left, and facing the Elephant, was the Burdened Donkey. Weary from her many tasks and the futility of debate; she reclined on a mat of fallen leaves. The Dreamer/Adventurer was directly facing the Owl, but far enough back not to invade the sight line between the Donkey and the Elephant. The dreamer, therefore, was the only one who consistently looked forward, to the Gateway of Truth. This pattern had become the default physical setup for their frequent, but fruitless, debates.

By now, each member of the group was unshakably entrenched in their own belief about the correct route to a solution, and the debates were bitter and filled with accusations that cast aspersions on ancestry, intellect and integrity. In other words, the debates had become ugly, and personal.

An aside: Rumor has it that this is when and where major basic political views were founded and named: The Traditionalist (the owl, wise but always looking back), the Donkey (the liberal, burdened with concern for the poor and oppressed), and the Elephant (with wealth, power and size, who was channeling Puritan predestinarianism in his belief that these things indicated that he alone was a Chosen One). The Dreamer/Adventurer, though strong in the days of our Founders, would have no counterpart within the bounds of this rumor, representing a view that is no longer taken seriously by our rational world. But I believe the rumor to be completely unfounded and without merit. After all, even in a fairy tale there is no discernible connection between the Gateway to Truth and political activity.

To bring our fairy tale to its conclusion…as our quartet was fiercely and loudly debating the reasons for their failure to solve the problem of the locked door of Truth, they were joined by an excited colony of bats, all clamoring about the Gateway to Truth. The bats had somehow heard of the Gateway phenomenon, but being blind, were not even aware that they were just outside that much-to-be-desired place. By using their sonar, however, they sensed the presence of our Seekers and inquired of them if they knew how to find the Gateway.

bats

Rendered both cynical and uncaring of others by their prolonged debate, the four Seekers each offhandedly responded to the bats:

“Of course. As always, it is directly behind me,” said the Owl.

“Can’t you see it?” the Donkey responded crossly, then…”Oh, sorry. I am so sorry for your disability. Please, can you locate it if I describe where it is? It is directly to my left.”

To which the Elephant trumpeted a huge blast of disgust, remarking “Even my strength has not opened that door! How do you think that a colony of tiny, blind bats is going to achieve this? But never mind. Be my guest! Go ahead and try. The door is to my right.”

The Dreamer, withdrawn and wan after suffering prolonged ridicule and rejection, was only barely aware of the presence of the bats. As usual, s/he was staring dreamily at the gate, imagining all the wondrous truth that lay just beyond. S/he finally murmured: “You are all wrong. The door is in front of ME.”

As each member of the group spoke his, her or its truth, a solid gold nugget appeared in the hand (trunk, wing or hoof) of the speaker. By the time the Dreamer said the final word, all four were staring dumbfounded into their respective appendages. Then, as one entity, they all ran toward the gate, golden shapes held before them. One by one, each tried to open the gate with their piece of gold, turning it first this way and then that. They tried inserting the gold pieces in a different order, then with yet other permutations of that order. Alas, the gold pieces did not unlock the door of Truth.

Dropping In a sorry heap of adrenaline withdrawal, the group had finally returned to their original places. The bats, having been quiet as they tried to interpret the chaos of sound and activity, now tried to question the Seekers. “What happened? What did you do? Did the Door open?”

As a final gesture of complete submission to their failure, the Seekers turned the pieces of gold over to the bats. “Here,” they told them. “Follow our directions to the Door, which has a key hole but no key. Take these pieces of gold, since they appeared when we told you where the door was, but they do not seem to be of any use.”

“But you each told us something different,” challenged the bats. “How do we know which one of you was telling the truth, or if any truth is in you at all? How do we know where the door really is located?”

The Seekers looked around, and recognized that they had fallen into their accustomed formation. So they told the bats that they would repeat their directions, and the bats should use their own bat sonar to identify where each speaker was located. They could then use at least three points to triangulate the location of the door from the positions of the speakers, combined with their spoken directions. “We have all told you the truth,” they chorused.

And of course, the bats did just that and of course, it worked. They were now hanging on the wall, as well as on and around the door. They located the latch and the keyhole. But also “of course,” they could not open the door, either. But they kept touching the pieces of gold, and then reaching into the keyhole, feeling around and chattering to one another in bat-speak. The air became tense with anticipation, for it was well known that the blind bats understood the magic of the forest better than any other beings. Unlike other beings, they felt things about the environment, and heard more. Suddenly, the bats came together in an outbreak of cooperation and began to reposition the pieces of gold. The Magic Forest once again intervened and did its thing, and the pieces of gold became welded together in the shape of a key. The key opened the Gateway of Truth, and they all (including the original Seekers) went through the Door to the land of Truth and lived happily ever after.

golden key

THE END