Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives

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bare tree

The university academic year begins for me this week, and—not for the first time—my thoughts are heavy with the implications of the grave responsibility of educating the young. This year, though, seems to weigh heavy on my heart more than any such year in the past, with the possible exception of the years in South Africa during the end of apartheid and the first years of democracy. It could even be because of those years, and the comparisons that can be made between South Africa then, and the United States now, that my concern is great.

Of course, no comparative study would find a perfect correlation between the two countries. But there are many similarities, especially when observing the issues of race, intolerance, social injustice, disenfranchisement, rule of a power elite—I could go on, but already it become obvious that there are points to be made, as well as huge differences in the two situations. Can anything be learned from the past in another country, that would shed light on a way forward for us in the present?

My course load this semester consists of Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Social Theory, and Political Anthropology. All three courses contain a great deal of material that directly relates to August 2016 in the United States. Some of these situations, like the failed war on drugs and its ongoing, devastating aftermath, do not appear to be related to anything that occurred in South Africa. But when you look deeper at the combinations of political misinformation, low intensity violence incited deliberately by the government, and antipathy between police and the often innocent subjects of their brutality, a shared trend appears.

In fact, one can see that the troubles in both nations were not caused by failed societal structures so much as by a shared failed personal accountability for human actions. I always try to find an opportunity to explain to my students why it is true that to the extent we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. And the more often that we do that, the less human we become. At some point, it no longer matters who we hurt, or how much we hurt them. Having reached that point, nothing is sacred—we can lie to each other, cheat in personal and public relationships, and shame our religious traditions by turning them inside out and using them against each other, rather than in enjoyment of the sacredness of our existence. Some people blame this on the capitalist profit motive; I blame it on unrestrained greed grown to inhumane size, however you want to rationalize it.

Our inhumane behavior is seen in social media pages, day after day. Many posts are deliberate lies, some are propagated by people and organizations who make a great deal of money developing the ways and means of destroying political opponents, or spreading ideas in order to challenge inconvenient truths about how we should live. Our youth often do not trust our government, our news media, or our religious leaders. We have an entire generation of youth who have grown up in the midst of uncontrolled verbal and media bile, day after day. Yet many parents and teachers are still able to reflect the values of integrity and community to their children; too many others have failed.

I don’t want to be one of those who fail those precious young people. It would be safe for me to just present the information in the texts as is, and avoid controversy. Unfortunately, sociology and anthropology are not calculus. They exist to provide a learning situation whereby we may study, compare, theorize, and determine the state of our world, and consider possible ways to improve our situation and that of others. If we learn anything at all from these disciplines, it is that humans are not meant to live just for themselves. We are psychologically and mentally geared to living in community, from whence we learn our sameness as well as our beautiful uniqueness; where we learn to share, to care for others, and to be cared for. It is where we discover the meaning of our lives, as Victor Frankl explains so beautifully.

On the surface, our country is in what Durkheim would call a state of anomie; of “normlessness.” There are too many who live by disregarding the norms of human interactions, of human responsibility. The rest of us are not free of responsibility for this state of affairs. The rapidity of progress has allowed us all to enjoy an unprecedented mobility, separation from family and old friends, from the norms that defined our lives when we were young people. The sense of normlessness that has grown has produced political and religious apathy, as our values as a nation have withered into weapons for some groups to hurl at others in hatred.

It could appear that all is lost. It is not. We can, and must, regain our humanity by treating others as the precious human beings they were meant to be. We cannot separate ourselves from community, especially from communities of meaning. We can look to the examples of those around us who are good people, who live honestly and compassionately. We can seek justice for those whose lives have been broken by injustice.

…..We can demand from our government leaders the same values that we hold for ourselves, and make sure not to repeat errors in judgement on that score.

….. We can bring family life back into vogue, securing the early years of our children with the nuts and bolts of honesty, responsibility, and community.

….. We can demand improvements in our education systems so that our children learn to think, not just to memorize.

And we can treat the people we run into each and every day as though they were human beings like ourselves: imperfect, yet full of potential; sacred to their Creator and therefore sacred to ourselves. Deserving of respect—enough so as to inspire those who have none for themselves to strive for improvement.


……Yes, this is indeed a heavy responsibility to owe to the students in my classroom. But why else would I even want to be there? The intergenerational discussions and learning that will take place give my life meaning. My students, who are also my teachers, are the joy of my life. When I meet with them again, that “heavy responsibility” will be rediscovered as a great privilege. So begins another year.


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The expressions of a pervasive sense of impending doom are on the increase, whether you read/listen to the armchair experts on social media, or the professional experts in science, economics, philosophy, or religion. Yet as I look around me in the “real-life” portion of my world, people seem to be pretty much absorbed by the joys and/or challenges of daily living rather than wondering whether the world is going to end in a financial meltdown, climate change disasters, the extremes of social anarchy, or World War III. Then, of course, there are others who only argue about who is to blame for any of these terminal disasters, as opposed to those who fatalistically refuse to think about it: “Whatever will be, will be.” Finally we have those who are totally unaware, perhaps desensitized by a lifetime of failed threats of the immanent End of Time.

-Remember the back yard bomb shelters of the Cold War era, complete with supplies to support a family until it was safe to return to the earth’s surface (however long that would be)?

-Remember the End Times and the Space Ship arrival cults? (True, these are not entirely gone).

-Remember Y2K, and the Mayan Calendar date of December 2012?

Or, just pick up the New Testament and read the words of the prophets who followed Jesus, claiming the Rapture would occur just any day, despite the words of Jesus himself, who stressed that the date could not be known. Yet the Second Coming of Christ has been predicted many times in the past 2000 years. It seems that when we are not fearing the end of the world, we are happily anticipating it.

Widespread dissatisfaction with and/or fear of the world as it is, however, have always been accompanied by cries that “the sky is falling.” And sometimes, it does – though not even close to earth-wide since the destruction of the dinosaurs. It happens to us as individuals, too. When everything goes wrong in our lives – economically, health-wise, or in relationships – the suicide rates go up, while others still consider ending it all or pray to die, because their situation is intolerable. The reasons for coming disaster mount up, while our ability to think rationally enough to take action for positive change in our own lives rapidly disappears. If that is our individual coping mode, how can we expect to fare any better in large groups, or as a nation?

Where is the leadership that can put aside their personal fears and aspirations, and show us the way to work together to solve the problems that have solutions, and learn how to prepare for the “new normal” when change is inevitable?

Where are the families and the communities that can help each other to get through the bad times, and show their children how to deal with disaster and failure as well as with success and wealth? I know for a fact that these exist, but perhaps there simply are not enough of them. Or maybe they have forgotten.

Where are the teachers who used to show us how to apply theory and practice to real life situations, and how to think critically in order to separate truth from fiction when possible? I do know of some.

Finally, we can’t blame all these people for our individual and collective feelings of impending doom. I believe that our lives will improve when we stop rushing head-long and helter-skelter into the end of time and stop to get our common sense back.

Yes, indeed, there are threats to our safety and well-being. There are major changes coming to life as we know it. (In fact, there always have been – they just come faster now). We can’t afford either denial or complaisance, and we never could. We have, however, succeeded grandly as a human race when we have cooperatively put our mental and physical resources together to figure out how to meet the challenges of the day, how to be good stewards of our resources, and how to live together in relative peace. This works for nations, for communities, for families, and for individuals.

The sky is not falling yet. It may never fall. But there are definitely some threats. While those who can, work together to see that the potential for damage is lessened as much as possible, the rest of us need to be cooperating – with those who are knowledgeable, as well as with each other — and not giving in to fears of the future or to total denial.

The way to get through a challenge is to work it out, and work it through. Life has always been like that.

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As I write this post, the date is February 1st. When I noted the date this morning, my reaction was “Finally! February is here. What a relief!” I surprised myself. The first 28 years of my life were spent in western New York State, so I can assure you that this is not my normal reaction to the first day of February – or any other day in February, for that matter. February was always the month when Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) reached its peak: Gray days, dirty gray snow, cold days and colder nights, chapped skin, shoveling snow day after day – by the second month of the year the reality of winter was enough to send me into at least a minor depression.

…Until recently. Chronic pain has for years held an even greater power in my life for bringing on depression, especially after a few long months of winter weather. However, once I had become convinced that my thought patterns and beliefs could actually make my pain even worse, I decided to try an experiment. Last year, I decided that instead of suffering through the blues of February – or grays, if you prefer – I would welcome the month as a certain sign that we were on the downside of winter, and better days were ahead.

That was actually true for me in several ways last year. I did concentrate on thinking positive thoughts about February, which was no small achievement. I also met my pain management physician that month, and had two epidural procedures which alleviated my pain enough to allow me to manage several other medical problems over the following months. I didn’t think any more about my experiment until this morning, when I surprised myself by welcoming the thought of February. My perspective has certainly changed.

All this soon led me to thoughts of chronic pain, and the Pain Care Providers Day campaign. I thought how over this past year I have watched and read about chronic pain patients who have joined their voices and efforts to bringing about national awareness of the hundreds of thousands of people who exist with daily, even constant, severe chronic pain. I thought of those professionals and clinical personnel who have joined to champion the cause of those people that they care for, day in and day out. And I remembered the families, and friends, and neighbors who join in to assist people who cannot always manage on their own, and who have also supported this campaign.

As I looked back over the year, I realized that attitudes are changing. Perspectives are changing. Many people who have been victimized by both their own bodies and by unreasonable laws and regulations regarding their care have refused to be labeled victims. They have found their voices, and are speaking out, demanding to be heard and treated fairly. And they are being supported by the voices and efforts of their caretakers.

Physicians are pushing pharmaceutical companies to produce medication that will not harm their patients. Medical societies are pushing for multidisciplinary approaches to treatment for chronic pain patients that will be more effective. During the month of September 2014 we celebrated Pain Awareness Month, and more people joined the efforts to bring new resources to the treatment of chronic pain.

So now, on March 20th, 2015, we will celebrate Pain Care Providers Day (PCPD).

What is this day all about?

It is definitely NOT about drugs. It’s not even about chronic pain patients, per se. It is about celebrating the steadfast and selfless gift of presence and help by all those who have cared for us all these years when we have generally been thought of as malingerers, hypochondriacs, drug seekers, or worse.

Admittedly, we chronic pain patients are not always easy to deal with. Sometimes it is difficult to discover what has caused our pain. Sometimes we are cranky, angry, depressed, uncooperative, or downright mean. Sometimes we are hopelessly fatalistic. Sometimes we are suicidal, because the pain and isolation is winning out over any potential for loving life. Yet our caretakers and providers are still there.

But there is hope—which for many of us, is an entirely new perspective.   Awareness is happening throughout the nation, thanks to the campaigns, and more changes of perspective are taking place in unique places. Some people are actually changing their opinions about pain care providers and their patients. Of course, it takes longer for government agencies to adjust their perspectives, but with all our voices together, we can and will be heard. And those who have cared for us will still be right there, working alongside of us. And on March 20th, the first day of Spring—a day of hope—we want to celebrate their presence and work in our lives, and what it has meant for us.

 For our pain care providers, and for those who will join their ranks in future generations, I offer the following statement in support of these achievements, and these changes in perspective. It was written by Henri J. M. Nouwen, and I have borrowed it from his delightful book Bread for the Journey:

 Joy is hidden in compassion. The word compassion literally means “to suffer with.” It seems quite unlikely that suffering with another person would bring joy. Yet being with a person in pain, offering simple presence to someone in despair, sharing with a friend times of confusion and uncertainty…such experiences can bring us deep joy. Not happiness, not excitement, not great satisfaction, but the quiet joy of being there for someone else and living in deep solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family. Often this is a solidarity in weakness, in brokenness, in woundedness, but it leads us to the center of joy, which is sharing our humanity with others.


Please join us in celebrating Pain Care Providers Day on March 20th. Tell your friends and neighbors, and encourage leaders to proclaim the day. It is our day to share our humanity with others. It can be a day of joy.


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By taking care of the ones who care for us we all win.      

That’s why it’s time for Pain Care Providers Day.

—Did you know?  For every 21,276 pain sufferers in America, there is only one board-certified pain management specialist.  One in EVERY THREE adults in America suffers from pain.  Doesn’t seem that they all are going to be adequately treated for their pain, does it?

Consider this:  Chronic pain lowers productivity, even for patients who continue to work full time.  Pain may often interrupt someone’s ability to carry out their job at peak performance.  At these numbers, chronic pain becomes a serious economic problem for the nation.  That is even before one considers the added costs of treatment for those who are able to obtain help.

The difficulties in obtaining help for chronic pain have been described often and well in recent months.  I have read stories of attitudes patients must deal with, from untrained physicians to family members, friends, employers and co-workers.  All too often, they hear:

-You look just fine!  You don’t seem to be in pain.

-You don’t need to take anything but Tylenol for pain.

-Come on, suck it up!  Everyone hurts somewhere now and then.

-It is probably all in your head.  Have you tried seeing a psychiatrist?

-What do you expect, at your age?  You are not a spring chicken, you know!

I could go on, because like other chronic pain patients, over the years I have heard it all.

A few weeks ago, I posted a Christmas message in which I stated I was looking forward to 2015; that this year would be a year of hope and purpose.  I described my gratitude for my changed circumstances, due entirely to the concerted efforts of caregivers.  I am particularly grateful today for my primary care physician, who insisted that I see a pain management physician.  The latter would become both the expert who would successfully treat my severe chronic pain, and a very active supporter through the months of emotional chaos that accompanied major life changes as I made the journey to being once again at home in my own body, and in my own mind.  “Gratitude” just doesn’t even begin to describe what I owe for the rare respectful listening, caring, believing, and helping that I have received.

That only describes the role of my physicians,   How blessed I have been with friends and family who have cared, listened, transported me for medical care, and done chores for me that I could not do for myself.  Who called and/or emailed regularly, to check on me.  For those who prayed for me, and who rejoiced with me when I was back on my feet again, and back in the classroom teaching – where I most wanted to be.

How many of you readers know someone who has pain a lot of the time?  How many know of spouses, children, parents, or friends who give of their lives to care for people who live with constant pain and disability?  If you are like me, once you stop to think about it, these folks are not rare.  They are all around us!

We who have been blessed with caretakers who make all the difference in our world, and in our ability to survive, want to make MARCH 20th a NATIONAL PAIN CARE PROVIDER’S DAY.  We want to celebrate these selfless individuals who care and give so much; those physicians who – despite draconian pain medication laws in many states with criminal prosecution for overlooking them, still keep on doing their best to help as many of the many pain care patients as they possibly can.


Please.  Give us the chance to show our gratitude in 2015.

hands, heart



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:


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.


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