Archive for July, 2012

“Like timidity, bravery is also contagious.”

— Munshi Premchand

Yesterday I attended a reunion of a class I attend called Healing Mondays.  The people who are part of this group are not extraordinary in any particular way.  Each of us has our special talents and gifts just like everyone else; but what makes us unique is the reason we come together.  As a group we seek to find ways to bring love and healing to our world.  There was no class topic yesterday.  We had suspended our meetings for the summer so that everyone could pursue their vacation-season activities, and we had made a pact to re-convene at the end of July.  We caught up with everyone’s pursuits, shared our summertime stories, and inevitably landed on some of the topics that have shaken our world lately.

There was the child abuse scandal at Penn State University.  There were the movie theater shootings in Colorado.  There is the tentative and volatile climate in Syria that has people just like us packing a few possessions and leaving behind the only lives they ever have known.  How can we reconcile such events in our world?  How can we hope to find enough healing and enough love to cover such horrible things.  We spoke from the depths of our hearts and really tried to tease out the meaning behind tragedies and hatred and bloodshed.  Sometimes it seems as though there is no answer to such a question.  At times it seems that our work is futile in the face of such evil.

After sleeping restlessly on our conversation yesterday, my only conclusion can be that such horrible events offer us a choice:  We can succumb to the evil and become afraid and timid, or we can stand in its face and become brave.  Timidity and bravery both are by-products of fear.  It is what we do when we are terrified that defines how we choose to live.  We cannot become timid unless we are afraid.  One of our discussions yesterday was about the difference between being wise and being paranoid.  Only the individual knows which is at work when we move away from perceived danger; and often we really struggle to know which is our motivation.

On the other hand, only fear can motivate bravery.  We cannot call ourselves brave unless we are looking fear in the eye and still standing tall.  After the shootings in Colorado, story after story emerged of brave people who placed their own lives in jeopardy in order to shield the ones they loved.  The consequences of bravery can be devastating, but the legacy of bravery encourages every one of us to hold onto that which is good and kind and strong and loving — to the qualities of being human that truly can bring healing to our world.

When the stories of evil reach your ears, do not run away and hide.  Instead, dig beneath the evil and discover the way that bravery lifts our human existence to heights we never imagined existed.  Remember that fear presents us with a choice.  Remember to choose healing.

O Lord, help me not to despise or oppose what I do not understand.”

— William Penn

So much conflict arises out of the simple misunderstanding of things that seem strange to us.  Maybe the root of our misunderstanding is fear.  Maybe, when we meet someone or find ourselves confronted by something that is foreign to our experience, we are afraid we will lose our own familiar identity and be swallowed up by the unknown.  We have a tendency, when we meet with new opinions or ideas, to pass them through the superficial filter of our own belief system and accept or reject them after only a cursory look.  Judgment passed, we move on to either embrace them immediately or turn our backs on the things we do not understand.

Yesterday, my sweetheart and I were discussing a political issue.  As often is the case, we came at it from different angles — beginning with the conclusions we had reached when considering it on our own.  As sometimes is the case, we had arrived at opposing viewpoints before our discussion began.  We did not leave our chat in agreement on a “yea” or “nay” vote — each of us still holds to our final conclusion.  What we did learn through talking through the issues was that we really don’t differ in our understanding or our grasp of them.  At one point, I actually said to him, “you know, we really do agree on 99% of the facts here.”  He acknowledged that we do.  And still, each of us holds to our conclusion regarding what action should be taken.

It is important when we face opposing views to take the time to dig beneath the surface of our preconceived notions and to uncover the areas where we overlap and agree.  It is important to remember that opposing conclusions do not mean total disagreement.  If we are to live with others in harmony, we need to focus on our similarities as well as on our differences.  It is only in understanding what is unfamiliar that we begin to discover that there is no need to despise or fear what we have not yet explored.  Even if we only learn that we must agree to disagree, we can do that with acceptance when we discover that we are more alike than we imagined.

“I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

— Vincent van Gogh

Although I love to create things, I can honestly say that nothing I’ve created will ever grace the walls of a museum.  Great artists have a way of seeing things from a million different angles and somehow incorporating all of them into their work.  The result is so multi-dimensional that descriptions fall short, and the only way to understand the greatness of such a piece is to stand in its presence and, all at once, allow it to hit you head-on and draw you in.  The experience always leaves me wondering whether there is some of the artist’s energy that resides in his work and whether, by standing in its presence, that energy reaches across space and time and touches the viewer with its timeless message.  A recent visit to Van Gogh’s self-portrait left me with the feeling that his eyes could look from the canvas and see the people who stood and took him in.  All of his immortalized people do this, and perhaps his words about loving offer a clue about his success in capturing so much more than a likeness.  It may be as simple as love.  What liberates the portraits from globs of paint is the love that Van Gogh brought to his work.  Indeed, it may be that it is the love that shines from the inanimate canvas and radiates from the eyes of his subjects.

Van Gogh had a way with paint.  He sent his love into the world by capturing the wonder of being alive — the landscapes, the flowers, the people he met — and immortalizing that love on canvas in a way that transcends time and space.  We may not be great painters, but we can learn from Van Gogh to find the way that best expresses our love and then send it out into the world all around us.  If loving is the key to great artistry, then each of us has the potential for greatness.  All we need to do is create small acts of love.

Splash your canvas today with love.  If it is the highest form of artistry, then you owe it to the universe to express your passion for living.  Look at the people you meet from a million different angles and then express your love for all the small parts.  When you do, you may discover that you have called forth the beauty that lies within another.  When it shines from their eyes, you will know the great artistic power of love.

“I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance.  People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction.”

— Dalai Lama

“Mean people suck.”

So says the bumper sticker; and there’s little that is worse than being on the receiving end of someone else’s mean or selfish behavior.  It is said that anyone who enjoys success should be aware that he stands on the shoulders of giants who have gone before him; but too many times people confuse this with stepping on other living, breathing human beings in order to gain an advantage toward some mutual goal.  We see this all the time in business and in academics, but it is particularly ugly in the arena of kids’ sports.

It is only natural that participants in sports should be competitive.  After all, that is the point of such games — to band together with other athletes and win a contest.  What our “me first” generation has forgotten is the value of teamwork.  Nothing destroys the experience of being on a team more quickly than a mean, selfish player whose own personal agenda overrides the shared goals of the group.  Instead of standing on the shoulders of those great athletes who have gone before them, they succumb to their own selfish desire for greatness and destroy the group that could help carry them to their goals.

Mean people suck.  Selfish people destroy teamwork.   Instead of stepping on your teammates, how about showing your true skill and greatness by including them in your shared success.  Give a leg up instead of stepping on someone’s head to elevate yourself.  People will notice how you go about attaining your goals.

Mean people suck.  And experience tells me that they usually fail.

“Life is made up of small pleasures.  Happiness is made up of those tiny successes.  The big ones come too infrequently.  And if you don’t collect all these tiny successes, the big ones don’t really mean anything.”

— Norman Lear

It is fun to dream.  It is good to set lofty goals for ourselves that carry us along in the direction of something we hope to achieve in our lives.  Without dreams, we would have no hope.  Without aspirations, we would have no motivation to seek our dreams; but it is gratitude that makes us successful when it seems that our hopes and dreams are distant and out of reach.

We might wish we could win the lottery; but in the meantime, we can be grateful for the five-dollar bill that turns up in the pocket of last year’s jacket.  We can aspire to greatness in business or in creative ventures; but we can be thankful for the few people close to home who recognize our efforts and encourage us to go on trying.

When we dream big, it can be tempting to spend our whole lives on hold, just waiting for a cataclysmic event to show us that we exist and define that we have succeeded.  Success and recognition are variable, and it is easy to lose sight of the small successes and the tiny pleasures that come our way every day.  In order to live the sort of life that lets us fully embrace our hopes and dreams, we must make it our business to notice the tiny pieces that join together to make us feel fulfilled.  The beauty of a sunrise, the sweet trilling of a robin hidden by the apple leaves, the sound of a child’s laughter as she discovers for the first time a part of life we no longer even notice — all these tiny things and so many more are what keep us human.

We are the gardeners who sow the seeds that become our lives.  We scatter our dreams and hope they will blossom and become a part of our world.  We must remember, also, to sow the seeds of gratitude.  As they grow amid our dreams, we will be given the vision to see the small successes that build bit by bit to make our dreams come true.  Open your eyes.  See the small things and hold them in your heart.  If you do, your heart will be strong enough to survive on the day that your wildest dreams come true.

“Enlightenment is not imagining figures of light but making the darkness conscious.”

— Carl Gustav Jung

All right.  I’ll admit it.  I am a member of the Facebook community.  There!  I’ve said it.  I spend a little time each day peeking into the virtual windows that open into the lives of my online friends.

I first joined Facebook at the urging of my adult children, and I must admit that I enjoy being a part of their events and photos and updates to their news that I might not hear on a daily basis.  Other friends have come along — old friends and new, casual and true — and it can be interesting to see what other people have to share in such an online community.

As in any place where people meet, whether online or in the real-time world, there are good times and bad, agreements and disagreements, forces of good and forces of evil.  It is part of being human to interact with other human beings; and it is part of interacting with others to take in all sorts of opinions, judgments, and contributions that people bring to the table.  There are days when taking part seems like a great idea, and there are days when we wonder why we should continue to  join with others in this way.

I think Jung expresses well my reason for sticking around on the not-so-uplifting days.

Last winter, a real-time friend told me she was giving up Facebook for Lent.  “And maybe I won’t go back to it after that,” she said.  Her reasons were well-considered.  Although she enjoyed the chance to check up on people she loved, she felt as though her experience had become one where people expressed their anger or their political positions in ways that divided rather than encouraged unity.  She was tired of the negativity and felt as though she was being infected with a kind of thinking that dragged her down and made her into the sort of person she did not want to be.  I could respect her position, but I asked her to consider staying.

Jung says that enlightenment is more than simply imagining figures of light.  Well, anyone who knows me at all will tell you that I value imagination highly.  I see it as so much more than a vacation from reality; in fact, for me, imagination is a portal that opens to liberate our deepest intentions and our highest thoughts.  But Jung is correct when he says that enlightenment only takes place when we make the darkness conscious.

This is why I wanted my friend to stay.  She is someone who allows her brightest hopes and dreams to shine into the world.  A community like Facebook needs such beacons.  When we become discouraged by the darkness and retreat to our own corner, we limit the scope of our brightness and dim the light we could shine into the world.  We must always remember that it takes only a speck of light to dispel the deepest darkness, because it is only natural that our eyes will turn toward that tiny spot of light.  The darkness will always be with us, but we have the power to awaken its consciousness and turn it into light.  What is important is not how much light we have to share, but that we continue to share it and trust that our contribution will add to the awakening of all that hides beneath the veil of dark.

We begin by imagining; but we contribute by speaking, by writing, by painting, by singing all that enlightens our soul.  We must not retreat.  We must continue to shine until our light is so loud that it awakens the darkness and allows it to shine as well.

Eight Hundred Miles

The open road

Cries out

“This way!

Hurry!

Come!

Explore!”

The wheels turn

Humming

Scenes flash

Flickers

Gone in

An instant.

A new place

Exciting.

Curious,

Nose first,

Discover

Life.

The way home

Spreads its arms

Takes my hand

Guides me

Draws me

Home.

“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”

— Haile Selassie

“I don’t know why you’re so upset — I didn’t do anything.”

How often I have heard my children say this in defense of being caught in some infraction or mischief!  It is spoken as a defense against criticism, and I must admit that I’ve said this myself on numerous occasions.  The implication is that when we do nothing, there is nothing to criticize.  In truth, doing nothing often is an expression of apathy — and apathy can wound, hurt or kill just as surely as the aggression it ignores.

When is the last time you walked past an event as it unfolded and thought, ‘that just isn’t right,’ and then walked on?  Chances are that it was more recently that you would like to admit.  There is something risky about stepping to the business of another person.  Perhaps it is not our business to think of intervening in the actions of others unless it is a matter of life or death.

How do we judge a matter of life or death?  Can we look into the future and see the consequences of someone’s unchallenged behavior?  How can we know whether allowing someone to hurt another person today will allow their behavior to escalate tomorrow?  Still, we are reluctant to square off with another person and challenge their choices.  Perhaps if we do challenge them, we will find that their aggression will be turned on us instead of their present target.  Are we to put ourselves at risk in order to express our opposing view?

As with so many things, there is a middle ground.  We may not be able to do battle with every aggressor who brings hurt or pain to the world.  What we can do is to counter with a message of love; and the best place to start is to treat the aggressor with dignity and give him the benefit of the doubt.  If we assume that a person’s inappropriate behavior is an aberration, perhaps we can hold up a mirror and show them who they are being in their anger; but the mirror must be compassion, not challenge.  We must not push back.  Instead, we should strive to draw out the goodness that is lost beneath the aggressor’s exterior.

We cannot undo all the ill in the world, but we can make it our intention to model what is good and loving and kind.  All that evil needs is our apathy.  We must be courageous enough to speak the words of love and healing and peace.

I’ve spent the last two days in our nation’s capital at a girls’ basketball tournament.  All around this short grandma, there have been hordes of much taller young ladies, many of them sporting Nike shirts emblazoned with various versions of the company’s slogan, “Just Do It!”  When I read them all, I can hear Yoda’s distinctively squeaky voice, admonishing, “Do or do not, there is no try.”  Well, yesterday included a departure from basketball — a Just Do It moment of my own.

For a couple of years, I have been halfheartedly trying to think of a way to meet an online friend.  The logistics of such meetings can be complicated, what with geography, busy schedules, and the demands of our respective lives in separate places.  Then, suddenly, in the midst of a busy trip to a basketball tournament, we took the advice of Nike and Yoda and just did it.

There was an early-morning game for me to attend, but the plan was laid for us to meet.  As the last minutes ticked away on the game clock, I began to feel the anticipation grow.  In only minutes I would meet someone who had become my dear and close friend through the magic of the internet; but this meeting would not be in an email or a Facebook post.  This meeting would be face-to-face as well as heart-to-heart.

The final buzzer rang and I collected my belongings, found my sweetheart, and began climbing the stairs from the basement gymnasium to street level.  Wow.  It was really going to happen.  I wondered whether my friend might be in the parking lot right this minute, waiting for me to show up.  By the time I reached the top of the stairwell, I was practically jogging up the last few steps.  I moved with deliberation toward the exit, and it was then that I spotted her.  Just as her hand touched the knob outside to walk into the lobby, mine grabbed the inside handle and the door flew open.

I am generally a pretty reserved person, but I have to admit that I heard myself squeal with delight as I wrapped my arms around my very real online sister and pulled her close.  It was hard to release that hug for fear that we both might evaporate again into the abstraction of our online friendship.  We let go for a minute as each of us backed up to take in the very real person who now stood before us.  Oh, heck.  We grabbed tight again and made sure to seal that hug that will have to last until the next time we realize there is only “do or do not — no try.”

Today we did it.  We talked, we joked, we laughed, we cried.  We took silly pictures and told stories and at notuna sandwiches.  We made museum guards smile and join in our fun.  We walked on the commons and stood in silence as names were read of the people immortalized in the AIDS quilt that lay on the lawn.  We watched a train and walked through exotic gardens, and it felt as though we had always known each other.  I’m thinking that maybe we have.

As I type, a smile moves across my face, and I feel wrapped in the warmth of finally standing in the presence of someone I have known so well.  I think I may have to buy a Nike shirt to commemorate this day — the day we finally stopped trying long enough to Just DO IT!!!

“When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.”

— James Whitcomb Riley

As long as we are living, we are learning.  If we are very lucky, each new day brings us another chance to see the world with fresh eyes.  It is in keeping our point of view fresh and our eyes wide open that we continue to take in all that life has to offer.

As we accumulate experiences, we find that our learning curve is less dependent on the opinions of others and more a function of the way our prior learning influences the way we see something new.  We we were children, we took at face value nearly everything an authority would tell  us about our world and the way it worked.  If someone told us, “look…that’s a duck,” we would catalog the information, “duck,” based on someone else’s experience.  Over time and through repeated experiences of “duck,” we learned that ducks might come in all shapes and sizes, different colors and with different sorts of feathers, but that they all had some essence in common that defined them as ducks.  Before long, if someone pointed to a robin and told us, “look…that’s a duck,” we were able to filter away the things about a robin that excepted it from the duck family.  It is part of maturing to collect enough data about our world that we can begin to make our own assessments of what is true.  Whatever duck might be the subject of our scrutiny, we learn over time that we can take the truths we have learned and sort them in order to draw meaningful conclusions.

I am a special brand of duck — how about you?  Suppose that somewhere along the line, I was given incorrect information from someone else that has me questioning whether I dare to call myself a duck.  Suppose that I have spent many years of my life worried that I will never be a very good duck because someone once told me that ducks should be something that I am not.  Too often, we spend years worrying that we are less than we really are, just because someone gave us incorrect data.  It is our responsibility as adult human beings to collect the data we have taken in and analyze it.  Whenn we look at what we have learned about other ducks and then apply it to ourselves, we may discover who we really are.  When someone wants to sell you short, just tell them with an emphatic quack,

“When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.”