Something’s changing in our country, and I’m dismayed. Over the last year or so, we’re losing the expectation that we will demonstrate basic respect for each other in public discourse. No group is completely clean on this, and there’s a reason that politics has long been called “dirty”. But we’re seeing a steep slide that needs arrested. A friend once told me that “words matter”…he was right.
If you don’t believe words matter, ask a child who’s just been bullied. If you don’t think words matter, ask someone who’s fighting depression. If you’re unsure if words matter, study Nazi history and see how a nation was manipulated to ignore (and even commit) atrocities against their fellow citizens.
America has always been a beacon of hope and optimism for the world, Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”. But we are rapidly turning into a mean and nasty place, where insults take the place of meaningful debate on how to make our great country even better, for all of its people. We, the people, must halt this decline. We must demand better from our public figures. We can do better…we deserve better…we are better than this.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.
The older I get, the more weary I get. I don’t know how to fully explain it, and I don’t mean that I’m more tired (though that’s true, too). I mean weary, like not just in my bones but in my soul, too. It’s not a good feeling, yet somehow it’s not totally bad, either. It’s almost familiar, even though it’s new, like somehow it was inevitable. I’m at the stage now where I’m working to decide what it means, and more importantly, what to do with it.
While I think that a small part of it has to do with the realization that I’m now unquestionably in the back half of my life, this isn’t a mid-life crisis. I have a precious family that means the world to me and a meaningful job I love. I’m healthy and active, and I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life spiritually. No, it’s more than that. It feels the most like more of a vague realization that life is just flat out a struggle, and there’s too much suffering in the world. This loony election season hasn’t helped any, but this is way bigger than any political outcome. I just get weary.
I get weary of the polarization and seemingly unreconcilable divide in our country. I get weary of the need to hand money and a blessing out of my car window to the homeless. I get weary of seeing the photos and hearing the stories of especially children fighting horrific diseases for their very lives. I get weary of politicians acting in what is clearly their own best interest over those who elected them to serve them. I get weary of layoffs and domestic abuse and addiction and racism. It becomes overwhelming.
Yet when it seems like just one more all-too-human story may knock me down, another story…an offsetting story of hope… shines through. The amazing part is it usually only takes one of the good ones to counter many of the bad ones. That’s the power of good, of love. From those small, shining nuggets of hope, I get the strength to carry on. Even though I am weary.
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” –Galatians 6:9
As the days grow shorter, I’ve begun to notice the lights in the homes on my drive home in the dark. There are so many kinds. The pretty Christmas lights this time of year make me smile. Some outdoor lights accent a home just so, making you feel welcome, even if you don’t know the people who live there. But most lights seem ugly and harsh. Many farm lights, high up on telephone poles, have that yellowish tint of a bug light; they may be ugly, but I grew up in the country and know what a godsend those REA lights are, a shield holding back the blackness over a tiny oasis. The light from a TV is depressing when it’s the only light coming from a house. But the worst are the soul-sucking fluorescents, blue and unnatural.
Most of the lights from the homes I drive by are so ugly, I think, because they are so artificial. We were meant to sleep when it’s dark. It seems like the only legitimate ability we should have to stave off the inevitable night is the light of a fire, which in addition to its gifts of light and warmth, also gives our tribe reason to band together.
I recently read an ex-seafarer say that “a single light bulb on a small ship can be seen from miles away at sea.” It’s a powerful image, yet they weren’t talking about lights at sea at all, but about people: we can all be lights in the darkness for each other. If we each choose to be a light, the sea will sparkle.
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” –Edith Wharton
I’m not entirely sure why it was important to me to visit this spot where 49 innocent people died. I haven’t been able to read any of the stories of the massacre, especially of the calls made to mothers by loving sons who were about to die. I knew I would cry, and hard. The whole thing is utterly horrific. But still I had to come.
My Mennonite ancestors were persecuted and driven from their homeland more than once. In America, they became champions of social justice, facing danger to march in America’s civil rights movement. Until this last year, I would have said that LGBT rights was the last major civil rights battle left in this country. But the recent upswing in xenophobia and discrimination against entire races and an entire religion…one whose billion plus adherents share a common father with Christianity…proves that the war rages on.
And so I came, to honor 49 souls whose lives were cut violently short. I wept at the rainbow-themed artwork, the teddy bear and lit candles, the photo ID badge, the childrens’ crayon drawings. I came for them, but I also came for me. I came to make a tiny personal stand against hate and discrimination. I came, for my own humanity.
“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” –Martin Luther King Jr.
I remember a retail merchant sharing one of his learnings from a consumer focus group. A young mother shopper told them that paper towels were a luxury she simply couldn’t afford, as she struggled to put food on her family’s table. This was clearly a novel idea to the merchant. For me, it was a memory.
We married (very) young and poor. One of us worked and one of us went to school for the first 7 years of our marriage. Our grocery budget for the first couple of years was $35 for the week, and that also had to cover toiletries and paper goods. Not only were paper towels definitely not affordable, we didn’t buy paper plates, Kleenex, or any “frivolous” food. For our lunches, I cooked extra amounts at dinner and baked desserts. While my husband’s co-workers looked on with envy at his homemade goodies, he complained that I never bought Oreos. I couldn’t: if I spent $40 one week instead of the budgeted $35, we struggled to pay for gas. Money was tight, and it took real planning to make it work.
We’ve since been financially blessed and no longer have to live on the edge like that, but of course many Americans do. There has been such a widening of the gap between rich and poor in our country that too many today have no idea what it’s like to view paper towels as a luxury. I worry that my kids won’t understand how blessed they are…they’ve lived with paper towels and many other luxuries their whole lives. We talk to them about how fortunate we are compared to many Americans and the rest of the world. We tell them that we’re blessed largely as a result of luck, having been born through no action of our own in a time and place of extraordinary circumstances. But there is no way for them to truly understand unless they live it. I want them to understand, yet I guess I really don’t, if it means they have to experience it first hand. I wish my children a lifetime of paper towels.
“Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.” –Henry David Thoreau
My earliest memories are from when I was less than two years old. They say we don’t have memories at that early an age, but they are wrong. I was hospitalized with pneumonia at 18 months. I have only two snippet memories from that stay: they are few, and they are short, but they are vivid.
My old-fashioned hospital room was straight out of Curious George Goes to the Hospital…a large room with 4-6 cribs and a play area. My very first memory is of my parents, grandparents, and aunt in that room bringing me an amazing gift–a stuffed bear as big as me! I loved that bear all through my childhood. I still have him, packed away in a plastic tote in the garage. He’s much smaller than I remember him, and he’s threadbare from love. Getting that bear, in that strange room surrounded by my family, is vivid memory number one.
The next thing I remember was waking at night in my crib in that strange room. My family was gone, and I was alone among the other sleeping children. I was scared and began to cry…I just wanted to go home. Except I wasn’t alone. A man was there, sitting in a chair beside a sleeping girl. He heard me cry and brought his chair over next to my bed. I remember him talking gently to me, though I don’t remember what he said. I only remember that him sitting there talking to me made me feel better. The memory then stops. I don’t remember waking the next morning, or leaving the hospital, or anything else until I was three. Just the bear and the man, both small comforts at a child’s time of fear.
I always tear up a little when I remember the man; this stranger’s kindness has stayed with me for nearly 50 years. I’ve since wondered if his daughter was ok…I’ve certainly hoped so. I now know that a parent doesn’t sit in a chair in a hospital through the night when everything is ok. I’ve also wondered if he remembers that night, whether he knows that his small gesture is remembered and appreciated. It’s a reminder that we all have the ability to make a difference in the life of another. But it’s also a reminder that even when we feel alone, Someone is always sitting next to us, ready to bring us comfort. We are never really alone.
“As a body everyone is single, as a soul never.” –Hermann Hesse
I attended a leadership development class this week at work, which included an afternoon defining my personal values. We were given 36 cards with phrases like ‘Financial Stability’, ‘Responsibility’, and ‘Teaching Others’ and asked to sort them from most to least important. My top two of ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Healthy Relationships’ were expected, but my third surprised me: ‘Hope’. Of all of the difficult choices in front of me around personal development and money and accomplishment, Hope came in behind only my relationships with God and my family and friends. Why Hope?
Being an optimist has always been a strength of mine, but ironically, I’ve also been aware of how critically important it is to my well being. Though I’m good at holding on to hope, I’m also terrified of somehow losing it. But until I went through this week’s ranking exercise, I’d have never realized it was that high on my list. I’ve always assumed that everyone needs hope – revolutions and violence stem from its absence. But I’d be surprised if anyone else in our group of 20 had it ranked that high. It clearly matters to me even more than I knew.
The last part of the exercise was to develop an action plan around our top values, what we would start, stop, and continue. But how do you develop an action plan around hope? My other top values were easy…I had start/stop/continue plans in minutes. But I nearly didn’t get done in the allowed time, sitting staring at the word ‘Hope’. Stop was the easiest: I committed to stop beating up on myself when I mess up, something women are especially bad at. For start, I decided to start replacing nagging of my girls with more of the positive, affirmative language I know they need. And for continue, I will continue to provide support to beyond-stressed families on the histio sites. I don’t know if it makes much difference, but I distinctly remember the support I got in the darkest moments of Megan’s illness from those who’d walked in my shoes, including the mom who saved my life when she told me “You’ve got this.” I survived on that stranger’s faith in me for weeks. As I look around, I see that, indeed, everyone needs hope. I can’t fix much, but I will do what I can in my tiny corner of the world.
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” –Vaclav Havel