The Window

wndow in nursing home

I’m sitting here looking out the window.  It has taken me nearly sixty-five years but now I understand.

New-Nurses-Survival-GuideI was only twenty-five when I met Irene.  It was my first job out of college.  I had just finished my RN program at Regina Nursing School.  It took me three years going to school days and working part-time evenings to complete my degree.  After finishing school, I applied at several nursing homes since I wanted to work with the elderly.  In three weeks, I was hired by the River Birch nursing home in New Prague Minnesota.

nurse-tutoringMy first day on the job was the high point and perhaps also the low point of my life.  It was the day I met Irene.  My supervisor Michelle started my job orientation by introducing me to the staff I would be working with.  She then gave me a brief summary of my work duties.  She explained that I would be assigned a wing of the nursing home and within that wing, I would be in charge of a specific number of residents.  We were not to call them patients.  Each day, my job would be to take care of the residents that I was assigned and to ensure that they received food, care and compassion.

nurse with patient

Michele then took me around to the twenty or so residents that I would responsible for.  One by one, she gave me a brief bio and medical review for each person.  The last one of my charges was Irene.  Michele said she had saved Irene for last because she would be my most difficult resident.

Irene had been taken into the home about two months prior to my arrival.  She appeared to have an advanced case of Alzheimers disease (which sixty-five years ago was not identified as such.)  She had been living with her only daughter for the past five years but her daughter had died in a car accident and Irene had no other surviving relatives.  Her mother, father and two sisters had died many years before her and no other family members could be located.  Social Services selected the River Birch nursing home due to its proximity to her previous home.

Elderly-woman-in-wheelchair-looking-out-of-window-with-blinds

Michele cautioned me that I should not spend too much time with Irene.  She did not speak much except to demand being taken in her wheel chair to the same window each day.  She would sit and look out the window and was not interested in eating, talking or socializing in any form.  Several of the other nurses had tried to form some type of communication with Irene, but all she would ever say was “window, window.”  Most thought she was simply unfriendly and had stopped spending any time with her.

I was young and naïve.  I thought I could surely reach out to Irene and form some type of bridge which would unite us as human beings.  Irene would be my project.  We would become friends.

Each day, I made a special point of taking Irene to her window and stopping by a few times of the day to simply chat.  I would bring her a cookie in the morning during the coffee break time and one after lunch during mid-afternoon coffee break.  Irene would never take the cookie or even bother to look at me.  She simply stared out the window.

windows-AOver time, I began to wonder what she was looking at.  After looking out the window myself, all I could see was a large grassy field surrounded by numerous oak, maple and birch trees. On any given day, there might some grackles or robins out in the field but very little else to view.  It was a pleasant enough scene but nothing that I thought could keep anyone’s attention for more than a few minutes never mind several hours of staring out the window

On the other side of the large sitting room, there was another picture window.  I noticed that it had a pretty view of a large lake and periodically several sail boats with brightly covered jibs and mains blowing in the wind would be traversing the lake.  I thought that perhaps Irene might like this view better. I walked over to where her sit was sitting in her wheel chair and told her I was going to show her recalcitrant patienta very pretty view that she could look out at.  I thought she would enjoy the variety and the change of scenery.  As I started to push Irene’s wheel chair away from her chosen window, she became very agitated and started pointing and in a raised voice saying “window, window.”  I moved her back to the old window and left her for the day.

Weeks went by and there was never any change in Irene.  Then one day, I went over to see how Irene was doing and I brought her a cookie just in case she changed her mind.  I never gave up on somehow connecting with Irene and I thought surely the cookie would be my entre.  Much to my surprise, she took the cookie from my hand and replied, “Thank you, they’re coming, they’re coming.”  I looked out the window but did not see anyone.  I asked, “Irene dear, who is coming?”  Irene answered, “Why mom and dad and my sisters.”  Poor thing I thought, she is delusional.

empty chairNext morning, I came to work and started my rounds.  I did not see Irene and I wondered where she was.  I checked her room but the bed was made up and there was no sign of Irene.  I went into see my supervisor and ask about her.  “I am sorry” Michele said “She passed away last night and was taken to the funeral home. There will be no services for her as she had no surviving relatives.”  I went home and cried for her passing.  I had never understood her or made a connection with her that I thought was the least bit meaningful.

little girl looking out the windowIt is sixty-five years later and I finally understand Irene.  I am sitting here looking out a window from the nursing home where I am now a resident.  Each day I look out the same window and I see a different event from my life.  I have been amazed at the events that I have witnessed.  I have seen my mother giving birth to me.  I saw the birth of each of my sisters and brothers.  I witnessed my first communion and my first day in school.  I watched my wedding and the birth of each of my children.  I was at my husband’s funeral again.  During the past few months, I have seen all the major events of my life one after the other in perfect chronological order.  I am almost at the end of my journey.  There is only one final event.  The last event will be when they come for me.  They are getting close.  My mom and dad are coming for me.  They are coming to take me home.  I must keep looking out the window or I will miss them.

Time for Questions:

How do we deal with the loss of a loved one when they are still alive?  What connections can we possibly make to bridge the sometimes-unbridgeable gaps that age has a way of creating? What if our loved ones are still with us even when we may think they are not?  How do we have compassion for people who no longer seem to know or care about us?

Life is just beginning.

“What would I have wanted to say if I had had the opportunity to see him one more time? I would like to think that I would have kept it simple and said, “I love you,” then just held his hand in silence, letting that thought linger in the space of the time we had left together.”
― Lisa J. ShultzA Chance to Say Goodbye: Reflections on Losing a Parent

 

 

 

Tommy:  A Boy for all Seasons

This is a story about my best friend in high school.  His name was Thomas Donnelly.  This story took place over fifty years ago.  I still think of the influence that these events have had on my life.  Many of you will be repelled by the story that I narrate.  If you can suspend your morality, you might be able to accept that the culture I grew up in made these events very normal even if you do not consider them to be moral.

Street Corner Gang

It happened one hot Saturday afternoon in the summer.  I was hanging out on our Manton street corner.  As with all Italian teenagers, we hung out in a certain geographic area and this association led to our identity as the “Manton Gang.”  Manton was a suburb of Providence R.I. and a primarily Italian neighborhood.  My father was Italian and my mother was Irish.  It was just the reverse for my best friend Tommy.  His mother was Italian and his father was Irish.  Nevertheless, anyone with Irish or Italian blood was accepted into our street corner gang.

At fourteen to eighteen years of age, few of us were interested in anything except gambling and sex.  Gambling tended to be a regular event on the corner where we hung out but sex was much more episodic.  Good Italian girls in the sixties still did not have sex outside of marriage.  This left us to find those “bad girls” whose discrimination did not tend towards marriage or even long-term love affairs and who were much less choosy in terms of selecting “affairs of the heart.”

1956_Ford_4-Door_Sedan

Tommy and I were sitting on the corner discussing nothing important when a blue and white 56 Ford four door Fairlane pulled up to the curb and started honking.  At first, we did not recognize anyone in the car.  Two guys were in the front seat and no one was in the back seat.  We finally recognized Dave and Bob.  Dave was an infrequent corner member but Bob was a regular.  We sauntered over to the car.  It was always important to look cool and nonchalant when we were growing up.  As we approached the open window on Dave’s side, he yelled out.  “Hey, you guys want to get laid?”

“What’s up” I said.  Dave replied, “Get in and I will tell you on the way.”  Both Tommy and I jumped in the back seat.  Bob already had shot gun.  Dave gunned the accelerator and off we went.  “Okay, so where are we going” asked Tommy.  Bob said, “Well, there is this chick and she is hot to go with anyone who comes over to her house.”  “You mean she will take all of us?  What’s wrong with her?” I wanted to know.  Bob continued, “Who knows.  She is just really open to more than one guy.”  “Well, where are her parents,” I persisted.   “She lives with her dad who is a police chief” said Dave.  “What, are you crazy” both Tommy and I said in synchrony.  “Don’t worry” said Bob, “her dad will not be home.”

new england houseThe idea of sex in our minds easily overrode any caution or concern about getting caught by her father.  We arrived at her house.  She lived out of town somewhat in Scituate which was a more rural area of R.I. in the sixties.  When we arrived, Bob said “I will go in first and check things out.  If it is okay, you guys can come in.  Bob went inside the small average looking New England Colonial house with two upper dormer windows and came out a few minutes later.  “OK guys” Bob said, “She is willing.”  We all trotted inside the house to the first room which was a kitchen with a small table and four chairs.  Dave, Tommy and I sat on the chairs and Bob headed up a small staircase.  “I will go first” said Bob “and Dave is next.  You and Tommy can decide who goes after Dave.”  “Oh”, said Bob, “her name is Barbara and she likes to be called Barb.”  No one challenged this order of affairs as it was taken for granted that since Bob had set this up, he had first dibs.

Bob went up the stairs while Dave, Tommy and I just sat and kibitzed.  I wondered what was in store for me when I went up the stairs.  Bob came down about twenty minutes later looking quite proud and content.  “She likes to talk a little before” said Bob, “so you have to be a little patient.  But be persistent and she will get on with it.”   It was Dave’s turn next and he wasted no time going up the stair case.  Sometime later Dave came down, also looking very proud and content.

Tommy and I decided that I would go next.  Up the staircase I went and into a small bedroom where I found Barb half-dressed and sitting on the edge of the bed.  She was a very attractive young girl of sixteen or seventeen years of age.  She had long brown hair and a small frame that was nicely curved.  She had a very pretty face and could easily have been a cheerleader.  She was probably about five feet four inches in height but it was somewhat difficult to tell as she was sitting cross legged on her bed.

sad girl on bed

I introduced myself.  We started some small talk and I learned that her mother had left her father some time ago and that she now lived alone with her dad.  She had no other siblings.  Her dad was very strict and would not let her date.  She said that he scared most of her friends away and was very difficult to live with.  I sensed that her escapades today were a chance for her to rebel against her father’s strict sexual codes.  She was willing to go all out and did not care about any side effects.  No birth control or sexual disease prevention even came up as an issue.

We small talked for about a half hour or so and I sensed that I had better get on with the action or she would talk forever.  A real man talks less than he acts and I had talked longer than most real men would have.  I started to lay Barbara down on the bed.  She put up no resistance and meekly laid back against the sheets.  I placed my body down over hers but before starting to remove any of our clothes, I gazed into her eyes.  They were brown and sad.  I stopped to think.  This poor girl is looking for someone to love her and does not really know how to go about it.  I would just be taking advantageous of her.  I can’t do this.  I lifted her back up and quietly left the room.  She never said a word to me and I left without another word.

Feeling very guilty, I walked back down the staircase.  I did not say much when I met Tommy.  Both Dave and Bob had gone back out to the car and were now playing cards in the front seat.  Hi Low Jack was a popular game on the corner and we played it for money whatever chance we had.  I said to Tommy, “It’s your turn.”  Tommy went up the staircase and returned about thirty minutes later.  We silently left the house and went out the front door to the car.  I never saw Barb or that house again.

guys in car

We piled back in the car with Dave and Bob.  There was some minor discussion about Barbara and how hot she was on the way back to the corner but most of it took place between Dave and Bob.  Neither Tommy or I said I word.  Truth be told, I would never have admitted to either Dave or Bob that I did not have sex with Barb.  Tommy and I were dropped back at the Manton Street corner where our friends all hung out and Dave and Bob drove off together.

Tommy and I sat in silence for a while.  I finally broke the silence and asked Tommy “well how did it go?”  Tommy looked very pensive and replied, “I did not do a thing with Barb except to talk to her.”  I was somewhat stunned as I figured that I had wimped out but that Tommy (who was one of the best-looking guys on the corner) would have scored a home run in sixty seconds flat.  I asked Tom “why?”  I did not tell him that I had also struck out.  At the time, that is how I felt.  Like a batter who comes up to the plate, takes three swings and strikes out.

Tommy quietly replied “I did not want to take advantage of her.  She was lonely and scared and needy.  She needed a friend more than she needed getting laid.”  I had felt the same way but many years ago, pride and ego would not allow me to admit that I had also not gone all the way with Barb.  I persisted with Tom “Well, what are you going to tell the other guys.”  Tom then replied with a statement that I have remembered all the rest of my life.  Tommy said, “I don’t care what they think, I have to live with myself.” 

Wisdom-knowing-font-b-Integrity-b-font-Decor-Cute-vinyl-wall-decal-font-b-quote-b

Over the years, I have lost touch with Tommy.  We have traveled very different roads.  Tommy became a minister and works with the poor.  I became an educator and management consultant.  Many years and many different philosophies now separate us.  But I will never forget the lesson that I learned from Tommy that one hot summer afternoon about integrity and being who we are called to be and not who the world wants us to be.

Time for Questions:

Why do I call Tom a “boy for all seasons?”  What does it mean to have integrity?  How do we go about developing integrity?  How do we increase our empathy for other people?  What does it mean to be ourselves?  Are people naturally good or evil?

Life is just beginning.

“That’s what Jamie didn’t understand: it was never just sex.  Even the fastest, dirtiest, most impersonal screw was about more than sex.  It was about connection.  It was about looking at another human being and seeing your own loneliness and neediness reflected back.  It was recognizing that together you had the power to temporarily banish that sense of isolation.  It was about experiencing what it was to be human at the basest, most instinctive level.  How could that be described as just anything?”  — Emily MaguireTaming the Beast

Jesus Got Fired Today!

poor and needyProduction Manager:  Jesus Christ, you are fired.  I have told you repeatedly that your job is to help us make a profit, not to take care of the sick and needy.  I am sorry but I am going to have to let you go.  I wish I could give you a good reference but you just don’t belong in the business world.

CIA Office Head:  Jesus Christ, you are fired.  What did I tell you about the need for secrecy and clandestine activities?  You just cannot get it through your head that we are all about lying and cheating and not about trying to help our fellow human beings.  I will have to let you go.  (Aside: “I may have to kill you as well because of what you know.”)  You just don’t have what it takes to be a good spy.

Head Pastor:  Jesus Christ, you are fired.  I kept telling you to stay away from talking about war and the foreign policy of the USA.  I also told you repeatedly that parishioners would not appreciate your lecturing to them on humility and charity.  You just don’t have what it takes to make a good preacher.  I suggest you find some other type of work.

Republican_JesusAdvertising Manager:  Jesus Christ, you are fired.  You can’t tell people the truth about our client’s products.  Your job was to make this stuff look good.  But no, you kept telling people the truth.  You are too honest and you will never make a good marketing person.  I suggest you find another outlet for your talents.

Government Bureaucrat:  Jesus Christ, you are suspended pending your union hearing.  This was your third warning about being creative and working too hard.  We had too many complaints from your fellow workers that instead of taking it easy, you were always looking for something to do.  You made the other workers in the division look bad.  You can’t work in the government because you don’t know how to fit in.

1 Week Later:

Employment Counselor:  It says here Jesus that you were fired from your last five jobs and that no one would recommend or rehire you.  It does not sound like much of a job record.  What do you have to say for yourself?

Jesus:  Well, I have always tried to do the best I can, help my fellow human beings and take care of the sick and needy.

Employment Counselor:  Do you have any experience in medicine or health care?  I don’t see any kind of a medical degree or anything that would qualify you to help others.

Jesus:  No, I never went to medical school.  My family was poor and we had no connections so I got rejected by all the schools that I applied to.

Employment Counselor:  Look Jesus, you may have pretentions to be a doctor or nurse, but you can’t go around helping other people without a degree or at least a certificate.

Jesus:  But my Father always told me that “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” — Luke 4:43

Employment Counselor:  Look Jesus, I can appreciate that you want to help others, but take it from me, that will not put bread on the table.

Jesus:   “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” — Matthew 4:4

Employment Counselor:  Okay, let’s not get into religion. That’s not going to help you to get a job.  Do you have any useful job skills or specific abilities that would help you to gain employment?

Jesus:  Well, my earthly father was a carpenter and I used to help him in the shop when I was young.

Employment Counselor: Do you have a union card in carpentry or belong to the union local?

Jesus:  No.

Employment Counselor:  Well, you can’t get a decent paying job in town here without a union affiliation.

Employment Counselor:  Have you ever done any cooking or cleaning?

Jesus:  Just to help my mom out once in a while with cleaning but my sisters always helped with the cooking.

Employment Counselor:  Well, maybe we could get you a job as a janitor’s assistant.  Do you have any physical problems with bending or climbing?

Jesus:  No, I have been in perfect health, but I don’t think I will be around much longer.

Employment Counselor:  What do you mean by that? You must remember that employers are looking for workers who will stay and be loyal to the company until they are fired or let go.

Jesus:  I have to sacrifice myself for others and I don’t have much time left.  I cannot promise that I will be around for say much more than three more years.

church notesEmployment Counselor:  Well, Jesus, if you were asked about your future plans and what you wanted to aspire to, could you maybe forget about the sacrifice thing and just talk about how hard you can work?

Jesus:  I would not tell a lie if I were asked.

Employment Counselor:  No, of course not.  Just don’t bring the subject up okay?  You do want to get a job don’t you?

Jesus:  “My kingdom is not of this world.” — John 18:36

Employment Counselor:  Jesus, you can have your kingdom wherever you want it but as long as you are looking for a job you have to be practical.

Jesus:  I have always taught my followers to be practical.

Employment Counselor:  Good, that is all I ask Jesus.  Well, let’s see. I think they have an opening at ACME Janitorial Services for a hard working cleaning assistant.  We can send you out for an interview tomorrow if that is all right?

Jesus:  But tomorrow is the Sabbath!

Employment Counselor:  Jesus, I thought you said you could be practical?

Jesus:  I am not supposed to do work on the Sabbath.  — Exodus 34:21

Employment Counselor:  Well, how about coming back to see me next week then Jesus.  I think we may need a little more time for your case.

Jesus:  Ok, I will come back next week.  Goodbye.  (Jesus leaves the office)

Employment Counselor:  (To no one in particular) whew, am I glad that guy is gone. I hope he does not come back.  What a pain.  He will really hurt my job placement figures this week.

Jesus Christ:  (Walking out of the building) “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” — Luke 23:34

Time for Questions:

Would you hire Jesus?  Why?  Would you hire him as your mentor or “Rabbi?”  Why?  If you were an employment counselor, what would you suggest Jesus do?  Do you think there is a place for Jesus in today’s world?  Do people really understand the message of Jesus or his “Good News?”  How many people follow this message?  Are you one of them?  Here is a quiz to see if you are:

  • Are you against capital punishment?
  • Do you condemn war as a means of diplomacy?
  • Do you turn the other cheek when someone does you wrong?
  • Do you think criminals deserve forgiveness too?
  • Are you willing to have society help the poor and needy?
  • Do you personally help the poor and needy?
  • Do you condemn greed and the other seven deadly sins?
  • Do you practice the 8 Beatitudes?

Life is just beginning:

“Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  — Steve Maraboli

Politics, Passions, Economics and Care Giving:  What is life really about?

Last week I turned 70 years old.  This was quite a milestone for a guy who once did not think there was any life beyond thirty.  This week, I attended the 52nd Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter Minnesota.   I would bet Minnesota has more towns named after saints than any other state or perhaps even country in the world.  One wonders why these early Scandinavians who settled in this area of the Midwest needed to pay so much homage to saints.  Knowing as many Lutherans as I do (My spouse belongs to this crazy cult of Christians) I would have thought that they would have named more cities after composers.  We should have dozens of cities with names like: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Praetorius, Vulpius, Schein, Schütz and of course Handel.  Is there a Lutheran who has not song the Halleluiah Chorus?  However, I digress.

Monday night this week, Karen and I watched the “Great Debate” live on Facebook or YouTube.  The debate featured the two presidential candidates for the USA in their first head to head confrontation.  The purpose of such debates is to demonstrate the candidates’ positions on key policy issues and to highlight their competency or lack of competency for the job.  However, everyone knew or expected that the debate might deal with everything from sex to gender and even past indiscretions of the candidate’s spouses.  The true wild card (besides Trump) was the moderator.  In the past, the moderators have been unable to control the debaters and this fault was even more egregious with Trump.  Thus this debate had the potential of a no-holds boxing much with no rules that would make an MMA (mixed martial arts) match look tame.

In round one, Hillary came out first and as Trevor Noah noted gave the first lie of the evening.  She said “Donald, it is good to be here with you tonight” or something like that.  The first round was tame with each candidate feeling the other out.  Like two boxers probing each other to see where the weak points were they were both careful to be courteous and to look presidential.

donald-trump-vs-hillary-clinton

Of course, as is now well known and thus shall not be endlessly repeated, the debate went downhill from there, as least as far as Trump was concerned.  If anyone thought that he could “stay on topic” or demonstrate an even rudimentary knowledge of policy and positions, I will be happy to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge.  His supporters must be either delusional or stupid.  Only sycophants or as we used to call them in school “ass kissers” like Giuliani and Christie would have thought that Trump looked anything but the sexist and bigot that he is.

Hillary won every round as Trump made a fool of himself in the following areas:

  • Appearing unprepared
  • Bragging about not paying taxes
  • Bragging about his bankruptcies being smart business
  • Continuing to insult women and call them names
  • Continually interrupting and shouting over the moderator and Hillary
  • Having no concrete plans or ideas that were practical or feasible

Subsequent polls now show Hillary back up by several points and Donald on the decline again.  However, it is too early to declare the game over as there are still too many people out there who flip flop every day and who seem to change their minds depending on which way the wind is blowing.

people-with-passion-can-change-the-world-for-the-better

People with Passion can Change the World for the Better

Traveling down to St. Peter on Tuesday to pick up my friend Vic who was going to the conference with me, I finished another one of the Great Courses by the Teaching Company.  This one was called “The Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions” by Professor Robert C. Solomon.  This was an audio course that you play in your car.  I have completed several of these now and the quality of these courses is very high.  The speakers are outstanding and the lectures are usually quite enthralling.  These courses make long trips much less tedious and as a bonus you learn something about life.  I learned about the importance of emotions and as opposed to my old idea that emotions (like Spock thought) were useless impediments in life.  I now appreciate how much they add to my life.  Life without emotions would be a world without color.

2016-logoOn Tuesday and Wednesday along with my good friend Vic Ward, I attended the 52nd Nobel Conference which was titled:  “In Search of Economic Balance.”  It featured many illustrious and highly respected economists such as:  Dan Ariely, Orley Ashenfelter, Paul Collier, Deirdre McCloskey, John List and several other well-known economists.  After every lecture, there was a panel discussion where the speaker and several of the other economists had a chance to discuss and interact.  Following these discussions, my friend and I debated, discussed and summarized what we thought were the most important points of each lecture.  I attended eight lectures, six panel discussions and numerous discussions each evening with Vic.

jims-apple-farmOn the way back from St. Peter, we stopped Jim’s Apple Farm when we saw a sign that said “Next exit, Minnesota’s largest candy store.”  I bought several treats for Karen and the guys at the library in Frederic. Jim’s lived up to its billing.  It may just be the largest candy store in the US. It is certainly the largest candy store I have ever been in.

I returned home late on Thursday and had a brief respite before traveling out again.  On Friday, Karen and I went to New Richmond to attend the 10th Annual Regional Caregivers Conference at the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College.  The theme this year was “Finding Hope, Humor and Heart in Caregiving.”  The keynote speaker was Elaine Sanchez, author and co-founder of Caregiverhelp.com.

Karen and I both attended Elaine’s keynote speech and then Karen went to a session on music therapy while I attended a session on “Coping with Anger and Guilt in Caregiving” that was also given by Elaine Sanchez.  I have to say that Ms. Sanchez was one of the best speakers I have ever heard in my life.  The major thrust of the conference this year was dealing with people who are getting old (Karen and I) and how to handle people with conditions such as Dementia, Delirium, Alzheimers and Depression with love and compassion.  My background as you might know has little to do with such medicine.  However, with Karen and I both passing the 7th decade of our lives, the future has an increasing probability that one or the other of us will sooner or later face a debilitating condition that will require the other of us to provide care and support.  Thus, the purpose of attending this conference was for us to better learn the basics of caregiving for the elderly.

2016-conference-banner-for-web_post-conference-version_thin-1024x248Karen having spent thirty years of her life in Home Health Care is much better grounded and infinitely more knowledgeable than I am in this area.  Many of the ideas in the conference sessions were basic for her but for me the opposite was true.  I had my eyes opened and many of my concepts about conditions such as Dementia have now been thrown out the window.  I cannot begin to describe how much I learned at this conference and how valuable the ideas were for me.

Perhaps even more important than the knowledge and theory I learned was the fact that Karen and I are both committed to continuing our journey through life together no matter what obstacles are thrown in our way.  Karen had a mammogram on Monday of this week and when we returned home from the conference on Friday, we found an envelope in the mail from the clinic.  The results were not entirely positive and she now has to go back to the clinic for some follow-up tests.  Karen’s mother died from breast cancer so this is a particularly threatening and scary area for her.  Each day seems to bring good news and bad news and a never ending challenge to stay positive in the face of the difficulties that growing old poses.  I am sorry to tell you but one does not grow old like fine wine at least in the physical domain and often not in the mental domain either.

The week is now coming to a close.  We have visitors from out of town today and Sunday may just be the first day this week where nothing is happening.  But looking back on the week, can anyone tell me what ties these conferences, debates and courses together?  What do the subjects of politics, economics, passions and care giving have in common?  Four seemingly very disparate themes, yet a common thread clearly run through all of them.  Like a mosaic or kaleidoscope, the more I journey through life, the more apparent the interconnectedness of all life is.

Donald Trump will soon be ancient history and like Joe McCarthy will be relegated to the garbage bin of American political life.  His supporters will disappear as the political landscape is placed back into a better equilibrium with life and nature.  Hillary Clinton will become the first woman in American history to be elected president.  The clown that called her a crook and liar will become a laughing stock and an embarrassment to the people that supported him.  Few people will admit that they voted for this bottom feeder.

Life will go on.  Baby Boomers will continue to age.  Many will suffer from some form of Dementia.  The major problem of American life will turn from dealing with economic issues to how we can take care of so many elderly people who have no money and cannot take care of themselves.  It is a question that politicians, economists and caregivers must all have passion about or we will have a national catastrophe of epic proportions.  If we do not pay attention to these issues, we will have a Great Depression but it will not be an economic depression but a Depression of Care and Love for our growing elders.

Time for Questions:

What did you do this week?  Was it a good week or a bad week for you? Did you learn anything new this week?  What did you learn?  Do you enjoy life or find it boring?

Life is just beginning.

I guess we have all heard that tired old bromide “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” but if it is not then what is it?  Today may not be the first day of life for some people, it may just be the last day.

 

Compassion:  The Sixth Most Important Virtue for a Good Life

Compassion is number six of my seven essential virtues for leading a happy and successful life.  Every Saturday I start my day with the following prayer:

  • Help me to be strong and kind in the face of adversity, attacks or injustice perceived and help me to always be Compassionate in dealing with others.

what is compassionCompassion is the most important of the seven virtues.  Compassion is just one stroke short of love.  Compassion leads to love but it takes some doing to get there.  The journey involves a number of steps each predicated on a trait or behavior that is uniquely human.  In this blog, I want to describe the journey to compassion and beyond to love.   Each step of the journey is a commitment to humanity.  If you do not care about others, you will not be interested in the journey.  Compassion is the opposite of narcissism.   A narcissist loves them-self.  A person with compassion loves others.  With a narcissist, it is “all about me.”  With a compassionate person, it is “all about them.”

5aHomeless-Corbis_435_290The journey starts with sympathy.  We think of sympathy as “feeling sorry for someone.”  It is the ability to have feelings for another person.  We see another person who looks hungry or unhappy or ill and we feel some sense of remorse or regret for the other person.  We might be distressed for them or we might simply be glad that we are not in their shoes.  A part of us hurts or aches for the other person, but we do not identify with them on a deeper level.  Our sorrow goes no further than to perhaps wonder what had befallen them to bring such misery.

“Sympathy is feeling bad for someone else because of something that has happened to them.”

compassion two childrenOur next step in our journey to compassion takes understanding.  We need to try to understand others and to put ourselves in their shoes.  We must avoid separation and thinking that we are so different from others.  We must avoid judging others.  When you couple understanding with sympathy, you have taken the next step.  You have now arrived at empathy.  To have empathy for others, is to combine sympathy and understanding.  You are sorry for those who are less well-off then you are, but you do not separate yourself from them and instead you seek to find the common ground that links you to the other person.  Sympathy involves the heart.  Empathy involves both the heart and the mind.

“I always think that if you look at anyone in detail, you will have empathy for them because you recognize them as a human being, no matter what they’ve done.” — Andrea Arnold

By the way, not everyone thinks empathy is a good thing.  Paul Bloom, psychologist and Yale professor, argues that empathy is a bad thing—that it makes the world worse. While we’ve been taught that putting yourself in another’s shoes cultivates compassion he says it actually blinds you to the long-term consequences of your actions.  He blames empathy for war and many other social injustices.  You can see his argument for his case against empathy at:  “Against Empathy.”   This is a short 3 minute video where Bloom makes his case.  I personally think his case is fraught with logical fallacies and unproven assumptions.  However, I suppose the fact that he is a Yale professor will sway many people.   

we must actThe next step in our journey is action.  All of the empathy in the world will not make a difference if we do not take action.  Empathy + Action = Compassion.  Compassion is the way we make a difference to others.  Jesus said “Feed my sheep.”  He did not say to just take pity on them or to simply have empathy for them.  Empathy by itself does not clothe the poor, feed the hungry or help the weak.  We must make action and doing a part of our empathy for others.  This is true compassion.

africanamericanwomenAs I said before, compassion is the opposite of narcissism.  Compassion is about what you can do and will do and are doing for others.  There are many stories of compassion.  Hollywood, novelists, ministers and pastors of all stripes will tell us story after story of compassion.  We hear these stories and are touched.  We sympathize and empathize with the victims in these stories.  But are we moved to take action?  Unless we take action to help others, we can never get to true compassion or love.  But love goes beyond compassion.  Love entails pro-active measures to care for others.

Compassion + Pro-Action = Love

Compassion can involve two types of action.  It can entail reaction or pro-action.  Compassion that is reactive takes place when you see a need and do something about it.  However, there is still a final step in the journey.  Love is our ultimate destination. When you love others, you do not wait to be asked or wait until the need is apparent.  When you love, you are pro-active.  You reach out before you are asked.  You seek for those that need help and you do not simply wait for them to arrive or show up on your door step.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” — John 15:13

I can recall a situation where I once had a friend in need.  I called Mike up and asked him if there was anything I could do for him and he said “No, he was ok.”  A thought I was doing a very fine thing by being pro-active and asking if Mike needed any help.  A short time late, I found that another friend (Bob) had gone over and actually rendered some assistance to Mike.  I asked Bob how this came about as I noted that I had called Mike and he said he did not need any help.  Bob replied: “Yeah, he told me the same thing, but I did not believe him.  Mike will never ask for help.”

acts of loveBob’s actions made a great impact on me, since I had seldom gone further in my life than either waiting to be asked for help or sometimes asking others if they needed help.  It would never have occurred to me to just show up and help.  Perhaps, you might think as I had that simply showing up and helping someone is going too far.  However, think about yourself.  Would you really ask others for help?  I know I probably would not.  Pitching in to help when not asked may not always be warranted but I now see it as something worth endeavoring to do more often than not.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”  — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I did not include love as one of my several greatest virtues.  This was no accident.  Many writers have described love much more adequately than I have.  The Greeks over two thousand years ago described four types of love.  Love has been the subject of more novels, poems and songs than there are stars in the sky.  We are constantly bombarded by the use of the word love.  How many times have you been told “I love you” by some relative or perhaps friend who seldom goes any further than their admission of love for you?

I am skeptical of love for two reasons.  First, I am still not sure I know what it is.  Second, I hear the word used so often that I doubt anyone else really knows what it is either.  If everyone in our world who was professing love really loved, I cannot believe we would have the wars and violence and cruelty that we see every day on the TV and in the papers.  I think “true love” probably exists but I do think it is practical for my daily journey through life.  It is one of those things that like happiness we probably do not seek but it finds us.

free sandwiches for the homelessI think compassion is a much more useful and practical virtue for my life.  I can deal with compassion and I can be more compassionate if I really aspire to.  I am not sure I can be more loving.  I have a hard time “loving” others whom I dislike or who do unkind things to people I do like.  I more often “love” others who think and act like I do.  I may be taking the easy way out, but if I can be more compassionate to others and if someday I am thought of as a compassionate person, this will be enough for me.  If you are further along in your journey through life, then you should consider including love as one of your “most” important virtues.  No one will be a worse person for it.  For me today, compassion for others is enough of an effort.

Time for Questions:

 Are you a compassionate person?  Do you have compassion for strangers as well as friends and relatives?  Can you be compassionate towards people of different ethnicity, philosophies, religions and political ideologies?  What makes you a compassionate person?

Life is just beginning.

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you.  If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”  ― Barack Obama

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kindness:  The Fourth Most Important Virtue for a Good Life

sharing-ice-cream-kids_fKindness is number four of my seven essential virtues for leading a happy and successful life.  Every Thursday I start my day with the following prayer:

  • Help me to understand the hearts as well as the minds of others and to be kind to all in word and deed.

 I confess I do not always separate hearts and minds very well.  I have a great respect for affairs of the mind but I often have much less respect for affairs of the heart.  I grew up with an understanding that logic, rational thinking and knowledge were the greatest attributes of a human being.  Compassion, sympathy and kindness were emotions that I thought would only get in the way of intellectual reasoning.  I thought Spock was hopelessly emotional despite his ability to calculate odds to a thousandth of a percent.  Spock often let his feelings get the best of him and I was disappointed with his resulting behavior.  Besides, if logic was most important, then why was Spock not Captain of the Enterprise instead of that emotional unpredictable volatile and childish Kirk.  What Captain in his right mind would leave a ship full of hundreds of crew people to go gallivanting around on the surface of some unknown planet as Kirk did every week?

2014-07-28-KindnesstoYouisKindnessThere were few heroes when I was growing up who could measure up to my standards for clear and unemotional thinking.  I grew up with a father who demanded toughness.  My father’s motto was not to “get even” but to “get one up.”  If someone hit me, he taught me to make sure that they would never think of hitting me again.  My father was 6’ 4” tall and had been a professional boxer with a 21 and 3 record.  He taught me fighting skills at a very young age.  My neighborhood taught me to disregard the “rules of boxing” and to fight with whatever I had to win.  I could easily protect myself and few people would bother me.  Somehow, I became a protector for those kids who were less aggressive and who were picked on by the ever pervasive bullies. I kicked more bullies asses then I can count.  I was always proud to help the underdog.  Paradoxically, these traits did not make me more compassionate but made me harder and tougher.

NoActOfKindnessThrough hardness and toughness I began to forge a wall that nothing could get through.  Sentiments, compassion and empathy were increasingly blocked out by my need to be tough and to not take any shit from anyone or the world.  Each episode where toughness prevailed was another brick that helped to build my wall higher and higher.  I never thought I would get married but after getting my first wife pregnant, I “did the right thing” and married her.  It was the manly thing to do.  My dad had always taught me to take responsibility for my actions and my baby Chris was a direct result of my actions.

acts-of-kindness37One day we were in a grocery store just before Christmas.  An apparently legless man pushing himself along on some kind of a wheeled board was inside the grocery looking for some money.  I walked by him with Julie (my first wife) and ignored him.  My wife turned back and started to give him some money and I said:  “Shit, don’t give him any money, he can probably outrun me.  I will bet he is just a fakir.”  She gave him the money anyway and replied “What if he is not?”  I never forgot that comment.  I am not sure why my first wife married me.  She once said that she thought all people had feelings and emotions until she married me.  We subsequently divorced but I have to say that I probably owe my life to my first wife.  She cared for me when I was suicidal and she always looked after me when I was hurt or needed help.  Through her, I began to see what compassion and kindness were.  This journey has continued with my second wife Karen who is one of the most considerate and most compassionate spouses anyone could have.  Every day I learn something about kindness from her.

Kindness for someone like me could not happen as long as the wall was up.  I can’t lie and say there is no wall anymore.  I am not overly sentimental.  I don’t like chick flicks and I will gladly enact retribution on anyone who tries to hurt anyone or anything I value.  I love Jesus for turning the other cheek and as they say “I can see where he is coming from.”  However, it is not where I am coming from and I don’t think I will get to where Jesus went.

I can say that I have tried and am trying to be a better person and to me this means a more humane and more compassionate person.  I constantly remind myself of the quote:

“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau

As time goes by, I have seen many of my friends become entrenched in fear and uncertainty and an increased caution in living their lives.  This almost seems to be a disease of aging.  Its symptoms are fear of minorities, distrust of immigrants, intolerance towards other religions and an antipathy towards other nations.   G. B. Shaw said that “If you are not a socialist when you are young, you have no heart but if you are not a conservative when you are old then you have no brain.”

acts-of-kindness36I disagree with Shaw.  I am getting older and I still respect and uphold the values of our Founding Fathers, but I refuse to live in a gated community or allow a homeowners association to tell me what color holiday lights to put up.  I am not a believer in mincing words but I respect the rights of minorities and anyone else to be referred to as they want to be referred to.  I respect the rights of Indians to have their ancestor’s graveyards not dug up for commercial or even academic reasons and I respect their rights not to be depicted as silly mascots for some college team.   Trump and his supporters believe the US has become too PC.  They blame minorities for this.  They would like to live in a land where it is ok to call a Black person a nigger since we call Italians wops and French frogs.  A Black person they say has a double standard or we apply a double standard for Blacks and Whites.  The bottom line of all this double talk is not too much PC but a lack of empathy and compassion and kindness towards others.

cop_homeless_manYes, there are extremists who want to take Huckleberry Finn out of the library just like there were Popes that knocked the genitals off of statues in Rome.   But if you have any empathy or even the slightest understanding of culture and history, you will be less apt to say “My father didn’t own any slaves.”  That is a little like replying to a woman who was raped “Well, I did not do it.”  To which I can now hear someone replying, “Yes, but no Black people alive today were slaves, so why should they be so upset?”  Yes indeed, why should they be so upset?  If you are serious about looking at a reason, please regard the following article:

These ten charts show the black-white economic gap hasn’t budged in 50 years — By Brad Plumer August 28, 2013

“Arrested progress in the fight against poverty and residential segregation has helped concentrate many African Americans in some of the least desirable housing in some of the lowest-resourced communities in America,” the EPI report notes.

And those poorer neighborhoods have a way of perpetuating inequality, the report points out: “Poor black neighborhoods also have environmental hazards that impact health. A very serious one is higher exposure to lead, which impedes learning, lowers earnings, and heightens crime rates. While rates of lead exposure have been declining for all races, African American children continue to have the highest exposure rate.”

The economic and social conditions depicted in this article would be unacceptable if they pertained to White people and you can bet there would be a real “War on Poverty” if they did.

Caring about Black people.  Caring about minorities.  Caring about people living in poverty.  Caring about immigrants.  Caring about the hungry and sick.  This is what kindness is about.  It is not about some esoteric concept of doing good or being PC or being a patriot.

Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  —- Matthew 19:21

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  — Mark 8:36

I have learned that you cannot show kindness by being hard and tough.  Being hard and tough means taking care of yourself at the expense of other people. You can be a rich business person and that does not make you a good person.  Some of the richest people in the world have realized this truth and have become philanthropists who are now more focused on giving to the world rather than taking back.  Bill Gates and Warren Buffett come to mind.  Consider the record of Donald Trump as noted in the article:  “Donald Trump: The Least Charitable Billionaire in the World.”

“Although Donald Trump has described himself as an “ardent philanthropist,” he has only donated $3.7 million to his own foundation. In comparison, a wrestling company has given Trump’s foundation $5 million. He ranks among the least charitable billionaires in the world.” — Ben Davis

kindness-ivThe people that we will remember in our lives and who make the most impact on our lives are not the rich and famous.  They are the people who most cared about us and looked after us.  They were kind and loving towards us and somehow showed that we meant something to them and to the world.  They may have been our fathers or mothers or an aunt or teacher or perhaps a close friend.  How much money they had or how successful they were did not make a difference to us.  Indeed, what they gave us could not have been purchased by money.  Money doesn’t touch us but kindness does.

Time for Questions:

How kind are you to other people?  Are you kind to strangers as well as friends?  Are you kind to the poor and needy?  Do you try to spread compassion and empathy in the world?  If not, what gets in your way?

Life is just beginning.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” — Plato

“Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” ― Mark Twain

“My religion is very simple.  My religion is kindness.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
 

 

 

 

The Seven Greatest and Most Important Virtues for Humanity

christian_virtueI thought I would start the year of 2016 off with a positive slant.  Namely, some things we can all do or practice to be better people.  However, before anyone should pay any attention to what I am about to say, there are several questions they must ask themselves.  I would advise you that the veracity and hence credibility of an author is critical to your acceptance of what the author is trying to sell you or convince you of.  Do not buy an argument from someone who cannot be trusted.  Think about the comment that “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  An uncritical acceptance of any idea is dangerous to your own integrity and responsibility.  Hence, the questions I would want answered (If I were you) would be as follows:  Who is this writer to say what the “greatest” virtues for a human are?  How did he come up with these Seven Virtues?  What is the difference between a virtue and a value?  Is this an important difference or is he about to sell me another new religion?

Taking each question as noted, who am I?  What credibility do I bring to the subject? 

The-Virtue-ContinuumI would like to answer that I am a seeker of truth and knowledge.  I am very opinionated, often highly judgmental and have frequently been accused of being a “know it all.”  Many people would write my opinions off as being too liberal while others would say that I am too rationale.  I place great value on being logical and trying to stay open to many possibilities.  I have been studying philosophy and religion since I was eighteen.  I have no degrees in either.  But the number of books and stories I have read number in the hundreds.  I have attended many different worship houses and types of religious services.  I was brought up as a Catholic until I rejected its teachings at about the age of 10.  When no one would give me a good answer for “Who made God?” I more or less decided that most religions were based on superstitions.

I continue to read and study and write in the hope and belief that continuous learning is critical to living a good life.  As Socrates noted “An unexamined life is not worth living.”  I want to examine all aspects of existence.  From good to evil, from logical to emotional, from predictable to unpredictable, I want to understand and comprehend all of the mysteries of the universe.  Nevertheless, I am not trying to be omnipotent nor do I think that anyone can or will ever understand all that the universe holds.  The quest is the thing, but the results of the journey are very important.  My goal is to dream the impossible dream.  I am dedicated to the idea that truth and knowledge will bring me closer to being able to live this “impossible” dream.  As the song notes:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star (From Man of La Mancha (1972) music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion)

How did I derive these Seven Virtues?

In all honesty, seven is a good number for any set of factors since most humans can only remember between five to nine random numbers. Seven is the mean for a large proportion of the human race in terms of memory capacity.  Hence, we see many cultures have used seven as a sort of magic number for deriving sets of values, ideas, virtues, and even mundane things like phone numbers and license plate numbers.

virtues_listGiven that one could easily comprise a list of ten or perhaps one hundred important virtues, why do I believe that my seven are the seven greatest and most important?  I was sitting under an apple tree one day, or perhaps simply thinking about life at one of my yearly silent retreats at the Demontreville Retreat Center, when I compiled a list of seven values that I wanted to live by.  Each day for the last ten years, I have selected one of these seven values to help guide me through the day.  Whether it is patience, kindness or courage, each day I start by reflecting on this value and trying a little more to make it a part of my life.  Recently, I have changed my concept from value to virtues.  While I truly value these ideas, I have begun to understand them now more as virtues than values.  I will address this issue more later.

How does my list compare to other lists?  One of the most famous lists of seven virtues is the Catholic Hierarchy of Virtues.  The top three in the Catholic Hierarchy are Faith, Hope and Love.  Of these, my list includes Faith and Love, though I use the term compassion rather than love. The next four in the Catholic Hierarchy are justice, wisdom, moderation and courage.  My list includes courage but not wisdom, justice or moderation.  This is not to say that I do not think these are important, but my list is based on feelings more than knowledge.  This is somewhat ironic since I believe that knowledge and wisdom are two of the keys to understanding life.  However, like the adage goes “What wisdom is there that is greater than kindness?”  Comparing my list to the Catholic list, I realize that I am emphasizing feelings over thinking.  I am emphasizing the heart over the brain and love over logic.  Thus, my list of seven virtues includes the following:

  • Gratefulness
  • Forgiveness
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Faith,
  • Compassion
  • Courage

Over the next few months, I will present each of these as virtues and explain why they are important and how we can go about integrating them in our lives. I believe we will all live better lives if we are living a life based on virtue.

What is the difference between a Virtue and a Value?  Is it important?

I would like to include the following excerpt from an article by Iain T. Benson called “Values and Virtues:  A Modern Confusion.”

“Now George Grant, the Canadian philosopher, whom I mentioned a while ago, made this point in an important comment on a CBC radio program a few years ago.  Here is what he said, “values language is an obscuring language for morality, used when the idea of purpose has been destroyed. And that is why it is so widespread in North America.” In North America, we no longer have any confidence that there are any shared purposes for human life. We don’t. It is that dramatic. Consequently, we cannot order any human action towards an end, because all means are related to ends.” 

Looking at the Oxford Dictionaries definitions of these two terms will also shed some light on the differences.

  • Virtue is defined as follows:
  1. Behavior showing high moral standards: paragons of virtue
  2. Quality considered morally good or desirable in a person: patience is a virtue
  3. A good or useful quality of a thing: Mike was extolling the virtues of the car
  • Value is defined as follows:
  1. The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something: your support is of great value
  2. The material or monetary worth of something: prints seldom rise in value equipment is included up to a total value of $500
  3. The worth of something compared to the price paid or asked for it: at $12.50 the book is a good value

I think it is easy to see from these definitions that a value is generally something we attach to a product or service.  A virtue is more often attached to a behavior or character trait.  We value things, while we practice virtues.  A man or woman may be virtuous but we would not say they are “valuous”, in fact the word does not even exist.  We might say they were valuable, but then we would probably not be talking about their character but addressing their instrumental worth to us.  Therefore, I have labeled these critical seven behaviors as virtues.

-The-12-Lakota-Virtues-native-pride-33907515-700-630The danger in this discussion lies in your taking a sectarian or religious approach to my writings.  I assure you that I am not a religious person.  I may be a spiritual person but I do not think of myself in either of these categories.  I am an agnostic who wants to live a better life and help make a contribution to make the world a better place to live for future generations.  Living by these seven virtues is one way I believe I can contribute to this goal.  My Vision for my life is “To live a healthy useful and wise life.”  My Mission is “To live one day at a time.  To be the best person I can be each day and to do the best I can each day to do good for the world.”   I hope I sometimes achieve at least some of these goals.

virtue is doing itIf I have satisfactorily answered the questions that I posed above respecting my integrity and credibility, I will now set off to address each of my Seven Virtues and explain why they are so important and the difference I think they can make in our lives.  Look for my virtues over the next few months in my blogs.  I often get sidetracked and will probably not do one each week but I will complete all seven.

Time for Questions:

What do you think of my list of seven?  What would you change?  Do you have your own list that you live by?  Why or why not?

Life is just beginning.

Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.  — Buddha

 

 

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