Finding Fame, Fortune and Success:  Paths to Misery or Happiness?

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I have adapted an Osho (A noted Indian Mystic and Guru) story as follows:

Once upon a time there was a young boy named Vince who lived in Minnesota.  Every weekend when his chores around the farm were done, Vince would take his canoe out to one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes with his best friend and they would spend the afternoon fishing.  Somethings they would catch crappies, sometimes bluegills, sometimes even a walleye.  Sometimes they would not catch a single fish.  Striking out did not bother them one bit.  They were content just to be out on the lake together on a beautiful Minnesota summer day.

They would sit in the canoe casting their rods and talking about many things.  They would talk about school, parents, girls, and sports.  Often they would share their dreams and talk about what they wanted to be and do when they grew up.  One day Vince saw a large jet airliner going over head.  As he looked at the plane he said, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.  I want to be an airline pilot and fly all over the world. That is my dream.”

Years passed and Vince followed his dream.  He became an airline pilot for what was then Northwest Airlines.  Later, like many other airlines they merged and became United Airlines.  Vince was a lead pilot for a jumbo passenger jet.  He flew numerous routes that took him all over the world.  He flew to China, Japan, England, France, and many other places.  He was one of the best pilots that Northwest had.

Twenty or so very busy years passed.  One day Vince had a flight that took him back to Minnesota.  He started from Paris, flew over the Great Lakes and was coming down from Northern Minnesota to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport.  As his plane began the descent into the airport, he looked out the left side of the plane and noticed two young boys in a canoe fishing on a lake.  The scene brought back many happy memories to Vince and his eyes started to mist up.  He asked his co-pilot to take control for a minute while he cleared his eyes.  His co-pilot asked Vince if there was anything wrong.  Vince replied, “No, nothing wrong.  Just saw something that reminded me of my past.  One day I dreamed that I would be a pilot.  Now I dream that I am back on that lake with my best friend again.”

There is an old saying that goes “Be careful of what you ask for, you might get it.”  Of course, no one pays any attention to this bit of wisdom.  Imagine all the people who buy lottery tickets each day.   Now try to imagine any of them saying, “I better be careful, or I might win the lottery.”  We all want fame, fortune, and success.  We set goals that force us to live in the future and we forget how to live in the present.  Osho says that we can never be happy unless we can be happy for no reason at all.

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Some of you have read the story about my six friends and I who put together a “last man standing bottle” ten years ago.  Ken made a case for the bottle.  Jerry bought a name plate for the bottle with each of our names and birthdates engraved on it.  I bought a bottle of 120 proof Old Grandad while on one of my trips to Bardstown, Kentucky.   Ken and Brian have since died.  There are five of us left.  Jerry is the youngest at 74 and Dick is now the oldest at 81.

Jerry was put on hospice care about eight months ago.  I have been to visit him several times and he has joked about going to hospice care too soon.  Doctors had told him that he had only a few months to live.  Jerry has outlived their original estimates.  Friday afternoon, I received a call from Dick who had recently called Jerry.  Jerry is not doing well, and the charge nurse told Dick that Jerry would probably not make it through the weekend.  I have been wanting to stay away from any medical facilities due to the recent Covid surge, but I decided to mask up and go see Jerry.

I arrived at the clinic and was told I could make a compassion visit, but general visitors were not allowed.  I was advised to go to the main desk and see if it was okay with the unit for me to come down.  I received an approval and headed down to Jerry’s room.  The nurse on the unit met me at the door.  She knocked on the door to Jerry’s room but did not receive any response.  She went into the room and Jerry was asleep.  She woke him up and informed him that he had a visitor.

I walked into the room and Jerry was not looking very good.  He could barely open his eyes or even move.  His body was bloated, and his skin had dark splotches all over his chest, stomach, arms, and legs.  I said hi and he replied, “Hi John.”  I told him that the coffee guys (some of whom are on the “Last Man Standing” bottle) all said hi and that they wished him well.  This was somewhat of a fib.  Truth be told, Jerry was not well liked among some of the guys.  He seemed to enjoy making fun of and humiliating other people.  Over the years, this took a toll among the men.  Not many of them cared enough about Jerry to make a visit to see him.

Jerry had few friends.  I tried to be a friend to Jerry, but it never seemed to be requited.  I called him.  Visited him often at his home.  Helped him with a garage sale.  Took him to some medical appointments in the Twin Cities.  Invited him out to dinner several times and each year when I got back from Arizona, Karen and I made a point of having him over for dinner.  Not once did I ever remember Jerry returning any of my calls, stopping by to visit or even saying “Thank You” for anything I ever did for him.  Nevertheless, while I stopped the frequency of my visits with Jerry, I never gave up on him entirely.

This day, it was clear that it would be my last visit to Jerry.  I felt sad for Jerry.  He never had much.  The paradox was that he was one of the most intelligent men I have ever met.  Before his illnesses, Jerry was an avid reader who could discuss many of the great writers with exceptional insights.  Sadly, as his disease progressed, he read less and less and eventually gave up reading entirely.

I asked Jerry a few questions about his sister and other visitors.  Something I said elicited the reply, “Now and forever, mumble, mumble, mumble.”  “Jerry, I could not hear the last part of that.  You said, ‘Now and forever’ and something else.  Could you repeat it?”  Jerry replied, “Now and forever, all I ever wanted was a little attention.”  I was somewhat surprised at his comment.  I left a short time later.  I doubt I spent more than 15 minutes with Jerry the whole time.  I gave him some water and asked if he needed a nurse.  He was barely awake, but he declined any offers for help.  I told him goodbye.  I did not want to imply that it would be goodbye forever so I included the comment that I would be back after I returned from my vacation, and I would stop in to see him again.  I do not think this will ever happen.

I thought about Jerry’s comment on my way home.  Was his comment about “now and forever” some sort of delirium or was he actually reflecting on a core component of his life.  Was Jerry’s obnoxiousness and insults simply a way for him to get attention?  At this late stage in his life, was he lamenting his inability to get the attention that he so desperately desired?

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I began to wonder if a need for attention is the primary reason that most of us want fame, fortune, and success.  Rich people, famous people, celebrities all get more attention than the average person.  Think about all of the school shooters that you have heard of.  It seems that the main purpose for their rampages is attention.  There are many people who fiercely desire their five minutes of fame even if it means they get it by anti-social efforts.

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The irony is that fame, fortune, and success never bring happiness.  The more of these things you get, the more you want.  More is never enough.  More of things never satisfies.  Then the day inevitably comes when you are no longer famous.  Your money no longer buys you attention.  Your success is no longer newsworthy.  Your fame now evaporates like the morning mist.  Can you point to anyone whose fame and fortune brought them happiness?  We are brainwashed into thinking that wealth, fame, and success are stepping stones to happiness.  If only I am noticed and get attention from others, I will be happy.

To be honest, I am much like the person who buys the lottery ticket.  I have never had fame, fortune, or great success.  I have never been a great student, a prize-winning athlete, a rich business owner or won any medals or awards.  Years ago, I read all the books I could get my hands on to teach me how to be rich, famous, and successful.  Despite all my learning and education, I never rose above being an average guy with an average income and an average life.

Perhaps, I should be more grateful.  Perhaps, I have been very lucky. I have had a great life.  I have traveled widely.  I have many friends.  I married a wonderful woman and I have always been able to pay my bills.  What would my life have been like if I had become rich and famous?  My thoughts tell me that I would never have lived as happy a life as I can now point to.

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However, telling myself that is a little like someone telling me that I should be glad that my lottery ticket did not win.  Somewhere inside me is a yearning for the attention and admiration that I feel fame and fortune would bring me.  Something inside me desires to someday be “above” average.  I want to be on center stage and have all the spotlights on me.  I want to read in the morning papers, how great and talented I am.  John “The New Mark Twain.”

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I try to counter the above negative thoughts by reminding myself that I am really blessed.  I can walk down the street, and no one notices me.  I have enough money to be comfortable but not have to deal with hundreds of people who want more money from me because they think that I am rich.  I have a loving wife who I am sure loves me for who I am and not for my money or looks.  I have seen the world without a body guard.  I am healthy and would not trade my health for all the money in the world.

My takeaway from my visit to Jerry is how much I wish that I could have left him with the five minutes of attention that he wanted.  The saddest part about Jerry’s life is that he could never let go of this need.  He acted as though by being cantankerous and il-tempered he would satisfy this need.  I think it cost him a great deal of the happiness that was always there for his taking.  We all respected his intellect and admired his reasoning abilities.  Each of us in our own way tried to overlook his insults and criticism.  It is tragic that he never realized how much his talents really meant to the rest of us.  We all knew that Jerry was one of a kind.

PS:  

Jerry died early this morning on the 13th of September in the year 2021.  If there is an afterlife, I hope Jerry finds the happiness, attention and recognition that he sought.  This is one of mine and Jerry’s favorite pictures.  Jerry had a great sense of humor.  He and Wilma posed for this picture at his garage sale a number of years ago.  It is of course a take off on the classic American Gothic.  Jerry liked it so much, he blew it up and kept a picture by his bedside.  This is how I want to remember Jerry.  A man of intelligence and humor.  

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The Man Who Wanted to Die Last

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Most men I know when you start talking about death and dying usually say that they hope they die before their partner.  The motive is quite obvious.  Who wants to be alone.  There is almost nothing worse than loneliness for human beings.

Now imagine spending forty or fifty years living with someone.  You eat together, sleep together, travel together, make love together, raise children together, work together, talk together, and laugh together.  This goes on for year after year.  In a happy marriage or partnership, the relationship is one of joy and delight.

269318614.galleryNow suddenly your partner for one reason or another is gone.  She or he passes away.  You come back to your home after the funeral and well-wishers have left, and you are now alone.  You are more alone than you have ever been in your entire life.  You go from room to room and no one else is there.  The bedroom is empty.  The kitchen is empty.  The living room is empty.  You notice the picture of you and your spouse at your anniversary party hanging on the wall.  It brings back memories and tears.  Every day for many days, objects, thoughts, and reflections will bring back good times and bad times that you shared with your lover.  You will reflect over and over again about these past times.  No doubt you will feel remorse about some things that you did and wish you could undo.  You will also miss the fun things that you enjoyed together and the many good times that you had together.

The above scenario is very sad.  But there is one way you can avoid it.  You can pray that you pass away before your spouse or partner or loved one does.  Leave the planet earth sooner than they do and avoid the pain and heartache that comes with the death of your beloved.  This is the solution that I have hoped for many times.  I have always planned to leave my wife financially well off so that when I do go to the vast beyond, she can continue to live a happy life.  I thought this sounded like a grand plan until the following incident occurred.  It left me feeling selfish and self-centered.

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It all began with a mission retreat that Karen and I started going on several years ago.   A good friend organizes the trip twice a year to bring food and needed items to an orphanage in Sonoita, Mexico and a Saint Vincent de Paul center in Puerto Penasco, Mexico.  We have as many as 15 cars in an auto caravan bringing items down.  Volunteers from Casa Grande, Eloy, and Arizona City (many from local churches as well as friends of Evelia) will join the caravan each year.  We typically leave on a Friday and come back on a Monday.  While down in Mexico, we stay at Puerto Penasco and enjoy the beach, ocean, and seafood for a few days before coming back across the border.

IMG_5379Each evening after dinner, we enjoy food, dancing, and music at the Playa Bonita restaurant.  It is right on the beach and while enjoying shrimp cocktails, we watch the most beautiful sunsets I have seen anywhere.  As night falls, a band or singer will begin entertaining our group.  Evalia loves to dance and will make sure that we all have a spin with her on the dance floor.  The dance floor is outside where we eat.  Almost always the weather is balmy and comfortable.  Infrequently one might need a shawl or a sweater but an active time on the dance floor will mitigate any night chills.

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One night after dinner and drinks, three of us, Steve, Alexandro, and myself decided to go sip some tequila and smoke some cigars where it would not impose on anyone’s sense of smell.  We typically go out to the back of the restaurant.  There are a few round tables there and it is quite secluded.

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Steve is Evelia’s son, and he often comes on the mission tours.  He is a real nice guy who was studying to be a deacon in the Catholic Church.  He married an Italian woman who is a medical doctor but after several years of trying she has been unable to acquire a permanent work visa for the USA.  Steve and Julia now reside in two countries.  Steve in the USA and Julia in Italy.  They reunite frequently in either Italy or the USA.  I think it is Steve’s plan to eventually join Julia in Italy.  Steve owns a management consultant firm and does not want to retire yet.

I had never met Alexandro before.  This was his first time on a mission retreat, and I never saw him again after this night.  We did some brief introductions, shared the bottle of tequila, and lit our cigars.  We chatted about the usual subjects, politics, wives, sports etc.   As the conversation became deeper and more serious, we started talking about aging and the impacts it was having on each of our lives.

Alexandro told us that his wife was an invalid and severely disabled.  She required considerable medical care.  He was the primary caregiver as they had no provision for medical assistance in the home.  It was evident form our conversation that Alexandro spent a large amount of time and effort in providing compassionate care for his wife.

I began thinking about how much love we all seemed to have for our spouses.  I started thinking about what I would do without Karen who provides so much compassion for me when I am sick or when I need support.  I could not imagine a life without her.  I stated emphatically that I hoped I did not ever have to deal with a life alone.  It was my desire to die first to avoid the pain of heartache and loneliness.

Alexandro spoke up and his words surprised me.  He said, “I hope my wife dies first.”  I could not believe what I had just heard.  My immediate thought was “What a selfish bastard!  He wants his wife to die before he dies so that he will not have to take care of her anymore or deal with her problems.”  I remained silent for a minute or so while I wondered how any person could be so heartless.  My curiosity finally got the better of me and I asked Alexandro “Why do you want your wife to die first?”  He replied “My wife needs so much care and there is no one else around who could provide enough care for her.  I do not want to think of her alone and without me to provide the care.”

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I heard Alexandro’s explanation and suddenly I was inundated by a tsunami of guilt and an earthquake of self-reproach.  How could I have thought so miserably of a man with so much character that he would sacrifice himself for his spouse?  On the other hand, how could I be so selfish that all I could think of was that I wanted to die first to avoid the feelings of loneliness and heartache that accompany the death of a loved one.

I sat speechless for quite a while as I reflected on my thoughts about what I had just heard.  Never before had I heard anyone say anything like Alexandro did.  It never occurred to me that my life and my feelings are not the hub of the universe.  The sun does not rise and set by how I feel or how I should feel.  “Compassion literally means “to suffer together.”  When we are confronted with the suffering of another, it means that we will take steps to help relieve that suffering.  Perhaps suffering for another person may not mean dying for them, perhaps it means living for them.

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The Legitimization of Greed

 

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Let me start off with some major caveats.  First, greed has always been with us.  Second, among certain people, there has always been excessive greed.  Third, we will never eradicate greed in the human species.  Why then you may well ask, another screed against the excesses of greed? The answer is that we have entered a new era of greed.  Never before has greed been so widely accepted and so widely admired. 

Throughout history, prophets and religious leaders have warned us about the pursuit of wants that never satisfy the soul nor do anything to enrich humanity.  In the past, greed was the mindless pursuit of more.  Jesus said that “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” – 1 Timothy 6:10.  The Bible says more about the dangers of money and possessions than any other subject.

Ignatius of Loyola gave this message to his followers:

Lord, teach me to be generous;

Teach me to serve you as you deserve;

To give and not to count the cost”

Gautama Buddha made the following comment concerning greed:

“Inflamed by greed, incensed by hate, confused by delusion, overcome by them, obsessed by mind, a man chooses for his own affliction, for others’ affliction, for the affliction of both and experiences pain and grief.”

Islam has many comments about the evil of greed and the pursuit of more and more:

“Three Habits Destroy

a Man Or Woman:

Greed, Envy

and Pride.”  ― Hamid al Ghazali

“Greed is permanent slavery.”  — Ali ibn Abi Talib

If greed has always been with us, then what is different today?  The difference is that in the past, greed was recognized as evil and as an element that would distort human nature.  Today greed has become legitimate.   

The definition of legitimate is: 

To give legal force or status to; make lawful.

To sanction formally or officially; authorize.

To demonstrate or declare to be justified.

5451174-1020-PXWe shop till we drop.  We invoke our privilege to use our money as we want to.  We make holidays out of holy days where we spend our time hunting for bargains and sales.  Greed has now become a sacrament.  Greed is no longer evil.  Greed is holy.  Greed is the American Way of Life.  Millions of Americans adore the wealthy.  The story of Lazarus holds no credibility – Luke 16:19-21.  Nor does the story of the Rich Fool – Luke 12:13-21.  Money is sacred and those who have more are worshipped by Americans and exalted as better people and better leaders.  We elect millionaires and billionaires to Congress and even the Presidency on the sole basis of their acumen at having stored up wealth.

Wealth Trumps compassion.  Money Trumps kindness.  Possessions Trump love.  No one would argue today that leaders should have compassion, kindness, and love for others.  These are sentiments that hold no currency.  The values that Americans believe in today are bitcoins, stocks, bonds, gold, and credit ratings.  Wise people are not listened to.  Instead, rich people are sought out and worshipped because they are smart enough to game the system and attain more than the rest of us.  A 3,400-foot home with four bathrooms for people with no children is a sign of success and not wretched excess.  A Porsche, BMW or Mercedes is proof that you are an important person.  Living in a neighborhood with walls and private security guards helps you to feel safe because wealth is envied by those who do not have it and they might take it away from you. 

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Living the good life today means having more than your neighbors, friends, or relatives.  According to Merriam-Webster, success is “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame.”  Success is not measured in America by kindness, compassion, or love for others.  Millions of people watch reality shows where fame equals success.  A new breed of celebrities exists solely on the basis of being famous and not for any achievements. 

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Movie stars are the aristocracy of America and are adored because of the illusions that they present and not because of reality.  John Wayne is the Icon of American Manhood.  He was a man that personified heroism and masculinity.  In reality, he was a racist who denigrated Black people, Gay people, and Native Americans.  He received a 3-A (family deferment) after Pearl Harbor and never had to fight except in his many heroic movie roles where he extolled American militarism.  Movie stars are idolized because they are rich and famous and have more of these attributes than the general population. 

So where do we go from here?  There are many good people in America.  There are many generous people who give freely and share their wealth with others.  Attributes such as generosity and empathy for the needy still exist in America.  However, what I have called the “legitimization” of greed has infected too many of our people.  It has become acceptable.  Americans have failed to grasp the insidious nature of greed.  It is not something that takes over your life suddenly.   Greed creeps up slowly and silently until one day, you are consumed by it.  Our nation has made greed an attribute to be admired.  No school in American dares to mention the perils of greediness. 

Can we reverse the trend that has led us down this path to self-centeredness and narcissism?  What can be done to turn the trend back towards valuing compassion and kindness?  Not just compassion and kindness for those who look like us but compassion and kindness for all people.

I will try to answer these questions in my next blog.  We will need a change of mindset that will lead to a new Zeitgeist.  The present paradigm we are living in is destroying humanity.  Trump and his supporters are not an aberration but a reflection of how far we have gone down the wrong road.   If we keep going down this road, we will have a world where there is no humanity left in people.  We will continue to destroy our environment as greed dictates taking all that we can get and not leaving anything for others.     

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Que Sera, Sera

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I think that I am a coward.  I don’t want to grow old.  They say that growing old is not for the faint of heart.  Every day, I understand that aphorism more and more.  In the last thirty days, four friends have passed away.  Mickey, Glen, Bill, and Dick.  I could write a blog about each of them.  They were all just nearing 80 years of age.  Not one of them died of Covid.  Had you known any of them, you would have been truly fortunate.  Perhaps, one of my greatest blessings in life has been to have people like this for friends.  People who lived life to the fullest and cared about other people.  Men who went out of their way to help not just family but strangers.

Two weeks ago, we found out that Karen’s oldest daughter Julie had five brain tumors.  For the past year or so, she had been acting very strange.  She had frequent bouts of forgetfulness along with severe headaches and neck pain.  Doctors had been treating her for an enzyme imbalance for several months, but she kept getting worse.  Her husband thought it might be the onset of early dementia.

Finally, someone decided to do an MRI for her.  At first, it looked like one large brain tumor but a neurosurgeon looking more closely at the scan found four other tumors.  Julie had been diagnosed with leukemia when she was six years old and for ten years had undergone frequent trips to the hospital for chemo and radiation treatment.  They believed that the tumors were related to the radiation treatments.

Julie is now fifty-three years old.  She went in for surgery on Tuesday of this past week.  She was in surgery for nearly seven hours.  They chose to remove the largest tumor but indicated that they would need to go in for another one at a later date.  They were not able to remove the entire tumor since it was awfully close to the optic nerve and they were afraid of damaging it and causing blindness.  Ironically, they want to use radiation therapy to try and remove the rest of the tumor.

Karen flew out Friday night thinking that she could try and help Julie when she returned from the hospital to her home.  Only one person could be in the hospital each day with Julie and her husband was the obvious choice.  Karen worried all week as complications arose each day and Julie did not seem any closer to coming home.  As I write this, it is now five days past surgery and Julie is still in the hospital.  She has been in and out of intensive care since the surgery.  Karen and Rob (Julie’s husband) have agreed to alternate days spent with Julie at the hospital.  So Karen is in Minnesota now and I am watching the home front here in Arizona.

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I am growing old, but I am growing more tired of seeing people I care about either get sick or dying.  I went to a concert last night with two friends Evelia and Angie.  Karen originally was going to go but being with her daughter was the greater priority.  The concert was put on by the True Concord Singers and Orchestra in Tucson.  It was held outside on a patio at what appeared to be an old mansion that had become a private men’s club.  It was called the Mountain Oyster Club.  Since it was members only, they would not let us dine there.  I had originally thought that after the concert we could dine at this exclusive club but that was not to be.  We ended up going to a resort called the El Conquistador.  My two companions are both Latina and I wondered what they thought about dining at a place called El Conquistador.

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The concert was called “The Trailblazers” and consisted of songs arranged by women composers and based on the works of noted women writers and artists.  Some of the composers included Judith Weir, Hildegard von Bingen, Emma Lou Diemer, Ysaye Barnwell and Alice Parker.  The writers and poets included Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou, and Edith Franklin Wyatt.

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The fifteen songs performed were arranged along a series of themes.  One set of the songs was called “Remembering Those We’ve Lost.”  Thinking back to my lost friends while these songs were performed brought tears to my eyes.  Reflecting on what it might mean to me if Karen should pass away before I do, I could not bear the thought.  Coward that I am, I am hoping to pass from this world without too many more losses of those I love.  Here are a few of the lyrics from the songs in the concert.  It is of course quite different and much more moving hearing these sung but the lyrics themselves are quite compelling.

From: “My Companion” by Edith Franklin Wyatt (1873-1958)

Let the roadside fade:

Morning on the mountain top,

Hours along the valley,

Days of walking on and on,

Pulse away in silence,

Let the world all fade,

Break and pass away,

Yet, will this remain,

Deep beyond all singing,

Beautiful past singing.

We are here together,

You and I together,

Wonderful past singing.

From: “Wanting Memories” by Ysaye Barnwell (1946- Present)

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
To see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
To see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.

You used to rock me in the cradle of your arms,
You said you’d hold me till the pains of life were gone.
You said you’d comfort me in times like these and now I need you,
Now I need you, and you are gone.

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
To see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
Since you’ve gone and left me, there’s been so little beauty,
But I know I saw it clearly through your eyes.

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I finished a run this morning in the mountains.  Saw a large coyote on the trail and thought at first it was a deer.  You are not likely to see a deer in the desert, but the coyote was large and brown and from a distance it did look like a small deer.  As I ran, I could not help but thinking of the song by Doris Day “Que Sera, Sera.”  The lyrics that go “Whatever will be, will be.  The futures not ours to see, Que Sera, Sera.”

We scheme, we plan, we strategize, we organize, we bribe, we cajole, we blackmail so that we can control the future.  We pray to whatever god or gods we believe in to keep our loved ones safe from harm or pain.  I am sure that every one of you reading this would rather suffer death or pain before seeing your family, friends or children suffering.  Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13

But as written in Ecclesiastes, it is all vanity.  Nothing but vanity.  I can’t stop a single person I know from dying or suffering pain.  The best that I can do is to be there for them during their suffering.  This is the role that my spouse has chosen to take with her oldest daughter.  It is a role that I would gladly have pass by me since coward that I am, I find it harder to watch my family, friends and others suffer then to deal with my own suffering.

I once loved the poem that admonished us to: “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.”  Now I wonder, what could Robert Browning have been thinking?  I am waiting for “the best that is yet to be.”  I must be missing something.  As each day goes by and as yet another friend leaves this earth, I am more and more wondering what I will have left when they are all gone, and I am the only one here.

Nothing I have ever worked for, saved for, bought, owned, or possess will have any meaning without the ability to share it with those I love.  I think about walking through the house where I am now sitting without my spouse or friends or family and it is by far a fate worse than death and dying.  I won’t rage into the night.  I am reflecting upon death as a comforting blanket than I can pull over my head and use to hide from the sorrows of the world.  I will not rush it, but as many have realized that have gone before me, at some point, we all know that our time has passed, and that we must leave this world.  As for what will come after, I can only say “Que Sera, Sera.”

I think you will enjoy this song:  https://youtu.be/xZbKHDPPrrc 

Que Sera, Sera

When I grew up and fell in love
I asked my sweetheart, what lies ahead
Will we have rainbows
Day after day
Here’s what my sweetheart said

Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que sera, sera
What will be, will be

The Seven Greatest Appreciations of Life:  Friends and Family

Adults and kids sitting on the grass in a garden

The famous French philosopher Sartre said that, “Hell is other people.”  What I think he meant to say was that “Friends and family could be hell.”  A number of years ago the mother of a good friend of ours passed away.  The fight between her siblings over who was going to get what was vicious and resulted in a permanent schism between the siblings.  I was commiserating one day with her over our very dysfunctional families.  I noted, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had normal families?”  My friend replied, “We do have normal families.”  I knew exactly what she meant.  Years earlier when I was attending support group meetings for men who were violent and abusive, we would always hear newcomers say, “My family is so screwed up.  I wish I had:” (Pick one)

  • A more loving mother
  • A non-alcoholic father
  • Parents who did things with us
  • A father who was not a gambler
  • A mother who was not a drug addict
  • A mother or father who was not always gone
  • A mother or father who was not abusive

The more seasoned men in the group would listen to these plaints for awhile but eventually tolerance would run out.  Then you would hear someone say, “If you want a happy family, turn on TV and watch “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best.”  The rest of us would sagely nod our heads.  In our milieu, healthy happy families did not exist.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ― Leo Tolstoy , Anna Karenina

downloadWell, you are probably thinking, “You can’t always pick your relatives, but you can always pick your friends.”  This is absolutely true, but how many people do you know that have lifelong friends that they can trust and rely on in an emergency?  I could start a long list of friends that I have left behind over the years for one reason or another.  I have ex-friends who became rabid Trump supporters whom I said goodbye to.  I have ex-friends who said goodbye to me, and I never knew why.  I just did not hear from them anymore.  I have other ex-friends who I could no longer relate to for one reason or another.  Friends seem to me to be like annual flowers.  They pop up for a while and then they fade away.  I have five good friends left.  I would have more, but some died early and one committed suicide.

You may be scratching your head now and thinking, “What does this narrative of misery have to do with appreciating our friends and family?”  One answer is that I do not like to sugarcoat things.  Most of life is composed of the good, the bad and the ugly.  I Latino-Family-small-1-850x566have put the bad and the ugly out first so that you would not simply hear a chorus of how wonderful friends and relatives are.  The truth of the matter is that as in most of life, you often have to take the bad with the good.

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” ― Bob Marley

Another point for acknowledging the bad side of things is that it helps us to appreciate the good side.  If things were always great we would never appreciate the bad.  We love the sunny days more after the rainy days.  We enjoy a good movie or a good painting because we know what a bad movie or a bad painting is like.  We develop models in our heads for the good and the bad and they are to some extent a mirror image of each other.  The Yin and Yang of life is a push and a pull.  Happiness, joy, and good health are more appreciated when we have experienced the opposite in our lives.  We appreciate good relatives and good friends more when we acknowledge some of the “mistakes” that life has dealt us.  We rise above life by dealing with the bad, putting it aside and saying prayers of thanks for the good friends and family in our lives.

asian-american-family

Family:

I do not know how many “Leave it to Beaver” families are out there, but I do have many friends who have had loving fathers and mothers.  Their families might not have been perfect, but they learned good values from their parents.  The other night we had two friends (Tom and Nancy) over for dinner.  We started talking about some of our family.  Since we were all over 70, our fathers, mothers and several siblings had all passed away.  We shared some of the good things we missed about these relationships.  Our conversation prompted me to ask, “What are the three most important things you learned from your parents?”  The discussion on what we learned was heart-warming and lasted nearly an hour.

Portrait Of Extended Family Group In Park

The answers to my question elicited several traits that we had all absorbed from our parents.  Among the common ones were a value for hard work, education, and honesty.  Tom mentioned that he learned, “You should always finish your work before you play.”  I could hear the same words echoing from my father.  Karen mentioned that she learned the value of frugality from her mom.  Nancy added that she learned caring from her parents.  This was seconded by both Tom and Karen.  I added that I learned to be accepting of other cultures and races.  My father was intolerant of racism and prejudice.  I grew up fighting for the under-dog as a result of what I learned from my parents.

“I sustain myself with the love of family.”   ― Maya Angelou

Good relatives and good families infuse us with good values and good character.  You learn what you live with.  Live with honesty, hard work, and compassion and you will be a person who cares for others and who is unselfish in their efforts to succeed.  Success is more than just one person succeeding, it is an entire world succeeding.  I have always loved the line from John Donne’s poem, “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” (No Man is an Island, Meditation XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)

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Friends:

Aristotle was one of the wisest men who ever lived.  Perhaps he was not as wise as Socrates, but he left us numerous writings which provide a guide for right living.  Aristotle wrote quite a lot about the issue of friendship (See his “Nicomachean Ethics, Books VIII and IX).  He commented that it was good to have many friends.  However, Aristotle had a typology of friendship based on three characteristics.  These characteristics were:  pleasure, utility, and virtue.

e232a636b958e0e88ab2b927e3db8531Friendships based on utility derive some perceived benefits from each other.  Perhaps helping each other with building or fixing things.  Friendships based on pleasure derive fun or shared activities together.  Friends who canoe or ski or golf together.  Friendships based on virtue derive mutual benefit from pursuing shared values and goals.  Friends who work together for a common good.  According to Aristotle, friendships based on pleasure and utility tend to be shorter than friendships based on virtue or goodness because needs and pleasures often change over time.  Our values in life are less transient and more permanent.  Friends who share your same values will be friends for life.

“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.”  ― Helen Keller

The value of a good friend is immeasurable.  Someone who understands you.  Someone you can trust.  Someone who cares about you and will step up in your hour of need.  Someone who will have your back when you are in a crisis.  Someone who consoles you when you are in grief or mourning.  Someone who cares about your life and wants to share your joys and your pain.  I hope that everyone reading this blog has at least one good friend.  Count your blessings if you have more than that.

downloadI have written about friendship several times in my blogs (See my Friends and Friendship: Part 1 and Part 2).  I have said that Facebook friends should not be counted as true friends.  FB friends are closer to what I call acquaintances.  Facebook can introduce you to possible friends but it will never be able to create real friends.  True friendship is difficult if not impossible to establish on FB or any other social medium.  Friendship is like marriage.  You get out of it what you put into it.  If you look at the high number of divorces today, it may blind you to the almost equal number of marriages that last for decades.  My spouse has some friends since grade school.  I have a few friends going back to high school.  We both share bonds of time and life experiences with these friends.

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”   ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

In my experience talking to other married couples, the ones that last are the ones that invest time and effort into their relationship.  Good marriages take work.  Good marriages are not taken for granted.  Good friendships also take work.  By work, I mean taking risks to improve your friendship.  The risks can be self-disclosure, honesty, confrontation and saying no.  Good friends are not born, they are made.  And like everything in life, they require effort and maintenance.

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The Beatles had a song and one of the lines was, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”  Hardly a day goes by that I do not think of this line and its relevance for both family and friends.  We are social animals, and we need other people.  We need people to love and people who love us.  Our friends and family are the wellspring for giving and receiving love.   The Covid Pandemic has clearly shown the negative impacts that isolation has on people the world over.  The biggest joy that will come out of defeating the Pandemic will be when we can all freely share time with our loved ones again.

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.

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As 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.  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 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.”  I thought that 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 that 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 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 seven 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 a 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 that 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 that 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 not think it is practical for my daily journey through life.  It is one of those things that like happiness we do not seek but it finds us.

free sandwiches for the homelessCompassion 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, that 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

Faith:  The Fifth Most Important Virtue for a Good Life

Faith-of-a-childFaith is number five of my seven essential virtues for leading a happy and successful life.  Every Friday I start my day with the following prayer:

  • “Help me to be as well as to do and to have Faith in the future by living today the best that I can.”

 Please listen to Pete Seeger’s rendition of:  “You Gotta Walk That Lonesome Valley” for a musical version of what Faith is really about.  Read the comments about Pete Seeger.  He was a prime example of a man that had Faith. 

Faith is the first of the three major theological virtues.  As I thought about preparing this blog, I asked myself the question, “What is the difference between Faith and Trust?”  Or perhaps there is no difference?  I wondered if one has to be religious or have a religious affiliation to have Faith.  Most people think of Faith in terms of a belief in God or some other deity.

faithI decided that I must first understand what Faith really means.  To do this, it is helpful to deconstruct how we think about Faith and how we use the word.   I thought about how we use both Trust and Faith in common language.  For instance we use trust in English as follows:

  • Trust me!
  • Do you trust yourself?
  • Have a little trust in me.

Now if you try substituting the word Faith for Trust, it is obvious that in the first two instances, it just does not fit:

  • Faith me!
  • Do you Faith yourself?
  • Have a little Faith in me.

You will notice that in the third instance, you can substitute the word Faith for the word trust.  A grammarian would quickly note that the word Trust can be used either as a noun or a verb whereas the word Faith is primarily a noun and cannot usually be used as a verb.

It might be interesting to compare dictionary definitions of Faith and trust.

Faith: http://www.merriam-webster.com

  • Strong belief or trust in someone or something
  • Belief in the existence of God : strong religious feelings or beliefs
  • A system of religious beliefs

Trust:  http://www.merriam-webster.com

  • Assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something
  • Dependence on something future or contingent :  hope
  • Reliance on future payment for property (as merchandise) delivered : credit <bought furniture on trust

mountain climbingI think you can readily see that there is a certain degree of overlap between the two concepts. However, Faith generally seems to convey a more sectarian or theological concept of belief whereas Trust is generally used in more secular terms.  Thus, we don’t “trust” God but we have Faith in her.  Faith seems to be a term that is not contingent upon any kind of physical or logical proof.  We might not trust a person with our money without proof that they are “bonded” or trustworthy, but we would not expect such displays of material evidence when it comes to having Faith in God.  So what is the relevance to this in our lives?  What good is Faith if we can substitute trust for faith and have more security in the long run?

He replied, “Because you have so little Faith. Truly I tell you, if you have Faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” — Matthew 17:20

childThe answer seems to be (IMHO) that sometimes we can trust without evidence but generally we are better off trusting with some element of surety that can mitigate the risk of our trust being unfounded or mistaken.  Whereas, there is little or no evidence that can prove your need or desire to have Faith.  You must have Faith like a parent has love for a child.  It is unconditional.  You have Faith simply because you want to believe.  You have Faith because you accept something without conditions.  You need no proof or evidence to support your Faith.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?   Should you have Faith without proof?  What would a life without Faith be like?  Would we be safer or happier with less Faith?

“On a long journey of human life, Faith is the best of companions; it is the best refreshment on the journey; and it is the greatest property.”  — Buddha

Buddha thought that Faith is a companion that we cannot ignore on our journey through life.   There is a story about Mother Teresa that when she was visiting Iowa many years ago and was being interviewed by a somewhat cynical journalist; she was asked if she really thought she was making a difference to the poor in India.  Her reported reply was “I am not called upon to make a difference.  I am called upon to have Faith.”  If that sounds somewhat evasive, consider the following professionals who toil diligently and with great dedication:

  • Teachersblack couple
  • Doctors
  • Psychologists
  • Writers
  • Philanthropists
  • Artists

There are no doubt dozens of other professionals who toil in areas that are not readily amenable to evidence that they are “making a difference.”  As an educator and consultant, I can readily attest to the fact that seldom if ever is there “evidence” or concrete proof that my actions and thoughts have made a difference on my students or clients.  Most of us work on day after day, motivated by one force and one force only.  That force is the power of Faith.

You must not lose Faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Each time I write a blog, I write with the hope that something I say will help someone have a better day or lead a better life.  I have now written over 800 blogs and I have received about two dozen or so letters or emails telling me how much they appreciate my writing or how much it has helped them.  The percentage of letters received is about 3.4 percent of the blogs I have written and whose readers have been moved to write to me or drop me a comment.  And that is fine.  People are busy and many times the thought of writing to a writer is something that readers never think of.

big-challengesFortunately, the 3.4 percent of respondents have been more than enough to help me keep my Faith.  (Should I really need such sustenance if I have Faith?) Yes, I have Faith that my writing is making a difference to the world but alas, I have no proof for the empiricists, the materialists or the skeptics.  I have to ask you as well as myself to believe that I am.  It is Faith that keeps me motivated.  Without Faith, life would appear to be a futile waste of time.  Faith helps us to carry on when everything and everyone is saying to quit.  The woman in the life raft, the athlete with a severe injury, the parents with a disabled child, the poor fighting hunger, the righteous fighting injustice are all sustained by the power of Faith.

19176-Have-FaithFaith can believe everything
That we say.
Belief can increase the strength
Of Faith.
Belief is pure,
Faith is sure.
Belief looks around
To see the truth.
Faith looks within
Not only to feel the truth
But also to become the truth
.  —- Sri Chinmoy

Time for Questions:

What do you have Faith in?  What helps you to maintain your Faith?  Where would you like to have more Faith?  Do you think we have too much or too little Faith in the world?

Life is just beginning.

“Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” —- Saint Augustine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 in 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 homeowner’s 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 argue has a double standard or they 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 that 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

Forgiveness: The Second in My Series of Most Important Virtues

This is the second in my series on what I called the Seven Most Important Virtues for Living.   I will speak from my personal experiences on Forgiveness and try to share as much of my own life as possible.  I do not want to speak as an “Expert.”  I am far from being an expert on this subject.

Every Tuesday morning, I start my day with the following prayer:

  • Please give me the strength and courage to forgive those who insult, disrespect or harm me in any way. May I be strong enough to offer forgiveness to others and to ask for forgiveness for myself.

Forgiveness is a subject that is both easy and difficult for me to write about.  It is easy because I have had a great deal of experience with the subject.  It is difficult because much of my experience has not been positive.  It seems to be a virtue that I am not very good at.  I can’t say that I ever gave it much thought until several years ago.  Here is what changed my life.

When my oldest and only daughter started college, about two years after my first wife and I separated, we had a slight argument over money.  I did not think it was that big of a deal but Chris (my daughter) became very angry.  She said she never wanted to see me or talk to me again.  She told me that I had made her life miserable when she was growing up and she wanted me out of her life for good.  Almost ten years went by and despite my best efforts, she would not reply or respond to any overtures I made.  I felt very sad but I did not know what to do.  I was torn between trying to see her and also trying to respect her wishes.

I ended up talking to a sizable number of people who one for reason or another like me had been cast aside by friends or loved ones.  I thought this would make an interesting story and I wrote some of my thoughts on this issue and sent it to the Oprah Winfrey show.  I never expected to hear from them.  Several months went by and one day I received a phone call.  The person on the other end wanted to know if I would like to be on the show and talk about my problems with my daughter.  The other person described this particular Oprah show as one that dealt with forgiveness.  I was intrigued but I had several misgivings and turned the offer down.

A year or so went by and one day the Oprah show called me again.  For the second time they asked me if I would like to be on the show.  They explained that they would contact my daughter and if she accepted, we could both come on the show and tell our stories.  It would be a show about forgiveness and I could offer my apologies for anything I had done and see if Chris and I could work things out on the show with Oprah acting as a facilitator.  I decided to give it a chance and after discussing some logistics, I accepted the invitation.

A couple of weeks later, I was flown with my wife Karen and my step-daughter Megan to Chicago where they had booked rooms for us at the Omni Hotel in downtown Chicago.  We were told that a limousine would pick us up in the morning and then take us back to the hotel or to the airport after the show was filmed.  We were given food vouchers and enjoyed some fine dining in our hotel rooms before going to bed.  There was a definite feeling of both excitement and dread on my part.  I had no idea what to expect.  At this time, I did not even know if my daughter was going to be there.

Next morning, I went for a run around the streets of Chicago.  A funny thing happened on my run.  A film crew from a local TV news network stopped me and asked me if I was a tourist.  I said that more or less I guess I was and they then conducted a brief interview with me concerning what I thought of Chicago.  Two TV shows in one day!  After I returned to the hotel, Karen, Megan and I showered, dressed and waited for the limousine to take us to Oprah’s studio.

We were picked up and driven to the studio where Karen and Megan were taken to the audience area, while I was escorted to what they call the “Green” Room.  There were actually two such “Green” rooms where guests could be separated.  I talked to several other guests who were on the show also to deal with the subject of forgiveness.  One was a man whose family had owned slaves and he wanted to ask forgiveness for the history of his family.  The other was a Methodist Bishop who wanted to ask forgiveness for her church because of the slaughter of innocent Native Americans led by a Methodist minister named John M. Chivington at Sand Creek in 1864.

A short time passed and while I was getting my nose and head powdered, Oprah Winfrey herself and her little dog came in to chat with me.  We talked for a short time and she told me that she wished me the best but to keep in mind that I might not get what I hoped for.  She said that often the people who felt that they had been wronged did not want to forgive the other party.

I went out on the stage with Oprah and I was truly surprised that my daughter Chris had also accepted the invitation to be on the show.  I was immediately hopeful that we could resolve our differences and begin a new relationship.  Oprah explained that there were three components required for forgiveness.  True forgiveness it was explained requires one to accept all three components if that is what the other party needs.  The three components of forgiveness are:

  1. An apology or request for forgiveness
  2. A willingness to listen to hear how you hurt the other party
  3. A willingness to make amends or to try to correct the wrong in some way

Oprah started off the conversation by asking my daughter Chris why she did not want to speak to me.   Chris had a lot of reasons.  I had already realized that I was often angry when she was young and I would explode at the drop of a hat.  I had gone through a Domestic Abuse Program a few years earlier in which through counseling and a support group, I had begun to get my anger under control.  Chris had felt that while growing up she was often terrified to be living with me and feared for her and her mom’s life.  She had never been physically hurt by me and I can only remember one time that I had hit her mom and that was after she hit me.  Nevertheless, there was a constant feeling of fear in the house punctuated by my violent outbursts which included throwing things, punching walls and yelling at Chris and Julie, my spouse at the time.

When, Oprah finally turned to me and asked me what I wanted to say.  I had no doubt in my mind that I was sorry for my actions and that I wished I could turn the clock back.  I apologized to Chris and asked if she could forgive me.  I was ready to make any amends possible.  At this point, I had covered two of the three conditions for forgiveness.  I had said I was sorry and I had listened to her pain and grief.  I was ready to make amends.  However, Chris did not buy into the scenario.  She refused to accept my apology and informed me that she did not need a father in her life.  However, she said that she had two children and that perhaps they could use a grandfather.  She would have to think about it.  That was the end of our conversation.

Before leaving the show, Oprah told me that she was sorry it had not worked out better but that forgiveness is a very delicate process and that it does not always go the way we hope it will.   I was not discouraged though and I felt that the outcome was positive.  I thought that I could be a good grandfather and I welcomed the opportunity.

A few years later, I was again contacted by the Oprah show for a “follow-up.”  I again agreed to go on the show.   I did not know if Chris accepted or even had an invitation as she was not on the show.  My segment was very brief.  I explained that Chris still did not want me in her life but that I had been given a few opportunities to share some time with her two children, Frankie and Jesse.  These times were very brief and it was clear that it was only when Chris was present that I was allowed to see them.  I did not know it at this time, but even this opportunity to spend time with my grandchildren would soon derail.

While asking for forgiveness is never easy, particularly when you realize how you have hurt someone; I do not think it is the hardest part of forgiveness.  I had no trouble asking for forgiveness, for I am truly sorry about how Chris had to grow up.  I wish I could redo her life and give her a new childhood.  Many years have passed and I have only seen my daughter once in the past fifteen years.   She has been remarried and divorced but I have not been invited to any of her life events and any efforts to send letters or cards have not been acknowledged.   I found out two years ago in a conversation with my ex-wife that Chris had some time before attempted to take her own life.  It was shortly after her second husband left her.

The hardest part for me has been to “let go” and to forgive myself.  I tried going to confession at one of my annual Jesuit retreats.  The Father and I talked about my “sins” and the issues that I had as not being a very good father.  I was granted forgiveness by my confessor.  I hoped that this would help me come to turns with the grief and pain that I often feel when I think of Chris.  It has not.

I have been told that I really have not forgiven myself.  These are just so many empty words to me.  I do not know how to do this.  Particularly, when I reflect on the fact that out there someplace is a child that I spent twenty years with and to whom I am now totally irrelevant.  I never stopped loving my daughter.  I always wanted to be a good father and I did try to be a good father.  I remember many good times we had together as father and daughter.  It is hard for me to accept that the feelings and memories are not mutual.  If hell is of our own making, then I have made the hell that I feel when I think about Chris and wonder how she is.  I wonder if she will ever change her mind and forgive me.  Until then, I hope someday to know what it will feel like to forgive myself.

Gratefulness

If you enjoy reading my blog today, please see another blog I wrote dealing with this issue from the opposite perspective:  Ingratitude:  How it destroys our minds and hearts and souls

gratefulnessI want to talk about Gratefulness today.  It is the first in my list of the Key Seven Virtues that I think are worth developing.  Gratefulness is the opposite of ingratitude.  It is easy to fall into the trap of being ungrateful.  The world besieges us with evidence of our incompetence and faults.  Hollywood glamorizes the mundane and makes the rest of us feel inferior in comparison.  American Idol becomes the graven image that we now worship.  It is not an image of a gold calf or a prophet or a saint.  It is the image of success and fame and fortune that we all desire.  Even as I write this, millions of people are buying a lottery ticket in the hope of achieving instant wealth.  How many of these people are grateful for what they have?  I suspect many of them are very grateful in their daily lives, but it makes you wonder how grateful most people are when they will spend their money against all odds to become an overnight millionaire.  What don’t they have that they will buy if they do win?

Every Monday morning I start my day and my week with the following prayer:

  • I am Grateful for this new day and a new start. I give thanks for everything I have – especially my health, my friends, my family and my wife Karen.

I also say a prayer that my wife Karen will be healthy and happy.  She once mentioned to me that she appreciated my praying for her, so I have made it a part of my Monday morning start to the week.  My goal is to try to keep the thought of being grateful in my mind throughout most of the day.  I confess, I am usually able to keep it in my mind for about ten minutes at the most and then my day commences with the usual busyness and trivia that soon makes me forget my admirable goal.

If I were to rate myself on a scale of 1-10 of gratefulness, with 10 being the highest amount of gratefulness possible, I would probably give myself about a 2.  Nevertheless, I refuse to succumb to the Siren of Desire that drives one to buy a lottery ticket.  I do not want to win any money in a lottery.  I do not want to get any free money through a class action lawsuit.  I do not want to inherit any money from a dead relative or friend.  I admit I occasionally go to a casino and will play the penny slots for about fifteen minutes.  Karen has more patience and will play for as long as an hour.  We both allocate about ten dollars when we go for our “chance to win a fortune.”  We are usually at a casino for the entertainment or food.

My father was a gambler when I was young who lost a good portion of his earnings each week betting on the horses.  I learned from him that most gamblers were liars since they will only tell you when they win and never when they lose.  I still begrudge the fact that when I was growing up, my cousins (whose fathers were no richer) always had a nicer house, better clothes and more expensive toys.  My mother would regularly buy a lottery ticket and promise me that when she won, we would all be rich and never have to work again.  I always replied to my mother that if she put her dollar in the bank, she would have $1.01 at the end of the year.  It was kind of a joke.  When my mother died, my sisters and I had to cover the additional costs for her funeral.

I was reading a news article about two days ago about the continued recovery of former Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords.  I was struck by a comment that was attributed to her in the article.  She said:

“I wake up every day grateful that I have a second chance at life and a second chance at service.”

When, I read this, I thought there could not be much more I could add to the subject.  Here is a woman who could be bitter and angry.  She could rightfully complain about her physical and mental handicaps.  She could endorse stronger sentences for criminals.  She could lobby for fewer guns in society.  She could preach for more prisons.  Instead, she continues to pursue a life dedicated to service and to doing the best she can every day of her life to help other human beings.  We all need role models like this to really understand what gratefulness means.

One of my favorite blog readers is my sister Jeanine.  I think she is perhaps my most faithful reader, usually reading and commenting on my blogs each week.  Last week she posted a comment which included the following quote.

“I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” — Etienne de Grellet

She mentioned that one of her friends wrote this in her high school yearbook and she has never forgotten it.  She noted that she has tried to live by this quote in her daily life.  Judging by her friends and what they think of her and the efforts she puts out to help others, I believe my sister is also a person who does what she can to help others and who is also grateful for her life.

Let us pose the question:  What does it take to be grateful?

I would say that the virtue of gratefulness is composed of the following three abilities:

  1. Appreciating what we have. Savoring your life, your food, your health and your friends.  Like you would savor a tasty dish or appreciate a good song.  Appreciating the good and the bad.  Realizing that the bad makes the good better.

Without pain, there would be no suffering, without suffering we would never learn from our mistakes.  To make it right, pain and suffering is the key to all windows, without it, there is no way of life.” — Angelina Jolie

  1. Living in the present. If we worry too much about the past or think too much about the future, we are never able to just accept what is.  Violence is caused by too much dwelling on what happened yesterday.  Greed is caused by dreaming about what life would be like “if only.”  When we refuse to live our lives one day at a time, we inevitably get lost in a wilderness of whys, what ifs, and maybes.

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”  — Buddha

  1. Service to others. I am not sure that I can ever overcome the lure of fame and fortune and success.  They are constantly in my mind.  Except when I am serving others, particularly those who are less fortunate than I am.  Perhaps the only path to developing the virtue of gratefulness is by seeing  and helping the down trodden, oppressed, sick, dying, wounded and poor of the earth.  There is no doubt that seeing the misfortunes of others up close has a salubrious effect on our mental attitudes.  It is hard to feel sorry for yourself when you witness people like Gabby Giffords, Steven Hawking, and Malala Yousafzai and see what they managed to achieve despite handicaps much more severe than any we might have.

“Too much self-centered attitude, you see, brings, you see, isolation. Result: loneliness, fear, anger. The extreme self-centered attitude is the source of suffering.” — Dalai Lama

I have a little device that I learned in my studies, a long time ago.  It is an algorithm for change. You can use it for changing an organization or for changing your own life.  It goes like this:

  • Awareness precedes choice
  • Choice precedes decision
  • Decision precedes action
  • Action precedes change

If we want to develop the virtue of gratefulness, we must first be aware of what it means to be grateful.  We must be aware of what we should be grateful for.  We must also be aware of our ungratefulness and ask ourselves why we feel this way and where it comes from.  Once we are aware of our feelings in this area, we must continue to maintain this awareness.

Next, we must use our awareness to make a choice.  The choice is simple.  Am I going to be a grateful or ungrateful person?  Am I going to see life as full of opportunities and a place of unlimited possibilities or am I going to see life as a living hell on earth?  The choice is always ours.  The choice to be grateful means that we must make a decision.   To live gratefully or ungratefully.

If we accept the decision to live gratefully, then we must take action on this decision.  We must express gratitude whenever possible.  But more than just words, we also need to help others who are not as fortunate as we are.  Regardless of how unfortunate you feel you are there are always people who are less fortunate.  Start looking for these people and ask yourself “How can I help them.”

The final step in the process will occur if you follow the above heuristic.  You will find that there are more and more things in your life to be grateful for.  You will start enjoying life more than you ever thought possible. You will become grateful for the little things in your life and stop waiting for the big things.  You will become a person who appreciates every day that is given to you on earth.  Each day will become the best day of your life.  Don’t trust me!  Try it and see.  Age, death, diseases will still be difficult but you will find that gratitude can replace the sorrows of life with an outlook that can find joy in even the most difficult of times.

Time for Questions:

What are you grateful for?  What are you ungrateful for in your life?  How do you cope with the inevitable blitz of commercials telling you how inferior you are?  What do you do to help other people who are less fortunate than you are?

Life is just beginning.

“We are told that people stay in love because of chemistry, or because they remain intrigued with each other, because of many kindnesses, because of luck.  But part of it has got to be forgiveness and gratefulness. ”  — Ellen Goodman

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