Monday, May 21, 2012

Where is the Love?

I was watching MSNBC, which I suppose is a bad idea because I almost always wind up being depressed.  Tonight two stories appalled me. The first was about attempts to limit who can vote by requiring more stringent voter IDs. Called "voter suppression laws," opponents are charging such laws target voter of color, young and elderly people and the poor.  Some reports verify that voter registration and actual voting among those groups has dropped.  

The second story reported on four ministers who have been preaching against legalizing gay marriage. One suggested to fathers that as soon as a father "saw that limp wrist" the father should beat it. Another, even more horrifying, suggested building a huge electric fenced in area and "rounding up" lesbians and gay men who would be held there.  He suggested that food be dropped in but "since they can't have children" the people in the  enclosure would eventually die out. 

Unfortunately, these stories are not that unique. I think in the past I've talked about the calls to "take back our country." (I always suspect that, since I don't agree with the viewpoint of these people, they are talking about me. I work and pay my taxes, the times I've missed voting in any election can be counted on one hand, and I don't steal or otherwise take what is not mine. What have I done to cause them to consider me an enemy?) More recently, some politicians have come out in the open and called the president a traitor. 

Although from the national political scene, these examples they are not unique to it. At work a class participant became very angry because she was expecting sandwiches for her lunch and instead was served hot food. An instructor told me she was shocked at the nastiness of some of the comments she received on her feedback form.  I could go, but it's too depressing. 

I don't know what is happening to us as people but it seems that not only are we blithely destroying the earth, but we're also now turning on each other. And for what? Is it making our lives any easier or happier?  Do we get more money or more swag by being mean? At the end of the day, do we feel any better about the past ten or twelve hours when we've spent them slashing and burning everyone and everything in sight? No we don't. We know for a fact we don't. Our health suffers, our relationships suffer and we wind up less and less satisfied with our lives, feeling we're missing something but not sure what.  

So I have a challenge for all of us. For the next month, do the following things every day: 1. Find something to be grateful for and just spend a moment being grateful for it. Pick something different every day.  2. Stop yourself at least once during the day when you're going to be negative, mean, catty, dismissive or otherwise not nice. Don't say it, don't do it. Ignore the jerk who cut you off. Bite your tongue when you want to yell at your kid. Stop the sarcastic comment to your colleague before you say it. Smile at your spouse or partner when you want to roll your eyes.  And then let's see what happens.  Check your life at the end of the month and see if you're not at least a tad bit happier, less stressed, more rested and more productive. We may not be able to save the world but perhaps we can save ourselves. That's a start. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

To Give or Not to Give

When was the last time you did something completely unselfishly? There is a school of thought that says people never act without selfish motivation, somewhere, somehow you reap a benefit from it. I can live with feeling good about yourself if you act unselfishly. I can live with liking that others like you more if you're unselfish. What I can't live with is not being able to give unless there is some tangible, immediate reward. 

I've been thinking about selflessness because a colleague recently died.  In the 20 years I've known her I've watched her get involved with project after project, float idea after idea. Some related to her formal job, most did not. It didn't matter. She knew no borders and took most refusals as "maybe." In all that time, I never saw her do something to directly benefit herself. She worked to advance women. She worked to help general staff have more opportunities. She worked to create more positive, empowering workplaces. She worked for the general good. She didn't work for Karen. If she benefited it was indirectly and certainly not in any financial or political way. She wasn't made supervisor or special advisor. She was always just Karen working for others.  

Contrast that to what has happened in Michigan. Michigan has what is called an Emergency Manager provision. Under certain circumstances the governor can appoint an emergency manager to run a city or school district. Within the last couple of years, Michigan's governor has appointed emergency managers to a number of cities. These managers have then fired elected officials, in essence effectively negating the will of the voters. In order to counter what is seen as a usurping of their rights, voters distributed petitions to get the issue put on the ballot. When the petitions were submitted to officials, they were rejected due to a technicality over font size. The vote to reject the petitions was along strictly party lines. Those who voted "no" were the party of the governor who appointed the managers.

One could argue this is politics and loyalty is expected and rewarded. But that is my point. Politicians are elected to represent us the voters. Their loyalty should be to us, the voters. No one knows the political affiliation of the people who signed those petitions. The only thing anyone knows is that over 200,000 voters in the state of Michigan want an opportunity to vote on the issue. The officials who denied the voters that opportunity have forgotten they are there for us, not them. They have forgotten that when we seek to serve we do it not for ourselves, but for the good of others. We do it because there is some higher good we seek, whether we benefit from it or not. Karen knew that. It's too bad so many of us don't. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Whitney Who?

This past Saturday I watched the funeral of singer and actress Whitney Houston. I didn't expect to watch, let alone spend most of the day in front of the TV. Certainly I thought she had an incredible voice but I didn't consider myself a fan, nor was I particularly interested in her life with Bobby. However, I found myself getting increasingly sad until I found myself sitting in front of the TV, tears running down my face. I stayed for the four hour funeral, I stayed for the analysis afterwards and I stayed for a showing of The Bodyguard. What was going on?

On Sunday one of my friends posted a picture of the caskets of fallen service personnel with the caption, "Whitney Who?" Earlier, someone else had posted their anger over a celebrity being given so much press, while the horrible genetic disease that ravishes her child, goes unnoticed. I understand the viewpoints of both of these people and, to a certain extent, share them. But I think the death of Whitney Houston is about more than just the death of a celebrity.

Whitney apparently had everything. Not only did she have talent but she had the kind of infrastructure and support that most aspiring artists only dream about. She had a mother and aunt who were popular singers in their own right. They knew the business and had the contacts. She came from a huge religious community who loved her. She was gorgeous and she was smart. She ultimately became an international star with more chart topping songs than any other artist, while showing the world that she could also act. All of that and yet, she died alone under circumstances that still aren't clear, and after agreeing to go back into rehab for still one more try.

I've come to believe a good portion of our grief at her death has nothing to do with Whitney but rather because it terrifies us. It represents something we'd rather not face. If anyone should be able to overcome her demons, it should be someone like Whitney Houston. Money, friends, family, religion, resources galore, she had it all. And yet, no one could save her. I believe that Whitney was not just a celebrity who died but she's also a terrible symbol of our inability to really be in control of our lives. I've written before about the image we have of ourselves as independent, in-control of our own fate, individualists. But the death of someone like Whitney shows us that no matter how much money or fame or knowledge we have, we still can lose. Charlie Sheen made a joke of the word, "WINNER!" but people took to it because he identified something that we, as a country, believe ourselves to be. Unfortunately, Whitney showed us we can also be losers. We grieve yet understand a soldier dying. We have rituals and honors for that. We may not understand a baby dying from a rare disease, but we have organizations and support groups for that. But someone like Whitney, like us, when we can't cope, when life takes over us, instead of us taking over it, there is nothing for that. And that is the horror for us.

Hello again

I'd like to thank everyone for being so patient with me as I've struggled through the last year of my life. Maybe some day I'll write about it, but not today. Today I just want to announce I think I'm back to writing and hope you'll be hearing from me at least once a month.

I still intend to keep the original intent of this blog and that is to write to challenge you, but in order to help us understand each other. I hope I succeed.

PS...for some reason once I post these blog entries the fonts seem to change. I apologize for any odd font issues.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

All You Need Is Love

In addition to hate, I've done a lot of thinking about love and what it demands of those who love. Far better people than I have written on the topic but these are my humble thoughts.

I believe that loving someone means you want the best for them. It doesn't mean giving them everything they want ... sometimes "no" or "I can't" is the most loving thing a person can say. To a child, "No, you can't go out with the people who may get you in trouble." To a friend or spouse, "I can't do what you ask of me because it goes against what I believe and I love you enough to be honest, and trust you enough that you will accept my decision."

I believe that sometimes loving someone means putting their needs and interests first. In that moment you are truly giving them yourself. Always putting others first isn't healthy, because love also means loving yourself. But if one truly loves another, whether lover, child, friend or humanity in general, the ultimate gift of love can be the sacrifice you make for them. Isn't that the idea behind doing a mitzvah? You're preforming a good deed for someone, ideally without bragging or them even knowing. It's about what will make them better, not what it does for you.

I believe loving someone means seeing the good in the beloved, even when they can't see it for themselves. If it's not making the beloved better, it's not love. A friend said it beautifully, "There was a time I lost all sense of my own potential, but Mandy continued to see it and her vision helped me find mine again.... I’ve done things because those that I love needed me to be something I did not feel I could be. Love made me more than I would have ever been on my own." He continued, "Love should be empowering, it should rescue us and help us carry on."

Is that possible when we think of "love thy enemy?" How the heck can loving one's enemies help you "find your vision" and "be more?" In The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, the Dalai Lama says, "In order for you to become fully successful in practicing love and compassion, the practice of patience and tolerance is indispensable. There is no fortitude similar to patience, just as there is no affliction worse than hatred....In fact, the enemy is the necessary condition for practicing patience....Our friends do not ordinarily test us and provide the opportunity to cultivate patience; only our enemies do this. So, from this standpoint we can consider our enemy as a great teacher, and revere them for giving us this precious opportunity to practice...." (pp 178-179) In other words, loving thy enemy makes you a better person.

We've been lead to believe that loving is easy and natural. Everyone can do it. But I no longer believe that. I believe that real love, true love is difficult. It's not about looking inward for what or who makes one feel good. It's about looking out and what will make that person(s) grow stronger and be better because of that love. It's about thinking of others and being willing to sacrifice for them. It's about growing by giving, not taking. The Beatles were correct. Love is all you need. Now give it away.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hatred: Can't we all just get along?

I've been away because the last 18 months have been horrible. People say to write when you're stressed, it's supposed to help. But for me, in those times writing is very difficult. I just didn't have it, but I'll tell you what I did have....Hate.

I've never actually hated anyone before. Not my friends in junior high when everyone formed a club and I wasn't invited. Not my parents, even though I thought "I hate you!" Not even the two men who, at different periods of my life, assaulted me. In those times I was sad, scared, lonely, angry, furious, betrayed. I had many feelings but never that white hot searing hatred that makes you see red and raises your blood pressure to stratospheric heights.

I liked hating. It gave me energy and focus. It made me feel, not like a bug caught in a web, but like the spider, sitting, watching, waiting for just the right moment. My hatred fantasies made me smile. Blood, knives, shaming, standing up for myself powerful and strong. Taking action. Doing something to change the situation. For the first time in my life I understood the desire for revenge and the need to hurt those who have hurt you. The carnage in the Middle East and Africa, the death penalty, gang "payback" all made sense.

But after a while, a funny thing happened. I started to realize that hatred doesn't only empower, it exhausts. It detracts. It lowers the hater to the lowest level possible. It didn't accomplish anything and it made me feel terrible. It's like bad sex, all build-up but nothing in the end. I still understand it. I can't say I'm free of it. There are times when I find myself going back there, wrapping myself in its protection, feeling it, wanting it. Yet nothing is better when I've hated and in the end, I suspect it's a sham. It's the devil whispering lies. A sweet addiction that leads no where. I hope I can remember that the next time it raises its dirty head. I wish the rest of the world knew it as well.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Taxes for Us

Needless to say it's tax time so the media and social networking sites are full of comments about taxes. Although I understand the moaning about high tax rates, government programs, etc., I think we're looking at it all wrong. It shouldn't be about how high our taxes are but, rather, what kind of a country do we want to be?

A country needs money to run. Programs and services need money to run. Money comes from taxes. Where do you think the money comes from to fix those roads you've been complaining about, or to extend the sewer system to your township so you don't have to use wells and you have sewers, or to help install that high speed commuter rail system so you can avoid traffic on your way to work? Taxes.

What kind of a country do we want to be? One with pitted roads, inadequate sewers and polluted rivers? Is that our vision for our environment? What about our people? What do we want for them? Or are we all about what we want for ourselves, and once we "have" we don't particularly care about those who don't have? The problem with that attitude is two-fold.

The first is short-term thinking. I would gladly pay $10, or $40 or $100 more in taxes to pay for daycare or a breakfast program that helps a poor child because the long-term benefits outweigh that small amount of money. If that child doesn't eat or get a good start at learning, ultimately we as a society will be paying anyway ... for jail, or for increased medical care because the child won't be healthy, or by receiving less taxes because the child isn't educated enough to earn a decent living and thus pay higher taxes.

The second problem with the "I-got-mine-too-bad-you-ain't-got-yours" mindset is that ultimately most of us wind up needing government services of some kind. My parents always said "We worked for our money." Yet who collected Social Security when he retired? When my mother was ill, who paid for her medical expenses? Their insurance, with a huge supplement from Medicare. Her meds were covered, to a point; but what they paid out of pocket was substantial. They were not happy and complained about what Medicare didn't cover. So much for never needing government help. Their response was that they had contributed to these systems via taxes, so they were merely collecting what was theirs. I don't disagree with that viewpoint. But isn't an investment in more educated, less hungry, less poor, happier citizens and a cleaner, healthier environment "collecting" back on their taxes?

I spent years listening to my mother complain about resenting the amount of taxes she had to pay while "they" didn't pay. I never asked but always wanted to, "What don't you have that you need? What is paying those taxes taking away from you?" Another trip? Another dinner out or a beautiful dress? It's not that she didn't "deserve" these things. But couldn't she do without one dress, one dinner or make a trip a little less luxurious and graciously pay taxes, knowing there is a mother somewhere receiving food stamps who can buy cheese that actually tastes like cheese and has some nutritional value as a result of taxes? Or that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren will not have to be afraid to play outside because of air pollution?

We're a country known for our individualism. Taxes go directly against that value. Taxes are about the collective, the group. We may be individualistic as a country; but humans, as a species, are group-bound. For once, let's look beyond ourselves and to the group. How about this year, as you pay your taxes, you not grumble. Rather, think about the little frog you just saved that is critical to the ecosystem that purifies the water that runs by the school that provides a hands-on learning experience for the doctors and teachers and, yes, even the politicians of the future. And as you pay, smile and think, "This one is for us!"