Listen to Your Enemies

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If you hear them out, if you’re brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that more often than not you might’ve made some of the same choices if you’d lived their life instead of yours.

~Amaryllis Fox~

When I was in fourth grade, I moved to a new school in Greece, New York. I never thought much about religious differences before that but quickly learned that Barnard School across the street from St. Charles School was a “Protestant school.” Eventually I learned that they taught not just Protestant students but a great variety of students with many backgrounds. Although I never heard it mentioned in the classroom, somehow it became common knowledge among us that its students were inferior to us Catholics. We would visit their playground only when their school was not in session. We also believed that Black people were inferior to us. There was little opportunity to test this belief since there were no Black students in our school, at Barnard School or anywhere in Greece as far as I knew.

After grammar school, I spent nine years in a Catholic seminary and monastery. Here I also had no experience with anyone of a different religion or race. There was also a complete lack of anyone of the female gender.

After leaving the seminary, I found myself at the University of Buffalo where I discovered a wonderful variety of people from all religions, races, ethnic backgrounds and sat next to a girl in my first university class. My college years gave me a chance to meet the world and its representative inhabitants.

One of my first dates was with a girl whose last name was Luther. I speculated that she might be Protestant but her beauty, charm and kindness left me with no concern at all about her religious background.

Now, many years later, I find myself in a country made great by its immigrants to whom we owe its survival and prosperity. Yet now many of us feel threatened by migrants who come to this country for the same reasons our ancestors did. I also feel surrounded by people who hate others with varying political beliefs, religions, race and sexual identity.

In trying to make sense of this state of affairs, I came to realize that the hatred I see is usually motivated by fear of others who seem different. They are seen as taking jobs or other benefits people want for themselves. Yet poor immigrants, no matter what their background, come here for a chance of survival for themselves and their families just as most of our ancestors did.

The same hatred extends to people with different ways of life. Why we should hate people who differ from us remains a mystery to me. Maybe some people feel they would be more comfortable if everyone around them was just like them. Yet progress never seems to arise from everyone thinking the same way. Different ideas create a challenge for all of us to find better ways to live. Yet we will never find out what others think or how they can contribute to our lives by fearing, hating and avoiding them. Maybe we need to put aside our fiercely held prejudices and learn to listen to others we have come to see as enemies. Maybe they want the same things we do and might have some good ideas about attaining them.

Action Steps 

  • Learn to understand your fear of others and of the unknown.
  • Read about others’ way of life.
  • Take the opportunity to listen to others’ life experiences.
  • Do this especially with those different from you.
  • Look for what you have in common.

 

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The Wisdom of Children

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Our children are precious. Yet this week we saw and heard children being used as pawns for political purposes. Despite the outrage of the majority of Americans, others seem to think such a ploy is acceptable.

We usually talk about wisdom as something we gain through maturity. The young are often considered foolish and uninformed. But if you pay attention to children, you will discover that they possess wisdom which escapes us adults. Do you remember Hans Christian Anderson’s story, The Emperor’s New Clothes?

It’s not just a story. Over the years, we may come to believe nonsense with which we are constantly bombarded or which we want to believe for various reasons. Sometimes children’s questions can seem embarrassing.  We have customs which prevent us from asking children’s questions or even thinking of them. “Why did Grandpa die?” or “Why is that boy’s skin a different color than mine?” or “Why do I have to wear clothes but our dog doesn’t?’

It’s not just their questions. Children share their observations as well. They often notice when adults act in ways they are told are not right. “That mother is yelling at her daughter. I thought people were not supposed to yell at each other.” They notice when people are different from them. “That man doesn’t have any hair.” They see what we miss or take for granted. “I just saw that bird pick up a worm with its mouth and eat it alive.”

Children have easy access to fantasy life. They can take on roles and be a character without the least discomfort or unease. “You be the prince and I’ll be the princess.”   They can imagine having unlimited powers and believe it for the moment. “I’m king of the world. You have to do what I say.” They can imagine taking different shapes and not just at Halloween. “I’m a fish and can live underwater.”

In play, a child can be a mommy, daddy, grandparent, doctor or astronaut. It is almost as if they leave their own identity behind for the moment and try on a new one. They can be a good guy, a bad guy, very smart or dumb.

Children remind us that in our fantasy life we can experience whatever we want to without limitation. Children can love others without reservation. They can be very open about what they see, hear, feel or just imagine. They can do all these things alone, with each other or with an adult who is willing to set aside “reality” for the moment.

Children can notice what we miss, imagine possibilities which elude adults or try on roles which adults dismiss as silly. Adults tend to become set in their ways as they age. They often become cynical and dismissive of childhood creativity. They see children’s imaginary exploits as, well, childish.

You may have heard of the suggestion to try looking at life with a child’s mind–no preconceptions, no prejudice, and no rejection of unexplored possibilities. You can learn to think this way by watching children at play. Better yet, get down on the floor and play with them. If you have that opportunity count yourself lucky and blessed to have the opportunity to enter the world of childhood wonder if even for a few moments.

 

Review of John Meachum’s book “The Soul of America”

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My worst fear lately has been that this country is crumbling. Opposite factions seem to be pulling our society apart at the seams and I wonder what, if anything, will be left of us when it is all over. I started reading Meachum’s book with trepidation, fearing that it would make me feel even worse about our eventual fate. Remarkably, I did not feel the same way by the time I finished the book. Our country has been here before and yet survived.

I tended to think of our initial settlers and the statesmen who founded and tended our nation in its infancy. I imagined them as being of one mind, hopefully with the best interests of our country foremost in their minds. I guess I should not have been surprised to be reminded how different various factions were and remain so to the present day.

I think of the leaders who brought out the best in the expression of our national soul. Meachum lays out for us that not one of them was of a single purpose. Each of them felt a need to compromise to some extent on issues which divided the nation in order to accomplish anything at all. These leaders were human after all and also represented people with many different beliefs and priorities. Bringing everyone together was a monumental challenge to our past leaders and some did a better job than others at bridging the divide.

In the end, our soul is not cut of one cloth but is rather a patchwork quilt of widely disparate energies often pulling the nation in opposite and contradictory directions. For the most part, many of those with strong opinions had the welfare of our nation in mind along with their own deeply seated beliefs. Yet they often disagreed on how to best bring the nation together.

Trump is only mentioned once in the book. Yet our current age and the state of our soul has us pulling in many contradictory directions yet again. We don’t currently agree on what is best for us or on how to get to a point where we can agree on the direction we should take from here.

One glaring example is the issue of racial equality versus white supremacy. This tension has hounded us from the early days of the American experiment. We have certainly made strides toward equality but fear and prejudice have continued to pull us apart. We still have quite a bit of work to do to become one nation making up the soul of America. We have been at this stressful point of tension many times before and somehow have brought ourselves back from the abyss. We need to discover a way to once again come together in our common interest. This is the challenge which faces us all in these trying times.

 

Review by Joseph G. Langen

Wisdom of the Aged

‘Age’ is the acceptance of a term of years. But maturity is the glory of years.

~Martha Graham~

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In my early years, several older people became very important to me and stayed that way throughout my childhood. They are all long dead but I still think of them from time to time and remember the hours I spent with each of them them.

My grandmother was literally my second mother. My father was away in World War II and I spent my first few years at her house. I remember her gentle ways which my mother adopted. She was a quiet soul who preferred to be in the background rather than the center of attention. I remember large family gatherings throughout her house. She would sometimes withdraw to the kitchen for her single glass of beer. She would often invite me to sit quietly with her. I was away in the monastery when she died and I was not allowed to attend her funeral. That has always been one of my main regrets in life.

Her husband, my grandfather, was also jovial. I remember going to work with him at his drug store. Sometimes I sat in the back room with him as he counted out pills for his customers’ prescription. I always found something to do in the drug store but always stopped to survey the candy counter, considering what candy I would choose when it became time to close up the store. At his funeral, talk turned to whether he had ever been angry in his life. Once when they were young two of my uncles chased each other through the house after being told not to. The second time they raced by, he got out of his chair but then sat back down chuckling, realizing he could not catch them.

Mr. and Mrs. Slater lived next to my aunt and uncle. They had first names I am sure but I never knew what they were. For some reason, they and my aunt and uncle did not get along well although I never learned why. Once when I was very young, I was visiting my aunt and uncle and playing with a ball in the back yard. It went over the fence into the Slaters’ yard while they were entertaining guests. I sheepishly approached the hedge and was invited over to fetch my ball. I also stayed for watermelon and later visited them whenever I was in town. They had a copy of Land and Sea which I loved looking at with its drawings of real and imaginary sea beasts. I spent time with my favorite book whenever I visited. This was of course after our traditional cookies and milk. When I reached high school age, they gave me the book thinking I was old enough to care for it.

During my elementary school years, I met Mrs. Muckle, a widow who enjoyed sitting with me at her house sometimes after school. I don’t remember how I met her but was glad I did. We adopted each other and became fast friends. When my family moved to the suburbs, I thought I would never see her again. Then she answered the door at the local parish rectory one day and we renewed our acquaintance.

I met other older people but these were the ones I remember most vividly. They were all peaceful people. I never learned if any of them had faced difficult times. I assume they did. I have learned that most everyone does. Now I have reached the age all of these favorite people had attained when I knew them. They all brought joy to my life and helped me forget my childhood cares. I hope I can be of some comfort and encouragement to children and others I encounter as these five did for to me.
 

Trump’s Focus On Teen Abstinence Makes It Harder For LGBTQ People To Learn About Safe Sex

The Department of Health and Human Services issued new funding guidelines for Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPP) grantees on Friday, one day after a federal court ruled that the Trump administration couldn’t cut off funding for those programs. Now, not only will the government shift resources toward abstinence-only programs, but organizations advocating for LGBTQ health say Trump’s focus on teen abstinence completely erases LGBTQ youth. The change could make it much harder for already underrepresented teens to get vital sex education.

(Excerpt from Lauren Holter’s article in Hustle.com– read more)

Improving the ways parents talk to their teens about sex and relationships

Talking to teens about sex can be difficult and awkward but don’t put it off or expect sex education in school to cover everything. (123RF)

Sex education in school doesn’t cut it when it comes to teaching our teens everything about sex and relationships. Most teens will say up front they most certainly had questions that were not answered, either by teachers or parents. Sex education is usually limited to some talks about how your body changes physically and then some grave warnings about sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy. Often the next step is for kids to turn to the internet for information if they don’t have healthy guidance. So how do adults rise to the challenge of gaining expertise themselves and then giving these answers to teens?

(Excerpt from Ail Sa Keppie’ article in the Halifax Chronicle Herald– read more)

Rising from the Ashes

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Our obligation is to give meaning to life
and in doing so to overcome the passive, indifferent life.

~Elie Wiesel~

Recently I had the privilege of listening to Eva Abrams tell her Holocaust story at the Criminal Justice Day in Batavia, NY sponsored by local community groups.  The theme of the day was surviving and thriving after trauma. I have read accounts of the Holocaust and seen movies presenting various aspects of the events involved. Yet they seem to be fading from the memory and awareness of the public these days. This has happened despite their central place among the events of the twentieth century. This was the first time I have heard a live first hand account from a survivor’s own lips.

Ninety two year old Eva made her way to her seat with the help of her walker.  She sat next to her daughter Bonnie who helped her with translating certain words into English. She was born in 1926 in Oradea, Romania and was sent to Auschwitz with her family when she was seventeen.

Eva shared her story of life in a ghetto, in Auschwitz and digging trenches as she struggled to stay alive after walking across Europe for forced labor digging trenches. All these years later, she is a vibrant articulate survivor who has risen from the ashes of her Holocaust experience and managed to reconstruct her life in a meaningful way.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to walk in her shoes. I have never come close to death especially under the gruesome conditions she endured. Would I have been able to find the physical and emotional strength to make it from one day to the next? If I did survive, how would I think of my experience in a way which might allow me to rebuild my life? I have heard it said that what does not kill you makes you stronger. I wonder what lies within a person to allow him or her to climb back from the brink of a horrible death and find a meaningful life.

I thought about this for several days after Eva’s presentation. How could anyone survive her ordeal? What could I learn from her life? How could her inspiration lead me to make more of a contribution to my fellow human beings? None of these questions has an easy answer. Yet it is not necessary to answer them to draw strength from her example.

I have had misfortunes and setbacks from time to time in my life although nothing which compares with Eva’s experience. Yet I have been able to learn a little about my own inner strength by learning from my challenges rather than letting them get the best of me. Eva had help at her most desperate moments and used that help to find new reserves of strength.

I have learned to appreciate those who have been there in my time of need. I also plan to help others in their time of need whenever I can. What lessons can you draw from the stories of those you encounter in your life?