An Evening To Remember

She opened the car door and stepped out.  Had someone been watching they would have thought it was one of those intentionally shot, sexy scenes as a bare leg clad in a sexy black pump hit the pavement.  As the rest of her emerged she was the vision of beauty and elegance.  Her carefully chosen evening gown with the slit up the left side was sure to catch the attention of many, but it wasn’t because she was vain.  She simply had good taste, and liked to look good for a special night out.  Her husband was being honored today.   Her husband had won another big case.  Civil rights cases were tough to win, and he had been winning it for the little guy for years now, in several high-profile cases.   When she had met him, it seemed they were just heading to a normal upper middle class future, with the normal rate of advance as lawyers.  But practicing law was different than learning it.  As having a family came into the picture, her passion for the law was less.  She had been offered being partner at her law firm, but it just didn’t seem all that appealing.  She also saw how much her husband loved practicing law, and how good he was at it, and it wasn’t a difficult decision for her to pull back and practice law part time.  Children and family meant something to her, and she knew that she would never find enough happiness in her career to compensate for not seeing her children more often.  They would have had no trouble affording a nanny, but it killed her thinking about a stranger spending more time with her children than her.  They would still be very comfortable, they had a nice house, and a good life was about more than money. She hooked her arm in his and walked together into the venue for the evening.

It was a reasonably big crowd as they entered the room.  People were dressed to kill, and she was equal to the task.  Some familiar faces approached them to welcome them.  She felt a bit like a celebrity as she saw more people swarm towards them.  This was their life now.  They had made it.  They were doing positive things in the world, and she had the right balance in her life in terms of career and family.  But as the people came and went the focus was not on her.  There was requisite smiling and small talk.  Even genuine heartfelt warmth.  There were good people in the room, but even they wanted their time with the man of the hour, and in many ways conversations with them were the worst.  “What was it like to be married to such a great lawyer?  How proud are you of your husband?  Did you think he would win the case?”  She tried to remain positive.  Of course he would be congratulated, schmoozed, networked, and charmed for his accolades.  What else did she expect?

She expected to be seen as important.  She expected to have value.  The way that she saw herself.  Was it so hard to believe that as talented as her husband was that he might have married someone equally talented, with equal intellect, and with an admirable moral center?  The magnificence of her dress felt like it was fading into the scenery.  She felt like an object attached her husband’s arm.  No one seemed to see her as having value, even when she knew that it wasn’t true.  She could put up with it for night though.  Right?

But if this case was any indication, he would become busier and he would get bigger cases, and his fame would continue to grow.  She realized in that moment she would not be putting up with this for one night.  It wouldn’t stop.  How long could she take being solely defined by her husband’s career and success?  Why didn’t it matter that the only reason her husband had so much time to be a great lawyer and have two children was because of her?  Why didn’t the excellence in the choices she made for her life, marriage, and family, make less difference than his?  And she was invaluable as someone to talk to when he’d come home and talk about his cases.  After all she was a lawyer too.  It wasn’t her husband’s fault society was like this, but she couldn’t help but wonder if it even entered his head to think about these things.  If he was he’d make more of an effort, wouldn’t he?  She wondered, if the situation was reversed, would any man be treated with as much indifference as she felt from others right now?  Suddenly she was jolted out of her grim analysis.

“What a stunning dress!  It must be nice to buy such expensive clothes after your husband’s big win!?”  She nodded and smiled and hoped that she look convincingly gracious for that horrible compliment.  She had the dress for several years and she could afford it all on her own.  It was like people thought she had suddenly been invented for the purpose of accompanying her husband.  She expertly stopped herself from crying and made an excuse to her husband to go to the lady’s room.  She stared in the mirror, not knowing whether a flood of tears or pure rage would come next.  It dawned on her that the rest of the evening would be spent wondering whether it was better to just continuing being small and hide in a hole somewhere, or to be visible in the crowd but still feel alone.  She decided the former was the easier choice, but then she’d have let this superficial group of people chill her into hiding.  She was better than that.  It might be a hollow victory, but she held her head high and walked out again.  There was a loose line of people waiting to talk to her husband.  Eventually they would sit down at a table to eat, and he would give everyone else their undivided attention.  With the grace of an empress she crossed the room and sidled up next to him.  Outside darkness gave a respectful wave goodbye to the dusk, and inside she was content to be the stars shining through the night, even if the heads in the room were too heavy to ever look up.

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Do you know her?

I’d like to tell you about somebody.  Maybe you know her.  She’s not uncommon.  It is perhaps why we don’t talk about her that much.  Maybe she’s your mother, your aunt, a sister, or friend of the family.  She calls on Christmas.  On the rare times you visit, she’s always good to you.  She’s getting older now and she’s tired much more than she should be for age.  Still she keeps going even if she herself isn’t always sure why.

She was raised in a pretty traditional household.  Raised on Christian values, but not too overtly as there was too much work to do during the day to worry too much about it.  She learned good morals in her upbringing, she learned to work hard, and she learned what love is.  But she never knew herself really.  Normal was that a woman didn’t get that many choices in life.  Women, as far as she could tell was for others.  She wasn’t the oldest of her siblings either, so never got to do anything first.  She flew below the radar most of the time, but never really made any special attempts to get attention.  She just accepted her place in this world.  As a result of remaining in the background and assuming she belonged there, she never really got to know herself.  She was probably a bit smarter than her other siblings, or at least had her talents.  Maybe it was cooking, decorating, or sewing.  She would learn to use them, but never really thought they were anything special.  Never really let them be a source of pride for her, even though you could tell that it made her happy to do them.  Her true talent was probably much further than what she showed.  Cooking could have easily turned into a career in nutrition and diet, decorating could have turned into interior design, sewing could have turned into fashion.  Those jobs were for people with big dreams.  She was in no kind of position in life to have big dreams.  And for the most part she was just happy to be close to family and love the people in her world.

She was good at loving others, but never really good at finding someone to love her.  Even at the best of times she never felt as pretty as she was.  Love was something you’d probably just grow into.  She got married when she was young, because that’s what you did.  Someone was paying attention to her and it felt nice.  His drinking problem?  Well…everybody drank.  But eventually it did get too bad, and her family who always loved her helped her to get out before it got worse.  She did, with child in hand.  She kept looking for love, but hadn’t really learned what she did wrong the first time.  She knew that life was hard being a single mom, and a fear of being alone kept creeping up on her.  So she found someone else.  Someone who paid attention to her that could help her financially and lighten the load.  She believed once again that if she just loved, good things would come of it.  This time there were bruises, and the family helped her get away again, a second child in hand.  It was best to go it alone for a while she figured, it was even harder now.  If she wanted to get to know herself, she’d have to find the time.  With two children and a full time job to support them who has the time to find themselves?

She still had her family, and she loved them a lot.  Siblings and nephews and nieces, she always gave love without question.  She was never the cool aunt, she was never the funny sibling, but she knew how to listen and she knew how to laugh.  Her children were the world to her, even if they didn’t quite understand why she couldn’t always be there for her.  The mystery that all children whose parents are always working live with.  She’d do anything for them, except perhaps be tough with them.  When they hit their teenage rebelliousness she couldn’t follow through with the discipline.  What if they hated her?  What if they abandoned her?  How alone would she be then?  She loved them and never wanted to push hard.  She traded their respect for their company, but she never stopped loving them.  And even if they had a bit of a tough road, her kids turned out to be good people, but perhaps still feeling a little lost, without really knowing why.

With children grown and gone she was once again alone.  She was older now…certainly not as attractive.  Years of hard work, with only food as an indulgence had taken its toll on her body.  But she put on her hope cap, and the young girl inside her went looking for love again.  Still not really knowing who she was, she couldn’t find anybody who really appreciated her.  Just another man who was once again happy to have a quiet, compliant partner.  For just a little attention she didn’t need to be respected.  She seemed content to just have another living human being in the house so she didn’t have to be alone.  And maybe she would have walked away again, but that body who worked hard and was still trying to work hard didn’t have much energy for walking once the day was done.  And who had the energy for trying love once more?  So she resigned herself to just the emotional bruises every now and then, to have somebody else’s voice to talk to every once in a while.  She wouldn’t die alone.  She still believes in God, but mostly out of habit.  She’s really not sure if any other options make any more sense.
She still loves others well, whether they deserve it or not, and it is still uncertain how much she loves herself.

I love this woman.  She’s not uncommon.  Perhaps you know her. Perhaps you remember her.  Maybe she has always loved you.  Don’t be afraid to love her back.  It can only make her happy.

The Passion of Compassion

So just a little prelude to this post.  This is an attempt at a little short story.  I hesitate to call it that, because in many ways it is a small bit that was inspired by the writing of one of my followers Hariod Brawn who definitely has an amazing skill at writing.  It is a response to his post called the Ambit of Ambition.  I was about to write a comment about it, and then decided maybe I could be a little more creative in my response and write my comment in the form of a similar story.  His excellent piece made me think about how we define ambition and success in our lives.  As a society these words often refer to economic gain or fame based on notoriety.  But by their definition they don’t need to be.  Can we not measure our success differently?  Can we have ambition for compassion or other values that bring goodness to the world?  With those questions I will say no more and allow you to contemplate an alternate universe. 🙂  Thank you for taking the time to read.


Terry was certain he didn’t deserve it, but even as he touched the glossy cover of Fortune 500 magazine he turned his gaze inward and gave a slight smile.  Gratitude washed over him and for a few moments he decided to let the ebbing tide take him away.  Perhaps it’s no crime to be proud of oneself, as long as you remember just how blessed you actually are.  His wife of 20 years now, sat beside him, a beaming smile that darkness could never hold dominion over and nods reassuringly.  With the timidity of child who approaches a horse, sugar cube in hand, he leafs through the pages until he sees his picture and the article written in his honor.  While he had always striven for more, to have made this magazine was more success than one could ask for.  Tears welled up a little as the 5-page article gave homage to a life so full, that accolades never seemed necessary.

He barely got past the first paragraph talking about how he had a food drive for the local food bank while he was in middle school, when he paused and remembered the very first experience that had motivated him to be the man he was today.  He was 6 years old and was walking back with his mother after a trip to the laundromat.  He remembered how it felt like an eternity that day doing laundry, especially since he become very hungry.  Mustering the full crankiness, a 6-year-old can offer when his stomach is growling, he insisted on the way home that she get him a soft pretzel from the stand near the laundromat, even though it was only a 10 minute walk him.  Mom had told him that she would make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when she got home, but the smell from the stand had been wafting in to the laundromat for some time.  While he generally loved the smell of clothes coming out the drier, his hunger mixed with the fact that somebody had spilled a whole lot of laundry detergent near them made him eager to follow that scent coming from the outdoors.  He remembered how palpable the smell was as if he was being led by the nose.  He knew his parents couldn’t treat him often, but he really wanted that pretzel.

He had easily defeated his mother with a series of quality pouts and big hugs and a look upwards at mommy with eyes that would make a puppy knew it had been out-cuted.  Then as he walked away and held the warm chewy pretzel in his hands he heard the shaking of a paper cup and the clinking of change. He looked up and saw a face that just caught him.  To this day he could bring to mind details about that face that he could not, on a whim, recall about others he had known better and for longer.  There was the bushy beard.  Grey had taken over the area of the chin and seemed to extend outwards in ripples of diminishing intensity to the rest of the hairy fac.  His skin was the color of milk chocolate, but had the tough but yielding look of old leather that made him think of his mother’s handbag.  He looked at other people with a smile and wishing people a pleasant day.  There was a sincerity that he had not seen in many others save for his own parents.  Terry stopped in his tracks and watched the man.  Forced to stop too, his mother, after already losing one battle, asked him what was wrong.  Her voice had the impatience that only a mother, carrying a full laundry bag and still many chores left in the day, deserves.  He had wanted to know what that man was doing and why was he standing there.  His mother explained that he was homeless and was asking for money from other people so he could buy food and beverage as he was likely thirsty and hungry.  It was spring, but the day was dreary and cool, and the man was wearing a lot of clothes, but most of them fraying and with holes or rips here or there.  Even on his parents satisfactory but tight budget he knew clothes would normally be replaced before such a state of disrepair.  He remembered the man suddenly looked at him with a wide smile and he looked back into those eyes.  There was a brightness to them that just made your day better to have them look at you, and all around his eyes were countless lines from years of hard living.  He looked older than any man he had ever seen at the time, even though he suspected that this man wasn’t as old as his Grandpa Greg or Grandpa Paul.  And in some ways those lines framing the eyes, made those bright eyes all the sadder, because Terry couldn’t understand how the world could be so cruel in the face of kindness.  As the warmth of the pretzel radiated outward from his hand, he could suddenly feel his hunger fade.

He held out his hand and said “Hi, my name is Terry, would you like this pretzel?”

His mom stood with jaw slowly giving way to gravity.

The man introduced himself, and told Terry his name was Jim and thanked him heartily for his gift as he was quite hungry.  Terry gave him a solid 6-year-old handshake, Jim’s fingertips cold as ice, while the other hands exchanged the pretzel.  Jim had turned to his mother and said “You have a fine boy there.”

His mom simply said “Thank you.  Yes I do.”  A confirmation of something she needed no other person to tell her was true, though you could still tell she was glad to hear it. Terry felt much more warmth now than the hot pretzel in his hand provided, and the joy at making that man happy was a feeling he never felt before.  It’s like he realized that not all joy was the same, and that there is a joy out there that is more fulfilling than unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.  When he got home he had a wonderful peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and the biggest glass of chocolate milk his mother had ever given him.

As Terry continued to read the article about him, it recounted many of the sources for his nomination.  It was hard to believe that 500 people had written personal testimonies to his kindness, his generosity, his friendship, and his compassion.  He joked to himself that he had it is easy.  When you are good with your hands, it’s much easier to lend one.  It was his best friends and business partners who had done the legwork to find all these people to write letters.  He felt an extreme sense of gratitude for having such friends.  It was around games of Dungeons & Dragons that they came up with the idea to start a carpentry business.  Which then grew into a business that flipped houses.  After the first year they had enough money to hire a few employees, and this allowed his friend Jonathan to do less carpentry and work more on the business end of things.  According to the article his employees had put together a letter of testimony as well.  As the company took a little less time, he started to do pro bono work with Habitat for Humanity, and for people in his neighborhood.  When he met his wife at age 32, his company had grown to where he had 10 full time workers and this allowed Terry to pull back a little so he could start a family.  He wished his daughter could have been here right now to share this moment with him, but she was away at college for architecture.  She shared his passion for building and had even a keener eye for design and making things look beautiful. Apparently she had also written a letter talking about what an attentive and hardworking father he was.

The article couldn’t name everybody, but there was a letter from a former science teacher who was nearly fired for being a gay.  A plea perhaps he was only able to win at a schoolboard meeting because of the goodwill his company had in this small and fairly conservative town.   There was testimony from the director of the local Vo-Tech where he taught classes, and took many of the students on to gain experience helping him with projects.  Some of those students also wrote letters of support.

After a while it had become too much for him to read anymore, and too indulgent to wonder who all might have taken the time and effort to support him.  Maybe he was too humble, but he also knew that none of his success was his alone.  Where would he be without the support and love of his parents?  It was their kind and generous nature that drove his own ambitions.  How could he have had the successful business he had without the loyalty and trustworthiness of his friends?  Ones that shared a similar vision for life, and whose enthusiasm and work ethic were matched by extreme talent for business and carpentry.  And all these people he had helped to over the year had come at the expense of time he couldn’t spend with others.  His wife and daughter had been so patient and understanding to know what drove him, and while they had never once expressed any wish to have him around more, he knew that at times they must have missed him.  Any one of the 500 people, he was sure, gave as much to him as he did to them. He turned to his wife and said “I must get a list of the people who wrote in, so I can write them back and thank them.”

She looked at him with eyes that knew him so well and just laughed.  “All in good time my darling.  Tonight you are resting on your laurels and I have made reservations.  Now good put on something nice.  You get an evening that’s just about you.”

Resigned, he got up and walked towards his room and tried to push his uneasiness to the back of his mind.  He stopped and started to turn sure he would have a good argument in all this, but his wife had followed him, expecting such ridiculous tactics and said “Go on!” and gave him a playful push on the back into their room.

He was resolute that he’d pay for dinner.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

“And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It is today my 42nd birthday and I decided this would be a good year to reflect.  Why 42, why not 40 like any other normal person with a penchant for round numbers?  According Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series a supercomputer was asked to come up with the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything and 42 was that answer.  So I am at the age which is the answer, but of course if you read the series you know that while the answer was determined a more powerful supercomputer had to be created to determine the question (which turned out to be the planet Earth).  So 42 seems like a great age to think about answers and questions.

This is also the year that I often joked would be when I started my own cult.  This was supposed to be easy as I was going to have a good portion of Twitter followers, find myself a good compound with fertile soil and enjoy the good life.  Extra wives would have been optional.  It’s weird how as I get older there seems to be more of a drive to keep life simple and surround yourself by like minded people.  Anyway, Twitter really doesn’t suit me, for as you can see, I don’t say many things in 140 words or less so my followers are few, and I think life is better that way, and also I’m not a very proficient gardener, so I’m probably better off living close to the farmer’s market.  So here I am, nobody famous and nobody to follow, and a mini essay of reflection is probably more suited to greater personalities, but hey, it’s the age of information and I have a blog, so why not write? 🙂

Life

I think what makes being a teenager so difficult is that this is the time in your life when you start to self-actualize a lot more and really think about the future.  It’s a terrible thing really, because you are also still young enough where you really don’t know shit.  I remember thinking a lot about the type of person I wanted to be.  My dad was (and still is) an alcoholic and as a teenager I knew that I didn’t want to be like my dad.  Kids respond to those who are consistently there for them, and my mom was that person.  Of course I’ve come to realize many positives about my dad as well, but as a kid I knew that whatever way my dad was, wasn’t working.  My mom was loving, supporting, nurturing, and always there.  At the time I never really looked at my mom and dad’s personalities as related gender, but more as what are the behaviors that lead to increased happiness and that bring increased happiness to others.  I am sure it did in many ways shape why I’ve always felt more free to be myself more in front of women than men, and why I look beyond arbitrary categorizations of people and simply try to stick to values that bring happiness.

I also remember thinking that I was not the person I wanted to be.  I felt like I was this amazing person who was trapped inside myself. Inside a shell that I needed to break out of.  I know now that there is a certain element of being a child of an alcoholic that makes us more fearful of self-expression because of how we internalize our parents’ addiction, but I think teenagers can simply be apprehensive about inserting themselves in the world no matter how much they want to.  I know I am a person who leans toward safety over risk, and that was one of the things I wanted to get better at as I got older which was to be bold.  It’s still the quality I struggle with the most, but I’m proud to say that the vision I had for myself at around the age of 16 isn’t far off the mark.  The compliment that I have received several times and means the most to me is when people tell me that they can tell immediately the type of person that I am because I am so open and.  It is the part I like about myself the most especially because I think life is too short to pretend with people.   I am proud that I have reached a point in life where I am comfortable in my own skin, and it is something that has always seemed like a necessary way to be, but I in no way want to imply that I have go there solely on my own.

Another thing I worried about when I was young was that I wasn’t original.  I felt like everything I was, was copied from somebody else.  I didn’t have any original ideas, I wasn’t creative.  As I was thinking about what to write in this post yesterday I was wondering if I should say that the meaning of life is “theft”.  We are born as absolutely blanks and while genetics may texture our canvas to a certain respect we are painted on by the many people we come to know in life, our culture and society also paints broad brushes over us too.  Of course theft isn’t really the right word.  People and society paint things upon us and we have little say in that.  And in most other cases it is people who in my life who have given, and I have taken, and I would like to believe that with time I have been better about showing my gratitude.  It would not be until a certain Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode that I felt better about my lack of originality.  Here Captain Picard comments on the emotionless android Data’s violin playing.

PICARD: The good doctor was kind enough to provide me with a recording of your concert. Your performance shows feeling.
DATA: As I have recently reminded others, sir, I have no feeling.
PICARD: It’s hard to believe. Your playing is quite beautiful.
DATA: Strictly speaking, sir, it is not my playing. It is a precise imitation of the techniques of Jascha Heifetz and Trenka Bronken.
PICARD: Is there nothing of Data in what I’m hearing? You see, you chose the violinists. Heifetz and Bronken have radically different styles, different techniques, yet you combined them successfully.
DATA: I suppose I have learned to be creative, sir, when necessary.
PICARD: Mister Data, I look forward to your next concert.

So yes, I now feel original, thanks to lines written by somebody else.  Star Trek has actually taught me quite a bit now that I think about it. 🙂 Life is also full of irony and paradoxes enough to make you scratch your head for a lifetime.  In the end though, isn’t this what we really are…a product of others, both biologically and environmentally with a unique level of proportions such that we are originals? What I really mean to say about all this is that I feel really grateful to all those who have given and for what I have taken.  I have taken the best of you to the very heart of me and a result carry you everywhere.  Some I’ve not seen or talked to in some time, some it may have only been a brief time in which we knew each other, or perhaps were not even very close friends, but I saw what was good in you, I smiled at it, and celebrated it and let it course through my arteries.  I am thankful for all the love, the friendship, the inspiration, the memories, the lessons taught, and yes even the criticism and in some cases hurt.  I am unique and original because of all of you and there is no other way I’d rather be.

The Universe

Growing older also means growing more aware as you continue to experience and learn in life.  As someone who is strongly committed to learning as awareness grows so does the burden of that knowledge.  It is only in the most recent years that I have truly understood the expression ignorance is bliss.  However, it is also important to remember that your own bliss is of little value to anybody else but yourself, and we are a social species.  As I’ve learned I continued to have more awe for this amazing universe we live in, uncovering the darkness that shrouds knowledge also means discovering the horrors, the malice, the pain, and the suffering.  It is all the worse when you are one of the lucky ones to have things far better than so many.  It makes you question the very right to feel happy.  And when it comes down to it, it makes me feel bad just complain about how heavy the thoughts are sometimes, because I am so fortunate to just have to think about it and not actually experience the hardships so many bear.  I am fortunate that I can put those thoughts to the side at times. However, I also know there is no denying it either.  And I know that just feeling sad and depressed all the time would be debilitating so there is nothing for it but to do something about it. I am not helpless under this weight although sometimes it can feel that way.  So I try, and I let myself feel happiness for all the beauty that exists as well.  There is much to fight against in this world, but I feel if we forget what we’re fighting for, it’s easy to get lost in the darkness.

The cosmic glow of the Carina Nebula as seen in a stunning 3D reconstruction in Hidden Universe, released in IMAX® theatres and giant-screen cinemas around the globe and produced by the Australian production company December Media in association with Film Victoria, Swinburne University of Technology, MacGillivray Freeman Films and ESO. The Carina Nebula contains two of the most massive and luminous stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. The original image was taken by ESO's Very Large Telescope.

I believe that it is this mixture of awe-inspiring beauty and soul-draining horror that drives us.  I think we can’t help but feel small in the face of it.  Some try to conquer it by building belief systems that explain it all, some try to chip away at the answer slowly through careful investigation, and some just turn to vices to distract themselves and to numb themselves.  However, from what I’ve seen, the true winners in this world are always the ones who accept how small they are in the face of it all.  It’s bigger than any one individual and it’s the one thing we all have in common.  It is enough to make you just sit there and think “Why can’t we just all get along? It really does seem so simple to just be nice to each other.  Nobody has to get nailed to anything.

As I look forward the things on the horizon are amazing.  Just as there are things in my young life I never thought possible but exist now, I know there are many unknown wonders that await me for the rest of my life.  I like being this age and knowing all the things that I know.  Wisdom comes to you without even knowing it, and I like it. I admit that I am not a big fan of leaving this existence.  I see us getting closer to things like unlocking the mysteries of aging, replacing organs, interfacing the computer to the brain and I wonder if in the not too distant future we might have a choice to live far longer than we do to do.  I am jealous quite frankly.  As someone who embraces change and has seen how changes occur over time spans far greater than our human lives I would like to experience it.  I want to choose when I want to leave this existence and have a shot at deepening that well of wisdom beyond this short time on Earth.  When I think of all the change that has occurred over 1000 years, 10,000 years and so on…I wonder what it would be like to see it…what perspective that would give you…how you would look at the universe differently.  I suppose such a chance will not happen, but I keep the dream alive only because it is at times helpful to remember that we are not only small in terms of the vastness of space, but also the vastness of time.  I can’t be expected to figure it all out, and that’s okay.

And Everything

Mommy_DhyanThere isn’t much more to say here.  Of course there is more to life I suppose, but it’s amazing how important some people become so that even the other things seem to tendril out from it.   I know that there are no guarantees in life, but that’s why living in the moment is so important. I am lucky that I have a life where I can take care of them just as much as they take care of me. The fact that our love can put some things at the center of our life, at the center of our universe, is amazing  What more could I want?  I do have everything.

Imitation and Approval

When I was 12 years old I went to Bible Camp.  It was my first time going to camp, going away for a week without having any parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles.  Luckily my second cousin went so I would know someone and that was probably the only reason I wasn’t too scared to go.  I am not sure why my mom chose to send me to a bible camp, but as a Christian I am sure she hoped that I was receive some good education about religion, the bible, etc.  When I was there I was eager to impress the counselors and leaders.  They had a bible verse a day and a contest at the end to give a free camp hat to anyone who could memorize all the verses.  I was the only who could do it.  I used to have a good memory.  Maybe I still do, I just can’t remember.  At camp they also talked a lot about prayer and how praying could help you get the things you wanted in life, as long as you were good and you really believed.  For me the idea of prayer was exciting because I thought maybe it could work to stop my dad’s drinking.  So I opened my heart and let Jesus Christ in.  The counselors were so happy.  All of them congratulated me.  They were so kind and so pleased with my decision.  After camp was over, I was so excited I had made the decision because I knew it was going to make others in my life so happy.  My mother, my grandmother, aunts and uncles.  And on top of that I was told that if I was good and really believed that my prayers would be answered.  I had many tangible reasons to be very happy about it all.  It had very little to do with heaven or hell, or some events on alternate planes of existence, but the way it made others in my life happy, and the way it might help my dad to stop drinking was very exciting.  Of course none of my praying made any difference to my dad drinking and in the end the excitement of my decision to let Jesus into my heart faded and it became clear how the entire belief system had any relevance to life if one of the things they touted the most didn’t work.  I believed as much as a 12 year old could.  But the fact that prayer doesn’t work is not really the subject on my mind, but rather that as I reflect I see how much of a child I really was.  I completely didn’t understand the complexities of the religion or the Bible.  I was clearly caught up more in the joy that the adults in my life felt by my decision rather than really grasping the importance of what a religion means to someone’s life.

Dhyan_forkandknife

It takes very little time with an infant/toddler to see how much they want to imitate others.  And while I am sure there is an evolutionary aspect to this, because obviously if we have survived as long as we have, it makes sense to copy our parents, but what is also clear is our reaction to that imitation.  Because when he successfully uses a fork, or successfully gets up on a chair by himself, climbs the stairs etc, there is much applause.  There is much excitement and happiness.  All in the house are happy and pleased at this ability to accomplish these tasks that move them closer and closer to adulthood.  Every child can’t wait to do things older people can do. They can’t wait to grow up.  As children we are always looking for the approval of our adults.  We may rebel when we don’t get it, but initially, we want to be noticed by those we look up to.  As children we are somewhat helpless and getting adults to like you and notice you, is a way to make sure that they take care of you, teach you, spend time with you.  If you can impress an adult then this is a bonding experience.  Something we all seek.

dhyan_laptopFor all my dad’s faults he was fairly adamant about choosing a religion as being a choice to make as an adult.  That children didn’t have the capacity to understand the decision and thus did not want my mother to influence as children.  This was not something my mother or Mennonite grandmother could really help doing, but it was certainly tempered compared to many other children and I am quite thankful for my dad in that, because it’s clear to me that he was right.  Even at the age of 12 I could not understand a religious belief system.  From my mother I may not have adopted her belief system, but I learned about her charity, her kindness, her compassion, her perseverance, and the fact that she is someone who likes to ask questions and research the answers.  As I watch my child grow I can see that it’s less important what I believe, but rather how I act.  These are the things that will shape him.  Brainwashing him into a certain set of beliefs seems pointless over my actions being moral.  My child was born an atheist and if he decides that he wants to pursue a belief system as a guide to live his life then it will be his own choice, not because I’ve prescribed a doctrine for him to follow.

With the idea of God being “our Father”, I sometimes wonder if God isn’t the ultimate helicopter parent.  A way for people to still constantly seek approval from a parent-like figure.  It seems somewhat unnatural to me now to maintain such an attitude into adulthood.  As children it makes sense to have this attitude, but as adults we are supposed to no longer be seeking approval and be the role models for our young.  I guess as social animals it’s easy for such hierarchies to remain.  The only problem is, if there is no God then all we’re really doing is trying to make a non-existent entity happy and a lot of difficult to interpret texts written by men on what God actually wants to be made happy.  That seems like a wholly unhealthy way to live life.

The choice of having children: Why abortions happen

In having a discussion with someone a while back who is anti-abortion she said, “Isn’t it interesting how when they don’t want it, it’s a fetus, but when they do want it, it’s a child”.  The implication being that the argument on when personhood occurs is arbitrary.  Aside from the fact that she’s wrong, because a lot of people, even when they want a child and get pregnant, they still don’t think of the fetus at 14 weeks as a person, she made an important point without realizing it.  There is a big difference in our attitude when want to have children (even if it isn’t exactly planned) and when we don’t.  Meaning that the important question to ask is, if we don’t want the child, why would someone get an abortion?  Given that it has happened since we existed as a species, either there are a significant proportion of psychopathic humans who love murdering babies, or there is a natural and logical explanation for it.

In my last post, I talked a little bit about the fact that we are wired not only to procreate, but also to sustain ourselves and our community.  Community is much different than it was in hunter-gatherer days and in some ways it is much worse.  Western society especially can be very individualistic and so support may come from nowhere else but yourself, and you’re often lucky if you have a partner who is willing to support you if you become unexpectedly pregnant.  To our Paleolithic brains the worry about the scarcity of resources to care for our child is going to make us look for options other than not having the child.  If you feel like you have inadequate resources to care for the child, you will likely not want to carry it to full term.  I read a blog just recently about how great Christian communities can be when someone loses a job in helping them through that, but it’s a very different story when a teenage girl has a pregnancy out of wedlock.  She risks being shunned by family and friends. And I don’t mean to just single out Christians, because there are great many other cultures that stigmatize girls for getting pregnant outside of marriage.  So no matter how supportive a community might be in other aspects, when an unwed girl gets pregnant she is often treated much differently.

When you look at countries that have the lowest rate of abortions you find that these are societies that give adequate health care to pre-natal mothers, give financial support to mothers once their babies arrive such as 1-2 years of maternity leave for the mother, and even a good deal for the fathers.  Women have free access to birth control, and there is a lot of emphasis placed on sex education and proper child care.  Is it any wonder that such countries have low abortion rates?  The country I’m in right now is Poland.  Poland has banned abortion for social reasons and only allows for abortions in the case of 1) Risk to the health of the mother 2) serious birth defects 3) Cases of rapes and incest.  I can say that there is at least some compassion here as many in the U.S. do not even want to give women these options.  That being said, as this article indicates, the policy was put into effect (in 1993 before which abortions were allowed for social reasons) with little forethought in supporting mothers and thus abortions have not stopped and have simply had to go underground and try to terminate pregnancies less safely.  And this is the important point.  Making abortions illegal does not stop abortions.  This article is a bit old, but looks at abortion rates worldwide.  In countries where abortions are illegal they have a hard time getting data on the number of illegal abortions, but use techniques based on estimates of how many women have to be hospitalized after getting an illegal abortion.  There are about 5 times more women getting illegal abortions than those hospitalized after the illegal abortion.  And despite a country like Brazil having several hundred thousand women hospitalized it does not deter women from having abortions.  When abortions are banned they still happen and are unregulated.  They happen more expensively if you want it done right, but for most people, they will simply not be able to afford it or the more qualified person will simply be too far away or too booked up, and women will use a cheaper, less qualified, and less sanitary, less safe method for the abortion.  Perhaps heard of “coat hanger abortion”, this was a reality when abortions were banned in this country when some women would try to terminate their own pregnancy.  A follower on the last blog post said she knew someone that used abortion as a form of birth control and had multiple abortions.  I agree wholeheartedly that this is a terrible situation, and one does have to wonder what would be wrong with someone who thinks that it is a valid form of birth control.  It seems fairly clear that such a person is not mentally sound, but one therefore must also ask the question, if abortions were illegal, would such a person be deterred from having multiple abortions?  Once again we must go back to the question, why would a woman want to terminate her pregnancy if the drive to reproduce is so strong in life, and if we can answer that, what are the necessary conditions to deter women from having abortions?

If you were paying attention to the last post and this one you will realize that one factor is of primary importance to the brain in determining whether to keep one’s baby.  The first is to feel supported.  This means feeling supported by your family and community and feeling that you have the material resources available to care for your child.  Now it’s probably true to say that there or many women who may have the resources or have the support, but simply perceive that they don’t but perception is also relevant.  Just because you may see someone as having more options than they have, we build our own realities. Furthermore, no matter how much we may love and be willing to sacrifice for our child a perceived strain on being able to proffer our own survival or drain the resources of our supporting community will impact our decision.  For instance a woman might think that they could have the baby, but they would need financial help, and while she might know her parents would help, she also knows they would have to blow through their retirement nest egg to do so.  And it’s important to remember that there are other factors that come into play.  Perhaps the father of the child is abusive.  Perhaps the parents will simply kick the mother out of the house for shaming the family.  A woman using abortion as a form of birth control might be doing so to continue her heavy drinking, drug use, and wild unprotected sex lifestyle.  Is this the type of person we want to raise a child?  Becoming pregnant can be a transformative experience for some, but for others simply makes matters worse and now there is a child in the world with a parent or parents ill-equipped to care for it.

Personally I feel there is a lot of vitriol aimed at the pro-choice crowd, but I don’t think any of us are opening up a bottle of champagne every time there is an abortion.  We have common ground, and we’d all like to see a respect for life that is equal to the respect for women who have unplanned pregnancies.  Shaming, blaming, and scorn only exacerbates the feelings of isolation and a lack of support and simply doesn’t help.  So if you love babies and you want every child to have a chance at life here are some things you can do to help:

  1. Fight for all women to get a minimum of 1 month maternity leave.  In that first year, she shouldn’t have to worry about money while doing the very difficult job of trying to adjust to having a new person in her life.  And if you can give the father 6 months paternity leave, that would be awesome too.
  2. Fight for universal health care. Don’t like the APA then improve it.  This helps all women have easy access to birth control.
  3. Make sure the education system treats sex openly and responsibly. Enough with this abstinence only stuff.  It doesn’t work.  Make sure your kids can get actual information about sex.  Instead of pretending it’s not going to happen to your kid because you taught them it is a sin to not have sex until marriage, accept that they might have sex and make sure that if they do they don’t get pregnant.  Fight to make sure your kids are informed.
  4. My cousin had 3 children by the time she was 19, and my aunt, like a champ stepped up and supported her daughter. I am sure she sacrificed a lot for her child, but knew that if she wanted those girls to have a chance, and her daughter to have a chance to improve her station in life she was going to need help.  Let’s stop shaming our daughters, our sisters, and friends for getting pregnant accidentally and make sure they know you are there for them no matter what.
  5. As a community of people against abortion, use your combined resources to not lobby the government but start funds to help young mothers, adopt babies yourself, and spread the word about adoption as a viable options and convince people that their child will not end up in the foster care system because it spends the first part of its life without being adopted. There are a lot of myths about adoption out there, and for some people it is very costly compared to having your own and having it covered by health care.  Help parents who might want to adopt with the cost, so that pregnant women know that the option is there for them.  I think there is a lot of positive and negative information about adoption out there, and we can do better to make the system more efficient and make women who have unplanned pregnancies more confident about giving their child up for adoption.   I do think things are getting better.
  6. Fight to improve the foster care system, so that children who end up being born to unfit parents have a chance at something better.

When we treat women as only having value for the ability to procreate we also commit a heinous crime to the living.  When we create laws that takes away a women’s right to decide what happens to her body this, to me, is also immoral and is harmful to women.  Especially given that it does not deter abortions from happening.  Can we really force someone to raise a child?  Especially when we make no provisions for how they do so? And speaking of the how, what about the fact that we hold no parents responsible for what crimes their child commits?  Parents are free to teach their children to hate, lust for power, oppress, be greedy, etc.  What of the parents of Dylann Roof, Timothy McVeigh, or an Adam Lanza?  You might argue that these are unique cases, but I bring them up to show the possibilities of what can happen when parents are ill-equipped to raise a child.  What harm to the world have such parents caused, and none are accountable for how they have raised their child.  Are these not crimes as well?  What are the results of having parents who raise a child who genuinely feel like they should not?  The foster system is full of children removed from parents who neglect and harm their children, and the system tries hard, but ultimately many who go through that system end up committing crimes and not having productive lives.  It is this multitude of people who increases the financial burden on others as well, increasing the need for taxation.  Something the conservative crowd that is often anti-abortion is also against.  If we are also against paying for all these unwanted children brought into the world, what is the option?  Letting them starve?  Letting them live in the streets? Is this demonstrative of this love of children that would have scorn those who have an abortion?

Perhaps these crimes are no worse than aborting a fetus, but coming together on this divisive issue requires that we find a solution that tries to minimize all these crimes.  It requires us to minimize the overall harm.  It is completely simplistic to simply tell someone they shouldn’t have sex, or they should have used protection.  It’s quite possible that the reason you have been able to make good decisions in your life, and others have not is because of completely different set of variables in their environment.  There could be a multitude of reasons why that person feels like they have inadequate resources and insufficient energy to raise a child.  But all of us who are pro-choice and pro-life must come together to deal with this issue.  The things I outlined above are a good start and reflect the values that are held in countries that have low rates of abortions.  Of course most of the people I know are pro-choice and you need only to talk to them for a short time to know that there desire to preserve life is as great as anyone.  In some ways moreso as they are anti-war and anti-death penalty and often fight for the preservation of life in many important issues we face today.  As a result I refuse to refer to those who are anti-abortion as those who are pro-life.   We all value life in our own way, so let’s work on solutions that meet that common goal.   As someone who has a child now, that I love an immeasurable amount it is hard for me to imagine life without him now.  Abortion seems all the more tragic, but I also know there are many couples who regret having children when they did, or at all, and it makes me wonder if they would have been better served waiting until a later time, or not having children at all.  Hindsight is always 20/20 and of course I know if I didn’t have my son, I would never know what I was missing.  Most women, not surprisingly don’t regret having an abortion.  Somewhere in the Bible I believe God says to “Be fruitful and multiply”.  We have certainly multiplied, but we have yet to ensure that all people on this planet can be fruitful.  It is the being fruitful that gives people the freedom to multiply.  To feel fruitful, mothers-to-be need to feel supported by their spouses, but their family, by their community, and by their government.  It may never be possible to stop abortion completely, something that has always been part of our nature, but we have the ability to reduce it greatly if we work together and create the environment that mothers need to keep and support their child.

Blogging about abortion is the one way ticket to getting people to hate your gets, but it is important to talk about, even very divisive issues, and hopefully I have made a case for how we can all work together on this issue.  I will finish off this series by talking about the choice to not have children at all, which seems to be increasingly common these days and why having a family with children is not the ultimate life goal in today’s age.

What Makes A Good Human?: Play

In talking about what makes a good human, I wanted to clarify that this series isn’t trying to focus on solely qualities that are only virtuous in the eyes of others but also on qualities that are good personally.  I believe that the goodness we display outward and our energy and drive to become better are fostered also by the good things we do for ourselves.  I also want to highlight qualities that I think we would be well served to promote in society in general.

Stress is a killer.  Even if it hasn’t killed you yet, it’s likely making you tired, irritable, and is causing you to develop less than healthy eating habits and/or overusing drugs.  The volume of literature on health problems associated with stress is large.  As a result I can’t “stress” the importance of play enough.  The dictionary defines play as “engagement in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” Now I have a bit of a problem with this definition, because it depends on what is meant by practical. Reduced stress, happiness, and better health seem fairly practical to me. That being said I do understand the spirit of the dictionary definition since these tend not to be the reasons we play. We play because we want to have fun, so let’s look at what play is all about.

Now certainly when it comes to health there are many things we can do to improve our health, but not all of them qualify as play.  Exercise directly for the purpose of getting healthier, may be important, but often feels like work and doesn’t always reduce stress.  Although an overall sense of well-being can make the exercise feel worth it, but I would argue that it’s still not play.  Now one of the ways I like to exercise is by playing racquetball, because I find racquetball fun.  As a side product I also do get healthier, but if I had to jog to get healthy, it would feel like work and not play.  So as the definition states, play does have to be something you enjoy doing and that you find fun.  For most of us, our careers don’t count either.  Not that a career can’t be rewarding, fulfilling and bring happiness, but most jobs have at least some unpleasant parts, and a good deal of stress too, even if it is something you enjoy as a whole.

Leisure is a big part of play and I am sure some of my colleagues who teach recreation and leisure in my department could give me a more academic breakdown of the different types of leisure, but I don’t want to focus too much on that, but instead look at what makes leisure enjoyable. There is a difference in what one might call a leisurely activity and feelings of leisure.  There are plenty of people who take vacations, and probably spend half their time checking work e-mails etc, or sit there and worry about all the things they have to do when they get back.  I have been guilty of this myself, and in general it is not healthy.  One of the most important aspects of play, and therefore leisure, is that it must be an activity that absorbs you and allows you to live in the moment.

Life is, however, full of troubles and worries and these are often important and must be dealt with.  They often require a great deal of thought, planning, and energy.  And although hedonistic people tend to be the happiest, we can’t always afford to be that way.  So play is our escape; a way to lose ourselves in fun, joy, and pleasure.  No doubt the importance of play in life has been enhanced by having a child.  Play, for children, has been demonstrated to be extremely important.  More worrisome is that play for children has been declining.  As standardized testing continues to occupy more and more of a child’s time in the classroom and some school districts in the U.S. are not letting children play outside at temperature below 55 F (almost no kid in Canada would ever have recess), free play time is being eliminated or replaced with directed play, which is a developmentally important difference for children.  I remember recess play times where me and my friends would usually act out various cartoons, comics, TV shows, all taking different roles and of course those roles would get modified pretty significantly over the course of the recess break.  Every day was something different and for 15-30 minutes we were completely lost in what we are doing.  As the article I linked suggests play develops important social skills, and also children learn through play even if they don’t realize they are doing it.  Again this goes back to the spirit of the definition of play, it may seem like it is not serving a practical purpose but it is.  In playing with my child I find that I am laughing and losing track of time as well (at least until my toddler’s inexhaustible energy surpasses my own) and so playing with your child is not only important for them but also important for you.

As adults, play time is just as important.  This NPR article does a good job at looking at the different aspects of adult play and why it is important.  My favorite quotes from the article are:

“Play is something done for its own sake,” he explains. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.”

And:

“I think it’s important for adults to be silly.”

I have long been a believer in the importance of silliness; like making silly faces, making silly motions or other slapstick-like comedy periods of complete nonsense, and giggling uncontrollably. Making others laugh and doing things that make us laugh is an extremely healthy activity.   Having people in your life that can make you laugh, or who have similar senses of humor can make life much richer and happier.  Playing games can also help keep adults sharp into old age, improving memory, coordination, and movement.  Adult play, as the article points out, can also involve sex.  You didn’t think I was going to leave sex out of this series did you?  While society tends to focus on the “love” aspect of sex (which is a limiting focus for sex, since sex and love are different biological drives) we also tend to forget that sex is fun.  You are in the moment and probably pretty happy during and after.

If there is a darker side of play, like any quality, it is letting it dominate your life.  We can’t play all the time, and as I mentioned there is time for being serious, feeling a little stress, and dealing with difficult situations.  But we can approach these situations fresher, more energetic and more skillfully when we do make time for play.  In the U.S. where leisure time is rapidly decreasing as we pursue the dollar over happiness it is ever more important that we make sure to make an effort to work play into our day.  I think inherently we all know this important but we let ourselves get swept away by the stresses of life and convince ourselves that we don’t have time.  Chances are you do and if you don’t think you do, start by literally trying to put “play” into your schedule.  I love playing racquetball and if I don’t block off that time for racquetball I will much more easily miss playing in favor of work.  By valuing play we not only help ourselves but we can also work to promote play in other areas of society, by giving children adequate playgrounds, by promoting play in school, and by making sure we do our best to help our friends and family play and have fun.