Sunday, June 17, 2018

Intentional Cruelty Now Becomes Government Policy

"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home, a long way from home"
--African-American spiritual, 1870

I was seven years old, recovering from very serious ear surgery.  After a visit to the doctor, as we drove home in my Grandmother's car, the bandages used to staunch the bleeding in my ear came loose and suddenly I began to bleed uncontrollably. As my Mom cradled me in the backseat, my Grandmother sped to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, where I was wheeled into a treatment room to wait for a doctor.  All around me were bright lights and beeping machines. I was covered with blood and so afraid, but the worst was this. Hospital policy dictated that my Mom could not come into the room. Could not hold my hand, or soothe me, or tell me it would be alright. I could even hear her protesting voice just outside the closed door. 

Never before, never since, have I ever felt so separate, so separated from my parents, the ones charged in my childhood world to care for me. To never leave my side.  To be physically present through the best and the worst.  That's what a kid is supposed to be able trust in, maybe more so than any other promise in their little life.

That Mom and Dad won't go, no matter what.

Unless you are an immigrant from the south, showing up at the border, pleading for mercy. Because right now it is the stated policy of the United States government to forcibly take teens and children away from their immigrant parents. To house them in makeshift facilities. To separate them from Mom, from Dad.  Under Presidents Obama and Bush, both hard line opponents of illegal immigration, this was not the policy. It could have been, legally, but both chose to not carry out "zero tolerance", the name given to this program by the current administration.

So now cruelty is a tool of our government's immigration policy. The intentional affliction of suffering visited upon children, CHILDREN, is the unmerciful way to supposedly stem the flow of illegal immigrants.  According to scores of reports from both the left and the right in the media, some 2,000 children have been separated from their parents in the last six weeks, by the Department of Homeland Security.

But wait--it gets worse.  Attempting to justify these actions, the top law enforcement official in the U.S., Attorney General Jeff Sessions, tried to rationalize it by citing scripture, in a speech to law enforcement officials in Indiana. He said it was our Godly duty to enforce the law, I suppose even an unjust law. But he did seem to skip over the most relevant passages for this discussion, the truth that throughout the Bible people of faith are commanded by God to care for the refugees and strangers among us. To treat them as human beings and fellow children of God, with dignity. Makes me wonder if a few pages were missing from Sessions' Bible.

As Isaiah 10 warns, "Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless." That's kind of direct. No wiggle room there.  But as so often happens when we humans use the Bible as a fig leaf to hide that which is ultimately immoral, this effort is unmasked for the lie that it is.  Or as the preacher William Sloane Coffin once said, "Too many Christians use the Bible as a drunk does a lamppost: for support rather than for illumination."

The condemnation of this new policy has been universal and comes from across the religious spectrum: Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, Main Street Protestants, Jews and Muslims, even by usually ardent administration acolytes, like the Reverend Franklin Graham. Not one legitimate faith group has come out in support of Uncle Sam. 

So imagine this if you dare: life as a motherless child.  Imagine surviving a dangerous journey of hundreds, even thousands of miles with your parents, only to be snatched out of their loving arms when you arrive. Imagine such inhumane actions being promoted under the flag of our nation.

We should all be ashamed.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Most Important Question: Ask and You Just May Save the Life of a Despairing Soul

"Did you really want to die?"
"No one commits suicide because they want to die."
"Then why do they do it?"
"Because they want to stop the pain.”
  --Tiffanie DeBartolo, "How to Kill a Rock Star"

I've never been in so much emotional pain that I wanted to take my own life. Thank God.  But I wonder: if I ever did get to that desperate point, would the folks in my life who love me have the courage to actually ask me, out loud, directly, if I was thinking about hurting myself? Committing suicide?

I know that's a jarring, scary possibility to ponder. To know a friend or family member or co-worker. To be worried that they may actually be contemplating killing themselves. Should I say something? What can I do? What if I'm wrong? What if I'm right?

As a helping professional for almost thirty years, I've been in the middle of far too many such situations.  I've seen the terrible aftermath of suicide: the devastated family, the unanswered questions, the raw and ragged heartache of loving someone who faced into so much inner pain, that they finally decided they had no option but to die by their own hands, to leave this life. 

So awful. So sad. So heartbreaking.

Suicide has been in the headlines and on our national consciousness these past weeks.  Two high profile celebrities and cultural bright lights committed suicide: author and chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade. So too the Centers for Disease Control released a report on suicide in the United States with sobering statistics. Since 1999, the national suicide rate has increased by 25 percent. In 2016, 45,000 Americans committed suicide; most took their own lives using a firearm. Suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Men account for three quarters of all suicides.  In Massachusetts the suicide rate increased by 35 percent in the last twenty years.

Beyond the numbers, of course, are the people.  Our aging parents, our beautiful sons and daughters, the person we share a pew with at church, the neighbor next door.  Folks so caught up in the downward spiral of emotional anguish, mental illness and deep despair, that these tortured souls see no way out, no relief from the pain but death.

The danger is that we, their relatives, their friends: we might think we are powerless to prevent such tragedies.  But we are not.  First look for warning signs. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, these include: if a person talks about killing themselves, feeling hopeless, having no reason to live, being a burden to others, feeling trapped or facing unbearable pain. Behaviors can signal risk: increased use of alcohol or drugs, withdrawing from activities, sleeping too much or too little, or isolating from family and friends. A person's moods are red flags too: depression, anxiety, irritability, or humiliation and shame.

If we are worried for someone, then comes what may be the toughest, but perhaps the best thing we can do for them.  Ask.  Just ask. Say directly to them: "Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Are you thinking about taking your own life?"  And if that answer is "yes" then connecting them with health care professionals and resources to get them the help they need. 

Yes it will feel awkward. Yes it might be the hardest discussion you've ever had.  Yes you may be wrong and risk embarrassment or even angering another. But: what if you are correct in your feelings?  What if your one loving and caring outreach actually saves a life? 

Think about that.

So if you are worried about someone you love, if you have suspicions something is wrong, if you think suicide may be on someone's heart or mind: ask. Talk to them honestly and forthrightly. It just might be the most important conversation you will ever have. 





Monday, June 4, 2018

If I'd Known Then What I Know Now: A Letter of Hope to Graduates

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it.
            --from the 1967 film, "The Graduate"

Do you remember who spoke at your high school or college graduation? On that day, perhaps long ago, when you as a grad sat in a hard backed chair on a sun drenched football field or in a cavernous college field house or on ancient wooden pews in a church? Do you remember what advice was given to you? The pithy wisdom. Seemingly profound directions for life. How about the guidance a well meaning parent or relative offered?    

Admit it: you were probably having a hard time listening then.

Because you were nervous and excited at the scary and wonderful prospect of finally being on your own, fully responsible for your one God-given life.  You didn't listen fully because you were sad about leaving a group of friends or the comforts of home. You were worried because you'd yet to find a job. You just wanted the formal rituals to end so you could party! You were ready to toss your mortar cap into the air and then get on with things.

I know I was distracted on the day I picked up my diploma from the University of Massachusetts thirty five springs ago. I felt as if all the ways I had identified myself up until that point in my 22 years--student, dependent child, dreamer--these were being stripped away. Now it was up to me to figure out who I wanted to be and what the quality of my one life would be, as well. How I would choose to live as I made my way into the big unknown world.

Looking back I do know what I wish someone had said to me. 

"John: this life is not all about 'you'. Make your life about something bigger than self alone. Devote part of your life to a cause or a passion or an ideal or an eternal belief that makes the lives of others and this world better."     

I don't know if I would have heeded that advice. But I do know that I have been happiest in my one life of nearly six decades now, when I have given myself fully over to something other than "me".  To a faith in God.  To a cause for the good.  To service for others who are struggling.  To being a loving and caring adult in the life of a child: as Godfather and Uncle and teacher and friend.

I wish someone had warned me that if a person lives a self-focused, self-centered, self-indulgent life, makes one's self the center of the universe, that's a pretty lonely way to live. I wish someone had challenged me to see physical pleasure, indulging my outsized  appetites, as okay in the short term but ultimately fleeting, even shallow in the long run. 

I wish someone had taught me that it is not about, "Who dies with the most toys wins."  The most joyful moments I've known have never been about money or things or stuff. It's always been about relationships: who I love, who loves me. I wish someone had talked to me about being humble, that to do so doesn't mean thinking less of yourself but thinking less about yourself. 

The gift of being young and just beginning life's journey is that you get to figure it all out as you go along.  So perhaps this idea of my present self giving my past self advice is a bit fantastical.  But still: I do wish someone had shared with me one simple insight I've come to understand through the rough and tumble and beautiful and broken process of growing up.

A life lived for self alone is finally, not much of a life. A life lived for others is the best and the most blessed life of all.

God bless the class of 2018.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

We Are More Alike Than Different. That's A Very Good Thing.

"I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike."
            --Maya Angelou, "Human Family", 1990

Once a year, sometimes in the spring, sometimes in the summer, I pack up my bags and purchase a plane ticket and travel to an exotic place, a faraway land of fascinating natives people and odd customs, of stark geography and mysterious foods. 


Yup, the North Star state. For the geographically challenged, it's 1,377 miles due northwest of the Bay State, a 21 hour drive if you are up for an epic road trip. Bordered by Canada, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas, I've visited this corner of God's Creation for 24 years, spent more time here than in any other place, save for my New England home. At first I came because good friends moved there, but later? I fell in love with the place: its people, its natural beauty, its differentness in comparison to where I come from.

When I tell folks I'm headed to the Twin Cities for my yearly pilgrimage, the response from my northeastern brethren is predictable.  "That's where it snows a lot and is wicked cold, right? Where Mary Tyler Moore had her TV show? Where we fly over to get to the rest of the country?"  Ask folks from there what they envision in Boston and they respond with similar stereotypes. "That's where folks pahk the cah in Hahvad yahd!  Where everyone is always in such a darn hurry, maybe even a bit full of themselves." (Minnesotans always offer that last opinion very politely.)

Those responses reflect a larger bias, a knee jerk response as humans to "the other" and "other" places. When we think of a place, not close but far away, not familiar but foreign, we can easily focus upon what is different in "here" versus "there". What separates and not what unites.  What makes one place cozy and comfy and another place weird and even off putting. That blind spot is not just about the land of 10,000 lakes versus the home of the bean and the cod. 

In a place like America, we seem to revel in these geographic judgments.  And so northerners stereotype southerners as Confederate flag waving, pick up driving, moonshine drinking yahoos and southerners depict northerners as snooty, elitist, big city, latte drinking, Volvo driving liberals. Folks in the Bible Belt wonder what's up with Godless New England and Yankees view those folks down south as Bible thumping intolerants.        

Our current political climate has made these harsh opinions even sharper.  Some, not content to demonize folks who are "different" in just the good old U.S.A., now take their cruel stereotypes even further. So immigrants from far away are not strangers to be welcomed but thugs to be stopped at the border. Nations that once were our friends are now foes who threaten a xenophobic vision of America, as always and forever first.

Which is really sad. Because if you believe that God or some power greater than humankind made and shaped this beautiful world, you have to admit that the Creator made it pretty darn diverse. Even intentionally diverse.  An amazing kaleidoscope of peoples and places, faiths and cultures, ideologies and histories. 

Maybe "different" is good. Maybe different is actually supposed to teach and not threaten us.  Maybe underneath all of our perceived and real differences is the miracle that finally, we are all much more alike than divergent and we all share one common home.  In this nation. In our world. Then our shared hope is clear: to get along respectfully while honoring our differences. If we don't keep working towards that goal, I think we are in very deep trouble.

That's why I keep coming back to Minnesota. Because at Kay's Country Kitchen in Saint Joseph I can get Tater Tots as a side dish at every single meal. Because "Minnesota Nice" is not a myth, but in fact, a reality. Because I really need to hear "You betcha!" at least once during my visit.  Because this place and these people are different than me and just like me too.  Thank God.

The diverse world awaits. Take the plunge. Go and explore somewhere, anywhere, but the place you call home.  It will be different. It will be God blessed.  And if you go to Kay's, make sure and get the Tater Tots.

Monday, May 21, 2018

All Work, No Play? No Thanks.

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."          --proverb, 1659

America: let's admit it and tell the truth about a not so secret "secret" that too often defines how much we enjoy life. Or don't. We work too much. Way too much.  And when it comes to play and playing? Well, we play, have fun, chill out, decompress, vacation, get away, rest from our labors much too little.  Just look at the rest of the world, who seem so much better at having a good time than we "nose to the grindstone" American workers. 

Eighty five point eight percent of American men and 66.5 percent of American women work more than 40 hours per week, among the highest numbers in the industrialized world . Add up all those extra hours and overtime and we end up working 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers. 

Sacre bleu! 

Don't even get me started on how we Americans labor so much more than our French friends, who while we grab a soggy bagel on the frenzied rush to work? They get to slow down and eat a fresh baked croissant in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower on a warm spring morning in Paris, all while humming a jaunty tune, as accordion music plays in the background.. 


Yes, that's hyperbolic and yet there is some truth to it. Like that the French are among the majority of western countries that mandate for every worker at least 20 paid days off per year.  In France you get a whole month off to play! In the U.S. we average just 13 vacation days per year and I'll bet chances are good that you don't always take all of your days off.  Do you?

I'm not anti-work. We all need to work: to make money, to support our loved ones, to find fulfillment, to make a difference, to be creative, to make a home, to raise our kids. Most days I like the work I do and many days I absolutely love it.  But what I always need to remind myself is that I am not my work.  I do work but finally it does not define my essence, who I am, and who God makes me to be.

God makes us not just to toil away but to take regular Sabbaths too.  "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy," the Lord said to Moses, in the fifth of God's ten commandments.  And so Christians and Jews and Muslims: we all are invited to claim at least a weekly Sabbath, true rest from work. That's what we are supposed to do.  That means no weekend emails or work texts. No sneaking into the office.  No working on a project after the kids have gone to bed. 

Because God knows (and I suspect we do too) that all work and no play does make you and I and all the other overworked Americans dull and tired and cranky and spent.  The more we work the less precious time we have for family, for faith, for fun, for friends, for sure.  Heck if our President plays golf every weekend, can't we at least take a little more time for ourselves too? Claim a hobby. Sing in a choir.  Create art. Build furniture. Play trivia. Plant a garden. Cook like a master chef.  Ride your bike.  Volunteer to help those in need.

And just play. PLAY!

Not as the exception to your rule of work but as a necessary balance in this life, something to keep you sane and to nurture your soul. The wisest folks I know are the ones who both know both how to work and how to play.  They also tend to be the happiest too.  And not all of them are from France either.

What will you do this day, this weekend, this summer, to play? So I dare you. Put down the briefcase. Shut off the phone. Close the laptop.  Punch the time clock and don't look back.  Because while work might seem endless, life is limited. We've only got so many days left to take a Sabbath. Who wants this as an epitaph on our gravestones: "I wish I had worked more." 

I wish to play more.  That's my prayer today.  Go ahead. Enjoy a croissant and take a break from work, work that can wait. But life? It waits for no one.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Amazon HQ In Boston? Return to Sender.

"In economics the majority is always wrong."             
--John Kenneth Galbraith, economist

Get primed for Amazon because it just might be showing up on Boston's front stoop very soon and this smiling package contains within it growth unimaginable.   

For Amazon might choose our fair city of Boston as the site for its future second headquarters. The Hub is one of twenty North American finalist cities in Amazon's competition to build one behemoth of a project. Imagine this: 50,000 new jobs, $5 billion in construction spending, and $38 billion dollars in direct and indirect investment in our metropolitan area.

Ka-ching! Wowsa! Talk about growth!

The even better news is that our little slice of paradise is more than ready to absorb such gargantuan growth. Land is plentiful and cheap. Housing is readily available and modestly priced. Our roads and bridges and transportation infrastructure can absorb all of those tens of thousands of extra people and cars and subway and train riders.   Our state and city governments have plenty of extra cash to offer Amazon generous tax breaks and incentives.    

Oops. Correction. I was thinking of Hartford or Worcester or Springfield, not Boston.  

I know that's a bad joke. But what's not so funny is the notion that the city and the rest of us in the greater Boston area could actually digest such an Amazonian growth shock and not pay for it in a diminished quality of shared life if the Amazon juggernaut rolls into town. 

To be anti-growth is not a real popular stance these days. Not with scores of cranes dotting the city skyline. Not with unemployment in the Bay State standing at 3.5 percent, the lowest rate in eighteen years. Not with house values skyrocketing at a pace unheard of since the boom of fifteen years ago. Homes go on the market one day and immediately frenzied buyers desperately jockey to outbid and overbid each other. 

To not be in favor of growth is positively un-American. Both political parties in D.C. and Boston instead scramble to build, to drill, to develop, to cut taxes, to expand, and to always grow, grow, GROW.  Do whatever it takes to push an already healthy economy to even greater heights.  But what's never talked about in such fevered fantasies about infinite economic growth is the huge price to pay in the quality of communal life when growth is gospel; when growth trumps all else; when growth is the sacred golden calf we all worship.           

If you are one of hundreds of thousands of folks who drive or "T" or train into the city daily, you know what a disaster it already is, the hours, the days you spend in wall to wall traffic or waiting for non-existent subway cars to arrive. If you are middle or lower class or poor, you know how expensive it already is to try and find a decent affordable place to call home anywhere inside the Route 495 belt. According to a recent Inc. magazine article, Boston is the seventh most expensive area in the United States. To live "comfortably" a Bostonian needs an income of at least $89,000.  To rent costs on average almost $2,900 a month.  Where are folks coming up with all of this money? Or not?

Here's an economic heresy to consider. Growth is not always good.  Growth not managed smartly and wisely harms the place being grown, and can easily change it for the worse, not the better. Growth unfettered can cause the basic systems of life--schools, infrastructure, housing, health care--to break down, even collapse under the weight of overgrowth.   

So count me among the tiny minority of folks who aren't excitedly jumping on the Amazon bandwagon.  Instead Amazon: why not build in Detroit or Cleveland or any other struggling place in the United States, a city and region that could actually use an economic boost?  That would actually prosper and grow smartly with the delivery of such an unprecedented influx of jobs and money and hope?  I've no doubt that such metropolitan areas would embrace you with wide open arms.

But in Boston?  Send back the Amazon parcel. Return to sender.  This is one delivery we just can't afford to accept.




Tuesday, May 8, 2018

When We Are Long Gone, How Will We Be Remembered?

"Every person has a legacy. You may not know what your impact is, and it may not be something that you can write on your tombstone, but every person has an impact on this world."            
   --Dara Horn, American novelist

I wish I could eavesdrop at my own funeral. 

Yup, I know that's kind of morbid.  And no, I'm not planning on exiting this mortal plane anytime soon. God willing I've still got lots of life left in me at 57. 

Yet what a revelation it would be to listen in, as the people who love and know me while I live on this earth, one day in the future gather together and talk about the person I was. The life I led in the years I was given by my God. I wonder what they'll say, what I'll be remembered for, what my legacy will be.

Legacy.  That's what every single human being leaves behind in death: paupers and princes, the famous and the infamous, the anonymous and the big shot.  Legacy is the spiritual echo of our limited time on planet earth. We all will depart to some "undiscovered country", in the words of William Shakespeare, but even in our ending, we will leave a wake in the sea of human existence.  Some ripple that moves outward, declaring, "He was here. She was here." 

The world will be different, changed, for one soul having lived.

This week the New York Times reported on the legacy of a woman named Sylvia Bloom, a 96 year old you'd never expect to leave some great legacy. Bloom actually died in 2016, having worked as a legal secretary at a New York city law firm for 67 years.  That is a noteworthy legacy if only for longevity. But other than her employment record, Bloom lived an ordinary life.  Born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents, she grew up in the Depression, married a city firefighter, had no children and lived a modest life in a tidy rent-controlled apartment.  Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to merit more than a short obituary in the back pages of the newspaper.

Yet Bloom left behind a great fortune, $9 million, all steadily saved and invested over years and years and years, by a quiet soul who most days got to work by way of a city bus.  The real legacy is what Bloom did with her money. She bequeathed $8.2 million of it to charity, more than $6 million to the Henry Street Settlement, a Lower East side of Manhattan social service agency, founded in 1893.  Their historic mission is to serve the underserved: the poor, children at risk, seniors, the homeless, domestic abuse survivors and the unemployed. The kind of folks we might imagine won't have much of a legacy because of the hardness of life for them. Unless someone helps, like Bloom, with her legacy.  Her gift will underwrite college scholarships for needy students, for a very long, long, long time. 

Now that's a legacy.
Most of us won't come close to leaving behind such a generous gift as Bloom's.  We won't be remembered as a best selling author or a politician who served with honor or a celebrity whose star shone so bright.  Yet each day you and I are accumulating a legacy, the legacy of our one life. 

It is built in small increments, in acts of kindness and decency, in living with integrity, in being a faithful spouse, a loving Mom or Dad, a loyal employee, a trusted friend, a welcoming neighbor, or an engaged citizen.  It's being created in the causes that we support with our time, in the ways we make this world better: by having faith in God, or coaching a kid's Little League team, or standing up for the powerless, or being so grateful that we generously make our financial gifts to places like Henry Street Settlement.

All these tiny acts of goodness add up to the legacy of a really good life.

Or not.  Legacies cut both ways. So we might also be remembered for the grudges that we held or the folks we did not stand by in fidelity, or the hard heartedness with which we lived, or our greed in keeping everything to ourselves and for ourselves. We imagine we win because we had the most toys. At our passing we could be recalled as cynical or faithless, ruthless or mean, self-centered or self-indulgent.

Legacy is finally up to each of us. It grows daily in how live and move through this precious God-given life. Legacy teaches us that although we can't take it with us, we can leave behind goodness and a world made better because we lived.  The choice is ours'. 

How will we be remembered?