Monday, September 24, 2018

To Be Right We Must First Admit When We Are Wrong

"It does take great maturity to understand that the opinion we are arguing for is merely the hypothesis we favor, necessarily imperfect, probably transitory, which only very limited minds can declare to be a certainty or a truth."             
--Milan Kundera, author

I know this much is true. I get it wrong in this life. A lot. I have opinions that need to change. Biases that need to be challenged.  Self-righteous convictions that need to be overturned.  I'm actually wrong several times a day.

So this past Saturday evening, on the last night of summer, under clear skies and crisp temperatures, I was at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, watching the New England Revolution professional soccer team play the Chicago Fire. For years I gave a friend of mine a really hard time about his diehard status as a "football" fan.  I argued that soccer was in fact boring--just a bunch of folks running up and down, up and down the field, this repetitive display of play rarely punctuated by the actual scoring of a goal. I was half serious and half silly. I loved ribbing him but was also very set in my ways. 

But then I finally decided to go to a game with him, to give it a chance, spend a few hours under the lights with 20,000 or so other fans and....WOW! It was a great match. Really exciting. The players were amazing, so athletic, kicking and heading the ball in ways unfathomable. The match was tight and hard fought and came down to the final minutes. When our home team scored in the waning moments of the match I leapt to my feet and roared with joy.

And so I was wrong. And so I am wrong too.

Not just about soccer but also about other ideas and issues and beliefs too.  It used to be hard for me to confess when I was mistaken, or made an incorrect assumption, or held some belief I thought sacred and inviolable but that was in fact incorrect.  If challenged I'd dig in my heels, argue even harder, double down on my self-righteousness and never, ever, ever, ever back off.

But then I grew up. Came to see that to be a fully formed and mature human being, to get along with folks I share this life with, I need to be open to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world. I have to actually listen to an opponent with respect and care.  I have to dig deeper, do research and look at both sides with thoughtfulness.  I have to have the courage to try new things I can so easily dismiss as "not for this guy!" I have to be willing to change my mind.

About things like a soccer match. Or a political belief. Or a moral stance. Or a religious ideal. Or a partisan conviction.

That soccer epiphany reminded me of a larger reality about right and wrong and right now. We are in a civic crisis in the United States: more divided, more angry, and more convicted by our unwavering convictions than ever before, at least in my lifetime.  Democrats and Republicans move in lock step as partisan foot soldiers, more loyal to their own kind and their own way of thinking than to country.  We are "led" by firebrand politicians who rarely, if ever, admit when they are wrong. We are awash in media and social media that is ever hungry and hungrier for a cruel tweet, a nasty insult, or a sweeping opinion that condemns a whole group of humans as "less than" or "the enemy". 

As the poet William Butler Yeats wrote in "The Second Coming", "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed...The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity."  I don't think this judgment is overly dramatic. For the worst among us these days are so full of passionate intensity, are so sure of their own beliefs that they would even take down the community as a whole, even the nation as a whole and why?

To be "right".

I'm almost always idealistic about the future of our land and world, the days ahead, and our ability as a species to overcome whatever crises we face.  I want to believe, I need to believe that at some point those who lead us will let go of ego, self interest and blind conviction to actually do the work of our democracy.  But if this is to happen, all of us as citizens must leave the safety of our righteousness and have the courage to imagine that we may be wrong.  That we may need for our minds and hearts to change.  That the common good will happen when folks meet somewhere beyond mere passionate intensity.

I'm wrong today.  My opponent too.  That's the place to start.


Monday, September 17, 2018

100 Years Ago: The Pandemic That Started in Massachusetts

“The living owe it to those who no longer can speak, to tell their story for them.”
--Czesław Miłosz, Polish poet and writer

It's a largely forgotten story now, lost to history, vaguely remembered by some Americans but almost never recalled for the huge public crisis that it was. How many lives it took; how it disrupted all forms of public life; how it stole away husbands and wives, young children and young adults, folks who were supposed to live long and loving lives, but who instead died in the grip of a mysterious plague.   

And it all happened exactly 100 years ago in the fall of 1918.

The previous spring, reports had come from Spain about a deadly form of influenza, the flu, sweeping through groups of soldiers, killing scores of previously robust and healthy young men. It was World War I, "the war to end all wars" and Americans were being sent to Europe by the hundreds of thousands and, of course, then coming back home. The Spanish flu, as it came to be called, was first detected at an Army base in Kansas, but then the outbreak dramatically escalated, and right here in Massachusetts. It appeared at Camp Devens, a military base 45 miles northwest of Boston, and at naval shipyards in the city's downtown.

Victims of the outbreak would first suffer from normal flu symptoms: fever, nausea, aches and diarrhea.  But for many, especially the young, folks considered in the prime of their lives, the sickness would turn fatal. Severe pneumonia would develop. Patients would turn blue from a lack of oxygen, and eventually die, as their lungs filled up with fluid, victims drowning in their own bodies. 

In the Boston area by mid September, hundreds of cases were reported in the city and its suburbs. In response public schools were closed at the end of September and almost all public gatherings--military parades, sporting events, concerts, movies, clubs, etc.--were temporarily banned. Churches were given the option to stay open but most closed out of great caution. Still the pandemic grew. By October there were thousands of cases of influenza around the region and dozens of people were dying each day. Coffins were in short supply.  Understaffed hospitals could not keep up.  As one nurse of that time said, "It seemed as if all the city was dying, in the homes serious illness, on the streets funeral processions.” 

By early December, Boston had lost 4,794 people to the flu, with many more added to that number after a brief flare up the following winter.  Boston's influenza death rate was 710 per 100,000 residents, making it the third hardest hit city in the country.  Imagine 5,000 Bostonians dying in a matter of months from the flu in 2018 and you can begin to comprehend the depth of the crisis.

Scientists and historians estimate that worldwide, 20 to 50 million people died from the Spanish flu; that number includes 675,000 Americans, 140,000 of whom were soldiers. Some reports estimate that upwards of 5 percent of the global population died in this outbreak.  More folks died from the flu than all the military deaths from World I and World War II combined. 

But then in 1919, as quickly as the Spanish flu flared up, the flu died out, leaving families, communities, cities and nations ravaged, a whole generation lost to a disease that we still do not fully understand. How did it develop?  Where exactly was the first case reported? Why did it go away?  Could it happen again?  Such important questions.   

Yet why then do most of us suffer from historic amnesia when it comes to this, the worst worldwide pandemic since the bubonic plague, or Black Death, of the mid fourteenth century? Part of it may have to do with a lack of storytellers: folks who survived 1918-19. For the most part they are long gone from this life.  Maybe we neglect to remember because death was so random and chaotic--no logic to it. So hard to understand or comprehend.  Perhaps the story is untold because unlike casualties of war, which are often framed in dramatic, patriotic terms, folks who died from the flu went quietly, anonymously, and privately. 

But remember we must. To affirm this part of history as a part of our human story and our American story. To name the lost, these children of God: to recall them in memory, in honor, and in prayer. A few years ago, while on a bike ride, I discovered a lone gravestone at a local state hospital, now long ago closed. The marker stands at the entrance to a field of unmarked graves, anonymous souls who passed on. Affixed to that stone is a brass plaque, that simply declares: “Remember us: for we too have lived, loved and laughed.”

One hundred years ago.



Monday, September 10, 2018

In Praise of Tears and the Relief These Bring: Pass the Tissues

"It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper; so cry away."                     --Charles Dickens

A confession.  I'm a crier.  A sniffling sap.  A big softie. 

Yes. Even at 57 years old, I tear up, well up, weep, if something or someone touches my heart; makes me realize how great it is to be alive; inspires me to remember what a gift from God each day is; what a miracle it is that love happens in this often broken and ugly world.  I weep at a corny TV commercials, grateful that the insurance agent arrives to save the day! I weep every single Christmas watching the last scene from the film "It's a Wonderful Life" even though having seen that flick 143 times, I already know that George will be rescued from suicidal despair by his friends and that an angel named Clarence will get his wings.   

Sniff, sniff.

I weep when I stand with parents at the front of the church and take a little baby from them and hold that fragile and delicate soul in my arms and then drip holy water over that child's tiny forehead, with sacred and ancient blessings. I weep when I sing a soaring majestic hymn, as the organ notes waft above me. And yes I wept when the Red Sox finally won it all in 2004!  I definitely wept when I saw my Godson get his diploma last May and flashed back to a day long ago when he had to hold my hand to cross the street. 

When's the last time you had a good cry? 

Mine was last Saturday night when I really, really overflowed with the water works at a family party celebrating the 25th wedding anniversary of my cousin Darrell and his wife Deb. She had no idea what was coming and so as 100 or so of us huddled quietly in a banquet room, Deb walked through the doors and then saw her life love holding a dozen red roses and then he took her into his arms and then their song played and then they danced slowly in a tight embrace and she wept and heck, we all were blubbering. 

Pass the tissues please.

There is something powerful, therapeutic, spiritual, and beautiful about being so moved by an event or a person or an act of love in this life, that we just have to cry.  The tears can signify so many things.  That we've finally let go of some thought or notion or grief we've hung on to and we can lean into it, let it come.  When I finally wept at my Grandfather's funeral, it meant I knew he was really gone and with God, but it also meant I did really, really so, so love him.

Tears remind us what is most important to us in this life.  We cry at a wedding because in this hour of joy, we re-learn that love really is the most powerful force in this world, that love is really all we need. Tears signal that we are going into a soul space, deep within, into a mystical realm.  We cry in a house of worship because the music or a sermon or a soft spoken prayer gets us closer to God and to our real feelings, nothing held back and so we weep. Art moves us to tears because the best song or symphony or story or painting reveals human truth in a way the everyday just cannot.

I know folks for whom it is still hard to cry.  They fear that once the tears start they won't be able to stop. Or men, who still think it is somehow less than masculine to cry; echoes of "Boys don't cry!" holding them back from shedding tears of sadness or joy. Or we can hang on to an outer shell of cynicism or snarky irony to protect us from our tears, to push away deep emotions.

The truth is that crying actually takes courage.  Crying cracks us open, reveals our hearts and takes us to the most authentic place of all: being fully human. Remember that the next time you start to tear up and your first instinct is to tamp it down, push it back. Here's a gentle suggestion. Let those tears come. Let them flow. It will do you good. Nothing like a good cry.

So if you find yourself sitting next to me at a wedding, please have a hanky ready.  I'm definitely going to need it.


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Summer Memories: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.” 
--Lucy Maud Montgomery, "The Story Girl"

Unload the luggage from the car and clean out all the detritus of my road trip: eight  coffee cups, four pretzel cheddar combos bags, etc. Check. Sort accumulated mail: 80 percent in the recycle bin, 10 percent to the bill pile, 10 percent for actual reading. Check. Listen to landline voicemails: two sales calls, one hang up, one offer for a free cruise. Erase. Check. Read work email. Well, maybe not just yet, at least not until later,  post summer, post vacation.  

But most important? Remember the memories. Remember. Check. Check!

Here's a suggestion for a September spiritual pick me up before we move so quickly out of summer and into fall, before we rush back to school and off to college and ramping up at work and shorter days and leaves turning and yet another year rolling on by. Sit down this day and write down all your favorite memories from our quickly departing summer of 2018. Go through your phone and your camera and download all the photos too. 

The image of your toes squishing into the sand, or of you squinting into the camera because it was so sunny that day. The bright technicolor fireworks from the fourth: remember all the "ooohs!" and the "aaaahs!" and how hot it was that night. Take a moment to look at the pictures from an exciting soccer match at Gillette Stadium with your mates, or a night at Fenway as the Sox rolled over their opponent in this baseball season when the hometown team is red, red, hot. Look again at the portrait of your freshman son or daughter, so happy and nervous in their new college dorm room.    

And then remember.  Just remember. 

The stars in the sky on a muggy August evening. The peepers lulling you to sleep. The sweat on your brow or trickling down your back when you mowed the lawn or took a long bike ride or ran a few miles or tended the garden or just sat and read. The barbeque at the family reunion, dropping kids off at camp, hosting grandkids for a week or two, that funky outdoor concert where you actually got up and danced. 

Remember it all.

Then give thanks. Practice gratitude. Say "Thank you!" to God or to the Universe or to whatever mysterious power greater than ourselves gives us the grace of enjoying this life twice. First there is the profundity of living right now, and then also, remembering "then", recalling precious moments, the days, nights, and hours that you just do not want to forget. For that was a time that will never, ever be again. 

What memories stay? What event so thrilled your heart or caught your breath or made you cry or made you laugh, that you just do not want it to fade away? What summer memory do you want to hang on to and then remember on a chilly day next February, when you need some warm reassurance in the middle of snowy winter? That's the power of memory and memories. They gift us in their creation and they gift us in their re-creation too.

In so many ways memories and the act of remembering make us into the people that we are at this very moment. Especially as we get older, we judge the present by comparing it to what happened to us in the past, by our remembrance. Yesterday shapes today. That experience can be evoked by something as simple as a smell (think frying bacon or the like), a sound (remember the bells of the ice cream truck?), or a touch (clutching a toddler's hands and recalling your own parents' safe grip). 

Memory is miraculous and memory is powerful and memory is a blessing. As J.M. Barrie, the author of "Peter Pan", wrote, "God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December." So just this day, may we all make memories and then collect memories and then keep our precious memories too. You see, we won't pass this way again, and so let us all....