Reasons Unknown and Known

Panic attacks are hell! One struck yesterday as we were buckling up on our return flight from Orlando to Minneapolis. Suddenly I was shrinking, swirling as the world around receded into a solid cage. My body was being sucked out of my skin. Breathing stopped and became intentional, or not at all. I needed out! Where didn’t matter. It would not be a pretty sight if the ground agent closed the plane’s exit.

Why yesterday? What set it off? When might it happen again? I love flying. In fact, the year Mother Teresa died I had the good fortune of meeting her in Calcutta. I also visited Kathmandu and Bhactapur and I recall many of the sites devastated by the earthquake in Nepal this week. This trip enabled me literally to fly around the world! I even boast of having sky-dived from 15,000 feet! Planes don’t frighten me.

One of the most anxiety producing aspects of panic attacks is their unpredictability. Who knows why, when or where! All I know for sure is that I have experienced such terror six or seven times over the past fifteen years. So generic Klonopin goes with me whenever I travel — just in case. Thankfully, I rarely need its tranquilizing help.  The last time was more than a year ago when I was overwhelmed in the middle of the night at home in bed.

Yesterday’s anxiety was compounded by the fact that my just-in-case medication was safely tucked away in the baggage compartment. Never do I check luggage; yesterday I did. Why I checked it is a long story and irrelevant. My point here is to report why and how I made it through the ordeal, sans medication. The frightening experience suggests a few lessons we might all take to heart.

First, the lead flight attendant took charge with calm confidence and reassuring competence. I experienced first hand that these crew members may busy themselves with “pleasantries” but their main purpose for being onboard is much more important and requires special professional skill. Thank you, Rhonda, for helping me feel safe in your care.

Second, I’m reminded not to so easily take others for granted. Fellow passengers were patient and understanding. One man actually volunteered his seat — with infinite leg room — at the exit across from where two flight attendants sit during takeoff and landing. I was shown unmerited kindness and cut a great deal of slack by complete strangers. Its reassuring to find that, just below the surface and when we need it most, we survive within a community of care.

Finally, I share this story from yesterday and my history with anxiety in solidarity with so many others who struggle with mental health issues. There is entirely too much silence, stigma and shame associated with mental illness. This needs to end.

It will end when more of us experience the kind of caring support and understanding within community that I was given on a Delta flight from Orlando to Minneapolis yesterday.

As Much and More

Time was when we’d get together and gossip. Sometimes we’d vie for the distinction of who had it tougher. Faults were easily found and fingers pointed. In a family of ten kids that was easy to do, about as easy as hiding behind the sheer numbers.

Certainly older now, tempered by the death of parents as well as six of nine siblings, disguise and diversion are much less satisfying. Now we remember, reminisce and recognize what matters. The impulse to gossip, compete, even complain never completely disappears. But its seen for what it is… navel gazing and a waste of time!

Mom and Dad have come up often during this week with family in Florida. We arrived on the 22nd anniversary of Dad’s death. We share amazement that Mom could now be gone for more than eight years! Strange how adolescent rebellion and adult needs to differentiate ourselves subsides with the passing of years. Neither Mom nor Dad were as objectively wonderful as we now choose to remember them. Perhaps that is the mature wisdom borne of perspective, sobering self-acceptance and irrepressible gratitude.

Mom and Dad weren’t perfect! Truth is the oldest and youngest in the roster of ten had many advantages. Here’s a dramatic example to make the point – false teeth! The three eldest and the two youngest (four of the five are now deceased) “kept their teeth.” The five in the middle all have dentures. Money was scarce during the Depression and WWII, especially for such a large family!  Dental care lost out to more pressing needs.

Some may grouse about inequality and bad luck. But what really matters? Where is the wisdom of years? What is the fruit of embracing mortality, accepting the inevitability of our own death? There is no time for gossip. Keeping score becomes meaningless.

As the youngest of ten, I objectively benefited from my position in the roster. By many standards, I admit my good fortune in receiving “more.” Yet the perspective of years teaches that love is not a zero-sum game – loving my husband does not mean I have less love to share with others. In fact, the mysterious alchemy of love would suggest quite the opposite.

As this week of family conversation and reminiscences concludes, one thing endures… our gratitude for what Mom and Dad gave us, our amazement for what they achieved with their lives deepens and expands.

Yes, not each of us received as much. Some of us received more. Yet, they always gave every bit as much as they could to each and all – none of us can give more!

 

Being Taken

He approached us in the parking lot, a lanky man with short-cropped brown hair perhaps in his upper twenties. His generic tee-shirt and jeans contrasted with the strained expression on his face. Anticipating a familiar story, my brother tried to wave me off from his vantage ten feet ahead.

The young man began apologetically according to script. He had recently moved to this town in central Florida from up-north with his family. “Do you know where I can get some help? I have a job,” he protested! On script, he recounted all the people and places he’d been looking for assistance. Inclusion of the police station on his list slapped against my deeply engrained cynicism.

“I get paid on Wednesday. Please… I need food for my family.” Skepticism converged with my deep seeded need to confront the laggard. Recognizing my position of power and privilege, I indulged my need to test the man by getting him to prove to me his need. “What are the names and ages of your kids?” I asked, intending to catch him in my snare. He responded without flinching, so promptly it could not have been rehearsed.  Plausible, I had to admit.  Now it was me off-stride!

Reaching for my wallet and looking him in the eye, “I believe you!” My response was not so much cognitive or deliberative. It came less from a meeting the minds and more from the meeting of our eyes, man-to-man. What began as a random incident in a parking lot – one that could be easily dismissed – ended in human encounter.

Was I taken as a chump by this skillful panhandler? Whether I was or not misses the point 24-hours later. I remember the man, if not the precise ages and names of his children. Only today do I realize that Wednesday is the last day of the month and could well be the day he receives a paycheck. It doesn’t really matter!

The unanticipated gift this young Dad gave me – someone old enough to be his grandfather – far surpasses the monetary value of what I gave him. There was more than “need” in what he expressed. There was vulnerability that I’ve learned to disguise or rarely risk. He revealed a degree of passion in his appeal too many of us have lost. How many of us are driven by our own heart’s yearning manifest in the account of this struggling parent?

For this – if only for this reminder – I stand in this young man’s debt. Too easily I slip into a smug, unexamined gratitude for having it so much better. But, do I? Really? Is such a question even relevant once we overcome cynicism, skepticism, and fear?

Dare we risk looking at one another eye-to-eye?  Dare we not?

FRED

Jeb the Dog joined twelve men on retreat this weekend. Because it was held at Dunrovin Retreat Center on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix river, Jeb thought he’d gone to heaven.  The rest of us looked at ways we create hell here below with an eye to our way out.

This was all part of the Ignatian Spirituality Project that offers retreats to those who have experienced homelessness at some point and are “in recovery” from some type of addition. As all who work a Twelve-Step program know, it makes no difference whether you are there as part of the staff or a participant.  We are all in this together, all of us recovering from one thing or another, all seeking a more authentic way of being human.

One simple acronym — FRED — got to the core of what our time together was all about.  It stands for Fear, Resentment, Ego and Dishonesty. Pay attention to FRED and we will be well on our way to a spirituality of “some earthly good”.

FEAR — What “secret” festers in the recesses of our awareness such that its exposure would destroy us (or at least we are paralyzed by the prospect that it would)? Find a safe place to tell your story out loud to at least one other caring person.

RESENTMENT — People fail us, betray us, deeply hurt us. As one of the men said this weekend, “My resentment toward [——-] has had me by the balls for 50 years!” Let go of it! This may take time, bit by bit. Let it go — don’t give anyone this kind of emotional power over your life.

EGO — Many of us wear masks and try to project a picture-perfect image to the world. Take it from me, this is exhausting! We balk at being called “selfish” all the while our unbridled “control-center” bullies us and everyone within its reach. Try being honest, vulnerable, transparent, “real” — we find ourselves in good company (perhaps for the first time, our own!).

DISHONESTY — We may call them half-truths or “white lies” but we all tell them. We repeat stories so often they take on a reality of their own. We rationalize our behavior until it becomes acceptable, at least to ourselves.  Denial and deception hang out in the same neighborhood with dishonesty!  Yes, privacy and discretion have their place — not everyone deserves the whole truth, except ourselves. No one deserves a half-truth, most of all ourselves. Get real!

We don’t need to have experienced homelessness, at least in a literal sense, to recognize our need to get to know FRED better.  We don’t need to have gone through treatment for drug or alcohol addiction but it helps!

Being in recovery is not just about abstinence from drugs or alcohol.  It’s an honest admission that fear, resentment, ego and dishonesty too often have us by the balls.  Folks in recovery are just honest enough to admit this universal truth and are willing to work on it.

Rarely am I among more grateful, genuine and unpretentious men as I was this weekend. We would all be blessed to be more like them.

Remember to Breathe

We’ve all had weeks like this — the kind where you are racing around wondering how things got so busy and how we will juggle it all.  It’s like that for me and will remain so until Tuesday morning.

Today’s post by my friend Susan Stabile on her blog, Creo en Dios could not have come at a better time.  She offers a running list of strategies for handling stress.  Here is my simplified version with a couple of additions in no particular order:

  • Keep an ongoing “grocery list” of gratitude.
  • Get enough sleep. (Obvious but we need constant reminder!)
  • Exercise! (Good intentions don’t count)
  • Learn to say, No!
  • Pray the Serenity Prayer, especially the part about accepting what you cannot change.
  • Laugh — often, for any reason at all and fake it ’til you make it!
  • Befriend the benefits of stress like ability to remain focused and on track.
  • And my personal favorite — BREATHE!  Too often I catch myself holding my breath.  Breathing in and out really helps!
  • Try to keep an even keel — one way might be to consider the alternative!

Add to this list as you find helpful.  I am grateful for my friend Susan, one of the busiest and most productive people I know.  You may access her post [here].

 

We Must Stop for It to Stop

The sirens blared for two minutes last evening at sundown in Israel. This time it was not because of some immediate terrorist attack. The sirens marked the beginning of Yom HoShoah, the Day of Remembrance which concludes this evening at sunset.

Why do we need such a day? Can anyone forget? Well, yes, many do! Humankind seems to have a perverted capacity to replicate, again and again, such inconceivable brutality and unspeakable violence. We remember because we must be reminded never to forget.  We delude ourselves if we think the Holocaust could never happen again.

The precedent of the Armenian genocide provides a timely admonition. Pope Francis unleashed quite a diplomatic stir last week by marking the 100 anniversary! 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated by the Turks — yet, the government in Ankara took quite the offense that anyone would call it for what it was and remind others of the unspeakable horror some would have us forget.

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin doesn’t want us to forget the Armenian genocide either. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J. and author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics. The rabbi observes that the Armenian Christians, like the Jews, were seen as a threat by the traditional hierarchy of Ottoman society.

Salkin reminds us that “like the Jews, the Armenians became better educated, wealthier, and more urban.”  Isn’t this often the aspiration of many minority populations as well as the paranoid response of entrenched hierarchies? The rabbi writes, “like ‘the Jewish problem’ that would be frequently discussed in Germany, in Turkey they talked about ‘the Armenian question’.”

The Turks had precedents to guide and encourage them as well. The rabbi tells how the Turks delved into the records of the Catholic Inquisition in Spain and revived its torture methods. So many Armenian bodies were dumped into the Euphrates that the mighty river changed its course for a hundred yards.

Rabbi Salkin would admonish us today…

In America, the newspaper headlines screamed of systematic race extermination. Parents cajoled their children to be frugal with their food, “for there are starving children in Armenia.” In 1915 alone, the New York Times published 145 articles about the Armenian genocide. Americans raised $100 million in aid for the Armenians. Activists, politicians, religious leaders, diplomats, intellectuals and ordinary citizens called for intervention, but nothing happened.

The Armenians call their genocide Meds Yeghern (“the Great Catastrophe”). It served the Nazis well as a model. Not only the act of genocide itself — but also, the passive amnesia about that genocide. “Who talks about the Armenians anymore?” laughed Hitler.

We want to claim some sort of moral superiority today — claiming it cannot happen again, citing occasions like Yom HoShoah, Meds Yeghern and moral voices like that of Rabbi Salkin. But, it can happen, it does happen, it is happening.

Sometime today, let’s each take two minutes, just two minutes. No sirens will wail, no rabbis or popes need exhort. Sometime, this day, let us set aside a mere two minutes — not so much to recall the past but to acknowledge the present.

Will anything change? Will we be the generation to finally put a stop to the horror of ethnic cleansing? Historic precedent suggests the odds are not in our favor. But, try we must. Like the Pope and Rabbi’s solitary voices, each of us is called to speak the truth.

Each of us, if only for two minutes sometime today, can pray. But even more we must resolve, “Never Again!”

_____________

Rabbi Salkin’s really fine article can be found [here].

A “Who”, Not Just a “What”

Sometimes we remain oblivious to things that are obvious. Why is it so difficult to do what would seem to be second nature? Last evening was a proverbial conk on the head! My response? A little squirming in my seat and an honest, “Duh?!?”

I participated in a dinner conference at the University of St. Thomas (I’m coming to really love that school!) My “awakening” was in the form of a challenge to remember what I too easily forget — the “who” I am encountering is not simply the “what” of impersonal exchange!

How simple can it get? Yet, in so many social, professional and economic exchanges I consider the other more as a role or title than a person — more as boss, client, customer, clerk than someone with a name and a life, someone who deserves from me the same human decency and treatment I expect from them.

The dinner was co-sponsored by three UST institutes in some way fostering Catholic social thought and ethical leadership. It aspired to offer an entrepreneurial vision in which business can truly flourish. It really was an abundance of insight and challenge. So the evening might have some lasting impact, I’ve decided to focus one concrete idea for application in my life.

As might be expected given the value commitment of the university, we were reminded of the “social mortgage” on personal and corporate profit. Yes, business should — indeed, must — generate earnings for reinvestment in the enterprise. Yet, profit must also serve the common good if it is to be truly sustainable over time.  In addition, the product or service must remain tethered to some human or social need.

In other words, good business practice is not simply a matter of amassing private wealth. Obvious, right? Then, why do we remain so easily oblivious? Why is it so easy to see a “what” rather than a “who” at work? Why are so many business encounters no more than brusk economic exchanges?

We can do better! We must do better! Don’t we all seek something more personal in all our public lives? Aren’t we all eager for a richer sense of community, even a more robust experience of citizenship?

My simple plan is to begin seeing the “who”, not merely a “what”, standing right in front of me!

____________

Last evening’s dinner was part of the University of St. Thomas’s Higher Calling Series, co-sponsored by the university’s Veritas Institute in the Opus College of Business; John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought; and the Joseph & Edith Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership.  It was free!  Thank you, UST.

Being of Some Earthly Good

Back when I was doing ministry with the Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation — could it really have been more than 25 years ago! — bands of mostly young people traipsed through on service trips. Most came at this time of year with eagerness, generosity and a good dose of naïveté. With a critical attitude that frightens me today, I came to harshly judge the value of such trips smacking of cultural imperialism.

I ranted about others painting Grandma’s house when the responsibility really belonged to her own kids. I cynically dismissed the students for coming from privileged suburban schools to further polish their already exaggerated egos at the expense of people I had come to know as colleagues and friends.  Yes indeed, I could be pretty cynical and harsh!

Such angry judgments embarrass me now.  They have also been found to be unfair and unfounded. There is solid evidence for the power and potential of service. Michelle Sterk-Barrett, at the College of the Holy Cross, is an expert on the issues of best practices in preparation, execution, and the processing of often life-changing encounters.

Sterk-Barrett’s research shows that service experience has a huge impact on both faith formation and citizen engagement. She’s found that service changes students’ world views and self-concepts in critical areas:

  • Students who perform some kind of sustained service during their education discover that social problems are far more complex than they’d previously assumed.
  • They develop a powerful sense that an individual can improve conditions for those who suffer and can influence social values.
  • They discover a level of social concern that changes them into people who identify themselves as engaged, potential community leaders who want to make constructive change.

In contract, Strek-Barrett’s study found that students who did not engage in service experienced no change in these qualities, values or characteristics.

Rather than harshly dismissing well-heeled kids from the ‘burbs, Sterk-Barrett helped me see their generosity as an “eye-opening experience” for them. She states what we all know:

[Many parents] have made decisions that prevent our children from knowing those facing injustice in the world. In a desire to have our children have access to the best educational opportunities and minimize the potential for them to live in unsafe environments, we have collectively segregated ourselves, so that it’s nearly impossible to know and build relationships with people living in poverty.

The result of this segregation?  Stereotypes that perpetuate the misconception that people in need are fundamentally inferior to those of us who have been “successful” in traditional terms.  Service, if done well, has the power to change individuals who change the world.

My conclusion 25 years later? We need many more, and better, service opportunities — and not just for students, but for seniors and every citizen in between! It’s never too early or late to start.  Let’s all get out there and “be of some earthly good.”

Doing something for others — for which we do not get paid — has been shown to be a pretty good indicator of human character!

______________

This reflection is heavily dependent upon an April 10 article on the website Crux by Kathleen Hirsch. I heartily recommend her article which you may access [here].

There Comes a Time…. Then, What?

It is said that when Alfred Nobel’s brother died, media mistakenly reported that it was Alfred and printed his obituary by mistake.  We’ve all heard of people who write their own obituary. But, what would it be like to read your obituary written by the public media?

One apocryphal account should be true even if it is not. It holds that Alfred was so shaken by publicity surrounding his premature demise that he became determined to be known for something other than being the inventor of TNT.  Thus, after his death in 1896 his estate created the Nobel Prizes — of which the Peace Prize is the most prestigious.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with a local Focolare community. This “domestic church” movement was founded by Italian Chiara Lubich from amid the devastation of World War II. With death an immanent possibility, Lubich came to a deep reverence for “Jesus forsaken.” She recognized the intimate connection between Jesus’s passion and death with the unspeakable human suffering she and others were enduring in 1943.

It was not the magnitude of Jesus’s suffering that mattered — his suffering does not save. The immensity of Jesus’s love — first for the one he spoke of as Abba and us by inclusion — is the source of our salvation! Lubich spent the rest of her life, until 2008, living and leading others in her simple but onerous spirituality of bringing great love to others, especially to people and situations seemingly forsaken.

With this as backdrop I have begun reading We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying by Bruce Kramer with Cathy Wurzer. This dangerously beautiful book tells the story of Kramer’s diagnosis in his early 50s of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He died just last month.

As Susan Allen Toth expressed so well, “Kramer turns his diamond-hard diagnosis like a prism, reflecting light and joy in surprising places… invite[ing] us to consider how we live in the face of impending death or unwanted change.”

One turn of the prism is to the presumption with which we all live: “If only I could eat correctly, exercise enough, hold all things to moderation, devote myself in equal measure to my family and my job, I would have a great chance of living past ninety and looking back on a life well lived.” He recalls joking that he wanted his epitaph to be: “He died racing semis on his bike.”

Kramer writes: “I know what you are thinking — that you don’t need this right now, you don’t want to think about it, that you have plenty of time.” He acknowledges that we are “totally correct in thinking this way, until…” Call it the thief in the night or whatever you wish. That “until” will inevitably come!  Ultimately, we must accept that we cannot “fix” our lives.

Kramer had the inevitability of death foisted upon him. He was “pulled into the essence of what it means to be a living human being.” He reluctantly mustered the ability to recognize that he was “just aging exponentially faster than most… accept[ing] the fact that fixing is a lie.”

Like Alfred Nobel, Chiara Lubich and so many other noble saints among us, Bruce Kramer had the courage and fortitude to look death — his death — squarely in the eye and to ask, “How are we to live?” I am still in the very early pages of the book. However, I know already it is one that I hope you go out and read immediately.

Kramer frames our perennial human dilemma: “Out of the emptiness that was once the surety of my life came the question, what will you be from here to eternity?” He continues: “Therefore if I threw in my lot with trying to fix this, I would only be frustrated and bitter, and while I might glimpse the old normal Godhead from time to time, the person I wanted to become could not fix this.”

Again, the person Bruce Kramer wanted to become could not “fix” this!  Then, what?  How are we to live?

__________

We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying, Bruce H. Kramer with Cathy Wurzer.  University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2015.  Quoted material is from pages 17-21.  The quote by Susan Allen Toth is from the dust cover of the book.

A God Not Created in My Own Image

True confession: I’ve got quite a way to go. My spirituality may be accurately described as a faith seeking justice. To me, the fact that God became human in Jesus unequivocally expresses what God has in mind for us.  I quickly fall into a trap: thinking transformation of the world is my/our responsiblity rather than God’s doing!

We’ve all seen the bumper stickers: “If you want peace, work for justice!” The same is expressed by the southern Black Baptist pastor I often quote: “Sometimes our faith is so heavenly minded its no earthly good.”

God in Christ has no other purpose than to restore this creation to what God had in mind in the first place. Mature Christianity understands that we are designated as primary agents in the implementation of God’s plan.  But, my recurring challenge is to align myself to God’s plan, not God to mine!

Today I am confronted — like smack-dab in my face — with the inadequacy of my way of seeing things. I’m long on the justice imperative — I really fall short when it comes to expressing God’s mercy. Honestly speaking, I’m fixated on my conception of “justice” and stingy with extending mercy (except when I am the recipient and the one in need of understanding or forgiveness).

Today Pope Francis proclaimed a “jubilee year” exhorting people like me — indeed the entire Catholic Church — to get with God’s program!  We are to refashion ourselves as a people, not of judgment or condemnation, but of pardon and merciful love. True confession: this would require a much deeper change of my “standard operating procedure” than I’ve been willing to accept to date.

Francis names my challenge: “The temptation … to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step.” He may just as well have had me in mind when reminding us of Peter’s question about how many times its necessary to forgive. We all know the answer; I have perfected the practice of keeping it at arm’s length!

Francis acknowledges the Bible’s frequent use of the image of God as a judge. But he cautions, “Such a vision … has not infrequently led to legalism by distorting the original meaning of justice and obscuring its profound value.”

Francis explains, “Jesus is bent on revealing the great gift of mercy that searches out sinners and offers them pardon and salvation … One can see why, on the basis of such a liberating vision of mercy as a source of new life, Jesus was rejected by the Pharisees and the other teachers of the law.”

And here’s something to mull over: “If God limited himself to only justice, he would cease to be God, and would instead be like human beings who ask merely that the law be respected.”

“In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us … and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves.” Truth is, I’ve heard that so often and in so many ways its like water off a ducks back!

“The Lord asks us above all not to judge and not to condemn,” states the Pontiff. “If anyone wishes to avoid God’s judgment, he should not make himself the judge of his brother or sister.” Ouch!

The Pontiff (word means: bridge-builder) not only challenges us personally but exhorts the whole church to “become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope.”

Recalling the action of the Holy Spirit in Vatican II, Francis reminds, “The walls which too long had made the Church a kind of fortress were torn down and the time had come to proclaim the Gospel in a new way, … a new phase of the same evangelization that had existed from the beginning.”

Let’s be honest… this is pretty radical stuff! I thought Lent and all that “conversion” talk was finished for the year. If we really take this Holy Year talk to heart, it will require a complete re-boot of the way I live my faith. I won’t speculate what this might mean for “standard operating procedure” at your rank-and-file church down the street!

Change isn’t easy. I sort of like my well-worn faith-practice, thank you very much!  I prefer the God I’ve created in my own image!

In this, I am grateful God’s justice is tempered by mercy!

_______________

Francis’s proclamation runs over 9,500 words.  I acknowledge my dependence on two articles for papal quotes cited above.  I am especially indebted to Joshua J. McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter [link] and to a lesser degree, Cynthia Wooden of the Catholic News Service [link].  I recommend both articles for excellent summaries which exceed what I have attempted here.