The Paradox of Parents

Mom and Dad had tough lives! Married in 1931 as the Great Depression and drought was overtaking their Nebraska farming community, they wouldn’t leave the farm until 1945 at the end of World War II. I’m the youngest of ten kids and how they managed to feed, clothe and educate us all in Catholic school remains one of the great miracles of our family history. Naturally, my parents and the life they passed on conjures special memories at Thanksgiving.

Dad dropped out of school in the 10th grade because Grandpa needed help on the farm. Grandpa was known to have said, “After you have reading and can work numbers, what more do you need?” Cultural norms presumed that every girl was destined to become a farm wife. These values precluded Mom from even beginning high school despite earning the top score in Cedar County on the standardize 8th grade exams.

There was a time while pursuing professional and advanced masters degrees that my parents lack of formal education was an embarrassment. I lived in fear that if my “sophisticated”, upper class friends really new of my humble, uneducated heritage they would see me as the fraud I was. Clearly, my exaggerated ego and fragile self-image was a powerful force in all this pretense and hiding of factual truths. No more!

This weekend I’m savoring The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life by William Martin. It’s been news to me that Lao Tzu is said to have been the teacher of Confucius more than two thousand five hundred years ago. Unlike his much more prolific student, Lao Tzu left us only about five thousand words. Most of these are in his Tao Te Ching. His is not esoteric, academic “book learning” as my Grandpa might have said. Rather Lao Tzu passes on practical wisdom, the sort of genius I now recognize my Mom and Dad had in abundance.

Today’s a case in point. I’ve been mulling over #52 of Tao Te Ching‘s ninety-one brief teachings:

The world has said

that those who do the right things,

choose the right careers,

work hard,

and avoid mistakes,

shall satisfy their desires

and be at peace.

The sage knows

that this is an illusion born of fear.

Great accomplishments do not bring peace.

Massive failures do not bring despair.

The choice between peace

and despair

is an inner choice

that may be made at any moment.

***

I see much despair among the aging

that is so unnecessary.

Our history does not determine our present.

Peace is always available to us.

It is a matter of choice.

William Martin’s new interpretation in The Sage’s Tao Te Ching is masterful for the way it captures the nuanced polarities of our lives some sevenhundred generations after being composed. He captures the perplexities and paradox of success and failure, gain and loss, love and fear, sickness and health, life and death embedded in Lao Tzu’s genius.

Mom and Dad probably knew very little about Confucius. I’m certain they had never heard of Lao Tzu. But they seemed to have known every bit as much when they’d pass on such aphorisms as, “Life is pretty much what you choose to make of it!” or “You are about as happy as you make up your mind to be!” Yes, their lives where tough! Yet, their lives were distinguished by generosity, love, faith, determination and hard work. Circumstances didn’t often lend themselves to having fun, but they even indulged a bit of that from time to time.

This Thanksgiving weekend, kicking back and relaxing as we are able, I am immensely grateful and proud to have been raised by ones so learned and wise. Mom and Dad passed along the best education I could have ever received.

Villanova… A True Champion

Amazing what we can learn from the NCAA basketball championship! Those of us who missed the game last evening between North Carolina and Villanova missed a barn-burner. Fans will be talking about the game for decades! Within the last ten seconds NC tied the game only to have Villanova sink a 3-pointer with one second left on the clock! Absolutely unforgettable!

All the hoop-la (pun intended!) reminded me of something else I’d missed. If I’d ever heard the origin of the name Villanova, I’d long forgotten. I knew it was a Catholic university somewhere in Pennsylvania. Today I learned it was founded by the Order of St. Augustine and is located in Philadelphia. The university is named in honor of the 16th-century Spanish Augustinian, St Thomas of Villanova.

Who, you say? Well, Thomas was a pretty great guy and deserves much more recognition than he receives! The part I like best is that Thomas was known as “father of the poor.” His charitable efforts were untiring, especially towards orphans, poor women without a dowry, and the sick. In addition, Thomas appreciated the power of education for empowering people like these.

He possessed, however, a sophisticated notion of charity and was no one’s fool about the source of the problem. Though he was immediate and direct in his giving, Thomas sought definitive and structural solutions to the root causes of poverty. “Charity is not just giving, rather removing the need of those who receive charity and liberating them from it when possible,” he wrote.

Thomas appreciated there’s more to poverty than just the poor!  Last evening’s game was evenly matched and players on both teams demonstrated the greatness of the sport.  Thomas understood it isn’t always this way.

Go Villanova… a true champion for 2016!
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You may learn more about Thomas of Villanova [here] on Wikipedia which is the source of what I have learned.

Beyond Our Imagining

“The truly wise understand what they don’t know!” Somewhere along the line someone said that at a time when I was developmentally ready to hear it. Somehow it seems to encapsulate what education is all about. It’s probably a pretty decent summation of what makes for a full and contented life.

It’s when I’ve been pushed outside the comfort of the nest — as an eagle does for her young — that I have learned to fly.  Remember swimming lessons? … how hard it was to just jump in?  My “personal best” encounter with terror was sky-diving from 15,000 feet.

All such experiences shape us to be the people we eventually become.  Surely one of the most profound influences upon my character development and core values was my involvement with an inner-city youth group during my early teens.  Otherwise my youth looked pretty much like episodes from Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver or The Donna Reed Show.

My present life in a “desirable” south Minneapolis neighborhood is still pretty much a promo for white, middle class 1950s values. I need to intentionally shake things up from time to keep a grip on reality.

I’m reminded of this necessity every time we take the bus/light-rail to and from the airport rather than a taxi or the airport shuttle. Such forays outside of our comfort zone repeatedly show us a city, even a neighborhood, significantly different from the one that lives in our imagination.

All this came flashing back while reading David Brooks. Here’s what triggered my curiosity about what really made a difference in my education, what’s truly made a difference in my life:

Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.

So how do we get to be wise? By getting outside of our social enclaves of folks just like us. By riding the bus and seeing people who do not aspire to be our clones and whose pursuit of the American Dream is other than our personal narrative. By deliberately entering that “no man’s land” where we feel some cultural turbulence and our preconceived ideas can get shaken-up.  It’s when we have our eyes, ears and hearts wide open that we know we are fully alive.

This is hard, even risky. We don’t want to go anywhere or do anything that will challenge our “security”, threaten our “truth”. But a clutched fist cannot receive what others have to give. We squander life’s invitation to understand what we truly don’t know!

We end up worshipping a God of our own creation rather than a God whose creation is beyond our imagining.

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The quote is from The Road to Character by David Brooks.  New York: Random House. 2015. Kindle edition at #295.

Get Smart

All of us have been in situations where we shake our heads and ask, “How’d they know that?”  Some people just “get it” before the rest of us catch on.  People often think I’m smarter than I really am.  Truth is, I’ve just had opportunities to hang around a lot of people smarter than me.

That, and my hope to catch a few tips, drew my attention to something Shana Lebowitz, Strategy reporter for Business Insider, posted on the World Economic Forum blog. [link]. Maybe if more of us knew what smart people do, and did more of that ourselves, we’d all make smarter decisions.

With that hope, here are the qualities that nearly all super smart people share:

1. They’re highly adaptable. They remain flexible and are able to thrive in different settings.

2. They understand how much they don’t know. Intelligent people aren’t afraid to admit they don’t know. They see this as an opportunity to learn.

3. They have insatiable curiosity. Albert Einstein famously said, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.”

4. They ask good questions. Intelligent people know that asking thought-provoking questions is just as important as providing answers. That’s especially important when old answers (old wine-skins?) don’t answer new questions.

5. They’re sensitive to other people’s experiences. Being attuned to the needs and feelings of others and acting in a way that is sensitive to those needs, is a core component of emotional intelligence. They listen well!

6. They’re open-minded. Smart people don’t close themselves off to new ideas, opportunities or alternative solutions.

7. They’re skeptical. This goes hand-in-hand with open-mindedness. The key is being willing to consider new ideas as long as they’re backed by supporting evidence.

Okay, Kneading Bread is a blog about spirituality. So posting these seven traits of really smart people comes with an ulterior motive. What does “being smart” have to do with our spirituality? How do thinking-people link these traits with our religious beliefs? What do they suggest about a mature faith?

I won’t be so presumptuous as to say what they should mean for your spirituality. I intend only to “ask good questions.” I trust each and all of us will remain curious, open-minded and admit what we don’t know.

All I will hazard to suggest is that we be really, really skeptical of any leader, community or religion that doesn’t want us to get smarter and smarter all the time.

Living An Extraordinary Life

Sometimes we see something and it cuts right to the core.  Sometimes we hear something so clearly expressed we wonder how we could ever have missed it.  Sometimes we read something and know it expresses eternal truth.

More and more, I am coming to the conclusion that all such wisdom is either understandable to children or it is suspect and perhaps counterfeit.

A dear freind shared something with me yesterday that moved me in this way:

Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.

My hunch is this is precisely what Jesus was trying to teach us when he told us that unless we become like little children we will never enter the Kingdom of God.

Sometimes we confound ourselves with convoluted statements that simply obfuscate the truth.  Sometimes children have it hands down over adults.  Most of the time, the extraordiary is right before us!

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― “Make the Ordinary Come Alive” is by William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents, #35.

Gert

She was about 85 and had just taken the leap into assisted living. This momentous transition required quite an attitude adjustment for me as well. I resented the notion that my mother needed assistance with anything!

One day Claudia was talking with Mom a couple states away. Our matriarch — whose parents saw no need for her to attend high school despite the fact she registered the highest score in the county on her 8th grade standardized exam — casually mentioned she was taking a computer class. These half-day sessions scheduled monthly were just one of many conveniences she enjoyed at her new residence.

Incredulous, Claudia objected, “But, Mom, you don’t even know the keyboard.”

With maternal self-deprecation mixed with characteristic self-determination she retorted, “I know … it’s not like I’m going to go out and get a job. I just want to know what my grandchildren are talking about!”

Mom died peacefully just weeks shy of her 98th birthday. Claudia and I were at her bedside along with other family members. She never lost her eagerness to learn. Her admonition to us kids grousing about one thing or another echoes long after her death, “[Fill-in any one of our names], life is pretty much what you make of it!”

Never settled or content with what she knew, Mom was ever curious about what she didn’t know. We learned to expect a well-considered zinger whenever she began with her characteristic, “Y’know, life is strange…” Generally, she nailed it!

Never having the privilege of a formal education, Mom let nothing inhibit her curiosity. Secure in her love for learning — as well as in herself — Mom’s wisdom far exceeded most of the better “educated.” She remains our first and best teacher.

We would all be blessed to finally learn what she knew — remaining ever-curious, always attentive to what we don’t know!

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!

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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].