After our fifty-mile bike ride in the hills of Galena, Illinois, this past Saturday, we awoke Sunday morning to do a long run back home in Illinois.
It turned warm and the long run turned out to be, in my wife’s words, “A lot of ouch.” When we got home she proclaimed that she was going to take a relaxing bath.
She does not do that often. More typically she takes a shower “on the fly” after her morning and afternoon workouts. That’s why her plan for a late-morning bath seemed like a good idea.
Knowing that my wife wanted to slow down and indulge herself a bit inspired me to move into the background. She did request that I bring her favorite shampoo, conditioner, and deep conditioner to her in the tub. I delivered those and flopped back on our bed to rest my own tired body after an earlier shower.
From my reclined position in bed I could see her head as she ran the whirlpool. She called out: “I’m flexing my toes…They’re really tight.”
I flex my toes that whirlpool tub as well. It feels good to let the jets work out the stiffness in joints. Finally the jets turned off and she took to washing her hair. Her blonde mane darkened as it got wet. Watching her ply her hair with product made me smile. She was due for a stylist appointment before the weekend but it didn’t work out. “So, much, hair,” she observed.
Like many couples, we’ve shared the bath and shower a few times over the years. Those moments of intimacy are blessed connections when the time is right. There are also times when the best thing a husband can do is be the “support crew” for her relaxing bath.
I went downstairs to make breakfast. The vision of her bare body in the tub made me feel a tremendous intimacy that had less to do with sex and more to do with bathing her in my love and respect. A woman deserves that and more.
When I published a memoir titled The Right Kind of Pride in 2014, my goal was twofold: to write about the journey that my late wife and I shared through cancer survivorship, and to share some of the things we learned along the way.
Eight years of dealing with the physical and psychological effects of medical treatments, surgeries, chemotherapy and its side effects is enough to test the mettle of anyone. Toss in the emotional components of dealing with medical scheduling and recovery, insurance premiums and bills, financial changes and losses, and the whole thing gets overwhelming in a hurry.
During those years of dealing with cancer and remission, work and family challenges, I kept sensing that there was a message in it all.
That’s the other reason I wrote The Right Kind of Pride. I learned that taking care of business in the face of a crisis comes down to three critical components. These are:
Character: the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.
Caregiving: the activity or profession of regularly looking after a child or a sick, elderly, or disabled person.
Community: a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
To address how understanding these three factors helps one through a crisis, we’ll begin with the subject of character, and what that means to each individual.
Character is not a fixed trait
We often view “character” as a fixed quality in a person. But people respond to crisis in different ways. Some grow resolute, facing whatever comes their way with what seems like determination and courage. Others appear frightened or worried at the onset of bad news. There is no real predicting how someone will react to a crisis. Sometimes a seemingly strong person reacts with fear. At other times a seemingly timid person responds with great strength.
Character can even shift with age. Many character traits are subject to change over the years, especially as stress or life changes affect the emotional bottom line. Character can even radically shift within minutes if shocking new arrives. The death of a parent, a spouse or a friend. The birth of a child. All sorts of events, good and bad, affect how character is held or expressed in a given person.
That’s why it is important to understand the nature of “character,” and how to support it in yourself or the people around you.
We might like to assume that character is the foundation that carries us through all kinds of tests. We speak of a person with “solid character” almost like they’re a piece of granite able to withstand all sorts of conditions. Yet if you’re in a position of helping another person get through a test of some sort, it is vital not to assume how they’re feeling, or even trust what they’re telling you at times. Most people don’t like to show or share their fears.
That is why it is important to be patient when it comes to placing expectations on others during times of crisis. Some want to avoid attention or engage in denial, wishing it would all go away. Others want to tell the world what’s going on in their lives, as if that alone could cure the problem. Most of us fall somewhere in between or run from one end of the spectrum to another.
Out of character
If someone responds in a way that seems “out of character” for them, it is clear they are trying to process whatever news or stress they are experiencing. Even good news can be a source of stress to a cancer or heart patient used to hearing nothing but frightening words about their condition. It is hard to trust good news because we don’t like to let our guard down in case something bad is about to happen again.
That puts us into a state of mind where character, “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual,” needs to be considered a tool for monitoring the emotional health of anyone facing a crisis. There really is no such thing as behaving “out of character” when we think about it. No one on this earth possesses a permanently rigid nature. Nor should we.
It is what it is
Obviously it’s desirable to stand strong and deal with necessary actions as they arrive. My late wife and I treated medical regimens with a brand of objectivity. We compartmentalized the cancer and its treatments by saying, “It is what it is.” In other words, let’s not fool ourselves or try to avoid medical advice that might be hard to hear, much less endure. But if you put that practical activity in its place, it is much easier to support the character or the person or person’s involved.
Being able to say “It is what it is” provides a clear focus on the most difficult aspect of life in the moment. That’s at least a degree of control, and knowing the truth and having a plan to follow takes pressure off the character of a person. Then the mental and emotional aspects can be addressed on their own terms.
Character on the line
The same holds true for many circumstances in life. A business or other venture has a “character” of its own. Applying these same principles; identifying the central challenge, categorizing the necessary response, and setting aside conflicting emotional, competitive or selfish aims to address problems is vital in facing life or business challenges. That is how to manage character as a rule.
Despite all our best efforts, there are often selfish aims at work behind the scenes of everyone involved in a crisis. Our primal instincts are to protect our own instincts. Fatigue and stress, fear and self-doubt all work to undermine our character when facing our own crisis or helping someone else face get through difficulties.
The important thing in understanding character is that it is the cumulative experience in a person’s life their character is built upon, including weak moments and strong. The key to supporting the character of an individual, a team or an organization is to identify common traits of belief, hope, determination and goals, then relate those back to the character of those involved.
Asking questions to gain answers
That means asking questions in order to gain answers about how people feel about their own character. These don’t need to be probing psychological ventures. A simple question such as “How are you feeling about this?” defines the person’s character in the moment. That’s what you need to know first. In what mental or emotional state are the people involved?
When I first found out that my wife had cancer all those years ago, a longtime friend and coach called me on the phone with a message of encouragement. “Your whole life is a preparation for this,” he told me.
That was his way of saying that I’d faced adversity before. Dealing with stress. Managing emotions. Setting near-term objectives. Reaching goals, however fluid they may be.
Every person on this planet has a foundation of their own from which to build and maintain character. Helping others do the same in times of crisis is one of the highest levels of compassionate behavior in the human sphere.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF ABOUT CHARACTER.
What are some of the most formative events in my life?
When were some of the times I was required to respond to crisis?
What do I consider some of my most important character traits?
How do I measure ‘character’ in others?
Why do I value character in myself and other people?
I’d be interested in hearing some of your responses to these questions and would like to post some (named anonymous, your choice) to this blog.
Send your answers to email@example.com. Your answers if you choose will posted anonymously. We can all learn from each other if we share.
Our neighborhood is diverse in almost every manner of description. Race and ethnicity. Sexual orientation. Nationality. Occupation. The list goes on.
Everyone gets along great because we’ve all gotten to know each other. Even when turnover takes place, and people move on to other places, new residents are welcomed.
Humanity on the block
We’ve held block parties every other year or so. These are informal occasions. Yet one year, a woman on our block who is one of the leading Latina marketers in the country brought a Mexican Senator to visit with us in our ring of lawn chairs at the end of the street. The Senator was in town to speak at a Mexican Independence Day event, the first woman to ever do so. Yet she confided in us that it was nice to be able to relax in a less pressured-filled situation, and just talk.
Someone suggested that we go around the circle that day and share a personal insight about gratitude. It was fascinating to hear the diversity in scope of those telling their stories. Then one of the families in attendance shared that they were glad to be alive. Only a few months before they had been in a dangerous car accident resulting in profound personal and emotional injuries. None of us had heard about that.
We all have challenges
That testimony illustrates that while we can all know each other casually and as neighbors, many times there are events and issues that we don’t necessarily share on a day-to-day basis. Yet the challenges we don’t share are often the most compelling parts of our existence.
We all sat stunned upon hearing the seriousness of the accident. Then someone quietly said, “We’re so glad you’re okay.” Yet the physical therapy continued, and the emotional strain too.
These are the feelings that connect us as human beings. While some shared quiet joys or happy accomplishments, others mentioned gratitude for having a trusted companion, or children, or a job that supports their household.
I don’t recall what I actually said about gratitude. But one of the feelings I had during that session was gratefulness for being around such an interesting and obviously compassionate group of other human beings.
Ethnicities are only the beginning of humanity
That brings us to the socially fabricated aspect of our neighborhood. Our ethnicities. According to traditional categorizations, there are four black families, three Latino families, an Asian household, several white or Caucasian families, a home with two women in a relationship, some elderly retirees and, of course, several dogs and cats that live in our cul de sac.
One of those families embraces several generation within the household. The head of that household is a leading law enforcement officer and former police chief of a Chicago suburb. But there are many variegations within the family, and attending one of their family parties means being introduced to visiting sisters, cousins, matriarchs and more.
One of the pre-teens who lives up the block loves to stop and talk with me now and then on our sidewalk. He’s got a curious mind and loves to test me with questions and topics of many kinds. Likewise, I like to ask him what he thinks about while riding his bike around, which he does all the time. Then one day he asked me, “Do you like nachos?”
For some reason that caught me off guard. “Yes, I do.”
He looked off in the distance for a moment and replied, “I love nachos.” So that became a bit of a joke between us. I’d drive by when they were out playing basketball in the neighbor’s drive and yell out, “Do you like nachos?”
I conspired with one of the same-aged neighbor girls to organize a “Nacho Day” when all the kids on the block were hanging around. She counted up ten children from the age of five through thirteen, and I called a local fast-food Mexican takeout and pre-ordered enough nachos for the whole group, who were waiting in the yard when I returned. Within minutes the entire stash was gone. I teased my friend again. “Did you even get any nachos?” I asked.
“Ohhhh, yeaaahhh,” he laughed while smacking his hands together on a basketball. Then it was back to playing pickup for him and the other kids.
Just let it happen
The kids on our block are a living example that friendship and trust and conviviality are all possible when people just let it happen. The same goes for the adults of all these different backgrounds who live in our neighborhood. It’s only when people are pushed apart by selfish interests and traditional fears that people don’t naturally get along.
The desire for control that stems from fear is the source of all racism. Yet it also drives other forms of prejudice as well. These lead to bigotry and authoritarian discrimination. Nothing splits up a society––or a neighborhood––or a country––like allowing selfish fears to depict people as “the other.”
Because rather than forming relationships around gratitude, compassion and shared aspects of humanity, such bigotry invests only in the “I’ve got mine and you can’t have it” aspect of existence. When that happens for reasons of tribal priorities, and these range from religious beliefs to racial identity to political or economic platitudes––civil society is at risk. Those priorities only lead to hate and division while the “live and let live” philosophy of a neighborhood sharing in commonality and humanity succeeds far better. That’s the right kind of pride.
People can generally learn to get along great, if you let them
I believe that everyone gets along great, if you let them. That may seem naive to say, but it’s proven so often and in so many parts of the world that despite all the conflict it is still true that people can learn to get along together when they aren’t told that other people are a threat.
Those that refuse to get along on those terms need to be held accountable for their selfish ways, and made to understand why that isn’t acceptable. They will often resist and brand themselves the “victims” of reverse discrimination or claim to be “persecuted” for being exposed for their bigotry. Those habits go all the way to the top in this world.
The self-inflicted will even attempt to turn around and call the compassionate among us inhumane, as if caring for other people and standing up for the meek or disadvantaged in this world was an act of oppression.
That is the gaslighting defense of those possessed of anger and fear who are eager to avoid facing their own inhumanity and the flaws it so often reveals. They refuse to accept vulnerability as a legitimate condition of human existence. These are the people that love to claim higher ground and preach unity while playing people against each other to create opportunities for control.
We should not let this happen. Not in our neighborhoods. Nor in our nations. People can generally get along great, if we let them.
I first purchased a James Taylor album as a freshman in high school along with works by Paul Simon, Neil Young, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Elton John, to name a few. Among those, there were a few mentions of God in the lyrics, a subject of consequence since I’d recently chosen on my own to get confirmed along with friends at the church whose pastor lived right next door to me.
And while I’d gotten confirmed at the age of thirteen, already I was asking questions about traditional religion and its role in our lives. Something about the confessional language of orthodoxy never satisfied my vision of what it meant to believe in something larger (or as large) as what we see around us.
And later in life, when religious leaders that I met began picking on the subject of evolution and showing bigotry toward various kinds of people, I’d had enough, and parted ways for a while with conventional Christianity.
Then I met a girl in college whose academic interest in the Jewish religion led me back to thinking about what the whole story of Jesus was about. And as a quasi-English major, I was interested as much in the story aspect of scripture as the supposed literal truth it conveyed. At the same time, I was aware of the need to write my own version of that story.
The woman that I later married was raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran tradition. So we joined that church and for twenty-plus years raised our children there. I sang in the choirs, taught Sunday School to middle school and high school kids, and served on the Church board. Meanwhile, our congregation enlisted a successive line of pastors who preached an increasingly harsh and conservative line of doctrine. The theory of evolution was just one of their favorite targets, as were gay people and even women who dared think they could ever be pastors.
Thus toward the end of my wife’s life after six years of cancer treatment, we bid a solemn goodbye to that church and moved upriver to a more welcoming Lutheran congregation that cared for us during the final years of her existence on earth. For that and all service before I am eternally grateful.
During that whole journey, I drew on a ton of faith to get through. The practical issues of her illness we addressed through medicine and following doctor’s orders. I kept working at the jobs I held between severe challenges on many fronts. Her treatments had profound emotional effects on us both. That’s when we looked to faith for support.
In my case, it had never really disappeared. All those mentions of God in my running journals during those self-focused years training almost full-time and racing twenty-four times a year were testimony to that desire to understand it all. Every day was a trial of sorts, I knew that much. And when my former track and cross country coach heard that my wife had cancer, he intoned: “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”
Sustaining hope in the face of adversity
He was right. But you can’t be prepared for everything. And when hope drains away it is comforting to turn fear over to something other than a piece of paper on which you write down your problems, somewhat in order, in hope of tackling them the next day.
That’s when some of the lyrics from the James Taylor song “Fire and Rain” came back to me:
Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus You’ve got to help me make a stand You’ve just got to see me through another day My body’s aching and my time is at hand And I won’t make it any other way
Frankly, I’ve never been a big Jesus worshipper. When asked long ago by a pastor what my faith is most based upon, I told him that knowing God was my first priority. Of course, that received the standard confessional response that Jesus is the portal to God, is one with God, and so on. But I persisted in seeking what I know of the spirit outside the lines. And nature is often the source of that insight.
Recently while out doing bird photography I waved to two women out walking through the forest preserve where a pair of wood thrush was singing loudly in the brisk spring sunshine. We met back in the parking and I struck up a conversation with them by shared how long I’d been visiting that preserve both as a runner and a birder. That led to a discussion of our respective families. One of the women had been an Olympic Trials swimmer and her sons and daughter were both college athletes. So was her husband. I found that fascinating and offered to write a story about their clan. She seemed game to the idea but there was something else going on in the conversation, and I didn’t feel right to press it.
But I shared some recent facts about learning to swim after meeting my present wife on a website called FitnessSingles.com. Then I explained to them both, “I lost my first wife to cancer seven years ago.”
The two women exchanged quick but earnest glances. Then two minutes later in the conversation one of them turned to me and said, “You were put here by God to talk with us, because she just lost her husband to cancer last Saturday.” It was a Tuesday morning.
We cried together, the three of us. But no one exchanged hugs in the age of the Coronavirus. Even her husband’s funeral the next morning would be a private affair, limited to ten people due to the pandemic.
A walk in the wilds
They both shared that their walks in the woods were a way of coping with problems and talking them through together. But now their walks had taken on the role of processing the immediate grief of having lost a loving spouse. As most of us know, grief has both mental and physical effects on us. In its most difficult stages, grief can make you want to cease living and at the same time put your body through aches and pains that you never see coming. That is fire. And that is rain.
There are also many points in between, where sudden bursts of recollection and joy mix together in a combination of fire and rain. How is that possible?How can two seemingly opposite substances mix together in our minds?
Our spiritual selves
To me, that is the mystery of our spiritual selves. If emotional pain is real––we can certainly feel it––then love must be just as real. And if love is real, then to me, some sort of spirit is a reality too. And as the saying goes, God is Love.
So in that sense, I truly believe in God. It is both within and apart from us to love in this world. If anything, that is the meaning of that passage in the Lord’s Prayer; “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
As I wrote in my first book The Genesis Fix, I call that call of gratitude and active love grace appreciated. When we are attentive to appreciating love a grateful sense, we are appreciating it. Yet when we extend love to others in an active sense, we are appreciating grace on behalf of God. Then our lives take on a different and richer meaning. We commence to live from a foundation of our spiritual selves. That is what I think scripture is all about, that perpetual discovery of purpose, principle, and life fully lived.
Connections to spirit and life
That is why I talk to people. I consider it a connection to the spirit and life of others. One might call it a ministry of sorts, to talk to people, find their mutual humanity, and learn interesting things about them along the way. Even during this Coronavirus pandemic, I find ways to speak with people even under the call of social distancing.
There are times when that is not welcome, and I respect that. Not everyone is coming through this crisis with an attitude of appreciation. Some engage on their own terms and hold to their spirit in the best way they know how. And I say God Bless them. And if they don’t believe in God, I say bless that too. Just as in nature, there is diversity in the human condition as well. We should honor that, and sadly too many supposed Christians take certain passages of scripture literally and dishonor the spirit and love they could otherwise find in others.
I know there are also passages in scripture that demand absolute fealty to Jesus in order to be saved, as in: “No one comes to the Father but through me.” Well, that passage is the product of a patriarchal society, isn’t it? We’ve discovered a bit more about the significance of the feminine in this universe, and science too. So I don’t place limits on the points between fire and rain. Instead, I choose to celebrate them.
And if we meet, I hope to celebrate you too. For that, if anything, is the Kingdom of God.
10 important things you can learn about life and business by walking a dog
The lessons we can learn from the simplest acts in life are often the most valuable of all. I’ve been walking our family dogs since 2007 and along the way have learned quite a few lessons applicable to life and business that can be learned from walking a dog.
Shit almost always happens. Like all great lessons in life, we often set our minds on the processes that we most enjoy (like the beauty of a nice day outside.. or that pending great business deal) while conveniently forgetting that expected and unexpected shit always happens along the way. Being present and ready for these eventualities is far better than getting out there with no poop bag and being forced to flick a stick or hide that shit under a leaf or snow. There’s a lesson there for business and life, for sure. Be ready for that shit.
Motivation comes from affirmation. Dogs pay a ton of attention to their surroundings, but typically like to lead by their nose. That means it is important to maintain their attention and confirm who is in charge all during a dog walk. It’s great to affirm the character of the dog and understand them, but a good owner learns to lead by communication and connection. The dogs like it better because they’re actually wired that way. There’s an element of truth to that with people too, because everyone works better when they are affirmed in their efforts.
Set expectations and give directions. Typically this involves instruction given to a dog (or dogs) before one ever goes outside. A simple “sit” or “stay” inside the door is the same thing as stating “Alright let’s bring this meeting to order.” Walking a dog is a meeting of minds. Teaching a dog how to walk with you takes practice and consistency. That doesn’t mean you need to control their every action, at first focuse on those that contribute to the greater goal of having “a good walk.” A dog tugging and pulling and wandering off-trail every twenty feet is not necessarily a happy animal. Nor is a dog left to fend for themselves in the presence of strange or unfamiliar dogs. Some will work it out, but they can also wind up being dominated or intimidate, setting the stage for future fears. Set expectations in all these situations and life will be better for everyone. “Is your dog good with other dogs?” is a polite and simple question to ask. And be smart about time: keep human meetings and dog walks under an hour. Honor expectations and be rewarded with loyalty.
Vary the routine. Dogs do love a bit of routine. But they also get bored if there is nothing new along the way to see or sniff. So whether you’re walking your dog, making dinner for a spouse or managing a department of eager employees, it always helps to vary the routine. Change it up. Make it fun. That includes the bedroom. Woof woof.
It costs money to feed a dog right. The shelves at your local pet store are filled with row upon row of dog food bags and cans. All claim to be best for your dog’s health. But one must remember that much of what is available in both human food and dog chow is often manufactured from the lowest possible quality of available ingredients (such as sugar or carbs) while runing light on real food including genuine protein or vegetables. Ironically, it can be cheaper and better for you to shop the “perimeter” of a grocery store where food is loose and real rather than purchased prefabricated and sold in boxes, cans or other marketing tools that only raise the cost. A dog’s life can be better on a raw diet just like us. And when it comes to the rest of life, these principles hold true when buying products or creating services to sell to your customers. Authenticity is the name of the game, these days. And healthier for everyone. That’s as true for the information we consume as the food that we eat. Best to check it’s real before gobbling it up.
Have a plan and communicate it. When you buy a puppy (especially a stray or rescue dog, which you should) you can never quite tell what their prior experiences in life have been. Some arrive with fears and baggage from mistreatment, But just like people, these tendencies can often be healed through communication, kindness and loving direction to build trust. Knowing how to do this can require the help of a dog trainer. That dynamic is just ike a human resources department brining in objective, outside help in the form of specialists to talk about sexual harassment or other critical management policies. In every case it matters that we use consistent, clear language and develop a plan that everyone understands so that both the dogs in our life and our fellow associates know the importance of respecting the plan.
Know your limits. Sometimes it is tough to handle all the things that raising dogs or managing associates can throw at us in a day. Thus it is important to know when to “back off” and calibrate our own emotional stability before proceeding to the next steps. With a dog, it can be enormously helpful to crate train them because animals need time to regain a sense of control in their own space. On the human front, many companies now realize that granting associates the right to govern their time or engage in recreation actually brings them back with fresh attitudes. The byproduct of this approach is that it gives managers and executives a reasonable respite from constant demands, and they need time to recreate as well. That’s a wise way to go about the whole program. Productivity can actually increase by giving people license to expand their minds and relieve stress. it’s all about knowing your limits and respecting those of the people (and the dogs) with whom you work.
Embrace the cause. Walking your dog is an important tool for their health and wellness. It balances their body and minds because many breeds retain instincts to move and hunt and play. Embracing this as the “cause” for the walk really can put you in tune with the dog you love. It can open your eyes to their world. And while sniffing out dead frogs in the grass seems gross from a human perspective, to a dog that activity is like finding a cold, unclaimed Snickers bar in the back of the company fridge after moving the ice that’s been sitting there four months. We all love surprises. Embrace the cause of joy no matter how simple it can be. And nothing beats a truly cold Snickers.
Get out more. Taking your dog new places is an exercise in collaboration. Helping your dog meet new people or other dogs is a great way to socialize them and improve their ability to handle diverse circumstances. Bringing your dog to a local coffee shop will often produce many interesting encounters as people ask if they can pet your animal. If that’s in your dog’s nature, it can open up all-new human connections as well. Recently I encountered two obviously homeless men sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop. Both lit up with joy at the sight of our dog’s wagging tail and happy expression. She did not judge the men by their appearance, nor did they object to her over-exuberant and somewhat nippy greeting. So get out more. It’s a compassionate thing to do for you, your dog and for other people in this world. It’s also good for your soul at work or in life to go out for lunch with friends or even all alone and keep an open mind to talking with others.
Forgive your dog and forgive yourself. No animals acts perfectly all the time. While we try to raise “perfect pets” that mind our every command. But occasionally they’ll still pee on the neighbor’s lawn when you’re not looking or threaten to run after a rabbit of squirrel. Our pets can be a bit ADHD at times, drawn to distractions or possessed by their instincts. First and foremost, you need to learn to forgive them. And in the process, you’ll learn to forgive yourself for not raising a perfect pet. There’s especially no reason to be cruel to animals as a means to assuage any inner guilt or disturbance in your emotional matrix. It is clear from all the abandoned or abused pets in this world that too many people take out their aggressions on innocent animals because they have not found healthy ways to deal with their own inner torments. If you have these instincts and can’t find ways to be patient with you dog, then human relationships are not going to be any easier to manage. The same goes for projecting prejudice or fears on certain breeds of dog, or for that matter. That brand of prejudice parallels resistance to human cultures or races of people different from our own. Until people learn how to overcome these fears or prejudices, the world becomes a battle for control that never ends. Thus it is important to learn to forgive yourself, how to manage internal conflicts and how to change your ways and attitudes. Your pet and the people around you in this world will no doubt return the favor with kind appreciation.
It’s a gut-wrenching moment, saying goodbye to a child on a college campus. But some colleges really know how to handle it. To their eternal credit, I recall the method by which the University of Chicago manages that transition for parents and students. The entire crowd present for the opening remarks from the college president is marched around the block toward the Quad, where the kids are siphoned off and sent through a set of arches to be greeted by upperclassman who cheer their welcome. The parents are shunted off to a consoling feast of food and alcohol at the center of campus.
Tears dry quickly when the chords are so suddenly snapped. And the process is inevitable if you want your child to succeed. We work so hard as parents to teach them to be independent and then blubber like fools when we finally succeed? The world is so full of contradictions.
The more difficult transition for our family during my son’s freshman year in college was coaxing my wife through the initial rounds of chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer. She’d already been through procedures of hysterectomy and excision in the abdomen earlier that summer. We did not know what the results would be, or where the next steps would lead us. It would entail eleven rounds of chemotherapy, and it was tough. The poison drugs gave her a swollen face and a reddish complexion as if she were perpetually blushing.
Yet she was determined to attend Parent’s Night at the college. So we drove into the city with her mother and father sitting in the back seat of our car. Her father was a big fan of the entire University of Chicago experience. Years before my son became a candidate for admission, my father-in-law wandered Hyde Park and studied its history. He felt genuine pride at the fact that his grandson had worked so hard in high school and gotten accepted into the prestigious school.
So the trip down to UC was supposed to be a passage of joy. But my wife was sick as hell from the chemo treatments. She was so stubborn that I knew she could not be convinced to stay home. So I kept watch on her in the passenger seat as we drove down the Eisenhower Expressway into the city.
Her lip quivered a few times, and she had every right to be scared and exhausted from her treatments. But I still felt she needed to get a grip. I whispered to her quietly. “Evan needs you to be strong,” I told her. “This may be one of those times when you have to just suck it up.”
It sounds cruel, but the message worked. She sailed through the evening like the trooper she was, keeping a smile on her face and dishing out hugs to the new friends and parents we met at the University. Evan was thrilled we could attend. And then it was time to go home again.
A few weeks later my son came home to visit the family over Thanksgiving, I was driving him back downtown when he confessed to a tension inside himself that he could not fully describe.
I asked: “Is it mom? Are you worried about her?”
“Well yes, but that’s not it,” he said. “I feel like I have this anvil on my chest.”
Coming home and coming out
That evening he did not attempt to describe what was going on. But I knew he’d eventually come to grips with whatever was vexing him. It took a couple months, actually. But during his trip home in mid-winter we went out to dinner with our family and shared the news that he is gay.
The news and perhaps the timing was a shocker to my wife, who was in the midst of eleven cancer treatments that were slowly eating away at her health. Ultimately the chemo drugs would clear her of cancer for two full years. The doctors would proclaim her cancer free. The treatments had worked. For a while.
In the moment of our son’s revelation, my major concern was family stability in the face of all that challenge and change. My wife turned to my daughter and asked, “What do you think of this?”
My daughter was quick to reply. “I think we both like good-looking men.”
That evening after everyone was in bed, I reached out by phone to a gay friend for some perspective on my son’s coming out. My friend arrived at my door a half-hour later with a look of deep concern on his face. I shared the night’s events and told him about my son’s orientation. He smiled at me and said, “Oh, I was worried it was something serious, like Linda getting sicker.” That was a welcome show of assurance. I’d had hints that Evan might be gay over the years. The first showed up as early as fifth grade. I called my brother that day and told him, “You know, I think Evan might be gay.”
“If he is, he is,” my brother replied. That was the attitude of our entire family as the years went by. “Evan is Evan,” we all repeated. He’d grown up loving music and excelled at cello, earning top honors at the Illinois State Youth Music camp at University of Illinois. He ran track some, and played soccer a couple years. But he was ultimately drawn to acting and theater, an interest that carried all the way through four years of college. The roots of his being were there all along, in every respect.
Perhaps you understand the roots of your particular child as well. Sending them off to kindergarten or middle school, high school or college is however an admission that it takes more than a set of parents to help them become who they eventually will become.
Freshman year went generally well for my son. As for us, those quick tears the first day of school hardly affected our vision of what we wanted for our son going forward. His grades were good. He’d signed on to join a fraternity. He loved living in the city and would take off on a trip to China that next summer.
What it’s all about
Every step along the way is about more than just about going off to school. It’s not even about kids leaving home. It’s about growing to learn, and learning to grow. That’s true for the parents saying goodbye as well as those eager, perhaps frightened students.
You may feel split to the core at the feeling of loss. All those years of raising them around the house, hosting their friends and feeding them sloppy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with lemonade on hot summer days. Time passes. We wipe the counter of their messes. Memories of diapers and bottles and pacifiers fade. They are replaced with smelly sneakers and college duffle bags tossed in the entryway on the day they come back home from school… and disappear again with friends to convene late into night. It can make you wonder if you matter. And you do. But you can cry all you want, this is life.
Wipe those tears and be glad for the normality of all that pain and loss and joy mixed together. Take pride in the fact that you help make it all happen. And thrive.
Something in human nature craves the idea there is always something more than what we see on the surface of existence. We choose God as that focus.
Yet it is most often pride of ownership that obscures the known and unknown channels to God.
For God is the Great Contrarian.
We call God a Creator. Yet everything created by God is always, and ultimately, destroyed.
We call God the Author of Life. Yet we know that 99% of all living things that once lived on the earth are now extinct.
We call God a King and celebrate God’s Kingdom. Yet the true authors of that kingdom often painfully pass into death. They are symbols for the challenge all of us face.
Some speak of the End Times as if there were a beginning and an end. But that is the wrong kind of human pride at work again. We’re told we cannot know that time, when in fact we cannot know time at all. It is forever behind and ahead of us. All we can truly know is this vibrant present. It too is destroyed.
That does not mean we are helpless in time. God is clear that love is an operative that brings life into full focus. We are encouraged through love to look beyond the self. Thus the world expands in our presence. And God’s presence is brought to us.
This selfless love can however be abused. It can face injustice. Even unto death.
That is exactly what God the Contrarian asks us all to embrace. Love is no sin. And sin is no love.
To understand our role in this world we must begin by knowing love even at risk of losing it. Only then can we begin to appreciate what life really is about.
That does not mean we are meant to squander that which is precious or meaningful. We know God as well through all that exists around us. Our great scriptures call up images of God through natural symbols. These help us understand spiritual principles. Mustard seeds. Yeast in the dough.
The Right Kind of Pride does not force these symbols into a role they were never intended to play. Seven days. Snakes in the Garden. These help us understand the advent of Creation, human nature and sin. But they are not the Final Word.
In fact The Final Word is love. That is what God wants us to know. For love exists outside the realm of all we call tangible, literal and temporal. It is both rational and irrational. And love is real.
That is why God is real. For God is love.
All our understanding must pass through this test if we hope to appreciate the motives of God. We may find ourselves contradicting the habits of society and commerce. We may find ourselves speaking alone against a crowd of voices fixed with fury and political fervor, shouting us down. Telling us that we just don’t “get it,” and that tradition says we’re wrong.
But are we out of touch with reality? Really? When we act the Contrarian in good conscience, advocating for protection of the poor out of love and mercy, we are not out of touch. We are in touch with God. And when we side with causes of mercy and social justice despite the inconvenience it represents to commerce and human society, we are in touch with God’s wishes for humankind.
These are not simple principles by which to abide. If they were, everyone would do them. Instead they require a vigilance for which so few have an appetite. Comforts distract. So does access to power and human selfishness.
But God the Contrarian sees all that and knows the hearts of human beings. That is where God connects with all of us. Even those who do not profess belief in God have a heart of their own. Neither are they ignored. Grace extends to all. Knows all faiths. And the lack of it.
For love abounds. It only disappears when we attempt to confine it to our selfish purposes or turn it into a weapon or a tool for control. We see it every day. The force of love can kill if it is wielded with sufficient anger and fear. God the Contrarian knows that too.
God has loved the world to death before. It is woven into the nature of all existence, the expression of all destruction. To come and go with wisdom, we must know this simple truth, and remember it well. God is love, and the force of love can save, or kill.
Our better natures are like God the model of contrition. God call us to this example. All of nature and a world of love awaits our answer.