When Dorothy clicks the heels of her ruby slippers in the movie Wizard of Oz, she closes her eyes to chant, “There’s no place like home…”
The moment is poignant because Dorothy has lived the bad dream of being displaced from the place that gives her a feeling of security and being loved. What she discovers in the Land of Oz is a world in which love for all its flaws and strange forms really does exist.
When she “returns home” and awakens to find her family watching over her, she struggles to express the deep affection she feels for them, and her home.
Many of us go through life with similar feelings. We feel pride and affection for the place (or places) we most feel at home.
Yet many of us find that the events of life separate us from these places. We feel forced to move on with our existence and not look back. Yet the longing we feel for a place to truly call home resides within our hearts and souls.
Of course it’s not productive to live in the past. There is so much to occupy us in the present the idea of ignoring it turns into a core dysfunction.
It helps instead to think about what it is that makes a place in time or space feel like home. One might look back with great affection on a childhood home, for example. Those trees you climbed and the green grass. The innocence of riding your bike around a neighborhood on a summer day. Even playing video games in the bedroom of a favorite house calls up deep emotions.
Sometimes the mere smell of a type of food calls us back into a time and place. Or, we walk out onto a mowed lawn and realize the sensation of hearing our parents call us back in for supper on a summer’s eve.
All these associations are powerful emotional trigger points. They are healthy, proud reminders that we come from somewhere, and that our memories do matter. They have helped form who we are. They may even help form the lives of our own children. We try to share the values most important to us. We hope those values will sustain the ones we love most during times of trial.
We often speak of the importance of stable upbringings and the merit of traditional families. While the human mind recognizes these values at the core, they are not the only model for what we call home or happiness. For many of us, it is the intense experiences in friendship that make us feel most at home. There is great value in that kind of pride and a sense of being home as well.
That is why so many people return to their college or high school reunions. These shared experiences form our notion of home as well as family. In many religious traditions the notion of home or the Kingdom of God is defined by a community of fellow believers.
Still others feel this community and the place of home in truly wild places. The great naturalist John Muir roamed the mountains and even clung to the tops of swaying trees in tremendous storms. He was seeking that connection to the earth and the world that most made him feel at home.
We may indeed find a sense of home in these peak experiences. People fall in love because their senses are piqued by the presence of others. One can define this sense of home in a number of ways, but it speaks to the notion of family.
We feel most alone when separated from these connections. Those of us who feel the touch of isolation due to anxiety or depression or any other very human conditions face a constant struggle between the desire to return home and the desire to never go home again. Home can thus be a source of pain and joy at the same time.
It is a reminder that the statement that “there’s no place like home” is not entirely true. That’s the ironic message in the Wizard of Oz that too many people miss. Our dreams and the longings they create are just as important as the reality of everyday life. And here’s another truth that escapes most people: It’s never exactly the same when you actually do go home. Your perceptions of the place, it’s size and everything about it have changed. This can be as jarring as a bad dream or as exciting as a good one.
Yet the concept of home is important in another way. It calls us to assess what makes us feel secure, and if we’re really lucky or smart, happy in our time and place.
The movie Midnight In Paris speaks about this alternate view of home as a time and place. One character views a point in history as perfect while another determines that it is the perception of that time and place that is most important. In the end the character played by Owen Wilson arrives at the conclusion that the illusion he was living was not the search for home at all, but the feeling of fulfillment that comes with living one’s life in earnest. And in that respect, there really is no place like home. You are home.
Spring is typically more a concept than a thing. We wait all winter for spring and it arrives in fits and starts that both tantalize and frustrate us. Warm days are followed by chill and clouds. Rain spits horizontally one day and falls languid and splattery from above the next. Most of all, spring is the product of an extravagant explosion of building warmth, energy and sunlight. Spring is chemical too. all processes in nature have a chemical foundation. Plans stir into life and begin their new dance with photosynthesis that works at a molecular level. We can’t see these minute processes at work, but we do know they exist. Science has provided us wonderful insights into how nature really works. No longer are we dependent on wives’ tales and myths to help us appreciate the workings of the natural world. And that is good. Science is much more satisfying because it is verifiable. We can understand the infrastructure of spring. We know how bees and insects pollinate plants. Moving from flower to flower, these pollinators perform a work of sexual magic. It is entirely programmed into nature as a symbiotic relationship. People who pay attention to spring are much like those who go about town fixing things. The infrastructure of a community, its light poles and sewers and streets, does not happen on its own. Those informed and responsible for the infrastructure therefore look at a village, town or city through different eyes. Nature does not need human beings to function. But it does need human beings to understand the importance of its functions. It has long been recognized that the human race can have profound impact on the natural world. This is not always good. Sadly this adverse impact is often based on ignorance, but also knowingly wasteful habits. As bright as people can be, they can also be greedy and wasteful. It’s true at the community level as well. People who don’t really understand how the electrical grid works get frustrated quickly when a passing storm knocks out the lights. At that moment the television does not work, or the lights. So people whine and complain inside their homes, wondering when the juice will flow back into their abodes. Those who maintain the power grid can usually trace the source of the outage and get things working again. Sometimes it takes an hour or two because safety comes first, and the massive flow of energy through the power grid is not something one can take lightly. Our water works and sewage systems are similarly dependent on repair and maintenance of the infrastructure. Think how helpless we’d all be if that knowledge base were suddenly removed. When workers in these trades go on strike (and it seldom happens) entire cities can be put at risk. It is remarkable then how poorly the average person seems to comprehend the workings of nature as well. The incurious mind regards nature with the same bland, banal attitude that is cast upon the infrastructure of a town. Too many people only seem to care about nature when it isn’t working to their advantage or behaving like it should. You talk about lack of gratitude? The infrastructure of nature is far, far more important than the infrastructure we tend to impose upon it. Yet how many people recognize even a few species of birds in their neighborhood, or can identify the sound of chorus frogs singing from a wet ditch in spring? Spring is flowers and green grass and April showers, yet asking people to look beyond these basic cliches seems almost like an affront. That’s why it is so hard for so many people to conceive that the infrastructure of spring is at risk beyond the shifting and changing it typically does in a given year. In fact the infrastructure of the entire global climate is being impacted by what amounts to a human storm of carbon that never ceases and never releases from the atmosphere. These changes we can see happening right before our eyes. But the attitudes of some politicians is much like the ungrateful soul sitting inside a dark living room complaining that the lights are not going back on. It’s a shortsighted approach to life that refuses to look at the reasons why things occur rather than claiming the status quo is business as usual and should not have to be examined. The next time you look at a flower, be it wild or domestic, know that its bloom does not require your will to occur, yet it still depends on you caring about it to see another year. And another. Lest there come a day that it cares not that you are gone. Sooner or later we all push up daisies. Better to appreciate them while you can look them in the eye and help nature propagate its infrastructure for yet another generation.
On a flight out of London recently my goal was to use the time flying across the country to study the English landscape. Now that I had visited the country and seen its hills and creeks, listened to its birds singing in the hedgerows and wandered the streets of London in the sunshine, I wanted to see the country from above. To put it all in perspective. The visit. The return trip home from the land of my ancestors.
We were fortunate with weather all week. The English skies were clear and the temperatures cool and wonderful.
But there was something more. Coming east from America the country of Ireland had been obscured by clouds and I had not seen that landscape at all.
Going west again we soared 34,000 feet in the air and crossed the channel between Great Britain and Ireland. There was nothing but a few strings of clouds to block the view.
The coastlines were fascinating to me. They illustrate that habitable ground really does come to an end. From high up in the sky you can see the giant shimmering patterns of waves rolling up against the shore. It is humbling to realize that our view of the ocean by foot is always so limited. Yet there are truths to be revealed even in that narrow perspective. The breaking waves at our feet reflect principles of physics and laws of gravity replicated billions of times every second of every day, and for all eternity as long as the earth and water and sky have existed.
We know much about the visible consistency of our universe, our solar system and our planet. We also know that human beings evolved in concert with a very narrow band of physical properties that make life on earth possible at all. Some call that a miraculous circumstance. Others go a step further and credit it all to the power of God.
Science takes a parallel yet more verifiable view of such things, for our sciences measure the limits of all things as well as take measure of the infinite. That distinction is critical to our understanding of how things work. Yet it proves somehow unfavorable to people incurious about the material world and its deepest secrets.
An ideological divide
That divide between some brands of religion and the fields of study we call science is causing real problems with our collective understanding of our real position in this universe. Some people seem to have so much pride vested in the notion that human beings are specially created that they refuse to understand the real workings of creation at all. Yet nature truly is a creative, absolutely infinite source of invention if we consider both its power and its fragility.
Talk show enlightenment
On the radio this morning a pair of talk show hosts was leading a discussion with an astronomer from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. They discussed how much information the Hubble Telescope has provided the human race about the cosmos. It has helped us detect and trace the effect of Dark Matter, a source of activity and energy that is being studied for its effects on the expansion rate of the universe.
For 25 years the Hubble Telescope has also enabled astronomers to look for planets similar to earth that might hold life in other solar systems. That’s a pretty huge numbers game to be playing, with views from Hubble spanning eons of time. As light travels to us at astonishing speed it can tell us what was once there, but not what is there at this precise moment. It’s a conundrum of sorts to know whether anything truly exists or not.
Yet there is evidence of other planets out there, the astronomer admitted, but it’s so far away it would take perhaps million of generations of human beings to reach it.
This led to a short but revealing discussion about life on other planets and whether human beings will some day be forced to colonize other planets in order to survive. Our immediate choices aren’t that great. To our knowledge there are no other planets in the solar system that even offer oxygen as a breathing option. Human beings have evolved to need oxygen to live. So there’s not much encouraging news in the idea that we can travel to Mars or Venus and survive.
Those planets are also so far away that the first travelers will have to agree that they are going away and not coming back to Earth. They’d be chartered to somehow set up camp and possibly breed, while living on what? There are also no known sources of food or water (other than ice, perhaps) on Mercury or beyond. You want to live on a gaseous planet like Saturn or Jupiter? Pretty cold places people.
Considering the globe
The entire notion of creating some sort of time travel to reach distant planets has not one shred of possibility now. Our movies and shows such as Star Trek and Star Wars are fantastical lies designed to deceive us into thinking space travel is some sort of entertaining soap opera. It’s not. It’s a deadly universe in which we live compounded by a disgusting pride that makes us think we’re so important we can impose our pattern of existence on other planets.
That rude assumption makes it difficult for some people to take any sort of pride in in the notion of protecting and maintaining the one planet where we know that life can exist. That is, if we don’t screw it up. That’s planet Earth.
Yet there is long and conclusive evidence that human activity is adversely impacting our global climate system. We’ve already proven we can pollute the air at a local level to make entire regions of the world nearly uninhabitable. Look at China right now with its air pollution and water pollution problems. The more dense their population gets, the more demands for energy and its resultant waste products.
Profit and loss
The ugly pride that says near-term profits are more important than the air we breathe and the water we drink is the ultimate form of arrogance. Yet there are entire political parties formulated around these very ideologies. It comes down to a simple matter really. Would you rather be rich or alive? Because those are the choices we are making and have been making since the advent of human awareness. The acceleration of technology, miraculous as it is, cannot keep ahead of our wasteful consumption.
The earth can seem like a pretty big place if you fly around in an airplane looking down at the ground below. But go a little higher where the atmosphere runs out, which is where the Hubble telescope sits 360 miles above the earth, and you can begin to appreciate that the universe is as finite for the human race as it is infinite for God. The Earth is a very small planet.
We don’t need science or God to appreciate that if we mess up this planet badly enough, the entire human race is screwed. If that prick of awareness is not enough to warn us, and if our little light in the universe blinks out, perhaps only God will really care. But according to the Bible, there have been moments before in history when God has either let life be destroyed on earth or even rubbed it out in God’s own purposes. The Old Testament God was one rude sonofabitch.
But maybe God will not really be alone if the human race goes extinct. Perhaps we’re just one of many social and spiritual experiments he’s got swirling around in infinity. Perhaps God doesn’t really even want us to mix with life forms until we have actually figured out that being good stewards of creation really is the right kind of pride.
There are a whole lot of signs pointing toward that end. That if we cannot get along and be gracious to each other and the earth, then we do not deserve to exist. If that’s too depressing a thought for you to consider, then may I suggest writing your Congressman and telling them to stop denying the plain fact that protecting ourselves from self-annihilation and suffocating the human race in heat and poisoned air may just be the most important thing we ever do. That is true on a spiritual, ethical, social, political and religious level.
Or else you can tell them to pray, and hope to hell that God has the time and space to listen. But God track record is somewhat disturbing in that category. If the legend of Noah’s Ark is proof of anything, it’s that God does not have infinite patience with the arrogance of the human race. And like it or not, God does mess around with promises quite often. Hence the negotiations with Lot over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, which suffered a fiery fate not because of homosexuality but because the towns were so abusive of human rights in general God no longer felt they deserved to exist.
It’s time to stop foisting our arrogant pride on God and turn inward a bit. We need to do some real, productive soul-searching instead of the kind that depends on platitudes and political dogma. And we need to include science on this inner conversation to do the subject justice.
Because the real answers about why the earth is suffering under our hand do not come from God or the notion of original sin, but from our presents sins being committed toward creation. These are based on selfish aims and short term whims of profit and extraction. We’re taking (and emitting) far more than we’re giving back to the Earth. And the Bible always tells us that it’s better to give than receive. But that’s really true when you consider the possibility that our receipts may add up to a bitter and eternal end for human life on earth.
A sobering thought. Yet the right kind of pride when it comes to determining where to place our priorities.
Christopher Cudworth is author of two books. The Right Kind of Pride is a chronicle of cancer survivorship; character, caregiving and community and is available on Amazon.com. His first book The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith inthe Modern Age, is being republished on Amazon in early July.
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.
What you’re about to read is a confessional of sorts. No, I’m not going to tell you I was a childhood bully. But I am going to confess that I was not a pushover, either.
There were a group of kids from up the turnpike south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania that came from pretty rough backgrounds. Their homes were pushed up against a hill on a gravel driveway. Our bus stopped at that drive and every kid on the bus tensed up in preparation for what came next. The tough kids would climb on and instantly begin kicking kids out of their seats. They did this without words and without incident. We all just knew to move when the bullies got on board.
Of course it’s all part of the pecking order of being a kid. Another stop on our bus route included a trailer park near the Conestoga River. That’s where a kid named Rodney got on the bus. He had a strange condition in which his nose was turned up and was always filled with golden-green boogers. His nickname was Booger Nose for a good reason. When Rodney got on the bus you hoped and prayed he would not sit in your seat. Pretty much everyone on the bus paired up with someone else, anyone else, to avoid having to sit with Booger Nose.
There were one or two other girls we all tried to avoid as well. One was named Peggy. She was part of what the school called the Corps, and we call called them the Corps Kids. That was a euphemism for being, in that non-politically-correct term of the day, mentally retarded.
So the bus ride every day was a mix of social strata. There was jockeying for seats and pairing up with friends. There were mean words and actions toward children we did not like or wanted to avoid. All in all it was a core sample of the cruelties of childhood.
My mother was a school teacher who tutored kids with learning disabilities after school. Those kids would come to our home to get help with reading or math. After their lessons we would play together. There was never any problem with those kids. They became my friends. In fact I knew enough even at that tender age to recognize that I was not perfect either. One of my imaginary fears was that the rest of the world was actually playing along in liking me, or putting up with me. I know. Pretty sad fantasy huh? That’s how the mind sometimes works when you’re a kid.
But on balance life was manageable despite my hyper-sensitive emotional framework. I recognize now that some of my challenges were related to a form of attention disorder. I’d excel at some subjects and struggle with others. The only realm where I felt truly happy and engaged was while playing sports. That’s where creativity and activity mixed together in my head. I felt alive. Expressive. And fearless.
Then in 5th grade one of the bullies began to single me out for unwanted attention. He kicked over my instrument at the school bus stop and challenged me to fight. I was deathly afraid at first. Then a deep resolve began to build inside my head. I already got picked on at home in a pecking order that passed from my father to my brothers and on to me. I earned the nickname The Mink for the way I could erupt with spitting fury to any sort of transgression.
By 6th grade that determination to defend my honor and pride poured out in negative ways. I started fights on the playground even with friends. All it took was one unkind word and I’d be swinging away. Some fights I wound up getting whopped in the head but good. Other fights ended before they began. But a reputation was building.
That’s when another of the bullies started to target me for a fight. His name was Davey. He had pasty white skin and a set of lips that made him look like a vampire. His demeanor was viciously quiet and calculating. One day he walked up to me and said, “I hear you’re pretty tough. Meet me at the Media Heights pool at noon on Saturday. We’ll have a real fight.”
It was November so the Media Heights pool had no water in it. The idea of fighting deep down in that concrete pool was both frightening and thrilling. I did not fear Davey exactly. But I knew this was going to be somehow different.
Which meant that I started bragging about the fight that morning while playing basketball with friends. An older neighbor whose name was also Dave heard me and walked right over to me. “You’re not going to that pool,” he warned me. “I’m going in your place.”
I tried to protest. Dave looked me in the eye and said, “If you try to resist, I’ll kick your ass.”
Well, I liked this older friend Dave, but I knew he was kind of crazy. He played basketball like he was trying to kill a batch of bees. The idea of fighting him did not appeal to me at all.
So he went in my place. Half an hour later he arrived back at the basketball court. There was a bright red stream of blood all over the front of his shirt. “I busted his nose wide open,” he told us. Then pointing at me, he gave a stern warning. “He pulled a knife on me Cudworth. Now promise me you’re all done fighting. That’s not you, and you know it.”
And I can’t say that I never fought again. But the cycle was largely broken. From then on I only fought back in self-defense. I started no more fights to prove that I was somehow tougher than someone else.
People who believe in angels might think of them as gentle spirits looking out for our interests. I don’t quite believe in that kind of angel. I pretty much believe that what we conceive as angels are the badass forces in the universe willing to save our souls to make a very good point. The right kind of pride is that which does not need to prove itself by singling out or punishing others in any way. That does not mean we cannot be critical or fight in the name of justice. Quite the opposite. The right kind of pride demands that we call out wrongs where we see them. We all make mistakes sometimes in that category, but dealing with bullies in positive and not so positive ways requires that we learn lessons from both ends of the spectrum.
Christopher Cudworth is author of The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of positive survivorship through his wife’s cancer and other challenges. It is available on Amazon.com.
This coming Wednesday, March 4th I am speaking about the subject of loss for Lenten Services at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I have already met with the Pastor to orient the discussion, which will center on how our family dealt with the loss of my wife due to cancer. So the topic is fully on my mind.
Last night I woke up at 2:00 with thoughts rolling through my head. I grabbed my iPhone and entered them into the Notes app. If you don’t write these thoughts down somewhere it’s so easy to forget what they are.
This was stream of consciousness stuff, so it’s not grammatically correct. Not even complete sentences. In some respects it’s better that way.
Sometimes your gain is your loss (hiding cancer) and your loss is your gain (blessings from caregiving and community). Blessed to be a blessing to others. Loss of activity. Loss of identity. Careful to recognize loss of hope. Blessings are miracles in real time versus miracles out of time.
Here’s what it all this means.
I have a friend whose husband had cancer and chose to hide it from everyone for two years. She was imprisoned in this world where he suffered through treatments and she could not talk about it to anyone. His concerns over his own vulnerability were what motivated him. He did not want to be seen as a cancer patient. This approach was actually part of a larger pattern of controlling behavior stemming from his unwillingness to accept the very real fact of his underlying depression. His “gain” in protecting himself from outside scrutiny was actually a loss in terms of letting others truly help him and their family. That made it all the tougher for my friend to endure.
How different (and difficult) that approach was compared to choosing to share your burdens with others. The very first week my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer one of her friends (actually her boss) reached out to our family. We were so grateful to have that support. To her enormous credit this woman guided us through multiple rounds of treatment and needs over the next eight years. That was a gift that can never be repaid.
At times the blessings of that care were so great we felt compelled to share our blessings with others. That opened up channels of communication for people who confided in us. Some of these needs were simple. People actually apologized for expressing concerns about their situation. “I know my troubles are nothing compared to what you’re going through,” they’d often begin. “But I’m worried…”
Worry is almost always over losing something in our lives. We worry that we might lose our jobs with an illness or other difficulty. We worry about losing money. We worry about losing friends or relationships. We worry about losing the respect, trust or love of our friends and family members. The feeling of loss in our lives is almost constant. We’re always losing something, aren’t we? And we worry about it.
Recovering from loss
There’s a great passage in the Bible where a woman loses a coin and tears her house apart trying to find it. When she does recover the coin she calls her friends together to celebrate. That’s a metaphor for how God feels about lost souls. There is a universal tie that binds us when it comes to loss of spirit. We even speak of “losing our way” in life. That feeling of being lost and knowing loss is most difficult to transcend. Some people never pull free. They live with the feeling they are losing the battle. God doesn’t want us to live that way.
But even if you are not religious, there is sustaining hope in the very fact of life. You are here. You exist. You are the miraculous product of billions of years of evolution. You have free will. The choices you make do matter. You can choose to live in accord with all of human life and all of nature.
I choose to draw strength from both those scenarios. For me, the defining unity between God and material reality is love. It’s a very real thing, you know. It exists. It does great things. It sustains hope and heals wounds both physical and material. And as far as I can tell, God is love.
It is what it is
In our case we objectified our losses to gain some grasp of where the blessings still abided. Our phrase was “It is what it is,” That meant the cancer. The treatments. The loss of activities and joy in life. All that constituted loss
Cancer even caused us to lose insurance. Lose jobs.
But we never lost hope. That was the one thing we refused to lose.
Identifying with hope
Ultimately my wife lost her life to cancer. But she never lost her identity in the journey toward that moment. She retained her character. Refined it, in fact. At times it was something to witness. At other times it was something to support, encourage and even cajole. It was not always easy.
When she lay in bed after dying I touched her lips and told her that I was very proud of her. Hence the title of this blog and my book about our survivorship journey. The Right Kind of Pride.
We’d seen miracles in our lives together. These were not miracles that necessarily broke the laws of nature. But they were miracles of love and beneficial consequence. Favors of love and care that transcended expectations. Money that arrived through gifts when we desperately needed it. All sorts of things transpired that left us in grateful, happy tears.
So you can see why that stream of consciousness at 2:00 in the morning feels rather profound. It may seem jumbled in the cold light of day. In fact it is clear that loss is real, but you can thrive in the face of it. We all must do that, for loss is everywhere. From small objects to entire dreams, hope and loss stand in delicate balance. Choose not to lose hope and loss becomes something you can handle.
Sometimes life does not seem fair. We still need to take responsibility and pride in our hope when facing difficult circumstances. Then loss does not possess us.
In college our dorm room was on the 7th floor of a tower overlooking the Oneota Valley in Decorah, Iowa. Our windows faced west and winter sunsets over the valley were often quite dramatic. When the sun went down and twilight was complete, the hills lining the Upper Iowa River a mile away turned purple in the evening light.
Or so it appeared one late afternoon to the eyes of all those sitting together in our dorm room as the sun went down. “Look how purple the hills are…” I pointed out the window.
“No they’re not. They’re black,” one person responded. We all looked at him.
“Are you color blind?” someone asked.
“No. I can see colors,” he insisted. “But those hills are black.”
The hills clearly appeared purple. But everything this fellow knew about the world was telling him the hills looked black.
We all argued the point for a few minutes and then someone changed the subject. We were getting nowhere in our efforts to help him understand the principles of shadow, light and the color spectrum.
Other than reality
His contention that the hills could not be anything but black once the sun went down were based on something other than a reality perceived by everyone else in the room. Perhaps he truly could not see the color purple and did not know that he was color blind in that way. None of us had any way of proving that to him at the moment. So from his perspective, he won the argument.
That tendency to argue something cannot be a fact unless you can immediately prove a contention wrong is quite common in this world. It helps explain why so many people have trouble grasping basic scientific principles as part of their worldview. Over time, people tend to build up a brand of pride in affirming their own worldview, no matter how wrong or shortsighted it may be. If they find enough people that share their narrow perspective, it becomes even more powerful a way to think.
Content in what they think they know
In other words, people tend to be content in what they feel they already know. Many feel like they’ve worked hard to assemble their worldview. They don’t really want to hear contentions to the contrary. They grow proud of their ability to defend this worldview to the death. One thinks of well-known creationist Ken Ham, whose arguments about biblical truth through literalism are popular with all who find solace and contentment in a simplified view of the world where God created the universe and nothing has changed or evolved since the beginning of time.
That’s very much like contending that the hills are black rather than purple at sunset. Or that they were green during the day, so how could they be purple at night? Nor could they be orange at dawn. Perceptions confined to simple rules quite easily rule out so many possibilities on grounds that cannot be argued away. They are matters of faith in how something is meant to be perceived. It’s a confining way to think, but some people like it that way. They’re proud of their surety, firm in their convictions, and nothing can make them change.
Not even the purple hills of sunset
Yet we also know from the Bible that not even God is depicted as changeless. The deity that appears in a cloud in one book and a burning bush in another takes apparent pride in shifting and playing with the perceptions of all those who would fix the Creator in one place, one form or one time.
God transcends all of that. So does nature. It is very clear that our perceptions of both are organically intertwined. It is also acceptance of one does not automatically cancel out the other.
We all proceed at times with theories that ultimately get proven wrong. It happens in faith as well as science. Among Christians the old religion gave way to a new understanding with the advent of Christ. Then Martin Luther came along to shake up the Catholic order and traditions. Now there’s a new wave of Progressive Christians tugging at the sleeves of believers to reform around an organic view of the Bible that allows scholarship into the mix to determine a better understanding of what scripture really means, and what it doesn’t.
The trick to a establishing a better understanding in life is to never be content in what you know. That’s what’s taking place every day in science. Some people point to that fact as the source of an idea that science cannot be trusted. But that’s a mistake in perception too. We depend on science for all kinds of trustworthy activities. From medicine to industry, biology to economics, our sciences deliver dependable if not changeless information about how we view and interact in this world. Without this source of humanistic culture, we are in essence reduced to tribal beings caught in a blind play in which we have no control at all over our destiny. And shockingly, some people still think God wants that for us too.
We need our moral traditions to be equally open to change. One could say that God expects that of us. The right kind of pride is having the humility to be awakened to new ways of thinking. God has never liked stiff-necked believers.
Proverbs 21: 9–– “Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed–without remedy.”
My first recollected trip to the City of Chicago was as a thirteen year old child. We drove from the tiny town of Elburn, Illinois (Pop. 1500 at the time) to visit the Museum of Science and Industry. That’s a trip of about 50 miles all told. At the time, it might has well have been a trip around the world.
Kids who grow up in the city know how it works. They take buses and a few even ride in cabs. The buildings do not intimidate them, nor the urbanity and pigeons and graffiti coloring them.
With so little knowledge to build upon, that trip to the museum was like boring into the core of something so foreign to me that it overwhelmed my thought processes. Back home in Elburn life seemed to make more sense. I went birdwatching in the fields and played baseball under a hot sun next to a cornfield.
The lines from the title song of an album I owned, that would be “Honky Chateau” by Elton John, seemed to mock my naivete.
When I look back Boy, I must have been green Boppin’ in the country Fishin’ in a stream
Lookin’ for an answer Tryin’ to find a sign Until I saw your city lights Honey, I was blind
They said, get back, Honky Cat Better get back to the woods Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways And oh, oh, oh, oh, the change is gonna do me good
Truly, I did not know how to “quit those days and my redneck ways.” Even when I landed a job in the city at the age of 21 I stuffed my wallet down my pants on the first walk to work because I was not sure whether I’d be robbed or not.
You can laugh, but I bet I’m not alone in that delayed (retarded…as in delayed) response to appreciation of the city. Once I worked downtown it all fell into place. The restaurants and the architecture. The plays and the bars. Finally my redneck ways receded from my eyes.
Then I got transferred to Philadelphia for work and had the experience to soak in a whole city on entirely new terms. Philly was different from Chicago. It was low-slung for one thing. At the time no building was taller than the William Penn statue in the center of downtown. How odd, I thought, that people should agree on such a thing. How many architects longing to make their statement on the Philly skyline had to bite the bullet and build another grumpy testimony to anachronistic style?
While working in Philly it was once my job to cart 140lbs of AV equipment up to the Chemical Bank building in New York city and return the same day. All of this was done by train, then cab, then back to the train. It ranks as one of the most exhausting 12 hour periods of my life. Those four hours in downtown New York were little more than strange. Looking down from the upper floors of the skyscraper there was nothing but a river of yellow cabs grunting along the street below.
I would not get back to New York City until 32 years later. That was to visit my son at his home on Delancey Street in Manhattan. We wandered around under his guidance visiting some sites like the 9/11 Memorial. Then we rented Citibikes and rolled around the riverfront from 5th Avenue across the Williamsport bridge and more.
And it struck me. This is a big place. But it’s just a place. All the familiar landmarks are there just like in the movies. Someone built them and someone uses them. Yes, some of the biggest financial decisions in the world are made on Wall Street. But even that district was forced to stick protective barriers up in front of the buildings so that no one can ram them with cars or explosives. I had to laugh: Who are the rednecks now?
That’s been my experience over the years in visiting all sorts of cities. They are built on assumptions that urbanity is the ultimate expression of human development. Yet they also expose the weaknesses of all those who depend upon them. Some people can’t even bear the idea of functioning outside their given city. And it strikes me as odd that when they arrive in the country and look around them, they seem to think there’s nothing of interest there.
I wonder most of all how that most urban and urbane of characters, Donald Trump likes to think about the world. Walking through Chicago yesterday on the way to a business appointment, I saw his name slapped on the building he chartered on the Chicago River. It is reported that sign pissed off the mayor a bit. Such personal branding seems out of place in a city where architecture prides itself differentiations of shape and style, not the five letters of a last name.
But in case anyone has refused to notice, Donald Trump is all about bluster and artifice in life. Even his reality shows focused on firing people as a sign of sophisticated management.
What do we really owe such people? Typically is is them that owes us. Public financing of giant buildings and especially sports stadiums are often highly leveraged deals. It’s quite rare that someone’s personal worth actually swings the hammer. I have a friend whose relative is a major builder of hotels. On paper he’s worth millions but in reality he owes millions. “They really can’t come after me because I owe so much it wouldn’t pay to take me down,” he admitted.
Our entire economy turns out to be just such a game. We’ve seen the cost when the chips come in. The City of Detroit has suffered as the financial house of cards caves in. Urban decay is much the same as backwoods, redneck existence in the country. It’s no coincidence that guns are so highly valued in both extremes.
Fear drives it all. Fear (or the lack of it) drives the market up and down. Survival in the big city is all about having the wits to grasp the real circumstance of life and not let the perception of urbanity be confused with the establishment of real character.
Despite what people like Donald Trump with his pile of vainly coiffed hair might have us think, there really is nothing magic in the supposed sophistication of the city. Certainly it’s a place to appreciate culture and conduct business. But that just proves that the real magic of the place comes from within yourself.
In the early 2000s my father Stewart Cudworth experienced a set of severe health challenges. The first required open heart surgery that took more than five hours. I still recall the calm with which he faced his surgery. He held my mother’s hand as he waited to be wheeled off for the procedure, a quintuple bypass to deal with heart disease.
That surgery was successful. Another challenge awaited. He developed atrial fibrillation in the following years that led to a debilitating stroke. He lost use of his right arm and leg. He also lost the ability to speak, but not the ability to understand language and all that was going on around him.
I recall the day that my mother called from Upstate New York to inform me that dad was incapacitated. When I hung up the phone, I turned and said to my wife, “Well, my life just changed.”
It was true. From that point forward I became a caregiver to both my mother and father. Then my mother passed away in 2005 from a combination of cancer and stroke and it was my job to be the direct caregiver for my father.
That came with all sorts of challenges. My father had recovered from his stroke enough to gain his full personality back. That was troublesome because he can be a demanding guy. Without the ability to speak his frustrations sometimes boiled over into anger and even physical actions that were not conducive to solving his problems.
It forced all our years of association through the keyhole of having to learn how to communicate on a new and different plane. There were days when it was best for me to simply depart the room or even the entire house during visits to his home. We both needed time to chill out. Get away from the issue at hand and process the anger.
Because I had anger toward him that was unresolved. Some of those ancient conflicts from youth were never discussed before his stroke took away the ability to deal with them in full light. That brought irrational emotions to the surface in me.
All this was compounded by the fact that I was also dealing with the fact that my late wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2005, the same year my mother died. Managing her needs and those of my father, especially when time and patience were often worn thin, proved a real test of character.
Sometimes I’d just pray about it all and figure out what best to do. Figuring out how to handle the sometimes quirky needs of the live-in caregivers hired to stay with my father.
But mostly there was one incident from my early youth that kept coming back to haunt me. My father was a forceful man prone to physical discipline of his four sons. At the age of six he tore into my two brothers for some transgression and it hurt me from the inside out. There were many other unreconciled emotions from those days as well. At the age of 27 I woke up pounding the pillow one night not knowing why I was so angry. That’s when I realized there was work to be done.
And through the years that work got done. And when it mattered most with my father I was able to forgive any and all anger that existed in our lives. He made it tough at times. But the thing that kept me going was his deeper nature. He is an enormously sensitive man, keen on relationships and wanting the best for others. For all the tension of youth there was also tenderness, loving guidance and care. When some sports injury came along his calm, intelligent voice walked me through it. He also helped me sell my artwork. Encouraged me to pay attention to my craft.
He knew my internal struggles better than I thought at times. That is something most fathers struggle with in their lives. How to tell their sons and daughters that they really do understand. That no one is perfect. Least of all ourselves. What we want to say at times is that we love our children more than we can express. And please forgive us if we do not always say or do the right things.
That is how I began to look at my father. Through a macro rather than a micro lens. The small, painful hurts began to dissipate. They were replaced by a sense of love rather than a sense of obligation. We began to have our laughs and through practice and concentration I learned to ask questions to help him express his concerns and interests even through the apraxia and aphasia that stole his speech.
In many ways those conditions became a symbol for our communications over the years. It was strange one day to turn on a videotape made by my father before his stroke and hear him speaking so lucidly. It then struck me that so much personal history of his would be lost forever.
I know the basics. How he and my mother lived 200 yards apart on Upstate New York farms. How his mother died from complications of breast cancer when my father was only seven years old. He and his three sisters went to live with aunts and uncles when their father experienced mental illness due to the loss of his wife, a farm and another business during the Great Depression.
My father went off to war with the Navy late in World War II and did not see action. But he has photographs of his tour of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The boat on which his crew crossed the Pacific ocean was so bad and beat up the Navy scuttled it when they reached Japan. Somewhere on the bottom of the ocean lies a hulk of metal that my father once described as the smelliest tub you could ride upon.
He married my mother right out of the Navy and had four sons and a daughter lost at birth in a span of twelve years. He used his electrical engineering degree from Cornell University to work in the fields of television and later fiber optic cable.
The rest is our family’s history of sports and art and literature and music.
Happy Birthday Dad
And suddenly he’s 89 years old. He grieved with quiet tears for my mother when she died almost ten years ago. People can’t believe he’s done so well or lived so long. It surprises me too. The man I saw one month after his stroke barely looked like he’s live a week.
Tonight we’re going out for dinner to celebrate his birthday. We have many more things in common than we once did because forgiveness has opened those doors. In some ways I have to lead that conversation because he can’t talk. But we know it’s there. The thing about fathers is they’re not perfect. But forgiveness is.
The praise service at our church is something of a refuge for parents of young children who want to attend services. With its open format of chairs arranged in semi-circles and a liturgy formed around singing every few minutes, young parents have flexibility to keep their toddlers busy while still paying attention to the message.
One mother had the requisite bag of Cheerios in a plastic bag. That gave her youngest child something to preoccupy his time. The other son was handily wrapped in his father’s arms. Those two played staring and face games for most of the service.
The Cheerio Sneeze incident
It all brought back memories of tending my own children in church when they were very young. Of course one legendary incident with a plastic bag of Cheerios stands out. My son was perhaps two when the great Cheerio Sneeze occurred. It was the late 1980s and women were sporting particularly fluffy hairstyles. One young gal sitting three rows up had no idea that after my son sneezed while eating Cheerios the sticky residue had flown forth and stuck in her coiffed hair. That is, until she reached back to feel the constellation of Cheerios goo stuck to her blow-dried locks.
It had been funny enough those first few minutes after the sneeze. The guy sitting next to me in church was suffering through a laughing fit so profound his wife was literally hammering him in the side with her elbow to get him to stop. My wife glanced over at me with that “don’t you dare laugh” look wives reserve for their husbands in such situations. But I had already lost it. My son was covered in Cheerio backdraft somehow and the sight of that stuff at close hand when I knew it was also stuck in a woman’s hair three rows up was too much to handle. I was gut laughing and there was nothing to do about it.
Such is the life of young parents. You pretty much have to roll with the problems you face. Kids are unpredictable little mess machines. Every young mom I’ve ever known carries with her The Purse that contains solutions to all such emergencies. In it are diapers and sippy cups and medicine and who knows what else. The Purse could likely be used to get wounded men through an emergency in war, if need be.
It takes both practicality and humility to be a young parent. When your child erupts in mournful crying during church or at some other social event you know the drill; take quick action and hope it works. There is rocking and soothing and if all that doesn’t work (along with the offer of a bag of Cheerios) there is always the patented move known as the Quick Exit. Off you go into the netherlands of some bland hallway where no human being should ever be confined. Your child’s sad face either convulses further or turns to laughter. There is no predicting the outcome.
Unzipped and dealing with it
It really doesn’t get much better as you age. Your child grows a mind of their own and they make mistakes about which you can only shake your head and ask, “What did I do wrong? And then you think back to something like the Cheerios Sneeze incident and realize that you did nothing wrong really. Life is random and stuff like this happens.
I think also of the day my son and I sat next to each other in church while a young mother a few rows up and across the aisle struggled with her rambunctious son. He kept crawling under the pews and every time she bent dow to catch him the zipper on the back of her dress dropped a few more zips. Apparently she’d forgotten to get the clasp that held the back together and everyone in church could see where this was headed. It all happened fast and when she stood up to carry the child out of church her entire dress dropped to the floor. In church. My 5-year-old son gasped and my wife muttered a low “Ohh nooo” as the woman scrambled to pull the dress back up over her bra and panties.
Yes, it was humiliating. But there was not a person in the church community that day who laughed. We’ve all been there in one way or another. We all felt bad for the young mom losing her dress because those of us that had experienced parenthood were laid bare in a thousand other ways over the years.
Besides, it did not matter. What mattered was that her friend quickly leapt to her aid and all was rectified right there on the spot. To her credit, she hung right in there and stuck it out through church.What we also witnessed was the benefit of caregiving. Stepping in when needed. Saving face for someone else. That takes character on both ends. Sometimes humility is the bravest thing you can wield in this world. That young mother wielded it like a hero that morning.
When you are older and sit behind a couple with young children at church there are moments when you want to lean forward and share all that you know about how it works. That embarrassing moments will not kill you. That being a parent is both a humbling and emboldening endeavor.
The best thing you can do sometimes is simply look the other way so that mom or dad can do their business and navigate through any situations that can crop up. Then shake their hand during the Sharing of Peace and make sure you don’t put it near your mouth until after service when you can go wash your hands and get rid of any potential Kid Germs from colds or flu. That’s how it works in this world. The right kind of parenthood never really stops, and if you’ve learned anything from the experience at all, you’ll know that staying well is the first line of priority. Because it’s your job to care. For the kids. And for yourself.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride about facing life’s challenges. It is available on Amazon.com.