It used to drive my wife and children nuts. My propensity for talking to people. Yet I’ve done it so long and learned so much by talking with people that I refuse to stop.
Just last week I talked with a guy that sat down across from me in an airport. His vest had an interesting logo on it. I struck up a conversation and learned that he represented an organization that protects wild lands out west. I’m scheduled to interview the Executive Director to do an article and pitch it to a magazine.
So I talk to people for networking reasons. But I also talk to people just because it makes life more interesting. I talk to people in elevators. I talk to people that are nothing like me on the surface. I talk to people of different races and genders.
I especially talk to people who are out walking their dogs. I will stop during a run and pet their dog, asking permission first. I’ve met a lot of nice people this way. And talked to a lot of dogs. Generally, they appreciate the butt scratch I give them. I do not try to scratch the butt of their owners.
I talk to people while I’m out shopping for groceries. Obviously, I talk with people at church too. One feeds the belly. The other feeds the soul.
We talk to each other in new ways these days. Facebook. Twitter. GMail. Linkedin. Met a lot of interesting people these ways too.
There are days I talk to friends out of need. But sometimes that applies to strangers too. It’s amazing how consoling a conversation with a stranger can be sometimes. Then they’re no longer a stranger. I’ve helped people get jobs this way. Referred them to people they might like to meet. And learned about interesting opportunities along the way.
I talked with a woman in the swimming pool at the health club a couple months ago. She swam with her head above water and wore a modest suit. Her son was whaling away in the other lane, happy to be swimming hard. I learned that her husband was recently admitted to a facility where his health issues could be watched closely. They were making the best of things, but it was hard. After I got out of the pool, the mother and son showed up outside the locker room and we talked some more. I encouraged her son in his swimming. He was only in eighth grade, a bit soft in face and body. We all go through that phase. I told him that his swimming was really good. He smiled. In loco parentis. We do what we can. It’s a form of caregiving for the world.
I talk to people sometimes out of anxiety. It’s a release of sorts. Worry eats at you. So does fear. Talking to other people can keep those vexations at bay. Until you gain control.
I try to make people laugh if I can. Find something in common in line at Starbucks. Make a joke about the bananas getting too cozy. I take pride in trying to make people laugh. That’s the right kind of pride.
When people share concerns I try to listen rather than talk. And if they seek advice I try to relate, but not replace their worries with mine. But I’m not perfect. Sometimes flaws show through. Yet nothing makes me happier than when someone says, “Thanks for listening” or “Thanks for talking.”
I talk to people because I need to talk to people. For sure I’m a total loner at times and don’t want to talk with anyone. I can be happy out in the fields watching birds with no one around. Or riding my bike in windstorm. Don’t want to talk with anyone then.
I’ve talked with teammates during long runs and tried to figure out life along the way. It’s a fact: Every new day is a puzzle, and we only have this part of the puzzle to consider while we’re awake. That entire scenario is a puzzle to me. So I try to puzzle it out by talking with other people.
Sometimes you get rebuffed. People don’t want to talk. Think you’re an idiot. Don’t give a damn what you think. Disagree with your religion or politics. Hate you for being a man, or a woman, or some type of either. When you try to breach those barriers you become a problem in their life. Fuck off. Don’t try to change my thinking. You get the message. No more talking. You move on.
But still I keep talking to people. It’s worth it no matter what. It’s the only way I can hear myself think sometimes. Funny how that works. And why.
A close friend has been at the hospital the last few days tending to his mother. She injured herself severely in a household fall by tripping on a braided rug that her husband has long refused to throw out in their bedroom.
Such are the vagaries of old age, and sentiment. Her broken ribs and swollen brain are being treated at the hospital, but she’s not sure it’s a good idea to go on. There is fear, and there is pain.
Her son is also in pain, of the emotional kind. There has been no more faithful a son than he. For two decades he has tended their garden. Mowed their lawn. Taken them to church when necessary. His own life is intertwined with that of his parents. Because he cares.
And because he cares, he is suffering now at the thought of his mother’s passing. She is alive, but barely. Sooner or later most of us go through this experience with a parent. A spouse. Or a friend.
I know people that have even lost children. Such abrupt dissolutions.
As I entered the house today, I glanced down to notice that the crocus in the front garden are already starting to drop their petals. We wait all winter for the first signs of spring. Then spring comes and sheds these bright signs of life as if they did not matter at all.
I have watched my mother die. I was there when she passed away 10 years ago. Recently I watched my father die as well. We emptied their house this past week. Filled a three-yard dumpster with all their former belongings. Kept a few keepsakes and practical items for our own.
My brother said, “I’m going home to get rid of 25% of what I own. If this is what happens to us when we die, I don’t want that.”
Three years ago this March 26 my wife passed away after an eight year go-round with cancer. She lived fully right to the moment she passed away. I have always said that I am proud of her for that. But life itself sheds its hold on us like petals on a crocus.
We are reminded of all this come Easter time. According to Christian tradition, even the Son of God shed those petals of life here on earth. The faith holds that our souls are borne into heaven if we have accepted the grace, and shed the brand of pride that prevents it.
Instead, we should hold pride in the mercies we can show others. I told that to my friend, the selfless man that has cared for his parents all these years. “You are in pain because your love is wrapped together with her life. That is pain your have earned through caring. God knows that we feel that pain, and it’s the knowledge that we are loved that sustains us through it.”
Walking right into the pain
Three years ago on Good Friday, I walked into the church I attend with tears barely concealed behind my eyes. My brother asked me why I attended the service so soon after the death of my wife, and I told him, “I’m walking right into the pain.”
That’s really the only thing we can do. You can’t escape it by walking around. It follows you like a shadow. And when I walked up to meet the pastor for a blessing that Friday evening, he was the one shedding tears in my family’s name. “You are in the right place,” he told me.
That does not cure it all. There is still the absence and the loss. The profound depression knowing that someone is gone, for good. That is grief. It must be reckoned with as well. But first we must acknowledge the pain. All else is folly. That can take time. It cannot be rushed. Yet neither can we dwell in the past, lest we forget there is life to be lived.
Preaching to the choir
I understand that church is not for everyone. I get that more deeply than you might think. My own father relinquished his churchgoing ways. He loved the camaraderie of the choir, but the words ultimately didn’t mean that much. It doesn’t mean he did not have a soul. And I do not worry for it. That is not the brand of faith to which I ascribe.
We are all flawed people, who need forgiveness for the things we do. And, we should do all the forgiving we can muster. Because the real purpose of those falling petals should be to let go the lies, and the hurts, the harsh words and the lost opportunities to say that we love someone.
That is the faith to which I ascribe. It is ultimately transcendent, even in all its fallen glory. It is not keeping the crocus past its time, but knowing that its coming and going is the real sign of hope, and of caring, and of things planted for the right purposes.
Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8“Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”9And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” –Mark 4:8
The inner dialogue of a person engaged in weeding a garden can go in a number of directions. There is the associative focus of separating good plants from bad, and yanking the weeds by the roots. There is also the dissociative tendency to let your mind wander and weigh your life along with everything in it.
A little of both is likely required to do a good job weeding. One must pay attention to identify weeds amongst the plants we choose for ornament and beauty. But sometimes weeds are so thick it does not take much thought to do the job. You stick your hands in there and yank for all you’re worth. Little thought is required, only muscle.
Over the years, one learns the best way to weed through practice. There is no other substitute for experience. One learns which plants are easy to pull up by the roots and which break off in your hands four to six inches from the soil. That makes for bigger problems. A trowel needs to come into play. There is not enough leverage left on the slimy stem of the weed to get a grip and yank up the roots.
Otherwise the weeds come back. Well, they come back no matter the method of removal. They’re weeds. That’s what they do. There’s always a supply of new weeds to fill in for the old ones.
One learns this lesson in your own yard and garden easy enough. Weeding is a required activity if you attempt to grow anything at all.
Of course, weeds are also at times a matter of perspective. Gardeners grow some varieties of plants that can escape and propagate places where they are not welcome. Purple loosestrife is one such beautiful pest. In a garden they are quite beautiful. But unleashed in a wetland they can take over an entire ecosystem. At that point, they must be yanked or otherwise killed off.
There are entire woodlands that need to be managed for the influx of plant colonies such as garlic mustard and buckthorn. Natural area restoration crews descend on these colonies and yank, burn and poison them to death. But the weeds almost always come back. It’s what they do.
That makes it all the more triumphant when the results of weeding actually do work. Perhaps there is no more profound example than that of a managed prairie. It can take years of propagation and burning to kill off the weed colonies and invasive species. But when prairie plants are given a chance, their competition strategies are smart and strong. The roots grow deep and the soul of the plant lies below the surface. That means burning takes off the dried up stems but does not affect the rich underground root system that also taps deep into the soil to gain moisture. Hot summer days do not kill these plants.
So nature invented weeding, on its own. But humans love to create environments with the appearance of natural balance that are, in fact, a stripped down version of nature that can be hard to sustain. Golf courses are one such example, and for years their strategy was to bathe the fairways and greens in dangerous chemicals as weed control. The monoculture necessary to allow the game of golf to be played requires intensive weed strategies that for decades contributed to ground pollution and other problems.
Our lawns at home often depend on such chemicals. Some are relatively benign and go away quickly. Others persist, and it would be much better for the world if these strategies were weeded out of our eco-strategies.
One of my neighbors does not believe in lawn chemicals. That meant her yard become overgrown several summers in a row. She could not tell the weeds from her plantings. Finally I offered to help weed her lawn. She is a good Christian woman and had been praying about what to do for her lawn. Money was tight for her at the time and a full-on landscaping company was out of the question.
So I offered to weed. My late wife was glad that I did this. The Creeping Charlie from her yard had grown all the way through her lawn to reach the edge of our garden. When I dug into the mats of Creeping Charlie it could be hauled up like sheets of laundry. That work revealed an entire system of hostas and small groundcover plants that thrived once the weeds were removed. There were giant, towering thistles as well, and old, dried-up cedar trees in need of removal.
The process took several days, and my wife grew impatient with my dedication to the task. I quietly told her it was a duty that somehow called me. Nothing else. There was no husband or helper available to our neighbor at the time. So I lent my services in that department. I knew how to weed.
Since that time a man has come into her life, and a bit of money too. First he tore into the landscaping and removed many of the weeds, mulched the gardens and tore up funky trees. Then a landscape service began to show up and a beautiful new fence was installed. I love her new fence. It’s a wonderful backdrop for my own garden.
The property of life
Recently a family I know also needed some weeding around their yard. The husband has been dealing with the progressive effects of ALS for years now. His devoted wife keeps up with everything the best she can, but the duties and commitments of things like yard upkeep are not possible, yet are relentless. The family now also has grandchildren to enjoy. This is the property of life, which is so often counterbalanced by the weeds of existence. It takes a strategy of caregiving to manage these priorities.
So it was with some joy that we organized a small community of workers from our church to do some weeding around their yard. The resultant piles of thick weeds piled five feet high. Along the north side of their property the landscaping was obscured by groundcover gone out of control. In fact some of it had died for lack of light. The daylilies competed with thistles and mulberry trees shot up through the arms of the spruce trees. All the weeds and overgrowth had to be inspected, sorted and removed. The tall mulberries were sawed up and heaped on the curb. The weeds were stubborn and thick, but the loose mulch gave up the roots easily enough. It was hot, and it was thirsty work. But it was worth it.
All the time I was out weeding I thought of my friend Steve inside the house. This was his garden, and his love. It exhibited his character. I could see the organization of the plants and the landscaping at every turn. His wife told me how much he loved to garden. There were beautiful plants; butterfly weed (how ironic?) and many more.
As the shape of the garden emerged again I thought of how Steve and I first met. Our children were in high school music and drama together and something between us clicked after we met. He’d join me for lunch over at the Country House restaurant where they served nice fat burgers and cold beer. There were several meetings where he talked me through issues of depression related to some of life’s changes and work issues. Then my wife had cancer and Steve was there for that too.
Meanwhile his own health issues began to emerge. It became difficult for him to open the huge wooden door at Country House. There was a growing weakness in his system that could not be identified. It progressed and was finally diagnosed as ALS.
He has never let it stop him from living life, thinking through his writing and enjoying the company of all those who love him and his family. And there are many.
Steve and I helped each other weed through those depressive instincts years ago. We weeded out the negative thoughts to make room for positivity and hope to grow. That is a garden worth tending every day. Every year. Every life.
For some people a class reunion is a joyous occasion and an opportunity to connect with long time friends. For others, class reunions are bring on the worst kind of trepidation. Dread of encountering people you don’t like, or who don’t like you. Being nervous about your popularity, present or past. Worries over looks, weight or success in life can bring about anxiety, even depression of fear. Justifying yourself in the eyes of others is not too pleasing to some.
It need not be that way of course. Most people come through reunions relieved and unscathed, because somewhere between the fear and joy lies reality.
Yes, there are almost always people who arrive at reunions prepared to judge the relative success and youth of others. Perhaps the most amusing movie of all about this process is the chick flick Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. The two slightly daft gals discover their true talents by the end of the movie, but not without some grievous pain in the process. One even finds true love.
Reunions for both high school and college are designed to bring people back together. This long tradition is changing with the advent of social media where people now connect without benefit of a reunion of any sort. Every day of the week can be a reunion if you want it to be.
Even so, as the years go by perspectives about what it means to reunite typically tend to change. The vagaries of life almost demand it. My brother once offered this advice to me before the occasion of my 20th-year high school reunion. “You might actually like this one,” he observed. “By now everyone’s had their ass kicked at least once.”
Interestingly, that year I attended not just one but three separate 20th-year high school reunions. One was for my actual graduating class. The second was for the class with which I would have graduated had I not moved away from a high school out in cornfields of Illinois. And the last was a reunion for the class with which I would have graduated had I not moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois in the 7th grade.
Guess which reunion felt the most tangible? Perhaps you know. That reunion back home in Pennsylvania put me back in touch with kids that had shared grade school and middle school together. We all know those connections are earthy and real.
Yet the two actual high school reunions delivered on promises of old friendships as well. I actually served as emcee at the first reunion I attended. Frankly that was not much fun. Gaining the attention of people deep into discover of old friendships means you’re basically a distraction. It was pretty much an evening that felt like consistent rejection. I promised myself not to take it personally. Anyone else in charge could have had the same experience. But I’ll confess that it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
I missed the 25-year reunion because my late wife was sick with cancer. The milestones of life and death do not pay attention at times to our own plans and schedules. Missing that reunion served to instruct me how many years had actually passed.
It’s a strange feeling to so many people when the years come crashing down on you. As a high school product of the 1970s, it’s pretty easy to find song lyrics predicting the passage of time. Pink Floyd does both a service and a disservice to this topic of time passing with these lyrics:
“But you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking…
And racing around to come up behind you again…
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older…
And shorter of breath, and one day…closer to death.”
It’s a humbling reality that none of us lives forever. We laugh and play through our 20s even into our 30s. We come to grips with financial and family realities in our 40s. By our 50s we either stay marriage or lose a spouse to divorce or death. The kids grow up and you feel exposed to the winds of life, and one more reunion can feel like the wind knows all your secrets.
But some of us ignore that wind and stick new seeds of self into the ground. We weed away concerns and learn what faith really means in the context of a full life. We forgive ourselves and others, if we’re lucky and smart. Women tend to choose close friends and confirm their sanity. Men learn to forsake their concerns over athletic prowess and begin to take pride in the facility of their negotiations over self and ego.
Humility is a grace in two forms. It takes grace to jump those hurdles of worry and distrust that trip us up in life. As the Bible says, the world is full of stumbling blocks to enlightenment.
Then there is the grace it takes to handle intentional and unintentional affronts to your character. Sometimes people can’t help themselves with their words. They say things that echo old habits of insecurity or arrogance. The words come out of their mouths as if they had not grown away from that long-ago character or situation lurking around in their sub conscience. Be it a class clown or a brilliant student, we all absorb character aspects that are not always easy to manage. Even as years pile up it only takes a word or two at times to bring bad associations to the surface.
That’s what makes it so difficult to know what to expect from a class reunion. Will people be nice or not? Will they accept the person you’ve become or impose some assumption of character upon you in awkward, even vicious ways?
Sometimes the opposite happens. While attending that reunion back in Pennsylvania I was taking a breather from encounters with long lost friends by nursing a drink in a far flung corner of the VFW hall where we gathered. Just then a quiet man walked up to me and said, “Chris Cudworth?”
“Yes,” I smiled. “It’s great to be back.”
We talked a bit and slowly we recalled details of our association together. I remembered sharing gym class and a few other experiences with the guy. He was not one of the so-called popular but we spent a lot of time together. “The thing I liked about you is that you treated everyone as equals,” he told me.
Values and insecurities
That’s a value that I’ve held from the earliest phases of my life. With insecurities of my own boiling around inside, it made sense in not to push others about their flaws. All people deserve respect. I have indeed forgotten that value at times and shamed myself and others in the process. That is my confession.
But a reunion is a great opportunity to make good on any of those transgressions in life. It’s amazing at times that people who have crossed us, or whom we have crossed on our own accord, can become friends when false pride and fear is relinquished. The right kind of pride enables us to look for these opportunities for reconciliation and forgiveness. It can also protect us when we try to make good and find people unaware or unwilling to find paths to healthy, mature relationships.
You can probably expect a little of both from most reunions. We all travel the same path in life, but every person has to actualize at their own pace in life.
The best thing you can do, and the best thing you can expect from any reunion is a forgiveness for any wrongs in the past and a joy at someone acknowledging the person you are in the present.
My father Stewart Cudworth was always a great writer. Typically this ability was funneled more into his job as a sales engineer in a career working for electronic and fiber optic companies. Yet early in his life he wrote fiction and sometimes teased my mother, an avid writer of poetry, that he was the better writer.
What follows is an essay written during wartime in 1943. This piece won the Literary Contest in the Bainbridge News and Bainbridge Republican newspaper in Upstate New York where he and my mother lived on farms a mere 200 yards apart. At the top of the newspaper clipping in my mother’s writing there is an inscription written in fountain pen. “By Stewart Cudworth. He won it. Fooey.”
My father was 19 at the time he wrote this. He did not serve in the air force as this story might have suggested, but instead enlisted in the United States Navy and served in the Pacific theater.
The story begins:
“Johnny Gordon saluted in reply to the C.O. and turned and walked to his Spitfire. He climbed in, all the time turning his orders over in his mind. He gunned the motor and took off just as the sun rose above the distant hills. It was his first operational flight and he thought about all his fighter instruction which had been drilled into his head, the best flying altitude, the tricks of Jerry and all the other little things that enter into a fighter pilot’s life. This flight Johnny was making was a “rhubarb,” so called because it consisted of flying low over the coastal territory of Europe, so low that the propellor sometimes chopped leaves off that sour plant, the main home crop of little northern France towns.
As he gained altitude to set his course, Johnny noticed the darkness emptying out of the hollows. There was a little knot in the pit of his stomach, but as soon as he saw the shimmering Channel, he forgot his worries to enjoy the short trip over the water.
Johnny picked a large wave and lowered the Spit into the trough and sped for France. He came over land and started looking for any Nazi activity to strafe. Apparently taking the Germans by surprise, he attacked a train, a supply depot and gun emplacements without opposition. Then he headed for the Channel and home, skimming the treetops.
As he cleared a small knoll he saw a group of German infantryman raise their rifles and fire at him. Johnny gave them the rest of his ammunition, which he had been saving for any Jerries he might encounter. Over his should he saw three of the soldiers fall; the rest scattered over the fields wth terror written on their faces.
About 10 miles from the coast without warning his motor suddenly quit cold. Johnny zoomed as high as his momentum would allow and picked his spot to land. Before the plane hit, he looked at the gauge and saw there was plenty of gasoline. Must be the Germans had hit is ignition. The Spit hit the rough ground and came abruptly to a stop. Although Johnny’s safety belt saved him from injury other than bruises, the plane was a complete washout. Fearing the arrival of a German patrol, Johnny headed for the weeds. Ass soon as he was out of sight he plopped down to rest and regain his strength, stretched out in the bushes for a short nap, hidden from hostile eyes.
When he awoke, the sun had climbed high in the sky and it shone directly from above. Johnny felt a slight gnawing in his stomach, so he arose and carefully made his way through the woods, keeping his eyes open in order toduck at the first sign of danger. If he were captured, there was no telling what might happen to him. Suddenly, as he passed a large tree, a voice said, “Arretez!” Johnny stopped as the voice commanded and slowly turned around. From behind the tree stepped a man with a mustache and dressed in the style of a French peasant. He said one word, “Yank?” and then motioned to Johnny to follow him. Johnny nodded and fell in behind. He marveled at the way the man picked his way through to a little thatched cottage with woods on one side and fields on the other. Across the fields he saw the smoke rising from the chimneys of a town. The peacefulness of the scene belied the cruel servitude these homeloving people were under.
After scanning the area, Johnny and the peasant sneaked to the house. Inside, the man turned and said quickly with an accent, “In there,” pointing to the small attic. Johnny climbed up and laid down on the straw that was there. “Wonder how long I gotta stay here,” he thought. It seemed like hours before the peasant reappeared. He brought some black bread and some porridge. “here,” he said, “eet is the best I have.” Johnny muttered “Merci” remembering that fragment of his high school French. The food tasted good to this empty stomach, although ti was far different from the scientifically prepared diet of the A.A.C. The rest of the day dragged by and Johnny napped fitfully, being awakened frequently by the sound of distant airplane motors. He crawled to the knotholes to look out, but he couldn’t see any of the planes.
Dusk fell and Johnny again crept to the knothole, and looked out into the night. There was a bright moon shining through broken clouds.
Good night to hit Berlin with some blockbusters,” he thought. Then his mind turned for the firs time to home, his family, his girl and the gang back home in the drug store. He said a little prayer that he might see them all again.
About two hours after sunset, Johnny’s benefactor put his head through the door. “C’mon, M’sieu Yank,” he said in a low voice. “It is time to go.” Puzzled, Johnny slid down to the room below. There the peasant swiftly coated Johnny’s face with lampblack. Then they set out into the woods with only brief patches of moonlight for a guide. It was eternity before they stopped, thought Johnny. The man said nothing but pointed to the North. They were on a slight rise and in the distance was the sparkling Channel. They pressed on to a small cover in which there was a small fishing boat with another man in it. The peasant led Johnny to the beach and whistled softly to the man in the boat. “Au revoir, M’sieu Yank,” and vanished into the night.
The man in the boat beckoned to Johnny to get in and then cast off. There was a brisk southern breeze and they soo passed into the open seas. For the first time the boatman spoke. He surprised Johnny with his fluence in English. “You are flier, ”est-ce pas,” he asked. Johnny replied. “Yes, I was forced down this morning and was hidden by the peasant who brought me here. He said very little, but I trusted him completely.”
“Yes, Georges Dandot he is one of our best men,” said the Frenchman. “He speaks little English, but he does good work anyway. I am Pierre Robert. I used to be a university professor before the fall of France. We are both members of the Underground which fights the Nazis under the cover of dark. You are the 13th flier we have returned to fight another day.”
“But aren’t you caught returning by the Germans?” asked Johnny. “Wouldn’t they kill you?”
“Yes, I am sometimes caught, but I shrug my shoulders and say that the wind blew me off my course. The Boches don’t dare kill me, because for every dead Frenchman they find a strangled Stormtrooper by the road. Some day, when the Allies invade Europe, all of France will rise and fight the enemy. Then France will regain her glory.”
As the white cliffs of England rose in the moonlight, a flight of four-motored bombers passed over on their way to Germany. Pierre, who had been calm in his conversation with Johnny, rose and addressing them said in a tremulous voice, “Hit the enemy in its vitals ––for la belle France.” His voice died to a whisper and he said no more until the boat scraped on the beach. Then he said simply, “We shall meet again I hope.” With that he headed to France.
Johnny watched the small bot until it vanished from sight. Then he turned and walked up the beach to the barricade where he would find some Home Guards. When he returned to his station, he would have something to tell people––that la belle France still fights.
The story predicts the future:
At the time this piece was written, France was obviously under the rule of Germany. That next year on D-Day, June 6 of 1944, the American move into Europe that defeated Hitler and his troops began. In some small way, even fiction written during wartime contributes to the hope of defeating a dangerous enemy. And that’s the right kind of pride.
The morning that my son Evan was born was both a great joy and a tremendous relief. My wife had gone through fifteen hours of labor contractions every three minutes. He came into this world around 7:00 a.m. on October 30, 1986.
The thrill of having your first child is complemented by the arrival of the second. Our daughter Emily arrived around 9:00 p.m. on a warm April 26, 1990. That delivery rushed along so fast that we needed to call friends and family to watch our son when we rushed off to the hospital on the heels of a spicy Mexican meal a few hours earlier.
The pain and humor of fatherhood is never-ending. Your children grow up so fast that it is the small moments you accumulate in your mind that constitute being a father or mother.
I remember one late afternoon when the sun was falling through the front window of our tiny Geneva home. My daughter was crawling around on the bare floor chewing on a flexible teething ring. The sun was bouncing off the floor and struck her blue eyes. I raced for my film camera and snapped off a few photos before the sun went down. Later when I showed those photos to a friend she quietly murmured. “Her eyes look like cracked glass.”
I also recall the first word of my son. He was sitting on the back porch with my wife who often held him in her lap and pointed to flowers and other natural items around the yard. A small sparrow landed beneath their feet and my wife said to Evan, “Bird.” And he repeated the word, “Bird.” He was six months old.
In fact word games became a big part of all our lives. On our way home from grandma’s house one December, we drove through Geneva where the Christmas lights were blazing and Evan had a question for us both. “What’s the word, ‘wreath?”
He was always asking questions about language. We laughed years later when he admitted that he never knew what we were talking about when referring to Forced Preserves. That would be ‘forest preserves.” As Emily Latella might say, “Never mind.”
With Emily it was always the purpose of language and song that mattered. We have a wonderful video of her in a pink ballerina dress practicing a Disney song. If the words did not come out just right she would stop and huff in frustration. Then she’d begin again. But you dared not interrupt her either. This was her challenge to complete and she did not want help recalling or repeating the words. That was her job, and hers alone.
It is true that the character of your children emerges early and lives in their core their whole lives. Through creative means we learn how they think and believe and play. But it is through their character that we really know them.
Sometimes as a father of adult children I want desperately to know what they are really thinking. It is of course easy to dwell on our personal failings as a parent. When a child calls and the phone call ends, you wonder to yourself, “Did I give them what they need? Was I enthusiastic to their purpose? Am I being a good father to them?”
Those questions surface more frequently in absence of the mother that raised them. I know they miss their mother because she was superb at saying the right things when they called. I listened to hundreds of conversations over the years. Her attention to their needs was superb.
But these questions exist whether someone is alive or gone to another place. All it takes is a missed phone call in this life to get behind in our relationships. While modern technology is great, and we see each other on Facebook and catch up by phone when we can, there is a strange back-pressure that comes from so much attenuation to communication. If you’re not careful, the pressures of communication can become an undertow. That’s true for all of us, and with everyone.
It’s important as a father to remember that your family needs their own space as well. So much of my own children’s upbringing was done by other adults and friends in life that I cannot claim all the facets of their character as my own. Those summers that my son spent over at a friend’s house building forts and beating each other up with floats in a tiny pool were critical in the formation of his personality. A father simply cannot provide all that input. That friendship. That love. It has to come from other sources too. The same goes for my daughter and those concert trips with her friends. It’s not the same if your father’s standing around at a concert. That has to be experienced on your own, and with your own community.
I do know that many parents struggle to know their full roles. When I encouraged my daughter as a teenager to invite the bands she’d met at concerts to crash at our house overnight during a tour, it was not always with permission of my wife.
Yet I knew the importance and resonance of that connection because where else in the world would you encounter such amazing people in a close circumstance?
The morning she woke up to find a fantastic group of musicians sitting around her bedroom singing and playing guitar could never be replicated again. Later she leveraged her musical connections to recruit the group Goldhouse to play at her graduation party. The band was about to embark on a concert series called Warped Tour. Their set was polished and when the first notes of the first song rocked through our oversized basement with 60+ people crammed into that space, people shrieked in amazement. My son turned to me in wonder and joy, shouting, “Ohhhh Myyyy Godddddd!” It was fantastic. And it was ours to share with our friends and the world.
It is our job as parents and especially fathers to support our families any way we can. Yet it was the morning after a long drive down to Illinois State University that made me realize the ultimate role of a father. We had left late the night before because my son was involved in a school play. Leaving at 10 p.m., we made it to the Interstate just as a deep fog settled over central Illinois. As the fog thickened, my son nodded off in the seat beside me. I focused on the tail light ahead of me for a couple hours until we pulled into the hotel parking lot. I turned to him and asked, “Were you at all nervous about the fog?”
“I decided to go to sleep,” he said matter-of-factly. “I figured if I woke up dead it didn’t matter.”
We chuckled about that and piled into the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep. He was excited to rise early and join his friends for the student state government convention he’d been invited to attend. We exchanged quick greetings and a partial hug. Then he walked confidently down the hall without turning back. I watched him go and realized that I’d helped raise a reasonably confident son. That made me proud. Yet is also made me feel alone. That’s fatherhood in a nutshell.
It hasn’t been easy for our family in a number of ways over the years. Yet my children have told me that they appreciated the stability and love found in our home. As parents perhaps we were sometimes a little too lenient in making them do chores. Yet our children were involved in positive things that occupied their time. There was plenty of time in life to learn chores it seemed. Many times they’d come home to tell of us some onerous task they’d just done for someone else’s parents. We’d laugh and confess, “Well, at least they’re learning responsibility somewhere.”
In the wake of my wife’s death I elected to begin dating and have been in a relationship now for two years with a woman named Sue that appreciates the legacy of my wife and respects my children. I try to do the same for her. Now her daughter is an intern with the magazine where my daughter is managing editor. We are an evolving family. Our lives have converged and convened in positive ways. We spend time together with my mother-in-law and other relatives. My wife’s best friend confided to me last year that my wife said she knew that I would date after she was gone. I thanked that friend for sharing that insight. This is not about forgetting my late wife. It is about companionship and love and supporting each other and our families.
It troubles me sometimes that so many people fail to grasp the value of loving relationships wherever they occur. This obsessive absorption with the idea of a “traditional family” is so lame and disaffecting it should be trampled underfoot by the crowd of people truly seeking love in this world. Aren’t we all sick and tired of the loss of love in this world? Can’t we dispense with the angry ideology that emanates from this selective reading of the Bible and its ugly byproducts.
After all, it was the literalistic approach to scripture that was used to justify slavery for years, and racial discrimination for the century after that. Long ago it generated crusades over faith and then helped lead to the death of millions of Jews through anti-Semitism. The rigid practice of patriarchal faith still foments a disturbingly immature view of women as property. Biblical literalism fuels an ignorant brand of politics that denies science and the educational process that goes with it. In the face of so much ignorant history why do we still even listen to people whining about “traditional marriage” based on a religious view that is clearly anachronistic and damaging to society?
Parenting skills and simple tools
Into this social void we wade… while wondering what the next generation will bring. Some people seem to worry that this generation of children is irresponsible and somehow lacking in important social skills. As a father that has met dozens of my children’s Millennial friends, I do not share that worry. I know their character because they helped raise my own children. I see great hope in a generation that cares not what race a person is. I see love in the fact that they don’t care if someone is gay or not. I (somewhat radically it appears) think this generation of so-called Millennials has an etiquette and a respect for self and others that older generations are simply failing to grasp.
For example, I know now to occasionally text my son or daughter if I’m going to call them. Why? Because it’s not always appropriate to answer you cell phone, but you can handle a quiet text to call later. If they’re occupied I don’t get voice mail. And quite often they’re occupied with other tasks and cannot take a call. There’s no imposition there.
That might seem like an affront to some. But as a father I look at it from a completely different perspective. I respect my children as well as love them. It simply makes sense to try to understand their social constructs and not impose mine on them. As a society we seem to have migrated toward this world where holding people at a disadvantage is considered something of a power chip and a point of pride. But it’s the wrong kind of pride. Barking about how millennials are poorly trained and communicate differently is not a sign of maturity. It is a sign of emotional immaturity and selfishness.
The right kind of pride is taking the time to examine why people react the way they do to the demands of social pressure, communications and opportunity. I think Millennials have evolved a patent way to accord each other respect. It’s the blunderbuss of a generation that complains about entitlement and then acts like they’re entitled to have everyone do things their way or the Old-Fashioned Way that is hopelessly out of touch. But that’s no surprise in a society where Winner-Take-All is now the social style of both politicians and the religious. It’s no wonder Millennials are running from politics and the church. Would you stick around to listen if people were sending their message in ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME?
Father’s Day lessons
It seems the real lesson we need to learn on something so familiar as Father’s Day is this: parenting is not a one-way street. It’s a partnership and a revelation as well as a responsibility.
The ultimate vision of a Father is that of God. And if we’re wise we also recognize that God doesn’t just want obedience and contrition from the human race. There’s a relationship there as well. God the Father, if that’s how you prefer to visualize the ultimate form of love, is basically wondering how we’re doing. He wants to know. Sometimes it’s the smallest moments and the smallest things that matter. If you cease paying attention and miss those, then life is not so abundant as you might like.
And that’s the real message of Father’s Day.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, Character, Caregiving and Community, which chronicles the journey of his family through cancer survivorship. It is available on Amazon.com.
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.
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.
It is possible to fall in love at first sight. I can speak from experience.
It happened to me once on a moonlit August night. Everything seemed prime for such an occurrence. Headed into the senior year of college, I was training for a cross country season that would turn out to be a dream come true. We placed second in the national meet in a triumphal conclusion of four years of hard training. We’d done it.
But first I had to fall in love. We met at a resident’s assistant retreat held at Bethel Horizons camp near Dodgeville, Wisconsin. For two days we’d hung together getting to know each other through meetings and meals. Then the group gathered for a fireside singalong. She put her head on my knee while looking up at me under a rising full moon. I looked into her bright green eyes and nearly fell all the way in. I was instantly in love.
We dated through my senior year and beyond. Ultimately circumstance with work and opportunities droves us apart. She fell for another man and has four wonderful daughters, as I understand, to show for it.
One her daughters spent several summers together with the daughter of some of my close friends here in Illinois. The two met at a Norwegian language camp in Minnesota. They had no idea they both knew me until one of them mentioned my name by coincidence and the girls put two-and-two together. “Wait…your mom dated Chris Cudworth?” Actually I’d gone out with both of their mothers during college. One turned into a lover. The other turned into a lifelong friend.
But when my friend’s daughter came home from Norwegian camp that summer she coyly asked me about her friend’s mother. “I hear you two dated?” she asked.
I honestly explained that it was no small romance in my life. We had shared that senior year in college and all our pursuits. She was a lead in the musical production Godspell while I was running my guts out in cross country. It was one of those relationships where both of us were discovering who we would actually turn out to be.
That summer after college we drove cross country to visit my brother in Pennsylvania. Eager to entertain her with music I purchased and installed a cassette deck player in my 1978 Plymouth Arrow. It hung below the dash in precarious fashion and had to be tweaked now and then to keep the wiring intact. Secretly I was in love with some music by Jackson Browne and the album Hold Out. One of those songs, “That Girl Could Sing,” turned out to be a foreshadowing of what our relationship could be, and what could not.
She was a friend to me when I needed one Wasn’t for her I don’t know what I’d done She gave me back something that was missing in me
She could of turned out to be almost anyone Almost anyone with the possible exception Of who I wanted her to be
And so we ultimately parted. I drove to Minnesota one July and we sat together on the banks of a lake waiting for fireworks to begin. To the east was a giant thunderhead. It rippled and flashed with lightning as the skies around us grew dark. The upper portions of that massive cloud turned gold, then pink, then purple. Finally all was dark and we were left momentarily to watch lightning coursing up and down the 60,000 foot pillar so easily cast by nature.
We both knew we had gotten together to break up. So we made the most of that last time together.
Love and loss
It took a year or more to get over her. Ultimately however I met the woman with whom I would spend 28 years in marriage before she passed away from ovarian cancer last year.
In a strange circumstance it happens that my freshman year college roommate from cross country also lost his wife two years ago to ovarian cancer. Those two dated and were married for 35 years all told. The odds seem long that two young men who lived and ran together in college should lose their wives to the same disease 35 years later. But it happens.
If the bloom rubs off
Some relationships blossom into fulfillment and others run out or run their course by necessity. There are relationships of which I was not proud before I met that young woman and fell in love. Most of us have personal histories that are far from perfect. So many of my friends have either gone through divorce or had friends suffer that marital consequence. Despite what the church has long said and what the Bible intimates, I do not believe it to be a sin to end a bad marriage. In so many cases people I know have made good of their lives by starting anew. There’s no sin in that so long as you care for those for whom you are responsible as well.
The harder part to achieve in all that distress is forgiveness. So many hard and harsh feelings come from a failed or failing marriage that it is impossible to imagine ever wanting to forgive that other person for the things they say and do. Yet you must sooner or later forgive in order to move on in life.
The right or wrong time
So much has to do with circumstance. Falling in love happens at unpredictable time. We can’t always control or predict who that person might be. Too many of us are attracted to people that aren’t really ideal life partners. We also can choose for the wrong reasons, or out of need. We’ll leave that subject open to interpretation. There needs to be some wiggle room here.
Yet our past loves, lost loves, exes and others do play a role in our lives whether we like it or not. We must be careful not to be too proud about how we define the good and bad in those relationships. There are always reasons why two people (or more) don’t get along. It takes two people to have a fight. We’re not always in the right. None of us is perfect, nor wholesome, or even true. We’re human. And that’s that.
Lessons learned anew
I’d always thought I knew all the lyrics to the Jackson Browne song That Girl Could Sing. Only I didn’t. There is a twist at the end of the lyrics that I’d never noticed before. See if you notice it here…
The longer I thought I could find her The shorter my vision became Running in circles behind her And thinking in terms of the blame
But she couldn’t have been any kinder If she’d come back and tried to explain
She wasn’t much good a saying goodbye But that girl was sane
That’s right. That girl was sane.
Love can make us crazy sometimes. Losing love can make us even crazier. That can lead to bitterness, shame and acting in ways that we regret.
It can also be damaging to hold onto love too long. Lord knows there are a million songs about that. Instead we need to take pride in putting our past loves, lost loves, exes and others in perspective. Only then can we continue to grow, and to love again.
As grade school students in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we took the bus from our neighborhood to nearby Willow Street school. The bus trip lasted twenty minutes or so, making loops through the modest neighborhoods next to Media Heights Country Club.
Our bus driver was named Glenn. I remember his kind expression and deep black hair as we boarded the bus. He’d always say good morning and good afternoon while dropping us off.
Catching the bus
Most days I loved riding the bus to school. That meant I got to spend time with my best friend David. In fact I loved David so much as a friend that I would sometimes hide behind the bushes at my regular bus stop and wait for the bus to load the kids and then take off running across the grassy practice range of the golf club toward David’s bus stop about 400 meters away.
The bus meanwhile had to circle all the way out of the neighborhood and take a right up Route 222, then roll up the hills of Golf Club Road to where my friend David lived on the 17th fairway.
That run from my regular bus stop over to David’s was an act of defiance in some respects. The conventionality of boarding the bus at the same stop every day would rankle me now and then. So the thrill of breaking the rules somewhat and joining up with David to talk before the bus arrived so we could climb on together was a sign of my devotion to our friendship.
Glenn the Bus Driver never said much about my adventurous ways. He obviously knew what I was doing, yet he never reported it to the school or my parents. Perhaps there were risks in my behavior, and what I needed was a good talking to or something along those lines. The 1960s were full of good talking-tos as I recall. But they weren’t always right.
Running the risk
To me the perceived principle behind my actions (wanting to join a friend) and the joy of that run between bus stops was worth the risk of getting a talking-to. The world is full of conventions and rules that ignore the needs and justice of people. One must be constantly on the lookout for dangerous habits of thought or action that confine our sense of understanding.
We should recall that it was the actions of Rosa Parks on a bus in Alabama that brought to light the injustice of how black people were treated in America. It was a habit of mind that black people did not deserve the same rights as whites. Here’s how the Rosaparksfacts.com website describes the situation. “Many historians date one of the major sparks of the American civil rights movement to a single event that took place on December 1, 1955. While 80% of bus riders in Montgomery, Alabama were African American, half of the seats were reserved for white people. If there were not enough seats for white passengers, African Americans were forced to move to the back or stand. This separateness was the rule in every facet of life in the South, but perhaps nowhere was it more pronounced than in the bus system. It’s fitting that it was on a bus that a movement which would transform America would be born.”
The costs of resistance
It takes courage to stand up against ugly habits of mind. People are apt to call you angry or tell you to get back in line, to know your place and to work harder to “get along.”
There is a post-modern form of censorship that is like crowdsourcing in reverse. It holds enormous danger for all those who dare speak against the grain of conventional wisdom. They’re quick to demand that you abide by their opinions even when they defy all logic or depend upon a foundation of cognitive dissonance and the science of denial. So few are willing to do the work of self-examination. That means those who do will often be ostracized as arrogant, selfish or pseudo-intellectual.
This is not to contend as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in his theologic treatise The Cost of Discipleship, that “We forget that discipleship means estrangement from the world.” He struggled to maintain that philosophy in the face of Nazi aggression and atrocities. Ultimately he felt the call––indeed he was forced––to speak out against a popular form of opinion that threatened to overwhelm the world. That willingness to advocate for justice cost him his life.
The real call to justice in this world is to break from convention at times when the whole world seems against you. Popular opinion is often just that. It is popular for the simple reason that it does not take much work to go along with the crowd. It happens in elections, and politics. It happens in religion and faith. It happens in sports and entertainment and music and art. People will always tell you to stop being different, to stop questioning authority and to stop being yourself.
But look at what comes from breaking from convention! When artists once decided to stop painting realistically and to paint the colors of light and air as they mixed in the world, they invented an entire new way of looking at things. But they were also branded mere “impressionists” by those who considered their work a poor endeavor. The same goes for Lutherans who followed a maverick Catholic priest who brought Protestantism into the world. Stop for a moment and think about that word: protestant. It means doing more than going along.
Conventions and credibility
It takes the right kind of pride to stand up and stand out against injustice when those in love with the idea of authority and power tell you to stand down. It may cost you friends. It may cost you credibility. It might even cost you your job at times, or your membership in any number of organizations where convention rules the day.
It takes real character to acknowledge these costs. People like Rosa Parks stand out even more with time because their choices to resist the status quo change the world. As the website describes: “Rosa Parks has become one of the most iconic figures in modern American history, but she didn’t intend to change the world on that day. She had simply had a firm belief in maintaining her dignity, and would not be treated differently because of the color of her skin. Her Christ-like character and “quiet strength” stood firm as her resolve to “do what is right” opened the doors for African Americans in the USA and throughout the world. When the bus driver demanded that she give up her seat, she refused and was arrested. On the day of her trial, local African American leaders organized a boycott of the bus system that lasted until the Supreme Court ended bus segregation. After this victory, the Civil Rights Movement went on to challenge laws that prevented African Americans from being treated like equal citizens.”
How much more prescient her example seems to become as civil rights struggles with police continue to vex America to this day. Some people in this world see opportunity for change just by holding strong to the simple fact of what is right. They may face political pressure and propaganda, even threats to their very lives. Of course it all happens so fast these days in the world of social media that we can see these evolutions happen before our very eyes. But that does not mean we should not run to get on the bus when we can, and the way we see that is right.
It always felt like Glenn the Bus Driver understood some small need in me to explore the lack of convention that grows into a passion with time. For that I am always thankful.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and facing life challenges in a positive way. It is available on Amazon.com.