I'm bringing back my Good Friday post from four years ago, because I think it's worth bringing to mind again.

 


 

Good Friday.

Remembering the day all the sorrows of the world (and then some) were in some incomprehensible way taken on by the only one who (as fully both divine and human) could effectively bear them—albeit with unimaginable suffering.

I trust it is in keeping with the holiness of the day, and not in any way disrespectful or unmindful of its significance, to consider that as we, in the West at least, pay less and less attention to the significance of Good Friday, we find ourselves taking all the sorrows of the world on ourselves—and being crushed by them.

Consider the lives of our ancestors throughout almost all of history:  Most of them were born, died, and lived their entire lives in the same small community.  Even when they migrated, were taken captive, were exiled, or went to war, for all but a handful, their circle of experience remained small and local.

Our ancestors suffered greatly.  The unbearable sorrow of losing a child was not uncommon.  There was no easy divorce to sever marriages and blend families—but death played the same role.  The lack of sanitation, antibiotics, immunizations, and even a simple aspirin tablet made for disease, pain, and death on a scale most of us can’t imagine.  Starvation was often only a bad harvest away.  Slavery and slave-like conditions were taken for granted for most of history.  I’m not here to minimize the sufferings of the past.

But there is a very important however to their story.  Their pain was on a scale that was local and human.  They suffered, their families suffered, and their neighbors suffered.  Travellers might bring back tales of tragedy far away, but that was a secondary, filtered experience.

And today?  The suffering in our close, personal circles may indeed be less.  But our vicarious suffering is off the charts.  Whether it’s a murder across town, a kidnapping across the country, or a natural disaster halfway around the world, we hear about it.  In graphic, gory detail.  Over and over we hear the wailing and see the shattered bodies.  Full color, high definition, surround sound.

If that were not enough, our television shows and movies flood us daily, repeatedly, with simulated violence and horror, deliberately fashioned to be more realistic than life, so that, for example, we become less the observers of a murder than the victim—or the murderer himself.  (Not to let books off the hook, especially the more graphic and horrific ones, but their effect is somewhat limited by the imagination of the reader.)

No one imagines that the death of a stranger half a world away, much less in a scene we know is fictional, is as traumatic as a death "close and personal."  But a few hundred years of such vicarious suffering is not enough to reprogram the primitive parts of our brains not to kick into high gear with horror, anguish, and above all, fear.  Our bodies are flooded with stress hormones, and our minds tricked into believing danger and disaster are much more common than they are.  We repeatedly make bad personal and national decisions based on events, such as school shootings and kidnappings by strangers, that are statistically so rare that the perpetrators cannot be profiled.  We hear a mother wailing for her lost child, and our soul imagines it is our own child who has died.  We watch film footage of an earthquake and shudder when a tractor-trailer rolls by.  Did anyone see Hitchcock’s Psycho and enter the shower the next morning without a second thought?

Worse still, for these sorrows and dangers we can’t even have the satisfaction of a physical response.  We can’t fight, we can’t fly, we can’t hug a grieving widow; no matter how loudly we shout, Janet Leigh doesn’t hear us when we warn her not to step into the shower.  Writing a check to a relief organization may be a good thing, but it doesn’t fool brain systems that have been around a whole lot longer than checks.  Or relief organizations.

I don’t have a solution to what seems to be an intractable problem, although a good deal less media exposure would be a great place to start.  

The human body, mind, and spirit are not capable of bearing all the griefs that now assault us.  We are not God.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 14, 2017 at 5:23 pm | Edit
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I've never aspired to be a leader. I learned that in elementary school, when my parents and teacher were talking about "leadership qualities" and I thought, "Doesn't sound like fun to me."  I don't mean I necessarily like to be a follower—mostly I like to do my own thing (child of the '60s) and other people can come along, or not, as they wish.

But a man at our church, who died not long ago, is making me rethink the idea of leadership. I barely knew him, but our choir sang for his funeral, and what I learned about him then made me wish I had found a way to cultivate his friendship.

He was accomplished enough for 10 people. He graduated in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering from Princeton. He was a marine, serving in World War II and Korea. He followed that up by working for the CIA, earning the highest possible award for valor. For three years he endured Communist prison camp in Cuba. His civilian life achievements and community activities are too numerous to mention.

And they played bagpipes at his funeral.

Most amazing of all for someone so distinguished, everyone who knew him remarked about his humility. Churches talk a lot about "servant leadership" but apparently this man actually embodied it. He was, indeed, a "humble servant."

And yet....

The other thing said about him was that people did things the way he thought they ought to be done. He was humble, he was gentle, he was soft-spoken—but you didn't cross him. Somehow, he induced people to see things his way without pushing them around, without exerting his power—which is real power, indeed.

What might the world be like with more leaders like that?

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, April 11, 2017 at 11:25 am | Edit
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When she was in fifth grade, Heather won her school's spelling bee. It was a significant accomplishment—the competition was stiff—and we were proud of her.

Imagine how Edith Fuller's parents feel. The homeschooled five-year-old from Oklahama won the regional championship spelling bee and on May 30 will be competing in Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC. The contest is for children through eighth grade. Here she is in action.

This Slate article takes a positive, if somewhat mocking tone, but asks, Why?

Spelling bees have a certain poignancy that, say, a science fair lacks. Being a good speller is like having beautiful handwriting or being an excellent seamstress: It’s impressive, but it’s almost totally unnecessary for most 21st-century adults. If STEM is the future, spelling feels like the past.

To which I must respond, Why basketball? Why golf? Why the Olympics? If the significance of spelling bees, and of spelling as a skill, are questioned "in the age of spell-check," what's the point of knowing knowing how to throw a javelin or to jump long and high in these days when we don't need to hunt for our food and escape cave bears?

It's possible to overdo anything, of course, and not everyone will find it worthwhile to attain Olympic or spelling bee champion status. But developing the mind and body is its own justification.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, April 8, 2017 at 6:40 am | Edit
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Homegrown Hollywood:  Searching for Family in All the Wrong Places showed up this morning in my Weekly Genealogist magazine.  It's a short and sweet story of a woman's efforts to learn about the grandmother she never knew.  I'm linking to it here because it epitomizes what our country so desperately needs.

A writer from Los Angeles travels to a small town in North Carolina and meets a distant cousin who might as well live on a different planet for all they have in common ... on the surface.

She welcomed us with a warm drawl and a tight hug. We sat on her couch as she told us stories and pulled out pictures. The longer we stayed, the happier I felt and something calmed inside of me.

The author wasn't the only one who'd had doubts about the cultural differences.

"Let me tell you, honey," she drawled in her thick accent. "I was nervous about meeting ya'll, but as soon as I saw you I thought, 'now there is blood kin.' And then everything was different."

The key to healing our fractured nation is real people.  Not stereotypes, not Hollywood depictions, not news stories, but real, physical people who have families and serve dinners and smile at strangers.

She was right. Everything was different.

I had been trying to reach my grandma through gravestones and houses and hats I'd put on in a dusty old attic.

But where I'd actually found her was in people like Shelvie Jean.

Hope for healing lies outside our bubbles.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, April 5, 2017 at 7:37 am | Edit
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Our church publishes a little booklet every Lent, comprising short meditations on chosen Bible verses, done by members of the congregation. This year, when they asked for volunteers, I signed up. Part of the reason was the challenge of saying something meaningful in 100 words. As you will see, I exceeded that slightly—but was still within the boundaries. April 3rd was my day, so I'm publishing it here as well.

Romans 9:33:  and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame

These words occur several times in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. "Him" refers to the Messiah in the Old, identified with Jesus Christ in the New. In context and in combination they portray Jesus as a rock that can be a secure foundation or a stumbling block. The characteristics that make rock a good base on which to build also make it painful and costly to ignore as we walk along.

"Never be put to shame" is also translated as “not make haste, not be disturbed, not panic, not worry, not be disappointed.” If Jesus is the foundation of our lives, there is no need to worry or make frantic efforts. Our responsibility is to do our work with calm confidence:  God has our backs.

What was remarkable, for me, was how I accomplished the project. It may not seem like much to those of you who can whip off such things easily, but trust me, my usual approach to such assignments has always been (1) put it on the shelf because the deadline is comfortably far off, (2) periodically think to myself, "oh, yes, I need to get that done," (3) forget about it entirely, and (4) remember at the 11th hour, panic, drop everything else, and stay up late to finish the job, with the dissatisfaction of knowing I could have done better.

However, this time the scenario went like this:

I received my assignment on Tuesday. I took a quick look at the context of the verse excerpt, then laid the task aside, keeping it in my mind and prayers as I did other things.

During the day I found a few moments here and there to look up information about the verse and make a few notes. (Hooray for the Internet.)  I continued to think in the background and pray.

Wednesday I sat down and wrote my thoughts. This was the longest part, but it wasn't hard because I had done the legwork already. Saying what I want the way I want to always takes time, but it flowed well, which was a good thing because Wednesday was a very busy day. I finished it Wednesday night after choir and still got to bed on time.

Thursday morning I reread it, made a couple of minor tweaks, and sent it off—earning commendations for being the first to return my meditation, three weeks in advance of the deadline.

It's a small victory, but gives me hope that eventually I'll figure out how to make it spill over into the rest of my life. You know, the "do my work with calm confidence" part!

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, April 3, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Edit
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Somewhere, in one of Glenn Doman's books, is an important clue to progress in any endeavour:

We arrange for the child to win.

Doman was dealing with severely disabled children. Forget walking—these kids couldn't claw their bodies forward two centimeters on a level floor. So he set them at the top of an inclined plane with a slippery surface. Suddenly, their random limb movements began to have an observable effect: they moved! Thus they began the critical process of associating their movements with results. Many of those children went on from that tiny beginning to learn to walk.

In an apparently radical change of direction, I bring you this article on Why Typography Matters—Especially at the Oscars.

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I never watch the Academy Awards shows, but apparently this year there was a major, embarrassing mix-up, with the best actress award winner's movie being announced as Best Picture. Designer Benjamin Bannister shows how the actual Oscar card (left) could have been designed (right) to greatly reduce the odds of misreading the card in all the excitement and bright lights. The card designer could have arranged for the card readers to win. A small change could have had great impact.

How often do we miss opportunites to make small changes that could arrange for our children, our spouses, ourselves to win? Do we somehow feel we don't deserve the help? If we have to spell out to our spouses how they can make us feel loved, it doesn't mean anything, right? Our children need to struggle for success, or else how will they grow? If we were the kind of people we should be, this—whatever this is—wouldn't be so difficult; it's cheating to make life easier for ourselves.

No, it's not.

Those immobile children who learned to walk succeeded because someone made it easier for them to make progress with their first efforts.

We use levers, wheels, pulleys, sharpened knives, WD-40 ... whatever tool or trick we can find to make our work go faster and better. That's the way progress is made. When our work goes more easily, we can do more. Plus, of course, we feel better about what we are doing and that makes us want to do more still.

Successful people work hard. They know how to delay gratification and don't indulge themselves in luxuries while building their businesses. What successful people don't do, however, is waste time with dull knives, broken pencils, worn-out machinery, people who drag them down, or anything else that hinders their productivity. They don't tell themselves, "I can make do, because I'm not that important, the work isn't that important, and I don't deserve to have better until I'm more successful with what I have." Tribulation breeds character, but unnecessary tribulation breeds frustration and failure.

What can you do to arrange for someone—yourself, your children, your spouse, a neighbor—to win? The cost might be much less, and the rewards much greater, than you think. Be creative. Until you see it, it's not obvious how an inclined surface might help a child learn to walk, nor how a small style change could prevent Oscar embarrassment.

Above all, don't wait to seek a better way until you or someone else deserves it. It's not about what we deserve; it's about setting ourselves up to do our best. If you're still stuck on your own lack of merit, think about your family. Don't you want to be your best—for them?

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, March 24, 2017 at 3:35 pm | Edit
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Mind. Blown.

Even though I don't understand half of the items, the U.S. Debt Clock is fascinating. Because statistics without sources are useless, you can mouse over a number to see where it comes from. Amidst all the depressing figures, at least I can say that we're far better than average when it comes to personal debt, which amounts to over 56 thousand dollars per person! Fortunately, that figure includes mortgage debt, which can be less of a problem, though recent times have shown that's not always true.

On the other hand, the fact that our children and their families collectively own almost $860,000 of the national debt is more than a bit disconcerting. Those who are also Swiss get to add another $16,000 or so, with the consolation that the Swiss national debt is actually going down. You can see world debt clocks here.

From the main page you can also check out the state clocks. Or use their time machine to see how far we've come.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, March 13, 2017 at 10:54 am | Edit
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Last night I listened to Afghanis singing "Here I Am to Worship" in their Dari language. It was surreal, but I'd had similar experiences before. I have met the universal language, and it is American praise and worship songs.

I have sung them in church in Japan: American praise songs with Japanese words.

I have sung them in church in Switzerland: American praise songs with German words.

I have sung them in church in The Gambia: American praise songs with English words.  (That makes more sense when you realize that English is the written language in the Gambia.)

I have no doubt that, as with McDonald's, I could encounter the same songs in China, India, New Zealand, Brazil, Kenya, Russia, and almost anywhere else in the world.

It does not make me especially happy to realize that the Church Universal is singing fast-food music. Just writing the above evokes images of Green Eggs and Ham: I will not sing them in a box, I will not sing them with a fox.

But I do, and I'll admit it is lovely to be able to worship fully with the local congregations. I'd rather be eating a more nourishing meal (singing hymns and/or local music), but I'll take fast food if that's what's served.

Everyone knows Makudonarudo. 

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, March 11, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Edit
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Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. — Thomas Edison

I'm accustomed to hearing one or another of our grandchildren referred to as a genius. Naturally, as a proud grandmother, I agree. Every one of our ten grandchildren is a genius. Absolutely.

But what do people other than grandmothers mean by that word?

It seems to denote some ability a person is born with that makes them especially good at something—a gift that one either has or doesn't have. I believe that's a vast oversimplification, if not entirely false.

The gift, if there is one, seems to me to lie in interest and focus.

  • Our grandchild who plays piano really well? He's no prodigy—but he loves to play the piano, and that's what he spends a lot of time doing, even on vacation.
  • The one who at age six earned $300 doing real work for a real business was able to do so because he had spent hours and hours mastering the necessary skills and doing the work for free before he earned his first dollar.
  • The grandchild who could count to 100 before he was two and read before he was three played with numbers and letters every day for hours.
  • My nephew, when he was three years old, could not only identify dozens of dinosaurs but could tell you many facts about each of them. You guessed it: he spent much of his time learning about dinosaurs.

And so on. None of them was pushed in these endeavors, but they do have parents who respect and encourage their interests. When you discover that playing with an alphabet puzzle keeps your fretful child happily occupied for hours, what do you do? You buy him a similar number puzzle. You give him his own, real tools. Read him books about dinosaurs. Keep the piano in the middle of the family's living area and let him play as often and as loudly as he wants—even if you long for just a moment of silence.

And the children take it from there.

I am convinced that neither I nor any other human, past or present, was or is a genius. I am convinced that what I have every physically normal child also has at birth. We could, of course, hypothesize that all babies are born geniuses and get swiftly de-geniused. ...  I was lucky in avoiding too many disconnects. — R. Buckminster Fuller

Perhaps the secret to helping our children reach their full potential is neither early formal education nor leaving them to develop "naturally," but giving them as many opportunities as possible to discover the many wonderful and valuable things of life, and actively supporting—not pushing—any healthy interest that develops.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, March 5, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Edit
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Recently I've seen many suggestions for Lenten disciplines, including some attributed to Pope Francis, though I haven't been able to confirm that.  What they all have in common is giving up something altogether bad, such as ingratitude or selfishness.  This is good, but it does make giving up something for Lent seem more like baptizing New Year's resolutions.  It was Jennifer Fulwiler who opened my eyes to the idea that giving up something you know you should quit altogether misses one of the best parts of Lent:  the symbolic value of experiencing the Easter resurrection joy in a personal, physical way.  Here's how she put it six years ago:

Here’s what [Lenten disciplines] I decided on: a decade of the Rosary first thing each morning, and no adding sugar to my morning tea (a small but surprisingly noticeable sacrifice for me). And…well, umm…there’s one other thing that I couldn’t decide if I would admit or not…but I guess I’ll go ahead and say it:

I’m giving up cursing for Lent.

Now, before you form an image of me yelling at my kids to stop jumping on the $%^! couch or asking my husband to pass the $%&*!# salt at dinner, let me say that it’s not that bad. I don’t use bad words in front of the kids, and it’s not like I walk around spewing profanity when I’m around adults. It’s just that I’ve noticed lately that, well, sometimes I just can’t seem to express myself without pulling out a word from my pre-conversion lexicon. So I’m really working on that during Lent, hopefully adopting habits that will last for the long-term.

Giving up adding sugar to drinks was actually a last-minute addition to my Lenten plans. I’d always heard that you should give up something good, but I didn’t really get why, so I just went with giving up cursing for Lent. But then I heard people who had given up something good talking about their plans for Easter, and it all clicked.

For example, someone I know who gave up cheese talked about how she’s going to get a huge, lavish cheese tray for brunch on Easter. When I imagined her going that long 40 days with nary [a] bite of one of her favorite foods, I could see how the ecstatic joy of the Resurrection would hit her at an even deeper, visceral level as she bit into savory chunks of Camembert and felt the luscious Brie melt in her mouth after the long fast.

Then I pictured myself rising on Easter morn’, taking a deep breath, and shouting the f-word. Umm, yeah. That’s why giving up something that’s bad anyway doesn’t quite have the same effect. So no sugar in my tea for Lent.

 

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, March 3, 2017 at 7:51 am | Edit
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In July of 2015, the Rt. Rev. Gregory O. Brewer, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, wrote a response to the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage.  On a recent file-cleaning expedition, I came upon my copy of his wise words again, and was struck by how much this attitude is needed right now, as we face still more opportunities to respond humanely across deep divides.

Bishop Brewer's words are specifically for and about Christians, but there's much here that could be of benefit to anyone.  Since he has graciously allowed me to publish his letter in its entirety, I'll spare you my usual cut-and-paste quotations.  Context is important.

Early in Israel’s history, the people prayed for a King. They said that they did not want to be ruled merely by judges, but they wanted a king like other nations. Through the prophet Samuel, God warned the people that to have a king would only bring about additional difficulties and sorrows, but they pleaded with God and eventually God relented and gave them a king.

The prophet Samuel anointed Saul with great affection, praying for him and calling him “the desire of Israel” (1 Sam. 9:20). He anointed him king over Israel, all the while warning Israel that they had rejected the will of God.

I believe that the anointing of Saul as king over Israel and the legalization of same-sex marriage are analogous. While God’s intention has always been that marriage is between one man and one woman, people in our nation have, for decades, pleaded for gay people to be able to legally marry, and now, through an act of judicial activism, it is the law of the land. Some are elated. Some are weeping. Some are angry. The Church is divided over these matters, and we as a nation do not know the long-term impact of these decisions.

How are we Christians to respond?

1) For some Christians who are deeply committed to Jesus Christ, the legalization of same-sex marriage is an answer to their prayers. For other Christians, the legalization of same-sex marriage is a sign of moral decay. However, the demonization of those who support same-sex marriage by those who do not, and the demonization of those who oppose same-sex marriage by those who do [not] must not be present within the Body of Christ. Such antagonism is an affront to the Gospel and a great sin. That is not to say the matter is inconsequential. The divide between these two positions is a serious one and not to be taken lightly. But it is our faith in Jesus Christ as God in the flesh, who died for us and rose from the dead that unites us, and nothing other than this. Christians must choose to continue to work together across this great divide. It will not be easy, but it is our God-given task. Splitting into tribes of those “for” and “against” within our churches will bear no good fruit, and will only display to the world our lack of faith in Jesus Christ, who prayed that we might be one.

2) I fear that some backlash against LGBT people by those who oppose same-sex marriage could be one of the outcomes. Incidents of angry retaliation could be in the offing. May this not be named among Christians! If incidents of violence break out, Christians must be the first to rise up and publicly condemn them. If we do not love those with whom we disagree, then our witness for Christ is null and void.

Such a public witness of love means we must beg God to root out of us any anger and resentment we may be feeling because of this change in our laws. Forgiveness, love and mercy are our righteousness: and they are gifts from our God who makes rain to fall on the just and on the unjust. If we do not triumph in love, we triumph in nothing.

3) There also are some legitimate fears that the legalization of same-sex marriage will further marginalize those who oppose it and bring about a tacit acceptance of persecution of these Christians. Again, our call is to forgiveness, love and mercy.

4) Traditional Christians should continue to make the Biblical case for heterosexual, lifelong marriage both in our churches and in the public square. This is where I stand. While same-sex couples now enjoy the freedom to choose legal marriage, many will not. Those who do not marry will join the trend of many straight couples that are indifferent to marriage at best, even if they are raising children. The fact is that the practice of marriage (much less lifelong marriage) in comparison to previous generations continues to plummet. In our culture, it is not so much that same-sex marriage has triumphed, as it is that the case for marriage for anyone is failing. This is where the church must speak clearly.

5) As a church, we must choose to care for children, regardless of who their parents might be. Children should not be treated prejudicially because of who their parents are. They did not choose their parents, and our churches have an opportunity, even a divine calling, to invite these children into the Christian faith and enfold them (and their parents) in bonds of love that will bring many to Jesus. Again, the testimony of our faith is evidenced in our call to love by word and by deed, nothing else.

6) Importantly, Justice Kennedy’s opinion in this ruling places a profound connection between marriage and “dignity,” which leaves single people all the more marginalized. Many of our churches already, in their preference for married couples, place single people in a kind of “less than” separate class. Such a classification is entirely unbiblical. The goal for our churches is a missionary community, not a club for the already married. Both Jesus and Paul were single, with Paul exhorting his preference for the single life. While clearly upholding marriage, we need to find ways to see marital status as secondary to sacrificial discipleship.

We are in the midst of an enormous cultural sea change and we do not know the outcome. What I do know is that it is my responsibility to care deeply, love without prejudice, speak the truth as I understand it with boldness and compassion, and pray fervently. I ask that you join me.

Let's "think on these things" when events go against us on issues of profound importance, and equally when we find ourselves on the favored side.  Above all, let's remember Bishop Brewer's wisdom as we interact with our fellow Americans—our fellow human beings—when each thinks the other is standing on the wrong side of an apparently impassable gulf.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 17, 2017 at 7:15 am | Edit
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Are most Americans anti-immigration? Absolutely not.

Is President Trump anti-immigration? I don't think so. It's difficult to pin down what he actually believes about anything, but being concerned about uncontrolled immigration from unstable and/or dangerous countries does not mean one is opposed to immigration per se.

I found George Friedman's take on the subject enlightening, despite missing a few of my concerns. His example of our societal attitude towards Indian and Chinese immigrants is especially interesting.

Trump has pointed to two very different patterns. One is immigration to the U.S. by Muslims. The other is illegal Mexican immigration. Both resonated with Trump’s supporters. It is interesting to consider other immigration patterns that have not become an issue. One is immigration to the U.S. from India. The other is immigration from China and other parts of Asia. Both have been massive movements since about 1970, and both have had substantial social consequences.

It is the example of the Chinese and the Indians that blows up the theory that Americans have an overarching anti-immigrant sensibility that Trump is tapping into. It also raises serious doubts that Trump is anti-immigrant. I have searched and may have missed it, but I didn’t find that Trump made anti-Chinese or anti-Indian statements, as opposed to anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican statements. If it were classic anti-immigrant sentiment, the rage would be against Indian immigrants who have emerged as a powerful and wealthy ethnic group in a startlingly short time. But there is minimally detectable hostility toward them, which means that the immigration situation in the United States is far more complex than it seems.

The issue is not whether Trump and his followers are generally anti-immigrant. The question is why they are so hostile toward Muslims ... and to Mexicans. I wish the explanation were more complex, but it is actually quite simple in both cases.

The United States has been at war with Muslim groups since Sept. 11, 2001. ... When there is war, there is suspicion of the enemy. When there is suspicion of the enemy, there is fear that émigrés might be in the United States on false pretenses. ... After 15 years of war and many Americans dead, [post-9/11 fears have] congealed into a framework of distrust that may well go beyond the rational. ... Are all Muslims warriors against the United States? No. Do you know who is or isn’t? Also no. Wars, therefore, create fears. There is nothing new in the American fear of Muslims in the context of war.

The Mexican situation is different. ... [T]he driving issue is illegal Mexican immigration. There is a great deal of homage paid to the rule of law. Congress passed a law specifying the mechanics of legal migration. Some 5 million Mexicans broke the law. Whether this has harmed the U.S. economy or not, the indifference to enforcing the law by people who are normally most insistent on the rule of law has created a sense of hypocrisy.

The anger is not only directed at the Mexicans. It is part of the rage against those living in the bubble, who present themselves as humanitarians, but who will encounter the illegal aliens, if at all, as their servants. And rightly or wrongly, some suspect that open support for breaking the law is designed to bring cheap labor to support the lifestyles of the wealthy at the expense of the declining middle class. The fact that the well-to-do tend to be defenders of illegal aliens while also demanding the rule of law increases suspicions.

At first I took issue with this, for while true, it doesn't speak for the many of my friends who count themselves "defenders of illegal aliens" but are far from wealthy by American standards. But...

As we saw with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Japanese, things that are obvious to those living decades later are not obvious at the time. Indeed, it is a failure of imagination to be unable to empathize with the fear felt after Pearl Harbor. In our time, the failure to empathize comes from those who feel immune to illegal immigration or the 15-year war. It is part of the growing fragmentation of American society that different classes and regions should experience these things so differently, and that each side has so little understanding of the other.

My non-wealthy friends may not be among the rich, but it is true that they (like me) are largely immune to the effects of both illegal immigration and terrorism. We even benefit from illegal (slave) labor through lower prices.

(In my life, it's the actually the Indian and Chinese immigrants he mentions who have caused the problems—they are the ones whose competition directly affects the Information Technology industry—but I believe that legal, controlled immigration is healthy for a country.  How could I be anti-immigrant when our own daughter is one?)

As long as illegal immigration is permitted, the foundations of American culture are at risk. It is not simply immigration, but the illegality that is frightening, because it not only can’t be controlled, but also the law is under attack by those who claim to uphold it. The fear that a person’s livelihood is being undermined and his cultural foundation is being overwhelmed creates deep fear of the intentions of the more powerful.

I want to quote a lot more, but I fear I'm pushing the edge of "fair use" for a review as it is. It's an article worth reading. I'll just make one more comment, on what Friedman calls "the refusal of the government at all levels to enforce the law."

I'm not a fan of "zero-tolerance" legal situations, which leave no room for discretion and grace. But massive discord between rules and enforcement breeds both disrespect for the law and tyranny. When a law is on the books, but not enforced, people become accustomed to violating it. This may look like freedom, but it opens the door to graft, blackmail, indifference to other laws, and some very nasty surprises.

When I was studying to pass my driver's test, there was a law on the books in Pennsylvania requiring that vehicles must slow down to 25 miles per hour when passing through any intersection. (For all I know, it's still on the books.)  Obviously that was written a long time ago, and rather than the law being changed to fit reality, it simply stopped being enforced. If I hadn't been taking a driving course, I would never have known of its existence. However—and this is the kick—the police sometimes found it to be useful: If for some reason a miscreant wiggled out of whatever they wanted to charge him with, they could usually get him on the charge of passing through (often multiple) intersections at more than 25 mph. Do you see what this does? You may go for years, casually breaking the law, but suddenly one day, when they want to get you, they've got you.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 3, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Edit
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Here's some wise advice from Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy.  The context was running a business, but moms of young children will understand the need more than anyone!

"I'm so busy doing what I must do that I don't have time for what I ought to do ... and I never get a chance to do what I want to do!"

"Son, that's universal.  The way to keep that recipe from killing you is to occasionally do what you want to do anyhow."

That's how I ended up re-reading this book.  Feeling ill was keeping me from sleeping, so I got up and for some reason thought of the only Heinlein book that survived (because it was not with the rest) a long-ago bookshelf purge.  Mostly if I'm awake I'd rather be working, but that formula does not play well when the body is demanding the mind's attention.  Citizen of the Galaxy was the perfect diversion.  And how nice it was to find this justification when I reached the penultimate page!

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 20, 2017 at 5:22 pm | Edit
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At first glance, despite his many racing achievements—and having his own Wikipedia entry—Danny Chew isn't the kind of success most parents envision for their children. He's 54 years old, still living with his mother, and has spent his life ... riding his bicycle. All day, every day, all over Pittsburgh, across the country multiple times (twice winning the Race Across America), to Alaska and back with his nephew, all things biking, all the time, with the goal of riding one million miles in his lifetime. A monomaniac, content to live very simply (except when it comes to bicycles) and remain dependent on others.

That's Danny Chew seen from the outside.

But there's success, and then there's success. The world needs all sorts of people. A freak accident last September revealed much more of Danny Chew seen from the inside.

Immediately after the crash—even before the ambulance had arrived—not feeling his legs and fearing paralysis, Danny expressed his determination to continue toward his million mile goal, even if he needed to use a handcycle. That's grit.

But that's nothing compared to what Danny has done and is doing in working for his extensive rehabilitation—since he is, indeed, paralyzed from the chest down and most likely will be for life. That monomania I mentioned?  It's powering his recovery.

Do you know what else is powering his recovery?  His vast and devoted network of friends.

Immediately after Danny's accident, the world poured itself at his feet. People came long distances to visit him in the hospital, even though they knew they might be turned away because his condition was still so serious. His nephew set up a fundraising site, and money poured in from multitudes of fellow bikers. The Dirty Dozen bike race in Pittsburgh, held a couple of months later, was turned into a fundraiser for Danny. Despite insurance, expenses are huge, not only for his rehab, medical expenses, and necessary equipment, but also for refurbishing his family home to accommodate his new needs. Expenses are high, but so is the wave of people inspired to help.

Inspired by Danny Chew. By who he is and what he has done, despite—or maybe because of—his eccentricities. His life, even before the paralysis, may not be what most of us would choose, but when it comes to what's most important, can it be called anything less than successful?

Which is more the possessor of the world—he who has a thousand houses, or he who, without one house to call his own, has ten in which his knock at the door would rouse instant jubilation?  Which is the richer—the man who, his large money spent, would have no refuge; or he for whose necessity a hundred would sacrifice comfort?

— George MacDonald

If you want to help Danny out, you can make a contribution here. (Disclosure, which is probably not necessary since I get nothing monetary out of this:  Danny's sister is our friend, a former coworker of Porter's.)

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 10, 2017 at 7:05 am | Edit
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Maybe it's social media, maybe it's that those who present the news can't seem to do so without whipping up our fears and our anger, but I'm sensing a deep angst in much of America that doesn't seem to have a rational explanation.

Maybe it's appropriate in a society where the term "hate" has been so devalued that it is pulled out to explain mere difference of opinion, but I'm seeing an entirely irrational, and sadly pervasive, attitude of hatred for ... 2016. One person expressed it this way: I'm going to stay up past midnight on New Year's Eve just so I can watch 2016 die.

Really people? You hate a segment of the calendar? You would rejoice over the loss of 365 days? You are so miserable that you would wipe an entire year out of your life?

I've had some hard times in my 64+ years on this planet. But even the year where I lost both my father and our first-born grandchild, while still reeling from the death of my mother-in-law, a job loss, a traumatic move, and the shock of 9/11—even that year was so loaded with blessings I can't imagine cursing it or wishing it had never been.

It's true that 2016 was hard on some who are dear to me. The death of a mother. The unexpected and tragic death of a young brother. A brother paralyzed in an accident. Cancer. More cancer. Troubles with marriages. Troubles with children. Natural disasters. Wars. Trauma floods our world, and 2016 was no exception.

But that's it: 2016 was not exceptionally traumatic, as years go. For anyone who thinks so, other than on a direct, personal level, I recommend travel outside the tourist zones of a third-world country, or a good course in world history. Even my friends who were hit hardest during the year are finding reasons to be grateful and press on with life. The paralyzed man was planning how to carry on with his life goals even before the ambulance arrived, and discovered family and community support of amazing breadth and depth. Even as the man dealing with cancer struggles to adjust to his new reality, he—having spent time himself in third-world countries—takes care to express his gratitude for the medical care available to him. Across the world, our Gambian friends—who daily face tragedies that don't even cross the radar of most Americans—are revelling in the hope of their first democratically-elected government, ever.

It is not wrong to grieve. Grief is a proper response to tragedy. What troubles me is not personal grief, but the debilitating angst that appears to have gripped so much of our nation. I'm sure it has many causes, but my own theory is this:

We are trying to take on more tragedy than any one person was meant to bear.

Our ancestors experienced far more suffering and tragedy than most of us ever will, but it was localized, among their own families and neighbors. Their vicarious suffering was limited by the size of their small communities, and what's more, these were people they could personally help, hug, grieve with, and carry a casserole to.

Today we are awash in earthquakes, wars, murder, mayhem, homelessness, starvation, child abuse, torture, injustice, and other tragedies of any and every sort from every corner of the world. And that's just the news. Our movies and television shows assault our senses with violence and grief of even more intensity—and our limbic systems are lousy at separating fiction from reality.

What do we do in response? Maybe we change our Facebook profile pictures for a whle. Or toss some money in the direction of the problem. There is very little we can actually do to help in 99.99% of the tragic situations we are made aware of. This rots our souls from the inside out.

It is rotting our national soul.

We get angry, we become afraid, we act irrationally. We cast blame broadside and search wildly for scapegoats. We moan, we whine, we rant, we riot. We turn the pain inward and instead of facing challenges with courage, generosity, and gratitude, we let evil have the last word, denying all the wonder and good in the world. We convince ourselves that feeling miserable because of another's pain makes us righteous.

This kind of angst well deserves the scorn with which C. S. Lewis treated it in The Screwtape Letters.

The characteristic of Pains and Pleasures is that they are unmistakably real, and therefore, as far as they go, give the man who feels them a touchstone of reality. Thus if you had been trying to damn your man by the Romantic method ... submerged in self-pity for imaginary distresses — you would try to protect him at all costs from any real pain; because, of course, five minutes’ genuine toothache would reveal the romantic sorrows for the nonsense they were. 

I don't recommend dental pain, much less something more tragic, as a curative for our national depression, but perhaps we do need a touchstone of reality. No matter how you feel about 2016, my recommendation for 2017 is less second-hand social media (things only shared or "liked" by our friends without further comment). Fewer movies, books, and TV shows that show us the worst of life in lurid detail. More that show us ordinary heroes responding with righteousness, determination, and courage. Not withdrawing into ignorance of what's happening in the world, but getting our news in the least spectacular fashion—more words, fewer pictures—and from a balance of sources. Staying away from news sites and blogs that only inflame our prejudices. Above all, immersing ourselves in the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. C. S. Lewis again: "It’s all in Plato. What DO they teach them in these schools?" (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

Take a deep breath, refocus, and gain some perspective.  Plant a gardenSnuggle a babyChange a diaperVolunteer at a soup kitchenWipe away a child's tearGo for a walk in the woods and try to hear what the trees are telling you. Get up to see the sunriseTravel to a foreign country and get out of the tourist zoneBite the bullet and spend some quality time getting to know—really know—people who voted for someone other than your chosen presidential candidate. Smile at a stranger, unless you're in Switzerland, where that makes people nervousDo something that will personally and directly make another person's life betterBake breadWrite a letterFocus on seeing and speaking the positive—or in the words of the Bible, 

Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.

Think on good things, and even more, do good things. George MacDonald was very big on the uselessness of thoughts and words that do not lead to action, but he did have a broad definition of what makes a good action. From The Princess and Curdie:

How little you must have thought! Why, you don't seem even to know the good of the things you are constantly doing. Now don't mistake me. I don't mean you are good for doing them. It is a good thing to eat your breakfast, but you don't fancy it's very good of you to do it. The thing is good, not you. ... There are a great many more good things than bad things to do. 

Do you think it wrong to focus on the good when there is so much evil in the world? On the contrary, I'm convinced that to do otherwise is to surrender to the evil forces, and leads to an unhealthy mental state that does good for no one.

Let's say farewell to 2016 with gratitude for all the blessings and wonders that it has brought, and face 2017 with a cheerful courage.

Have a Happy New Year!

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, December 31, 2016 at 8:42 am | Edit
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