Lessons Learned as a Mailman

Be kind to your mail person, especially this time of year. Mail delivery is one of the many services we often take for granted. I don’t, however. For 4 summers and 3 Christmases I worked as a mailman. It was a job I greatly enjoyed. This was in the days before mail delivery was done by truck. At that time the mail person walked the route. Yes, there were dogs and, yes, there were grumpy customers. But in general I loved it, in part because of some lessons learned.

I have many images from those times. An old coal miner sitting on his porch, attached to an oxygen machine, explaining to me that he had black lung disease. He seemed to be waiting. A young mother with a child asking me to check through my bag to see if her welfare check was there so that she could get to the bank before it closed (I found it!). The remnants of a coal miners village, what they called the Patch.

But what also has stayed with me are some random acts of kindness.

One summer day it was cold and rainy. I was miserable as I stepped into a small family restaurant, hoping to get a cup of coffee to warm up. The waitress behind the counter brought me the coffee and asked “Would you like a bowl of pastafazool?” I honestly admitted that I paid for the coffee with my last quarter. She smiled and said “Oh no! It’s on the house.” To this day, I can smell and taste what may be the greatest bowl of soup ever. The garlic! The tomato sauce! The oregano! The noodles! A young college kid learning kindness through a memorable bowl of pastafazool.

The second story is a Christmas story that I shared hear some years ago. But a good story is worth re-telling. It was snowing and windy cold when I stepped into an apartment building where the mail was to be delivered to several mail boxes. An old man stood by waiting. I ignored him as I went about my business. Then he spoke something I couldn’t quite hear. “Great!” I thought. “probably complaining because I am running late.” Then he reached into his pocket and took out the type of small microphone used by throat cancer sufferers to help them speak. Through the static I heard “Merry Christmas!” I mumbled a merry Christmas in return and as I locked up the mail boxes he added “And a Happy New Year!” I left that place touched and humbled.

It’s important at some point in your life to work in a service job. We tend to see people at their worst as any waitress, airplane flight attendant, or mail person can tell you. But at times we also get to see people at their best. I did thanks to a memorable bowl of soup and a raspy Christmas greeting.

 

 

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Further Thoughts on Being a Veteran

Another year and too many are still sacrificing life and limb. Bring ’em home!

Psyche and Spirit/Richard B. Patterson PhD

At Mass this morning, the priest (an Army chaplain himself) asked all veterans to stand and be blessed. I looked around and saw young and old, male and female. I wondered what their stories are. Who served in combat? What stories do they have to tell?

I have spoken with veterans of every war from World War II to the present conflicts. Here are a few things they have taught me:

  1. A World War II veteran gave me the best definition I know of for PTSD. When I asked him about the daily nightmares he suffered, he said simply “I assumed it was the price men pay for going to war.”
  2. Another World War II taught me how important it is to talk about trauma. He had carried within him for 60 years the belief he was a coward for being afraid. When I managed to help him see the…

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On Martyrs: St. Oscar Romero

Oscar Romero is a saint and prophet of our times. He accomplished and continues to accomplish what a true saint and prophet should — he makes us uneasy.

Oscar Romero grew up in El Salvador, became a Catholic priest, and in time its Archbishop. Initially he avoided political involvement despite the persecution of Salvadorans by its own government. He did not align himself with progressive priests who called all Catholics to witness to this persecution and to advocate on behalf of the poor. The assassination of his friend Father Rutilio Grande became a personal moment of transformation for him. Archbishop Romero became a vocal proponent of social justice for Salvadoran poor and openly challenged his government as well as guerrilla groups who saw violence as the only solution. He even challenged President Carter to stop sending arms to the Salvadoran army, arms that were used to kill Salvadoran peasants who protested.

Why does St. Oscar Romero make me uncomfortable? First of all, he challenges me to live Christ’s message and to embrace the poor. His message challenges me to confront my own government as it tries to prevent poor people from finding a better life not only by building walls but by labeling all migrants as criminals.

Jesus clearly calls us to hear and respond to “the cry of the poor”. Archbishop Romero heard that call and responded by giving his life.

Archbishop Romero was rejected by his own fellow Bishops, some of whom suggested he developed Marxist leanings. Interesting, isn’t it, that even in our own country, anyone who speaks for the poor is accused of being a “socialist”. Such accusations of Marxist Church leaders and socialist presidential candidates would undoubtedly make Joe McCarthy smile if he were still around.

I don’t have any easy answer as to how I as a Christian should embrace the cause of the poor. But I do know that I must continue to listen to and learn from the great prophets who challenge me to speak to the needs of the poor, be they in El Salvador or Africa or even in the slums of my own country. I cannot call myself Christian and ignore them.

RESOURCES: Many of St. Oscar Romero’s writings, sermons, and radio addresses are collected in the Modern Spiritual Masters series on him edited by Marie Dennis

The film Romero with Raul Julia is a superb and accurate portrayal of St. Oscar Romero’s transformation. It is graphic in its portrayal of the killings, disappearances, and torture of the poor and those who spoke for them.

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The Joys of Doubting

When I was growing up Catholic, questioning aspects of my faith was frowned on, even at times suggested to be sinful. And yet at an early age I questioned, perhaps because of trying to make sense of early tragedies in my family. For years I felt guilty, a “less-than” Catholic. However, when I finally confronted addiction and encountered the concept of “the God of my understanding”, I found that my questions were not only liberating but enriching.

The reality, though, is that I have few if any answers and more and more questions as I age. Certainty has its advantages. Those who don’t question, who don’t argue with God, find a certain security that I at times envy. And yet I continue to embrace my doubts and have come to see that the greatest gift of embracing one’s doubts is the journey itself.

I see that, had I not allowed myself to question, I would have missed out. I would not have explored writers and thinkers from other traditions or no traditions. Through their writings, I would never have met Abraham Joshua Heschel, Thich Naht Hahn, Annie Dillard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and dozens of others. If I never questioned, I might not have discovered great cathedrals outside of Catholic churches. I would have missed God’s presence in Yosemite or Big Bend or the Skelligs. Had I not come to see that creation did not end after seven days, I would not have encountered the thought that creation continues and that I am invited to participate. I would never have found God in the paintings of Van Gogh, the poems of Robert Frost, the plays of Thornton Wilder. I likely would not be writing these words.

Had I not doubted, I would never have had profound encounters with God that I have experienced when angry with Him/Her. Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that what satisfied Job was not any answers God gave (there were none!), but that, through his anger, Job had a profound encounter with God. I understand that. My arguments with God are real and honest, not couched in piety. I feel God’s presence quite deeply during those moments.

I love my Catholicism. The sacraments have great meaning to me. The saints inspire me. But I can only be a Catholic who questions. If I embrace the old beliefs and define my doubts as wrong, then I will take the vitality out of my Catholic faith. That perhaps would be the ultimate sin.

REFLECTION: What if any role has doubting played in your spiritual journey?

 

 

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Excerpt from “Why Am I Still a Catholic?”

The following is an excerpt from my article “Why Am I Still A Catholic?” which appears in the October 2019 issue of St. Anthony Messenger

When the movie Spotlight came out, I was overwhelmed with emotion when I saw my two homes — Scranton Pennsylvania and El Paso Texas — listed at the end as cities with confirmed incidents of clergy abuse. I thought of survivors I had evaluated and counseled, especially one young man who had been molested by a priest mentioned in the movie. After that film, I again struggled with why I remain Catholic as I saw just how massive that crisis had been both in the United States and internationally.

After the Pennsylvania report (on clergy abuse) I had some hope for a new, more honest response from the Church. But I also have a fear based on something a victim told me. Although as a boy he had been abused by a priest, this man served the Church in many meaningful ways. One night he sat in a committee meeting in his parish. When the topic of the clergy abuse crisis came up, one woman said “This crisis is only a small blip in the Church’s history. The Church will survive.”

My fear is that many Catholics will proceed under the assumption — the evil assumption — that the crisis will pass and nothing really major needs to change.

And yet I am still Catholic. Why? I am still Catholic because I believe in Jesus’ message. His way is a path to live out the message that love can overcome all and that we are all here to take care of one another. But I also agree with Wendell Berry when he writes in Blesses Are the Peacemakers that Christianity has become fashionable in the United States but in fact “has remarkably little to do with things that Jesus Christ actually taught.”

 

Further information: If you are interested in receiving the entire article send me your e-mail address for an electronic copy of the article or mailing address for a hard copy. My e-mail address is <richp45198@aol.com>

 

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ADD Adventures

I’ve never formally been diagnosed with ADD and never took medication, mainly because it wasn’t diagnosed in those days. Rather, we were known as behavioral problems or, as my 7th grade teacher labelled me, a “villain” and a “leader in badness”. In high school, the basketball coach referred to me as “static in the attic”. These days I’m viewed in El Paso as “eccentric”.

I have to admit I found some relief when I realized I suffered from ADD. It reassured me that I wasn’t some delinquent, doomed to hell. But nonetheless it had its challenges. Impulsive behavior, both verbal and behavioral. Trouble staying focused. Overwhelmed by too much input. And, above all, misplacing things. The classic example here was the morning I was roaring around the house, yelling “Where are my damn glasses?” My daughter looked at me like I had lobsters coming out my ears and said “Dad, you’re wearing your glasses!” So I was.

My granddaughter is in the eighth grade. One of my finer ADD moments occurred during my eighth grade year. I was sitting right in front of Sister’s desk (a space commonly reserved for behavior problems). One morning, bored to tears, I started a pantomime. I threw an imaginary rope to the other student’s desk, secured it, and then with my fingers made the little man begin to walk across. I became aware that the class was very quiet. I looked out the corner of my eye to see Sister staring at me. “What are you doing?” she said. I shrugged my shoulders and said “I’m making the little man walk across the canyon on a tightrope.” She stared a moment, then simply said “Oh”, clearly at a loss as to what to say or do.

ADD has its plus side. We do notice more. We catch details others might miss. We are on the lookout for new opportunities. We crave information. And in the midst of our often cluttered minds are some rich corners with fascinating things.

I did see a book titled ADD as a Gift. I’m not quite prepared to go there but I can see they may have a point.

For your enjoyment, then, is this classic Dick Van Dyke sketch of a man trying to write. Although not labelled as ADD in any way, it illustrates how ADD can be a challenge when I sit down to write. Most of us writers can relate

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New York City Marathon 2001

On this day, September 11, we are all invited to pause and reflect on that terrible day. As with Pearl Harbor, as with JFK’s assassination, we remember where we were and what we were doing. But, out of the ashes, I found some hope about six weeks later when I ran in the New York City Marathon.

There was some question as to whether the marathon would even occur. In the days and weeks after the attacks, it was unclear if there would be more attacks. Beyond that, having thousands of runners standing on an open bridge at the start of the marathon seemed to invite danger. Yet one week before, it was announced that the marathon would happen, even though fully one third of registered runners had dropped out.

As I contemplated whether or not I would go, I admit to being afraid. Thankfully I didn’t let fear make the decision and I boarded the plane for New York City. Yes, I ran and yes I finished. But there are some enduring images that have stayed with me and that gave me hope.

Near where I was staying in the Times Square area was a fire station. It was decorated with mementos and memorials. That station had lost a significant portion of their fire fighters. People would stop and ask to be photographed with surviving fire fighters. After all, they were all genuine heroes.

The day before the marathon my sons and I got as close as we could to the site of those attacks. We could still smell smoke and ashes and grew quiet as a flat bed drove by carrying a huge piece of metal from one of the destroyed structures.

The day of the marathon we were warned not to accept drinks from strangers in the crowd but only at official rehydration stops. Again, there were still many unknowns and considerable fear.

As the marathon was about to start, at the front with arms linked were fire fighters and police officers, another enduring image from that day.

But the image that has stayed with me the most is that of a lone New York City policeman.  My son had encouraged me to wear a T-shirt that said where I was from and also had my first name on it. Indeed that created some nice interactions with people in the crowd, to include several yelling out “Hey! I’m from El Paso!” I finished the marathon and was walking to meet my sons, the finisher’s medal about my neck. To one side was a lone policeman. He looked at me and said “Congratulations, Rich. You did it.” I went over and shook his hand. But as I was walking away, I began to imagine what that man might have been through the past weeks. Recovering from his own sense of shock. Grief over the loss of what likely were numerous friends among first responders. And yet he could for a moment set all that aside to affirm a middle-aged exhausted runner who clearly finished near the back of the pack. Somehow that image more than anything else from those days has stood as a beacon of hope — that amidst the darkest times many are able to rise above their own pain to deliver an act of simple kindness.

So on this day and in the wake of senseless shootings in my hometown, the memory of a solitary policeman somehow reminds me that even in the midst of that darkness some can truly rise on eagle’s wings.

 

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The Presence of My Enemy: Spiritual Challenges of a Mass Shooting

People of faith typically react with sorrow and outrage with the news of shootings such as those at Sandy Hook and El Paso. But the after effects of such tragedies, especially when they happen in one’s hometown can include spiritual challenges and struggles.

The most obvious challenge is the question “Why? Why does God allow such things?” I have struggled with this question most of my life. These shootings intensify the question. Why did God permit the death of a young mother, shot as she shielded her infant, much less the deaths of other innocents. Why did God permit others to survive? Or perhaps God had nothing to do with it? Where if anywhere was God at Sandy Hook, in Odessa TX, or at a Walmart one Saturday morning?

Like Job, I and others would like for God to show up and explain Himself/Herself.

And yet in the face of such tragedies, persons in pain turn to their churches, synagogues, and mosques for comfort more than for answers. This echoes the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner who suggests that, while God may not have intended those deaths, He/She is there amidst the carnage, there for comfort and consolation.

As I deal with my own anger toward a shooter much less my anger toward politicians whose rhetoric inflames a culture of violence, Jesus’ words challenge me: “Love your enemy.” Clearly acts of mass violence are against Jesus’ teachings as are words of judgment against migrants trying to seek a better life. Do I just ignore His words, saying “Well, Jesus said those words for another time and place.” Does Jesus not challenge me to love both the politician and the 21 year-old killer sitting in an El Paso jail?

As I muddle through this challenge, I take comfort knowing that Jesus did not say I had to like my enemy. Thus, loving my enemy might involve forgiveness and prayers for healing.

The greatest spiritual challenge of mass shootings is fear. The prevalence of mass shootings is in fact something to fear. But the real issue is how much power we give to that fear. I can’t tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t fear. Jesus clearly understood that fear permeates our existence. Time and again, He exhorts us not to be afraid, a theme also echoed in the Psalms where we read “Be still and know that I am God.” Yet contrasted with that is that fact that, in Texas where people are allowed to carry concealed weapons, some are coming to church armed.

 

I  have to decide what I expect of the God of my understanding. There were people of deep faith shot and killed that Saturday morning. Faith, after all, is not some sort of bullet-proof vest. My placing of my trust in God does not guarantee my safety. I wish it did. At this point, though, I believe faith empowers me against fear.

It is one month since the shootings in El Paso. On CNN, Fox News and elsewhere, it is already “old news”, especially in the face of yet another shooting in Texas. In the midst of such madness, do we simply retreat, hoping that the world will leave us alone or do we hold onto the hope that somehow the madness can stop?

REFLECTION: 1. How have the mass shootings affected you spiritually?

 

 

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El Paso

Image result for el paso strong mural

It has been a week since a young man entered a local Walmart and opened fire. El Paso is grieving. El Paso is angry. El Paso is struggling to answer the “Why?” question, not just psychologically but spiritually.

Racism, like war, has been with us always. From my perspective racism goes beyond skin color and reflects the attitude of hostility and persecution of anyone whom I consider “different”, whether that difference is due to skin color, sexual identity, disability, or the many other ways we are unique.

Yes, there has been much racist rhetoric of late. And yes it is unconscionable for a 19 year-old young man to be able to buy a semi-automatic weapon. But the problems go beyond politics and gun control. I remain convinced that, for there to be an end to any form of violence, I must first heal the violence and racism within my own heart and mind. I must be willing to confront within myself the ways in which I judge others not only as different than but as less than. Do I look down on the street corner beggar, the “unenlightened” person of another political party, the prostitute working his or her street corner, the red-haired child on the playground? If we are honest, we all can find some form of such racism within, motivating us to judge someone as “less than”. None of us are immune from such thinking although too many of us like to think we are above it. It is never easy to face that “enemy within”.

El Paso is my home and my home is hurting. But my immediate concern is that time will pass and so will the attention paid to this tragedy. And nothing will change. We do indeed need to find a way to hold our leaders accountable for inflammatory rhetoric. We do indeed need to acknowledge that little has been done after such tragedies so that guns are not so easy to obtain. That is my fear. A year from now people will gather outside Walmart and remember those who were murdered. But the lawmakers will have done little to ensure it won’t happen again.

I have little control over politicians. But I do have the power to face my own inner racism, to bring it to the light of day, and to heal it. In many ways, if more of us, whatever our ethnicity, sexual orientation, position in life, if we try to heal the violence and ugliness within, then perhaps, in a small but significant way, there won’t be another El Paso.

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On PTSD

The month of June has been PTSD Awareness Month and today is PTSD Awareness Day.  For many years, I’ve had the privilege of sitting with many survivors of trauma and have learned much from their sharing.

They have taught me that PTSD isn’t so much a mental illness as it is a journey.

They have taught me that no one “Gets over” a trauma. Rather they have taught me that, over time, survivors of trauma gradually reclaim power taken from them by an abuser, a shooter, an assailant, a combatant.

They have taught me that the journey of healing especially involves learning to “walk with the pain”, that is, learning to find a way that they can live their lives with hope, gratitude, and joy while at the same time bearing the burden of a trauma that may be unimaginable.

They have taught me that trauma is an attack at every level — body, mind, and spirit — and that healing needs to address each area.

They have taught me that forgiveness is not the same thing as excusing or condoning. Rather it is the reclaiming of power.

They have taught me that healing from trauma involves much grieving, not only for possible lost loved ones but for lost innocence, loss of a way of life, loss of a sense of safety, and, for some, a loss of faith.

If you suffer from some form of PTSD, there is help available. Talking about trauma stirs up the pain but can also open a door for true healing. Above all, find a helper who listens and doesn’t jump into telling you what to do to “get over it.”

Be aware that others may tell you that “it’s time to get on with your life.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if healing were that simple? The journey of recovery is long and slow. Be patient especially with yourself.

If you have friends and loved ones who’ve suffered trauma, never forget the value of listening, as painful as that can be. Don’t advise. Just listen. It can be a hard thing to do but, if you take the time to listen, you may be blessed with great lessons in courage and faith, as I have been.

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