Spiritual Mentor: August Wilson

I am not African-American. But I have found myself strongly responding to the plays of August Wilson. The playwright from Pittsburgh presented with his 10-play cycle a powerful picture of the lives and struggles of African Americans in each decade. Best known of Wilson’s works is Fences and its adaptation to film in 2016. Part of the power of Wilson’s work is its universality. He touches on themes of family, dreams, rage, and the power of Spirit among many themes. His plays go far beyond race.

I find myself responding strongly to Wilson’s theme of “blood memory”. He called on others to embrace their blood memory — the collective memory of the struggles of our ancestors, some of whom created pathways of hope through their blood, literal and spiritual. His play The Piano Lesson speaks strongly to this theme. Bernice is in possession of a piano which has been in her family for generations. Carved on this piano are scenes and images reflecting the family history. Thus, when her brother Boy Willie wants to sell the piano, she forcefully resists, pointing out that their family’s blood is in the piano.

I remember in Cobh Ireland when I stepped inside a replica immigrant ship. I had a strong emotional response knowing that ancestors of mine including my grandmother travelled in these ships for weeks and months, seeking a better life. That connection I had that day is Blood Memory.

I have on my desk a large piece of coal. I have it there to remind me of my roots. Most of my ancestors worked the coal mines of Northeast Pennsylvania. Some got out to other jobs. Others did not. One of my uncles died of Black Lung disease. The emotion I feel when I hold that piece of coal is Blood Memory.

That Blood Memory is important since it honors my ancestors. I must never forget that the blood of those oceanic travelers, those coal miners and factory workers and mothers trying to raise and feed a houseful of children flows in me. What I have achieved in my life I owe to them. I must never forget who and what I come from.

I find too that I respond to some of the themes of family in Wilson’s plays. Here is a scene from the Broadway version of Fences featuring James Earl Jones and Courtney B. Vance. The son asks his father “How come you never liked me?” The father’s intense response may seem harsh but within that response is his definition of fatherhood. And within that response is fatherly love. I believe that it was an attitude that guided many of my own father’s life choices. He too was motivated by a desire to provide well and to help me find a path to a better life. He too taught me that, for him, work and caring for his family gave him a sense of purpose.

Many of Wilson’s plays carry strong spiritual themes. Some like The Piano Lesson speak to the dangers of ignoring that which is spiritual in life and also speak to the power of the spiritual to help with healing. Other plays such as Joe Turner’s Come and Gone speak to the power of redemption, a redemption sometimes found through one’s own blood.

Wilson was criticized for his portrayals of women yet some of his most powerful monologues are spoken by women. The strength of many of these women was inspired by Wilson’s memories of his own mother who fiercely fought to provide for her children, making great personal sacrifice in the process. The following scene features Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in the Broadway revival of Fences. Ms. Davis’ character speaks with power and fury of the many sacrifices she has made to provide her husband and family with stability. I believe that, along with the audience, my own stoic mother would applaud.

Good theater speaks to all of us. I can find myself in Tennessee Williams and The Glass Menagerie. I can find myself in Eugene O”Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I can find myself in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. And while I did not grow up African American and did not grow up without a father, I do find myself in August Wilson’s plays. His words, spoken in the rhythms of those he knew in the Pittsburgh Hill District, speak also to me. And for that I am grateful to him.

Further Resources: The film version of Fences is readily available and follows the play script closely. The Piano Lesson was presented on Hallmark and is available through streaming services.

A recent biography of August Wilson titled August Wilson: A Life by Patti Hartigan is a very readable picture of the playwright’s journey.

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

On Madness and the Streak

“Without a little madness, a man never cuts the rope and is truly free.”

Towards the end of the great film “Zorba the Greek”, the character Zorba advises his young friend “A man needs a little madness or else he never dares cut the rope and be free.” By madness Zorba does not mean insanity. Rather he refers to a willingness to enjoy something regardless of what others think. In a stunning moment of liberation and in response to Zorba’s statement the young man asks Zorba to teach him to dance.

     Too often we limit ourselves for fear of what others will think. Too often we stifle creativity because it might be criticized. Too often we seek out a comfort zone then anxiously guard it, fearful of taking any risks that might carry us out of that comfort zone.

Even in religious practice we can come to fear madness. Jesus Christ clearly wanted to make us uncomfortable, yet we settle into a spiritual comfort zone where we don’t like to be challenged or feel uneasy. “Let me just go to church, hear a relatively innocuous sermon, then go home.”

     One of my acts of madness lasted for over 21 years. I ran every day. Rain or shine. Sickness or health. I once even ran a mile after being discharged from an ICU because I needed to keep The Streak going! I remember being at a party when a man approached me and said he’d heard I was a runner. When I began to tell him the ICU story, his smile faded and he began to back up!

     When one embraces madness, one is more likely to speak out. When a person embraces madness, he/she may indeed be judged as a troublemaker or even (as I once was) an “enemy of the church”. Yet madmen and madwomen often speak things we need to hear. I would argue therefore that madness stands as an antidote for spiritual stagnation.

       By why a running streak? In 1987 when I first started, I turned 39 so I suppose a midlife issue was involved. The baseball player Lou Gehrig had long been a hero and was best remembered for his streak of baseball games played. At that time, we were also beginning to hear about a baseball player named Cal Ripken who himself was building a streak of continuous games. Would he pass by Lou Gehrig, people were wondering. Finally, when I was studying at Indiana University a young man made the news for taking the world’s longest shower. I was impressed. So, on February 21 1987 I took what was the first of many consecutive runs.

     The Streak would contain many acts of madness in addition to the ICU incident mentioned above. Once as I was back from a run, I sliced my calf muscle on a license plate, an injury that required 18 stitches. The next evening, I was preparing to run the minimum mile when my wife stopped me. “What are you doing” she asked, already knowing my answer. “I’m going for my run”. She questioned the wisdom of doing this with 18 stitches in my leg so I compromised. “OK. If the stitches come out, I’ll stop.” The stitches held!

     But the ICU incident tops the list. I was one week away from running in the Cape Cod Marathon. I had been having a lot of trouble with asthma so my wife suggested go the local ER to get a breathing treatment. The ER doctor put me in ICU! Mind you, I had run that Saturday morning but, being in ICU, I believed the Streak was over. However, the doctor discharged me on Sunday and my wife came to pick me up at 8PM. I could save the Streak! So, as I got into the car, I said “Now you know what I’m going to do when we get home.” She sighed and said “You’re going to run…” She insisted on coming to the nearby track to make sure I didn’t keel over.

     The Streak ended in September of 2008. I had been preparing for a second time at the DC Marathon. After about 10 miles, my left foot became so painful that I had to stop running. I hobbled home. The next day I made an appointment with an orthopedic doctor. In the meantime, yes, I continued to run the minimum mile but when I went to see the doctor, he told me I had a stress fracture in my foot. The Streak came to an end.

     Since then, I attempted another streak that lasted a year, ending with a knee injury. Today I typically run 5 days a week but have not attempted another Streak.

     I would argue that madness can be a spiritual virtue. Obviously, I am not referring to insanity although some great prophets have been dubbed insane. To me madness means a willingness to step outside the norm, to do something that others might think strange. Clearly that something needs to not cause harm to or endanger others. Nor does an act of madness need to be dangerous.

     As Zorba speaks to young Basil at the end of the movie, he is responding to Basil’s tentative approach to life and his escaping into books. He encourages Basil to live with passion. Basil hesitates then asks Zorba to teach him to dance. Earlier in the film Zorba dealt with a tragedy by dancing. Basil takes off his coat and tie and after dancing a bit, he starts laughing. The film ends with Zorba and Basil enjoying some madness together.

     Madness can also involve doing things in an unconventional way. On a daily basis we are all under great pressure to conform. My own Catholic Church has in many ways become more rule-bound, in part because of the disastrous impact of the clergy abuse scandal. Dissension is not tolerated well.

     Whether it has anything to do with my running streak I don’t know. But it has been brought to my attention that within the mental health community of El Paso, I am viewed as eccentric. I am also told I am viewed as more of a philosopher than a psychologist. Finally, I was recently told that I am viewed as someone who doesn’t BS people. I think I can live with that. An eccentric philosopher who doesn’t bullshit people.

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , | 3 Comments

What It’s Like Inside My Head

Originally posted April 2018


I was watching a TV program recently in which one of the characters said “No one knows what it’s like inside my head!” Interesting. It occurs to me that, like a lot of other bloggers, this blog may be an attempt to articulate some of what it’s like inside my head. That, however, would not be accurate since the majority of my writing has been around heavy intellectual themes. But then I walked into Johnson’s!

Johnson’s Art Gallery is found in Madrid, New Mexico along the Turquoise Trail. On a recent trip, my wife and I stopped in. If you look closely at the picture above, you will get a hint. Some beautiful painting left unguarded. A random pot. Cactus here, sagebrush there. Then we went inside!

We were met with random boxes of unfiled business papers, piles of books and photographs, all completely unorganized. For people who like organization, it is stressful. For me, I felt at home.

One of the owners commented “We’re trying to get organized but then we’ve been trying to get organized for ten years”. I came upon some beautiful photography of the Southwest, some wonderful paintings, even some old books and toys. But keep in mind that this was all quite random. In the midst of my wanderings, I chatted with one of the store clerks (or was he the owner?) about the Redsox.

When I went to make my purchases, one of the store people pointed to an elderly lady walking in with a cane and was told “She’ll take care of you.” This was Ms. Johnson herself. She had to poke around amidst a pile of papers to find her sales book. Next she had to search to find a pen. Next she was unsure of the cost. Then together we processed my payment through her credit processor. She thanked me for helping as we commiserated about modern technology. Then she again had to poke around to find a bag.

As I left, I thanked them all and said “This place has character! Don’t ever change!”

Then I had an epiphany. “That’s exactly how it is inside my head!” Chaos. Disorganization. Definitely not a business sense. And yet the unexpected treasure found in a corner. Interesting ideas floating amidst random busywork. Interesting bits of information having nothing to do with anything in particular yet exciting to discover. Poor attention to detail. Very random yet very creative. Down to earth. Prone to oversights and other types of mistakes. (For example, later that day we could not stay at our favorite hot springs spa because I had booked the wrong date!)

Somehow it was very comforting to have a metaphor for my own consciousness and it was reassuring that, on balance, that metaphor was a pleasant place to be.

Update September 2023

If anything, the clutter inside my head is similar to the clutter in my garage. It has only grown but, my, there sure is some interesting stuff out there! When I came across this picture of Johnson’s Art Gallery, I felt a warm glow and the reassurance that my cluttered brain is still wonderfully cluttered.

Reflection: Do you have a metaphor for what it’s like inside your head?

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

On the God of My Understanding

The men who created the AA program and the 12 Step Step program realized two things: 1. If people were to truly recover from alcohol abuse, the solution would only work if it was spiritual in some manner; 2. Many alcoholics had had very negative encounters with religious professionals, many of whom passed judgment on alcoholics.

To create a program that was spiritual in nature but flexible, the creators of AA developed the idea of “the God of my understanding”. This definition did not limit recovering alcoholics to a Christian God or a Jewish God or a Muslim God or any other specific definition of God. Rather, recovering alcoholics are invited to develop the God of their understanding, i.e., a spiritual presence in their lives that could be a source of strength and guidance.

This concept was for me quite liberating. I no longer felt confined to a Catholic definition of God but felt free to incorporate a wide range of influences into developing the God of my understanding. That definition of God is still influenced by my Catholicism but also by many other influences from Judaism to Zen Buddhism to art to nature. Thus I can connect with the God of my understanding at Mass but even moreso have felt that connection in Yosemite National Park or while contemplating Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

The God of my understanding is also a God with Whom I can argue. I realized that my relationship with God could not be passive. I realized that I had witnessed too many situations which raised the “why?” question and in some cases made me angry. Thus I argue with God about many things ranging from the deaths of my two sisters to a 12 year-old boy dying of AIDS to senseless deaths in war zones. I need a God with Whom I can rage.

The God of my understanding has grown in other ways. Thanks to a workshop on faith and the stages of life, I found the feminine side of god. Thanks to the writings of Harold Kushner, I have been open to the idea that not all bad things are caused by God. I have come to see that we have a standing invitation to participate in God’s ongoing creation.

Over the years, I have met others who embraced the idea of the God of one’s understanding in creative ways. I was encouraging one man to try the AA program and he initially told me it wouldn’t work because he was an atheist. I encouraged him to read the chapter “We the Agnostics” in the AA book. He came back and said he had figured out a God of his understanding that would work for him. He then explained that he had resolved the God issue while reading A Brief History of Time by Stephan Hawking. To this day, I don’t think I understood what he was talking about but it worked for him which is what mattered.

I think that perhaps our understanding of God is supposed to be dynamic and ever-changing. I think that perhaps if our understanding of God becomes static and we believe we have figured out the mystery of God, then we are in spiritual danger.

I am not a man of simple faith. In many ways, I wish I was. I probably get too analytic about the God of my understanding. I struggle with doubts. Yet my relationship with the God of my understanding is not stagnant and for that I am grateful.

Reflection: How has your understanding of God changed?

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , | Leave a comment

On Being a Catholic Dissident

In reviewing those whom I have viewed as spiritual mentors, I realized that a majority of them would fit the definition of dissident:  “disagreeing especially with an established religious or political system, organization, or belief”. In general there have been two types of Catholic dissidents. The first are those whose faith is a stepping stone to protest against an existing government or issue. Examples of this type of dissident would be Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan. Dorothy Day, a convert to Catholicism, believed her faith called her to speak out on behalf of the poor. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, followed his faith in protesting the Viet Nam war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The second type of dissident is one who speaks out against some dysfunctional aspect of the Church itself. St. John XXIII in his effort through Vatican II was such a dissident. The other such dissident was Jesus Christ Himself whose efforts to reform the Judaism of His day led to His death. Other dissidents such as Thomas Merton and Pope Francis straddle both areas.

What does it mean to be a Catholic dissident? Rather than being influenced by the politicians of the day, the Catholic dissident uses the teachings of Jesus as his/her reference point for determining a stand on the issues of the day. This, I believe is what Pope Francis is trying to do in addressing the moral and political issues of the day. He has endured brutal criticism as a result.

The Catholic dissident will speak up to anyone from a parish priest to a Bishop regarding the issues of the day. Essentially the Catholic dissident finds his/her voice. The Catholic dissident does not sit passively in the pew but is willing to take risks to address issues, whether political or specifically Catholic.

Some Catholics ranging from Thomas Merton to Garry Wills are able to voice their dissident opinions in writing, thereby gaining a larger audience. Such writers are at times censured by the Catholic establishment. Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox are examples.

Catholic dissidents who favor a more compassionate approach to issues such as sexual identity and abortion need to be aware that within the Church is an increasingly vocal Right Wing intent on returning the Church to a more traditional, male-dominated structure. This Right Wing is becoming increasingly vocal bot in print and in protest. Thus, those dissidents who speak up on behalf of the poor and the marginalized can expect a hostile reaction from the Catholic Right.

At this time Catholic dissidents remain active in holding the Church accountable for its failures in addressing the sex abuse scandal. Dissidents are actively moving their organizations in a more environmentally sensitive direction to honor Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. In a few Churches we are even hearing women preach.

Becoming a dissident Catholic can bring an element of vitality to one’s faith. It can also bring attack. Thus, in my own effort to encourage a diocesan response to the sex abuse scandal, I was labelled an enemy of the Church. So it goes.

Finally the Catholic dissident must find within his/her heart a capacity to listen to those of another belief. The political and religious exchanges of the day are greatly missing any efforts to listen. The Catholic dissident must also speak from a humble heart that gives rise to a desire to help and heal but not to be “right”.

Posted in spirituality | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Spiritual Mentors: St. John XXIII

As part of this blog, I have written about spiritual mentors — persons whom I never met yet whose lives and writings impacted my life. Recently I have also become interested in the topic of protest within the Catholic Church and noticed that most of my mentors were at times dissidents, protesting political issues or even matters within their own churches. I also have become aware of a movement with the Catholic Right Wing to do away with many of the changes initiated 60 years ago with Vatican II. The architect of that revolutionary event was another dissident but a quiet gentle one — Pope and St. John XXIII.

Pope John was Pope for only five year, succeeding Pius XII. Many assumed that, because of his age, he would be an “caretaker” Pope, i.e., one who would fill the space until a more acceptable candidate would emerge. However, early in his papacy he noted that the Catholic Church was in need of renewal and so chose to “throw open the windows” of the Church to let in fresh air. The result was Vatical II which in turn resulted in sweeping changes in multiple aspects of the Catholic faith. The most visible change for me as a young Catholic was changing the Latin Mass to the local languages. With that came new liturgies and new music. It was during this time of renewal that I first heard the African Missa Luba. Here is an excerpt in Latin but with a decidedly invigorating twist

Pope John was born Giovanni Roncali in a large family in Bergamo Lombardi. In reading his Journey of a Soul, one can see that he felt called to service and to the priesthood at an early age. His long journey to the papacy included a time during World War II when he worked tirelessly to save Jews from the Holocaust. He maintained a consciousness of the damage done to Jews and eliminated negative references to Jews made in Good Friday litany. He noted the impact of Catholic judgment and persecution of Jews: “We are conscious today that many, many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people nor recognise in their faces the features of our privileged brethren. We realize that the mark of Cain stands upon our foreheads. Across the centuries our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew, or shed tears we caused by forgetting Thy love. Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews. Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh. For we know not what we did.”

Similarly, in his efforts at ecumenism, he welcomed Jewish visitors in this way: “In 1960, receiving a delegation of American Jewish leaders, he was presented with a Torah scroll to express gratitude for the Jewish lives he had saved during the Holocaust and replied: “We are all sons of the same heavenly Father. Among us there must ever be the brightness of love and its practice.” He concluded: “I am Joseph, your brother” (Genesis 45:4). In using his baptismal name, the pope was not only quoting the biblical self-revelation of Joseph to his brothers in Egypt, he was also making an unprecedented gesture of filial warmth toward all Jews, who he considered deserved their full dignity as descendants of the Patriarchs of the Bible. It was a statement pregnant with theological implications.”

He at times functioned with a twinkle in his eye. Once a reporter asked him how many people worked at the Vatican. His response was “About half.”

Yet these days he and his efforts have come under attack by a Right Wing movement in the Catholic Church that is growing and includes more than a few Catholic Bishops. Pope John would, I believe, welcome such criticism in a spirit of dialogue, something sorely lacking these days.

It is no accident that he is known as “The Good Pope”. To me he is also The Good Dissident.

Further Reading: In addition to his own Journal of a Soul, there is a very good collection of his writings in the Modern Spiritual Masters series. I can also recommend The Good Pope by Greg Tobin.

Posted in spirituality | 1 Comment

The Catholic Church and the Right Wing

Within our Catholic Church and largely unknown to Catholics is the emerging of an ultra-conservative right wing movement intent on returning us to pre-Vatican days. When Catholics hear of such things, we tend to dismiss such themes as a return to the Latin Mass. While that is indeed one of the desires of the Catholic Right Wing, that movement is far more active a part of the Catholic Church than many of us realize. The Right Wing movement includes US bishops and includes a number of Bishops who have spoken out against Pope Francis, even so far as to demand his removal. The Right Wing objects to the Pope’s position of compassion and justice for the poor and instead advocates a theology of prosperity that advocates for the growth of capitalism.

Given that the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church is made up primarily of white male conservatives, some resistance to Pope Francis’ progressive attitudes about issues ranging from same-sex marriage to the environment is to be expected. But some conservative Bishops have aligned themsleves with Big Money people such as the Koch brothers and conservative Catholics of power to include Clarence Thomas and his wife.

In her important book Playing God: American Bishops and the Far Right, Mary Jo McConahay, herself a Catholic and journalist, provides a well-researched very unsettling study of the development of the Far Right movement within the Church. She argues that ultra-conservative Catholics of wealth are pushing an agenda that includes banning not only abortion but same sex marriage and any policy that supports LGBT rights. Further, they are intent on reversing the gains of Vatican II.

It would appear that over the past 30 years the US Council of Catholic Bishops has moved away from advocacy for the poor and for the environment to a greater emphasis of and support for a capitalist agenda. As such, a significant number of Bishops did not offer clear support for Pope Francis’ important encyclical Laudato si which introduced the notion that actions that harmed the environment such as fossil fuels were against God’s wishes. McConahay notes that some of the right wing big money people embraced by several bishops have significantly investment in the fossil fuel industry.

The pattern and intensity of attacks on the Pope have been so vitriolic that the Pope recently addressed the use of social media noting “…when groups that present themselves as ‘Catholic” use their social media presence to foster division, they are not behaving as a Christian community should.” Several American Bishops, the network EWTN and numerous conservative newspapers such as National Catholic Reporter have repeatedly attacked the Pope, at times asking him to step down.

How does all this impact an ordinary Catholic? First of all, it challenges the assumption many Catholics have that the Church hierarchy has our best interests in mind. That assumption was already brought into question by the USCCB’s hesitation in forcefully addressing the sexual abuse scandal. Now it would appear that some Bishops are not aligned with the needs of their flock but are rather intent in pushing an agenda that prioritizes abortion while minimizing issues such as poverty and the environment. Thus, there is the issue of how if at all do we laity hold the hierarchy accountable?

Not all American bishops are aligned with the Right Wing and its country cousin Big Money. Some are open in their embrace of immigrants. Others are willing through their diocesan newspapers to articulate support for documents such as Laudato si. Since USBCC closed Catholic News Service, the only option for intelligent analysis of the Bishops’ decision-making, diocesan newspapers remain as a tool for intelligent balanced reflection on the issues of today. Bishops need to make use of these tools to stimulate intelligent dialogue, to educate laity on the problems the American Catholic Church faces and to encourage support of the Pope especially among conservative Catholics who make up the majority of those who regularly attend Mass.

Young people are leaving the Catholic Church in great numbers, a fact hierarchy is either helpless to address or simply don’t care. As long as conservative Catholics who accept the Catholic Right Wing’s agenda fill the pews, right wing clergy may be content, looking forward to the return to Latin Mass.

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

On Retirement

I recently closed my 40+ years practice of psychological counseling. As I approached that landmark, I found that I had to apply to myself advice I’d offered to many others over the years: “Don’t just think about what you are moving away from. Think about what you are moving towards.” Easier said than done.

Like many people in my age group, work was a major part of my identity. I grew up in a culture in which work was a part of life. Thus, I had my first job when I was 14. I worked for several summers as a mailman. I worked summers in factories. In my family there was never pressure to work. It was just part of the progression of life.

That work mentality gave rise to a tendency to judge myself if I felt I wasn’t being productive. The Buddhists say that, when one meditates, one eventually confronts one’s compulsion. Thus, when I would attempt traditional meditation, I would invariably be faced by thoughts such as “You should be doing something more productive. Get back to work!”

I did not have to retire. I am blessed with good health and have most of my mental marbles. That in many ways was a factor in my decision. I wanted to walk away from my work on my terms. I recalled an episode from MASH in which Colonel Potter fears that he has lost his ability as a surgeon and should retire. Sidney the psychiatrist advises him to not base such a decision on fear. I didn’t want to wait until I felt I could no longer do the work.

Retirement also opened the door on a number of activities that had been limited by work. These included my writing as well as my regular participation in a 12-Step support group. However, the compulsion to be productive has not simply vanished.

Spiritually, too, there has been a challenge. My work has a therapist may at times have been stressful but it also offered a steady stream of activity that had great meaning for me. That need to find meaning in my life is still strong.

Similarly, my work facilitated whatever social contact I needed. Retirement presented me with a challenge to meet social needs in other ways. Given that my reputation in the El Paso professional community was, in part, that I am reclusive, the easy path, not a healthy one, would be total withdrawal.

The other major spiritual challenge presented by retirement is fear. I certainly struggle with a fear of losing financial security. I fear the possibility of deteriorating health or failing mental abilities. I fear becoming dependent on loved ones. I fear becoming depressed as my father did after his retirement. The best that I can do in facing those fears is to focus on that over which I have control.

I have also come to see that my retirement has been an adjustment for my wife and children. Thankfully I am blessed with a solid marital relationship but, for over 40 years, my wife would go about her business each day with she and I reconnecting when I cam home usually after 7 PM. My children, too, have understood the importance of work in my life and so, from a distance, are watching as we adjust.

I have had to take a hard look at myself. I knew I would need some structure to my days, in large part because that was what I was used to. As a recovering addict, I had to remind myself how dangerous boredom can be. I have had to face the likelihood that I did not manage the stress of my work as well as I thought I had been. That has been humbling.

I have known too many people who found themselves bored and lonely in retirement. As one retired executive told me, “I feel like I’m just sitting around waiting to die.”

The challenge for me and for all who retire willingly or unwillingly is summed up by Gandalf:

Reflection: If you are retired, what learnings can you share from that journey.

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged | 6 Comments

Heroes: Henry Aaron

Baseball season is in full force and my Red Sox are struggling. But I continue to embrace baseball with the enthusiasm that I learned to nurture early in recovery. From my love of baseball, I have also acquired a number of heroes — men whom for various reasons I deeply admire. They have ranged from Red Schoendienst to Cool Papa Bell. The example of each of these men taught me valuable life lessons. Perhaps the best known of the men of baseball who have impacted my life is Henry Aaron.

Henry Aaron rose up from poverty in Mobile Alabama to become one of the greatest ballplayers of all time. He also endured incredible racism. The racism he experienced early in his career was unfortunately common. As one writer noted after he received an MVP award for his season with the Jacksonville Braves: “Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations.”. Aaron had many painful memories form his early career. He recalled, for example, eating in a restaurant in Washington DC then hearing kitchen staff smash the plates after he and his fellow ballplayers had eaten.

But the worst experience of racism came later in his career. It became apparent in 1973 that Henry Aaron had a shot at breaking one of the most sacred of baseball records — Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714. As Aaron closed in on the record, he received much support but also received ugly racist taunts. Many included threats to his life and that of his family. The 1973 season ended with Aaron one homerun short of tying Ruth’s record.

Babe Ruth was perhaps the most popular baseball payer ever. And he was white. Aaron was not the first ballplayer to have the potential to surpass a beloved Ruth record. In 1961, Yankee Roger Maris approached breaking Ruth’s record of 60 homeruns in a season. Maris too received threats but not with the racist undertones faced by Aaron.

Yet Aaron conducted himself with quiet dignity and did not complain or expect special treatment. In the early 1974 season, he tied Ruth’s record. Then on April 8, he faced Al Downing of the Dodgers and broke Ruth’s record. The great sportscaster Vin Scully spoke to the significance of the moment:

“What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron … And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.”

I saw that moment on television and treasure the image of Henry Aaron circling the bases, shaking off two fans whom he feared might be attacking him. I also saw Henry Aaron in person years later when attending a ballgame of the Milwaukee Brewers, the team where Aaron finished his career. Robin Yount was being honored but in attendance was Henry Aaron!

Aaron reflected further class and dignity when Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s own career record. Aaron graciously congratulated Bonds without mention of the steroid issue that has clouded Bonds’ career and homerun record.

Henry Aaron stands as a towering example not only of tremendous athletic gifts but of dignity and courage in the face of ugly racism.

And, yes, I consider Henry Aaron to be the TRUE all-time homerun king! Enjoy the moment.

Posted in spirituality | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Conspiracy Theories: A Spiritual Problem

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. People have long embraced conspiracy theories, most often in an effort to make sense of catastrophic events. Earlier in my lifetime, there were two prominent conspiracy theories, both of which are still around today. Those theories had to do with UFOs and with the assassination of President Kennedy. A major component of each theory had to do with our government withholding information.

Conspiracy theories often gain ground when some aspect is affirmed. Thus we now know that the government did indeed withhold information regarding UFOs. While suspicions about Area 51, for example, have been around since the days of Roswell, the governments’ acknowledgement of this top-secret site did not come about until the early 1990s. “See!” say the conspiracy theorists. Similarly the Watergate scandal affirmed that the government does indeed keep secrets. When, for example, J. Edgar Hoover’s secret list of “enemies” was made public, the conspiracy theorists said “See! What did I tell you?”

In the late 80s/early 90s, a prominent conspiracy theory involved Satanists using children in sexual ways. Amazingly, that theory has resurfaced and been given new force via the QAnon conspiracy theory which suggests that there is a pedophile sex ring of Satanists, many of whom are well-placed Democrats. Even more amazing is the Public Policy Polling result that 12 million Americans believe that our political leaders are actually alien lizards. 12 million!

Most of us usually dismiss conspiracy theories, finding them at times amusing, at times disturbing. Nowadays, however, conspiracy theories have taken a dark turn such that some proponents of QAnon have been elected to Congress and a former President has given conspiracy theories considerable traction.

Conspiracy theories evolve from the human need to make sense of things, to be able to answer the age-old question of “Why?” This spiritual question is one with which religions also struggle. For many, the typical answer of “It’s a mystery” is unsatisfactory. Similarly, the common religious response of “It must be God’s will” is not a comfort. Thus, many people seek out other explanations.

Clearly many spiritual principles such as “Love your neighbor as yourself” are at odds with the tenets of modern conspiracy theories, which especially these days foster an “Us vs. them” attitude. Again there is nothing really new about that were it not for the fact that conspiracy theorists are taking roles in our government.

Our churches and religions have little to say about conspiracy theories even though my own Catholic Church has been guilty of a conspiracy of silence in the past. Our church leaders may believe there is nothing to say about theories such as QAnon. But there is something to say about treating our fellow men and women with suspicion and judgment. There is something to be said about the absence of intelligent dialogue around divisive issues such as abortion and immigration. And there definitely is something to be said about consistency between my religious and my political beliefs. The Bible may have nothing to say about Lizard People but it has plenty to say about not judging those who believe differently.

Guidance in terms of a Christian political response needs to come from our religious leaders and needs to be followed up in the pulpit. Our priests’ sermons need to speak more to the toxic political environment in which we live and how to negotiate it. Most especially, the link between conspiracy theories and the “Why?” question needs to be explored more openly. And, yes, so-called Christians espousing conspiracy theories such as QAnon need to be confronted.

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , | Leave a comment