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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Lessons Learned from AIDS

In a magazine this week, I read that this year marks the 30th anniversary of a film titled Longtime Companion, a powerful film that was the first addressing of the AIDS crisis by Hollywood. It is a great film that is hard to find these days. But the memory of that film brought me back to that time, a time of great learning for me as I counseled patients diagnosed with AIDS.

It all started with a phone call. A local Unitarian minister called me in 1987 to ask if I would be willing to counsel a man diagnosed with AIDS. Keep in mind that in those days it was still unclear as to what caused AIDS so I guess not too many counselors were up to the task. Thankfully I said yes and that led to a remarkble relationship of 12 years with a man who taught me a lot about embracing life and about faith. I then started to work with patients referred from the Southwest AIDS Committee. That work changed me. So I’d like to share with you some of the most profound lessons.

I recall a man of faith who, when I asked him “How do you want to face this?” said quite simply “I want to look forward to stepping into the light.” A man of great energy and enthusiasm who consistently won the title of Miss El Paso, he accomplished his goal and honored me by asking me to deliver his eulogy.

I recall a 12 year old boy, a son of a minister, who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. When I spoke with him alone I praised him for his knowledge of his illness and asked if he had any questions. With no note of hostility he said “Yes, I have a question. Why did God do this to me? I didn’t do drugs. I haven’t had sex with anyone. Why did this happen?” How does one answer such a question?

I recall visiting with a man on his deathbed. While I was there he received a call from his estranged daughter and spoke angrily to her. When he hung up, I asked him how he wanted to deal with his daughter. He sighed then said “I want to gently help her heal.” He was able to accomplish some of that before he left.

I think of numerous partners holding a loved one’s hand as he or she endured the death throes of a horrible illness. Some of those couples were the most loving I’ve ever met.

And I think of that first client. He would share with me various sources of joy he had found. Once he brought some canaries and I sat in wonder as their chirping melded into the birds gently singing together. When I visited him in the hospital near the end, he allowed me to sit silently with him and hold his hand. He honored me by asking me to read his final words at his funeral. I’d like to share a few of those words with you:

“I know what I am doing right now. In forms unknown, in places not conceived I am singing with the simplicity and fervor of the canaries I raised. Singing a hymn to what is….Once again singing with loved ones that went before me. I also know that if you listen very carefully you will be able to hear me singing…I also know that I will be able to hear and resonate with your own unique singing. That unique song of yours is the best gift you could ever give me, yourself, and your universe. Awake and sing!”

AIDS nowadays can be controlled and science may be close to a cure. Amen to that! But to the many whom I met on the journey who did not benefit from those advances, I say a deeply felt thank you for lessons learned.

Let me leave you with this beautiful tribute from “And the Band Played On”, sung by Elton John.

 

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The Legacy of D-Day

On this date 75 years ago a dramatic assault by Allied troops against the Nazi regime was undertaken with the invasion of Normandy beaches. This event has been often retold in books and movies. Stephen Ambrose’s book on D-Day, the book and movie series Band of Brothers, the movie Saving Private Ryan have all retold the story of that dramatic day and have all heralded both the heroism and massive losses.

Yet it was still war and war wounds not only bodies but minds and spirits. People by and large don’t like to be reminded of the suffering men and women endure in the name of serving one’s country in battle. We prefer the Hollywood versions were there is victory and rousing welcomes home. We don’t like to be reminded of the depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicides that result from the horrible burden of war.

And now the news tells us that the government sabers are rattling, even as we are still embroiled in destructive other wars. Yes, we are more aware of PTSD. Yes we are keeping count of 22 daily veteran suicides. Yet we still turn to war and violence as solutions.

I want to share with you the testimony of actor Charles Durning, a marvelous man of talent whom I especially enjoyed in Tootsie and in True Confessions. He also was a veteran of the Normandy invasion. His testimony speaks to the scars men and women must endure. You can see the anguish on his face and hear it in his voice.

We as a people must stand against war to protect our sons and daughters from carrying such wounds for the rest of their lives. May the courage and suffering of D-Day remind us that, finally, enough is enough. War no more!

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On Memorial Day

Please this weekend reach out to combat veterans grieving the multiple losses of war. Reach out to families who have lost a veteran loved one to suicide. And pray loud and strong “War no more!”

Psyche and Spirit/Richard B. Patterson PhD

I am not a combat veteran, a fact that I communicate to the many combat veterans I see through my work. However, as one vet reminded me before giving me a hug, I am a veteran and so I am a brother.

For many veterans, this is a very difficult weekend where memories they don’t like to recall crowd in. Friends killed before their eyes. Dying children. Word of another vet committing suicide.

My many hours with these heroic men and women have convinced me of the evils of war. There has got to be a better way to settle our differences yet I fear that Plato was right when he wrote “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

I deal with men and women whose minds and spirits have been battered by war. I have dealt with some who considered ending their lives or even attempted it…

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A Mother’s Final Lesson

Mothers’ Day is one of my favorite holidays. It can be hard for those who didn’t have a mother or mother figure. It can be hard for those whose mother was not loving. It is hard for those of us whose mothers are gone. Nonetheless, it is a day to celebrate mothers and to be grateful if we were blessed with a loving mother. And it can be a time to pause and reflect on lessons learned.

Mind you, my mother and I did not have a perfect relationship. For example, she was a master of the Silent Treatment whenever she got upset with any of us. It would be most uncomfortable, especially when it went on for weeks.

I did learn a lot from my mother, especially about faith. But I also learned some things about facing death.

On December 7, 1994 my mother called from the hospital. She had been the primary caretaker of my father since his stroke earlier that year. My father was never an easy person to take care of so when she began to allude to stomach pain I was sure it was stress. So I wasn’t surprised when she said they had diagnosed an ulcer. But then she added “And a tumor”. My quick research into stomach cancer indicated it was usually diagnosed late and therefore did not have a good prognosis.

She was 81 at the time and chose to forego chemotherapy, a decision I supported. Not knowing how much longer she would last, I made plans to head back East, especially after a friend who’d lost a daughter to cancer said “Don’t wait too long.” Thus began her final lesson.

I had spent time with people facing terminal illnesses and had learned much from them. I wanted very much to be there when my mother passed. But she held on. Finally one evening it dawned on me. Very stoic, she was determined to face death alone. I asked her “You want to go it alone, don’t you?” Slowly she nodded and said “Yep.” I realized that she was the one doing the dying and so she was the one, not me, who had the right to make that decision.

The next day, however, she apparently rethought it. She called at 6AM saying “I think I’m going to beat this!” However, by the time I got to the hospital she had again lost ground. Thankfully her doctor showed up and reminded her that he was doing nothing to support fighting. After he left I asked my mother “Are you wanting to fight for yourself or for Dad and Rob (my brother) and me?” She immediately said “Why for you guys of course.” I challenged her. “Mom you’ve lived your whole life for others. For once I want you to make a decision for yourself.” She paused and thought then said “If it’s for me, then I’m ready to go.”

But she had one more card up her sleeve. The next day when I came in, she seemed surprised. “What are you doing still here?” she asked. She apparently thought it was Christmas. I looked at her and said “Mom are you trying to stay alive through Christmas?” “Why of course” she said. “I don’t want to spoil everyone’s Christmas.” I argued that I didn’t want her suffering any more. But my mother was stubborn.

My mother slipped into a coma on Christmas night. I called the hospital and had them tell her we’d had a good Christmas. She hung in there for one last visit with my father on the 28th then let go. She was ready to “go and see my girls”. I like to think she had a joyful reunion that day with the two sisters I never knew.

My mother took leave with stoic dignity. Out of love, she hung on for several days, a final act of self-sacrifice out of love. And most especially she took leave in faith, negotiating the time with her Lord so that her beloved children and grandchildren could celebrate Christmas and knowing that she would be reunited with long-gone loved ones.

Reflection: Do you have any particular lessons you’d like to share that you learned from your mother or mother-figure?

 

 

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On Finding the Sacred in the Secular

I have come to believe that one does not have to go to a church, synagogue, or mosque to encounter the Sacred. This picture is one I took of one of the most beautiful cathedrals I have ever experienced — Yosemite Valley. The awareness of God’s presence there was much more real and profound than anything I’ve ever experienced in a Church. Such grandeur knows no religion yet is a wondrous celebration of God’s creation.

As I contemplate this cathedral, however, the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel echo in the background: “The road to the sacred leads through the secular.” Heschel’s works suggest that not only is God’s grandeur manifested in Yosemite Valley but also in the people, places, and things I encounter every day in El Paso, my hometown.

In theory I believe all this. After all, Jesus said “The Kingdom of God is within you”, a reminder that the Sacred can be found in each of us. A beautiful thought but one with which I struggle. Why? In part because I am an introvert drawn to the inner path to the Sacred. But I struggle more because I have come to see within myself that I don’t like people very much. I believe we are a troublesome species that has made a mess of things. We people are responsible for everything from wars to poverty to plastic clogging the ocean.

Like my business partner you might be thinking “Isn’t working as a psychologist kind of strange for someone who says he doesn’t like people?” Perhaps. I concluded several years ago, however, that I didn’t have to like someone to be of help to them. This conclusion was very liberating. Rather than be distracted by not liking someone and trying to make myself like them, I could relax and listen without judgment. In some ways, I have come to see that my task is to help each person uncover and listen to the Sacred within him or herself.

I am not naively optimistic about people. We — all of us __ are capable of horrendous evil. We all have a dark side. Thus to believe that everyone I meet has some Sacredness within can be a great challenge. Yet that is what we are called to attempt when we are challenged to love our enemies.

I took all these thoughts with me today on my Good Friday prayer walk. My thoughts got pretty noisy and confused until a favorite Psalms passage came to me: “Be still and know that I am God.” And so I continued quietly on, simply enjoying a warm beautiful El Paso afternoon.

I know there is Sacredness in the people I love and the people I admire. I know there is Sacredness in many of the people who come to me for help. But then I had a thought that jolted me: “But what is Sacred within you?” I struggled with that thought for the rest of my walk. I have written and talked about the importance of loving oneself. It is humbling to be reminded of how difficult that can be. I ended up with a paraphrase of Jesus’ words: “See the Sacred in your neighbor as well as in yourself.” Amen to that!

Reflection: 1. Where do you experience the Sacred in your life?

2. What is Sacred within you?

 

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On The Coalition of Callousness

Writing in 1962, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used the phrase “coalition of callousness” when describing a major societal impediment to social consciousness. He reiterated this concept in his efforts to encourage others to protest both racial inequality and the Viet Nam War, challenging people to be wary of “the evil of indifference”.

I wonder what Rabbi Heschel would say about these times. I believe he would see that societal callousness has acquired several more layers of thickness since he first wrote those words. I believe he would be alarmed by the wide-spread evil of indifference. I believe he would see the Wall as a literal layer of callousness. He would challenge the encouragement of inequality that underlies that wall. He viewed us as called to embracing equality and noted that it is more that a virtue. Says Heschel “Equality as a religious commandment means personal involvement (emphasis his) fellowship, mutual reverence, and concern.”

Rabbi Heschel would challenge us first to look within to confront our own callousness and indifference, perhaps even our own latent or blatant racism. He would challenge us to confront our own fears. He would challenge religious professionals to not take the easy way and dish out comfort and rationalization. As he said “Religion may comfort the afflicted but it must also afflict the comfortable.”

I don’t believe there are easy answers to the current migrant issue, for example. What I do know is that Christianity as I understand it would stand in opposition to “the coalition of callousness” and would challenge politicians or even religious professionals who tolerate if not foster that coalition.

Ultimately if I am to call myself Christian, I am called to ask myself “Have you become callous? Indifferent? Have you excused yourself because the problems seem too big?” This applies not only to my response to the major social issues of the day but to the manner in which I respond to those around me, even to my loved ones. If I am callous with or indifferent toward those I care about, then how much more so will I be in response to others outside my circle?

Heschel would say that, if these questions make me uncomfortable, I am on the right track.

Reflection: 1. In what ways am I callous? Indifferent?

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