El Paso

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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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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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On Spring Training

As a counselor, I believe one of my most important tasks is to help people find hope. Hope in themselves and their inner resources or hope that something positive outside them such as a Higher Power. These days it seems to be a precious commodity.

For some time, baseball has been a metaphor for me for all kinds of life events. Its artistry inspires my creativity. Its moments of poetry leave me wondrous. Moments of deep failure lead to reflection on how I deal with my own failures. I can even reflect on the Biblical theme of scapegoats (Remember Bill Buckner? Steve Bartman?) And of course, as George Carlin reminds us, we all have a desire to be safe at home.

Baseball gives me a metaphor for hope for hope springs eternal for all baseball fans when spring training arrives. We all start the new season with hope for our team, even if our team came out on top the previous year. We especially welcome the new season with hope when our team came oh so close. And yes those of us who have rooted for teams that finished in last place yet still believe. Spring training is a time of hope.

Spring training represents a new start. It represents a time to assess what wounds have healed. It may be a time to assess whether it’s time to move into a new phase of my life. As a poet once said, there may be nothing more poignant than an aging ball player playing past his time, unable to let go of one more chance at glory.

There is success in spring training but also much failure. Recall that more players go back to the minor leagues than make the team. Some never make it back. Spring training, after all, is a place of dreams. Players dream of making the team, of having a good year, of winning the World Series. Hope sustains our dreams.

Yes, baseball success is a trivial issue in comparison with hoping for the cure to an illness or relief from poverty or even finding a job. I approached baseball originally because it was an unimportant way to help me rediscover enthusiasm. The same may be true of hope.

So as spring training gets under way, whether you are a baseball fan or not, take the time to reflect on where you are as far as hope is concerned, recalling that perhaps more than anything else hope is life-affirming. Come on! Play ball!

In that spirit, enjoy John Fogarty’s “Center Field”

REFLECTION: 1. How is your level of hope? For what are you hoping?



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Of Walls and Politics and WWJD

El Paso is a most interesting place to live in these days. This past Monday we had the President here defending his Wall. In the nearby town of Tornillo we have migrant children separated from their families. Just down the street from my office we have migrants being force-fed as they undertake a hunger strike. We have a young articulate Democrat being touted as a Presidential candidate. So it goes.

We appear to be living in a spiritual vacuum. Participation in organized religion is decreasing, especially among young people. Hate crimes continue. The Bible is used to justify all kinds of political stances. And many, many of us simply shake our heads, not sure of what to do or who to believe.

You may remember a fad several years ago where people would wear bracelets with the letters WWJD, standing for What Would Jesus Do. These days I find myself thinking a lot about that question — What Would Jesus Do or Say?

I suspect first of all that Jesus would be appalled when people use his message to justify all kinds of actions, especially war. He would be appalled by the prevalence of hate crimes and the justification of such crimes by so-called Christian principles. He would be saddened by evidence of extreme self-involvement and attitudes of entitlement among the young.

But what would he do? Your own answer to that question is important these days because it will point you toward whatever political stance you feel compelled to take. I am not so presumptuous as to claim that I can read Jesus’ mind so I have to try to answer that question for myself based on the evidence of his words and actions.

Here in El Paso Jesus would be out at the Tornillo camp giving plates of tortillas and beans to the children. He would also listen with compassion to the guards frustrated with the enormity of the task.

Jesus very well might picket an abortion clinic but he would also approach with compassion the young teenager as she left that clinic post-abortion.

Jesus would protest any form of war while at the same time reaching out to warriors wounded in body, mind, and spirit.

Jesus would confront politicians acting in ways against his message while at the same time reminding us to love our enemies and to pray for them. Jesus confronted and even became aggressive in the face of people using their positions to enrich themselves but he also had compassion for the merchants, the tax collectors, even the Roman soldiers who wanted to believe there is a better way.

Jesus would stroke the brow of a person dying of AIDS. He would reach out to the young man or woman considering suicide rather than tell a parent he or she is gay. He would be at the El Paso bus station passing out bottles of water to migrants left there by the Border Patrol. He would sit with the Border Patrol agent in turmoil because his own parents were immigrants.

Jesus would reassure the victim of clergy abuse that they did no wrong and would want them to heal. And yes he would confront the church officials who covered up for the abusers. And yes he would forgive the abuser.

What do YOU say Jesus would do?


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