The Best Is Yet To Be: Spiritual Challenges of Growing Old

“Grow old along with me/The best is yet to be.” So wrote poet Robert Browning to his beloved Elizabeth. It is a warm sentiment that can be a comfort to those of us facing old age. In contrast, though, to that beautiful sentiment stands my mother’s observation: “Growing old is not for the feint-hearted.”

     Aging presents the obvious physical challenges of health problems. It presents the mental problems of fading mental abilities. It can present emotional challenges to include depression. But growing old also brings with it some powerful spiritual challenges.

     The Bible clearly calls us to honor our elderly and to care for them. There is even the poignant missive to be patient with repeated questions and stories, a lesson taught to me by my 95-year-old Aunt Peg. I went to see her at the nursing home where she spent her last days. At one point she asked ‘Richard, how old are you?” I was 48 at the time. When I told her that, she threw her arms up and said with her lyrical Irish accent “Oh my goodness!” A few minutes later she asked the same question and had the same reaction. And then again one more time before the visit ended.

     The greatest emotional/spiritual challenge of growing old is fear. Some fear the afterlife. Others fear the process of dying. Most fear becoming disabled to include the loss of mental capacity. Sadly, most elderly folks don’t have an outlet for voicing that fear.

     The Christianity of my youth was heavy on sin and damnation. As such, the idea of death was accompanied by a great deal of fear. Some of us never get beyond that fear-based spiritual world. I’m fairly sure my father struggled with that. Before dementia set in, he told me his belief that his strokes were punishment for his sins.

     Most, however, are more afraid of becoming disabled. It is not uncommon for me to meet with someone who has experienced a recent memory lapse that has them frightened that they are on the road to dementia. Some fear becoming a burden to children. Others fear abandonment in a nursing home. Many fear losing their past and their sense of identity. After all, we are all made up of our stories and to lose connection with those stories can feel like another terrifying form of death.

     Growing old can also bring into sharp focus wounds that need to heal. I see many Viet Nam veterans who fear they are going crazy because events of 50 years ago are coming up in their memories. It is no coincidence that these wounds arise after retirement because veterans now have time on their hands and wounds that were set aside so that a veteran could work and raise a family now demand equal time.

     Other wounds may involve regrets. We all have them. When we grow old and our health begins to fail, the tomorrows that we long counted on no longer are there. Whatever we put off until tomorrow now seems out of reach.

     We may regret choices made or at least find ourselves reflecting on certain choice points with energy spent on wondering “What if?” We all know we can’t change the past but that thought doesn’t automatically eliminate regrets and what if questions but we often in old age are at least curious about the what ifs? Sadly, though, many elderly spend time berating themselves not so much with what ifs but with I-should have-nevers. “I should have never gotten married.” “I should have never dropped out of school”. “I should have never taken that job.” These and others are some of the regrets I hear others voice as they age.

     Given the elusiveness of the idea of God’s will, I have also dealt with some who fear that they did not live out God’s will for them. The question of purpose is an important one that overlaps with one’s understanding of God’s will. If I am in my 70s and believe I never figured out what God’s will is for me, I can become afraid, especially if I believe God’s will to be narrowly defined.

     I remember talking to one woman who found it comforting when I suggested to her that perhaps God’s will for us is painted in broad strokes rather than specifics. I told her that, in my own case, I believed that God put me here for a reason and that was to be of service to others. I shared that I didn’t believe that God was particularly invested in me practicing psychology in El Paso TX.

     One’s sense of God’s will can also be challenged by retirement. The only piece of advice I have for people considering retirement is “Make sure you’re moving toward something and not just away from something.” Many folks retire and their sense of purpose comes to a jarring halt leading to anxiety and depression. God is not done with us just because we retire!

     Growing old may also challenge people when they realize they are angry with God. Some, when faced with a life-threatening illness such as Parkinson’s, may feel an outcry such as “I’ve tried to live a good life. I’ve gone to Church, raised my children in the Church, tried to honor the Commandments. This isn’t fair!” The harsh reality is that living a “good” life does not guarantee a peaceful, illness-free leave-taking. That harsh reality makes some angry. That anger can be especially troublesome if the person judges himself/herself for being angry with God.

     We may also be angry with God when we helplessly watch an elderly loved one suffer. There are many Christians out there who are angry at the God they believe has permitted COVID and allowed it to strike down an aging loved one.

     As we grow old, we may also be confronted with doubts, especially regarding an afterlife. As one person asked me, “Suppose there’s nothing there?” Some have lived their lives enduring suffering to include the loss of loved ones by finding comfort in the thought of an afterlife where suffering ends and we are reunited with loved ones. As the end gets close, some struggle with a fear generated by a sudden doubt about the reality of after-life.

     Others may fear that spiritual choices they made along the way will prove to be wrong. I have long believed that it is all right, even necessary, to feel anger toward God. One woman of deep spirituality who had tragically lost a son listened, nodded, then said “But suppose you’re wrong?” I paused and said “Well, if so, then I guess when I got to board the bus to Hell there be a lot of people waiting for me with clubs and tire irons!” But privately her challenge has stayed with me.

     Finally, there is the spiritual challenge, especially during this time of COVID, of isolation. Some spiritual lives are enriched by community. As we age and become disabled, access to community can be limited. As one woman said, “I miss hugging my friends. I miss singing together.” Old age can cut us off from our spiritual communities.

     Some cultures continue to honor their elderly and view them as a resource for wise counsel. Sadly, our American industrial achievement-oriented society seems to have moved away from that.

     Have you ever had the benefit of sitting with an old person and listening to their stories? I remember my great Aunt Margaret talking about being in Paris when Lindbergh landed or seeing Babe Ruth play baseball. But I especially remember when she asked me about the Viet Nam War. “What do you think of this war, Richard?” I responded to her that I thought it was a bad war. “So do I” she said. Then she slowly shook her head and added “So many young men.” I realized then that my Aunt Margaret had lived through 5 wars counting Viet Nam and so had seen too much loss of life. It remains the finest anti-war sentiment I’ve ever heard.

     Listening to an old person’s stories takes time and a little bit of patience because some stories do get repeated. I’ve had the privilege have sitting with elderly people and learning what it was like to be a black man in the Army in the Second World War. I’ve heard what it was like to grow up in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood yet crossing paths with Jackie Robinson at Church on Sunday. I’ve heard stories of incredible courage in the face of combat. I’ve heard the stories of a friend who survived Auschwitz and went on to become a psychologist. The value of being old even came to me once when I walked into the therapy room to see a new client and she smiled and burst out with “Thank God you’re not young!” She went on to explain that she wanted to speak with someone who had lived life long enough to mistrust simple answers and formulaic solutions.

     Mark Twain once said “Age is a question of mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” We may not be able to change the fact that we age but we always have a choice as to how we face it.

     As I continue in my own old age journey, then, I will treasure the words from Job: “Those who are older should speak for wisdom comes with old age” and will rejoice and hold my head high with the Proverb: “Gray hair is a crown of glory.”

Reflection: What are your thoughts on growing old? Has that fact challenged you spiritually?

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Unanswered Prayer

My brother asked me an interesting question the other day. “What is the most frequent unanswered prayer?”, he asked. His opinion is that the most frequent unanswered prayer is “Lord, let me win the lottery.” He might be right.

I remember some years ago there was a Garth Brooks song about unanswered prayers. Garth runs into an old high school girlfriend at a football game and recalls how, when they were younger, he’d prayed for God to make that girl his. Garth doesn’t elaborate on why. He’s just glad God didn’t answer that prayer.

In the same vein, I prayed for a pony for Christmas when I was five. That was my earliest experience with unanswered prayer.

Sadly, both personally and professionally, I’ve had far more serious experiences with unanswered prayer. Personally, I wonder if the most frequent unanswered prayer is “Lord, heal my loved one from this illness” or even “He/she has suffered enough, Lord. Please take him/her.”

Similarly, I have sat with good people and listen to them question the quality of their prayer. “Maybe I didn’t pray correctly or maybe I didn’t pray enough”, agonized one woman when trying to grasp the death of her daughter from cancer.

And yet I continue to believe in prayer. I pray every day for the health and safety of my loved ones. And so anyone who believes in prayer has to also come to terms with the reality of unanswered prayers.

The most common explanation has to do with God’s will. This position holds that everything happens for a reason. However, that reason may not be clear and in fact may never become clear. This was the explanation my mother held in the face of the deaths of her mother and my two sisters. It is the explanation held by a man dying of Gehrig’s disease. It is an answer that takes great courage and faith to embrace.

Others would argue that some of the bad things that happen in life are not God’s doing. This is the position suggested by Rabbi Kushner in his wonderful book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. This positions argues instead that God does not cause all tragedies but is there for us in the midst of those tragedies.

Still others argue that God does not run a candy store where He/She doles out goodies. Rather, they argue, prayer allows us to experience God and especially God’s love in a direct manner.

There are those who say that God is not involved in the day-to-day details of our lives. Thus, there is no point in praying that God help me find a parking spot in the Walmart parking lot. As George Burns as God says in the film Oh God, “I worry about the Big Picture and leave the details to you all.”

And finally there are those who give up on prayer and God completely because of an unanswered prayer

I don’t have an answer. At this point, I rather doubt that God is involved in the outcome of a lottery or, for that matter, in the outcome of a sporting event. (I am convinced that many Red Sox fans believe that Dave Roberts stealing second base in the 2004 playoffs against the Yankees and turning the tide in favor of the Red Sox was an answer to prayer!) And yet prayer does seem to have some power to it. Perhaps as Abraham Joshua Heschel said “Prayer doesn’t save us but it makes us worth saving.” Perhaps when I take a prayerful attitude, I may more easily embrace the need for me to stop trying to control that over which I am powerless. And, for certain, I know when I pray I am more strongly centered in the love I have for others. That alone makes prayer worthwhile.

Reflection: How do you deal with the reality of unanswered prayers?

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The Catholicism of My Youth

I still consider myself Catholic but a very different one from the Catholic I was as a youth. That Catholicism was heavily based on guilt and fear with a great emphasis on sin. At some point during my efforts to read the Bible, it occurred to me that perhaps a fear and guilt-based faith was not what Jesus had in mind. Perhaps He wanted to establish something based more on love and compassion.

For many years, I used my grade-school experiences as an excuse for why I was ambivalent about Catholicism. I was reminded of that recently while reading through a book written by the brother of a friend. The author was discussing his days at St. Paul grade school and mentioned a nun he recalled fondly. When I read her name, I froze. My experiences had not been anywhere near as pleasant with this same nun who was my eighth grade teacher.

Organized religion can at times wound us, a reality that can be testified to in recovery programs. I too have heard stories in the therapy room of persons reaching out to a Catholic professional for help only to receive judgment instead. In my own case, I recall being labelled “a leader in badness”. And I recall a fourth-grade classmate being forced to kneel in his urine after the nun refused to allow him to use the restroom.

On the other hand, I have also heard of religious professionals offering wonderful healing. I think of a young woman dying of cancer who wanted to make peace with God and the Church, in part because of an abortion in her past. The priest I referred her to welcomed her with compassion. She died at peace with her Church and her God.

Confession was a big part of the Catholicism of my youth, given its emphasis on sin. I can recall a few confessors who were compassionate but many were also indifferent, even bored. Nonetheless, those times of compassion and welcome stand out as I have moved on from the Catholicism of my youth. But in my memory those dark cubicles were just a little scary.

There were a few moments of enlightenment that helped. When I took a break from Catholicism, I saw that many of the writers I admire — C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Henri Nouwen among others — were not afraid to question their own faith. My involvement in dealing with the sexual abuse crisis dramatically confronted me with the humanness, fallibility, even dishonesty of my Church and convinced me that perhaps renewal was needed.

As I reflect on painful memories from grade school, I realize first of all that I wasn’t exactly an easy child to deal with. My ADHD issues created multiple behavioral challenges for teachers such that I spent a lot of time sitting right in front of the teacher or even out in the hallway. Telling a nun to go to hell was not exactly a moment of passivity.

But I also recall the words of a priest I knew in Indiana when I asked him how Catholics could heal from wounds received by nuns at Catholic grade schools. He smiled and said “Maybe that person needs to stop blaming well-meaning old women for their current spiritual struggles.”

As some face the Catholicism of their youth, they may make the brave decision to follow a different spiritual path rather than cling out of guilt to the past. Still others remain spiritual while rejecting organized religion.

The Catholicism of my youth was flawed and at times abusive, traits shared with other religious traditions. But I choose not to live in fear and guilt and to focus instead on aspiring to Jesus’ call to compassion and forgiveness. Yes, sin exists and I am as big a sinner as anyone I know. But I like to think that I am forgiven and that, rather than dwelling on the fears of hell, I need to focus on today.

Reflection: 1. How does the faith of your youth impact your current spiritual journey?

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , | 1 Comment

On the Power of Family

Years ago when I was going through a bad time, my father said something simple that has stayed with me: “Don’t forget. We’re all in this together.” It was a simple statement about the power of family and the longing we all have to feel that connection of family.

Beyond having a built-in support system for troubled times, family gives us also a sense of belonging and connection. It can give us a sense of home. Not just physical home but emotional and spiritual home.

The connections of family also give us the sense of connection that comes with our history. The stories that our grandparents tell are also our stories. But that comment points us in another direction. I never knew my grandmothers and both my grandfathers were dead by the time I was 7. So I did not have that particular sense of connection that crosses generations.

Too many wounded ones have had a negative even traumatic family experience. Instead of sharing, stories, and laughter, their memories of family are of drunkenness or violence or neglect. Like Newt at the end of Lonesome Dove, when asked about family, some will say “I have no family”.

And yet the longing remains. Some of us seek out family connections in other ways. We may make connections that fill some of our needs for family. I was able to meet some of my longing for a grandparent through a much loved aunt and uncle. Others have at least partially met the need for a loving parent through a grandparent, other relative, even a teacher or coach. Those raised as an only child meet their longing for a sibling through friendships or relationships with extended family members.

Others find their longing for family met in part through membership. Some years ago I met with a veteran who was very happy to learn I too am a veteran. I clarified for him that I am not a combat veteran. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re a brother.”

Some of those memberships, though, can be harmful. Some try to find family through gangs. Others may be pulled into cults where the promise of family is the lure. Indeed one cult is known as the Children of God but also as The Family. Still others may find themselves staying in harmful relationships with the hope that eventually healing will happen and a sense of family will be established.

We can nurture and enrich that sense of family by first of all staying in touch. When I moved away from home, I called my parents every other week. Now, with four children living far away, I can’t wait to touch base with them each week and so wish I’d been more attentive to my own parents.

We can try to honestly heal any wounds or resentments that may put a breach between family members. I was a not an easy person to have as a brother and so have tried to heal my relationship with my own brother enough so that I can be there for him during this current time of illness.

We can reach out to others to meet some familial needs. I definitely have a sense of a grandparent’s love when I think of my aunt’s peanut butter cookies or my uncle’s wonderful stories of life as a fireman.

Finally take the time to do a little ancestry research. I remember being at a museum for emigrants in Ireland and seeing a replica of one of the ships that carried emigrants to America. My ancestors would have travelled on such ships. I was deeply moved as I reflected on the suffering they went through on those ships, the uncertainty that awaited them, and the struggles to make a new life for themselves and their families., struggles which, just two generations later, would benefit me. If you have older family members, take the time to listen to their stories and even to record those stories. After all, their story is your story.

The sense of the power of story, connection, and family was captured beautifully by Alex Haley’s Roots as well as by the subsequent two television specials dramatizing that story. This excerpt reflects the end of his journey when he located the African village from which his ancestor Kunta Kinte was from. There are two parts of this excerpt that especially move me. At one point, a villager speaks to Alex Haley (played by the great actor James Earl Jones) and says (through a translator): “We are you and you are us.” Later Haley has an encounter with another African man. The emotion felt when Haley realizes he has found family is powerful.

Reflection: Take some time to reflect on your own sense of family in positive and negative ways. How does this affect your sense of who you are?

Posted in spirituality | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

On Successful Marriages

I’ve been married to my wife for a long time. You can tell by the halo above her head. As such, people will sometimes ask “How did you do it?” Much research has been done and many books written on that subject. Here are a few things we’ve learned on this most amazing journey.

Successful relationship appear to be based on four foundations: good communication, mutual respect, a good sex life, and a spiritual connection.

I’d sum up good communication to consist of fair fighting, openness of feelings, and especially listening.

Couples argue, sometimes with anger. That’s not the problem. A good fight is intended to solve a problem. Unfortunately couples get off track by such things as name-calling, dragging in the past, and interrupting. Fair fighting is not necessarily calm fighting but it is based on finding a solution, not on winning or being right. A good fight results in a mutually acceptable solution.

Openness of feelings is an area with which I struggle. I grew up believing that anger was wrong. I also grew up being exposed to the power of the silent treatment. As such, learning to be open about what I feel remains a work in progress. I still keep a lot to myself. But being open with feelings, especially anger, reduces the likelihood of the greatest danger to relationships–resentments. We all have them but, left unhealed, they are toxic.

Some years ago a woman came to see me. After a brief statement of why she was there, I launched into a diatribe on what I thought the problem was and how to fix it. After a few moments of that, she politely lifted her hand and said “Would you please be quiet and listen to me” When listening stops, communication stops.

Mutual respect means that I honor my spouse’s physical integrity avoiding violence. It means that I do not say things that I know will hurt. It means that I honor my spouse’s journey as just as important as mine. And it means that I honor the bond with fidelity.

I remember in a support meeting once hearing someone say “If God made something better than sex, He/She kept it for Himself/Herself.” A good mutually satisfying sex life is good for your physical and emotional health. It is built on being creative and on talking about sex. It remains amazing to me that many couples do not talk about sex. As such, it becomes difficult to know what each person finds pleasurable or uncomfortable. Similarly, sex can become automatic if it is not approached with a degree of creativity and adventure.

By spiritual foundation, I do not necessarily mean a shared religious practice, although that indeed can be part of a couple’s spiritual foundation. What I mean is that together the couple develops some shared sense of a higher power and some shared way of connecting with that higher power. The connection may be made through prayer but I have to say that I have also felt a deep spiritual connection with my wife as we stood on the shore of the Skelligs in Ireland or stood before the waterfalls of Yosemite.

A shared spiritual foundation also means that the couple help one another explore such powerful spiritual themes as meaning and purpose. It means that the relationship becomes a safe place for sharing questions and doubts. It is a place where fears can be named.

There are plenty of books out there for you to read. That’s fine but I’d encourage you also to reflect on your own relationship experiences to see what you have learned. After all, people who’ve weathered the storm and stayed together are the real experts.

Reflection: What are your own thoughts and experiences regarding good relationships? Do you know what your partner’s beliefs are about good relationships?

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

On the Music of Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin - The Final Concert (1981) - full concert - YouTube

Sadly many do not remember Harry Chapin. He was a singer/songwriter whom I first heard in the 1970s on PBS. Many of his songs were ballads — stories of people trying to face life. His story-songs ranged from one about a man running a motel to a DJ trying to reconnect with his family to a Dakota farmer awaiting his mail-order bride. His songs He also wrote a song set in my hometown of Scranton. Other singers such as Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen acknowledge his influence. His songs enriched my journey.

Harry, however, was more than an entertainer. He became very involved in social justice long before it become better known. He dedicated much of his life and craft to fighting hunger. His Harry Chapin Food Bank continues in its quest to end hunger. It is part of Harry’s legacy. Sadly Harry Chapin died in an auto accident in 1981.

Many of Harry’s songs had a powerful impact in my life. As with many fathers of that time, his song “Cat’s In The Cradle” challenged us all to examine our priorities.

One of my other favorite songs of his tells a heart-breaking story of a singer. The story of Mr. Tanner speaks to all of us who have chased a dream only to be disappointed. It also reminds me that there is a price to be paid for trying to be “successful”.

Music remains a central part of my spiritual journey. Harry Chapin blessed me along the way.

VIEWING: There is a recent documentary titled Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something. It covers his music as well as his work against hunger. Worth your time.

REFLECTION: Are there any particular singers who have graced your spiritual journey?

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

Facing The Dark Side: Spiritual Challenges of the Capitol Attack

United States Capitol - Wikipedia

I love our Capitol. I remember visiting it on a tour when I was a boy. I was awed by the statuary. I was excited to see Everett Dirkson on the Senate floor. Yes, I am aware that some scoundrels have served in Congress. And yes I am aware that some shameful legislation has been passed there. But to me it is nonetheless sacred. This week that sacred space has been desecrated and my heart is breaking.

Yesterday I was talking with a woman well-versed in the Twelve Step program. She was discussing some blaming she had been doing but then said “But if I name it, I have to wear it.” This was a reminder to me of the great spiritual challenge I am facing subsequent to the attack on the Capital.

Years ago, I wrote to the great psychologist Carl Rogers, arrogantly believing I had found a flaw in his theory centering around the therapist being angry with the client. He wrote back challenging me to face the judgment I was making of the client, in essence suggesting that I too was part of the problem.

All the spiritual approaches I embrace — from Carl Jung’s psychology (facing one’s Shadow) to the Twelve Step program (“If you’re pointing your finger at someone, just remember that the rest of your fingers are pointing back at you”) to Christianity “Love your enemy”) — now challenge me to face something that makes me shudder. I have to face and embrace the Donald Trump within me.

There are a number of people whom I dearly love and who are Trump supporters. I ask those people as well as other readers this: if you wish to respond to this posting in support of Donald Trump, I will read your words with respect. However, I would also respectfully point out to you what this posting challenges you to do — to look within and to find the Joe Biden within you.

Shadow work has been a challenge. Yes, I have tried to face the Darth Vader within me. I have tried to find within me that which I quickly judge in others. I can even acknowledge that, yes, there may be themes I have in common with the guy wearing the antlers or the other guy arrogantly sitting in Pelosi’s chair, a crumbled American flag nearby. (Do you hear my judgment sneaking in there?) But the idea of acknowledging common ground with Donald Trump repulses me. Yet that is what I am called to do if I truly believe the principles mentioned above.

I’ve come to see that doing Shadow work does not mean I am excusing someone’s behavior. God is a God of compassion but He/She is also a God of justice. And so those who invaded the Capitol as well as those who encouraged them to do so must all be held accountable.

And so as I reflect on Donald Trump, I have to face and admit my own arrogance. I have to face and admit that I too have coveted power. I have to admit that I too have lied to protect myself. I too have disrespected others to inflate my own ego. These are all character defects within me that I am called to face and heal. It would be much easier for me to settle into a place of anger and judgment.

Loving my enemy does not mean that I should start wearing a MAG hat. It does mean that I should pray for a man I find repulsive. It means I should pray for his healing and for him finding some inner peace. The words choke in my throat like swallowed sand. But then Shadow work or 12-step work or Christian practice are never really easy.

REFLECTION: How have the attacks on the Capitol affected you spiritually or otherwise?

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Christmas Truce Revisited

Once again this year my wife and I watched Joyeux Noel, a wonderful dramatization of what became known as the Christmas Truce. During World War I, men of all sides — German, French, and British — agreed to a truce on Christmas Eve. Amazingly, soldiers came out of the trenches and for too brief time were simply visitors sharing hymns, chocolate, and even a game of soccer. Sadly, they returned to their trenches, war resumed, and some of those men died.

It is a story that sounds too good to be true. Yet it did happen!

The many veterans I’ve come to know have helped me see that war becomes almost impossible when the soldier comes to see his/her Enemy as a person with a story, perhaps with a family. When a line is crossed and the Enemy becomes a person, the burden of war becomes almost intolerable. One man inventoried the belongings of a man he’d just killed and found a picture of this man with family. Another soldier recalls breaking into a house in search of an informant, spraying shattered glass over an infant and seeing the child’s mother react. Another encountered a family whose son had been killed by a patrol with the family’s father asking this soldier “Why? Why was my son killed?” I recall, too, reading of a bombardier of WWII who committed suicide because he could not live with the thought that the bombs he dropped on Dresden hit families, not enemies. Such memories often come to these veterans’ minds and hearts during this time of year that celebrates family.

And yet war goes on and this year as in too many years past, war separates families at Christmas. Ironically, as we prepare to celebrate a Christmas that keeps us separated from loved ones because of COVID, perhaps we can have some insight into what it was and is like to face Christmas with a loved one far away and possibly in danger.

Plato has said that only the dead have seen the end of war. Believe me, I am not a pacifist. I know that I would do whatever was necessary to defend loved ones. Yet war is something that is perhaps fostered not by those in the trenches but by the power brokers safely behind desks. So when we learn of men and women who are able to breach the gap and, even only for a moment, see the Enemy as a person, perhaps there is hope.

Here is a beautiful scene from Joyeux Noel. Music can indeed bring us together.

And here is a the song the Scots are singing in this scene. I share it in honor of all who are separated from family during this time, especially our military men and women.

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

On Claiming Your Roots

Yes, I’m from Scranton. Nowadays, upon learning that, most people ask if I know Joe Biden. (I don’t but do have some interesting connections with his family). It used to be that people would mention the TV show The Office and ask if that is really Scranton at the beginning. (Yes, it is).

Scranton roots are blue collar roots. I have grown to treasure them. I learned many lessons from my blue collar relatives — my uncle the fireman, my uncle the coal miner who died of black lung disease, my aunts all devoted to family and to kindness to strangers, my great-aunt who was an independent woman at a time when they were rare.

I also treasure those roots when I think of my job as a mailman, dealing with people anxious to get their welfare checks. Dealing with immigrants struggling with English. Meeting one old coal miner sitting on his porch on an oxygen machine yet still willing to pass the time of day. Meeting another man who wished me a Merry Christmas using a throat microphone to compensate for his throat cancer.

I think too of the men and women at Consolidated Molding. This was a plastics factory which made, among other things, the linings for Claymore mines being used in Viet Nam while at the same time producing plastic crucifixes. The ladies didn’t dwell on such contradictions. They worked piecemeal, making sure that each tiny plastic gizmo was shaped correctly. My job was to keep them supplied. A lady might get annoyed if I was slow getting her the next box to inspect but usually they were kind.

I think of the men I met in that factory, the ones who operated the presses. All the former press operators were missing fingers. Yes, they might come in hung over but they showed up and did their jobs.

I understand why in Scranton it was a big deal to have someone who graduated from college. My father attended one college class (“Got an A”, he’d say proudly). That was the extent of college education among my parents, aunts, and uncles. It was really something when my cousin Bob Ruane was the first family member to graduate from college.

These blue collar Scranton roots taught me much about caring for family, about working so that the next generation would have it easier. I learned about the courage it takes to do the same job over and over, to punch out at the end of the day, and to punch in the next day to start all over.

So, yes, I’m proud to be from Scranton but not because of Joe Biden. I’m proud because of what those many blue collars taught me about life and family.

In honor of the women of Consolidated Molding, I’ll close by sharing this beautiful piece from “Working”.

Posted in spirituality | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Long Thanksgiving Dinner Revisited

In the past, I have written about Thornton Wilder’s beautiful one act play “The Long Christmas Dinner” in which the life cycle of a family is portrayed over an imagined dinner in which persons come in through a white birth curtain and leave through a black curtain.

For me, that table is set at Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. I can see generations gathered about that table. Many have gone through the Black Curtain, some quite suddenly, some way too young.

One of my sisters never even makes it to the table. She comes to the table and leaves immediately through the Black Curtain. My other sister sits for only a moment, then also leaves.

But I also see many loved ones who sat at that table many times. My parents and my brother are there. Although she is aged, my Mom leaves the table quickly while my father takes a long slow walk to the Black Curtain.

I see old Aunt Margaret, she who was in Paris when Lindbergh landed. She who saw Babe Ruth play baseball (“Clumsiest man I ever saw!”). She who, in her 90s, gave me the finest anti-war sentiment I ever heard as she shook her head and said “So many young men.”

There are my Uncle Gaddy and Aunt Peg, my surrogate grandparents. I never sat at the table with my grandmothers. They had walked through the Black Curtain before I walked through the white one.. My grandfathers were also gone by the time I was 7. So these two wonderful people filled a great void — Gaddy with his burly Irish accent, the smell of cigars about him and Peg, maker of the World’s Greatest Peanut Butter cookies.

Aunt Mary is there, she who was schizophrenic, carrying on a constant patter of self-talk or reading romance novels.

I see too my Uncle Joe and Aunt Kathleen. She was sophisticated and helped John F. Kennedy carry the vote in Rhode Island. He was a veteran of the South Pacific, down-to-earth, smoking a cigarette as he was dying of lung cancer. Among many things, he helped me love the Redsox.

I see my Aunt Dorothy, my father’s only sibling. She who never married and the day after she retired, quit drinking, packed up and moved to California to be closer to my brother, leaving behind a stunning example of courage.

This year for many there will be more empty chairs. For some those absences will reflect the ravages of COVID. For others, absence will be due to restrictions such as closed borders. Even the numbers allowed at tables will officially be limited.

This Thanksgiving more than any in recent memory will have a curtain of fear over it as COVID numbers rage and our country endures a less-than-smooth transition in government. There has been a part of me that is grateful some loved ones have passed through the black curtain and do not have to endure these times

And yet, as I gather with my family, I will pause to be grateful for the many wonderful people, friends and family alike, who have gathered at my Thanksgiving table in person or in spirit. There will be new members at this year’s Long Thanksgiving Dinner. A beautiful grandson has walked through the white curtain. As always, others who were present in the past have slowly or quickly left the table for the black curtain. Yet all who grace and have graced that table will be present. We will join hands in gratitude and in hope, remembering especially this year the words from Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted in spirituality | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments