What I do believe is an adage that has grown trite with wear: Everybody has a story. Manners were expected in my childhood, but not so much the patient peeling back of other people’s layers to understand behavior and find compassion. Continue reading
Wearing Another’s Skin
I’ve seen him before: a hulking man probably younger than he looks, dressed in stained layers, even in the summer. He paces outside a convenience store, stops and turns as if a shadow has called his name. His countenance is rage, barely mastered.
I always figure he is going to roar at me or ask for spare change. His base is in one of Erie’s rough areas, so being panhandled or hassled wouldn’t be unexpected. His bench is at the intersection 30 yards away. He sleeps on his side.
My mother raised me to avoid such neighborhoods. In fact, there’s one street in Erie that she refused to travel, and that’s where I was this morning, buying my newspaper and iced tea.
Getting back in my car, I glanced his way and thought, “Just like me.” Not the homelessness, thankfully. Not the dirty clothes, not what I take to be the fury on simmer. I’ve lost some weight recently, but remain hulking.
Still, I’m a lot like this guy. I want to be loved and understood. I want to be comfortable, sheltered, clothed and fed. I want a mind that functions, friends to laugh with and a decent portion of gladness.
The American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron deserves credit for “just like me.” She told Oprah Winfrey about it, and I overheard. Admittedly, you probably don’t need to engage in this contemplative practice with folks you love, though it can’t hurt. No, realistically, Chodron’s phrase has to do with those you find objectionable, often strangers.
But even the first woman ordained a Buddhist monk in the United States didn’t come up with “just like me.” In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, novelist Harper Lee famously put an echo of the notion into Atticus Finch’s mouth. His daughter has had a rough first day of elementary school and disapproves of her teacher. “Well, maybe she was just nervous,” Gregory Peck explains in the film adaptation. “After all, it’s her first day, too, teaching school and being new here.” Then comes Lee’s gem: “Just learn a single trick, Scout, and you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
In the novel’s last chapter, Scout recalls the lesson: “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”
Delivered in Peck’s legendary baritone, empathy comes across as warm and folksy, but American poet Walt Whitman knew better. Of his experience nursing Civil War soldiers, he writes in Leaves of Grass, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
All of this imagery points toward pain. Saying “just like me” demands that I set aside the fine appointments of my days and recognize that but for bad luck, an unfortunate decision or the curse of mental illness, I might have no roof to call my own. Climbing into another person’s skin implies that I first peel off my own. To become the wounded soldier—or the person I’m inclined to hate—means that I receive another’s gut shot, that I dare to trade places with a broken soul, that I claim a sister or brother’s graceless desert as my own.
Empathy is easy on occasion, but most often it’s exasperating, like a riddle that’s beyond my patience or capacity. Anyway, stewing in ill will is easier than reflection and over time gets to be addictive. And prior to my self-explication, the person who has triggered my brain stem is nothing like me, damn it.
Northern Mockingbird (Credit: Wikipedia)
Walking ￼for a time in someone’s stilettos or loafers doesn’t mean that I condone a single chapter of her or his story. On the other hand, until I put into practice the raw, chafing wisdom of Chodron, Lee and Whitman, I’ve no business peddling criticism. In fact, if I review other people’s lives while still abiding in my own skin, I’m apt to kill a mockingbird.
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy,” Atticus Finch says. “They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs. They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”
The older I get, the more I’m convinced that most people just want to be mockingbirds, in a fashion: To do no harm and sing their hearts out. Of course, if my supposition is true only of folks I love, then it isn’t true at all.
Oniontown Pastoral: Story of a Hero in the Small Hours
“Elevander and Milkus,” grandson Cole said through tears from the foot of my bed. It must have been around 1:00 a.m.
Cole and his little brother Killian had landed at Grandma Kathy and Pop’s house at 6:00 p.m. for a sleepover, followed by our Sunday drive to Oniontown for church.
Half an hour later, Kathy and Cole were cuddling when she said he felt warm. I kissed our ginger’s forehead, the temperature-taking method my late mother used. The patient was not quite burning up.
Kathy encouraged grape ibuprofen, but was rebuffed. No surprise there. Our own daughter and son regarded any remedy for a fevered brow as outrageous, possibly unconstitutional.
By 7:30, Cole was ready for bed. A scant half of our enclosed front porch serves as a prayer corner for Pop, and the rest is “Cole’s Room,” dubbed by the lad himself with the same swagger Columbus displayed in claiming the West Indies for Ferdinand and Isabella. On sleepover nights, the sofa bed there gets pulled out, and Grandma and “those babies,” as she calls them, prop themselves up on an embarrassment of pillows, lean into each other and watch cartoons.
Kathy, it must be noted, is no grandson’s fool. She goes for a soft sell. “Hey, best buddies,” she says, “it’s time to get ready for bed.” Not time to sleep, mind you. These things must be done delicately. First, get pajamas on, then slide under Grandma’s feather comforter with nightcap in hand—juice box, tortilla chips, rack of lamb, whatever it takes. Eventually, glad bellies and slapstick animation lower the boys’ defenses and slumber descends.
The routine is glorious, every crumb and dribble of it. On the night in question, Killian was clinging to wakefulness when I retired to Pop’s Room. Cole was long gone.
Having a queen-sized bed to myself ought to be glorious, but I’d just as soon keep our quartet together the whole night through. With Grandma Kathy between them, though, Cole and Killian’s last waking moments on that lumpy sofa bed seem an adventure, as if she is keeping watch as they sail over dark waves toward dreamland.
Whenever the boys stay over, my sleep is light, ears keen, especially to a child’s cries. Kathy can normally rock and coo her shipmates back to sleep, but occasionally Pop is called upon to sing a shanty of sorts.
That’s what brought Cole to the foot of my bed. He needed a story—not from a book but one of his very own. The protagonists of choice are Elevander and Milkus, stuffed brother and sister rabbits whose names Cole inexplicably blurted out to his mother one day.
The plots of late are as unlikely as the characters’ names. A year ago a micro-tornado hit my daughter’s house, flinging the boys’ swing set over telephone wires a full block away.
In my yarns, Cole found Elevander and Milkus hiding behind the garage after the twister. He brought them into the house and cared for them until a climbing wall replaced the swings. Then he made them a home in its shelter. Hay from Grandma Kathy’s garden provided a sweet bed, and Cole asked Killian to get lettuce and carrots from Mama for his friends.
Telling Cole a new chapter, I knew Kathy and I wouldn’t be bringing those babies along to Oniontown in the morning. They would go home instead. Still, I was determined to remain at my post and finish my duty.
After surrendering to sips of grape medicine, my boy lay nose to nose with me as I recounted the arrival of two squirrels whose tree had blown down. They had heard rumors about the boy nearby who took in a couple of frightened rabbits.
Elevander and Milkus happily shared quarters with their bushy-tailed neighbors, and Killian ran to get them peanuts from the cupboard.
The next day, of all things, a lost pony showed up. Cole figured the rabbits and squirrels could spare some hay for their new guest until Grandma brought more. Everyone had plenty to eat, a place to sleep and love enough to believe that tornados are no match for kindness.
Part way through my tale, Cole made a bathroom run. Pausing at the foot of the bed, he put up his finger and said, “I’ll be right back, Pop.” As if I would go on without him!
Cole doesn’t realize yet that he is the hero of every Elevander and Milkus story. I want him to fall asleep knowing that real heroes are most of all kind.
Sowing What Our Children Will Reap
(8 minute read)
As I sit safely in my living room a couple of blocks from Lake Erie, Florida’s panhandle is still trying to get its bearings after Hurricane Michael. The death count now stands at thirty-five. An old high school classmate of mine had his cars crushed and home severely damaged. There’s no way to ignore such massive, breathtaking destruction.
But some destruction is stealthy, gaining ferocity while nobody is paying much attention and ravaging one life at a time. Public awareness is slow to account for souls who suffer mostly under the radar—the bullied youth, haunted survivor, beaten wife or displaced worker—not to mention the homeless, addicted or mentally ill.
In his October 12, 2018, New York Times editorial, David Brooks shares a statistic that should trouble sane Americans: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2006 and 2016 youth suicide rates rose 70 percent for white adolescents ages 10 through 17, and 77 percent for black ones.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post gleaned additional bitter food for thought from the same CDC report: “Suicide rates [in America] rose in all but one state between 1999 and 2016, with increases seen across age, gender, race and ethnicity.”
Such statistics make an alarming statement: Americans of all stripes are lining up at the existential Customer Service Desk to return a gift—their life.
“Is there anything wrong with this item?” the clerk asks.
“This was supposed to be a gift,” the American says. “This is terrible. It hurts too much.”
Of course, most citizens are happy enough. Even folks down in the dumps generally plug along, playing the hands they’ve been dealt, praying for smoother roads and greener grass. Regarding suicides, experts rightly point out the usual suspects: poor economy, foreclosures, stressful jobs, broken relationships, etc.
But surely something else is bending backs and furrowing brows. The aforementioned CDC report indicates that around half of all suicides have no history of mental illness. It’s as if something snaps, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Seriously, then, what’s going on?
I have no credentials to respect, but from my armchair the case is clear. Contemporary vernacular includes an adage that surfaced recently: “What goes around comes around!” Wisdom from the Bible teaches, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7b). Then we have the vignette, so intentionally poignant as to verge on annoying, of the Cherokee (or Navajo) man who tells his grandson about two wolves at war within himself. The wide-eyed boy asks which wolf will win. After a dramatic pause, the grandfather says, “The one which I feed.”
The moral is obvious: your violent behavior will recoil upon you; if you plant poison ivy, raspberries won’t grow; if you rejoice in evil, count on evil to win both battle and war.
I turned fifty-seven recently, so I’m not worried about societal recoil for myself or wife Kathy or even my adult children, Elena and Micah. We can respond mindfully to the ebb and flow of today’s absurdity, aggression and cruelty.
But what about my grandsons, Cole and Killian? And because every other child in the world is inescapably my very own, what about the innocent and vulnerable everywhere?
Alan Kurdi was my grandson. May God rest him.
Two young men, both named Jesse, both teenagers, both loved abundantly by families and friends, found this life too much to bear. Both were my sons. May God grant them endless comfort and joy.
The young woman I know who suffered a racial slur on a school bus recently is my daughter. May God strengthen her.
If by some miracle planet Earth has any sweetness and succor left for today’s children, I’m still left to wonder what seeds we grown ups are planting in humanity itself, the governments that will shape the lives of future adults, the communities that will cradle their days, the cultures that will make their spirits either sing or weep.
A recent USA Today article reveals that the rare instance of kids under eleven years old taking their own lives has doubled between 2008 and 2016. Life is exhausting and painful for millions, especially for children. From television screens to social media to classrooms to living rooms, hostility, deception and ignorance have been welcomed in and embraced as kin.
If you believe that kids are immune to what they see and hear day by day, please consider the bit of preaching I now do to a congregation of one, in the mirror. Am I speaking the truth?
- When I allow hatred and frustration to overwhelm me, children absorb the toxicity in my voice and manner.
- The greatest danger is the moment I feel justified in my rage and righteous in my anger. The problem with this situation is that a child observing me will experience the fury in my spirit without having the slightest idea what is animating me. My behavior, which may come from an upright impulse, nevertheless teaches the wrong lesson.
- Careless name-calling among adults poisons children, as does rejoicing in falsehoods, wrongdoing and the suffering of others. Adults unwittingly teach kids the delicious, addictive art of injury and ridicule. I don’t want them to learn anything of the sort from me.
- I can’t be perfect, but I can take into account the possibility that my words and actions are adding to the pollution of our American discourse and pressing thorns into our children’s tender spirits.
Most of all, I guess, I can hold fast to love for God, neighbor and self, even when doing so feels for all the world like defeat.
If you came here looking for “American Pastoral,” I’ve moved it to my new blog, Matters of Conscience. Please follow the link to get there.
Peace and best,
I was settling in for my Sunday afternoon ministerial nap with a little channel surfing, and there it was on CNN: Philip Seymour Hoffman found dead in his bathroom; heroin in apartment; needle in his arm. I hollered downstairs for son Micah, a former addict. He sat on the bed at my feet, said, “Oh, no!” and put his face in his hands.
I let a minute pass. “Would he have known what was happening to him?”
“No,” Micah said. “He would’ve passed out right away. He died in a couple minutes.” Clean for over eighteen months, Micah would know.
Heroin has been in the news in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio lately—maybe beyond, I don’t know. Some sinister entrepreneurs came up with the idea of mixing fentanyl with heroin. The problem: fentanyl is 10 to 100 times stronger than heroin. One recent batch from Allegheny County in southwest Pennsylvania contained 50% fentanyl. Good night!
People are dying, and Hoffman himself appears to have overdosed on that sketchy brew. Maybe because Micah’s a fan, this average-looking-at-best actor is taking up spiritual room in me today. He was at the top of his game, most likely in great shape financially, but there was an ache in him somewhere. At least I imagine this was so. I bet most of us have pain burrowed down so far inside that nothing much can reach it.
Without knowing it, Hoffman foreshadowed the difficulties of another troubled celebrity in a 2006 60 Minutes interview. He may as well have been talking about Justin Bieber, who at that time was probably up close to the mirror, searching for his first whisker. Hoffman said,
I always think, God, I have so much empathy for these young actors that are 19 and all of a sudden they’re beautiful and famous and rich — I’m like, ‘My God, I’d be dead’ — 19, beautiful, famous and rich, that would be it, you know … I think back at that time and think if I had the money, that kind of money.
Ironic, of course: Hoffman’s dead anyway. During Micah’s first months of sobriety, he mentioned that eventually shooting up wasn’t any fun. Life was just about getting ahold of drugs so he wouldn’t feel like crap. I wonder if that’s how it was with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
And what’s Justin Bieber thinking? Beautiful and famous and rich, he’s apparently shaking his groove thing at the edge of the abyss; that is if the news is accurate. Fast cars, booze, some weed. Who knows? Is Bieber going through too much, too fast, too young? Nineteen year olds can be explosive to start with. Whatever his deal, I’d say from my spectator’s distance that inner-peace isn’t part of the package.
What must it be like to have over 200,000 citizens sign a petition calling for you to be deported? My friend Mark posted an insightful defense of the Canadian heartthrob on Facebook a couple days ago:
I’m about tired of people crushing Justin Beiber. Get all your jokes out now. Ha ha ha. No, I don’t have a thing for teenage boys. Are you done? Good. I may be over sensitive to the abuse put on the kid because one of my girls loves him. She is crestfallen every time she hears bad press and even more devastated with the ensuing public dismantling. I love her. So when she hurts, I hurt. I don’t like his music and he’s made some absolutely stupid decisions. HE’S 19! Who among us didn’t do stupid stuff at 19? Okay, take 19 year old you and add, say, 10 million dollars. Holy Crap! Now factor in that everybody with a camera wants to take a picture of you. If you’re doing something wrong, even better. Multiply that by the fact that nobody ever told the kid “no”. He was their meal ticket. They had to keep him happy, no supervision makes a happy teen. All this, and he has screaming hoards of women of all ages wanting to, um, get with him. It’s just math people. He’s going to be a little screwed up.
I don’t know if Bieber was never told “no,” but Mark’s got it right. If anything, the kid deserves our understanding. It’s easy to condemn Philip Seymour Hoffman’s junkie death and Justin Bieber’s dumb-ass choices, but only if addiction’s never had you by the throat or your post-pubescent brain has never told you the evil-twin lies: “You’re always right, and you’re invincible.”
The last thing Hoffman and Bieber need is my judgment. What they need is all the compassion I can muster. (And it ain’t easy with the latter’s chronically raised eyebrows and extravagant fitteds.) In fact, that’s what every corner of creation needs: my compassion.
Each week I spend hours in contemplative prayer, and you’d think heroin addicts and crazy kids would barge in on my silence and demand my attention. Sometimes this happens, but Hoffman, Bieber, and company are more likely to visit me at an inconvenient moment. On Sunday mornings, just before the congregation receives Holy Communion, we sing the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. The last words are “grant us peace.” We sing it three sweet times: “Grant us peace. Grant us peace. Grant us peace.”
I stand still and pray quietly: “Grant us peace!” I have just a few seconds; if I don’t start distributing the bread, people will think I’ve fallen asleep on my feet. Ah well. Philip Seymour Hoffman will arrive next Sunday, and I’ll sing, “Grant him peace.” Justin Bieber, too: “Grant him peace.” The four-year-old Erie girl who died in a house fire yesterday will appear: “Grant her peace.” And the firefighters who tried to save her: “Grant them peace.”
“Grant us peace.” Part of me wants to stand still in my alb and stole long after the congregation has gone home and sing: “Peace!” Peace for the wealthy and poor with needles stuck in their veins. Peace for the invincible. Peace for saints and sinners everywhere. Peace and healing to that hidden place in all of us, that dark corner where tears reside.
All are welcome in this prayer. Are you suffering? Are you alone to blame? Are you dead, gone into Mystery? Can you hear me? Show up in my spirit. I’ll sing your lovely name to God.
Yes, yes, I know: Mother Teresa was accused of financial impropriety and of accepting contributions for her ministry to the poor from questionable sources. Her defense was that the poor were more important than the motives or morals of benefactors.
Say what you will, I love Mother Teresa. She was a saint—or will be soon enough. Two of her quotations guide my thinking. Friend Michelle had the first printed and framed for me as a gift: “I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” I keep these words on the wall in front of my desk. The second quote is just as powerful: “There should be less talk; a preaching point is not a meeting point. What do you do then? Take a broom and clean someone’s house. That says enough.”
Underneath all of Pastor John’s patience and compassion is selfishness. I don’t like to sweep floors, not even my own, and I covet time. Andrew Marvell’s lines often haunt me: “But at my back I always hear, / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”
For reasons I don’t understand, Mother Teresa’s words have visited me lately to remind me that her broom is a metaphor and many days my most useful, loving action is invisible, inconspicuous, known only to a person or two and a gray sky or a lonely afternoon.
A couple days ago a friend—let’s call him Gene—asked if I’d take him to buy a new pair of winter boots. He laughed as he told me about one sole of his old pair flopping around like a drunk’s tongue as he walked home. Finally he gave up, took off the wounded boot, and hobbled up his gravel driveway, one socked foot wet and tender.
So I picked Gene up, and within fifteen minutes he was trying on boots. One problem: health issues render him listless sometimes; tying his shoes or buckling a seatbelt can be exhausting. Though it was a bad day, Gene, as always, was aware of my time. He tried to hurry, but our footwear errand had him sagging to the Walmart floor. Every movement was a labor: tugging the wad of tissue paper from the toe of the boot; unraveling the laces and flipping down the tongue; and—my Lord—pulling on the boot.
After watching for a minute, I said, “I got you, Gene.” So I helped him find the right size, get the boots out of the box and onto his feet, each time pulling up his weary white socks, and watched silently as he did test runs. He tried on four pairs, finally settling on ones without laces, like cowboy boots with chunky treads and generous toes.
The second pair into this process it occurred to me—breathing, shamatha—that helping Gene in, ugh, Walmart, was sacred. He droops from the effort of taking money out of his wallet, and all he needs to make his life significantly easier is somebody to take forty-five minutes and spot him as he buys boots that won’t rub a sore on his ankle.
I also knew that Gene needed more than new boots. He needed to know that I wasn’t impatient or annoyed. So I put my hand his arm and said, “How about I help you get that on?” And, “Don’t worry, Gene. I’m not in a hurry.” And, in the case of a pair with a dozen eyelets, “Hmm. You’ll be an hour getting into these. By the time you get them tied, you’ll be too tired to go anywhere.” Like I said, Gene and I are friends. We had a good laugh.
A couple minutes after I dropped him back off at home, my cell phone’s Sherwood Forest ringtone sounded. It was Gene, but since I was driving, his call went to voicemail. The message: “I just wanted to say thanks again for helping me, John. See you.”
Mother Teresa also said, “We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.” I’m not sharing Gene’s and my excursion because I’m a great guy. I’m a normal guy with the usual human portion of self-absorption, a guy with an aversion to brooms, but I got lucky. In a moment of potential frustration I was blessed with a visitation of the Spirit.
A friend’s boots broke down. We got him a new pair. We did it together with love. I close my eyes, breathe, and days later the sacrament of trying on boots still cradles my soul. This is gladness.