Taking Care


 

 

“Take care.” It’s a popular thing to say, as friends part, or end a phone call.

There’s a great need now to take care in our culture. I’m seeing a lot of pain, a lot of anxiety, a lot of doubt and uncertainty as to who we are as a nation and a culture. There’s a lot of doubt, of losing a sense of purpose.

When I watch the evening news, or peruse the headlines in the paper, I find myself emotionally wringing my hands, or throwing them up in anger. I’m close to my boiling point.

“What can I do about it?” I wonder. How can I take care?

Not much, I’ve concluded. But I can make a difference where I live.

I can take care in my community. And, it is something I can do, rather than sit on the couch, tap my foot, and bemoan to my wife about how things could be different. Talking back to the TV doesn’t seem to do anything.

A few weeks ago, a friend suddenly lost his son. It was a great tragedy, but what could I do? I still don’t know what I can do, but I did reach out to him. I went to his house and just sat with him, letting him talk, letting us sit there in silence. He was not alone, and I just listened. I went with him to the funeral home, and prayed with him, holding him as he cried.

At the funeral, I spoke the words he wanted said. I welcomed people, listened to them, and held them close. We cried and we grieved, and my friend was not alone.

A friend should not grieve alone, and there was a community of grief, holding my friend close. And, maybe that’s all that we can do, grieving together, taking care of each other, in that awful journey of grief and shock and bewilderment.

“I don’t know how to do this,” my friend said.

“None of us do,” I replied. “But we take care of ourselves and each other.”

“That’s all we can do.”

Another friend had a heart attack, and I sent my prayers, a few words of comfort, a message of “take care”. And, he is, and I am.

Another friend needed to talk, to get a worry off their chest, and let it out. So, I listened, and loved them, and listened some more. As we parted, we said those words, “take care”, and we will and we did.

I cared for a public space this morning, a small garden in a parking lot, often busy with people on a mission, with business to take care of, the never ending errands of life. I pruned, weeded, planted new plants, and added some fertilizer just before the next spring shower poured down. Most visitors won’t notice it, but some will. And, this summer, as the plants grow and bloom, and the empty spaces fill in, there will be some beauty to be enjoyed, a quiet respite on a busy day. That garden will “take care” of someone in need of that quiet moment.

What I did wasn’t much and it won’t make the evening news, but in other ways it was a lot. I made a small difference in one corner of the world.

I “took care” and, in this crazy world, that makes a difference.

 

–Neal Lemery

4/14/2017

 

 

Towards Becoming A Complete Person: Ubuntu


Towards Becoming A Complete Person

In the Xhosa culture of South Africa, there is a word, ubuntu. Roughly translated, it is the concept of “a person is a person through other persons”. That is, I am not who I am really meant to be in this life, unless I am in service to, and compassionate towards other persons. It is only through empathy, compassion, and service that I fulfill my mission in this life to God to be whole, to be complete. One’s life is not fulfilled and does not have complete and honest meaning unless one is of service to others, and is fully compassionate.

Desmond Tutu writes of this concept, this essence of culture and humanity, in his book, God is Not A Christian: Speaking Truth in Times of Crisis. (2011).

Much of Western thought is exemplified by Descartes’ maxim, “I think, therefore, I am.” Yet, Archbishop Tutu urges us to think outside of Western thought, and view our lives in terms of “I am because I belong.” We need other human beings to survive, and to find real meaning in our lives.

Each of us is different, and we each have gifts. Our gifts are not the gifts of our neighbors, and our neighbors’ gifts are not ours. In that, we have need for each other.

Ubuntu speaks of spiritual attributes such as generosity, hospitality, compassion, caring, sharing. You could be affluent in material possession, but still be without ubuntu. This concept speaks of how people are more important than things, than profits, than material possessions. It speaks about the intrinsic worth of people not dependent on extraneous things such as status, race, creed, gender or achievement.” (Tutu, p 22)

In Xhosa culture, ubuntu is cherished and coveted more than anything else. This quality in people distinguishes people from other animals.

Western society has made enormous progress, because of our personal drive and initiative. Yet, there are substantial costs to this “progress”. People are lonely, and there is an obsession with achievement and success. Such a culture views failure as a personal, even moral, disaster. We tend to not forgive and to accept people who have “failed” in the eyes of society.

Such a culture does not give much value to forgiveness and compassion. We tend to not understand suffering, or to identify with people who are suffering, including ourselves. In that experience and view, we risk becoming less human, less fulfilled.

In other cultures, such as the Maori of New Zealand, and Aborigines in Australia, each person is highly valued, and each person has a a clear identity and role in their culture. Everyone has value, and everyone’s participation in society has a cherished value in that society. Everyone is worthy, and everyone has a story to tell.

Indeed, we are here so that we can tell our story, and the story of our people. In that story is the connection with others, with living our lives with and through other people. And, as we go about our lives, we are in service to and living for the benefit of others. Compassion and forgiveness, rehabilitation, and acceptance, are all strong and cherished values. In life, we are here to help others connect with God, with their people, and with the stories of our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, and with the world. We are interconnected, and in that interconnectedness, there is love and purpose.

Not that the Xhosa, the Maori, or the Aborigines have perfect, ideal cultures, and not that they are always happy and fulfilled. Like any people, they have their problems, and their stresses, as well as their struggles and deep questions. Yet, they have a strong sense of community and they deeply value every member. Everyone has a role to play, and a mission in their lives to serve others, to be a part of the greater whole.

Forgiveness is a challenging topic. Contemplating true forgiveness, for me, is often a struggle and a dilemma. I do not find easy answers and easy solutions to the hard questions and the difficult anxieties and challenges I have about many things.

Yet, if I approach my wrestling matches with a sense of Ubuntu, and passion towards finding forgiveness deep inside of my soul, then I can see that much of my struggles are eased, and that there is a way out of the wilderness, and that I am moving forward on my path to trying to live better, to live more honestly. The burdens I have are lifted a bit, and I can see a glimmer of the Light ahead in my journey.

Neal Lemery
2/9/2014

In the Listening


I should never assume I’m in charge of the agenda.

The other day, I had a visit with one of my young friends at the local prison. I’ve been mentoring him, and he’d been teaching me, for quite a while. Visiting day was turning out to be the best day of the week for me, on a lot of different levels.

I had our time all planned out. I brought food, some of his favorites, and coffee. I brought my guitar, and planned to play a game. I even laid out, in my mind, what we’d talk about, as we ate, and played the game. Silly me, thinking I’d be in charge of our time.

Yet, when I arrived, he didn’t even open the bag from the restaurant. He barely sipped the special chocolate frappe I’d brought in. My guitar stayed in its case, and it was obvious he had a lot on his mind. His first words pushed me into the nearest chair and he took command of our time, his eyes sparkling with determination to speak his mind.

He talked, and told stories about his life, his family, and his fears. I heard about his grandma, and his most challenging wrestling meet, and how his coach believed in him. The coach was the first man who ever thought he could do anything in his life.

The restaurant food grew cold; there was a different hunger in the room today. It wouldn’t be satisfied by the burgers and fries.

I heard about his best friend shooting someone at school, and what it was like to watch that, and hear the gunshots in his high school hallway, what it was like to turn around and see his friend firing the gun and the other guy falling, and bleeding. And how he helped get the gun away, when the magazine was finally empty, and how it fell, clanging, on the hard linoleum floor, by the blood.

I had to remember to breathe, as his words quietly tumbled out, words without emotion, just relating the events, him being a reporter of what went on, as he watched a murder.

He took me there, his words painting a picture of his fear, and his empathy for his friend, and why his friend’s anger boiled over into gunfire. He didn’t cry, he just spoke, his voice firm, the sentences turning into page long paragraphs. I wondered if anyone had ever heard this story, even after the cops arrived a few minutes later, and took his friend to jail, leaving him in that long, cold hallway, next to the bullet riddled body, the empty magazine, and the blood.

His eyes told me it was not my time to ask, only to listen.

I could only nod, later occasionally offering a full sentence of empathy and understanding. His words tumbled out, keeping a steady pace, as the hand on the clock on the wall spun around, once, twice, and half again.

Finally, he took a deep breath.

“I guess our time’s up now. Can you come next week?” he said quietly, unfazed by his two and a half hour monologue, his story of murder, and loneliness, and losing a friend.

“Sure,” I said, nodding and giving him a hug. He hugged back, bear like, taking the sack of cold burgers with him.

“I’ll heat these up in the microwave. Thanks.”

When I got home, I took a walk, in the autumn afternoon sunshine, and looked at the colors of the leaves falling from the trees, and the last of the summer flowers, ones that had survived the first few nights of frost. The air was still, the rays of the setting sun still warm on my skin.

There were no birds, no insects, not even a breeze in the dying yellow leaves on the maple tree, as if the world knew I’d had enough listening for a while, and needed to let all that settle in, to find a place for what I’d heard that afternoon.

I heard his stories, again, in that silence, and let his tales sink deep into my soul. And, in all that, I realized I’d been given the gift of knowing him better, and in letting him finally be free to tell his stories and find his own way.

10/8/12