Examining Our Strengths and Weaknesses


                                   

                                                            by Neal Lemery

“Whenever we come together to share strengths it breeds competition; whenever we come together sharing our weaknesses, it breeds community.” — Anonymous[1]

            We live in divisive times.  If one spends much time “catching up” on news or social media, or talking about politics and social trends with one’s friends, the common theme seems to focus on our divisions, our differences, and winning some argument or political event. We like to boast about our strengths and hide our weaknesses. 

But life isn’t about winning or losing, or “us vs them”. Our sporting events, which we support because we want something fun and wholesome for ourselves and our kids, often is analyzed in terms of win/lose. We like to measure strength and power. We keep score, and often that seems to be the primary reason for the activity and our attention we pay to it.  Even the supposedly non-partisan, individually focused “pure sport” Olympic Games are reported complete with scorecards of national medal awards. 

            Discussions and viewpoints on political and social issues are often laced with mean comments and foul language, often thinly disguised with code words.  We are encouraged to laugh with comedians who can make the most acidic standup routines, which we still refer to as comedy. 

Informed and well-reasoned political conversation and a willingness to look at another point of view often is not on most of our social agendas for the day. Some politicians seem to want to advance their careers by acting with meanness and spite. They act as destroyers, not leaders of social advancement.  

            If everyone is now keeping score and arguing only for the sake of arguing, rather that persuading or informing, what is the grand prize?  What are we attempting to gain? Is there a national championship for the loudest, most shrill argument?  Are there extra points to be gained for sheer meanness? Does the winner get invited to the White House and be able to scream their point of view to a national audience? Or have I missed the news of a parade down Broadway, with a tickertape parade of nasty vitriolic social media posts?  

            Such tactics don’t change anyone’s opinion, and, I suggest, not much learning occurs, nor do we advance the common welfare.  

            The gentle, collaborative model of social life is more fruitful. I do see a new feeling of cooperation, of coming together to advance both individual and social goodness.  I see volunteers everywhere, building up people, providing educational opportunities. There are small flickers of great and unselfish actions.  

My neighborhood now has several “educational pods” where parents and friends are providing private schooling for kids of all ages. There is laughter and enthusiasm, and the occasional gaggle of kids out for a jog between classes, satisfying their P.E. requirements for the day. Families are deeply involved in their kids’ education, with small classes and individual attention, coupled with virtual learning, allowing kids to benefit from a variety of learning styles and curriculum.  

            Small businesses are experimenting with a wide range of business models, and many workers are working from home, either part or full time, allowing them to be productive and have quality time with family, without the expense and exhaustion of a long commute to work. There is serious discussion about the role of our traditional routines of work and career models. 

            Virtual learning isn’t for all situations, but it has found a place in my life, allowing me to participate in and dabble in a variety of activities and experiences.  I’ve been able to benefit from a rich selection of broadcasted art performances and educational presentations. We still need the in person connections and the “juice” of one on one conversations and socializing, but there are some welcome advantages to this post-pandemic world.  

            The world now has amazing tools for communication and improving our lives. Miraculous innovations and discoveries are commonplace. We can accomplish so many tasks. Yet, humanity’s hunger for power, wealth, and status slows our efforts to improve the lives of all. Why we allow that to occur is an urgent question for all of us.

            I suggest this paradox between what we can accomplish and what is done is essentially an ethical and spiritual challenge. What is humankind’s purpose? What are we alive to do?

            In that quest, that work to answer these deep questions challenges our approaches to achieving a meaningful future. Coming together to take on our weaknesses builds our community. 

11/11/2021


[1]  anonymous, quoted by Dave Barnes, interview with Dave Hollis https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V49YuvWN79Y

published in the Tillamook County Pioneer

Teachings From the Pandemic


                                    

                                                            by Neal Lemery

            This last year and a half has been chock full of lessons and experiences, forcing us to adapt, often reluctantly, to changes in how we live, be with family, work, celebrate social life and participate in the experiences we are used to having. 

            I’m often reluctant to accept change, let alone welcome it with the sense that our lives will be better.  I like my routines, but the Pandemic has pushed me way out of my comfort zone.

            Now that the vaccines are here, and many of our cherished patterns and activities are returning to our lives, in altered forms, we are still not “back to normal”.  We now are adapting to new routines.

            “The New Normal” can be liberating.  Those activities and obligations we often didn’t enjoy much can be substituted with new approaches to living our lives.  Virtual meetings and classes can often be more convenient and efficient than in-person gatherings. In some ways, participating in government is simplified, by clicking on a link and interacting with legislators and other government agencies. 

Now, I realize it’s possible to talk with health care providers and other professionals without the need to travel. The experience may not be ideal, but most of our interactions are productive, and certainly time efficient.

 Conversations with family and friends are a more welcoming experience.  The last few months have allowed us to travel and again be physically present with others, teaching me that a big part of my social life is physical connection.  

            We have been learning that much of our society’s work can be handled remotely, that where we live has enormous value to our wellbeing and sense of purpose.  We look at the value of personal services and professional interactions really are essential, and that every job is important.  

            Each day is a new opportunity.  The ancient Greeks recognized that: 

            “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”   —- Heraclitus  

            An old song teaches that we can persevere and change is coming:

“…

“Oh, there been times that I thought
I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able, to carry on

“It’s been a long
A long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
Oh, yes it will.”

                                    “A Change is Gonna Come”. Sam Cooke

            Throughout the ages, change comes.  We grow and adapt, because we should. And if we don’t, we stagnate, we rust, and decay.  Life is like that, pushing us forward, into the new.  

            I’m often grateful for the changes and the resulting need for me to stretch and learn.  The old, tried and true ways can become stale, and I weaken if I am not challenged. There’s enough “unexpected” that happens in life that ensures that life doesn’t get old and boring. 

            We have opportunities now that didn’t exist before. Let’s discard what hasn’t worked and embrace what now does work, for the good of all of us.

6/15/2021 

Calling For a Change


                                    `           

                                                                        –by Neal Lemery

            2021 is a year of change, of awareness, and a time to reconcile ourselves with our attitudes and prejudices.  At the core of this work is confronting our own racism and the racism of our culture. A re-examination of our history and our culture is revealing our prejudices, our privilege, and a compelling drive to change how we think and how we act.  

            The verdict this week in Minneapolis has hopefully gotten our attention to these issues, and has put a bright spotlight on the issues of racism, law enforcement, and cultural expectations.  It is an ugly sore to open up and drain. The infection is deep.  Our attitudes and opinions are facing the light of day, of public scrutiny, and of thoughtful self-examination. 

            Sadly, this tragedy isn’t the latest, and stories of similar injustices and responses continue to occupy the headlines.  Recent attention to our country’s history shows a long and deep saga of similar outrages and, at times, calls for reform and change. The lessons of history are still there, as opportunities to learn and to cause change. 

            Those of us who aspire to be people of faith and advancing a spirituality based on compassion and good deeds are wrestling with being engaged in a society that too often does not aspire to those values.  It is often too easy to do nothing, and instead to merely pontificate our aspirations to be good and kindly people.   Denial seems easy, and the least stony path. Change is hard. 

“Walking away from something that we’re used to, even if it’s unjust or inefficient or ineffective–it usually takes far too long. Fear, momentum and the status quo combine to keep us stuck.

“And so it builds up. The cruft [junk work product] calcifies and it gets in our way, making our world smaller, our interactions less human. What used to be normal is rejected and obsolete. It turns out that the status quo is the status quo because it’s good at sticking around.”

                                    –Seth Godin, Seth’s Blog 4/21/2021

            We all want to think that we come from good families, that we had a decent childhood, and that we have grown up to be good hearted, loving people, who are working to build a better society and to do noble and important work.  Yet if I want to change society, I also need to change myself, and to examine myself so that I can truly become an agent of my good values and my talents to do the Godly and charitable work that I aspire to advocate. 

            To not do that self-examination is to be hypocritical and untrue to my highest goals and aspirations as a “good person”.  My own spiritual challenge is to understand that me acting as an instrument of change is one of my purposes as a human being on this earth. A friend calls that being an instrument of God. 

            As Gandhi urged us, we need to be the change we want to see in the world.  And, that starts with self-examination.  It is ugly, often dirty work.  Each of us had a seat in that courtroom in Minneapolis.  Part of what was on trial was a criminal justice system and a culture of how law enforcement officers respond to an encounter with a man, situations where a person’s race and very presence on the street were factors in how a police officer acted.  Our culture of prejudice, discrimination, and bias (even unconscious) was deeply interwoven in that incident and how a cop, and everyone else who was present, responded. The scope of responsibility and accountability for George Floyd’s death casts a wide net.  

            My great uncle was a member of the Klan, and proudly rode his horse in Klan parades in our family’s hometown.  I heard stories of racial and ethnic prejudice from family and friends, and witnessed bigotry and prejudice, often subtle and minimalized. Like all of us, I witnessed bigotry and prejudice, and felt the social pressure to sustain those attitudes. 

We all learned the “code words”, the vocabulary for this thinking. The disease was labeled something else, throughout my life, ever-present yet often cleverly disguised, or covered up.  After all, racism was something that occurred in the South, or the big cities, somewhere else.  Not here, not in my town, my neighborhood, my family.  

            That denial is also part of the disease, the “stinking thinking” that nurtures racism.

            Those experiences are also present-day.  Perhaps they are more subtle, even disguised, conveniently wrapped in the camouflage of politics and “free speech”.  And, pretending that cultural and personal prejudice and intolerance isn’t here and now is simply being a cultural ostrich, naively hoping that these tough issues will simply go away.  They won’t, until we do our tough work, and change. 

            We need to tell our stories.  We need to air out the ugly anecdotes, and look at our own attitudes and beliefs, looking deep within ourselves to learn why we believe and think what we do.  We need to embrace education and deep conversations with family and friends, no matter how uncomfortable those conversations can be.  We can change, and we can grow. That is what good citizens and spiritually-minded people do. 

            Tomorrow can be different.  

4/22/2021

Tightrope: A Challenging and Compelling Book for our World


                        by Neal Lemery 1/17/2021

            If you are concerned about kids in your neighborhood, or you worry about your community, or the future welfare of the country, then Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is a must-read book for these challenging times.

            A sobering and emotional (and very well written) read, Tightrope tells the stories of Kristof’s classmates and neighbors in rural Oregon, and stories of impoverished Americans across the country, in today’s world, which the authors call “America’s social Great Depression”.  The stories are the stories of the people most at risk in our society. They can be, as Kristof points out, the kids you rode the school bus with, the decent people who are still your mom’s neighbors. 

            “We need economic change, but also cultural change, and ours would be a richer nation if it were more infused with empathy, above all for children,” say Kristof and WuDunn.  Kristof, a New York Times columnist, and his wife look deep and compassionately into the lives of good people, the heart and soul of this country, and tell their stories of struggle. 

            Their previous four books, and many of Kristof’s newspaper columns, have taken deep and hard looks at social issues in what we would call the Third World. Yet, this book compels us to look at the urgent issues we Americans face today; our many problems are Third World problems, or worse.

            We need to “look at our society through the lens of moral grace,” is their heartfelt message.  

            The deep and bloody holes in our social fabric are revealed, along with tales of courage and determination, as well as hope.

This is a book of heartbreaking stories, but we hear about innovative solutions.  “Solutions are difficult and imperfect, but the right programs make a big difference.  “There is a path out of the inferno,” the authors write.  

This book was often painful, and at the same time offers hope and resources.  If you want to be a force for change, the book is both a wake-up call and a great resource.

Taking On Change


Taking On Change

by Neal Lemery

The pandemic is a time of postponement, not taking care of business. Life now has a lot of waiting around, and my frustration and impatience show up in high numbers on my emotional dashboard. The personal “to do” list seems to keep growing and has few check offs.

In normal times, my life’s challenges usually get resolved with me realizing it is a time to change. And that work to refresh is always so productive and satisfying. In these times, much of what we are facing seems out of my grasp to change. Most things get booted down the road. Like the virus, procrastination is becoming the new normal.

I often escape into my music. I pick up my guitar and find some solace, literally tuning out the world. Even there, there is a need for change. In guitar speak, it is realizing it is time to restring my faithful six string acoustic.

There’s a lifespan for good steel guitar strings. All my chord making, strumming and picking literally wears out the wires, as well as providing proof of my labors with bigger callouses on my fingertips. In that playing, oil and dirt from my fingers are rubbed into the strings. My picking and the vibrations becomes tiresome to the guitar (and probably the rest of my household).

I play my guitar for its mellowness, harmonizing tones and its predictability in terms of the sounds that are emitted, consistent with one’s repetition of chord patterns, strumming, and finger picking. One gets to mix it up, of course, by using different sizes and materials for strings, and the qualities that are unique for each guitar.

Other variables are at play: the type and age of the wood, the thicknesses of materials, the design, humidity, and how precise you are in tuning each string. You add other variables, too: the methods and styles of finger picking, flat picking and slides, plus little touches like pull offs, hammer ons, and chiming; not to omit the likely dozens of other techniques and styles I’ve yet to hear about, let alone begin to attempt. Guitars become “sweeter” with age, the wood conditioned by time and playing to evolve into an even more expressive instrument. It is a metaphor that I appreciate more the older I get.

Yet, it all goes back to having strings in good shape. It really is the simple things that make a big difference in how my guitar sounds in a day. Aside from all the complexities and sophistication of the accomplished musician, it is the act of restringing and putting on a set of new strings that makes my guitar come alive again. Sometimes, you just need to get rid of the rust and dirt and the “worn out” aspects of life.

I procrastinate, doubting myself that it really might be time to change the strings. I’m good at the kind of self-talk that talks me out of making a needed change. I’ll bargain with myself, offering excuses like time, or effort, or thinking it really hasn’t been that long since I put on the strings that are there now. I ignore the principle of guitar strings that age and wear out are a function of how much you play, versus what the calendar might say.

It’s not like I have to run down to the music store for a set, or that the cost will break my budget. For all their magic, guitar strings are a bargain. I almost always have on hand good to high quality strings, engineered for a long and vigorous life, with promises of crispness and high-quality tones. And, I have all the little tools, wood cleaners, and the other gizmos of the specialized world of guitar string replacement. I learn by trial and error in my music. My string changing regimen is a product of years of redoing and reliving most every mistake you can make, plus having some exciting adventures along the way.

Today, for instance, was the reliving of the occasional crisis of having a wooden peg pop out and plummet into the depths of the guitar box. These little pegs, which I want to think are insignificant, are really essential. They secure the little “ball” end of the string snug in the hole in the body of the guitar. They grasp one end of the string, so you can then tighten it, eventually giving enough tension on the string that it will vibrate and produce a note.

When pegs run wild, I feel helpless and inept, adding salty language to the experience. The peg then plays hide and seek, rattling around the inside, and getting caught in nearly every crevice of the various wooden bracings inside. I do the dance, holding and shaking the upside-down guitar in every angle and configuration, hoping to maneuver it to come out of its cave and rejoin its companions on the face of the guitar. There is the added chance of having the peg flying through the air and lodging under the nearest piece of furniture, prolonging the chase. More excitement comes when the cat decides to help.

This game is sometimes played with a guitar pick. My personal record for chasing the reluctant and shy guitar pick inside the guitar is a (now) laughable three weeks. At best, the usual plastic pick is worth, maybe fifty cents, but still, it’s the principle of the matter and a personal challenge. Man vs guitar pick. I WILL prevail.

The string changing ritual offers other challenges, such as squinting sufficiently in order to thread the thin wires through the holes in the tuner pegs at the other end of the guitar, so you can then wrap the wires around the pegs and begin to tighten them. The shiny wires blend in well with the chrome tuner pegs. In this stage, it is easy to qualify for a Purple Heart for Guitarists, by giving yourself a substantial poke in the finger. My guitar is frequently sanctified by my sacrificial efforts, accompanied by that now well used salty language.

You have to put the strings on in the right order, of course. Each string has a different diameter, with lower notes produced by thicker strings. That seems simple and logical. But, we’re talking me and mechanical tasks. Disasters can occur, with a brand-new string in the wrong place that’s tightened too much, accompanied by the unexpected loud twang of a broken string. Then there’s that deep feeling of ineptitude. Another box of strings is now on the table, adding to the potential confusion. I’ve learned to practice rituals of how I lay out the paper string packets and the manage the order of installation, much like a priest officiating at a high mass.

It is even more fun with a 12 string guitar. String changes on a 12 string increase the challenge by several magnitudes of difficulty, where the rubric requires the lowest four pairs (courses) to be tuned in octaves, but the top two courses are tuned in unison on the same note. Doubling the number of strings and the number of pegs that can go wild more than doubles the fun.

As one hits the home stretch, with all six new strings in place, you get a sense of impending success. When you finish up the tuning ritual with the electronic tuner and the seemingly never ending turning of the pegs on the tuner machines, the transformed guitar begins to sing its songs with a fresh, much improved voice. I’m always struck by the sweetness of the new strings.

“Wow, I should have changed these long ago. The new ones sound great,” I usually proclaim to the household, causing my wife to mutter that I always say that when I put on new strings. Still, it is continually a fresh and delightful discovery, each and every time. I am, perhaps, a slow learner.

I coil up the old strings, and attempt to put them in the garbage can, along with the handful of snipped off string ends, from both the old and new sets. This tangle of wires always resists me, usually breaking free and uncoiling onto the kitchen floor, attempting to evade my thick-fingered efforts to corral them and restuff them into the can. After all our quality time together, they just don’t seem to want to leave. It can be another perilous time for exposed fingers and toes, another opportunity to earn a Purple Heart for Guitarists. Now, though, I can see them in all their dirt and grime, the finish worn off and dull, any new effort to bring forth any decent sound doomed to failure. Tired and worn out, they are ready for a rest.

The rules and the pleasures of guitar string changes applies to other parts of my life, as well. I learn a lot from this occasional task. Familiar jeans well past their prime and faded, torn t-shirts and flannel shirts, with ripped sleeves, deserve similar replacements. Shoes, however, are the worst. I can easily wear out a pair of my favorite hiking shoes, my daily attire, until every last aspect of padding and support are long gone. A new pair tells me immediately that the old shoes were at least several months past their lifespan, and that familiar phrase again crosses my lips, “I should have changed these a long time ago.”.

These discoveries can be applied to other aspects of my life: toothbrushes, cracked glassware, chipped plates, bent forks, even one’s favorite chair. I can apply these lessons to my community life, as well: overly familiar places to hang out and tiresome, sometimes toxic people who refuse to grow in their thinking and experiences.

My guitar teaches me a lot about life: perseverance, consistent practicing, having a regular time to focus on some quality “me time”. And, change.

We can wake up in the morning, engage the world, and remark to everyone within ear shot, “I should have changed this a long time ago.”

9/30/2020

A Time for Commitment


By Neal Lemery

Today, wildfire smoke fills the sky, forest fires are fiercely rampaging my state and county, and the Covid virus remains unchecked. Businesses, students, and teachers are having to learn new ways, and our world often seems upside down. This time has its challenges, yet we are called to take charge and forge ahead. We have the gift of opportunity.
Our world is changing, but it always has. Obstacles and adaptations are part of our history and a part of daily living.
The only constant in life is change. That phrase is a cliché, but it speaks great truth now and is our call to action.
These times are really no different than any other era in humanity’s existence on the planet. We have survived much worse crises and disasters than what the current times have presented to us.
We humans are survivors, adaptors to life-threatening and life-altering circumstances. Natural forces of every kind, plagues, famines, wars, and tribal conflicts have always been in our lives.
Often, we don’t do well at coping and our selfishness and emotional outrages result in misery and devastation. We can truly be our worst enemy. Most changes seem out of our hands. We can think this state of being out of control makes us helpless.
We can adapt, we change, and we move forward. We can be instruments of change today. We are, after all, in charge of our attitudes, our intentions, and our actions. How and what we think, what we plan and the steps we take, even the direction, lie within us. We can be determined and focused. We can become educated. We are able to do our research, and inventory and manage our resources. We can plot our way forward.
That work is the heritage we’ve gained from our ancestors, who were masters at adversity and adaptation. If they weren’t successful at that work, we wouldn’t be here, and our DNA wouldn’t have the “software” that empowers us to successfully solve problems. We wouldn’t have all the asserts and the benefits of a strong and vibrant civilization.
This year has its own seemingly insurmountable list of challenges. At times, there seems no end to new problems and often bizarre situations. Yet, such challenges are our history. How humankind has dealt with and often overcome these challenges is truly our heritage. We have literally built our culture and our civilization upon the ashes of daunting challenges.
Such work can also be our own legacy. Certainly what we can do today, this moment, are our marching orders, our map out of the wilderness of seemingly insurmountable problems.
This is our moment, our opportunity to rise to the challenges we face.
Make your list. Label the challenges, our collective to-do list. This list can be daunting, but the work is nothing new in the eyes of our ancestors and the lessons of history.
A journey begins with one step, and continues forward, one step at a time. Our history shows us that the work of just a few leads to significant life-altering results.
Your patience, your experience, knowledge, talent, and intestinal fortitude can be a significant contribution to some fundamental work and progress. One person can advance civilization and inspire others to accomplish great deeds. Our collaboration, our energy, our passion to live our values and take action are what is needed now.
Let’s get to work, together, united, and committed to moving ahead.

9/11/2020

Wanting Change: How Does That Happen?


By Neal Lemery

 

Often, I react to the news with despair, anger and frustration.  I remind myself that the “news” is often sensationalized, that the news business is a business, and that almost all the “good news” is not included in a news program.  Yet, what much of what is “news” stirs me up to wanting change, a different approach to old problems.

If I want change, I have to act.

If I am passive, then others will make changes, or not.  And those actions or inactions will likely not be what I want to see happen.  I will not have a voice.  My silence, my inaction diminishes my soul and my purpose in life.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world,” Mahatma Gandhi famously said.

Yet, to borrow a phrase from Al Gore, it is an inconvenient truth.

If I don’t like what I read in the news, then either I am an instrument to change the world, or I do nothing.  My inaction assures that I lose my right to express my disagreement with what is going on. After all, actions speak louder than words.

I am in charge of how I react, respond, how I am an instrument of change, putting action into my beliefs, and thus creating change, building a better world.

If I don’t like what I see in my community, my neighborhood, my family, then I need to step up and get involved, and become an instrument of change.

A healthier community starts with me. Put up or shut up.  It’s all on me.

The simple acts are the easiest and the most effective.  They have the greatest impact long term.

Here’s a list of actions for me, and, hopefully, you:

  • Invite a friend to coffee.
  • Play music, and teach someone else, sharing music with others, creating joy and community.
  • Start a conversation with a stranger.
  • Send an inspirational note or story to a friend.
  • Reach out to a prisoner, someone who is going through a hard patch, someone in pain.
  • Acknowledge someone’s loss, or a challenge, and offer them a compliment, a few words of cheer and encouragement. They are not alone.
  • Practice patience and understanding.
  • Don’t expect a reward or recognition. Acting anonymously can be very sweet.
  • Practice forgiveness and compassion, even if another’s words or acts seem hurtful.
  • Imagine walking in the shoes of another.
  • Remember the Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they shall never sit in.”
  • Slow to judge, quicker to forgive.
  • Intend to follow the Golden Rule.
  • Examine your own biases and prejudices. Do some personal housekeeping. I’ve found this to be very humbling and enlightening.
  • Suspend judgement.
  • Don’t assume.

 

My ego gets in the way in this work, but if I am honest, I learn more about myself and the world, and I move forward to be a better human being.

 

And, the world changes, just a little.

 

9/21/2019

One Person Making A Difference


 

 

–by Neal Lemery

 

The daily news can be overwhelming, and often paralyzes me into a state of inaction, frustration, and disappointment on how I fit in. I wonder if my life really has meaning. Nothing I can do will make a difference, part of my brain rationalizes, pushing me into idleness and despondency.

I have to work hard to countermand that kind of thinking, which is ineffective and against all of my values and spirituality.  I bring value to the world. Everyone does. Creating change and spreading love is the essence of my purpose on this planet.  Yet, the negativity and depressive energy seems to be persistent and ever-present.

Others, with great wisdom, take on this feeling, this social attitude that often seems pervasive.  They turn it around and urge us to be proactive, to initiate change by engaging with others.  And, often that work is not a shout out to the entire world, but quiet, thoughtful work, one on one, giving an individual some attention and direction.

Oprah’s new book, The Path Made Clear: Discovering Your Life’s Direction and Purpose, is a delightful and inspiring collection of quotes and short essays on empowering yourself to change your attitude and the world.

“When you know, teach. When you get, give.” – Maya Angelou.

We are all teachers and givers. That is what we are here for, the purpose of life. As a child, I found great joy in life in simply being with others.  The greatest satisfactions came with experiences with others.  Sharing, giving, teaching, it is all the same, moving us towards our purpose, our life force of one’s love to others. I often get side-tracked, and forget that profound lesson I learned as a child.

When we give, when we teach, when we share of ourselves to others, that spreads out into the world, like a pebble tossed into a pond.  The good from that rebounds back to us, often in ways we may not recognize or even be aware.  And, often that echoing is seen many years later, our initial altruistic act nearly forgotten.

The time frame for that fits no pre-conceived schedule or expectation. Often, I sense that “return on investment” as a surprise, a new, unexpected gift back to me.

At other times, my investment seems like a poor choice. The recipient of my attention, my nurturance and loving, acts out with meanness, anger, and multiple acts of self and social destruction and violence. I see numerous acts of narcissistic rage and self-harm, a desire to “win at all cost”.

The addictions of this world, be it drugs, violence, selfishness, or other toxins, often can seem to be the winners on the battlefields people create to try to make it through our lives.  I can’t change the world by having bigger, more deadly weapons in my arsenal.  Such escalation only increases the casualty lists and leaves the world poorer, more broken. Hatred is a no-win answer for any problem. And, it turns me into a nasty, vitriolic shell of my true self.

“There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” – Eldridge Cleaver.

If I am patient, and understanding, and willing to step to the side and let the storms of rage and loathing pass by, the inherent goodness can still be found in the ashes of the outcomes of frustration and acting out.  In those moments, there is often a “sweet moment” of opportunity.

I try to turn it around, and rather than fling my own spears and shoot my own arrows of hostility and rage, I get in touch with my own gentle side, and respond with compassion, patience, and reaching out to them.

Such an approach is not without its challenges. But, I’m stubborn and persistent in my own path of being an instrument of change.

A few words of kindness, a smile, a warm and welcoming handshake can be disarming.  If the recipient of my outreach responds with a look of need or even acknowledgement of my message, then the communication has begun, and the path of their day of anger and rage has been changed.

Just listening, with compassion, is a revolutionary act.

People do change. It is often a small change, but it IS a change, an alteration, a glimpse of an alternative on how one should feel, how the day can be navigated in a different way, even in developing a vision on living an intentional, purposeful life based upon love.

Perhaps in those small acts, I am a rebel, a revolutionary, going in a direction that isn’t what is expected of me, or the place in this world other people perceive I should occupy.

“You reap what you sow.”

I can be the good farmer, the good steward of my own heart and its bounty.  If I take care of my own little corner of the world, and let my garden grow, then I can later share my harvest with the world.

When I reach out to someone and suspend judgement and bias, if I give of myself and my life force, then I’m being genuine, real, and open.  That person I’m in touch with gets the real me, a person striving to be an honest, straight-forward bit of love and care, with all of my own imperfections and challenges.

Like all of us, I’m a work in progress.

That gift of me can help fill an empty spot, ease a pain, help heal a wound, even start a conversation.

“Someone cares” can also be a very powerful, world-changing message, a key ingredient in letting another person move closer to their true potential, and find an easier path to their own peacefulness and gentleness.

We all need to heal.  There are more than enough wounds in life that need to heal, to ease the pain in our hearts, to feel that we truly belong to our community, that our own life matters and has purpose.

I can make a difference.  I am valued for what I do, who I am, and what I can contribute to others.

“Give to this world what you want to receive from the world, because that is what you will receive.”  –Gary Zukov

 

4/23/2019

 

 

Exploring Toxic Masculinity


 

 

–by Neal Lemery

 

What is it to be a man in these times?

There are a lot of mixed messages, and outright confusing and contradictory “principles” and models for behavior. It is easy to get lost in the wilderness of our social contract.

The “#MeToo” Movement and the rhetoric and behavior of popular politicians and popular culture figures send conflicting messages. One is often left confused about what is accepted, what is appropriate moral behavior and thinking. Political and religious leaders, who should be exercising healthy leadership and conversation about these issues, are themselves in the center of the storms of outrage, of being called out for their own transgressions and immoral acts.  And, their failure to be effective spokespersons for what should be healthy masculinity.

For many of them, there seems to be no consequence for their words or their actions.

The goalposts of morality and decency seem to have fallen into quicksand.

For most of my life, the most popular “templates” for manhood involved being the tough, aggressive guy, who was focused on “scoring” with women, drinking, smoking, and pushing others around in order to get his way. Aggression and being emotionally cold were the benchmarks of a true man, the battle flags of male privilege.

The “soft” man was seen as weak and sissified, certainly not a real man.  The consequences for that were brutal: verbal and physical abuse, ostracism, and being branded as “not a real man”, inadequate, a failure. Shame and guilt were powerful weapons to destroy a boy’s soul.

When I was growing up, the real question of the day was “how tough am I?” The unforgiving world of the school playground was also the world of work and the world I grew up in and raised a family.

That methodology of raising boys unfortunately remains a part of our culture today, often perpetuated by our language, marketing, politics, and acceptance of the idea that such thinking and acting are just who we are, inadequate and deficient as men. A big challenge I faced when I was raising my kids was to not repeat the harmful actions and words of those who raised and influenced me as a kid.

Treating others with kindness, being artistic and creative, being one of those “sensitive, soft men”, was subject to being thought of as not a real man, not “macho”, and certainly not a role model.  Unless, of course, you wrapped yourself in the armor of a warrior, and couched your rhetoric in the language of the soldier, the athlete, and an all-around tough guy. Only a few savvy men were able to pull that off.

I struggled to find a new template, new words, and new actions. The role models for that were few and far between. Yet, I am grateful for their courage, and for showing me that there was an alternative path to masculinity.

A lot of that attitude of intolerance, of cloaking one’s self in armor, so no one could see your tenderness, or get close to your kind heart, has eased off lately, in spite of the power and tenacity of the “old thinking”. Change is scary, and acting differently leads one into uncharted waters, marked with fear and self-doubt. Even toxic familiarity offers comfort.

Today, I see young men publicly being attentive, kind fathers. They speak out about treating others with kindness and compassion.  They not only “talk the talk”, but they “walk the walk”.

Expressing your creativity, and being open about one’s fears and uncertainties, and struggles to be a good person are becoming widely accepted and appreciated. The times, they are a changing, and that is good news.

The good role models, the brave men who cracked open their own armor, and were able to express their worries, their doubts, their insecurities, have taken a lot of heat.  They have often been shamed and derided, mocked and scorned.  Years later, when we take another look at what they’ve said and what they have done, what they have revealed about their innermost selves, we often just take such courage for granted, and assume that we as a society have always explored those issues, and those personal stories, with sensitivity and appreciation.

We live in challenging times, but we always have.  Engaging one’s own courage, determination and self-confidence to know and live your own core values, to truly be yourself, to be genuine, has always been challenging.  You need to take risks, and to step out on shaky ground.  Each one of us has those doubts, those uncertainties inside of us.

“What is it to be a man?” I still ask myself.  Each day offers a new challenge, with obstacles both inside of me and in our society.  I often think it is easier if I just kept quiet, if I just put these questions aside, and focused on something else, anything else, for the day ahead.  But, healthy masculinity, true manhood, calls me to take on these questions, and to take a hard look at myself, and to take steps today to be a real man.

 

 

–1/23/19

Living In A Strong Community


Living in a Strong Community

 

–by Neal Lemery

 

“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”
― Jean Vanier, Community And Growth

 

I’ve been taking a look at my community, and wondering how we measure up, in these challenging times, when some are wondering if our society is in decline.

 

Here’s a checklist of seven attributes of a healthy community:

  1. Good governance
  2. Walkable, connected, mixed-use character
  3. Parks and gardens
  4. Partnerships
  5. Programming
  6. Neighborhood-responsive schools
  7. Tree culture

–Scott Doyon

 

Being in community is vital to my own mental health and emotional well-being.  Given the continual national stream of tragic events fueled by racism, prejudice, bigotry, and selfishness, I often feel the weight of despair and hopelessness. I am increasingly more sensitive to reaching my limit of how much of that “news cycle” and horror I can be exposed to.

Much of that angst is relieved when I immerse myself in building up my community, and being present with others who are caring, selfless people engaged in taking care of themselves and each other in these turbulent, emotionally exhausting times.

In my town, we are doing it right. I think we get high marks on Scott Doyon’s list of a healthy, engaged community.

In the past three years, the state highway department has funded a major revamping of the traffic pattern (our previously confusing junction of two major highways), narrow downtown streets, and a dilapidated, underused waterfront.

This week, we are celebrating the completion of that project, as well as other efforts by the city and the business community to rejuvenate and invigorate the downtown, making it a welcoming and prosperous town.

Now, we have new sidewalks, a smoother flowing traffic pattern, a town pedestrian plaza, bike paths, a food truck cart center, bike racks, a fresh look in two waterfront parks, and a walkway encouraging people to walk to other parks and attractions.  New bridges span the slough at the north edge of the downtown. New landscaping adds a fresh, inviting look.  The local restaurant scene is vigorous and inviting. Open mics, featuring local musicians and writers, are now the norm.

Downtown merchants have also gotten on board, with renovations, fresh paint, and interesting shops.  We have a number of new downtown events, including a monthly Art Walk, a thriving community art gallery, and a museum which not only showcases local artists, but a continuing schedule of regionally renown speakers and presenters.

 

Community organizations are thriving, and numerous activities are filling up the community calendar with a wide variety of events for every interest. New ideas are being discussed, and plans are underway for even more activities and ways to build a healthier community. We have a “can do” attitude now.

 

Our “Year of Wellness”, a public health collaborative to focus on ways to improve individual and community health, has brought together the entire spectrum of health service agencies, government, and individuals to collaborate on improving public health and a sense of community spirit. We are challenging ourselves to live healthier, more informed lives, and doing it from the ground up.  Grass roots activism at its finest! We’ve decided a year wasn’t long enough for the tasks we identified, and now the work is seen as long term, with increasingly challenging and meaningful goals. Community wellness is now part of our collective experience.

 

The library is spearheading the building of a new downtown park, and library programs are enjoying wide popularity, engaging the community on a variety of experiences and informative activities for all ages.  Public use of the library is setting records.

 

Teachers are developing state of the art educational experiences for students, and we are becoming increasingly well informed about the impact of childhood trauma, domestic violence, hunger, and addiction recovery.

 

The best part of all this is that we have a sense of belonging here.  Each of us is important, and each of us is a valued contributor to the common good, the whole community.  An individual has something unique to offer, and is a valued, unique player in the common effort.  I feel I belong here, and so do all my neighbors.

 

In this town, one person makes the difference, and others listen to their voice, and value their experience, their perspective, and their talents.  And, we have the will power and the courage to take on the difficult, ugly issues that our community, and the nation, has.  Much of the work is hard, and the tasks are daunting at times.  We don’t always achieve 100% success, but we are trying and we see a lot of progress in what we are trying to accomplish. And, that feels really good.

 

In this town, there is hope, and there is a sense of collective purpose. We are committed to be winners, and the changers that create a better world.  Now, we are a town of optimism and determination.

 

Community partnerships are everywhere, knitting together our community fabric in a fresh spirit of resolve and collaboration.  There’s an attitude of “get it done” and pitching in to just do it.

 

As my friends say around town, “Onward!”