Who’s Responsible?

In the fictional town of Lake Woebegone featured on the long-time public radio program “Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor, there is a Catholic church called Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. I smile every time I hear the church’s name because of how the phrase “perpetual responsibility” sums up the way I often feel like I am perpetually responsible for way too much. I thought of the church name again recently after I wrote that all the children of the Pelicans (our anniversary group) have turned into “responsible adults” despite our concerns for some of them while they were children, adolescents and young adults. Why didn’t I say they had turned into caring adults, or successful adults, or generous adults? Why did I hone in on responsibility?

Responsibility has always been a high value for me. Both my parents valued responsibility and they instilled a heavy dose of it in my brothers and me. Responsible people are in many ways the salt of the earth. They get things done; they are productive; they are punctual. They can be counted on to do what they say will do, usually without needing to be reminded repeatedly. They take care of themselves and don’t expect others to run to their rescue if they do something stupid that gets them in trouble. They acknowledge their mistakes and accept the consequences of those mistakes without complaining or blaming other people for them. The world works a lot better when people are responsible. What’s not to like?

Responsibility has an ugly side to it, however, which is why it’s on my mind right now. Being a responsible person can bring out one’s tendency toward perfectionism – always needing to do more, always feeling like you’re not doing enough, always feeling like what you’ve done isn’t good enough. Placing a high value on responsibility can turn a person into something of a control freak – always fussing at others to live up to their responsibilities, not being able to delegate tasks because you think you can do them better yourself and be sure they will get done.

In my case, placing a high value on responsibility is closely linked to my tendency toward anxiety. When I don’t have control over something for which I feel responsible, my anxiety intensifies sharply. This was true during my parenting years – especially when I was parenting young adults. I still felt responsible for my children – for their physical and emotional welfare, for guiding them toward good choices, for financially supporting them to a greater or lesser extent depending on their circumstances. But because they were young adults, I had very little if any control over what they did. When they made bad choices, I felt responsible but I couldn’t stop them from making those choices. It was a recipe for a long period of significant anxiety. I knew they were responsible for their own choices as adults, but because of my over-developed and perhaps warped sense of responsibility, I felt like I had failed. I couldn’t separate those things for which I really was responsible as a parent from those I could let go once my children were adults and responsible for themselves.

Recently, I’ve been experiencing another bout of anxiety associated with feeling responsible but not having as much control as I’d like. An occupational hazard for editors and writers and anyone who does any kind of event planning is the need to meet deadlines. I pride myself on being responsible and reliable about meeting deadlines; when I tell someone I will do something by a certain time or date, you can usually count on me to make the deadline. As the editor of a number of publications, I work with writers all the time. Most of the time, my writers meet the deadline I give them, but sometimes, I have to send multiple reminders and extend the deadline. The only control I have is through those reminders, and ultimately through the decision to go ahead without the article, which is my prerogative and responsibility as editor. Occasionally, I never get the article, despite assurances from writers that I’ll receive the article the next day (sort of a variation on “the check is in the mail”!). Then it never comes, not even after I send additional reminders and give ultimatums. Of course, such situations throw off my publication schedule, leave copy holes I have to fill, and don’t make me particularly happy, but I’ve learned to go more with the flow. If the summer issue of a publication doesn’t actually hit the street, so to speak, until fall, does it really matter in the great scheme of things?

The problem comes when the final deadline is something that cannot be changed – like a scheduled event for which the publication is required. In the current situation causing me anxiety, I feel overall responsibility for making sure the publication is completed on time, but over the last several months, I have had very little control. I’m not one of the writers, I’m not the editor, I’m not the designer, I’m not the printer – I’m just the manager in these late stages of the process toward final publication in time for an event in a couple weeks. At many points along the way, there have been snafus and delays, none of which have been my fault. At this point, I am becoming more confident that everything will be completed in time, but if it’s not, I know I am going to feel a great weight of responsibility for the failure to make the deadline. It will not be the end of the world (despite someone’s assertion that it would be “disastrous”), but it certainly feels like it will be a reflection on me as a responsible person who does what she says she’s going to do. The downside of the high value I place on responsibility rears its ugly head again.

Nothing about the curse of being a responsible person makes me want to be irresponsible or dilutes my view that being responsible is a good thing. Where would we be if everyone were irresponsible? But I do need to curb my tendency to assume responsibility for things that are out of my control and let go. A long time ago, I saw a cute little aphorism, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” Given my sense of responsibility, I resonated immediately; on second thought, however, I see it as extremely burdensome. Surely I don’t have to be responsible for everything! I suppose it’s like that passage in Galatians 6, where in the space of three verses, Paul tells his readers to “bear one another’s burdens” and then says, “all must carry their own loads.” Which is it? Probably both: I am responsible for myself (carry my own load), but I should also be able to count on others to help me (bear one another’s burdens) and be responsible for themselves. Together we’ll make things happen. The truth is, “If it is to be, it is up to us.

 

 

The Pelicans Reprised

Once upon a time, sixteen teenagers enrolled at Messiah College, most having grown up in the Brethren in Christ Church but not really knowing each other. Friendships developed and romances blossomed. Graduation and/or marriage dispersed them to many parts of the world. During one year, those sixteen teenagers became eight married couples. (Okay, to be accurate: two of them became a couple the year before, but let’s not quibble too much.) As the eight couples settled into adult life, friendships continued – sometimes across great distances to the other side of the world – and others were formed. For a time, some lived in the same neighborhood in Harrisburg where their children played and went to school together. Over the years, their careers have varied widely: doctor, nurse, therapist, museum curator, postal worker, missionary, business owner, administrator, computer programmer, business analyst, editor and writer, volunteer, pastor, teacher, insurance broker.

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The “Of Pines and Pelicans” house in the Outer Banks. This photo was taken in 2013 during a little trip down memory lane.

The network of relationships that began during college and continued through more than two decades of marriage brought all eight couples together to celebrate their 25th anniversaries in a huge rented house called “Of Pines and Pelicans” in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They had such a great time that they decided to continue spending time together and started calling themselves The Pelicans in honor of the Outer Banks house. Life and geographic distance intervened, and most of the time the original group of eight couples became five with one or more of the other three couples joining the group occasionally. Five couples celebrated the next three milestone anniversaries together: the 30th in southern Ontario; the 35th on a cruise to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; and the 40th on a cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean. In between these bigger events, the couples get together in their homes, at other special events, and once a year for a weekend in a rented house called Ox Bow View in Juniata County, Pennsylvania.

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Around the table at Ox Bow in 2013. Photo taken by yours truly.

Of course, this isn’t a fairy tale, and these are real people. I’ve written before about our wonderful group of friends with close to 50 years of shared history and almost 20 years of regularly spending time together as couples since that week in the Outer Banks. Since I’m the resident “professional writer,” I’ve often been encouraged to write our history and try to capture in words what we experience when we’re together. Honestly, I don’t think it’s something one person can do, since so much of what happens during our gatherings is an amazing confluence of all the experiences, creativity, wit and wisdom of everyone who is there. But writing by committee is difficult and frustrating (for me anyway), so here’s my small effort to add to the story, focusing on some common themes that we seem to return to every time we’re together.

Our children and grandchildren: Back in 1996 in the Outer Banks, each couple shared their courtship and marriage story. Our children were still in their teens and early 20s and trying to find their places in the world. In the years since, we’ve talked a lot about our children – their successes and failures, our joys and concerns for them. Now they’re all well-established as responsible adults (thank you, God!), with spouses of their own, and they’ve given us some of the world’s most adorable grandchildren to pamper. So our conversations have shifted to “grandparent tales,” and the photos we share are more often of them and not their parents!

Our health: You might expect health to be a topic of conversation among 60-somethings, as we lament the way our bodies are breaking down and do our best to forestall the process. Three of us are cancer survivors, one had open heart surgery, one had back surgery, one had a minor stroke, several are becoming more hard of hearing (and periodically show off their new and improved hearing aids), and we all have an ever-changing variety of the aches and pains of aging. We’re fortunate to have a couple doctors among us who don’t mind being consulted informally about the latest symptom. Our memories are all fairly well intact, but being well aware that increasing forgetfulness is often a characteristic of the aging process, we joke a lot about how we’ll soon be able to repeat stories because it will be like hearing them for the first time. Diminished hearing also makes for laughter, when what someone hears is not what the speaker intended. Without even trying, we have our own version of the whisper game.

Language, words, and old songs: I might be the one who makes her living with all the words I write and edit, but we all enjoy language and words. One person is our master pun-maker, able to come up with a clever and appropriate pun in the moment, and others try really hard to keep up with him. We all appreciate the English language correctly used, and can easily spend an evening around the dining room table listing all our language and grammatical pet peeves. (See here for some of mine…) I always have a worthy opponent for a couple games of Scrabble anagrams, and we’ve played hilarious rounds of the dictionary game. We also like to sing together – especially old hymns and songs that were popular during our teen years. One evening around the dining room table consisted of a version of “Name That Tune,” as one person gave the first word or phrase of an old Sunday school chorus (think 1950s) and everyone else broke into song. We were amazed at the huge repertoire of choruses we had among us, from all those years during our childhoods of attending Sunday school, children’s meetings at conferences and camp meetings, Vacation Bible School, etc.

Recurring jokes: There are certain words and phrases that are guaranteed to evoke laughter – as we remember their context in a joke from 15 years ago, or just 15 minutes ago. These are inside jokes, definitely of the “you-had-to-be-there” variety, which don’t translate well for others not in the group. The words and phrases sound innocuous enough – sweet corn, stick, saran wrap – but they remind us of moments of doubled-over, tears-producing laughter. There was also the time we were going around the table with each couple telling a story about themselves that no one else knew. One couple told a story that had the rest of us wide-eyed and open-mouthed – we couldn’t believe this had happened to them and no one ever knew. Then the punch line: it was all a fabrication, a lie. Yet it sounded so believable the way they told the story, with both husband and wife fully engaged in tag-teaming the details. We will never let them live that down – and now we are not nearly so trusting of the stories we hear.

Intense discussions: We are not a monolithic group, with everyone believing the same thing and coming down on the same side of controversial issues. We range from fairly liberal to fairly conservative on the theological and political spectrum. Some of us are quite sure of what we believe, while others are far more nuanced and tentative, which makes for interesting conversations when one person declares that “this is the way it is” and someone else wishes for more uncertainty and open-mindedness. We have had significant personal disagreements, to the point of serious conflict that made us wonder whether our group could survive. Sometimes someone feels left out of the conversation because it’s about something he or she doesn’t care or know anything about, or because it feels too trivial when there are important and life-changing issues to discuss. Navigating the waters of these intense discussions has been difficult, but we keep trying because we care about each other and value our friendship.

The food: One year at Ox Bow, as we were fantasizing about the book we could write about ourselves, we lit upon the idea of a cookbook. We always eat well when we’re together. In the early days of these weekend getaways, we ate three full meals a day. (Before each weekend, we divvy up the meal responsibilities, with one or two couples being in charge of each meal.) It began to feel like all we ever got done was preparing for a meal, eating it, and then cleaning up afterwards, not to mention never really being hungry when time for the next meal rolled around. Finally, we got smart and scaled down to two meals a day – a mid-morning brunch and an evening meal. But those two meals are always feasts, whether they consist of traditional fare or new recipes that the gourmet cooks among us like to try.

Last fall, on our way home from a return vacation to the Outer Banks, Dale and I searched out the house the Pelicans rented in 1996. From the outside it showed clear signs of wear and tear: hurricanes, tropical storms, sun, sand and wind have beaten down on it. I couldn’t help thinking that the way the house has weathered a lot is something of a metaphor for the Pelican couples as well. We’ve weathered much and we’re showing signs of age, but like the house, we’re still standing strong and ready not only for the next stage of our lives but also for more good times together with treasured friends.

 

Mending Walls

Good fences make good neighbors. Our reflex response when we hear that statement is usually agreement.  Of course, it makes perfect sense that good fences make good neighbors. Fences establish boundaries; they prevent arguments about whose property is whose. They help create order, keeping our children and pets inside and unwanted visitors outside. They offer privacy and protection. Even when housing developments establish rules disallowing fences because they detract from the appearance and clutter up the landscape, less intrusive and more natural types of “fencing” often take their place, such as shrubbery or underground fencing. The principle seems clear and most seem to agree: good fences make good neighbors.

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“Mending Wall” by Ken Fiery, 2007; from the Robert Frost Series

The line comes from Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall.” In the poem, the narrator and his neighbor are engaged in their annual ritual of repairing (mending) the wall between their properties. Beginning “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” the narrator describes how gaps inevitably end up in the wall each year, creating the need for him and his neighbor to repair it. The poem continues with the account of the annual mending process, with the narrator noting that the wall isn’t really necessary because “He is all pine and I am an apple orchard./My apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.” The neighbor responds, “Good fences make good neighbors,” apparently quoting something his father always said and he still believes. The narrator, however, isn’t so sure: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offence.” And then the opening line is repeated, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” adding, “That wants it down.”

In 2014, it’s hard to read this poem and not think of other walls, like the modern-day Separation Wall built by Israel intended to protect against Palestinian violence and the partial fence between the United States and Mexico to keep out undocumented immigrants. And in light of everything that has happened this summer in Gaza and along the U.S. border, it’s hard not to wonder: How have those walls worked out? Have they made good neighbors?

In the poem, both parties work together to mend the wall each year. Even though the narrator is not sure the fence is needed, he works with his neighbor who continues to think the fence is a good thing. The wall between their properties isn’t giving offense. With the Israel/Palestine Separation Wall and the U.S./Mexico border fence, the decision to create the fences was more unilateral – one side (Israel in one case and the U.S. in the other) decided to wall out those from the other side who were and are still seen to be dangerous or threatening to national security and sovereignty. The reasons for these walls are understandable; the problems seem insurmountable and chronic, and nothing seems to work. The conventional wisdom when the walls were built and still this summer is that Israel has a right to defend itself, and the United States can’t just let everyone in who wants to come. However, the walls were not created by mutual agreement, and there is no annual ritual on both sides of the walls to repair the holes, both literal and figurative, only more tension and violence.

How have the walls worked out? Have they or will they ever resolve the underlying issues that seemed to make them necessary in the first place? Who are they offending? What is the Palestinian view of the Separation Wall; how do Mexicans and others from Central America view the border fence?

What if there were more mutuality in these two contemporary situations, more like what seems to be the case in the poem? Every year the neighbors in the poem take a day out of their schedules and come together to fix the holes and talk to each other – the person who thinks the wall is unnecessary initiating the task, and the other clinging to the belief that the wall is a good thing, but both committed to making the relationship work, wall or not. Granted, the Separation Wall and the U.S./Mexico border fence are attempts to solve seemingly intractable problems of long-standing; they’re not simple borders between two generally friendly neighbors as in the poem. The neighbors in the poem have it really easy by comparison. But what lessons might we learn from them and their mending wall?

I’m struck by the title of the poem – “The Mending Wall.” The title isn’t “mending the wall,” which seems to be more what the poem is about. Instead, the word mending is used as an adjective to describe the wall. It’s a wall for mending, or a wall that is mending. Perhaps one thing the poem is really about is how the annual ritual of coming together to mend the holes in the wall also has the potential to mend relationships and build understanding between the people on both sides of the wall. While they engage in the common task of mending the wall, the neighbors talk. The narrator raises the question, again, about why they need the fence. The neighbor responds, again, that “good fences make good neighbors.” They have different perspectives, but they both participate in the ritual, and they both agree to keep the fence between them and to maintain it together. They apparently leave at the end of the day knowing they will come back together next year, and in the meantime, the fence is there by mutual consent.

In our world today, there are so many walls  – literal and figurative – between individual people and between nations. This summer we’ve seen that neither the Separation Wall in Israel/Palestine nor the U.S./Mexico border fence seems to have contributed to much understanding. Where are the mending walls? Where is the commitment on all sides – not just in these two situations but in so many others – to come together regularly to repair the holes in the walls, to have another conversation with each other, to build the kind of understanding that will keep the peace for another year?

 

The Road Not Taken

Maybe it’s a function of my age, but not long ago when I reread Robert Frost’s classic poem, “The Road Not Taken,” the last two lines of the third stanza stood out in a way they haven’t before: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way/I doubted if I should ever come back.” The lines got me thinking: what if I had made different choices at specific points in my life? Wouldn’t it be interesting to go back to various decision points (when “two roads diverged”) and this time make the other choice?

For example, what if I had pursued my childhood goal of becoming a nurse? As I look back, the decision to change my college major from pre-nursing to English was a major turning point and fundamentally altered the trajectory of my life. Of course, it’s not possible to go back to where the two roads diverged and choose the other route, and it’s hard to speculate on what would have happened had I become a nurse. It’s a lot easier to think about what quite likely would not have happened if I hadn’t changed my major to English.

Graduate school, dating and marriage: Changing my major to English at the end of my freshman year meant that I didn’t have to leave Messiah College after two years to go to nursing school. It also meant I needed to figure out what to do with an English major. High school teaching became the default, but because I was only 20 years old when I graduated from college, I thought I was too young to start teaching high school right away. Going to graduate school immediately after college made a lot of sense, not only to age me a couple of years but also to give me the added credentials of a master’s degree.

The first few months of graduate school on the other side of the country in Moscow, Idaho were difficult. I didn’t know anyone and I was lonely and homesick, so when my friend Mary wrote telling me about a conversation her mother had with Dale’s mother in which my future mother-in-law said she thought Dale (who was teaching in Zambia) would like to hear from me, I jumped at the chance to reach out to another classmate. I had not dated much to that point in my life, and I think I was already beginning to resign myself to being single. In hindsight that seems a little silly, given that I was only 20 years old, but at the time, it seemed like a reasonable conclusion given my almost total lack of dating experience so far. I sent Dale a Christmas card that year, launching a letter-writing courtship that culminated in our marriage two and a half years later. Had I not changed my major to English, gone away to graduate school where I felt lonely, who knows whether I would have sent Dale that Christmas card. And if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have the two wonderful children I have, along with their spouses and my four grandchildren. I can’t even imagine what life would be like without all of them in it!

Writing and editorial career: One of the major factors guiding the decision to switch my major from nursing to English was affirmation from my freshman English composition professor of my writing ability. There had been a couple of previous affirmations of my writing (including an A+ for a short story I wrote in high school that embarrasses me now), but there had also been the teacher in elementary school who told me my writing “lacks sparkle.” As an English major in college, one of my major extracurricular activities was serving on the staff of the college newspaper, writing news articles and editing the paper during my senior year.

While I didn’t start out with any intentions of becoming a writer and editor, my career has been a classic case of “how way leads on to way.” One opportunity led to another, which led to others. At first I wrote articles for my denominational periodical (for free), but then I was asked to take on major editorial projects, some of which actually paid real money. Some were short-term, while some have lasted a long time, like my 33+ years of editing Shalom! for the Brethren in Christ Church. Success in small editorial and writing projects led to what became a more-than-twenty-year career as a publications/communications person in children’s mental health for the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Who knows what interesting twists and turns and opportunities would have come my way as a nurse, but I certainly haven’t been bored with the career I’ve had and there have always been new creative challenges.

Commitment to peace and justice: Had I not married Dale (which as I’ve already suggested might not have happened if I hadn’t gone far away to graduate school in English after college), it’s entirely possible that I would have ended up at a different place on peace and justice issues. We both came of age during the Vietnam War and grew up in a religious tradition that encouraged compassionate service and opposed war and violence, so we had the same significant formative influences. But, as Dale and I differed with each other on matters of theology, faith and belief, what we continued to have in common were our values and commitment to pursuing peace and justice in the world. We might have come to it from different philosophical frameworks, but we share the same commitment.

Robert Frost’s poem ends with this stanza:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

For a long time I thought the poem was mostly about the value of taking the road less traveled – making your own path rather than following the easy route that everyone else is taking or expects you to take. Yet the title of the poem is “The Road Not Taken,” which despite the final lines seems to suggest a certain nostalgia and wonderment about what would have happened if the traveler had chosen the other road. After all, he is “telling this with a sigh” – perhaps a sigh of sadness that he couldn’t go back to the beginning again. At the same time, however, the traveler seems satisfied with the path he chose: “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Ultimately, we can drive ourselves crazy imagining what might have happened if we had made a different choice at certain points in our lives. For example, recently an older gentleman who was a good friend of my parents commented that long ago his father suggested that an aunt of mine would have been a good partner for him. So my mind immediately went down that “what if” path: his children would be my first cousins. But of course his actual children who I’ve known for many years wouldn’t be the people I know because they wouldn’t have had the same parents; they might not even exist at all! The “what if I had chosen the other road” is an interesting exercise – and can become rather mind-boggling – but ultimately perhaps it’s beside the point. We can either regret the choices we made or be grateful for the wonderful things we would have missed if we had made a different choice 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago. While it’s entirely possible (and perhaps even likely) that a nursing profession would have worked out just fine for me, I don’t regret the choice I made to major in English instead. That has made all the difference!

 

Why I Hate Watching the News, or Pursuing Peace

I have been something of a news junkie for a long time. I wake up to NPR’s Morning Edition, and throughout the day I often listen to other NPR news programs and talk shows. Last year, when our local public radio station changed its format from a mixture of news/talk and classic music to all talk, I was sad because I also enjoyed the classical music. But since then, I’ve come to appreciate the news and talk shows that have taken its place. I also watch television news, particularly cable news channels, and I read online news and commentary. I want to know what’s happening in the world. I don’t want to be ignorant. I don’t want to insulate myself in my own little corner of the world with no knowledge or understanding of what life is like for people in other parts of the world.

Some news and talk shows are generally civil and relatively balanced in their perspectives on world and national news, whereas others are much more clearly biased toward either the left or right of the political spectrum. The latter feature “discussions” that often generate more heat than light on the topic at hand; many of the people participating simply repeat talking points or the latest spin rather than engage in genuine dialogue aimed at understanding the issues and helping to move forward. Lately I have found myself wanting to turn everything off or escape into non-political or escapist television because I get so angry and frustrated at the polarized situation we’re in these days and the apparent inability of national and world leaders to find common ground and develop and implement solutions to the many problems we face. Even when I find points of view that resonate with my own, I sometimes dislike the tone of the speakers who, while they might be speaking the truth as I see it, are not doing it in a way that seems helpful and constructive.

No matter the topic or issue, general meanspiritedness often seems to rule the day. A steady diet of this, which results in very little progress toward finding lasting solutions, saps my spirit. I am regularly saddened when I see even some of my Facebook friends – who are good people from everything else I know about them – participate in and endorse the meanspiritedness. At the same time, I find myself feeling pretty meanspirited too. My husband will confirm that I have been known to engage in name-calling in the privacy of our home when people start spewing what I consider lies, distortions and points of view that make no sense to me or seem unhelpful and even damaging. While I like to think there’s a certain virtue in my commitment not to go public (say on Facebook or in this blog) with my name-calling and other not-so-generous feelings toward certain public figures with whom I disagree vehemently, I realize that I can be held just as responsible for my private thoughts as I am for those I make public.

Which brings me to the “pursuing peace” core value of my church. This eighth of the ten core values of the Brethren in Christ Church is further explained: “We value all human life, and promote understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.” In our current context of polarization, divisiveness, meanspiritedness, and serious and deadly conflicts of all kinds, this value speaks to me of the possibilities for something different.

What if more people practiced this core value every day? What if we really valued all human life and guarded the essential dignity and worth of every human being regardless of whether or not they deserve it? What if we put as much energy into understanding people as we do attacking them or trying to destroy figuratively and literally those with whom we disagree? What if we were genuinely interested in understanding why they believe what they do, why they act that way, what happened in the past that informs what’s happening now, what are the root causes of the present conflict, and how might we address those root causes in a way that helps people feel genuinely heard and understood??

What if we could forgive and let go of past hurts, horrific as they might be, and choose to move forward rather than dwell on those past hurts? What if we worked toward true reconciliation in the sense of finding a way to make two or more different ideas exist or be true at the same time (Merriam-Webster definition), rather than require one idea (or people group, or faction) to cease to exist or give in?

And what if we were committed to nonviolent resolution of conflict? We know conflict is inevitable and part of being human, but when it happens, as it surely will, what if we were so committed to valuing all human life, and to understanding, forgiveness and reconciliation that we refused to allow the conflict to degenerate into violence – whether the violence of angry words and character assassination or the violence of guns and bombs? Violence feeds on itself and becomes an endless cycle when retaliation, retribution and revenge are believed to be necessary responses rather than understanding, forgiveness and reconciliation.

I know all this sounds simplistic, naive and pie-in-the-sky, in light of the seemingly intractable situations in so many places these days, but really, what might happen if more people lived by this core value? One of the reasons I’ve been turning off the news lately is that I don’t like what it’s doing to me. I don’t like how easily I can get caught up in the polarized rhetoric, believing that one side is wrong and the other is right, and forgetting that every person whose point of view or action is repugnant to me is still a person worthy of my understanding, compassion and grace. I want to be a person who pursues peace, values everyone, and tries to understand, forgive, reconcile and resolve conflict nonviolently. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. May I not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.”

 

Do We Overprotect Our Kids?

Last fall I posted a picture on Facebook of Dale and me with three of our grandchildren at Cherry Crest Adventure Farm in Lancaster County. The toddler was in a stroller. Dana (the toddler’s mom) commented, “My baby is not strapped! Caught you!” No, I had not belted Selena into the stroller. She was in and out of the thing all day, and I didn’t think it was necessary to strap her in every single time we moved a few yards from one farm attraction to another. Dana’s comment made me feel a little guilty, but also a little defensive.

What person my age hasn’t said multiple times, “It’s a wonder we survived,” as we observe and enforce all the safety precautions that are intended to protect our children and grandchildren from harm. In my childhood, there weren’t any seat belts or car seats, bike helmets and knee/elbow pads, or playground equipment standards. Even when my own children were young, the car seats we used weren’t that good and I would often hold (and even nurse) my baby on my lap – in the passenger seat, of course.

When I was a child growing up in the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), I did many things that today would likely be considered dangerous. All of us missionary kids loved to climb and play on the rocks at Matopo Mission. I can picture spots among the rocks behind the main mission house at Matopo that required a fair amount of scrambling to reach but were challenges we just had to tackle. I imagine we often climbed barefoot, and I’m sure there were skinned knees and stubbed toes. I rode my bicycle by myself around the mission stations, coming and going from our house pretty much at will. My brother and I played in the dirt, building roads and towns for his toy cars. We sat on the ground and moved the dirt with our hands–dirt where people walked in bare feet and where who knows what animal or insect had been. When Rich was still sucking his two middle fingers (which he did till he was past four), he would periodically stop his play and put his fingers in his mouth – no hand-washing first. It bothered my mother, and I’m sure he ingested all kinds of germs, but he didn’t get sick.

We also played in the river. I vaguely remember a caretaker (not my mother) who would go with us sometimes, but I’m pretty sure I went by myself too. The river was some distance from our house, so no one could watch out the window or from the back porch to make sure I was okay. It wasn’t the Susquehanna River, and depending on the season, the river sometimes wasn’t much more than a trickle, but it was a body of water nonetheless where I played without adult supervision. I loved climbing trees, going up as high as the branches would allow. We also had rope swings hung from high horizontal tree branches – two ropes connected to a board about five inches wide for the seat. I would swing as high as I could (sometimes at the highest point, the ropes were close to being parallel with the ground), or I would sit on the seat and twist the ropes as tightly as possible and then twirl rapidly as the ropes unwound, making me so dizzy I couldn’t walk! Again, all this was without adult supervision.

I was much more vigilant with my own kids, but permitted things I’m not sure I would be comfortable with today. Some years, they walked to or from school (some years they rode the bus), and one year Dana and her friends roller-skated to school with no helmets, elbow pads or knee pads until their principal decided he didn’t like them bringing their skates into the building. Dana and Derek and their friends on our block rode their “Big Wheels” down the sidewalk hill in front of our house, with the strong possibility they could have missed the turn at the bottom and gone right out into the street in front of a car. I did worry about abduction, so when they were playing outside or with friends, I always tried to make sure I knew where they were and who they were with. And in hindsight, I actually wish I had been more vigilant about certain things.

Now when we take care of our grandchildren, we are very careful – partly because we would feel absolutely horrible if anything happened to them while we’re responsible for them, but also because we are so much more aware of all the potential dangers that we didn’t even think or know about when we were growing up. Raising children these days can be a scary proposition. Some of the dangers are sinister and horrific – like school shootings, drugs, sexual predators, child abductions, internet-based crimes, fears of being accused of child abuse or neglect, or freak accidents. The media often portray the world as a dangerous place, with potential disaster for children lurking around every corner. Some parental (and grandparental) vigilance and attention also comes from the pressure to measure up to other people’s expectations and to make sure we are actively and constantly giving our children opportunities to learn and experience new things, so we won’t be accused of being lazy, neglectful and unengaged and so they will have as many advantages as the next kid and won’t be deprived or lag behind their peers.

What sparked these musings was an article I came across from The Atlantic, The Overprotected Kid.” The article describes a new kind of playground that encourages and allows free, imaginative and unsupervised play, unlike what has become the norm for so many families. The author, Hanna Rosen, notes that at one point, when her daughter was about 10, “my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.” It’s a lengthy article but well worth the read.

Then there was also the recent incident of the mother who was arrested and jailed because she allowed her nine-year-old daughter to play in the park alone for three days while she was at work. The daughter had a cell phone so she could call her mother in case of an emergency. The mother worked at McDonald’s and couldn’t afford child care, but she didn’t want her daughter to sit inside all alone for hours all summer when she could be outside playing. Whatever else this story illustrates, it surely points out that for all our concern with protecting our children from dangers real or imagined, we don’t do very well at protecting ALL children: there are still far too many children in the U.S. who don’t have access to good quality child care, live in poverty (in fact, the child poverty rate in Pennsylvania increased three percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation), live in neighborhoods without adequately-funded and well-run schools, are in danger of being the victims of gun and other kinds of violence, or don’t have parents or other caregivers with the time, skills, resources or perhaps even the motivation to pay attention to their children’s most basic physical, social and emotional needs.

Do we overprotect our kids? Clearly, it seems to depend on whose kids we’re talking about. Perhaps a better question is to what extent in our efforts to protect our own kids, we are protecting ALL kids. Even as we must acknowledge that life is not risk-free and it is unrealistic and potentially crazy-making to think we can prevent our own children from ever being harmed, there’s nothing wrong with doing our absolute best to protect them. At the same time, let’s not forget the children who also need people to protect them and to advocate on their behalf when and where we can.

Oh, and I don’t feel all that guilty about not belting Selena in her stroller. We had eyes on her the whole time!

What I’ve Been Thinking About This Summer

Lots of thoughts have been swirling around in my head these last few weeks. My head and heart are heavy when I think about current world events, especially the resurgence of the unending violence in Palestine and Israel and the plight of children from Central America coming to the United States hoping for a better life. I have opinions and convictions about both of these issues, formed in large part by a Christian faith that believes violence and retribution are not the answer, justice (making things right) is important, and we’re called to welcome the stranger and care for those in need. But both topics are too complex and multi-faceted for me to sort out in a short blog post. (OK, I’ll be honest: after reading the harsh comments on a Facebook post about the Palestine-Israel conflict by someone I highly respect, I don’t have the courage to enter the fray!) SO: on to two other unrelated topics I’ve also been thinking about.

Anxiety rears its ugly head again: During the last two weeks of June, I experienced a level of anxiety I haven’t felt for a while. It was not pleasant. All the prayer, self-talk, deep-breathing, positive thinking, and distracting myself with other tasks that usually help me control my tendency to anxiety and worry didn’t work very well. I felt like I was close to being back in the place I was nine years ago in the aftermath of my colon cancer diagnosis and treatment and some family concerns, when anxiety and depression threatened to overwhelm me.

The cause this time? Another health scare. My routine annual mammogram revealed some calcifications on one side, and I had to have additional pictures taken. The additional pictures weren’t conclusive, so I was scheduled for a stereotactic biopsy to collect some tissue from the calcifications. In the days leading up to the biopsy, I could feel my anxiety level rising. Between the biopsy and the call from the doctor the next day that it was benign and no further action is necessary until my next annual mammogram, I was more anxious than I have been for a long time.

Calcifications in the breast are common and usually don’t mean anything. The coordinator at the radiology facility told me more than once that eighty percent of these biopsies are benign. But they can be a sign of early breast cancer and in twenty percent of these cases a biopsy will discover a malignancy. That’s what I couldn’t put out of my mind. I was having a hard time coming to terms with what felt like the very real possibility that I could be facing another round of cancer with all the associated treatments.

As I worked to control my anxiety, I realized that it was to some extent out of my control. I could mitigate it with the various disciplines I’ve learned over the years, but I couldn’t eliminate it. And as I beat myself up for my inability to control it, I also had to remind myself that anxiety disorders are not caused by personal weakness, a character flaw, or a lack of faith. Rather, they come from a combination of environmental factors (like the threat of breast cancer), genetic predisposition (my mother also suffered from anxiety), and malfunctioning in the brain circuits that regulate fear and emotion. Recognizing the complex and “organic” nature of anxiety doesn’t make dealing with it any easier, but it does help me not blame myself for being unable to control the waves that overwhelmed me last month and empathize with those for whom anxiety is often far more crippling than it is for me.

Trust is a two-way street: In denominational business meetings last weekend where I was a delegate from my congregation, as questions were raised about proposed changes in governance, the issue of trust took center stage. I firmly believe that our denominational leaders want what is best for the church; I also understand and sympathize with those who were questioning past actions and current proposals and displaying what appeared to be a lack of trust in their leaders.

I’ve been on both sides of this matter of organizational trust. I’ve been on boards (and chaired one of them) that made decisions that weren’t always appreciated or supported by the rank-and-file. I’ve been hurt by accusations both direct and indirect that the board didn’t know what it was doing, we had some kind of hidden agenda, we weren’t worthy of trust. The truth is that members of the boards I was on really had the best interests of the organization at heart, tried to be wise and careful in our decision-making, but among many good decisions also made some that in hindsight didn’t work out so well. Being considered untrustworthy feels like a low blow when we were doing our best to do the right thing.

On the other hand, I’ve also been the “victim” of decisions by organizations that didn’t make sense to me, seemed to head the organization in a direction that would result in a loss of things I believe(d) critical to the organization’s mission and identity, and could have unintended consequences (or perhaps intended, I would think, when I was in my most distrustful and cynical frame of mind). I’ve been frustrated by leaders, who when challenged say something like, “you chose us to be your leaders, so you need to trust us; you need to submit to our authority.” It doesn’t sit well with me when those who support organizational decisions and directions seem to want to shut down dissent and conversation and move on.

The issue of organizational trust often comes down to different views of leadership and decision-making, whether we prefer a more top-down style or more diffuse, shared and consensus-building. For some years now, the trend in our denomination has been toward the former, with fewer rather than more people involved in leadership and decision-making. The reasons are varied and include financial considerations and the associated need to be efficient and organizationally lean, but some have lamented the trend. To some extent, whether you support top-down or shared leadership and decision-making depends on where you sit – that is, if you’re one of the few at the top you’re likely to support top-down decisions, but if you’re an ordinary person at the “bottom” of the organizational flowchart you’re more inclined to question and less willing to trust and submit happily. That’s overly simplistic, of course, but it is part of what’s going on.

One bottom line (out of many possible bottom lines on this issue) is that trust goes both ways, as my pastor said at the close of the business meeting. All of us need to trust our leaders, recognizing that they have been chosen to lead and make decisions. At the same time, leaders also need to trust the people to provide wise counsel, gentle correctives and honest opinions about the impact of their decisions and to give space and time for those conversations to take place.

You can read more about trust and “Organizational Decision-Making” within the church context, with some practical perspectives and ideas, from a denominational publication I edit.