Three More Birthday Wishes

Last year, on primary election day in Pennsylvania, I listed three wishes for my 68th birthday: a fair electoral system, a world where my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren can survive and thrive, and the ability to age well. I won’t comment on the progress on those three wishes except to say that at least two of them appear to be “wishes deferred” for now. Today, on my 69th birthday, I’m adding three more birthday wishes.

I wish for more success in following the advice of the psalmist to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 10). In a topsy-turvy world that often feels unstable and unpredictable and where a lot of wrong seems to be prevailing (or, in the language of Psalm 46, a world where “the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” and “nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter”), it’s difficult for me to be still. There is so much going on that disturbs me: consumer, environmental, and health protections being undone or in serious danger; ongoing assaults on the foundations of democracy, like a free press and voting rights; threats of draconian budget cuts to important programs that meet needs and contribute to quality of life; the normalization of unselfconscious and jaw-dropping hypocrisy and blatant dishonesty (several degrees worse than the kind of spin we’ve come to expect from most politicians ); the threat of potentially devastating military interventions rather than an unwavering commitment to peacebuilding and ever more serious diplomacy; lingering and serious questions about Russian connections and political conflicts of interest; and the list goes on.

With things happening almost every day that trouble me, I find it really hard to rest in the first words of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear….” My activist and impatient self wants to do something to make it all stop, to make a difference, to speak out and act on behalf of those who are most vulnerable right now. I have a difficult time taking the long view of history, trusting not only in God as my refuge, but also in the ability of the world’s oldest democracy to survive what feels like an existential threat. As I’ve said before, it’s not an either/or thing (that is, either I become politically active, or I serenely rest in God’s providence to work it all out while I plunge myself into local and family endeavors); it’s definitely both/and. But still the balance is difficult and my soul needs the rest that comes from “being still” and trusting in a God who cares about the world, individual people, and me.

A typical scene from my current life: Sophie the cat and a mug of tea sustaining me while I edit yet another article.

I wish for a continued (relatively) sharp mind so I can keep doing the things I enjoy and that give meaning to my life: editorial and writing projects, knitting, reading and writing, conversations with friends, travel with my husband, time with my children and grandchildren, volunteer work. Along with a sharp mind, I wish for good eyesight. I’m headed toward cataract surgery in the not-too-distant future, proof that the aging process moves inexorably forward. So much of what I enjoy doing requires not only a sharp mind but good eyesight as well.

Last year in my birthday post I mentioned my annual wellness visit and the three words I had to remember briefly to prove that my short-term memory is intact: apple, table, penny. At this year’s wellness visit, I pre-empted the test by repeating those same three words to the nurse before she had a chance to give them to me – proof, I thought, that my mind is still sharp! I don’t feel like my cognitive skills are slipping, but it’s hard not to have a moment of panic when I can’t remember something I think I should be able to remember (like someone’s name or a phone number I used to know really well or where I put something). Most of the time I tell myself that such memory lapses are normal for anyone who has filed away a lot of detail in her brain over 69 years – it’s not always easy to access the correct file of information from that brain! I also remember something my son said when he was six years old and half-listening to someone dispel some myths about aging. When he heard the speaker talk about “forgetfulness” as a stereotypical characteristic of old people and give the example of going upstairs and then not remembering why, Derek turned to me and said, “I do that sometimes.” Even six-year-olds can be forgetful, so I should give myself a break!

I wish for an attitude of gratitude for all the privileges, blessings, and opportunities that have come my way throughout my life. I don’t want to take anything for granted or assume any sense of entitlement, knowing that many people have not had access to the same privileges and opportunities. I want to be grateful and not bitter or envious about things I sometimes wish I had but don’t. I recognize the fragility of much of what I have and know it could easily be taken away. I also want to be grateful at some level even for the hard things that have been part of my life, not because I enjoyed them, didn’t wish them away at the time, or wouldn’t be just as happy if they had never happened, but because they have become part of who I am – part of my story – and have taught me valuable lessons. Many times, gratitude is not my first instinct, but I would like to be able to get there more quickly than I sometimes do.

The ability to “be still,” a sharp mind, and an attitude of gratitude: three more birthday wishes as I head into the final year of my 60s. Are they too much to ask?

Advertisements

A Modest Proposal for Truth

We all know the story of Pinocchio, or at least the part about his nose growing every time he tells a lie. I’ve been thinking lately that many of the current crop of presidential candidates would have very long noses if that happened to them. Not that I am accusing them all of flat-out lying. I will grant that sometimes they aren’t deliberately saying something they know not to be true nor are they necessarily intending to deceive; they are simply choosing the details they want to emphasize to make their point in a way that isn’t actually false but also doesn’t tell the whole story. That said, there’s a whole lot of stuff being said that just doesn’t stand up to the truth test.

What if every time a presidential candidate or prominent politician gave a speech or news conference or participated in a debate, there was a fact-checker on hand to immediately challenge the person? Or what if over each person’s head there was a device (like Politifact.com’s “Truth-o-Meter”) with a dial that moved from “true” on the one side to “false” on the other, and perhaps even included a “pants-on-fire” setting, depending on what the person said? What if the meter dinged loudly when the dial hit the false setting? What if candidates and politicians were simply not allowed to get away with stretching the truth, distorting the facts, or actually lying about what they said or did or what their opponent(s) said or did?

We like to think that there is accountability. After all, political pundits on the cable news shows spend a lot of time exposing the ways in which politicians don’t tell the truth. And there are reputable and nonpartisan websites such as the aforementioned politifact.com or factcheck.org, and the Fact-Checker at the Washington Post that regularly evaluate the veracity of politicians’ statements. The problem, however, is that this is all done after the fact, after the damage is done. With nothing to call people to account for what they say while they are saying it, in front of everyone they’re saying it to, soundbites take on lives of their own. No amount of fact-checking will counteract all the damage to truth that has been done, or keep politicians and their followers from repeating the soundbites every time they give a speech.

Whenever I hear a politician I disagree with speak falsehoods, I get angry because these falsehoods will not only mislead people but are also often completely unfair to their opponents. On the other hand, when politicians I generally respect and agree with say things that aren’t true or cherry-pick the facts, I am also frustrated because I don’t believe it helps their cause. They become just like every other politician who spins the facts to suit his or her own purposes. I long for candidates and leaders to be confident enough of the rightness of their beliefs to speak the truth all the time and not feel like they have to rely on half-truths or outright falsehoods.

You know those real-time counters at the bottom of television screens that keep track of votes on a live poll? What would happen if you had something similar for truth-telling, but running right above the politicians’  heads where viewers couldn’t ignore it? What if they knew they were being fact-checked in real time as they were speaking and their audiences could see a dial move from “true” to “false”? Is it possible that most politicians might begin to be a lot more careful about what they said and would care a lot more about making sure that the meter stayed in the true to mostly true range? Perhaps they would work harder to make careful and reasonable cases for what they believe to be the right course of action.

Of course, there are objections:

  1. It isn’t practical and can’t be done, especially in real-time. Perhaps not, but wouldn’t it be great to try? Plus, a lot of falsehoods are perpetuated over and over again by the same people, even when they have been confronted with the facts. It seems like it wouldn’t take too long until at least some speakers would stop saying certain things that are demonstrably false and start being more careful to speak the truth. After all, who likes to be interrupted with loud dinging, and who wants to be shown up for lying on live TV?
  2. Debates and speeches could take forever, because they would be interrupted repeatedly with calls for truth-telling, and politicians would have to take the time from rehearsed soundbites to explain themselves some other way than with a particular falsehood. Eventually, however, we could hope that the incidence of lying would decrease. See #1.
  3. Fact-checking can’t be done impartially, and truth is often subjective because people see things so differently.  This objection is admittedly more difficult to address. Even in other settings besides politics, where disagreements and conflicts are inevitable, the truth is difficult to determine. Two people can sit in the same meeting, hear the same words being spoken, witness the same events, and still come away with a completely different description of what happened. One might be right and the other wrong about what really happened, but more likely they come to different conclusions about the truth of the event because of the preconceptions, experiences, beliefs, knowledge and biases they brought with them. These days, however, when there is so much video and documentary evidence of the facts of a situation, it’s often not too difficult to illustrate how certain versions of events simply don’t match what really happened.
  4. Some candidates wouldn’t be phased by any amount of fact-checking, but would shout down any attempt to get them to tell the truth. Perhaps, though, many people would eventually begin to recognize the truth themselves and stop accepting their repeated lies, half-truths, and misrepresentations.

I don’t expect that my modest proposal for truth will be implemented any time soon, and it likely isn’t really workable at all, but a girl can dream! In the meantime, I’ll maintain a healthy dose of skepticism when I listen to political speeches, do my own fact-checking (by going to primary sources whenever possible), and probably continue to yell at the TV.

 

Endings and Beginnings

Yesterday we buried my father-in-law, John Bicksler, and yesterday also marked the end of my almost-23-year career with the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the beginning of full retirement. Two endings and one beginning; emotional overload.

funeral

Three of Dad Bicksler’s 12 great-grandchildren at the grave site

With Dad Bicksler’s passing, Dale and I are now the patriarch and matriarch of our respective families – he as the oldest son, and me as the only daughter. All four of our parents are now gone. Yesterday at his funeral, I had the honor of delivering the tribute to Dad Bicksler on behalf of his three children. I prepared by listening to stories from Lois, Dale and Dennis about their growing-up years and reflecting on my own experience with Dad over the 45 years I’ve been part of the Bicksler family. I was struck by the fact that as far as we know, he reached the end of his life without regrets. He was a man who was comfortable in his own skin, loved “the marvels of this life,” to quote a phrase that he almost always used in prayers, and was generally an optimistic and forward-looking person. He was ready to die, having long ago made his peace with whatever would come in the next life. He leaves a strong legacy of three children and spouses, seven grandchildren and spouses, and 12 great-grandchildren who will remember the many attributes he taught and modeled. In my tribute, I highlighted a few of those attributes: hard work, frugality, ingenuity, active lifestyle, healthy living, strong faith.

retirementparty

My retirement certificate signed by the secretary of the PA Department of Human Services

I too am in the process of making peace with what comes next in my life, although certainly not in the same way. Almost 23 years ago, I was hired part-time to create two new publications that would tell the story of the public children’s mental health system in Pennsylvania. Through changes in state administration and shifts in job responsibilities, one thing remained constant – my role as editor of those two publications. I retired from full-time employment three years ago, but kept a small part-time contract and continued to edit the newsletters.

When I began to think that I wanted to fully retire, one big thing standing in my way was my own worry about what would happen to those newsletters. Would they just die for lack of anyone with the time, skill, or inclination to continue them? And if so, what would that say about their value for all those years I kept on as editor? Over the years, I have received lots of positive feedback for the work I’ve done to fill the need for regular, consistent and educational communication, but what would it mean if that was all for naught and the newsletters were “retired” along with me? These questions are not meant to suggest that I think I am indispensable, but are indicative of how hard it was to become willing to let go of something in which I had invested so much of myself. I finally made the decision to retire before I knew whether or how the newsletters would continue. And now, even though I have been assured that they will continue in some form in the future, I am able to say that I’m okay with whatever happens. I’ve made my peace with what comes next.

At the end of the summer, I’m looking forward to another ending. I have served on the same committee at my church for about 30 years, the last six years as chair. I’ve been in some kind of major leadership role in the congregation for a significant portion of my adult life, and as of September 1, I won’t be on any committee or board for the first time in a very long time. Just as it was difficult to imagine those newsletters not continuing if I stopped editing them, it was also hard to make the decision to step down as chair and member of the committee. The issues we’ve been responsible for are ones I’m passionate about, and it wasn’t at all clear at one point that anyone would be willing to take over. Again I wondered, what will happen if I step down? And again, it has been hard to let go of something in which I’ve invested so much time, energy, and strong conviction. But other voices in my head – those voices that were expressing my weariness with the responsibilities of committee work and a growing awareness that it was time to “pass the torch”  – got louder and I had to listen. And now I’ve made peace with what comes next, even if it might not be the same as (and quite possibly will be much better than) it’s been for 30 years.

So what does come next? It will certainly be a change not to have to think about those two newsletters or any other work-related responsibilities, and it will feel very different not to be in any leadership role at church anymore. I will likely miss some things, and perhaps even find myself second-guessing methods or decisions made by others, but I really am looking forward to being free of certain responsibilities and the weight of multiple deadlines. I know people who talk about five-year or ten-year plans for their lives, but I don’t have any grand plan for what to do next. I am simply looking forward to more space in my life. More space is something I’ve needed for a long time, and so right now I don’t feel the need to find anything new to fill the space. I still have two ongoing volunteer editorial responsibilities that are creatively challenging enough to help keep my mind sharp (I hope), and I’m looking forward to having more time for other things I enjoy – my family (especially the grandkids), books, writing, friends, knitting, traveling.

Endings are always difficult, whether it’s the end of a long and well-lived life, or the end of a 23-year career. And even though beginnings sound like more fun, they’re also sometimes more difficult than you would think. But I’m ready for what comes next.

 

Election Reflection

After hearing Doris Kearns Goodwin speak at Messiah College last week, Dale and I decided to watch the movie “Lincoln” again, which was based in part on Goodwin’s book about Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. One of the things that is clear from the movie (and presumably the book too, although I haven’t read it) is that the political partisanship and inflammatory rhetoric characterizing politics today is nothing new. I suppose I should find that comforting, but I don’t.

I haven’t been watching TV news programs much lately, and I’ve been muting the TV when certain political commercials come on. I’m tired of the political rancor, partisanship, obstructionism, lies, distortions, hypocrisy, fear-mongering, and doomsday talk. I really hate how much money is spent on supporting this kind of behavior and the entire election process when so many real human needs are not met. My political leanings would tend to blame one side more than the other, but I know that’s not fair.

My spiritual ancestors didn’t participate in the political system – they didn’t vote or run for office because they believed that “those who were responsible for the political life were evil men [due to persecution of their ancestors]; thus politics were evil, and thus the Christian must have nothing to do with such matters” (Morris Sider, Brethren in Christ historian). Another person put it this way: “I hold that the position most consistent with the life and teaching of Jesus is to refrain from direct political, partisan participation in government and in the affairs of the state” (Roy Sider, former bishop). Politics were also associated with buying votes, unrealistic promises and unsavory activities, all of which sound familiar to our contemporary ears.

I, on the other hand, have voted in almost every election since I’ve been old enough to vote, primaries and off-year elections included, because I believe it is one of the responsibilities of being a citizen of a participatory democracy. My view is more in line with that of the late Martin Schrag, a Brethren in Christ theologian, who said of Christians, “We are called to minister to the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and prisoners. One way to do so is by political involvement….” I both benefit from and want to influence the policies of the state and country I call home, and one of the ways I can speak into the system is by voting. But there are days – and lately it feels like weeks, months and even years – when I wonder whether my ancestors were right not to participate as I observe how badly the political system seems to be working. When so many on both sides of the political spectrum lie and distort and attack their opponents in completely unfair ways, and seem completely unable or unwilling to work together in meaningful and productive ways even on issues where there is a lot of bipartisan and popular agreement, do I really want to participate or be associated with either major party?

So here are some of the “lessons” I’ve been trying to teach myself in the waning days of this election season:

1. While I know that elections do matter, I try to remind myself repeatedly that getting the “right” person elected doesn’t matter nearly as much as I am sometimes tempted to think, and it will not bring in any utopian kingdom. Life will go on. Of course, it’s interesting to rewind the clock and imagine what the U. S. might be like if, for example, John Kennedy had not been assassinated, or Lyndon Johnson had not escalated the Vietnam War, or George W. Bush had not invaded Iraq in 2003. Chances are, however, that something else would have happened to keep us second-guessing in later years. So to put all our hopes in the election of one person, or even one party, doesn’t seem entirely sensible.

2. God is not a Democrat or a Republican. I might be inclined to think that my understanding of biblical principles is in line with one party more than the other, but it’s really much more complicated than that. No one party has a corner on the truth, and implying that people who identify with the other party are somehow less intelligent, or less Christian, or less thoughtful is not helpful or even true.

3. Lately, as I’ve been so completely frustrated with politics and election rhetoric, I’ve had to ask myself to what extent I contribute to the partisanship. When I comment on or “like” something even remotely “political” that someone has posted on Facebook, will others interpret that as a sign that I am against them if they disagree or will they see some inconsistency in that comment with the way I live my life? I know I am offended when someone posts a link to something I consider extremely mean-spirited (comparing certain politicians to Hitler, for example) and then soon after the same person posts an image of a Bible verse about kindness. I can’t help having an attack of cognitive dissonance, and then I wonder whether I sometimes cause cognitive dissonance in others.

4. At the same time, I sometimes feel like a coward when I don’t speak up for what I believe because I am afraid of being misunderstood or attacked. I have deep respect and admiration for those who are able to continue to engage in dialogue even when the conversation takes a difficult turn. Regardless of how the election turns out today, I’d like to be a little more courageous about speaking out on behalf of values and principles that are important to me even when doing so might be uncomfortable and risky.

I will vote today, not just because I always do, but because I believe it’s one of my privileges and responsibilities as a citizen of the United States, and because sometimes elections really do make a difference. I will be thankful that I am able to vote freely for the candidates of my choice. But I will not assume that the world as we know it will end or the kingdom will come if this or that candidate is elected or not elected. And I will continue to try to live my own life according to the same values I expect from others, including elected officials.

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.

http://peterrock12.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/mending-wall-by-ken-fiery.jpg

“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?