Lost and Found by George Merrill

I can’t find my cell phone. I misplace keys. I’ve often thought that glasses, wallets, pens, pencils, books, bills, shopping lists and magazines grow legs and wander off. Or are poltergeists and ghoulies responsible? No, this propensity is not spook-driven or even age-related. Losing things is normal. It’s just that in that regard, I’m particularly normal. I’m always losing things. I recently found bittersweet comfort in Kathryn Schulz’s searching essay called Losing Streak appearing recently in the New Yorker. She suffers from this maddening aberration or . . . is it an aberration?

One visit to the west coast was especially unsettling for Ms. Schulz. She left her car keys on a table following a visit to a coffee house. Leaving home the next day she’d left her house key in the front door. Leaving a café, she realizes on her way home that her long sleeve shirt was still on the back of a chair where she’d placed it. Returning to reclaim it she learns she also left her wallet at the same table. She parked her truck. When she went to get it she couldn’t find it for an hour or so. She assures us that this is a family trait and she’s inherited it. Writer Schulz’s sister is a cognitive scientist at M.I.T. Schulz describes her as “the most scatterbrained person I ever met.”

I cannot recall the passwords for computer sites that I have scrupulously fashioned from personal data that I am sure will make them easy for me to remember. I find Ms. Schulz sympathetic on this point. She likens computer passwords to the socks in a washing machine; when we go to retrieve them, they’re never there.

Being scatterbrained is often cited as the cause for misplacing things, like not paying adequate attention to what we’re about. I rate high on that score. Through my school years I was a notorious daydreamer and a lot of what people call the ‘real world’ slipped by me unnoticed. It’s terribly annoying to lose and misplace things, and I am twice bedeviled because what I’ve just lost is often right there in front of me. Ms. Schulz says there exists a rule that claims what you’ve lost is typically within an eighteen inch radius around you when you first become aware of the loss. For me, the rule has proved spot on.

Psychoanalysts have a field day with patients who misplace or lose things. They immediately want to examine such selective amnesia as they believe it may be informed by darker motives, some as simple as you don’t like what you’ve lost or have a conflicted feeling about it. My experience with that is different; those people whom I dislike or incidents in which I’d been involved that still make me cringe remain only too available to my recollection. I’d count it a blessing if I could just lose them.

I once had my mother’s old typewriter from secretarial school. Over successive moves it was lost. I was sentimentally attached to it and grieved the loss. But in this kind of loss there remained the possibility that, if not within an eighteen-inch radius, someday I might find it somewhere. The hope of reclaiming it never wholly went away and I lived in a vague hope of its return. I think antique shops and early attic stores appeal to this tendency.

But there are losses and there are losses.

Judith Viorst, in her book, Necessary Losses, writes: “For the road to human development is paved with renunciation. Throughout our life we grow by giving up.” It’s a hard saying, but one I know is true; that we lose is not an aberration, at all. It’s because we have things to lose. We were born to die, and whatever we have gained in the interim we will eventually have to surrender. It’s one of life’s realities we resist the most, usually by denial.

I recall vividly after my father’s death. I refused to accept it. He’d returned from the War in Europe in 1945 and suddenly died shortly thereafter. I remember feeling desolate and I began weaving a tale to myself. He was actually working for Army Intelligence, I told myself. In order to engage in a special mission he was ordered to feign his death to carry it out in secret. When he’d successfully accomplished the mission, he’d appear and things would return to what they had been before. I clung to that hope for a long time. I gave it up when I couldn’t fit into his old army jacket anymore.

As a hospice chaplain years ago the following was perhaps the most heartrending story of the many I heard from mourners suffering the loss of a spouse. It would go something like this: “I’d get home, open the door, walk into the kitchen and think of all the things I couldn’t wait to tell him. Then I’d remember he was not there any more.”
Photographs may be all that is left of lost loved on. They are often kept visible to see and also so that they can’t be lost. We don’t find what’s lost in a photograph, but we can take comfort in the stories they recall.

It is given to us as human beings to suffer losses. Is there any redeeming thought in all that? I think Ms. Schulz put it as well as anyone can. Our losses remain “a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days.” How then are we to live? The past is gone, the future uncertain. All we have for certain is now and our task is to live each and every now as consciously and fully as possible.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Got A Attitude by George Merrill

Some years ago my wife and returned from Baltimore after visiting children. The traffic downtown was stop and go. We’d frequently be stalled. We wound up next to a car in which two young people were arguing about something. Finally one turned to the other and yelled loudly enough for us to hear: “You know what your problem is? You got a attitude.”

I think of attitude as a kind of atmospheric mist. We exude it. It surrounds us in the way mists hover over tidewater on fall mornings. Some call it an aura, others a spirit and still others, attitude. Writers call it a voice. It influences how we do things, as we negotiate life’s challenges. The quality of the aura or attitude contributes to creating a tone. Attitudes encourage one mood or another, say, of antagonism or conciliation, sympathy or contempt. Attitudes can hinder or facilitate cooperation. As a result of the incident in Baltimore, my wife and I created a functional buzzword to use when we get testy with one another. Then, one of us is sure to say, “You got a attitude.”

I think of “a attitude” as something distinctively acerbic and hostile. There are, however, all kinds of attitudes. It’s worth noting that for airplane pilots, as well as for many people, having the right attitude is matter of life and death. An ADI, an airplane instrument, or ‘attitude directional indicator,’ communicates to the pilot whether his plane has the proper attitude i.e., its correct position with reference to the horizon. On that score, pilots learn not to trust their instincts where attitude is concerned. If they do, they’ll develop a bad attitude, never know it, and ditch the plane.

Our daughter’s adolescence was prickly. She appeared one day in the living room looking especially defiant. She sported a T-shirt with “I Love My Attitude” prominently inscribed on it. She was making her point with what I would describe as “a attitude.” If only there had been ADI for teens. After a number of near crashes, in a year or so, she lost it; her attitude I mean.

Author and business consultant Steven Corey wrote a book. He noticed the habits of especially effective people. In particular, he identified attitudes, if you will, by which you and I approach our tasks. He calls one attitude, the scarcity mentality, the other, the abundance mentality. They shape personal inclinations and determine the actions that proceed from the mindset.

Covey believes most of us operate from a scarcity mentality. It’s an attitude toward life that insists there is only so much to go around. What you gain will necessarily deprive others. The scarcity mindset believes there will never be enough. Whether it’s money, food, emotions or something else entirely there’s always too little. We look at life from what we lack rather than what we have. It’s an anxious attitude that sees others as adversaries. The mindset breeds a climate of mistrust and it’s difficult to achieve cooperation.

An abundance mentality, on the other hand, flows out of a deep inner feeling of personal worth and security. It cultivates the sense that affirms the plenty available, how there’s enough to spare for everybody if we pull together. This attitude results in sharing of resources, prestige, recognition, profits, and decision-making. It opens up new possibilities while taking pleasure in the successes of others.

There are two highly visible world leaders today. They’re intent on addressing current inequities and deprivations – although not exactly the same ones. These men are regarded as rebels by their constituencies and both boldly challenge the status quo of their respective historic institutions. Donald Trump, a political rebel, addresses his tasks from a scarcity mentality. Pope Francis, a spiritual rebel, proceeds from a mentality of abundance. The former betrays “a attitude,” that there’s not enough and winners must grab what they can. The latter’s attitude is one of hope; there’s plenty, but we must learn to share it with others.

Trump’s public declarations are typically ominous and reflect his scarcity mentality. He scolds, warns and reminds us of the failure of our institutions, the catastrophes wrought by the previous administration, our ineffective policies and the inept public officials serving the country before his tenure. There are Muslims behind every tree ready to take what’s ours. In short, his pitch is that it’s a disgraceful country in a dog-eat-dog world but he’ll fix it.

In a striking move that was no less radical than John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Pope Francis went over the heads of church traditionalists, when be began carrying out an inclusive agenda on migration, climate change and poverty. It made him a figure of unmatched global popularity. It touched the hearts of many, but offended others.

Pope’s vision of sharing abundance, caring for the earth, and bringing justice the poor, is considered by some Catholics (both lay and cleric) to be a betrayal of the West’s traditional Judeo-Christian values. There are politicians that believe that the pope is “seriously misguided” and is a “socialist.” It’s odd that informed people might regard Francis’ teaching as misguided. It’s the essence of Judeo Christian spirituality – although admittedly not always its practice. From the beginning, compassion and generosity have been a hard sell but thankfully never wholly forgotten.

What are we to make of it?

It’s about attitude. To approach the needs of our world with “a attitude,” polarizes and limits possibilities. We become mostly fearful and defensive. If we can alter our present course and its attitude of scarcity to one of abundance, new possibilities will open up naturally.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Rosie Revisited by George Merrill

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 4.02.31 PMThe adjacent picture is one among many images depicting the iconic Rosie the Riveter of WWII fame. The image packs a whole story, especially today, about gender and society. It’s a timely statement. They say pictures are worth a thousand words? This one is worth more. It tells tells several stories.

The portrait represents a woman who is not about traditional feminine business, at least as we’ve known it historically, being agreeable and deferential. She’s in what we think of as a man’s world and appears to belong there unapologetically. She wears the blue denim shirt like the one I wore when as a young man I worked in shipyards. She’s a skilled laborer. Rosie was showcased as the kind of woman who, needing only the chance, was up to doing any man’s job as well if not better.

The woman’s facial expression is serene and confident, almost regal. It’s not the facial expression we’d expect from somebody who was feeling angry and defiant. The way her arms are configured, as I read it, is indeed a protest, but her expression suggests to me she is confident in her defiance, that she’s not just being reactive. She’s affirming who she is, a competent no-nonsense woman not about to be patronized.

Her right hand is placed over her left bicep, her left arm bent with fist held high in the air.

She might be just rolling up her sleeve but as I see it, she is multitasking. This is unmistakably the universal gesture of defiance normally associated with angry men, frequently low-lifes or tough guys. The French, always nuanced in delicate matters, call this gesture the ‘bras de’honneur;’ the Italians who are more proprietary say it’s the ‘Italian salute’ and Americans who are characteristically course know it simply as, ‘up yours.’ Defiance is a distinct part of the message here.

This is not a woman a guy wants to mess with. She knows just who she is. As I interpret this image for our time, I think she’s telling the world; “Let’s get serious. No more eighty cents on every dollar a man makes for the same job. It’s time for equal pay for men and women, and for blacks and whites as well.”

Stereotypical gender roles are rapidly changing. They’re challenging the way men and women relate to one another. The ‘little woman’ being protected by the ‘big guy’ is now an unsustainable fiction. Women’s safety stratagems that once depended on feminine wiles are antiquated. Tears of helplessness and fluttering eyelids are to the modern woman’s armamentarium for survival as the bow and arrow is to todays fighting Marine. For those guys still clinging to their traditional gender prerogatives, this change in social conventions may come as a shock.

According to New Yorker columnist, Lizzie Widdicombe, Dana Shafman, an Arizona native, is the inventor of the Taser party. Similar to the traditional Tupperware party women hosted in their homes, Shafman’s presentations are not about freezer containers or dishes for leftovers. Her wares are displayed on a coffee table like Tupperware. This is, however, serious weaponry proffered for sale, a lucrative, legitimate business, presented with a characteristically feminine touch: hospitality offered in the hostess’ living room, along with cookies, coffee and demonstrations in the uses of the Taser. This changing convention is not good news for men. It will require men to exercise more caution in the mating game and with women in general. Guns used to be strictly a guy thing. Now Mr. Macho can’t be sure when his disgruntled squeeze may be packing a piece.

The Taser, although ostensibly non-lethal, is a weapon like a gun, used by the military and police to subdue suspects who might become violent. In living room presentations to neighborhood women, Shafman showcases Tasers customized to suit the most discriminating woman’s tastes. The C2 Taser, small, “Virginia Slims” as the model is dubbed, has been developed for civilians and some specifically designed for women. Some come in pink, perhaps anticipating today’s confluence of traditional femininity with some of the instruments historically associated with masculinity. Shafman’s customers are promised that if the first shot doesn’t drop the miscreant, not to worry. The Taser can still be used as a stun gun.” Go for the jugular,” Shafman advises her customers.

It’s a new day.

March eighth this year the world observed International Women’s Day. The timing of the observation came at a particularly advantageous time since the occasion was set in sharp relief by the recent contempt with which the president publically denigrated women. It some ways his attitudes gave a greater impetus for increasing public awareness of the long standing issue of gender inequality. For all the wrong reasons his attitudes may have aided in propelling issues of gender inequality into public awareness.

It’s interesting to note that increasingly men and women are “partnering” rather than entering a marriage. Perhaps “husband and wife” still carry enough of the suggestion of inequality to trouble women in particular. The word partner or co-worker suggests equality.

What about good old-fashioned romance, you ask? That’s a subject for another conversation. My guess is that the glow endures among men and women who regard each other as equals.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

When It Hits the Fan by George Merrill

In Arkansas, according to an article in the “The Week,” for poor Jesse Newton it really hit the fan.

His robotic vacuum cleaner, programed to run in the early hours of the morning, encountered pile of dog poop left on the floor. The Roomba (robotic vacuum cleaner) indeed sucked it up flinging it all over the house. Newton lamented that his house, “looked like a Jackson Pollock poop painting.”

‘R2D2’ may be lovable as a companion while you’re in space, but he has a dark side. Robots can make a terrible mess of things.

I’m not technologically savvy or good in math. I barely got through algebra and my checkbook looks like Jesse Newton’s house. But I read and hear things and grow concerned. I’d like to share the concern I have about ‘outsourcing’ – a technological and economically complex phenomenon that is radically changing the world’s way of life.

I became aware of outsourcing when Obama was first elected. By then it was taking its toll on American workers. Unemployment was significantly rising. I remember being struck by the ramifications of sending jobs overseas. I kept thinking to myself, well, the nature of a business is to make money. So, if having my widgets made in Mexico at half the price it would cost me in Detroit, it’s a no brainer; I’d go south of the border. Since 2015, some 3,320,213 jobs have been moved overseas – gone south in a manner of speaking. How does anyone deal equitably with a problem as thorny as that?

During his campaign, Trump made the return of jobs his battle standard. I wondered how anyone could reverse this trend. I can’t imagine any industrialist who would elect not to outsource. Trumps own businesses are outsourced so I gather he has had no idea what to do.

Three things are particularly jarring about outsourcing and technology.

Software developer Martin Ford writes: “In 2013 a study by researchers at Oxford concluded nearly half of all occupations in the U.S. are “potentially automatable, perhaps within a decade or two.” That’s not good news for workers.

Writer Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, reports: “In 2014, Facebook acquired Whatsapp for 22 million dollars. When a 22 billion dollar company can fit its entire workforce into a greyhound bus, the concept of surplus labor would seem to have run its course.” Her point: how million dollar industries, while creating radically fewer jobs, can produce more and more.

Another scary scenario is how the countries we’ve outsourced to, are themselves increasingly automating. Industries in China are automating as fast as if not faster than those in America. The jobs we’d want to bring back simply wouldn’t be there.

This brings me back to poor Mr. Newton and his Roomba. At the mercy of his own robotic device, he created far greater problems for himself than the convenience and automation was ultimately worth. The design of this marvelous invention did not take into account the impact it might have on the lives and habits of those who lived in his house. There was Mr. Newton and his dog, both living, breathing creatures with their own ways of being in the world. The dog did what it had to, as did Mr. Newton as he programmed Roomba and turned in for the night. Mr. Newton didn’t see ahead far enough to consider the impact this might have on his way of life. I imagine the poor dog got his nose rubbed in it big time.

It will take great wisdom, political even-handedness, cooperation and rethinking to level this playing field that has increasingly tilted toward industries that favor creating efficiency, and ever larger profit margins. The good news in any of this is that it may force the reintroduction of conscience into capitalism. That is, that a durable paradigm may emerge: that a company’s responsibility and commitment is to provide viable employment for its workers, a good product as well as generating profits.

What to do?

Last Christmas, I received one of the latest electronic devices as a present. I’m a Luddite and my wife is a techy, she likes to broaden my horizons. The device is called an Echo. An Echo is a black cylinder-shaped object that knows all kinds of things. Like a high functioning Jeopardy winner, all you have to do is ask her. You say aloud, “Alexa” and that gets her attention. When a surreal blue light appears at the cylinder’s top you then pose your question. The salutation “Alexa” is not to suggest that Putin has hacked Echo. It’s just her name.

Despairing of this painful outsourcing and technology issue one day I turned to Alexa for understanding, asking her “What is outsourcing, anyway?

She replied: “Outsourcing is contracting out a business process, operational or non core functions to another party.” Then I asked her, “ Is outsourcing a good thing?” She emitted a reflective “Hmm” and replied, “I can’t find an answer to your question.”
Since Alexa was manufactured in China and sold by Amazon, there’s no way she was about to give me a straight answer. If she had, I’ll bet Alexa would have gotten it a lot worse than Mr. Newton’s dog.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

God Carriers by George Merrill

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that we are all ‘God carriers.” The divine spark glows within each of us. It’s especially manifest in acts of compassion.

The biblical parable known as the loaves and fishes illustrates the Archbishops’ point.

Jesus is teaching a multitude of people in a wilderness. They’ve traveled great distances to hear him. They’ve been there a long time and soon it will be dark. They have had nothing to eat and home’s far off.

Jesus says to his disciples, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”

The disciples respond anxiously, convinced they don’t have enough. “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asks.

“Seven,” they reply, “and a few small fish.”

Jesus tells the crowd to sit. He blesses the food and the disciples feed the entire crowd. There are even leftovers. You never know what one act inspired by compassion can do. Compassion changes the game.

The parable is often called a miracle since it seems an impossible task. I don’t see the parable as a miracle. That makes it a singularity, a once and for all kind of thing. I understand it more as a guiding metaphor for living expectantly, living in hope. There’s a subtle twist in the question Jesus poses to the disciples: The question’s not what do you need or want, but what do you already have?

What do you and I already possess to meet the rigors of our own lives in this rancorous post-modern world that seems as inhospitable as any wilderness? We have more than we think. We have the spark.

In the recovery community, sustaining sobriety and personal equanimity requires, among other things, taking one’s own inventory. This is an exercise in being clear-eyed about who we are, our faults and the gifts we have. “Don’t compare” is the message. Comparisons lead to pride, resentment or discouragement. In an atmosphere of cynicism it’s hard to believe our own resources are adequate, that we each possess that spark of essential goodness. The burgeoning self-help industry testifies to the phenomenon. Know thyself is tricky. The challenge is ongoing.

I have been reading about three of the world’s great contemporary spiritual leaders, Thich Nhat Hahn, 90, Desmond Tutu, 85, Dalai Lama, 91. All three subscribe to a way of being that I’d describe as compassion in action. Each suffers significant health problems; Thich Nhat Hahn, had a severe stroke; Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama, both have prostate cancer. They’ve all lived through great personal and world tragedies; Thich Nhat Hahn, the ravages of the Viet Nam war; Desmond Tutu, the brutality of the apartheid era in South Africa, and the Dali Lama, China’s takeover of his homeland Tibet and its assault on Buddhism. The three men have no complaints about their illnesses, no wishes to punish adversaries or to exact vengeance. They are committed to the compassionate life, to kindness. They are happy men. Archbishop Tutu and the Dali Lama have a mischievous sense of humor. It’s a perk some get along with the divine spark.

Compassion is neither sympathy nor pity for another who is suffering. I believe compassion is a way of knowing, a knowledge very different, wisdom that’s not gained from the normal exercises of our judging minds. It’s as if in being compassionate we see beyond the two dimensions of the rational mind that governs so much of what we do. In being compassionate we add a third dimension that reveals the depths and breadth of our connections to each other and to our world. It allows for surprises. Imagine how the disciples felt as they were cleaning up that evening after their epic dinner. They saw their world differently, and found themselves in a wholly unexpected place. They saw the spark.

In a book, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, the Dali Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu explore the question of how to find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering. The Archbishop observes, “Despite the aberrations, the fundamental thing . . . about people is they are good, and they really want to be good.” The Dali Lama adds, “When bad things happen they become news . . . but they are unusual which is why they become news. We take good for granted.”

Bad news, however we may bemoan it, will surely demand our intention and most of the time will get it. We’re suckers for sensational and lurid headlines.

In weal or woe, compassion and hope are the staples of joyful spirituality. Practicing them makes significant contributions to the healing of our broken world. Archbishop Tutu sees hope as different from optimism. Optimism he regards as too dependent on circumstances, on the ephemerality of our feelings. Hope is deeper, an abiding conviction that all things are possible. Of course, just what the possibilities are remain unclear at first. This is why, in practicing the spiritual life, one learns to watch and wait expectantly and not draw precipitous conclusions.

You never know when or where hope and compassion will save the day.

A student at the University of Pennsylvania, Kiersten Miles, secured a babysitting job. Into her new job for just three weeks, Kiersten discovered that her 9-month-old charge was suffering from a rare liver disease. Baby Talia would die without a liver transplant. Kiersten discovered that her blood type was compatible with Talia’s. Kiersten volunteered to be the donor. The liver transplant was successful and both baby and Kiersten are recovering well. Kiersten was left with a five-inch scar. She says, “A small price to pay for saving a life.”

God carriers may look like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn or Desmond Tutu but can just as easily look like a co-ed baby sitter attending a university.

Actually, they’re everywhere.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Take Heart by George Merrill

Cynics say that positive thinking in the Trump era is equivalent to being in denial or suffering a psychiatric condition called magic thinking. Take heart, it’s not so.

The trick I’ve learned is not to read the papers or visit any other media for at least two hours after rising; the longer the better. Then I have an untroubled look at the sunrise, listening to the early birds flitting about while I savor that first cup of coffee. With an untroubled mind I can think about just how I want to go about my day.

Another strategy to maintain equanimity is to think contextually, that is, keep an eye on the big picture. Beauty is often revealed by its surrounding space, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh once observed about the shells she saw on a beach.

February is a case in point.

I’ve always regarded February as a blah month – cold and wet and dreary. But, taking the long look I now see it differently. Consider this: February 14th is Valentines Day. February 17th is Random Acts of Kindness Day. It’s also American Heart Month as well as Black History Month. The only downer is that February includes Presidents’ Day. Recently it’s felt more like a wake than a celebration. Still, my challenge is to remain positive, look for the silver lining in the darkest cloud, and don’t resort to keeping my head in the sand.

Valentines Day was especially rewarding this year because I remembered it on my own. I was the first to initiate a congratulatory kiss and tell my wife I loved her. I know she welcomed it, but I saw fleeting skepticism in her eyes. She may have been surprised that I remembered. She made the attached card for me.

February 17th is Random Acts of Kindness Day. Then I was still on holiday in Puerto Rico. Like many privileged Yankees I stay at a resort where some of the heart-rending poverty remains invisible. In many ways it’s an alternative universe, and if I ever had any illusions about inequality, being on the streets of Humacao as well as on the streets of our own capitol, they are quickly dispelled.

When I first arrived, I had occasion to leave the resort to buy supplies in Humacao. At a light I was approached, one after the other, by no less that four indigent men. Each held a plastic cup in his hand.

Their appearance betrayed desperate need. As each approached, I realized I only had twenties in my wallet and had made no provision for this. As they moved their cups in my direction I shrugged my shoulders and they passed me. The men betrayed no apparent anger or judgment. I believe I saw in their eyes a silent resignation, the blank stare of hopelessness. Having heard of a man in New York who did this, I elected to be sure next time when I left the house I’d be prepared to give each a dollar. This probably made no difference in their plight, but out of guilt and compassion I felt a need to at least act, to take their plight seriously enough to acknowledge it. Each time I gave, I had an odd feeling. I think it reduced that sense of guilt that goes with privilege, but the other feeling seemed different. As we momentarily looked each other in the eye I noticed I felt less alienated and more aware. This was a stranger whom I met only once and probably would never see again. The feeling was faintly reminiscent of a sense of belonging, that both of us were connected in a fundamental way – children of God. Moments like this make me appreciate the exercise of compassion – and the organizational commitment – that Julie Lowe and the volunteers of the Talbot Interfaith Shelter have created. Random acts of kindness are good as far as they go. Compassionate acts inspired by committed and accountable people is goodness at it’s best.

During February we celebrate Black History month, usually emphsizing the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Gandhi, Dr. King showed the world a more excellent way. I continue to be awed by the care and planning that the early civil right activists practiced. It was as disciplined as boot camp, giving as much thought and respect to adversaries as to advocates. The movement was one example of not only the power of goodness and personal sacrifice to reach the human heart, but to also change oppressive social structures. Social revolutions are notoriously bloody. The civil rights movement had casualties – King himself – but his life and mission changed the world in a remarkably bloodless way.

February is also American Heart Month. Our hearts are our most loyal supporters and our closest friends. We can’t live without one. They have an awesome responsibility and even when they suffer malfunctions, with the right treatment, they keep on truckin’. Try this on for size: In a seventy-two year life span, a heart beats approximately 2,800,000,000 times. Of our other organic functions, our breath comes in behind the heart but still at a whopping 530,156,808 breaths. In times of erotic excitement and especially during presidential campaigns both numbers may increase substantially.

This brings us finally to February 20th, which is Presidents Day this year. It’s usually a celebration, but this year I think confusion abounds in the White House and President Trump seems angry all the time about one thing or another. I haven’t found this President’s Day as festive as last year when President Obama was in office. He was fun, articulate, with a sense of humor, even self-deprecating humor – “I’m the guy with the big ears,” he’d say. President Obama seemed to really care for us, as though he held in his heart the people he was elected to serve.

Oops! See, I’ve done it, dumping on Trump again, right into the negativity I’m encouraging us to rise above. Well, getting back on task I count as a blessing that Vladimir Putin didn’t become our 45th President.

Take heart, friends. Count your blessings, however modest. It promotes warm hearts and fewer visits to your cardiologist.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

The Work of Dreams by George Merrill

Imagination is the stage where our dreams make their appearances. Dreams rarely materialize in the way we imagine. They will take us instead to an unexpected place.

At fifteen years of age, I dreamed of sailing around the world in an eleven-foot, cat rigged sailing dinghy called a Penguin

There were two problems: one, that the dinghy was my sister’s. The other, given its size and freeboard I probably wouldn’t have made it across Raritan Bay. I’d worry about that later.

First I’d need to strike a deal with my sister to get use of the Penguin. I didn’t tell her about my plan. By agreeing to paint and caulk the Penguin every spring I was promised regular access to it. Maintaining the dinghy in Bristol fashion was my ticket to high adventure.

I am a dreamer. I was a kid that could make himself believe that wearing the fireman’s hat made him a firefighter. I needed to take my dreams as far as I could without doing myself in. I had lots of room to maneuver in my imagination. In reality, I practiced sailing the dinghy after school. I’d sail solo (there was hardly room for two, anyway) from Great Kills Harbor up along the south shore of Staten Island to South Beach (not far where the Verrazano Bridge is today) and then back. I had no auxiliary power. Still on every trip I made it home under sail ghosting along on light southerlies. The winds favored me. Auspicious, I thought.

On those brief excursions late in the day, I’d watch merchant ships making their way through the Narrows to and from New York Harbor. With some mental slight of hand, I could make the Brooklyn Shoreline and the shore of Sheepshead Bay disappear. I imagined myself hunkered down, the tiller in hand, alone in my little craft far out at sea, passing big merchant ships. I repeat, imagination knows no boundaries.

Reading Joshua Slocum’s epic solo circumnavigation of the globe on his sailboat, Spray, inspired me. His story haunted my imagination, and in particular one sketch in the book. It depicted Slocum lying in the bunk of his cabin, an oil lamp over his head. He was reading. The Spray could be rigged to sail straight courses for great distances without being managed from the helm. Slocum, then, could rest below deck. I saw a scene of tranquility – like someone sitting and reading before a blazing hearth during a blizzard. In Slocum’s case, he was crossing a wide and dangerous sea with ease and equanimity. It was the perfect image of sanctuary that, off and on, I dream of. It’s about discovering that I’m right with the world just where I am and just as it is.

For my plan to sail around the world, of course I’d have no way of knowing exactly where I was. Celestial navigation was the way. Slocum wrote about sightings he took with a sextant. He used an alarm clock as a chronometer. He could locate himself on the ocean by looking heavenward at the sun, moon, stars and planets. There’s a fundamental connection between the motion of the spheres and the paths we follow here on earth. It’s said, “Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” I would find that connection by following my dreams . . . and mastering geometry.

I signed up for a course in celestial navigation at the Hayden Planetarium. Every Wednesday evening I took the ferry to Manhattan and the subway to 96th Street. Capt. Lee was our instructor. I had no aptitude for math. I was failing most of my math courses at school. Celestial Navigation is all about mathematics. The physician Lewis Thomas once wondered whether mathematics was the language of God. If it was, I had trouble understanding it. My romantic dream gave me the courage to try learning geometry with the added perk of maybe hearing the voice of God. I had lots of incentives.

Fortunately all the computations I needed were worked out in publications like the Nautical Almanac, HO 211 and 214, so that I only needed, in a sense, to connect the dots.

The still point in my immediate universe I learned was the North Star. Everything turned around it. I actually saw the still point. During one lesson, Capt. Lee had arranged for the Planetarium to darken the dome. The projections on the dome accelerated the rotation of the stars and planets. While Polaris stood unmoved, I could witness the still point of my universe while watching breathlessly, as the rest of it hurled by above me.

Of course I never sailed around the world. I did, however, complete my navigation course and took my first sight.

With a bubble sextant I purchased at an Army-Navy surplus store, I took a noon sighting on the sun from my back yard on Staten Island and plotted the coordinates. This located me somewhere in North Jersey –forty miles from where I was – not bad for a first time. No matter. It’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.

They say dreamers have their heads in the clouds. We do. We balance our heads somewhere between eternity and immortality. Our dreams rarely materialize as they are imagined. They do lead to new and unexpected realms. Later on, I discovered how dreams would guide me over the uncharted terrain of my life that, sooner or later, I’d have to navigate.

Mine was a good dream. I now understand how the vastness of the sea and the eternity of the heavens inspire adventure and grand dreams, as well as art, poetry and music. My dream impacted me in still another way: whenever preachers say, “Let us bow our heads in prayer,” I can’t. My head turns reflexively upward. I am so sure I’ll stand a better chance of seeing the still point of it all when my head is in the clouds.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

To Whom Much has Been Given by George Merrill

In ancient times, in the Middle East, a man once sat near his tent in an area not far from a village called Mamre. His wife remained in the tent attending to chores. He saw three strangers approaching. He rose, ran to them, welcomed them, bowed to them in respect and offered them his hospitality. He washed their feet (a gesture of welcome of nomadic peoples) offered them bread to eat and water to drink. His actions were guided by a prevailing custom, which obliged him to offer hospitality and protection to aliens and strangers.

He took and slaughtered one of his calves and prepared a feast for the three guests. When it was time for them to leave, the story goes, he went with them a distance “to see them safely on their way.”

This is one of the myths of the legendary Abraham and Sarah who appear in Islamic, Judaic and Christian scriptures. By all accounts we have a picture of a man and his wife, people of privilege and power offering hospitality and protection to the potentially weak and vulnerable – in this case to three men who appeared as strangers in their midst.

Last Friday, the President of the United States signed a directive closing the nation to refugees and people from “certain predominantly Muslim countries.” Immigrants were turned away, with no preparations or forethought apparently given to how appropriate authorities would ‘see them on their way.’ The directive created unimaginable suffering for millions of people – all of whom wished us nothing but affection and admiration for what we stood for – a just and welcoming space. I was deeply saddened when I read about it.

The supreme irony is that the practice of hospitality was an ingrained spiritual tradition in many of those same countries that now seek refuge and sanctuary here.

There are darker implications to the recent executive directive. In this action, I believe our present leadership violated one of America’s fundamental moral foundations. The operative myth that has made America unique and distinct in its greatness is its commitment to hospitality.

We live by myths. Campaign slogans are myths. Our most beloved religious stories and symbols are myths. This is not to suggest they are only “make believe or fanciful.” They may be, but do not need to be historically verifiable to be powerfully motivating. To be viable they only need to speak to some deep human yearning. In the myth of Abraham and Sarah, we see the deep and universal human need to care for others, in short, to offer hospitality to strangers.

Two symbols represent our national myths; the eagle and the Statue of Liberty. The eagle represents nobility and strength, the alpha bird if you will. It tells the world that America is strong. It feels good to be strong. The eagle is, however, a predator. Eagles are also kissing cousins to buzzards.

The Statue of Liberty, our greatest national landmark, was conceived in grace. It was given to America by the French in gratitude for our supporting their struggles for equality and justice. For us, she has become the iconic symbol, not of America’s might, but of America’s caring. The gift was given in gratitude, one of the most profound feelings we have as human beings.

What’s disturbing is that the symbol of America’s true greatness with it’s long and venerable history of hospitality to the stranger, might soon become more like the guard stationed at the entrance to a gated community; admitting members only. I recently saw a picture on the side of a pickup truck with a picture of Lady Liberty on the cab door. In her arms she’s holding an AK 47.
This portrays the statue more as an armed guard than a hostess welcoming “your tired and your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”

The highest task imparted to us as human beings is to care for one another. It is not some kind of legal imperative, but more a recognition that we belong to that interdependent web of life that is woven into who we are and has consequences in what we do.
The story of Abraham and his guests is instructive from another point of view. We can assume that he is a man of means, with resources. Even if he were not wealthy, the same call to hospitality was a spiritual value that would be as incumbent on him as it would be for the privileged.

The substance of spiritual matters is reflected more subtly than say, closing a deal.

What characterized the recent executive order banning immigrants was its ‘slapdash” quality. Many, including the Secretary of Homeland Security were just learning of the order as it was being signed. The people in government agencies that would have the responsibility for carrying out the directive, “to see them on their way,” were largely blindsided which led to scrambling and confusion, only aggravating the predictable suffering for all involved.

In the spiritual nature of life, awareness is critical. It’s expressed in the attention one gives in the way we treat others in our routine or extraordinary transactions with them. Careless and off-handed treatment of others suggests that there’s little awareness and care or feeling for the other.

There’s one other irony in these developments. Of all the countries being impacted by the present migrations, America’s space, wealth and privilege position her to be compassionate with far less impact to her than countries with fewer resources.

To whom much has been given, much is required.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Love your Enemy by George Merrill

Love your enemy? You gotta be kidding, right!

When belittled or attacked, I don’t want to love; I want to strike back – I mean, retaliate. But mostly I don’t . . . at least outwardly. Instead, I harbor an intense desire to. The more virulent any real or even imagined retaliation becomes, the distinction between me and the offender soon disappears. I’m left with an attitude. I feed the attitude by going over the insult in my mind a hundred different ways, all leaving me, for about ten seconds, gloriously triumphant by having had the last word. It’s typically a pyrrhic victory. In thirty seconds I’m in a stew.

The more I feed my attitude, the less I can tell who’s the good guy or who’s the bad guy. This is why, from the earliest records documenting the practices of spiritual wisdom, loving your enemy was the signature challenge and the way to live fully. Michele Obama put it this way: “When they go low, we go high.”

As an abstraction, the teaching ‘love you enemy’ has been admired, but few really think its possible. Many consider ‘love your enemy’ as fanciful, a sentiment for wusses and the ineffectual, not for the strong and powerful. However, as infrequently practiced as it may be, when it is practiced, it changes everything. Martin Luther King, Jr. and those working with him changed our world.

I recently heard a discussion between Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman about the subject of anger and loving one’s enemies. Loving your enemy is not taught as such in Buddhist psychology although it is certainly implied. The teaching is more popularly associated with Christianity, but it precedes Christianity by centuries. As wise as the two spiritual leaders are, they acknowledge that living loving-kindness is sustained by regular practice, and not unlike recovery, is accomplished a day at a time.

In my own experience, while knowing the teaching is integral to Christianity, I’ve found little that’s practical to guide me in how to exercise that kind of piety. Praying harder doesn’t do it. Probably because when I do pray, it’s beseeching the Lord to make the disagreeable person irking me to vanish from my life – or his life – or for my bad feeling to go way. To love someone you viscerally despise can seem impossible. Emotions are what they are and we can’t just wish them away. In Buddhism, there’s extensive instruction in how one can develop skills in practicing loving kindness in the face of disagreeable circumstances. In some ways, for me, the discovery of Buddhist practices is helping make me a better and more functional Christian.

Jesus had only four years to teach, not time enough to develop an extensive body of practices. Buddha had a lifetime. The vision of a gentle spirit and the nuts and bolts of developing one are there from both and for us to learn.

Loving my enemy is born out of compassion, and nurtured by discipline.

As I listened to Thurman talk about his own struggle with anger I identified with him more than with Salzburg who is temperamentally more sanguine. Thurman describes himself as having a temper and is easily provoked. I get that.

The journey of loving others begins with loving self. This is different from narcissism. To put it another way, the first step when provoked is to become aware of just what’s going on inside ourselves. We look deeply into the content of our reactions, see them for what they are: feelings that will soon dissipate if left alone and not fed. By acknowledging the suffering we’ve experienced in being human we are able to let go. We can be kinder with ourselves and consequently with those who may well be enemies. The angriest or most vengeful people I know are least aware of their own inner lives. Whatever vexes them is always what someone else has said or done. For such, there is a deep need to hold on to anger. I think it’s because anger is less threatening than acknowledging vulnerability or hurt. Being angry is less scary than feeling afraid.

Recently, congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who knows the meaning of vulnerability, questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s election. He delivered it as opinion not as a rant. Trump retaliated by dismissing Lewis’s iconic work in civil rights as “all talk, talk, talk, no action.” What’s interesting to note here is how easily anger distorts reality. Lewis, like King, brought nobility and dignity to political life. Lewis, by being realistic and clear- headed about his vulnerabilities, embraced his weakness and discovered the strengths that helped change an entire society.

It’s instructive to note how Lewis and others in early civil rights marches assessed their vulnerability realistically and prepared to deal with it. In part, their preparation was turning spiritual truths into actions and taking ‘love your enemy’ from being a pious abstraction into a potent force for truth.

I had not known until recently that potential marchers were trained intensively for their mission. In one description volunteers learned nonviolence, civil disobedience, redemptive suffering, and Christian love . . . in the practices of nonviolent direct action as a means of challenging Jim Crow. They staged sit‐ins in which “store owners” and hecklers screamed racial epithets at the students performing the role of demonstrator. Mock antagonists blew cigarette smoke in their faces, pulled their hair, pushed them around, and shoved them to the floor. The workshops emphasized that the demonstrators’ suffering would be redemptive, but they did not minimize the suffering.

How have I been doing with my enemies these days? Depends on the day. When I catch myself feeding my attitude, sometimes I have the awareness to gently let my vengeful feelings go. At other times I overfeed them. Then I start all over again, working to let be. It’s comforting to know I don’t have to get it right the first time. If I fail I can always start over again.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Certain Slants of Light by George Merrill

My wife, Jo, has dragged me kicking and screaming into the electronic age. I can almost manage Facebook and survive fatal errors. I’ve learned what a blog is. I can text, albeit at a painfully slow pace and, although I will never be a truly renaissance man of the postmodern era, at least I can get messages and compose on the computer.

One of the marvelous gifts of electronic communication is its capacity to offer talks by informed people. I can listen to the wise and learned as they share their wisdom with me. Just the other day I listened to a clip where Krista Tippett (recently at the Avon Theater in Easton) was interviewing Rabbi Rachel Naomi Remen, a remarkable woman, and one of many I am hopeful will spiritually feed and guide more of us as we make our way in this increasingly uncertain world.

Rabbi Rachel Remen, MD, Clinical professor of Family and Community Medicine at U.C.S.F. has a vision. She relates a story as told by her grandfather. It’s a myth with deep roots in Jewish spiritual wisdom that I believe has profound healing qualities especially for this time. In her pioneering work in Holistic and Integrative medicine, while suffering herself with Crohn’s disease for sixty years, she’s no stranger to suffering or to the mystery of healing. She is wise in the art of living wholly (holy) in the midst of brokenness – which, for all of us, is life’s primary task.

She relates her grandfather’s story, a pivotal myth that has guided her along her spiritual path of healing that she’s trod during her life. Like all inspired myths, it reveals truth without artifice, in such an ingenuous way that it touches the heart and soul deeply. She offers a vision of hope for healing in this broken world. As I heard the story for the first time, I understood more clearly the ancient psalm that speaks of “the beauty of holiness.” The story goes as follows:

“In the beginning, there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then…at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand, thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. The vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. The wholeness and light…was scattered into a thousands of fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

“Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew, the restoration of the world. And this is a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. And that story opens a sense of possibility. Not making a huge difference, only healing the world that touches me and is around me.”

I read of a man who lived in Greenwich and commuted daily to the financial district in New York. No sooner out of the train and he’d meet on a few corners men and women begging for change. It’s a fixture in most big cities. It bothered him. He decided that each day when he left for the city he’d take ten dollars in singles. When asked, “Can you help me out,” he’d say yes and give the person a dollar. When the sum for that day had been given it was enough but he did the same the next day and the next.
His story came up at a dinner party. A couple of people suggested that while he meant well they gently chided him saying if he was serious he might do much more and concluded that this tiny gesture would do no good; “They’ll just buy drugs or alcohol” was the prevailing sentiment.
I saw the scenario differently. The issue wasn’t what the needy might do with the money, or even how significantly it would address their plight, but that he in some small way attempted to meet these people not “making a huge difference,” but reaching out to those in his world that touched him and that gathered around him every morning on his way to work. I was moved by how, when he became aware of the deprivation that faced him daily, he felt overwhelmed like most of us do, but became intentional and committed about addressing it at least in some small way.

Acts of kindness and compassion can be trivialized, as they don’t at first “make a huge difference.” However, they set into motion unexpected consequences that potentially mobilize all kinds of healing, social, physical and spiritual. The good news in the Rabbi’s grandfather’s story is, that from the beginning, we – each one of us – has been assigned the task of healing the world, a tiny bit at a time.

Keep an eye peeled for signs of inner light.

I wrote this piece during the inauguration on Friday while just outside my window I could hear the gentle and plaintive cooing of a mourning dove.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.