Why Stand We Here Idle?

“1945 was an extraordinary year. It was a year when the world faced what must have seemed almost insoluble problems — the devastation of the world wars, particularly the Second World War; the fragile peace that had been brought about; the need for a whole economic regeneration.” (Mary Robinson, TEDWomen’s Talk above)

Seventy years later, 2015 is another extraordinary year, a year with issues that are: “…much too important to be left to politicians and the UN.” These issues must be faced by all of us, by faith communities, business communities, trade unions and young people. Ms. Robinson says this year is young people’s “Lunch counter moment.” (Ibid)

Mary Robinson, president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, even though she is quite comfortable in her native Ireland, has made herself aware of people who are not so comfortable and who are facing an end to their lives as they know them. She tells us of President Tong of the Republic of Kirbati and Constance Okollet of Eastern Uganda whose lives today are dramatically affected by climate change. Like Brutus to Cassius in the quote below, she calls us to action. Thanks Mary.

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

Where Do You Find Beauty?

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Sometimes we hear the remark: “Easy on the eyes”, applied to a beautiful woman. And, indeed, there is some truth in the observation. Such a woman is easy to notice and observe.

It’s a matter of beauty. But, there is beauty, and there is beauty. Even as we reflect on our own use of the term, we realize that, in our own case, that is true. A golf pro on the course can hit a magnificent shot down the fairway, evoking from onlookers the exclamation: a beautiful shot! Or a woman on the dance floor can whirl and twirl in rhythmic fashion, eliciting admiring comments about what a beautiful dancer she is. Or a tenor can hit a piercing note in a popular song prompting remarks about what a beautiful voice he has. Or a racehorse can cross the finish line with its mane flowing, far ahead of its nearest rival, and the crowd will praise the beauty of its stride and its rippling muscles.

So, is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Are some eyes more attuned to beauty than other eyes, or is it rather that some eyes see beauty in one place, while other eyes fasten on beauty elsewhere? How should we prompt ourselves in this matter? Should we continue to value our skillful ability to spot beauty in a particular area of life, or should we train ourselves to expand our ability to see the beauty all about us, because, apparently, it can be found in various places, by different people?

The foundational source of the beautiful in life is God. We don’t often apply the notion of beauty to God, preferring instead to note His power, or His wisdom, or His goodness, or His holiness, or His eternity, or His infinity. But, on reflection, we realize that beauty is as much a drawing power to the Person of God as any of these other qualities. In fact, some of the most cherished prayers handed on to us are in the Book of Psalms, among which are found paeans of praise about the beauty of God. And while we can admit that the power of God can strike terror in us, we should also realize that God’s beauty can evoke awe in us. The psalms are rich in their ability to sing the beauties of nature, whether it be the clear water cascading down a hillside, or a field full of blooming wheat, or a sunset shimmering over a body of water, or the snow atop a mountain peak. These are all nature’s finest examples at reflecting bits and pieces of the beauty of God to attract us, because nothing is so alluring as beauty.

Beauty can appeal to all our senses.   We can see beauty, we can hear beauty, we can feel beauty, we can taste beauty, we can even smell beauty. Beauty enhances some of our most memorable experiences. That is why we value art museums or symphony halls: they are exclusively devoted to presenting outstanding examples of the beautiful. The church too, within the relatively small confines of the Vatican state, has established and endowed these tributes to beauty, over the centuries. At times criticized for not selling these artistic treasures so as to distribute the proceeds to the needy, the church realizes their potential for drawing people to God precisely under the guise of the beauty they enshrine, not just for one generation, but for all generations down the ages.

And while the focus here is legitimately focused on such masterpieces of beauty, this need not disallow the many other instances of beauty to slip by us without being noticed. Education to the appeal of beauty should look to more than the human brain. There is beauty all around us, beckoning our eye, our ear, our smell, our touch, our taste.

Beauty, when appreciated in all these ways, can lead us Godward. So, in reappraising things we encounter every day, we should not take them for granted, and their own style of beauty, by failing to appreciate them.

This is the art of daily living, noting the beauty all around us. It is said of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the lily of the Mohawks, that, having rejected proposals from many braves, attracted by her beauty, she contracted small pox in her twenties, which disfigured her face, so that she was no longer desirable for marriage, which was fine by her. But at the moment of her death at a young age, when her body was placed on the bier, her face regained its original beauty, to the amazement of the onlookers. Is beauty just a matter of being in the eye of the beholder?

There is an art to discerning beauty, as displayed by Jesus when he saw Nathanael and the promise that he held out before the searching Jesus, leading Him to say of this future apostle: “There is no duplicity in him.” (Jn. 1.47) And when the surprised Nathanael replied, in so many words: “Have we met before?”, Jesus replied: “…I saw you under the fig tree.” (Jn 1.48) Jesus had mastered the art of sighting a form of beauty, in an unlikely place. That is a lesson to be learned by all of us.

Three Everyday Stories for Those Who Have Eyes to See and Ears to Hear.

I keep listening to TED Talks expecting to run out of inspiring stories of visionary people. I’ve been going there quite awhile and that hasn’t yet happened. TED, I believe has discovered the way to unearth greatness and I feel no need to copy them. I’ll just continue following and sharing.

This week Mia Birdsong begins by telling a secret I learned when I started teaching in 1970. If you want to solve problems, go to the source for your answers, not in a condescending or judgmental manner, but humbly seeking understanding (compassion) and learning. I believe every real teacher knows this intuitively even if they are not able to express it.

Besides teaching, I sold life insurance for sixteen years. My clientele while different in social standing, age and backgrounds, were absolutely no different in their need to solve the problems in their lives, problems, most of us think we would like to have. It’s a case of the grass is always greener… My insurance clients, like my students had to examine their own lives and resources and come up with a solution. As their agent, I did what I did as a teacher, listen, made some suggestions and encourage the journey.

If you take the time out of your busy day to watch Mia’s TED talk you will learn of Jobana, Sintia and Bertha dealing with problem of making money while trying to raise little kids. You’ll meet Brianna, a child who taught her friend who only spoke Spanish, how to speak English. Finally, you’ll get to meet Bakir, who will welcome you in to his BlackStar Cafe with “Welcome black home!” There Mia will awaken your senses with tales of Baakir’s Algiers jerk chicken and buttermilk drops which according to Mia is “several steps above a donut hole.” You’ll also discover a community center that the wealthiest of communities can only dream of.


Some Say Yes–Some Say No

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Is an exaggeration a lie? YES, say some. It is an untruth and a deception. It misinforms the listener and may lead him or her into a relationship with another that is harmful because it misrepresents the competency or reliability of the one formulating the exaggeration. As a result, the listener may place his/her trust in a speaker based on misinformation about the truthfulness of a remark that is exaggerated. And misplaced trust may result in injury or damage to the hearer, usually financial in nature, if the listener invests money in a program that has been misrepresented, or, may sour a listener on personal exchanges across the board, making many of them suspect and unreliable.

But others say No. An exaggeration is not a lie, at least not necessarily so. It is often based upon a truth, which may be somewhat extenuated. Especially when it comes from someone who is well known for embellishing the facts, an exaggeration often lends, not deceit, but interest and fascination to a person’s remarks, and adds a certain attractiveness to what may otherwise be a rather dull or unimpressive conversation. A party is often enhanced by the presence of a guest skilled in the art of exaggeration, which may provide a certain glow or warmth of fellowship among party-goers, thereby cementing human relationships.

The practice of exaggeration is not a modern development. The well-known incident of “chicken little” has an ancient pedigree, describing the chicken on whose head a pebble or drop of water falls, leading the chick to exclaim loudly and clearly that “the sky is falling”, to everyone’s dismay.   Now this is a classical example of an exaggeration, for the sky was obviously not falling. No harm was done, though possibly the heart rate of some bystanders increased and an element of fear may have raced through them. But was it a lie, or a mischief-maker?

And, in more recent times, October 30, 1938, to be exact, the radio announcer Orson Welles made his impressive announcement over the radio air-waves that Martians were invading our planet in droves, intent upon subduing us. Given his acting and rhetorical skills, Welles adroitly interrupted the scheduled newscast with this stunning piece of information, leaving at least some of his listeners dumb-founded and even frightened. A bit of an exaggeration, obvious to some, but apparently not obvious enough to others. Was this a lie?

And perhaps some of us have been admonished against any youthful playfulness, or perhaps foolishness, or possibly malevolence, leading us to yell out FIRE, FIRE! in a crowded theater, where people will possibly react to this in a stampede or at least a paralyzing fright. Can this be dismissed as a harmless exaggeration, obviously untrue and so just a prank?

So what is the difference, if any, between a lie and an exaggeration? Is it fundamentally a distortion of the truth, whether it misleads others or not, or is it simply an enhancement of the facts to make them more interesting to the listeners around us? In this latter alternative, it might actually be a welcome boost to a party that is beginning to grow dull and boring.

Yet, recent incidents involving prominent citizens of our country have aroused indignation and reprehension of the perpetrators of exaggeration, such as that of Brian Williams, the lead announcer of NBC evening news, who apparently enhanced his role in covering the news associated with our military engagement in Iraq. This breach of reportorial ethics was considered quite damaging to the trust listeners place in the accuracy and truthfulness of the newscasting profession.   And there have been other recent incidents of prominent military personnel and government officials engaging in self-enhancing comments, often about their military exploits, and this too has been regarded as injurious to the qualities of trustworthiness and competence expected of people occupying significant public positions.

A traditional axiom in commercial transactions between merchants and customers, interested in purchasing an item from the merchant, is: “caveat emptor”, a Latin phrase meaning: “let the buyer take care/be on guard”.   Obviously a merchant wants to enhance the product he or she is selling so as to complete a sale. But it is also obvious, at least to an experienced customer, that he/she should be “on guard”, noting any exaggerations made by the merchant on behalf of the product. Is there anything harmful taking place in an exchange of this kind, or is it simply an exaggeration that both parties recognize and deal with? In other words, an acceptable practice. But nonetheless, a warning, such as Jesus pronounced in the gospels: “Be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Mt 10.16), helps to distinguish fact from fiction, or truth from exaggeration.


Learning How to Live

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer in the development of hospice care in the United States, wrote the book, Life Lessons, with David Kessler when she was dying. It’s a fascinating book, one I found most enlightening when I read it fourteen years ago.

BJ Miller a palliative care physician at the Zen Hospice Project in California opens today’s TED selection with a personal story about how his suffering got him where he is today. He also tells stories of the people under his care who are teaching him how to develop a design for dying. Listening to his stories reminded me of visiting my grandmother in the nursing home in the 1970’s. She was in her 90’s and her husband, my grandfather had died a few years earlier. The three things she wanted to do most were to visit the local ice cream parlor for a treat, to reminisce about her life and to eat bananas.

There was a time when I would have shied away from any conversation on dying, but having now entered my eighth decade of life (just turned 70) I don’t have that luxury anymore. What I’ve discovered with the help of Koobler-Ross and BJ Miller is that by learning how to accept death, I’m really learning how to live.

What’s Your Place?

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

We periodically hear the phrase about knowing one’s place. It’s a phrase out of the past, with some history attached to it. It seems we don’t hear it as much nowadays as we did a few decades ago.

What does it mean, to say that one knows his or her place—or doesn’t? It seems to have two meanings. One meaning is rather complimentary. Its significance is that a person is comfortable with his/her place in society, or in life in general, and has no pretensions or desires for moving out of it to another place. That is to say, it suggests one is satisfied with one’s position in society, and has no ambition to improve or better it. Such a person is not anxious about social standing, and does not transmit a message of dissatisfaction with the hand that has been dealt him or her. It’s a phrase one is pleased to have applied to him- or her-self.

But there’s another meaning to the phrase, that makes of it a kind of “put-down” or criticism. It is leveled against someone who appears pushy or “uppity”, anxious to make a good impression on others, and desirous of getting ahead or improving one’s place in society. Such a person appears to be dissatisfied with the way his or her life is going, and wants to introduce some changes into it. And there can be some validity to such dissatisfaction. But it is not a description most of us would like to have applied to ourselves.

A person who knows and accepts his or her place in society is usually a contented person, and may give the impression of having no ambition or desire to improve things. This may be true, and for good reason. For instance, such a one may have achieved what he or she set out to do in life, and has no other goals ahead that beckon or challenge one. This would seem to constitute happiness or at least contentment. Goals have been met, so ambition has died out. However, there can be a downside with such a situation. For the role of desire in our human psyche is a prominent part of our life experience. To have all major desires satisfied and fulfilled suggests either that they were not challenging and were rather easily achieved, or that we aggressively pursued them successfully, regardless of the effort involved. As a result, our life has lost its drive and momentum, and we’re gliding along (drifting?) rather comfortably. Some retired people, who eagerly anticipated retirement after hectic years earning a living or raising a family, find that, after a period of time, retirement does not prove to be what it promised to be. Time begins to weigh heavily on their hands, and memories of a busy life, now left behind, prove nostalgic. If this is the bliss of eternity, they may reflect, then it is not an attractive one.

The person, on the other hand, who is restless and full of ambition, often frets over lost or wasted opportunities at achieving upward mobility or self-improvement, and is usually not content with successes already achieved, even though they may be significant. It is good to have a person such as this in a position of influence in an organization. He or she is equipped for a leadership position. But when such a person shows little indication of scoring successes in life, people are less prone to “tolerate” his/her ambition and tend to resist or obstruct their efforts. Critics complain that such a one doesn’t know his/her place in life, and ought to rest content with where one has reached. But often, such a one is not ready to give up, and determinedly pushes on, even into the retirement years.

So, knowing one’s place in life can be a double-edged sword. In a positive sense, it represents success in having carved out a successful position for oneself, thereby proving acceptable both to others and to oneself. Paul the apostle exemplified this attitude in detailing his pedigree and achievements before the opposition of those seeking to oppose his efforts at evangelizing. (2 Cor 11.21-29)

But, in a negative sense, it can imply a “put-down” on one’s life on the part of others who are critical of what they regard as unbridled ambition, at others’ expense. This is illustrated in the gospel incident of James and John using the influence of their mother to score advancement in the kingdom of God, to the chagrin and anger of the other apostles (Mt 20.20-28)

So “knowing one’s place in life” is a double-edged sword, cutting both ways. Too much of it can be as detrimental to our well-being, as too little.

You and I Make We

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

I am man number 446,450 of 500,000. That doesn’t sound so impressive until you realize that Matt Damon, President Barack Obama, and Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the UN are also members of this group of men.

I suspect one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn throughout my lifetime is to see how I am like other people. Before I learned that lesson, I constantly judged myself as different. Someone would say: “I have a hard time liking this or that.” My knee jerk response would always be: “I don’t!” This kind of thinking led me to a life of isolation, not only from you but also from myself. I learned that if I were ever going to escape this self-made prison, I would have to learn to identify with you and the other people in my life. I had to stop seeing myself as special.

Imagine my surprise when while listening to today’s TED Talk selection I heard Elizabeth Nyamayaro cite the following quote from Albert Einstein.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein

Einstein agrees with me! ? (Of course he came to this conclusion way before I did)

Actually, it is the above recognition that has led me to writing this blog. I figure that just like me, there are other individuals who are experiencing the same things I am and maybe we could grow together through this recognition. When I recognize how I’m alike, my behavior changes. I become as the above quote suggests more compassionate both for you and for myself. That life of compassion leads to acts like becoming man number 446,450.

Maybe you can become man number 446, 451 and make a commitment to do something compassionate for women as well as for men. Nyamayaro’s talk might just lead you to do this.


Are You a Long or Short Term Investor?

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

We sometimes hear veterans of life’s battles saying something comparable to the remark: You win some, you lose some. In a way this sounds admirable.   It presents someone who has seen his or her share of life’s challenges, and has reached some kind of accommodation to the way things turn out. And apparently the formula reflects a workable arrangement for that person comparable to a dietary program striking a balance between too much and too little at the dinner table. And so it resembles a sensible, realistic balance, even if not too exciting.

Of course, for optimists among us, it strikes a sour tone. A genuine optimist doesn’t want to settle for defeats in his or her life, or even to countenance their possibility, even if they rarely occur. To settle for a life formula that stares reality in the face and is willing to compromise for some losses and defeats seems to be a de-energizing stance that almost guarantees losses. Why build the possibility of losing into the life struggle to succeed and gain one’s goals? Is it not a de-energizing and deflating attitude that guarantees that wins will be few and far between?

On the other hand, the realists among us want to dismiss the likelihood of “wins” from our repertoire of likely outcomes of our efforts. Why set oneself up for being knocked down time and time again? This can prove to be self-fulfilling, to initiate an enterprise that in all likelihood is doomed from the very beginning. It soon proves to be deflating and promises to issue in defeat from the get-go.   It proves to be a waste of time and energy, which could be much better utilized by lowering our standards and goals, and thereby avoiding the calamitous disappointments of failure and defeats. To settle for what is “good enough” issues in greater peace and contentment than striving for the very best.

In the calculation process, counting wins and losses, the relative importance of the wins and losses, of course, counts for something. That is, a major win is not checked or balanced by a minor setback, just as an important failure is not compensated for by a relatively unimportant success. If American Pharaoh wins the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, that more than balances out a subsequent loss in a less prestigious race. So calculating wins and losses has to take the merits of these contests into account.

Realistically, no one can count on a streak of endless wins, though, on the other hand, one can realistically fear that a streak of endless defeats can become self-fulfilling. A mindset that has lost self-confidence puts itself in a perilous situation where defeat becomes a likelihood. So it is a bit of an art to maintain one’s balance by counting on winning some and losing some, and being willing to settle for that situation over a long period of time.

It is usually comforting to work with someone on a project, who maintains a balance of comfort with winning some and losing some. To collaborate with someone who never calculates possible defeat into his or her projects is somewhat disconcerting, while to partner with another who foresees nothing but the likelihood of failure and defeat is to become a collaborator in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is a Christian angle to this conundrum, thankfully. For a Christian works in the context of the long-range view of things. Unlike those who constantly transfer their investments from one enterprise to another, in usually short-term arrangements, a Christian is a long-range investor who places his/her assets in a far-reaching strategy that, while willing to settle for the “win some/lose some” formula, in what can be called a short term arrangement, actually stretches out far beyond to a guaranteed formula of ultimately winning, that is, winning the big one. It’s against this forecast that losses can be sustained in the short term, even with a certain amount of confidence and self-assurance, where one’s broker can promise that “…whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day”. (Jn. 6.54)

He Sent Us…

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

Shimon Schocken, author and founding dean of Efi Arazi School of Computer Science in Israel, rides his bicycle every week in the mountains and deserts surrounding Tel Aviv. That’s kind of amazing in itself, but who he brings along to share his experience is even more amazing.

I taught at Montefiore Special School in Chicago, a school for young men with behavior and emotional problems, for twenty years from 1970 to 1980 and then again from 1996 to 1997. In the interim years I took students from this school camping in the Rockies and on regular trips to Great America in Gurnee Illinois. I knew then and know even better today, that I was the one doing the learning. I am so grateful for these opportunities. To this day I’m not sure whether I got more when I was volunteering or when I was a paid member of the teaching staff.

My experience tells me Shimon Schocken has the right idea on how to help young men in trouble with the law. I wonder if anyone is doing that at Montefiore or any of the “troubled” Chicago schools today? I hope so.