A Near Miss

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

Just a few days ago one of the most thrilling auto races ever to take place, occurred at the Daytona 500, where two racing cars crossed the finish line almost simultaneously, with the winning car doing so by reaching the finish line 0.01 of a second ahead of the next car. It was a photo finish, where only by means of a photograph (not the naked eye) could the winner be discerned.

It was a near miss for the loser, but a near victory for the winner. How should we regard near misses? Are they to be viewed positively or negatively? The answer might be: the winning driver could exult if he/she was expected to lose; and the losing driver could grieve, if he/she was expected to win. On the other hand, the winning driver could worry, if he/she was expected to win “big”, just as the losing driver could exult if he or she was expected to lose, as they say, “big time”.

Near misses don’t have to occur in a competitive exercise but they frequently seem to involve two or more participants. Two airplanes can be involved in a near miss while approaching the runway of an airport. Two planets/asteroids can be part of a near miss while pursuing their space trajectory. But in either case, they are not competing against one another.

Near misses always involve effort of one kind or another, which may engage the concentration of just one person, such as a student taking a test. He or she may experience a “near” miss, meaning that the student came very close, either to passing the test, or to failing the test. But the common denominator, in any case, is that a threshold was just missed, whether for good or for bad.

A near miss can occur in a game of chance, involving, for instance, the power ball, where a near miss doesn’t depend on someone else winning or losing, but depends solely on an individual player, who may or may not be known to other players, and who is not dependent on what happens to them in order to experience a near miss. For one can lose whether he or she is one of millions playing, or the only one doing so.

And so it is in our relationships with other people. We can experience a near miss in striking up a relationship with another. The initial “chemistry” may have seemed right or encouraging, but, with the passage of time, what was becoming a very close relationship becomes frayed, and on the verge of dissolving. This may initially prove to be painful, but, with the passage of time, it may become evident that the “near miss” (meaning failure to seal a relationship) proves to be a blessing in disguise.

And this may also occur in our relationship to God. In this case a near miss may mean that one was on the verge of cementing a cohesive bonding with God, or, on the other hand, a person was at the point of dissolving a relationship with God that had grown quite close. In this regard, we think of Judas’ relationship with Christ in its beginning stages. There is no reason to believe it was any less close than that of any of the other apostles. But, with the passage of time, the phenomenon of the near miss, that is, the cementing of the relationship between Christ and Judas, fails to achieve cohesion.

So the near miss can intertwine itself with many facets of our lives. And it can involve either a benefit, or a loss. A marriage-in-the-making may proceed on its way, and conclude with a cementing of the budding relationship, perhaps after having undergone the near miss of dissolving. On the other hand, it may arrive at the threshold of a permanent commitment, and then encounter a near miss in that regard, and dissolve.

The near miss is an elusive quirk to an experience. An element of chance is caught up in it. Some call this “luck”. But, of course, there is good luck and bad luck. Some feel they are constant victims of bad luck. Others may modestly acknowledge that they are the beneficiaries of good luck. In either case the near miss is an experience woven into its fabric.

Is the near miss part of a gamble, or taking a chance? Probably no more than God undergoes in His dealings with us. Each time, do each of us represent a near miss He is willing to take in our regard?

Ready to Start a Movement?

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

A young school psychologist for the school where I worked once defined a leader as a person who takes people where they want to go. That description has always fascinated me. Before I heard her definition, I thought it was the leader’s job to take people where she wanted to go.

Seth Godin tells us leadership is finding a group that is not together and organizing them. In his February 2009 TED Talk, he gives us a short history of how we have created change using factories and then television, he presents lots of examples of change makers (leaders) and finally he talks about the role of the heretic, that is, the one who looks at the status quo and says, I don’t like it. The role of the leader, Seth tells us is to identify who you are upsetting, who you are connecting and who are you leading? He says the answer to these questions leads to a movement. Then he gives us 24 hours to create our movement. Any takers?


Birds, 18 Wheelers and Christians

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

Birds of a feather flock together. Have you ever noticed certain birds of a feather—often small ones like sparrows or wrens—perched together on a telephone wire on a cold wintry day? There may be 40 or 50 of them huddled close together on the wire. There is obviously some kind of warmth generated, either by that wire, accounting for this gathering of the small birds so closely together, or is it the gathering itself, close to one another, that generates the warmth they are presumably seeking? On the other hand, often larger birds, like crows or blackbirds, who seem to be loners, and who often fly off on their own, each on its own favorite flight pattern, seem not to need one another to provide them the companionship or security of another bird of its kind, to help them keep warm, or simply to enjoy themselves as “loners”, following their own flight patterns, without companionship from another bird.

There is another instance illustrating the gathering together of similar kinds of items, but in this instance, it is a notably different kind of assembling together, from that just described concerning “birds of a feather flocking together”, at least of small birds. This is a mechanized assemblage of 18 wheelers, huge grain carrying trucks, that make their way off endless acres of cornfields throughout the state of Iowa, toward the small town of Clinton Iowa. Just as the assemblage of birds occurs in the winter, this convergence of mammoth trucks takes place in the fall of each year, as the corn is being harvested from the endless acres of corn, for which this state if so well known. For, in Clinton, there is a huge corn-processing plant that, in the fall of the year, attracts an almost endless parade of these massive trucks, each crammed with its load of newly harvested corn. lined up one behind the other, bumper to bumper, moving slowly toward their destination point in the processing plant, where they will discharge their load of corn into bins that will convey them into the innards of the plant where they will be processed either for conversion into food products, or for the first stages of a conversion program that will become ethanol, to fill the tanks of millions of automobiles and other vehicles. These trucks seem to operate on a time-table aptly described as 24/7, throughout the fall of the year. Who would have thought there are so many 18 wheelers exclusively engaged in conveying corn from farm to plant?

There seems to be little similarity between flocks of tiny wrens and sparrows, and these huge corn-haulers, except for one obvious fact. They both benefit and profit by assembling together in large numbers. The birds seem to do so for the bodily warmth they provide one another, huddled together on the electrical wires, and the trucks do so because it is only their convergence in large numbers at one particular spot that they make feasible the investment needed to erect such an enormous processing plant dependent on corn. In other words, benefits accrue, in each instance, from gathering together a sufficient amount of assets or benefits that reward the initial efforts at assembling together what is needed to provide warmth or corn products. This is about all that such mammoth trucks and tiny birds have in common.

And, as much as we differ from birds or trucks, we operate by the same principle. Benefits accrue to us all from collaborating together. Of course, this is not a break-through idea that first catches our attention from watching birds, or observing 18 wheelers. Our Christian tradition has made working together and helping one another a mainline teaching in leading our lives. But what is of significance in using such disparate examples is how this principle cuts across such different elements of life, to the point of observing that, even it was not imparted to us as a mainline teaching in our religious faith, it is something we would likely already be doing, in our efforts to lead a good and wholesome life.

This does not mean that the teachings of our faith are unnecessary, because we would already be doing much the same things if left to our own devices, but rather it shows the compatibility and consonance of our Christian faith with our own common-sense recognition of what we ought to be doing on our own: collaborating and working together in such a way that everyone benefits by doing so.

Lent Through the Eyes of Teens

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

Memento mori!” (remember you must die) the priest said as he placed ashes on my forehead this Ash Wednesday. Forty days from now on Easter Sunday, he will proclaim the Risen Lord, and new life. In between these two days is Lent.

Before I knew how to spell Lent, I new a cold, dark time of the year when everyone in the house seemed on edge, ready to snap at the littlest of things. Today, I realize that was Lent. In those days my parents fasted every day, even Sundays and worst of all, my father would give up drinking. I couldn’t wait for Easter when we’d all go back to our dysfunctional normalness.

Looking for some interesting thoughts on Lent, I came across a most remarkable website, New Catholic Generation. It is a group of Catholic teens sharing their faith on YouTube. The above is their take on Lent. I thought it was pretty good. The teen, I don’t think he ever gave his name, states that Lent is a time to look at the person we would like to become, compare that with the person we are now, and choose some actions that will help us get there. Sounds pretty good to me. Thanks New Catholic Generation!

Proving the Point—What Point?

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

Certainly some of us have gotten involved in interlocking relationships involving the same people over a considerable period of time—relationships that seem to be going nowhere, at least going nowhere of any consequence. And, over the years in which they are rather sporadically and casually recalled, nothing approaching clarity of understanding ever emerges, as to what they were all about.

Such was the relationship between my father and my uncle, brothers-in-law of each other. They really didn’t have much in common. My uncle was single, having never married though rumor had it that, at one point, he was seriously involved with a lady friend. He remained, however, the quintessential bachelor, and, with the passing of years, became a stalwart of his Catholic parish, even to the point of daily mass. He lived in the family home and cared for his aging mother.

But he was a modest success in what he put his hand to. He worked for the same company all his life—over 50 years—a railroad company, and upon retirement received the customary gold-plated pocket watch, inscribed with his name and the years of his employment. He never attended college (a relative rarity in those days), but did graduate from high school. Rumor had it that he was a good sprinter on the school team, and that, as he grew older, he was quite adept on the golf course. His only passion seemed to be playing bridge, and his name would periodically appear in the local daily newspaper about being part of a foursome that won a local bridge tournament. When all was said and done, it could be said of him that “he was a successful city boy”.

By way of contrast, my father, approximately the same age as my uncle, was a country boy, born and raised on a farm raising corn and tobacco. He and his several brothers worked the farm with their father, doing the grueling work of plowing the land, not with mechanized or motorized equipment, but with the stubborn and recalcitrant mule that was little inclined to be collaborative. He was a product of the one room schools common in that part of the state, but never graduated from that modest institution.

He left the farm at his earliest opportunity, which came his way with the First World War. He joined the naval expeditionary force that sailed the Atlantic. Following the war he moved into an urban environment, where he met my mother, and married her. That put him in contact with my uncle, mentioned above, and they became in-law related. His background equipped him for the two loves of his life: hunting and polo. He toted his shotgun to the countryside in the fall of each year, looking for quail and pheasant, and he took advantage of any opportunity offered him to mount a horse and engage in a game of polo.

This is the background of these gentlemen. They didn’t have much in common. And they didn’t converse much together. How it came about that a wager emerged between the two of them, by now in their thirties, that one could outdo the other in traversing the rugged terrain of a large local city park is beyond comprehension. The plan was to leave the house at the same time, heading toward the park by different routes, scrambling through it, and arrive back home first. I had a cousin my age who was privy to all these machinations, and he and I, just boys, agreed we would follow them, to see what would happen. Both of the contestants suspected something like this, and warned us not to think of it, but we did.

So off they took, each with a determined look about them, and we two boys followed them, each of us choosing one of the contestants, while remaining at a respectful distance. It was a sight for sore eyes, watching them slip and slide, climbing rock formations, slogging through streams, and finally, after about three hours, stumbling home, dirty, sweaty, scratched, bitten by varmints and exhausted.

My cousin and I could never figure out who won, since they took different routes. But they returned to the house at about the same time. They had a few words of disagreement between themselves, as to who was the winner. But the topic was never raised again, leaving the great unanswered question: what was the point? What were they trying to prove? Did it make any difference?

Their more or less non-committal relationship never changed. Of course, they are now both dead, as is my cousin, so I am likely the only living family member who witnessed this strange episode. But it ranks up there with myriads of other similar incidents, leading to the familiar situation we have all faced: proving a point. But so often, as in this instance, a point can be made and finalized, with only one unanswered question: what point?

How often have we resolutely set off on undetermined pursuits and apparently finalized our tasks, though wondering, at the end, why did we do it? Did it make any difference whether the city-boy or the country-boy won the wager, whatever it might have been, when the wager wasn’t clear, and most people could care less anyways, including, apparently, the contestants?

Never Say Die!

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

Everyday I hear about someone or something being abandoned, dogs, cats, churches, refugees, yes, and even children. Is there any worse feeling than that of being abandoned? I don’t think so, at least not for me.

In Theaster Gates, March 2015 TED Talk above, you’ll hear a plan for making something out of close to nothing, of taking what others have abandoned and bringing it back to life. Many people are doing this today, but Gates adds one very important element, that of involving the people already living in that neighborhood, awakening in them hope.

James Martin, S.J. editor at large of America Magazine in his February 15 article titled My God, My God, tells of Jesus who took the raw materials of his time and place forming them into a literally history changing moment. Then on the cross, he cries, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” My God, My God, why have you abandoned me (MK 15:33-34) Fr. Martin explains that while many think this was actually a prayer of hope and trust in the Father, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that Jesus truly did feel abandoned, just as we do at times. It’s this understanding of Jesus that draws me to him.

So what to do when we feel abandoned? We could:

  • Follow Theaster Gates method of working were we find ourselves with the people and resources we find at our disposal. 
  • Learn to see with the eyes of Faith, albeit not an easy choice. 
  • Look for the beauty in simple gifts.


The Passionists in Rome

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

The Passionists have a monastery in Rome named SS. John and Paul.  It sits on the Celian Hill, one of the seven hills on which the ancients built the city of Rome.  Deep in the depths of this hill, beneath the current monastery, are great stones that were the foundations of the palace of one of the ancient Roman emperors.

Across the street from this monastery is the equally famous Colosseum, the place where gladiators of old tested their skills against one another, with the fate of the loser of any given combat totally dependent on the humors of the emperor on that day, who sat in the place of honor at these combats, and whose thumb downward after a duel spelled bad news for the loser.  Also, in the era of the persecutions of the early Christians, their martyrdom often took place as food for hungry animals (lions, tigers), within the Colosseum, to the delight of the spectators.  The Colosseum lies atop the Celian Hill, atop which sits the monastery of SS. John and Paul.  And deep down, beneath this conglomerate of structures, is a set of tunnels connecting the center of the Celian Hill with the Colosseum.  It is possible that the wild animals were kept in the depths of the Celian Hill, and led through these tunnels into the Colisseum, to prey upon the helpless and hapless Christians awaiting them there.

This is perhaps needless background for what is to follow—but perhaps not completely.  For in modern Rome (i.e., the last 100 years) a multi-lane road system was built, completely encircling the Colosseum, so that it is possible for Roman natives as well as tourists to drive completely around the imposing  structure.  In recent years (the last 50 years or so) this road system consisted of 10-12 lanes, on which travelled at relatively high speed the speedy little Fiats, circling the Colosseum as if it were a sports stadium featuring a modern speedway.   A few years ago there were no bridges over these lanes, not any tunnels beneath them, nor any traffic control system (red and green lights) to regulate traffic flow.  It too often became simply a speedway for Roman drivers.

There, Passionist university students, from around the world, living in the monastery of Sts. John and Paul found their daily trips to the various universities, more conveniently arranged by walking across this roadway to reach their destinations.  This entailed getting to the other side of the street on which the Colosseum stands.  Certain foreign students used to some type of traffic control (the Americans, the English, the Germans) were somewhat taken aback about the prospects of safely crossing these multiple lanes to get to the other side, whereas the students from the Romance countries like Spain, France and, of course, Italy, took it all in stride.  This required that one resolutely and unflinchingly proceeded to cross the multiple lanes of traffic moving at high speed with no apparent rules of the road to hamper one’s driving skills.  Pedestrians crossed at their own risk, totally at the mercy and skill of the oncoming drivers.  The drivers clearly had the upper hand in this war of nerves, with relying on their vaunted skills at dodging the pedestrians, as long as these latter kept the one rule, designed exclusively for them: walk quickly without looking to left or right but only and always straight ahead on the route you began.  The only danger of a mishap occurred when a pedestrian tried to save him or herself, by stopping, moving to the left or right, or retreating.  Such foolish behavior throws the whole system, such as it is, into disarray.

Unfortunately, some foolish Americans have frozen halfway across this roadway, throwing the speeding Fiats into complete disarray, for the drivers count on resolute pedestrians moving steadily, even stubbornly onward, looking neither to the left or the right.  To do otherwise is an insult to the skill of the driver at dodging you at the very last moment, and such a maneuver completely fouls up the entire system of based on the dodging skill of the driver and the resolute, fearless  pedestrian moving onward.

This is an example of trust, skill and determination, at interplay with one another.  To an American viewing this Italian mode of traffic control, the universal opinion is that it is a disaster in the making.  But an Italian driver or pedestrian knows otherwise: it certainly does work, and it works well.  It is a school where bravery and fortitude is learned by the pedestrian, as well as skill and maneuverability by the driver.  A mutual trust develops  on the part of the pedestrian that he or she will not be killed or seriously maimed, while, on the part of the driver, confidence is developed that the pedestrian will keep his/her part of the bargain while the driver’s self-esteem is enhanced.  So this becomes a collaborative effort dismissing the need of traffic controls, and building a civic-mindedness based on mutual trust.

In the words of Satchel Paige: “Never look back; they might be gaining on you”.

Risk It! Tell Your Story

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

For myself, I don’t believe I’ve learned any more important skill in my 70 plus years than that of being able to tell my story, a story that is filled with challenges as well as successes (crosses and resurrections in Christian terms). Before I learned that skill, I was isolated and afraid, although if you asked me then, I would have sincerely denied any such a state. I needed to take the risky step of sharing my story in order to learn that truth.

Elyn Saks has shared her story, a terrifyingly horrendous struggle with schizophrenia. You may very well have seen it. Her June 2012 TED talk has generated almost five million views. Wow! As I listen to her tell her story, I can’t help but identify with her fears of being different, of being shunned and marginalized.  I marvel at her willingness and ability to tell her story and wonder at how she has not only survived but also become extremely successful in the eyes of most of us. She credits that to her many close friends, family and great doctors.

Most of us I suppose will never get the opportunity to tell our story at TED. Most of us I further suspect, wouldn’t want to, but there are other ways. Khaldiya, a 17 year old refugee living in Jordon tells her story through film, a skill she learned as a child in Syria. Her video is featured in the New York Times Op-Docs January 27, 2016  Another Kind of Girl. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself living as a refugee in a strange land (her cross). Her ability to accept her situation in combination with her learned video skills lead to a positive life (resurrection) where I believe many of us would find resentment, futility and yes death.

Three simple actions to help in choosing life:

  • Seek opportunities to tell your story and then risk doing it. 
  • Listen to others tell their story and see how you are the same. 
  • Surround yourself with family and friends by being a good friend.