Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Comfortable Truth


Looking into his eyes I could tell that something was gnawing at him from the inside.  This wasn’t usually the case.  Today it was obvious that he had suffered.  His calm demeanor, though merely a façade, was an effective tool capable of hiding a deeply buried pain.  At this particular moment, however, the truth was visible.  The façade had failed.  I turned from the mirror and contemplated returning to bed. 
Everything that makes a person who they are is impacted by illness and suffering.  Variables that are out of our control make changes to our physical, emotional and mental health without concern for whether they are impacting us positively or negatively.  A broken bone produces a tangible physical pain that others can understand.  It is a temporary pain that can’t be hidden but will heal leaving little physical evidence of its existence.  Emotional wounds, on the other hand, are much harder for others to understand.  They heal far more slowly, if at all, and the scars are only visible to the affected individual.
I have managed to cover over sickness and pain in my mind.  Some scrapes take longer than others to scab over but eventually my brain wraps them up and tucks them away in a safe hiding place.  Over the last thirteen months I have experienced suffering and illness that have brought me to my knees more than once.  But what do I really know of either? 
Just over a year ago my father lost a short battle with cancer.  We both died that day.  I have had other experiences with suffering and illness but none that have impacted me as strongly as this one event.  I’m not as strong and independent as I may seem.  I used to turn to my father for answers to questions, even the ones with answers that I already knew.  His reassurance strengthened me and my decisions. 
We suffer at the hands of others, because of events that are beyond our control and because of our own demons.  There are medications that can be taken to help mask the pain but is that what we really want?  I don’t think that it’s what I want but it is what I do for those around me.  I would prefer to be normal, or at least what my idea of normal is; no medications, just inner strength and mental power to help overcome the difficult times.  Without a doubt, though, the people who don’t need medication to get through life are in the minority.  The medication may be legal or illegal but these things help many people get through the tough days.
Suffering changes who we are.  It breaks us down and we stay broken.  We do our best to get back to where we were before but close is still immeasurably far away.  Today you’re one person but what if tonight you get word that your best friend has died?  Tomorrow you will be frozen.  A zombie in shock or possibly in denial but once you thaw you will be quite removed from where you were before your friend’s passing.  Life teaches us about life.  There is no way to truly learn the important lessons without experiencing them firsthand. 
Right now in Haiti the streets are lined with the bodies of thousands of unnamed people.  A situation beyond their control shook the country to its foundation and beyond.  Their rotting flesh waiting to be picked up by workers with dump trucks in the middle of the night, many of whom will be cast into mass graves.  Their suffering is over.  People walk the streets sifting through piles of rubble looking for missing loved ones.  Children are orphaned and have no safe place to go.  They know what suffering is far more than any of us can possibly understand.  But still they are thankful for their faith and the fact that their own lives have been spared.
As bad as things may have seemed at any one point in my life I know that they could always be worse.  I've not experienced anything nearly as traumatic as the people in Haiti.  Every event that breaks me down also serves as a reminder that there is farther down to go if I let it happen.  Often we forget to be thankful for what we have and only focus on our woes.  I have lost loved ones.  I have been ill.  I have even thought, once or twice, that my time was about to expire.  All of those moments that bring me down make me realize that I don’t know the real meaning of suffering.  I haven’t had a real dose of illness. 
I am never alone in my suffering.  Woe is not me. 

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sick of Suffering v1

Caveat: I wrote this version and it came out a bit too pretty for my taste. The next version, which I will post within a day or two, will be the usual, gritty writing that you're used to. Please give opinions and commentary. Shred it if you feel like it needs shredding.




The web is awash with photos of suffering and pain scrawled on the faces of people in Haiti. Recently an earthquake shook the country to its foundation. Once the dust settled and the destruction could be seen the citizens of this small third-world country began the near futile effort of searching for lost friends and family members among the rubble. A man; his face covered in blood and dust, searches for a wife and child that he will likely never see again. Bodies line the streets, amputations are performed with only local anesthesia and infections are nearly as deadly as disease. This is the home of suffering and illness and there is always room at the table.

We all have some level of understanding of suffering. It is the slow pain that sinks in and becomes a part of us. Suffering changes who we are. It breaks us down and we stay broken. We do our best to get back to where we were before but close is still immeasurably far away. That’s not necessarily always a bad thing. My first real taste of suffering was served by a hand bearing a symbol of commitment. I knew the meaning of trust and she taught me the meaning of betrayal. Through the suffering I learned about myself. I learned that what we had together did not, in reality, measure up to my expectations and understanding. This was a good thing, in the end, because I found someone who did measure up.

The sour taste of illness lingers in the mouths of all of us who have lost a loved one to disease or who have, ourselves, been overcome by an illness of our own. I have managed to cover over suffering and illness in my mind. Some scrapes take longer than others to scab over but eventually my brain wraps them up and tucks them away in a safe hiding place. Just over a year ago my father lost a short battle with cancer. We both died that day.

Over the last thirteen months I have experienced suffering and illness that have brought me to my knees more than once. But what do I really know of either?

As bad as things may have seemed at any one point in my life I know that they could always be worse. Often we forget to be thankful for what we have and only focus on our woes. I have lost loved ones. I have been ill. I have even thought, once or twice, that my time was about to expire. All of those moments that bring me down make me realize that I truly don’t know the real meaning of suffering. I haven’t had a real dose of illness. The faces of people who are less fortunate than me, rejoicing in the fact that they still have life, remind me that I am never alone in my suffering.

Woe is not me.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Educators for Edification


Educators for Edification
It’s strange; the things come to mind, when I start to think about the educators who have been in my life.  When I was in third grade I heard a new word, homicide.  I didn’t know what it meant but I knew that it was bad and I was going to use it.  While talking with my friend, Stan, I said “You’re a homicide.”  He then told the teacher that I’d called him a homosexual.  I said I’d called him a homicide and he said that they meant the same thing.  Of course they didn’t but I still got in trouble for calling him a name.  Mrs. Brewer, the teacher, taught me an important lesson that day.  Sure I got in trouble for calling my friend a name but the lesson that really stuck with me was that I shouldn’t use words that I can’t define. 
It was Mrs. Brewer’s job, as an educator, to teach me about math, geography and grammar; but she taught me so much more.  So, what is the role of an educator?  On the surface most people might say that the educator serves to teach how or why.  How does math work?  Why do we have a Constitution?  But the role of the educator is so much more than that.
Educators prepare us for us for the things that we encounter.  They teach us the answers to questions but they also give us the tools to find our own answers.  Dr. Athena du Pre, a professor at the University of West Florida, does just that.  She places her students in situations where there is no clear answer.  Then, like a parent teaching a child to ride a bicycle, she lets go.  Pedal or fall the class is set out to make the next move.  The students have been given the tools to find the path to their goal and it is their responsibility to see that they achieve it.  That is not to say that if there are stumbling blocks along the way she will simply let the students fail.  Not at all; those are opportunities for her to reiterate what has already been taught.  The parent will help the child back onto the bicycle but then, once rolling, she lets go of the seat and handlebars once again.  So, the educator teaches facts, gives tools and allows the students to explore; but what about the student?  Does the educator teach the student anything about himself?
Another professor at the University of West Florida, Dr. Gretchen Holmes, does just this.  Students working toward a certificate in Healthcare Ethics as part of their master’s degree are given the opportunity to look within themselves to find answers to ethical dilemmas.  Over the span of four courses students are asked to write papers about their own experiences and views.  These papers coax things from within the student; harsh truths, deep emotions and buried memories help to put into perspective things that other people deal with as they relate to the medical community and ethics; or sometimes what seems to be a lack of ethics.  It’s only through learning more about one’s self that a better understanding of others can be attained.  Empathy, a word that I learned in school, can be profound and powerful.  Forming a relation between one’s own experiences and those being faced by someone else puts a heavy burden on the soul; but in doing so it strengthens the empathetic party.
So, educators teach facts, give tools to allow the student to explore and force the student to look within himself to understand how the fabric of himself is woven.  That’s not the whole of their role.  Educators also learn about their students, find out what makes them tick, and then push them to the edge of their capabilities.  Grading can become subjective and the instructor can have the opportunity to score a student based on capabilities rather than as part of the class as a whole.  While at the University of West Alabama I worked with an instructor in the art department, Jason Guynes.  He saw potential in my painting and graded my work accordingly.  A piece that clearly had better use of color and form than ones done by my classmates may have received a lower grade because Jason thought that I hadn’t stretched my potential.  While the grade may have been a disappointment the message that he was sending was powerful and uplifting.  I had created an expressive work of art but if I truly looked within myself I could see that I could have done better.  He saw this potential and that boosted my morale; or in a more relatable term, my self esteem.
This brings me to the last real role of an educator.  They lift us up and help us to realize our true potential.  Encouragement is possibly the most important role of the educator at the college and post graduate level.  The tools provided and lessons learned at this level of education are going to be soaked up by minds of people who want to be in school and learning.  The extra push provided by the educator that says “You’re good at this!” in a sense scoops out a place in the student’s mind that can then be filled with more learning about whatever it is that he’s good at and enjoys.
If I think back at all of the teachers who have taught me it’s only the ones who truly taught me something useful who stick out in my mind.  There are only a few, in the line of so many, who are truly good at their craft.  My first grade teacher, Mrs. Holycross; my third grade teacher, Mrs. Brewer and my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Watkins are the only teachers from elementary and high school who stand out above their peers.  In college Dr. Peper, Dr. Carr, Jason Guynes, James McGahey and Dr. Taylor showed me so much about myself and my potential.  Now, working on my master’s degree Dr. Holmes and Dr. du Pre have helped me so much more than I had anticipated.  I have grown as a writer in the last six months due, in part, to their encouragement. 
So, here I am.  My toes curled over the edge, carrying a heavy burden and full of hope for a future that I might possibly make happen.  A future that I know only I can make happen but only because of the educators who have pushed and sometimes shoved me along the way.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Ten Holidays for Everyday

This time of year is special to many people. When I think of the year, any year, the things that come to mind are the ten holidays that many of us celebrate: New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mothers’ Day, Memorial Day, Fathers’ Day, Independence Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Each of these holidays is set as a reminder to be thankful for something.

New Year’s Day reminds us to be thankful for the opportunities that we have. A new year allows us the chance to start over with a clean slate. “Last year sucked so I’m going to make this year the best!” Well, don’t we have this opportunity every day? “August 14th was a terrible day. Starting on August 15th I’m making some changes.” Let’s think of every day as an opportunity to start over.

Valentine’s Day reminds us to be thankful for the ones we love. It is a day when we give roses, cards and candy to show how much we love our family and/or significant other. Is this really necessary? Do you love your Valentine any less on March 18th than you do on February 14th? I don’t. Make every day Valentine’s Day if you want to. Let the people who are important to you know how you feel whenever the occasion strikes. Don’t wait for a day when there’s a convenient card to show your emotions.

Easter is an opportunity, for members of the Christian faith, to be thankful for the sacrifice made by Jesus. It is on this holiday that we remember that He came to Earth to teach us to be better people and to show us the beginning of the path to Heaven. He died for our sins so that we can simply acknowledge that we’ve done wrong, ask for forgiveness and then be forgiven. Why are we not thankful for this all year?

Mothers’ Day comes to remind us to be thankful for our mothers. These women are responsible for every human being, breathing or otherwise. Mothers’ Day is a nice opportunity to show one’s appreciation but I love my mom all year. How about you?

On Memorial Day we remember and are thankful for people who have died in wars to make our country safe. We also remember other people who have made things better for us whether it is our departed grandfather or George Washington. Without these people we would live in a much different country. Let’s be thankful for them every day as well.

Fathers’ Day…well, think Mothers’ Day but for Dad.

Independence Day is when we, in America, celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It is our country’s birthday. We live in, quite possibly, the best country on the planet but this wouldn’t be so without the people who fought for our rights. I’m glad to be living in America every day.

Veterans’ Day is similar to Memorial Day but we honor all veterans, living and dead. These are the people who are currently serving our country or who have served and passed. They are the defenders of our freedom and the protectors of our rights and way of life. I’m not cut out for the military but I thank every uniformed soldier with whom I speak.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that reminds us to be thankful for what we have. We generally think of family and friends at this time. Be thankful for what you have all the time that you have it. A lot of things; friends, family and possessions come and go.

Finally, there is Christmas. This is a time of year for people, Christian and otherwise, to be kind to each other. For Christians it is a reminder of the time when we celebrate Jesus’ birthday. Gifts are given and received and people smile as their hearts are warmed and filled with cheer. Doesn’t it feel good at Christmas? Be kind to other people all year and maybe we can have that feeling without all of the lights and shopping.

Ok, there’s a rundown of the meaning of ten holidays that we may be taking for granted. Be good to one another and God bless.