Look For It

IMG_1907One evening I was driving down the highway, my mind busy with its usual jumble of thoughts and concerns, when I came over the top of a hill and suddenly realized that I was driving straight into a spectacular sunset.  It was just gorgeous, complete with a fiery red sun that radiated streaks of color across the sky as it dipped slowly into the horizon.  I remember being surprised, because I have always associated beautiful sunsets with beach vacations, where the highlight of my day is often standing on a beach and watching the sun sink into the ocean.  I couldn’t quite remember the last time I’d noticed a sunset in my hometown of St. Louis, since my house sits too low to see either sunsets or sunrises.  And yet there it was:  a sunset just as spectacular as anything I’ve ever witnessed on a beach vacation, even without the ocean.

Simply put, the sunset surprised me because I wasn’t looking for it.  When I drive on the local highways, I’m watching for bad drivers, traffic jams and the upcoming exit I need.  I may even be keeping an eye out for an interesting billboard.  But I am most definitely not expecting to see a sunset….even though the sun does set in St. Louis every night, just as it does all over the world.

I believe that all too often, we tend to see just exactly what we are looking for, no more and no less.  Which means that if we are looking for signs that the world is a horrible place and becoming worse by the moment, we will see them.  If we are looking for rejection in our relationships, contempt from people who are different from us, and incompetence from coworkers, we will see it.  Because sometimes those things are there.  But if we look for acts of kindness and compassion, for creative solutions to long-term problems, for areas where the world around us is actually improving, we will see those things as well.  Because the good things are also there, but we have to be willing to see them.

I spend my days volunteering at an open-admission animal shelter which rescues unwanted, neglected and abused animals on a daily basis.  Sometimes I see and hear things that make me doubt in the basic goodness of the human race.  But if I choose to look for it, I also see things that warm my heart:  people who take the time to bring in the stray and lost dogs they see wandering the streets, people who donate supplies and give so freely of their time and money, or a once-neglected dog prancing happily out the door with his new adoptive family.  Usually, the mood I am in when I go home from the shelter depends entirely upon what I choose to focus on when I’m down there.

Just like my surprise urban sunset, there is beauty to be found in almost any situation, even during those times when it is least expected.  And I hope that I always remember to just look for it……

From The Heart

Have you ever read something that just seems to speak directly to your heart?  That happened to me recently when I was reading Fredrik Backman’s excellent novel “Beartown” and came across this passage:

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion.  The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil.  The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard.  It makes demands.  Hate is simple.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m often troubled by the amount of hatred I see in the world, and frightened by how quickly and easily it bubbles to the surface.  Organized demonstrations of hateful dogma are scary enough, but when I see the endless parade of on-line rants, name-calling and attacks on-line, I’m even more disturbed, because I see just how easily we unleash our hateful side once we’re convinced we’ve found someone who deserves it.   And as tempting as it is, I honestly don’t believe in fighting hatred with even more hatred.

For example, I am an animal-lover who spends her days working with shelter dogs, and I am sickened when I see any kind of animal abuse.  But I am also sickened when I read an article about an abused animal and see all the on-line comments calling for the abuser to be tortured and killed.  I may love animals, but I am not a sadist.  I don’t believe that the proper response to one act of evil is another act of evil.  What I really want is an end to the abuse. And there are plenty of ways to do that without becoming an abuser myself.

Believe me, I get upset when I see injustice, hatred, abuse and evil, and often my gut-level reaction is to lash out in self-righteous fury and indignation.  And sometimes I have given in to that impulse and said things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said.  Yet when I calm down, I realize that all I did was make the situation even worse by copying the very behavior that horrified me in the first place.  I allowed someone else’s hatred to take root in me, if only temporarily.  And that’s not the person I want to be.

I think it is possible to stand up to hate without being hateful, just as it is possible to stop abuse without becoming an abuser.  We don’t have to leave our best selves behind when we oppose evil, and we certainly don’t have to follow the example of the very people whose actions horrify us in the first place.

As Fredrik Backman so eloquently pointed out, hatred is easy and love is hard. But when it comes right down to it, I want to choose love.

It’s Simple

Back in the days when I regularly read newspapers, I always made a point of checking out the editorial pages.  I didn’t bother to read the op-ed pieces written by the editors, because  once I knew the editorial slant of the newspaper, I also knew exactly what its editors were going to write about any particular issue.  No, what I liked to read were the letters to the editor, because those were often written by ordinary people who felt strongly enough about a particular issue to write to the newspaper in the hopes of having their views shared with the community at large.  Some of the letters were insightful, some were angry, and few were funny (sometimes unintentionally).  But the ones that stood out the most were the ones that, in all sincerity, outlined a few simple steps that the writer was just sure would fix all of our society’s problems.

It never seemed to occur to the people who wrote those letters that if the solution to the complex and long-standing problems we face were really that simple, chances are that someone else would have thought of them by now.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why someone would want to believe that if we just took a few simple steps, we really could end all wars, stamp out poverty, erase income inequity, cure cancer, banish racism, etc., and in general instantly transform the world into the kind of happy, healthy and peaceful place we all want it to be.  I understand it, but I just don’t happen to share that belief.  We may not want to admit it, but most of the problems we are facing today have been around for a long time, and I just don’t think they’re going away anytime soon.

Of course there are many things we can and should do to address the many challenging issues we face, both in our nation and in the world at large.  Throwing our hands up in despair doesn’t help anything, and actually makes things much, much worse.  But I do believe that we need to be honest, both with ourselves and with each other, and acknowledge that complex problems usually require complex and sometimes difficult solutions.  And we humans are rarely inclined to show the kind of patience, hard-work, tolerance and maturity that are needed to do the job.

I think it is natural for us to seek simple solutions, especially in a world that often seems so confusing and sometimes downright dangerous.  Maybe the answer is to quit trying to impose our simple solutions on other people.  Maybe, rather than insisting on telling other people what they should be believing and what they should be doing, we need to focus on implementing our simple solutions in our own lives.  Wasn’t it Mahatma Gandhi who said, “be the change you wish to see in the world?”  And really, it doesn’t get much more simple than that.