Can I Help?

A few days ago, I had oral surgery to address an ongoing infection in one of my upper molars.  The procedure involved cutting through my gums and manually removing the infection and the tips of the molar’s roots before sealing them off.  I’m not going to lie and say it was fun, or even no big deal.  I don’t like even simple dental procedures, and this one was a doozie, any way you looked at it.  But I can say that the procedure wasn’t nearly as bad as I had anticipated, for one reason and one reason only:  the terrific attitude of the endodontist and her staff.

From the minute I walked into the office, I was treated with compassion, patience and encouragement.  Did I want a blanket to cover up in?  Did I have any questions before we began?  Would I like the chair set to massage during the procedure?  Of course I wanted all of it, especially the chance to ask some last-minute questions.  And by the time the procedure began, I was much calmer more relaxed than I would ever have thought possible in those circumstances.  By the time it was over, I was actually kind of proud of myself for how well I handled it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my pride was misplaced.  Yes, I had done a good job of managing my nerves in the days before the procedure, but by the time of the actual appointment, I was both nervous and scared.  If the staff had been hurried and abrupt, brushing off my questions, rolling their eyes at my request for a last-minute bathroom break, or acting as if there was no reason for me to be apprehensive, my entire experience would have been very, very, different.  If I had even stuck around long enough for them to do it.  (I may be old, but I can still run pretty fast when I have to.)

The reason I was so calm during the procedure was because the endodontist and her staff did everything in their power to settle my nerves and allow me to get through it with as much dignity as possible.  And that is a gift that I will not soon forget.

I’m sure I was just one of a series of scared and nervous people that the endodontist’s staff has dealt with, and that the way I was treated was their normal routine.  But their patience and encouragement made a world of difference to me.  Which just goes to show that how we treat other people really is a very big deal.

It really doesn’t take that much effort to offer someone an encouraging word, or to listen when someone needs to express their fears and concerns.  It isn’t that hard to smile at a newcomer, to talk to someone who is lonely, or to offer our sympathy to someone who is grieving.  Yet each and every time we do these things, we may well be giving someone else that little bit of help they need to get them through whatever difficulty they happen to be facing at the time.  And what could be more important than that?

Freedom

IMG_1463In just a few short days, those of us who live in the United States will be celebrating our Independence Day, also known as the Fourth of July.  Traditionally, the holiday is observed with parades, bar-b-ques and fireworks, and I’m sure this year will be no exception.  Despite the many serious issues that our country is facing, I think it’s a good thing for us to acknowledge and celebrate the “birth” of our nation and try to remember that, like it or not, we’re all in this together.  My personal opinion is that we would do well to start concentrating far more on what unites us and far less on what divides us, but I know that is wishful thinking.

Still, when I think of Independence Day, it reminds me to be thankful for the freedoms I do have, and I’m not just talking about those that are guaranteed in our Constitution.

I may live in a world where there is far too much hatred and intolerance being spewed from all sides, but I am free to choose just exactly how I respond to it.  I can join in the argument, trying to shout down those who disagree, or silence them with fear and intimidation.  But I can also choose to express my own views confidently and politely, and to do my best to truly listen to those who see things differently.  In other words, I have the freedom to decide if I want to add to the problem, or if I want to try to be one of the much-needed voices of tolerance and reconciliation.

I’ve never been particularly good at saying “no,” even when my schedule is already over-crowded with commitments.  I know I have been blessed with a relatively good life, and I believe that I have a moral obligation to help others whenever I can.  But I also need to remember that I have the freedom to create my own boundaries, and to protect myself from the overwhelming stress that comes from trying to take care of everyone else’s needs while ignoring my own.  Freedom comes with responsibility, not only to others, but also to myself.

I’m not exactly sure how I’ll be celebrating this Independence Day, although I do hope I get the chance to see some nice fireworks and eat some good food.  But I’m hoping that whatever I do, I’ll also remember to be thankful for my own personal freedoms to choose the way I want to live and the kind of person I want to be.  And I hope that I’ll have the strength and wisdom to choose wisely, and live a life that is as free and independent of hate, guilt, intolerance and ignorance as I possibly can.  Because I believe that’s the kind of independence that is truly worth celebrating.

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.

Just Listen

I am fully aware that I talk too much.  I tend to over-explain things, repeating myself as if I don’t trust people to understand what I meant the first time I said it.  When I’m nervous, my go-to response is usually to babble on and on about nothing at all, until the person I’m talking to decides that I’m a complete idiot.  Even worse, when someone tells me about a problem, I barely wait until they stop talking before I start telling them exactly what they should do, completely ignoring the fact that they didn’t actually ask for my advice.  So believe me, I understand how much easier it is to talk than it is to listen.

It’s not that talking itself is such a bad thing.  We all have important information to share, and we all want our stories and opinions to be heard.  Sharing our thoughts and feelings allows other people to get to know who we really are, and it’s an essential part of forming the relationships that all people need.  But all that talking doesn’t do a bit of good if there isn’t anyone who is actually listening.

I don’t know about you, but I hate it when I realize that someone isn’t listening to what I’m trying to say to them.  It makes me feel dismissed when someone interrupts a story I’m telling to launch into one of their own.  And it makes me feel diminished when I share something that I think is important and the other person just says, “Uh-huh,” and then brings up a completely different subject.  Nothing says “I don’t care what you have to say,” or even “I don’t care about you,” more effectively than not bothering to listen to someone.  Those kind of conversations don’t exactly build healthy relationships.

Which is what I need to remember the next time someone is talking to me.  Am I giving that person my full attention, and really trying to understand what he or she is saying to me?  Am I bothering to ask a question if I need to in order to make sure I get what they are talking about?  When our conversation is over, will that person feel as if he or she was truly heard?  Or will they feel the way so many of us do these days:  that it would have been just as effective to talk to a brick wall?

I think that talking will always come more naturally to me that listening, but listening has far better results.  Actually, it’s kind of amazing how much I can learn when I shut up and listen for a change.  I get genuine insights into how someone else thinks and feels, and a chance to develop deeper relationships with my friends and family.  I hear new facts and different ideas, and they broaden my horizons considerably.  (Also, the odds of me saying something stupid go way down when I’m not actually talking.)  The perks of listening are bountiful indeed.

I have come to believe that there’s a lot of truth in that old saying, “God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason.”  Because one way or another, it is almost always better to listen than to talk.

A Better Choice

I don’t know about you, but this past week has had an almost surreal feel to it.  Our nation’s long and contentious election is finally over, with a result that surprised many of us.  I had hoped that the end of the election would also bring an end to the ugliness, but sadly, that didn’t happen.  The internet is filled with the same intolerance, anger, attacks, and counter attacks that we saw during the campaign months and it seems as if there is no end in sight to any of it.  Sweeping generalizations seem to be the norm, along with finger-pointing, blame, and a complete refusal to listen to anyone who has a different point of view.

I actually considered taking a break from it all by refusing to watch any television news, staying off social media sites, and avoiding the internet all together.  It’s just too depressing, and sometimes makes me feel as if there is no hope for our country, or even our world, when so many people seemed so intent on sharing every single angry thought that crosses their minds, with no concern for whom they happen to hurt in the process.

But then I realized that by doing so, I would also be cutting myself off from many friends and family members who live far away from me and stay in touch via Facebook.  And I would also be withdrawing from the world of blogging, and I didn’t particularly want to take a break from the blogs I enjoy reading and from my blogging friends whose writing and comments usually brighten my day.  There is certainly a lot on the internet and news that’s upsetting, but there is also a lot that is comforting and affirming, and I can’t avoid the bad stuff without also cutting myself off from the good.

So, I decided that it’s time for me to simply get on with the business of living my life.  I’ll complete the necessary chores before me, continue with my writing and volunteer work, speak up (in a civil and respectful way) when I see injustice, and take care of my family and those who need me.  An when I do find myself feeling angry and threatened, I’ll try very hard to remember that it’s not okay to take those feelings out on other people.  I’ll also try very hard to focus on all that is good and positive in my life.

In just two days, my son is getting married to a wonderful young woman who is going to be a terrific daughter-in-law.  Friends and family are going to gather around them as they take this important step together, affirming their love and their commitment to each other.  We will eat, drink, laugh and dance (or in my case, try to dance) together as we celebrate this union.  Because often, in spite of everything that is going on around us, life can still be very, very, good.

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Now That’s Impressive!

img_4884The older I get, the less easily I am impressed.  Gone are the days when I got really excited by a grand-slam home run in a baseball game, or envy a friend’s beautiful new piece of jewelry, or even believe that winning the lottery would be the nicest thing that could ever happen to me.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy those things anymore, because I do.  (Note to my readers: if one of you ever does win the lottery and are looking for someone to share all that loot, I’ll gladly step up.)  It’s just that I have gotten to the point where I no longer find those things particularly impressive.

More and more, I find myself paying attention to, and often admiring, not so much what people have or what they do, but how they treat others.  It’s wonderful when a professional athlete is able to help his team win an important game, but it’s impressive when he uses his fame to help out a worthy cause.  It’s great when the new company that someone has poured their heart and soul into finally takes off and makes a lot of money, but it’s impressive when the owner of that company uses their money to give back to the community and create opportunities for others to succeed as well.

I especially admire people who are thoughtful and generous towards others when no one is looking and when they have nothing to gain from their kindness.  I will always be grateful to the surgeon who operated on my husband’s knee, because after the operation was over, he took the time to come into the waiting room and not only tell me everything went well, but also to sit down beside me and ask if I had any questions.  I’m sure he had a very busy schedule that day, but he acted as if he had all the time in the world to reassure an anxious spouse.  It was a small kindness, but at the time, it made all the difference.

It’s not always easy to be kind, especially when we are bombarded with things on the news, social media, etc. that make us frustrated, angry and afraid.  And it’s hard to be kind when we’re rushing through our days, trying to keep up with our hectic schedules.  But often in life, what is hard is also exactly what needs to be done.  We may not be able to solve all the world’s problems, or even fix all the issues in our own lives, but what we can do is remember that kindness truly does help make things better.  And to do our best to practice it as often as we possibly can.

And when we are able to be kind, and when we are able to treat others with the same degree of compassion and tolerance that we want shown to us, then that is truly impressive.  Each and every time we do it.

What Will They Say?

IMG_4471Yesterday, I attended a beautiful and moving memorial service for the husband of a long-time family friend.  Afterwards, we all gathered at her brother’s house for some food and drinks, as is often the custom after such services, so that family and friends can comfort each other and share stories and memories about the one they have lost.  I’m sure most of us have been to several of these gatherings, but there was something especially touching about this one.  The toasts and tributes were so heartfelt, the memories were so special and the sense of loss so deep, that there was no doubt that my friend’s husband was not only a very special person, but was also dearly loved but all who knew him well.  Clearly, he had left a powerful legacy of goodness, tolerance, and love.

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder how different our lives might be if we thought just a little bit more often about how people we will remember us after we are gone.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve attended a funeral or memorial service, people don’t really talk about the sort of things that seem so very important to us as we live our daily lives.  No one mentions what car the deceased drove, how much money he made, how she always looked ten years younger than her actual age, what advanced degrees he earned or what a prestigious job she held.  Sure, some of that information might make it into an obituary or be a part of the life story shared during the service, but when the time comes for people to share their own memories of their loved one, that’s not what they talk about at all.

In the personal tributes and toasts, people talk about the real gifts that their loved one gave them.  They talk about how he was always ready to listen to their problems, without judgement, and without jumping in to offer quick and easy advice.  They talk about how she always made time for them, no matter how hectic and stressful her life happened to be.  They talk about the good examples he set by the way he lived his life, or how she had the courage to follow her own dreams and encouraged others to do the same.  In short, they talk about the important things, and not the inconsequential stuff that occupies far too much of our attention.

I have always been taught not to worry about what people say about me (easier said than done), and I understand that is meant to be good advice about not letting other people’s opinions dictate how I live my life.  But I’m beginning to think that it’s a good idea to consider what people are going to say when I’m gone, and how they are going to remember me.  Am I a positive and encouraging influence on other people?  Am I helping others when they need it, and not just when it’s convenient for me?  Will anyone be able to say, honestly, that I left this world just a little bit better than I found it?

The beautiful tributes and heartfelt toasts I heard yesterday are the kind that can only be earned by living our lives as fully and compassionately as we possibly can.  And I can think of no better way to be remembered, and no better legacy to leave behind.

The Greatest Gift

I don’t know about you, but I have yet to meet anyone who is perfect, or even close to being perfect.  Everyone I know, even the people I love the most, have areas where I honestly feel they could use some serious improvement.  An sometimes it’s so tempting to tell people just exactly what they should be doing to improve their life, and to lay out a few convenient steps they should follow in order to fulfill their potential or simply live a happier, more productive life.  Thankfully, I usually try to resist that temptation.  (Although I suspect both my son and daughter could present lots of evidence to the contrary on that one.)

I think when we care about someone, it’s only natural to want to step in and “fix” what we see to be the flaws that are holding them back.  We might have a tremendous respect for our coworker’s work ethic, but think that his political views need to be corrected.  We might have a friend who struggles with her weight, and think we’re helping if we tell her how often she should be exercising and exactly what she should be eating.  Often, the better we know someone, and the more we care about them, the stronger our urge is to set them on “the right path.”  The problem is, despite our good intentions, we’re usually not helping at all.

Too often, what we’re really doing is trying to “help” the people we know become the kind of people we want them to be.  And if we’re honest, that usually means we’re trying to shape them into becoming more like us.  

As an avid reader, it bothers me to see my husband sitting on the couch in the evening, watching “The Karate Kid” for the umpteenth time.  How can he waste his time on that drivel, when we’ve got four bookshelves in the house just loaded with great books waiting to be read?  So from time to time,  I “helpfully” suggest a book that I think he’d like, and he accepts it politely and puts it on his dresser to read “when he gets the time.”  (The last time I checked, he’s got quite the stack going.)  But seriously, if watching a movie he enjoys helps him relax after a hard day at the office, why do I insist on trying to make him read?   Obviously, because reading a book relaxes me.

The simple truth is that it’s not our place to insist that other people think, believe, or act just the way we do.  They are allowed to form their own opinions, have their own preferences and yes, even their own flaws.  Unless they have actually asked for help, they don’t need us, or want us, to change them.  Rather, they need us to accept them and love them just the way they are.  Which is exactly how I want people to accept me and my many, many flaws.

I have come to believe that accepting people for who they really are is actually the nicest gift we can give anyone.  It gives them the confidence and freedom they need to let their own best self shine through, and what could be nicer than that?

Why Are We So Angry?

376As anyone who knows me is well aware, I get confused very easily.  So the other afternoon when I was using the drive-up ATM near my favorite grocery store, I somehow managed to make a wrong turn, thereby exiting the parking lot through an entrance lane.  Before I could drive off, a woman in a large SUV pulled up in front of me and blocked my exit. She stayed there for a couple of minutes, glaring and saying angry words I couldn’t hear (and probably didn’t want to hear) before shaking her fist at me and then driving on past the entrance. Part of me was tempted to follow her and explain that it was an accident, but I knew that wasn’t a good idea.  What I didn’t get was why she didn’t simply let me make the turn out of the parking lot, which would have immediately cleared the way for her to enter.  I didn’t understand why it was so important to her to let me know just how wrong I was and how angry she was.  Whatever happened to days of just shaking our head and muttering “idiot” when we saw another driver doing something that was stupid, but not dangerous?

And it’s not as if the anger is limited to our driving time.  Recently, a post popped up on my Facebook feed in which a mother was complaining about how a boy on her daughter’s school bus was relentlessly teasing her daughter about her new glasses, which had her daughter coming home in tears.  Like any mother, I understood how painful it is to see your child’s feelings hurt, but I was still shocked at some of the responses to the post.  While most of them, sensibly, advised talking to the bus driver or school principal, several of them took it much further, calling the boy all sorts of nasty names and suggesting various types of revenge.  One person even advised that the girl “punch the boy in the face and kick him hard in the crotch.”  Seriously?  Adults advising one child to physically attack another child?

It seems that almost everywhere I look these days, I see frustration, anger and even outright aggression, and it’s more than a little depressing.  Road rage, parents screaming at umpires during Little League games, news accounts of violent protests and riots, etc. have almost become the norm.  The internet is full of “keyboard warriors” who happily attack anyone who dares to disagree with them, or who does something that they don’t approve of.  “Name and shame” has become a battle cry for those who feel the need to teach others a lesson, mostly for behaving in a way that they feel is not acceptable.  Sadly, there seems to be no shame in publicly attacking other people, and the irony of reacting to hatred with even more hatred is lost on far too many of us.

I don’t pretent to know why so many people are so angry.  And I don’t pretend that I don’t have angry moments myself.  But I do know that anger is rarely the answer to any problem, large or small.  And I know that while we may not be able to choose when we become angry, we most certainly can choose whether or not we act on that anger.  We can choose to express our anger, without any thought or consideration to the harm that it does, or we can choose to let our anger be the trigger that causes us to address an injustice in the kind of rational manner that might actually bring about change for the better.  Controlling our tempers is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of maturity and the willingness to work through our problems toward a productive result.

Sometimes, when we are upset, it really is better just to keep it to ourselves.  Because the world doesn’t need our anger, as it has more than enough anger already.  What the world needs is our patience, our understanding, our courage, and most important of all, our kindness.

Easter Reality

IMG_1209I’m not sure why, but I was really looking forward to Easter this year.  I bought a bunch of Easter cards and sent them out to various friends and family, filled several candy dishes with chocolate eggs and other colorful candies, and even broke out my “Easter ornament tree” much earlier than I usually do.  I told my extended family that I wanted to have the after-church Easter brunch at my house this year, and looked up a few new recipes to serve. Maybe it’s the early spring we are enjoying, since it means we have flowers and beautiful budding trees everywhere I look, but in the past few weeks, I have been more than ready for a fun and festive Easter celebration.

But life doesn’t always go according to plan.  Two days ago, we got the very sad news that my son-in-law’s father passed away after a long and valiant battle against cancer.  He was a hardworking, smart and extremely kind man who was devoted to his wife and family, and his passing has left a huge hole in the lives of the many people who loved him. And somehow, celebrating anything, including Easter, didn’t seem so appropriate anymore.

Of course I knew that dispensing with my usual Easter traditions wasn’t going to lessen anyone’s grief, so I stuck with my normal routine.  I still invited my mother over to dye eggs on Easter Saturday; I still put together the usual Easter baskets for my immediate family, and I am still hosting Easter brunch, with the understanding that it is perfectly okay for my daughter and son-in-law to skip it this year.  But in many ways, it feels like nothing more than just going through the motions.

So this Easter, I am honoring the holiday mostly by remembering what a fragile gift life is, how important it is to spend time with our loved ones while we still can, and how necessary it is to reach out and support one another in our times of suffering and great personal loss.  This year, I am just concentrating on what, for me, is Easter’s true message of hope in in the midst of despair, and the enduring and ultimate power of love.