Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Character is higher than intellect. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

A couple weeks ago I found a sticky note on my car window when I went to drive home at the end of the work day.

I scratched your car. Backed into it. Left side, front tireish. Have meeting, here's my # ....

I looked for the scratch, wondered whether it was her left or my left, looked again and, sure enough, there was a slight smudge on the bumper. I was stunned. Who does that anymore? Who actually owns up to backing into a car, especially if the damage was minimal - really I would not have noticed until I washed the car again (sometime next summer!) I called the number and it was one of our students (I work at a university). I suspect she thought I was a tad wacky as I went on and on about how much I appreciated her doing the right thing and leaving a note.

But then I got to wondering...why did this make such an impression on me? All she did was the "right" thing...but it was at the end of a week where I had been equally stunned by people NOT doing the "right" thing, which is the more common behavior these days.

The measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out. ~Thomas Babington Macaulay

I have always had a very clear sense of the absolute rightness or wrongness of certain behaviors. I credit my mother for this. I vividly remember being gathered up with my brothers to drive back to the milk store, twenty minutes away, because my mother realized that she had been given too much change. She told me once that her father would not park at a meter that still had time on it from the previous person because he did not believe that you should get something for nothing. He would have been benefiting from the expense of another.

A high-school friend recently reminded me of a talk that I gave during my senior year. This was a Christian school and all seniors were required to give a chapel talk once during the year. Apparently I spoke about integrity and I told the story of a man who had a job interview over dinner in a restaurant. At the end of the meal the man took a couple pats of butter (the kind that sit on the tiny square of cardboard with a square of waxy paper on top) and slipped them in the pocket of his jacket. The interview had gone very well, however he did not get the job. If he would take advantage of small things, how could be be trusted with great responsibilities? I don't remember the talk and I have no idea where I got that story from, but I found it amusing that I have always been this rigid. And then I was thankful. I called my mother and thanked her for the example she was to me even as a small child first developing a sense of right and wrong.

Does this mean that I have lived a life of unfailing integrity. No. Hardly! I have not always been honest. I have gone long periods living dis-honestly, but the conflict that caused inside landed me in therapy: for years. But even then, I had a rigidness about certain things and my own actions fell short of who I really was.

When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion. ~Abraham Lincoln

I believe that at the core, people are good. Small children have a sharp sense of being "good" or "bad." But in time this internal compass gets beaten up until for many it no longer points in the right direction and that intrinsic guide gets lost. From the start I told my kids to pay attention to how they felt inside. When they would do something, good or bad, I would ask how it made them feel. But I believe many kids are numbed because regardless of what they are feeling inside, they are seeing the contrary lived out around them. Or they are directed only by the fear of consequences, so they learn at an early age to succeed at hiding things, rather than to just do the right thing.

But this is all on my mind because of the unethical behavior of some adults. I have recently witnessed a person in a significant position of authority come up with a neat little plan to take advantage; to get something for nothing, and this has required the "buy-in" of several others. The work-arounds required make it clear that those involved know this is absolutely wrong, perhaps illegal, but clearly the small gain is worth that risk? Regardless, it is just wrong. I need to determine what to do with my knowledge of the situation.

God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right even though I think it is hopeless. ~Chester W. Nimitz

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Crash, Burn and Re-group

Thursday night I lost it. I know what (who) got it started, but it was a long time coming. After dinner with another couple that I am trying desperately to consider "friends," but who continue to press buttons that make that a challenge, I got in the car and before Sam had backed out of the parking space I was wailing. This is not an over-statement. It was the kind of crying that feels like I might turn completely inside out. There was moaning and screeching and sobbing. Somehow Sam managed to drive us home. I even scared myself a bit. I knew that I could choose to get a grip, but I chose not to. I just wallowed in letting go and getting it all out. I continued a bit after we got home; a limp mass on our bed sobbing and then groaning until I realized that both Sam and the dog had gone downstairs to get away from what clearly appeared to be a psychotic break. I figured I should pull it together before the men in white coats showed up.

The past few months have carried numerous stresses and moments of pain and sorrow. Throughout the fall and winter I have nursed continuous worry for my son who is struggling emotionally while somehow managing to do well in the first year of his PhD program. I think there will be a break-up with his girlfriend within a week and I believe (hope) that will help with his anxiety and as a result, with mine. I start each day hoping it will be a good one for him and I go to bed each night praying that he might find a way to fall asleep. I get a daily report each evening as he waits for the bus in Seattle's winter rain and rarely do I hear a spark of anything close to happiness. It has been hard.

My dear friend Sue died in January. She had survived ocular melanoma in 2004 but five years later it returned in her liver. The early prognosis was for 3-6 months, but Sue has the determination, and at times the demeanor, of a bull and she sought out trials and managed to keep the inevitable at bay for over a year. In November of last year the tumor started to win and grow and the cancer was showing up in her heart and lungs. They tried new treatments but I think we all knew the battle was being lost. Sue was healthy and worked right up until Christmas. Her goal was to have Christmas with her family and to make it to her 58th birthday which will be on April 2nd. But the day her family returned to California she started to turn yellow. I saw her the first week in January and it was clear that she had turned a corner. A week later the doctor told her she had 2 weeks to live. Hospice came in that night and set up a bed in her family room. The next day I saw her in the afternoon and she was blissfully drugged up, but clear-of-mind. We held hands and shared "I-love-yous," then she said, "Ok, bye now." That night she died. It has been 2 months and I still find myself reaching for the phone to call her.

I have reached the age where my parents and those of my friends are truly elderly. One mother fell and broke her hip; another fell and hit her head on concrete and died several days later from the brain trauma; my ex-mother-in-law had a stroke, and each time I call "home" I realize that my own mother doesn't find the word that she wants as readily as I expect and at times she just chooses another. Aging - it is inevitable and even at 50 I am very aware of the mighty force it uses on our bodies, but the reminders that this generation above me will soon be gone and I'll be the "old people," can be sobering. There is too much to see and do - in many ways I have only recently discovered what I enjoy. This year my son will be half my age - in that much more time I will be my mother's age. It goes too quickly.

Our Corgi is slowing down and soon we will have to make "the decision." He has a neurological condition that is not treatable and he is losing the use of his back legs. One day he will not be able to get up, and then we will know. We are watching for signs from him but for now he still has moments of puppy-like joy and as long as we see that we'll celebrate having him in our lives. There is no physical pain with this and so we stay alert to his sense of pride more than anything.

And then there is the news. For Lent I have given up reading anything about national politics because it is discouraging and causes spikes of rage inside of me, and has really become so petty. But I will not stop reading about the things that are real. The numerous Arab nations where the people have decided to use their voices and demand democracy and the resulting violence: and now today we have launched air strikes on Libya. Whenever we get involved I think of all the suffering and abuse that we have not used our might to try and resolve - Rwanda comes to mind - or famine that is a constant abuse in Sub-Saharan Africa. The list is long. Human suffering. I can barely read about Japan - the children gathered in their classroom a week later still waiting for their parents to come pick them up; the snow and freezing temperatures that have hindered any lingering search and rescue attempts in areas destroyed by the tsunami - a touching, but heartbreaking tale of two dogs, one near death and the other muddy and cold, but standing by his dying friend. I didn't read that story until the headline made it clear they had been rescued. The pain is so strong as a spectator far away- what must it be like for the 50 year-old mother who has lost everything and doesn't yet know if her son and daughter are alive or dead? Not to mention the pending consequences of the nuclear meltdown...

At work it is the time of year when we get endless phone calls from kids and their parents hoping, asking, and at times begging for more financial aid so that they can "make their dream come true." They really believe I can do something if they just talk to me. Only I know they are just a cell on a matrix that is a combination of their grades, test scores and financial need.

I carry all of these things inside. I don't have a very good filter but instead I feel it all is if it is happening to me or my kids or my mother or my dog.

And so sometimes I fall apart. The last time I cried like that was in 2006 after another long period of stresses and life-changes. That night I thought I hit a cat with my car and that was the trigger. (Sam took the car back and swears he didn't find a dead cat, but I have never believed that). That night the dog ran downstairs to get away from me too. So much for "man's best friend."

I woke up Friday morning feeling as if I was at the bottom of a cliff. I have written before about clinging to the edge when I feel depression looking for me, but this time I didn't have a chance to get a hand-hold, I just went - free fall all the way to the canyon floor. I was frightened. I have not fallen all the way since I met Sam and I didn't know what to expect. But today I am ok. A friend wrote recently that if you let depression take you - as if you are drowning in the deep end but you don't fight it and instead you sink to the bottom without a struggle, then you can use that momentum to spring back up again. Perhaps she has found the secret to a quick rebound.

I am alone this weekend. Sam is skiing with a friend and I am home with the elderly Corgi. I realize that I am never alone. Never still. My first impulse is to go someplace or at least go for a run or clean the house or something that will justify the space I am taking up. But I have decided to use this time to be still and to re-group. I will read and meditate and drink green tea and hopefully by Monday I'll be ready to face another week.

Totally unrelated photo except that I remember at that moment thinking about how happy I was and recognizing that I should note that for use later as a memory.