Sunday, December 30, 2018

I will stand for and support goodness and grace

There comes a time when enough is enough, when being silent for the sake of political decorum is no longer acceptable. Today, I am reminded of the stirring words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” I am not going to be silent anymore.

Let’s look at the most recent international development. Here are the facts—what sentient human beings call “reality.”

  1. The CIA has concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman ordered the assassination of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi.
  2. Trump has chosen to stand by the Crown Prince to boost arms sales to Saudi Arabia and prevent oil price spikes. “They have been a great ally,” Trump said of the Saudis, and “the United States intends to remain a steadfast partner. I’m not going to destroy our economy by being foolish with Saudi Arabia.”
  3. On October 16, 2018, Trump tweeted, "For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia (or Russia, for that matter). Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!"
  4. At a 2015 campaign rally in Mobile, Alabama, Trump said of the Saudis, “I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much!”

I’ll let you connect the dots.

I have had enough. As an American but, more importantly, as an admittedly imperfect human being striving to be principle-centered, I am not willing to sell my soul to a president (or anyone else) who will toady to a cruel and ruthless totalitarian dictator assassin for the sake of dollars.

I know that I cannot dissuade the Trump true believers who are seduced more by emotional fear mongering than reality; they have to live with their own choices. As for me, I will no longer be silent. I will stand for reason and moral integrity, and I will support reasonable and moral spokespeople, regardless of their political party, for no single party has a monopoly on virtue. In short, I will stand for and support goodness and grace.

Reason Trumps Emotion When Reason is Healing

Recently, I cringed when reading a friend’s Facebook entry that struck me as crude and ineffectual. I won’t quote the post verbatim. Let’s just say it was a vulgar quip about an indiscreet body part of President Trump.
I did not respond to the Facebook post, but I did email my friend, who I will call Blanche.
I first admitted that I was not a Trump supporter. In fact, I characterize the president as self-serving and morally vacuous. With that as background, I stressed that my challenge was to fight for right in a way that was rational and noncombative—no easy task for me.
“There was one thing that I knew for sure,” I explained to Blanche. “Though tempting, flinging insults is not the answer. It will not budge true believers; in fact, it will only toughen their resolve. When attacked, true believers will predictably double down. Understand, people in pain will cling to anything to survive. For some, it’s alcohol, for some religion. For still others, it’s a political savior. Assaulting their refuge, their safe haven is doomed for failure.

“True believers are guided more by emotion than reason, by the gnawing angst in their guts. That is why reason must always be constructed to ease the pain. When reason ignores the pain, the State risks dissolving into a heap of lies and propaganda, which is the foundation for fascism.
 “We are not there yet. Although we are being tested, our nation is still a country of justice and reason. Proud new voices— women, minorities, immigrants, and young people—are rising up and pledging their allegiance to diversity and a healthy planet.
“I still have faith in America. I believe that every venerable champion of reason, every youthful voice for equality will—voice by voice, truth by truth—beat down the bastions of greed, racism, and, most importantly, internal pain.”
That was my message to Blanche, who replied within minutes.
“Allen, I really appreciate your comments, and, of course, you are right. Sometimes, when I become angry and frustrated, I loosen the ties of my discerning, discriminating mind, and my impulse control slips. My heroes have always been people of peace and goodwill, those who fight against injustice and social inequity. It is clear that I don’t always follow their examples. However, life is a process of learning and growth.
“Please continue your wise and wonderful ways. I am sincere when I say it is a privilege to know you, and I thank you for your comments.”
There you have it. Although I blush by her characterization of my “wise and wonderful ways,” I do think it demonstrates that reasonable people can have a positive influence on each other—at least upon those who are still searching for truth.

Let’s make discerning reason a matter of routine—no, a sacred tradition. 

Love is Sustained by the Melding of Passion, Intimacy, and Commitment

On Christmas Eve, 2018, my wife, Nita, and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary. That milestone has me thinking about the nature of love.
In the beginning, our love was consumed by passion: a physical arousal that was so irresistible that I can still feel her slender body pressed against mine on the stairwell that led to her apartment. Although purely innocent (I think), she beguiled me like a puppy conditioned by treats for good behavior. At the time, I called it love although I hardly knew the meaning of the word.
Eventually, passion was joined by intimacy: a feeling of closeness, understanding, and support for each other’s dreams.

In 1991, I bought a new hunter-green Corvette with saddle leather interior. I called it “Blaze.” Physical arousal was not induced when I was cradled behind the wheel, but it came close. Meanwhile, Nita yearned to leave her lucrative administrative position and return to classroom teaching. Even with my salary, our budget would be strained. The solution was easy: I would sell the Corvette. Although Blaze could catapult me from 0-60 in 5.5 seconds, it was not fast enough to overtake my wife’s dreams.
Stage three of our love affair was commitment: a covenant to nurture and protect our love for all time. When I was standing in the stairwell with my sweetheart in my arms, I could not imagine a greater love. I was wrong. True love expands.
Today, our friends know that Nita has Parkinson’s disease. However, they may not know the consequences of the disease. Every day, Nita comes to me for help, always unassuming, unembarrassed, as if she were asking for the time of day. Would I help her button her dress? Open a stubborn jar?  Slice a fresh tomato? Naturally, I’m happy to help her with those tasks, even with the knowledge that her skills will diminish in time. But here’s the miracle. I do not love her any less; I love her all the more.
How can that be?
I think it has to do with the flow and fusion of passion, intimacy, and commitment. I am still aroused by her beauty, both physical and spiritual, still moved by the intimacy of her vulnerability, still thrilled by her commitment to our marriage, even with all my befuddling flaws.
But there is something else. Nita has always been a powerful, independent woman: gentle enough to revive a wilting houseplant yet strong enough to discern and heal a tormented relationship. And now, this dynamic woman is asking for my help . . . my help.

Frankly, I think she is still beguiling me, the vixen. I suspect she knows that with every call for help, I am enriched, even exalted. She has sustained me for fifty years. Now she is inviting me to sustain her and, consequently, fill my heart with the joy of serving my true love. Thank you, my sweet, sweet Nita.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Success or failure is a product of both heritage and effort

“Don’t be so arrogant; you’re not as almighty as you think.”
That is what my better self tells me, and my better self is always right. I am not solely responsible for my successes or my failures. Like all of us, I am a complicated amalgam of my heritage and efforts.
Let me explain. Luck was with me when I was born. I am an American white male in good health and respectable intelligence, graced with parents who worked hard and remained married. In other words, my heritage was adequately, some would say notably, rich. As such, I am privileged. Yes, there are those who are more privileged than I but only in number, not in kind.
Millions of others are not so lucky and are handicapped by their gender (or gender identity), race, social/economic standing, and physical/mental capacities. They are the underprivileged.
The other half of the formula is effort. Nurtured by my privileged status, I have worked hard. I have reaped a university education, earned a decent living, and pursued my passion for the arts.
Conversely, when heritage is meager, the story is likely to become more strident. Many struggle to find their way. They lack initiative and are easily distracted or derailed. Sometimes, the promise of success is completely extinguished.
Here is my point. Our success is not solely a product of our effort, our self-governance. It is the product of heritage and effort.
Do not be so quick to condemn the misnamed slackers. You do not know the steepness of their climb. For when the slope is arduous, effort tends to dwindle and, with time, stall and arrest. For example, it is easy to study when the desk lamp is bright, the room is warm, and the belly is full. It is not nearly so effortless when deprived of these essentials.
There are those who overcome their impoverished heritage, who, despite the odds, generate the will to break through the barriers and elevate themselves to positions of influence (although, too often, lagging respect). Those people are the true heroes. (In contrast, I am no hero. My life has been entirely too easy.) Such luminaries include Stephen Hawking, Thomas Edison, Jesse Owens, Helen Keller, Fredrick Douglas, Victor Frankl, and, most recently, the Pakistani schoolgirl advocate for human rights Malala Yousafzai. Although these people are inspiring, they are uncommon exceptions. Our 2.2 million American prisoners—56% Black or Hispanic—are more representative of the systemic interplay between heritage and effort.

Can we do this? Can we begin to honor the people who are battling to beat the odds? And can we stop fawning over the excessively privileged, especially those who merrily coast on the silken advantages of their heritage? They are no heroes; they are only the fabulously fortunate.

Friday, July 6, 2018

I am the invisible man

I am the invisible man, which is strangely horrific. I can flick my ears, lace my fingers, even witness the rise and fall of my chest with every breath, which makes me wonder if I am a ghost and only visible to myself.

My translucence began two years ago when I offered my services free of charge to regional educators. I began by telephoning high school principals who refused to return my calls. My next tactic was to write to principals and teachers. The thundering silence made me question my existence, so I created a five-minute video (see the video below) that highlighted my half-century experience as an educator. I sent that video to principals and the superintendent of schools with the hope that their screens would not snap to black when they pressed “play.” Perhaps I’m invisible on screen as well for there was no response.

Finally, I set up face-to-face meetings with two principals, quickly presented my proposal, and, with one principal, forced him to watch my five-minute video. At last, I might have been visible because both principals said they would recommend me to their staffs. Those meetings were followed, once again, by an infinite black hole of silence.

How could that happen? After all, the only compensation I sought was the reward of helping young people become the best versions of themselves. Whatever the administrators' misgivings, all doubts could be easily allayed by testing the water—by simply allowing me to correct a single essay or critique a single speech. If I offered little value, they could send me home to tend to my garden in silence.

The nature of invisibility

            Many people know about invisibility:
·         Introverts among extroverts
·         Artists among engineers
·         Liberals among conservative
·         Millennials among baby boomers
·         Nonbelievers among believers
·         Minorities among majorities
             and vice versa.

Perhaps you are invisible. If so, your only alternative is to keep banging on the door of blindness, like all revolutionary ghosts who would not stand for institutionalized oppression—the suffragettes, the civil rights protesters, and all the journalists and historians who refused to violate their covenant with truth.

            As for me, I take solace in the lines of Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I will not be deterred. Why? Because I can still make a difference. Humility be damned, I’m a master teacher. I’m a doctor of psychology but also an entertainer. As such, I know how to reach teenagers. I am an authority in English, speech, drama, musical theater, and counseling.

Surely someone somewhere can benefit from that expertise. I just need to pound on the bolted doors until someone with eyes to see and ears to hear releases the latch, swings the door open, and says, “Come in, Allen. I’ve been expecting you. Let’s put you to work.”

Monday, June 25, 2018

Would you tear off the wings of a monarch butterfly for a million dollars?

My brother, Ray, was always more athletic than I, which is not something that I like to admit because brotherly rivalry may be the last puerile impulse to be tamed. On the rare occasions I beat him playing horse on the Emerson Elementary basketball court, it was because I reverted to my patented trick shots, like my blind, backward bucket launch, a shot that my brother would protest with a squawking voice because it was not an orthodox play that anyone would use in a real game.

Ray particularly excelled as a softball pitcher, able to throw a whirlwind fastball that made me jump out of the batter’s box out of raw fear—even when the pitch streaked through the center of the strike zone.

He had an arm with pinpoint accuracy—no question. He proved it in the summer of 1960 on the banks of Newman Lake. Ray was twelve and I thirteen.

It was a cool, still evening. We spoke quietly, feeling wonderfully languid after a full day of swimming, waterskiing, and sunbathing. The sky was cloudless and the water a blue-green plane of glass. We were standing mid-calf in lake water, watching the fingerlings swirl around our ankles like shinning orbiting moons.

It was a chirping robin’s call that interrupted our reverie. Ray looked up and spotted the bird mid-way up a tall sycamore tree.

“Watch this,” Ray said, selecting a smooth, flat stone from under his feet. He drew his arm back and let it fly.

It was a direct hit. The bird tumbled mindless, wingless to the ground. It was dead still.

“What a shot,” I said. “I’m gonna call you the ‘bird killer.’” It was a stupid thing to say, in the way thirteen-year-old boys often say stupid things. The idiocy of my comment fully registered when I looked into my brother's eyes.

The blood had drained from his face. He looked sick as if he would throw up in the next heartbeat. “I didn’t mean it,” he said, his voice full of remorse that rose from the depths of his gut. “I didn’t mean it. I just wanted to scare him; I didn’t wanna kill him.”

“I know, Ray,” I said. I wanted to hug him and tell him that everything was okay. But it didn’t seem right; nothing was okay. It was personal, and my embrace would distract Ray’s need to sort out his own grief and shame.

Decades later, I came across an article that reviewed a self-report survey that measured morality. One question caught my eye:

Would you tear off the wings of a monarch butterfly for a million dollars?

I once put the question to attendees at a seminar I was leading on ethics. The class was divided. Most said “no,” but several said “yes.” A catholic nun argued that a lot of good could be done with a million dollars. A burly man, who looked like he drove a pickup with a gun rack and a bumper sticker that read Duck hunters need love too, said, “Hell, for a million dollars, I’d eat it.”

When rethinking the question, I asked my wife what she would do. Her face scrunched in disgust. “Why would you even ask such a question? Of course not.”

“Not ever?”


I have not put the question to my brother. I don’t need to; he would be equally horrified.

Call it his unique nature or, if you prefer, divine design. Whatever the source, my brother has a tender heart. He helps those in need; he champions people on the fringe; he lowers and drives his shoulder into building community.

Those two incidents—the felling of a robin and a profound survey question—have both haunted and inspired me for years. They both represent a pivotal moment for any conscientious human being, a time to be reflective, to ask, “What are the important things in life.”

For me, I am disgusted by all braggarts who glory in causing harm: the grinning hunters alongside their kills, yes, but also the greedy, the heartless, the rabid nationalists whose perverted definition of empathy is “behavior that makes my life easier, more luxurious, more grandiose, more privileged.”

In contrast, I will always exalt a person who celebrates the dignity of all living things, of those who know the danger of throwing a smooth stone and grieve—as my brother grieved—when the stone hits it mark.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

BOING and the power of commitment

This video is a 13-minute presentation I offered at Northwest Nazarene University, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the class of 1968, the year I graduated from NNU.

I quickly describe how the pivotal and decisive crossroads in our lives require a faithful commitment. But here is the happy news: if we are loyal to our commitment, we are abundantly rewarded with peace, love, and joy—perhaps not constantly or supremely, but, as a whole, steadily throughout our entire lives.