Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Push the Edges of Conversation Concerning Life and Death

Thinking about life can force a person to contemplate a wide range of circumstances. Two biggies that have come to mind recently are being born and dying. This pair of inevitable events are bookends, staples of the human condition – literally and figuratively. That’s because both are experienced by every single person on the planet.

Long ago I was there in person to bear witness to the death of my father. More recently I was front and center for the birth of my youngest son. Each event held unparalleled meaning. They were wildly different yet in many ways uniquely the same.

Both consisted of high drama, though distinctive in their unfolding. Both drove me to tears. Both exuded an unearthly power that ironically left me feeling as if they were the most natural things in the world. In retrospect, perhaps they are part of the same process – life – just at different ends of a continuum. Watching a person leave this world. Witnessing another enter it. The immensity of it all, to participate in such profound coming and going.

I also experienced fear. Fear of the unknown and its meaning. Such bewildering complexity bundled in experiences that are oh so common to all human beings, yet in the moment too expansive for my puny intellect to comprehend. Both shook me to the core.

I’m no scientist. Nor am I a person of the cloth. But in each instance I empirically observed and divinely felt a magnificence associated with the two events. A power that, if I choose, can be readily harnessed to great purpose in my life. And the lives of others.

When I think about all that, it makes me wonder: why are we, as people, so unable to get along with each other? After all, each and every one of us have or will experience these same momentous events, in some form or fashion. I mean really, it’s not like other things we share in common like the noting the weather or breathing air or eating food. I’m talking living and dying, the alpha and omega. Perhaps the very essence of what it means to be or not to be.

Maybe one of the reasons coming into life and/or leaving it fails to bring us closer as a single race is people’s level of comfort (or rather, discomfort) when it comes to the topics. There are so few people willing to “go there” in conversation. I mean talk with any depth about either subject – especially death.

Even with respect to being born, most folks avoid specific conversations about it. Oh, they speak in general terms but nothing too deep or specific. In our culture there’s actually one day a year that gives each of us a chance to delve into meaningful dialog on at least one of the topics. I’m talking birthdays.

Sure we celebrate them. Rarely is there any eloquent reflection on what it all means. Life, the opportunity to be here, the hopes and dreams associated with it.

An exception I expect is with respect to mothers. I imagine, this is because of their very active and no doubt painful role in birthing their children.

I personally believe most of us would benefit greatly from candid and authentic conversations about life and death. Unfortunately, those are the last things folks want to think about – let alone discuss.

Yet experts say talking about death and (therefore life?) is among the most beneficial therapies for humans, as it relates to our individual and collective health. Especially if entered into with honesty and integrity. How much more compassion would we hold for one another, no matter our differences, if such conversations were no longer so taboo? One can only imagine. Or one can start the discussion.

 Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Tis the season to be crabby. At least when it comes to Christmas music. Especially when it starts playing just seconds after Thanksgiving. Friends, for the next few weeks the radio is not my friend; not even NPR. The musical holiday cheer is everywhere, to which I say, Humbug.

I mean come on; turkey’s still in the fridge; the horn-of-plenty hasn’t been boxed up yet; the good china’s still out. Where’s the recovery period? Can’t my stomach settle and reset for the next holiday?

And don’t let me turn on the TV. Charlie Brown Christmas, Mickey Mouse Christmas, that Red Ryder air rifle kid… the overload is coming. In fact it’s already begun. Just look at all the commercials. Target and Best Buy and Kohl’s, oh my! It feels like that movie Groundhog Day. Here we go yet again with all the sounds and images pumping up the impending holiday. It’s Yuletide gone postal.

You know, once upon a time I used to absolutely love this time of year. Really enjoyed it; even the music. Like back in the day when I was a kid and polar vortex weather was the norm rather than the exception. Snow drifts blocking doors seemed to happen with great regularity. And snow days? Fuhgetaboutit; the phrase hadn’t even been invented.

Back then there was no mall to go to. Downtown was it. There and Columbia Avenue. During those times, going to the West Main Mall or Maple Hill Mall in Kalamazoo was a treat, something special. Do those places still even exist? I feel myself slipping into a vortex of nostalgia.

It wouldn’t be so bad, the length of time I must endure listening to Christmas music I’ve heard for more than 50 years (half a century, y’all), if the songs they played didn’t have the hypnotic ability to continue for hours after hearing them.

Ever been to a Disney theme park? You know how the “It’s a Small World” music stays in your head long after the ride? How it infects your very psyche? Over and over and over again in your head? That’s Christmas music to my ears.

Don’t get me wrong; I like Christmas as much as the next person. Sometimes. When it comes right down to it, it’s not the music I’m railing about. What really chaps my hide is the commercialization of it all.

It’s a condition to which I freely admit I too fall victim, despite best intentions. Matter of fact, this year, the pressure for me to buy presents was so great that I began my shopping before (cue the suspenseful organ chord) Thanksgiving! What’s worse, I enjoyed the process. Yes, my wife, there is a Santa Claus.

The problem: my early gift-buying had less to do with the meaning of Christmas and more with the internalized pressures to buy. It’s an unwelcome mantra that nevertheless has been drilled into me by retailers. So much so that it doesn’t just drive the economy, it’s become central to American culture.

Let me be clear: none of my friends and family ever squawk about what they want for Christmas. If anything, their “I don’t know” and “it doesn’t matter” can be worse because it tends to leave me wandering store aisles and surfing retail sites aimlessly for what feels like hours on end.

Still, some folks, younger and older than me, love the Christmas season. They are all in, as festive as can be this time of year. With that realization, who am I to play Scrooge? Better I cast myself in the role of someone more like George Bailey. After all, it’s true I have a wonderful life.

 Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Lesson from Ferguson: Talk about Race

Count Ferguson, Missouri, as one of countless places in which the letter of the law trumps justice. That is, unless you believe the letter of the law IS "just us". I don’t and here’s why.

As most know, Ferguson is ground zero to an ongoing saga plaguing our nation. There, a lawman gunned down an unarmed citizen. In this case, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by 28-year-old police officer Darren Wilson. The result has been weeks of protests (locally and nationally) and civil unrest.

Those who thought “letter of the law” was the single most important factor in the grand jury clearing Wilson of wrongdoing are also likely to downplay the fact that the dead victim was African American and that the shooter was white. Such thinking is shortsighted.

What was missing in the grand jury outcome is also by and large discarded in most other legal arguments: the current and historical context race plays.

On this point, attorneys, scholars and armchair law experts will point out that race in such matters has no place in courtrooms. Rather, it’s what happened in the moment that is paramount. The rationale of this head-in-the-sand thinking is that race rarely has a bearing cases like this. But it does. The scientific evidence associated with unconscious bias in all people bears that out.

The current and historical context of race is not just missing in Ferguson. It’s absent from other important mainstream conversations surrounding large swaths of inequity. Like access to quality food, housing, education, jobs and healthcare.

Why is context deemed irrelevant by so many, despite our country’s beginnings rooted in oppression and racism? Yes, there was the wonderful founding dream that we all are created equal. But there also was the founding reality.

It started with the systematic extermination and heinous relocation of native peoples and morally criminal import of Africans as chattel slaves. Illicit acquisitions of land and labor, and both were government sanctioned and rigorously enforced by law.

The persecution continued with the infamous Black Codes and extended into the 1890s post-slavery era with racially motivated Jim Crow laws and practices. This morphed into separate-but-equal government policy, the result of an 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and continued through the early- and mid-1900s, with more and more laws that propped up housing, education, job, health and other institutional segregation and discrimination into the 1960s.

Then came the crack era of the 1980s. Law enforcement wielding its power with seeming impunity; crushing, suppressing and occupying entire neighborhoods – as if they believed the billionaire drug lords responsible for starting that insidious drug epidemic were themselves living in South Central Los Angeles.

Mass incarceration as a policy followed in the ’90s and it continues today, with the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave holding the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. Not China, not Russia, the U.S.

Just think, the United States represents about five percent of the world's population, yet houses close to 25 percent of the world's prisoner population.

And through it all, guess who’s been saddled with the historic burden of enforcing these lawless government laws? Police. What’s worse, who were/are the victims? People of Color.

Government policies aside (and that’s a huge aside), the police has a job to do. I get that. People of all hues get that, not just middle class white folks. The fly in the ointment is the current and historical context in which police operate in communities of color. For many, especially those with few social, financial and legal options, we have been conditioned to distrust police. Others outright fear them. Yes, that fear and mistrust cuts both ways.

Fortunately in our community there is hope. Battle Creek Police Department Chief Jim Blocker is out there walking the talk. When it comes to addressing issues (including race), he’s walking with residents, close up and personal. Marshall Police Chief Jim Schwartz is doing the same.

Both are turning toward, rather than running from the realities race plays in policing and our community’s response to it. That said, they’d agree more (on all sides) must be done.

Amnesty International USA’s executive director, Steven W. Hawkins may have said it best: “The U.S. cannot continue to allow those obligated and duty-bound to protect to become those who their community fears most.”

 Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What and Whom Can You Love?

It's interesting the loves we claim in life. Everything from soup and gasoline brands to sporting teams and people we don’t even know. In many ways these attachments can feel real and authentic. The way we go on about what/who we say we love and why. On the other hand, it can seem akin to puppy love. Is there a deeper truth?

For instance, I love the Michigan State Spartans. I’m a loyal season ticket holder. For the better part of a decade I’ve made my way north each fall, across the miles to Spartan Stadium, to watch my team win. And lose. Rain or shine, warm and cold, I’m there in my precious nose-bleed seat. “Go green; go white,” I chant, along with some 50,000 other fans.

All this despite the fact that nary a player on the current squad do I know personally. For some reason that glaring fact feels a minor detail, me not having actually met any of them I mean. Every couple of years I do manage make a passing acquaintance with a player or coach and that’s kind of cool.

For instance, I once literally bumped into current MSU football coach Mark Dantonio passing through a restroom door prior to a game. I was on cloud nine for weeks. Can you imagine? Just because I ran into him. FYI, if it had been anyone else I’d have had choice thoughts for the guy; after all, he was entering from the exit door.

Each fall I find myself rooting for people with whom I have no real personal acquaintance. It all makes me wonder just how much my admiration for the team would change, one way or the other, if I knew the players – actually met them. Sat down with them. It’s quite easy to imagine that I’d love my team all the more because of the firsthand investment I would have actually know them.

Back to Soup. My mom loves Campbell's. Oh, she partakes in other brands, like Progresso for instance. But when she has a cold or feels under the weather, her go-to product? Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup.

Is Campbell's a wellness cure-all? Who knows? It works for her. So she says. And after all, isn't that what's most important? What works?

Then there are inanimate objects we love. Cars, phones, refrigerators – technology people use and swear by according to brand (i.e., Ford, Apple, Samsung) they have purchased over the years.

What's rather interesting is when a person experiences the failure of a brand to deliver; loyalty seems to fly right out the window. Rather quickly too, especially if a fair amount of money is involved. This despite years the brand may have previously proven itself.

Don't get me wrong, a lot of folks stick with their brand even when it doesn’t always meet expectations. Take me and the Spartans. Until more recent seasons, I billed my team as “the best .500 squad in college football,” meaning one game they’d play brilliantly, the next they’d be a no show.

This whole love thing, the claim of having it for people we don’t even know (athletes, actors, musicians) or for things like sporting teams and refrigerator brands; it all seems to be about emotional or connection.

Again the question: is it real? When a person says they “love” someone or something, is the word being used as a placeholder for something less than the true magnitude of the word? Or is the word being used with calculated precision? Perhaps in the end there are different ways of loving. And if it’s possible to love different kinds of things, isn’t it possible to love different kinds of people?

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Learn to Love Yourself, Body and All, Before it’s too Late

I just finished reading an article online about a woman dying of cancer. The reality that she had cancer was not what intrigued me though. Nor was it the prospect of her passing on. While it’s certainly a fact that both are dreadful life dramas, what touched me most about her story was something quite unexpected. In her end-days she arrived at the realization that she was going to miss her fat body.

Fat. Her word not mine. Throughout her story, this woman lamented how she had allowed people – friends and strangers – to influence the way she regarded her physical appearance. So much so that she grew to dislike her body. What most captured my imagination is that during her final days, she insists to now be at peace with her physical self.

This woman’s life account is less about self-judgment than self-acceptance. She related how she learned to loath her body at a young age – very young. She detailed comments people made (and didn't make) that led her to the conclusion that because of her size she was worthless. Again, her words.

As she related her story, I reflected on mine. My own body. I am lean. Some say skinny. Too skinny. It has always been that way for me. Quite the opposite experience of the woman in the story who was dying. In fact, I hesitate to even try and draw comparisons of myself, my own physical size to hers. That's because in our society it’s true being skinny can be a source of ridicule. But the criticism skinny people like me receive pales compared to other body conditions and physical forms.

On top of that, I am male. And gender makes me far less a systematic target of ridicule in this largely misogynistic society.

With that fact glaringly in mind, I confess to having grown-up with my own largely unflattering perceptions of my physical self. They’re still hanging around too, I reckon. A good portion of this comes from internalized oppression regarding my physique. Growing up underweight in the eyes of others, pocked with acne and its resulting scars, plus “four eyes” to boot, I was sometimes the target of bullying. What’s worse, I became a perpetual bull’s eye in my own mind.

Those difficult teen years molded a foundation of distaste for my physicality that extended through college and into adulthood. Most of the actual or imaginary teasing and ridicule largely ended in my adolescent youth. Yet I sometimes find myself haunted by a preference to embody a physical form more attuned to what Hollywood and popular culture emphasize what a virile heterosexual man should look like.

But alas, try as I have, bulking up is quite literally just not in my DNA.

It all boils down to self-hatred. Brought on by the pressure to fit in. Brought on by the media stressing what is beautiful and what is not. Brought on by people who abhor their own bodies and then ridicule yours so they can feel better about themselves. There’s also the unsolicited peer pressure inflicted on me by those I respect and trust…

Still, my own sometimes painful journey pales in comparison to others, mostly women, whom society has and continues to target in all the worst ways. It’s a tragedy the time and energy we waste disapproving of our bodies, not appreciating them, until for some it’s almost time to leave them.

If only we could be gentler with ourselves. Easier said than done I’ll wager, if my own less than flattering thoughts about myself are any measurement.

 Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Time to Change our Belief System

Well, that is a system...
Let’s talk systems. Each of us is part of them, whether we like it or not. Whether we know it or not. Some systems are beneficial; others less so. Still others are downright destructive. How much you know about the systems you’re part of can go a long way in helping or hurting. Yourself and others.

I work hard to understand systems of which I am a part. That’s because when I recognize how they operate – what drives them, influences them, and my role in them – I can interact in beneficial rather than harmful ways. Some systems can be challenging to think about. That’s because the most complex ones have lots of moving parts.

Then there’s the challenge of knowing or learning all the parts of a system. Lop on top of that the fact that our world these days moves so quickly. It’s brimming with activities and information overload. Taking all that into account, it becomes hard to even want to understand how systems work, let alone try and appreciate how they might affect us and each other.

Systems as I define them consist of more than two persons, places or things interacting either with each other or something/someone else. They can cause a chain reaction of events or even ways of thinking. An example of operating within a system is when on the freeway.

Despite a bunch of other vehicles on the road it can feel like we’re out there only doing things individually: driving fast or slow, passing or being passed, entering or exiting the freeway, etc. Yet in fact, we’re operating collectively with other vehicles on the road. All of them. We are cooperating with other drivers. Or not. Even the ones too distant to see. (Consider a distant car accident and how it eventually affects the flow of traffic around you.)

A more immediate example is when another car is merging from an on-ramp: you have to decide whether to change lanes, go faster, slower or maintain speed. The oncoming car has similar options. So do other vehicles close by. What one does effects what the others might do. Or not do.

This is my exit.

So it is with social systems. What one person says or does in a situation can impact what happens to others. Cause and effect. But it’s deeper than that with human beings. That’s because there are a bundle of other factors in play, not the least of which is perception. There’s also how a person was raised, the experiences they went through and what they’re currently going through.

We as a people are approaching a turning point. Much of it is with regard to how we look at and interact with people different from ourselves. It’s about skin color. And gender. It’s about sexual orientation, class, ability and age. And religion.

It’s about a system of shutting down and turning our backs on those who are not like us. It’s about a system of not believing or even considering the possibility that what a group of people say is happening to them is happening. Not even remotely considering it, despite the presence of prejudice, discrimination, protests, bullying, beatings, maiming and killing.

It’s about a system wanting to keep things the way they are, staying within the comfort of our own beliefs – and if it’s at the unfortunate expense of others, so be it. It’s about desperately trying to maintain the current belief system because to consider otherwise is to tilt your world; tilt it in a manner that causes you to rethink a whole lot of things. And yes, this cuts in all directions.

Future generations will look on this important period with great interest. Which side of history will you be on?

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Learn to Dance in the Moment

A few years ago during a leadership learning experience, I participated in what I presumed would be a psychologically painful and humiliating activity. But surprise: instead I felt refreshed, emotionally as well as physically. In a sense I was reborn because it changed an important outlook I had on life.

The activity to which I refer is quite common in many cultures but for me, I had grown to consider it undignified, immature and quite frankly a primitive social ritual. What is this physical practice I used to find so horrendous but now willingly embrace? Dancing.

A lot of folks are lifelong dancers; my mother immediately comes to mind. So does my wife. Me? I had grown out of it shortly after college. In retrospect what I had done was allow societal pressures, especially professional decorum, adversely influence my perception of what dancing is and what it offers human beings.

I have always understood, at least in the abstract, that dancing is an artful form of expression. That is, if you were good at it. I wasn’t. What I’ve come to understand is that despite your prowess at cutting the carpet (or any creative endeavor for that matter), it also is liberating. And spiritually enriching.

Regular dancers, casual and professional know this. Wallflowers steadfastly believe dancing and other forms of active physical and vocal expression are largely inappropriate, except perhaps at nightclubs, wedding receptions, and maybe after their favorite sports team wins a championship.

Why do so many people, especially men, consider dancing and other creative actions taboo? If it’s about being appropriate, who gets to decide what’s appropriate and when?

Recently it was reported Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor bucked the system at an annual social event consisting of fellow justices and their law clerks. The story goes that during the private party, she instructed her clerks to cue salsa music and one by one beckoned fellow justices – “some of them extremely reluctant” – to dance with her.

According to the report, Justice Anthony Kennedy “did a jitterbug move.” Others were less willing, such as 90-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens who “felt as if he had two left feet” and quickly sat down.

Folks who’ve made my acquaintance eventually come to know I come to understand many of life’s realities through scenes I’ve watched in certain movies. In the 1953 flick, “The Robe,” actor Richard Burton played the troubled Roman military officer Marcellus who is in mental turmoil after participating in the crucifixion of Jesus. In a seminal scene, upon being presented with the robe Jesus wore at the time of his death, Marcellus refuses to touch it. He is irrationally terrified, but as the robe brushes against him, he is relieved from the anguish of his guilt. Later, he drops his sword and picks up Christianity.

Religion respectfully aside (besides, the movie is fiction), I liken the behavior of Marcellus with many of us who fear a thing so much that we become hardened and close-minded. That is, until we “brush up” against that thing. In that moment for so many of us, we find there was nothing to fear but fear itself.

With that in mind, today I take to the dance floor in a New York minute and free of self-consciousness. It’s not to prove a point, and definitely not to show off my moves. Instead it’s because I count dancing as one of my cardio workouts and it’s socially and spiritually liberating.

I also do it to prove a couple other things: one, what I once feared, I can now embrace. Two, if a former stiff moving stick-in-the-mud like me can get out there, so can you.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.