Tag Archives: courage

The Hard Work of Democracy

12bMy wife and I attended the opening night of Twelve Angry Americans at Malibu High School last Thursday.  Nobody does high school theater quite like Malibu High.  It was our first time back since our youngest daughter exited high school stage right a couple of years ago, and it was no surprise to discover that Jodi Plaia is still delivering terrific shows.  The entire cast was fantastic, and we particularly enjoyed seeing two of our talented high school friends–Dominic (Juror 1) and Taylor (Juror 3)–in starring roles.

Twelve Angry Americans is Twelve Angry Men adjusted for gender equity, and if you are unfamiliar with the story, it is a moving drama of jury deliberations in the murder trial of an inner-city teen that carried a mandatory execution sentence. The play was written and set in the 1950s in the age of McCarthyism and the Civil Rights Movement and portrayed the fragile nature of democracy in a powerful way.  Twelve Angry Men hit the big screen starring Henry Fonda before the decade ended in what is now considered an all-time classic film.  

It was sobering to realize that around the time the play ended on Thursday evening my home state of Arkansas executed its fourth person in eight days after twelve years with zero executions.  A law school classmate of mine represented the first to be killed and had shared a poignant description of the final hours just days before.  Arkansas tried to execute eight people in eleven days because a drug it uses for executions that has been involved in several botched executions is now difficult to obtain and expires today.  It is awful to believe that is true, but apparently that was the motivation behind the rush. 

I have definite opinions about the death penalty and am bright enough to realize that not everyone agrees with me — or has to.  But I would hope that we would engage in deeper conversations on such a grave issue that would at least prevent situations where a state government races the clock to kill citizens because its controversial prescription is running out.

The real message of Twelve Angry Americans is that we must overcome our individual desires, passions, and prejudices to work together for the good of all.  As the play so powerfully shows, that is painful, difficult, courageous, and time-consuming work.  It feels like the world is less and less interested in putting in that sort of effort.

I am grateful to the young actors and actresses for the important invitation.

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Jody

JodyToday is my wife’s birthday, and the specific number is none of your business (or, apparently, mine!).  Jody’s parents both worked as tax preparers back in 19-whenever when she made her grand entrance on April 14—talk about demanding attention from the very start!  She deserves a lot of attention.  Jody is, hands down, the most impressive person that I know.

I could list a thousand beautiful words that describe my wife, but let’s try a story instead.

Less than two years after we married, Jody was hired as a full-time houseparent at Children’s Homes, Inc., and I got to tag along for the ride.  Imagine the situation: a young married couple in their mid-twenties living with and “parenting” teenagers from a wide variety of challenging backgrounds.  Not sure who was more crazy–us or the people who hired us.  One evening early in our three years there, we were walking with several of the teenage girls at dusk when Jody and one of the girls got into it, and a battle of two very strong wills was on.  Given the body language of the two, my fear was that the battle would soon move beyond wills, and I should mention that the other combatant was about a foot taller and appeared to be twice as strong.  But there Jody stood in the growing darkness, eye-to-navel, looking up at the girl she was responsible for and yet somehow communicating that she would take her out in a second if anyone flinched.  None of us flinched.  There was never a question who would win.

Our daughters never really stood a chance with a mother like Jody who loves with such courage and ferocity.  She will stand up to anyone, anytime, anywhere for what is right, and particularly for (and if necessary, to) someone that she loves.  She is strength and beauty and goodness all wrapped up in one amazing person.

I can’t even imagine how many people are better because Jody decided to care for them.  I just know that I am at the top of the list.

Peace on Earth

img_4126Thanks to our friend, John, and the Pacifica Institute, we recently hosted Muslim families for a Christmas dinner at our house.  That’s right, Muslim families for a Christmas dinner.  It was wonderful.  The stated purpose of the dinner was to build bridges of respect, understanding, and friendship between Muslims and Christians—and it sure worked.  We instantly have new friends and were honored to accept a return offer to visit their homes in the new year.

All of our guests came to the United States from Turkey, and as we talked over dinner it was sobering to sense the sadness in their hearts when they spoke of conditions related to terrorism in their home country.  And it was even more sobering to sense the fears they live with in this country when the actions of religious extremists lead others to associate such terrible violence with the religion they practice and love.

Possibly my favorite moment of the evening came when one of our guests slipped money to our youngest daughter when she shared about her work in Kenya last summer with street kids from Nairobi slums.  It seems that our guest has a soft spot in his heart for poor African children, and he couldn’t help but give money to support the Christian organization when he heard about the good work it is doing.

I shared with our guests the story from Kenya at this time last year when the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, commandeered a bus that held Christian and Muslim passengers.  The terrorists demanded that the passengers separate by religion so they could execute the Christians, and the Muslim passengers, mostly women, led the refusal to answer by saying that if they would execute one they would have to execute all.  They were neighbors after all.  Miraculously, no one was killed.

Our guests had not heard the story and were visibly encouraged by it.  One of our new friends said that such reactions should be the standard response.

I sense that many are wary of the concept of interfaith dialogue, thinking that it means a dilution of religious conviction—a sort of “I’m-okay-you’re okay” approach to religious belief.  If you spend much time with any religious belief system you’ll realize that would be sort of silly.  Instead, I have to wonder what is terribly wrong with moving toward a world where we have “join us for dinner” relationships across all sorts of lines that purport to divide us.

Sharing dinner in our homes with new friends would sure go a long way toward a world where the scene that occurred on that Kenyan bus will be the standard response to those who deal in violence.  Not uniformity or watered-down beliefs, but neighborliness and solidarity for peace on earth and good will toward all.  I am a Christian, and at this time of year we remember an angelic proclamation to a group of shepherds about such things.  This particular dinner sure felt like a step in that direction.

Taunting Fear

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“The enemy is fear.  We think it is hate; but, it is fear.” – Gandhi

I think Halloween is fun.  My wife thinks it is the best day of the year.  I prefer to sit outside munching on fun-size candy bars while families wander by in goofy costumes.  My wife likes to purchase skeletons that frighten the neighborhood children.  That isn’t disturbing at all, right honey?  (Awkward nervous laughter.)

I may not like Halloween as much as my wife, but I do enjoy it.  To promote the candy industry, sure, but more importantly, I like the idea of poking fun at things that scare us.  Not because our fears aren’t real or sufficiently serious—I don’t advocate dismissing fears.  Instead, I vote for conquering them.  My parents have been taken away by that ultimate fear we call death, and I don’t seem to be getting any younger myself, but I have decided that fear and death will not have its way with my life. I fully intend to live a life that isn’t ruled by fear.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.”

Don’t be a timid adventurer.

My friend, Danny, says it this way: Fear is a punk.  I’ll be celebrating that tonight with a bowl full of Kit Kats and Mr. Goodbars.

Bar Eve. Or, Don’t Shrink from a Challenge.

[Note: This is a repeat from last year, but purposely so.]

We always opened presents on Christmas Eve. I like Christmas Eve. New Year’s Eve ends with confetti-drenched smooching, and who can argue with that? But Bar Eve—the night before the bar exam—is more of a pain in the hind quarters.

I was abnormally slow to matriculate to law school so the bar exam remains a somewhat fresh wound. I sat for the California version, statistically the hardest in the country, an eighteen-hour torture device spread out over three days that begins tomorrow for many of my good friends.

Truth be told, the exam is the easy part. It is the anticipation, the fear-filled, guilt-infested, never-ending dread that drives a person to inquire about openings with the circus. So Bar Eve is significant, the pinnacle of the real challenge. When the exam begins tomorrow morning, life will actually begin to improve. And when the exam ends on Thursday afternoon, delirious excitement abounds, although the emphasis is on delirious.

To riff the old Tony Campolo sermon, it’s Bar Eve, but Thursday’s a-comin’.

Accounting for the delirium, I prize two important memories from that Thursday afternoon when I emerged from the Pasadena Convention Center (sidebar: we pronounce it PASS-adena for the good vibes; thankfully, we didn’t sit for the exam in FAIL-adelphia).

Memory #1: I sincerely thought there should have been a parade for us. I mean it. It was a strong feeling that, regardless of how we did on the exam, the simple fact that we endured that hell of a summer and survived the three-day exam called for a parade. We were heroes.

Memory #2: Driving home, stuck in traffic on the 101 and not caring about traffic for the first time ever, I knew what I wanted to say when I arrived home. My youngest daughter was in eighth grade at the time and had declared to my hearty approval while observing the bar summer that she would never go to law school. But on the drive home, I knew what I had to tell her. When I made it, after the hugs and kisses, I mustered all the seriousness in me to communicate what I hoped she would receive as one of those few life lessons that you just cannot miss: Never run away from a challenge simply because it looks daunting.

I could not say such a thing until that Thursday afternoon, but I never felt any life lesson more strongly than I did at that moment. On this Bar Eve, I hope my hero friends will finish strong and experience that same sense of accomplishment.

The Greatest

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My dad was a boxing fan, which made sense for a member of what Tom Brokaw termed “the greatest generation.”  Boxing was the American sport when he was a boy in the 1920s and 1930s, and I remember his tales of the great Jack Dempsey as we watched fights together a half century later.  I somehow failed to inherit his love for the sport, but the combination of his love and the golden age of heavyweight boxing that coincided with my childhood unleashed personal memories when Muhammad Ali’s passing was announced last Friday.  Elvis Presley, John Wayne, and Muhammad Ali—those were the names that seemed larger than life to this little boy in small-town Arkansas.  Now, all three are gone.

That Ali is a popular American hero is fascinating.  I doubt that his outspoken racial pride and conversion to Islam in the 1960s endeared him to all who now mourn his passing.  I doubt that his refusal to accept military service makes him a hero to all patriotic Americans.  And his brash, in your face, “I am the greatest” trash talking is not typically the personality that leads to universal love and admiration, the Donald Trump phenomenon notwithstanding.

Maybe America just likes a winner?  I don’t buy it.  Call me crazy, but I’m guessing that Barry Bonds, Bill Belichick, and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. will not be universally adored when they ultimately move on from this life.

So, why did Muhammad Ali die an American hero?  Some say it is his social activism, his willingness to stand up for what he believed in.  Maybe so.  That has to be a part of it.  But I suggest there is something more to Ali’s universal appeal.

Muhammad Ali embraced life.

He was fun and funny and full of joy.  He lived without fear.  Think about it: the religious conversion, the brash statements in an era of racial violence, the thumbing his nose at the government’s draft, and the claims of boxing greatness all displayed that he was not afraid of any threat.

More importantly, he lost in the boxing ring multiple times—but came back for more with a smile.  Over time, in what seemed to be the cruelty of fate, the powerful and eloquent athlete lost his famed strength and good health and bold voice—but he came out in public with a smile.

Check it out: Muhammad Ali was not afraid of any threat, but he was also not afraid of any consequence.

I believe that is why we loved him so.  We want to live without fear, too.  We want to face both the goods and bads of life with unshakable joy.

Wouldn’t that be the Greatest?

Adversity

My youngest daughter gave me a LARGE PRINT (appreciated!) book of David Foster Wallace essays titled, “Both Flesh and Not.” She knows that I may have developed a reader crush on Wallace. Among other admirable qualities, Wallace’s conventional knowledge is astounding, but his unconventional approach is stunning. For instance, one of the essays included in the book is composed entirely of bullet points. Twenty-five pages’ worth of bullet points (well, LARGE PRINT, so maybe two pages, but still).

So if the imitation/flattery cliché is true, then consider the following as feeble-yet-genuine praise.

• Adversity: Simple definition: “a difficult situation or condition.”
• Synonyms: misfortune; mishap; tragedy.
• First known use: 13th century.
• Probability that you (and me, but I’m writing here, so you) will encounter adversity: 100%.
• Leading responses to adversity: Popularly (and boring-ly), fight or flight. More descriptively, nausea; all versions of weeping, from softly into a dark pillow to convulsive wailing; bitterness; rage; blaming, from self to upbringing to society to presidents/candidates to God to karma to your stupid ex-whatever; prayer; tubs of ice cream; throwing things; liquid courage; television binge; a life of crime; join the circus.
• Approximate amount of fun in any of these responses at least by the next day: Zero. (Except possibly the circus, which depends so much on your new job description.)
• Common themes from an “adversity” search on Google Images: Mountains; tightropes; Martin Luther King, Jr., loneliness.
• Strangest return item from an “adversity” search on Amazon: Adversity Board Game.
• Opening line of product description for Adversity Board Game: “Become the greatest advertising mogul the world has ever seen!” (Oh, it is AD-versity. Clever.)
• Most fun line of opening customer description of Ad-versity Board Game: “We tried this game both while drinking and while sober, and both times it sort of stank.”
• Why I’m thinking/writing about adversity: Life, lately. Some personal, some observational, from many corners of life.
• What to do when the tendency to criticize how others handle adversity rears its ugly head: Slip on their moccasins. (Figuratively of course, although a literal situation is conceivable, like if maybe someone gets bad news from the doctor and runs screaming on to a sizzling hot highway, and if you’re barefoot and their moccasins are right there anyway… This all seems highly unlikely.)
• How I want to handle inevitable adversity: With love; head on; with courage and strength; at peace.
• Probability that I will do so: Unknown, but greatly increased with resolve, preparation, practice, and reflection.

Vision Care

My optometrist is wonderful. Kind. Professional. Gentle. Brilliant. Compassionate. I hate him so much.

The hatred is obviously the It’s-not-you-it’s-me kind because he is great and all. It is simply that I wish never to see him again. That, of course, is the dilemma: that if I never see him again, then I may not see anyone again. It is a harder decision than it sounds when I say it out loud.

My first optometrist visit occurred in the third grade and taught me that I was blind in one eye. I remember quite well that my eyelids were turned inside out as part of the examination, which resulted in a more serious medical condition known as “the heebie jeebies” (self-diagnosis). The heebie jeebies is a terrible malady, and the chief treatment plan is to avoid all visits to an optometrist for as long as humanly possible. Seeing as I am nothing if not committed to a treatment plan, I did not visit another optometrist for thirty-three years (which, I’m just pointing out, Christians believe is the entire human life span of the Son of God, so I think that is a pretty good run).

But I caved several years back and that is when I met Dr. Wonderful, whom I hate if that was somehow left unclear. Oh, it is an irrational hatred. There were no eyelids turned inside out in the examination, so no heebie jeebies. The visit mostly consisted of rational adult conversation and semi-successful attempts to read tiny letters. I graduated to reading glasses, which wasn’t all that terrible either. There was only one negative . . . .

I have never been known for physical strength. That is probably because I have very little physical strength. But I’m telling you the truth, and you can ask my doctor, try to drop something into one of my eyes, and my eye muscles can lift a Buick—or at least a grown man wearing a miner’s hat holding a dropper.

(Why are all my superhero gifts so lame? Adding lists of numbers quickly, Olympic-strength eye muscles, 1980s-era NBA trivia, number of freckles…)

So, seeing as how dropping liquids into my eyes turns me into The Incredible Hulk, I took another few years between optometrist visits just out of respect for peace in the community, but last week in a moment of weakness I returned once more to the scene of the crime. It went as expected: I tossed Dr. Nice Guy around the examination room with my eye muscles like a professional wrestler and now have some new glasses on the way.

In sum, I guess it is clear that I avoid the very resource that helps me see the world more clearly because it creates a brief moment of discomfort. That doesn’t make a lick of sense for the eyes of my heart any more than it does for the eyes in my skull, and if clarity of vision means anything at all, I had just better learn to get over it.

Freedom Road

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Random Glitter Beard Guy (Not Me. Yet.)

My inaugural participation in No Shave November would have ended today were it not for (a) my wife’s shocking declaration that she likes the beard; and (b) an entrepreneurial law student convincing me to wear a “glitter beard” for a full day if he raised a thousand dollars for the law school’s public interest student organization. He created a GoFundMe page for this effort, and as disturbing as a glitter beard on my face is to consider, last I checked he had raised ten bucks. You could change that, of course, with your donations (click HERE), but this is a classic win-win situation for me.

Glitter beard aside, my life is actually one long story of self-consciousness about physical appearance, but there has been great progress over the decades, and my path to baldness is particularly instructive.

My hair embarrassed me from the moment I realized people judged your appearance. I don’t know exactly how to describe my hair, other than terrible. It was thin, light brown, oily, and curled in all the wrong places with length, with a cowlick smack in the middle of my forehead. I hated it. I tried, without talent mind you, to make it look okay, hoping not to draw attention to it—ever—and in that effort spent more time than I care to know in front of a mirror. In effect, I was a butcher with a comb attempting brain surgery.

Worse, any time the wind blew or rain fell it somehow got worse, and both happened in my hometown on a regular basis. Wearing a hat was okay if it was stapled to my head and never came off in public. I wore out untold back pockets on blue jeans because I carried a comb everywhere I went. Everywhere. I guess I was vain in reverse, not consumed with looking good, just desperate not to be the object of laughter.

This went on for a few decades or so, give or take, and then I started going bald on top, too, as if being pale/skinny/freckly with bad hair wasn’t enough self-esteem for an American male.

And then one glorious day I was reading lovely Anne Lamott talk about her lifelong obsession with bad hair (although her particular malady was frizzy-ness). She mentioned that as an adult a friend with dreadlocks encouraged her to follow suit, but the idea of a middle-aged white woman in dreadlocks took some time to consider. Then, one day, while watching the climactic scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne tunnels through sewage to escape from prison and stands in the pouring rain with his arms to the sky in glorious freedom, Lamott thought, “I could never do that. My hair would look terrible.” At that moment Lamott decided to go with dreadlocks. You laugh, but I had to catch my breath. It was me. In effect, it was that story that led me to shave my head.

Here is the kicker: It was so difficult to actually follow through with it because my entire life had been one long attempt to avoid calling attention to my personal appearance. (And let me tell you, shaving your head is one surefire way to draw attention to your personal appearance.) But I did it. Our friend, Devon, did the honors, and as expected, everyone had to comment. (My favorite was when meeting those who hadn’t seen me for some time. They were oddly quiet, and I am sure that my bald/pale/skinny self had them wondering if it was cancer or AIDS. I just let them wonder.) After some time, the comments went away, and all these years later, I could not be happier.

What I learned is that the path to freedom requires the courage to face your greatest fears. And that the freedom is worth it.

It is still difficult to say, but—look at me. I’m up to sporting a glitter beard now if the price is right.

Not Yet

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
– Winston Churchill

The State Bar of California released its July 2015 bar exam results over the weekend, which impacted the lives of a large number of people that I know and love. California is famously the last state to release results and the one with the lowest passing statistics (and this year’s was the lowest July pass rate in three decades). This combination produces enhanced euphoria for some and a particularly hard punch in the gut to others. It is a weekend of tremendous highs and tremendous lows, and with friends in both places, I never know exactly how to feel. It is easy to celebrate the good news, but it is those who are hurting who maintain center stage in my mind.

I try to do all the right things: Give time, then reach out, then wait patiently, and then, when engaged, try to be helpful. As a former pastor, grief counseling is familiar territory.

Truth be told, the answer in the end is simple and involves climbing back on to the bicycle or horse or whatever metaphor you prefer to have fallen from and go at it again. “If at once you don’t succeed…” is technical truth, but it takes time to hear it without punching someone.

There is more. Success after failure is even sweeter. I recall an old article that identified resilience as a key characteristic of the most spectacular figures in history who overcame great challenges and failures on their unforgettable journeys. Of course failure can destroy a person, too. But it doesn’t have to.

Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University tells of a high school in Chicago that gives the grade Not Yet as opposed to Fail. I know this makes some people scream, “Kids need to learn how to fail!” Exactly, and then they need to learn how to get back up again. That is the genius of Dr. Dweck’s groundbreaking research on the importance of mindset when facing failure, which she describes as having a “growth” mindset instead of a “fixed” mindset.

How do you respond to failure? Those with a fixed mindset typically take it personally (e.g., “I’m a failure.”) or blame some external factor (e.g., “It’s your fault that I failed.”). Those with a growth mindset respond with “Not Yet” and determine how to improve to reach the goal.