Category Archives: Human Kindness

What Is Friendship?

Jefferson

Illustration by Charis Tsevis
Weincek, Henry. “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson.” Smithsonian Magazine. October 2012.
 
“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” Thomas Jefferson is said to have pronounced. This quotation has been widely circulated online this election season where some of us try never to reveal our opinions while others of us try futilely to change the minds of our friends who disagree with us.
 
Neither of these extremes seems to work very well. I really want a world where we can talk about our religion and politics and philosophy and learn from one another–a world where we find a third way–a middle place where we honor what’s best in the opposition and put it to work in a world much in need of compromise and collaboration. I like to think that I try to do that most of the time. But my daughter is quick to disabuse me of that notion and to remind me that while I listen to what people say, I still try to convince them that I’m right.
 
So how do we hold on to our best principles and yet hear that the opposition also has some best principles? What’s the difference between learning from one another and letting go of what we believe is right?
 
This isn’t a new question in a country that is founded on democracy–a philosophy that is often hard to live by as it’s played out in the real world. As Henry Weincek’s fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine points out, Thomas Jefferson–the man we hold up as the standard bearer for freedom and democracy–somewhere along the way gave up his principles. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he denounced slavery as “a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” But South Carolina and Georgia refused to sign such a document, so it was revised. And as we know now, by 1790 Jefferson had given up his efforts entirely and not only owned slaves but tolerated brutality against them.
 
As Weincek points out in this article, “It is curious that we accept Jefferson as the moral standard of the founders’ era, not Washington. Perhaps it is because the Father of his Country left a somewhat troubling legacy: His emancipation of his slaves stands as not a tribute but a rebuke to his era, and to the prevaricators and profiteers of the future, and declares that if you claim to have principles, you must live by them.”
 
Had Jefferson lived by his principles instead of giving them up, how different might our nation have been? Would we be living a very different legacy of race in this country? Or would we even have continued to be the “United” States of America?
 
And so it is that we allow ourselves to expect more of our leaders than we are sometimes capable of ourselves. We want to keep our friends. We can’t figure out how to hear each other, so we keep silent, speak so loudly that our friends walk away and ignore us until the battle of the political season is over, or give up on what we truly believe.
 
We want our leaders to have principles and live by them. We want our leaders to compromise and collaborate. How can they possibly do both?
 
One thing is certain, no matter who wins the election today: our President has a monumental task before him. Find a way to hold on to your principles, find a way to hear what’s best in your opponents’ principles, find a third way that is better than either way alone.
 
And so, Mr. President, whoever you are at the end of this day, my friend, I pray that you’ll find a way to do better what we’ve been trying so valiantly to do for over 200 years.

What Is a Saint?

With his usual penchant for humor, my husband reminded me on the way home from church that he is named for a saint, Matthew, and that I—well—am not. I didn’t need his reminder that I’m not a saint, but since I tend to be terminally serious, I do need him to remind me to laugh and enjoy this beautiful life I’ve been given.

Today is All Saints Sunday. Our church explains the service in this way:

All Saints celebrates the baptized people of God, living and dead, who make up the body of Christ. Today, many congregations will remember the faithful who have died during the past year. Our worship abounds with references to the saints and our continual relationship with them. Today and this week, we reflect on the lives of people – both the living and the dead – who have moved and supported others by their lives of faith.

I went into the service thinking of my friend Jane Ann, who died in September, leaving behind a 15-year-old daughter, a 90-year-old father, and scores of friends who miss her every day. Jane Ann would not have thought of herself as a saint, nor would she want her daughter or her loved ones to remember her as perfect. But she was, more than almost anyone I know, perfectly and gloriously human, and as her fourth grade teacher wrote on her Facebook page, her legacy is that she always, always reached out to help others. But she never forgot the healing power of a great big belly laugh.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as saints, but my pastor reminded me this morning that even those we do consider the saints of the church weren’t perfect. But they were people who, like Jane Ann, never lost the optimism that their lives could make a difference in the world. I loved the way my pastor closed the service.  I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t remember her exact words:

On this post-hurricane, pre-election, All Saints, communion Sunday, we need to remember that ours is a God of justice, freedom, and forgiveness….a God who is enough for us all—enough for you, enough for me.

I needed this reminder, too. I beat myself up sometimes for spending more time thinking about helping people than actually helping people. The magnitude of the need in our world sometimes overwhelms me. I’m reminded of a character in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, who wrote about the sorrows of others and put the papers into the cracks between the rocks in the wall that lined her property. After a time, she became so overwhelmed with the agony of others that she went to the river and lay down, a rock on her chest, and drowned herself in others’ sorrows.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we all know how easy it is to be swept away in the raging currents. But this morning at church we were asked, if we could, to fill up a five-gallon bucket with cleaning supplies and tools to send to the victims of the hurricane.

We are little good to ourselves or others if we take on too much of the pain and anguish of a world where the needs are so great. We do need time to lay our burdens down and gaze in wonder at the blue sky and the gentle roll of the mountains in the distance.

But I wonder what would happen if every single person who was able would fill up just one bucket and carry a little bit of the burden. What a difference that might make in our world!

Who Deserves This Rite?

Matt Estelene in Hawaii

Serena loved to drive, and her father bought her a green Toyota Celica the year it made its entrance into the American market, an incredible luxury in a coal mining town where most families owned only one car and where my family owned none. I was 21, and I wouldn’t get my license until the following summer when I was forced to learn to drive because I got a teaching job in a town an hour away. My younger brothers would take me to the dirt track on the outskirts of town, a small circle in a field where almost every 16-year-old in town learned the basics of driving, and I would get my license and have two accidents in the West Virginia mountains before I’d had a license for six months.

But Serena got behind the wheel of that sporty green Celica at every opportunity, so she quickly agreed to drive me six hours to Alexandria, Virginia to see my boyfriend, whom I hadn’t seen all summer. She had a friend in the DC suburbs, so she cheerfully agreed to drop me at Adam’s house and then pick me up at the end of the weekend. Just after we crossed the border into Virginia, we heard the sound of a siren and saw flashing red lights behind us. Serena pulled over and opened the window to see a burly policeman, red-faced and incensed.

“Young woman, you must be in a real hurry to get somewhere!”

Serena did her best to appear contrite as the policeman told her she had been going 80 mph in a 50 mph zone. He told her that the fine was $150, an enormous amount of money for a college student in the 1970s, and he ordered us to drive into town and pay the fine immediately unless she wanted to spend the night in jail. She complied, as I frantically opened our purses to see how much money we had between us. After we paid the fine, we had $13 left over. But we continued the trip to see the people we loved.

Though we’ve sometimes lost touch for years, our friendship is true and lasting.  I broke up with that boyfriend a year after that trip. I married and divorced and married again before I found the love of my life. Serena, a devout Christian who reads the Bible every day, is still with Marianne, the friend she went to see that weekend, after nearly 40 years.

And then there’s Dave, my cousin. He married and had children before he was able to admit to himself that he was gay. He divorced and later found a partner with whom he shares his life. Dave, too, is a devout Christian. He posts inspirational quotations on his Facebook page that encourage all of us who are privileged to be his friends. He loves to garden and grows flowers and vegetables that he shares with everyone who lives in his neighborhood. But his choice to acknowledge who he really is has come at a cost.  Of his three siblings, only one will speak to him or be a part of his life.

And in 2003 when I lay on an operating table for a surgery that would take nine hours to excise the cancer from my body, the youth pastor of my church would come to the hospital, pray with my family, and sit with my daughter and my husband until he was sure they were okay. A year later, when my daughter had tired of being stronger and more mature than any 17-year-old should have to be, this pastor was the one who talked to her when she crashed and finally allowed herself to question what kind of God would let her mom have cancer.

In one of the few denominations that allows a debate about ordination of gays and lesbians, this man of incredible compassion and passionate eloquence was unable for years to get a call to be a senior pastor because of his sexual orientation. Even in our church, a liberal congregation that shared sacred space with a Jewish congregation, this pastor never brought his partner to church events out of respect to those in the congregation who might be offended by his choice of partners.  And yet I don’t know of a single heterosexual minister who has ever been expected to do the same for a spouse of whom the congregation might not approve.

These three people have enriched my life. And though I read the Bible every day, I cannot understand why people obsess over six verses that condemn their sexual orientation in chapters that also forbid behaviors that heterosexual couples engage in every day without similar condemnation. How is it possible that these six verses—on a topic that is never mentioned in any of the four Gospels—can outweigh story after story of Jesus’ compassion and love?

So, yes, last weekend I stood in line for an hour and fifteen minutes to vote in Maryland. And of the page after page of choices I had to make, on none of them was I more sure I was in the right than when I cast my vote to allow these three people to have the same rights I have to marry the love of my life.

NOTE: The names have been changed to protect the privacy of those whose stories I’ve told.

Why Do We Believe What We Believe?

This week I received an email from a former colleague who moved out of the country because of her husband’s job. She is missed in our office for her friendliness and her generosity in sharing her chocolate desserts. I can resist the run-of-the-mill donuts and left-over Halloween candy, but this woman’s hazelnut torte was a taste of heaven.

I worked with her for more than a year, and we took a yoga class together—my first venture into yoga. She encouraged me to take the class when I told her that my oncologist had been saying for years that yoga would be good for both my physical health and my ability to deal with stress. Because my colleague always seemed so centered, I took the class and learned from watching her and talking with her about how yoga helped her face life.

She cheered me on when I was accepted into a workshop with the editor ofNarrative Magazine, and she read the first chapters of my memoir and told me to be sure to stay in touch and let her know how my writing was going. So when I emailed her the link to my web site, I was surprised when she responded that she had passed on the link to some of her friends. Why? Because she revealed to me for the first time that she is an atheist—something I know only because she told me.

Her response really made me think. Would I have shared her web site had our positions been reversed? How many Christians do you know who would pass on a link to a site that explores the questions of atheists? And why didn’t I know that she was an atheist? She knew about my faith from my writing, but I had never asked and perhaps she had never felt comfortable sharing her own views.

I also have a family member who is an atheist. He’s a single father—a good father—of two young children. And one of my closest friends has struggled her whole life to decide whether she agrees with her parents, who taught her that no thinking person would ever believe there is a God. She is a teacher who has spent her entire career making a difference in the lives of troubled children other teachers have given up on.

These people have taught me that it takes a great deal of courage to admit to the world that one doesn’t believe in God. No matter how sterling the character of an atheist, most people fear them, disparage them, or try to convert them.

Faith, by its very nature, is a belief not based on concrete proof. And for most of us, faith is a response to what our parents taught us. We accept the beliefs of our parents because we see it in the content of their character and the example they set. We reject the faith of our fathers when we can’t reconcile what they say with the way they live. We live without much thought to faith because our parents didn’t consider it important.

So why should we feel threatened or indignant, why should we think less of a person of character because that person has rejected our belief system? We shouldn’t. I believe in God because there are too many things that have happened in my life that I just can’t chalk up to coincidence, because I have felt a Presence with me in both the joy and the muck, because I’ve seen the face of God in the people who’ve loved me and cared for me. This isn’t concrete proof, but it works for me. I chose Christianity as the lens through which I can best see God first because my parents believed in God—though one of the vengeful sort—but mostly because some of the most significant people in my life have shown me the face of God through their lives.

And while I believe in God in spite of being a victim of child abuse and facing a battle with cancer, I admit that I sometimes look at worse things that others have endured and hope I never have my faith tested in such a way. All of us have doubts about our faith, and I’m guessing that atheists do, too.

One thing is certain, though. In every way that counts, except for our views about the Eternal, my friends who are atheists are no different than I. They are people of character. And in a world where a lack of belief in God isn’t socially acceptable, they are, perhaps most of all, people of courage.

So come now, tell me stories of how your life has been enriched by someone whose faith is only in this life.

Bad Hair Day?

Estelene No Hair

Moist air day = bad hair day, I thought as I looked into the mirror this morning and watched the corners of my mouth turn down more each time I released a lock of hair from the round brush to find it still wavy despite my efforts.

Sighing and clenching my eyes shut, I put the brush down on the vanity counter and realized, not for the first time, why it’s called a vanity.  I’ll admit it, I’m vain.  I want my hair to look the way it looks when I walk out of my stylist’s salon with it freshly colored and cut.  But this morning, I looked at the gray roots and didn’t even bother to use the color wand that my stylist had given me to get me through those last few days before each appointment.

Now here’s the thing–nine years ago this month, I was about to learn what it was like to have no hair.  And one would think that after spending four months with no hair and another year waiting for it to grow back, I’d really appreciate having a bad hair day…because it means I have hair.

I had surgery for breast cancer in October 2003 and my first chemo treatment on December 4.  I remember that because my oncologist told me that unless I was among the lucky 1% of patients who do not lose their hair, I would start losing my hair three weeks to the day after the first treatment.  Now I can hear you Christians–and maybe even some of my non-Christian friends–out there calculating when that would be.  And you guessed it.  I got into the shower on Christmas morning, put shampoo into my hand and rubbed it between my palms, forgetting what my oncologist had said.  But I remembered the moment I pulled my fingers through my hair and looked down to find clumps of hair wrapped around my fingers.  I stood in the shower and cried, my tears mixing with the water from the pulsing spray from the shower head.

I stepped from the shower and wrapped my head in a towel.  When I unwrapped the towel, I found more clumps of hair stuck to the terrycloth fibers.  I pulled the wig I had bought with a friend’s help from the styrofoam head at the top of the closet, placed it on my head, and walked out of the bathroom and into my husband.  He looked at me sympathetically and hugged me.  He didn’t need to ask what had happened in the shower.

On the day after Christmas, I called On the Edge Hair Studio, my salon, and explained what had happened.  I knew that this was their busiest time of year, as clients came in to get their hair done for New Year’s Eve galas.  I asked Cathie, the receptionist, if I could possibly come in and have my hair stylist, Angie Cassagnol, shave my head.  I told her that I just couldn’t stand day after day of having my hair come out in my fingers.  “Oh, honey,” Cathie said, “you know that Angie will take care of you.”

And so, two days after Christmas, I trudged into the shop, blinking back tears as I walked toward the window lined with blinking white lights and green garland.  Cathie and Angie greeted me with a smile and complimented me on the human hair wig that cost me a year’s worth of appointments with Angie.  I smiled half-heartedly and sat down in Angie’s chair, as I’d done for years.  I looked at Angie’s thick, dark hair enviously and wished I had her talent for doing her own hair.

I took a deep breath and pulled the wig from my head.  Angie gasped, and her eyes filled with tears.  “Okay….okay,” she said.  “I’m going to have to cut it short before I can shave it.”

I made myself breathe.  “Okay,” I said, closing my eyes.  I heard the sound of the scissors snipping and finally found the courage to open my eyes.  Tears streamed down Angie’s cheeks, and I found that I could stop crying, perhaps because she was crying enough for both of us.  “It’s okay,” I said.  “You’ve told me lots of times when I was afraid to change the style that it’s only hair and that it’ll grow back,” I smiled.

When she finished, I had a boy cut.  And at that moment, we both knew that we couldn’t go on.  She had performed an incredible act of love for me, and I knew that I would never have another hair stylist.

Ultimately, it was my husband Matt who found the courage to shave my head–one of the greatest acts of love of our 21 years together.  And six months later, the hair started to grow back.

But even though I remember the pain of having no hair, which in some ways was worse than losing my breast because it was so visible to the world, I still get frustrated on bad hair days.  Until I remember to laugh at myself and thank God that the world has people like my husband and Angie, who love me even when I’m having a no-hair day.

Who Really Works Hard?

 

Spending time at the hospital with my husband this week reminded me that this time last October, I spent the night by my mother’s bedside and wrote this piece as she slept:

“I work hard for my money,” you said from the next table in the country club dining room.  You wore an expensive Bobby Jones polo shirt, casual slacks, and Tiger-style Nike shoes.  Swirling your second glass of 25-year old Scotch, you admired the amber color as it slid in gentle arcs around the glass.  You wafted the glass under your nose and sipped before continuing, “And I don’t want the government to take more of it to give to people who are too lazy to work.”

I think of you now as I sit by my ailing mother’s bedside and watch her work hard to breathe.  I know you from a distance, enough to know that you own a lucrative company that packages health insurance for businesses.  And that you spend many afternoons golfing while those for whom you’ve created jobs in your small business work in an expensive suite of offices nearby.

My mother coughs, and I watch her labor to take in the oxygen that flows through the only clear tube attached to her body.  She has labored all her life—mostly for no money at all—as the mother of five children and the wife of a coal miner.  She refused to put my father in a nursing home, taking care of him for four years as he slowly died from the black lung he developed as a result of 30 years of hard labor in a West Virginia coal mine.

Her nurse, Redheem, rushes into the room for my mother’s 2:00 a.m. vitals and medications, takes two gloves from the dispenser inside the door, and slips them on quickly as she crosses the room.  But when Redheem reaches the bed, she slows her pace and touches my mother gently, waking her from sleep.  I watch the nurse’s face, perfectly framed by the tightly wrapped hijab that catches the light from the hallway.  She disconnects the tube that drips from one of the four bags hanging on the IV pole.  Then she works efficiently to add pain medications to the IV and to check all the wires before going to the computer to log her work.  She tells my mother that she will return at 4:00 a.m. to check her again and give her a bath, which she does—with the same gentle touch I’ve watched Mom use on her newborn grandchildren.

As Redheem works, she asks me, “Does your mom have all girls?”  She has seen only my sister and me at our mother’s bedside.

“No, just my sister and me…and three sons.”  Unwilling to disturb my mother’s peace by talking about my brother who died of a drug overdose, I turn the conversation.  “Do you have children?”

“No,” Redheem answers.  “I take care of my parents.  They live with me.  And my sister.  I’m paying for my sister’s college because I don’t want her to have loans.  My parents paid for my college, so I’m paying it forward.”

Ready to change the sheets on the bed, Redheem calls for a nurse’s assistant to help her roll my mother from side to side.  Mom grimaces but does not complain.  Redheem repeatedly apologizes for disturbing her.  They finish promptly, cover Mom, and ask her if she needs anything.  As they leave, Redheem thanks my mom and turns to me: “Your mother is so sweet.”

Exhausted, my mother looks at me and smiles. Her jaw slackens as she quickly returns to sleep.

Brian, the nurse’s assistant, comes into the room and, like Redheem, he dons the blue gloves in the time it takes me to notice his entry.  He approaches the bed and stoops to examine the bag at the end of the long catheter tube.   He tilts his head and nods, satisfied, then waves to me quietly as he leaves.

The room is still again, except for the ticking of the heart monitor and the soft swishing of the suction devices.

My mind drifts back to the table at the country club.  I wonder if you have ever sat by the bed of a loved one who receives the gentle and attentive ministrations of the countless Redheems and Brians who work so hard.

And I see again your golf partner’s discomfort with the conversation you initiated, not for the first or the second or even the third time.  And then I wanted to cheer as I watched his response.  He squirmed in his seat and, with resolve, he met your eyes above the Scotch glass and asked for the first time, “How much is enough?”

Am I Really in Your Thoughts and Prayers?

Every time someone in my family has faced a health crisis, I’m reminded of how wonderful human beings really are.  A friend said to me recently that she hated it when people told her she was in their thoughts and prayers because she was certain that very few people really did pray for you or think much about you when they said it.  She placed the comment in the same category as the greeting, “How are you?” to which we are obligated to respond, “I’m fine.  How are you?”

 
But when I had Stage 3 breast cancer (nine years ago this month), I thought a lot about that very comment, and I figured that if only some of those people actually did pray for me, then I was certainly the stronger for it.  And people I had considered only acquaintances cared for me in wonderful ways.  One woman sent me a card almost every week during the entire nine months I was undergoing therapy.  My colleagues took turns bringing meals to our home for the eight weeks I was on leave after the surgery.  My students made up a basket of their favorite books and games and snacks.  My four doctors, all women except for the plastic surgeon, learned to read the look on my face and know when they needed to stop and spend a little more time listening to me.  And when I asked the oncologist’s nurse how she could stand to work every day with cancer patients, many of whom died, she told me that she loved talking with these people who had learned what was truly important in life.
 
This week I’ve been reminded again of how we are made strong in our weakness–how we see the face of God in the people who take care of us.  My husband–the love of my life–had surgery on a lumbar disc yesterday, and the surgery turned out to be a little more complicated than we thought.  Again, friends and acquaintances rallied, texting and sending Facebook messages and letting us know in a hundred little ways that we are not alone.
 
And while our healthcare providers were all professional and attentive, one nurse at Georgetown University Hospital won our hearts and our hearty thanks.  We had seen the hospital’s commercials that advertised it as “the magnet nurses’ hospital,” but we had never thought twice about what that meant.  But when my husband was moved to the neuro wing, Sarah Belden greeted us with efficiency and smiles, despite the fact that every bed was filled, some with patients who were demanding and difficult.  I watched her sprint from one room to another, but every time she approached my husband’s bed, she slowed her steps and gave him careful attention.  She apologized when she caused him pain and asked repeatedly if she could do anything for him.  She engaged him in conversation and laughed at his jokes borne of the fog of anesthesia and a quirky sense of humor.
 
So when he was released from the hospital earlier today, and we learned as she was filling out the paperwork that she was only 23 years old, I was also reminded of how many of us set out to make a difference in the world.  And then far too many of us go into our professions and let the unpleasant people and the cynics jade us.  Or we get so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world’s need that we let our work drain us and forget to enjoy life.
 
And so, Sarah Belden, thank you for your bubbly cheerfulness and your kind care.  You have reminded me, yet again, that human beings are wonderful and that the face of God shines upon us even in the dark places.