More Than Words, Redux

I can’t believe I’m even having to write this, but here goes. 

Words matter. 

Words inspire: 

I have a dream.

Words heal: 

Today is a day for mourning and remembering.

Words hurt:

Words about sexuality, bodily functions, bleeding from orifices mentionable and unmentionable, grabbing them by the p—, moving on her “like a b—-“, hitting on, compulsively kissing. 

Words can be gifts. 

Words can be tools. 

Words can be powerful weapons. 

Words can shame. 

Words can affirm. 

Words have launched revolutions and created bold experiments in democracy. 

Words can take us, very quickly, from wondering what is going on in someone’s mind to the shocking revelation of what is really there. 

This is about oh so much more than politics, my dear readers. 

This is about simple human decency. 

This is about respecting the worth and dignity of every human being just because they do indeed have an inherent worth. 

This is about keeping private things private, intimate things intimate, and dangerous things contained. 

This is about social order and common decency and relationships in societies and institutions that are built on trust and cooperation and compromise and goodwill. 

This is about building up, not walling off or tearing down. 

This is about unsullied generations unborn and what we owe them, not flawed generations past and what they might owe us. 

This is about being more than Democrats or Republicans or white or black or northerners or southerners or Muslim or Christian or Jew. 

This is about more than nationality and pride. 

This is about being decent, forthright, respectful, restrained, dignified human beings. 

Listen to me, a humble writer who has made more than his share of mistakes using the spoken and written word. 

Words matter. 

Words matter. 

Words. Truly. Matter. 

If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?

Okay.

This is going to be a hard post to write. Even after thinking about it last night and sleeping on it (the time when many of my posts write themselves, ready to pop out at 5:30 in the morning with little help from me), there is a jumble of thoughts in my mind that need to come out in some logical order. That may not be the case this morning, but I beg your indulgence as I try to make some sense of them. I want to make you think about some important things today, as well as sort out some of my own thoughts. 

I got home yesterday evening and sat down for supper. I reached for my iPhone and fired up the NPR app, ready to  listen to some of the stories of the day. One hit me especially hard. I am a middle-aged white man living in the southern United States, and I grew up in the sixties and seventies. I know about racial tension and inequality and the struggles that have gone hand-in-hand with them for the decades since Reconstruction in my home state of Georgia and my now adopted home state of South Carolina. To hear this story about racial tensions as pertaining to the extension of bids for sorority pledges at the University of Alabama, for some reason, just made me want to scream. I don’t really know, yet, why it affected me so much last night. It just did. I got really angry. I think I scared one of my Facebook friends. (I’m sorry about that.) 

From NPR:

“The campus newspaper, The Crimson White, reported allegations this month that two prospective black members were passed over by all-white sororities because of pressure from alumnae, and in one case, an adviser. The coverage caused a wide-ranging debate, even prompting Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, an alumnus, to say that fraternal organizations should choose members based on their qualifications, not their race.

The debate came at an embarrassing time for Bonner’s university, which is marking the 50th anniversary of its racial integration. Alabama admitted its first black students in 1963 after then-Gov. George C. Wallace infamously stood in a schoolhouse door to protest their enrollment. Wallace relented under pressure from President John F. Kennedy’s administration.” 

I immediately flashed to that iconic image of Governor George Wallace standing in the doorway denying black students admission to his state’s school, defiant until President John F. Kennedy’s administration finally made him see his way clear to step aside and allow events to unfold as they finally did, and for the better. I thought about the judge talking to us prospective jurors in the courthouse in my hometown two years ago, two years ago, about the colored only and white only signs on water fountains and bathroom doors that were still there, even though not enforced, after all those years. 

I thought about the injustice of these things. It bothered me. A lot.

Later in the evening, a Twitter friend who reads this blog commented on my not-so-subtle hint that I would soon be returning to a combination clinical and administrative mental health job in the public sector in South Carolina. Her responses to me, in her usual straightforward, no-nonsense way?

“Glad to read that you’re getting back into the fray. You should be out there fighting for the things you’ve been writing about.”

These two things, separate but related, got me thinking a lot last night about our individual and collective responsibility to make the world a better place. To right wrongs. To push for changes that need to be made because they are right. To stand up for those who cannot fend for themselves. To get out of our comfort zones and stick our necks out and push for social and institutional and political change when it is called for. To not be complacent as we go forward in life. To not succumb to the feeling that this is the best it’s ever going to be. 

When I gave up my medical director job four years ago, I was tired. I realized how burned out I was. I was tired of dealing with issues that were out of my control. I was tired of trying to motivate people who just wanted to whine and complain. I as tired of trying to mold systems into positive forces for good, when the architects of the systems and the people who held the purse strings that funded them just wanted to keep things quietly the same, knowing how poorly the target populations were being served. I just wanted to fill my days with clinical work, seeing my patients and making a difference in the world one visit at a time, helping those that I could and hoping that by the grace of God that all the others would find their peace and redemption some other way, through some other channel. Their salvation would not be my direct responsibility. I could not take on the weight of the world. I was no Mother Teresa. 

I have quietly worked in this mode for almost four years now, seeing patient after patient, hearing story after story, writing prescriptions and admonishing and advising and reassuring and listening. It has all been good. One thing has really hit me in the last few months though.

Just because I sit in my office and see patients and pretend that the big picture problems, the systems issues and the moral dilemmas are no longer real does not make it so

I will be fifty-six years old next month. I am highly skilled, highly educated and in the prime of my career. I am not alone. There are many of us. There are big problems in this country and in this world today. They need to be addressed. 

If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Some twenty-something kid just out of training who is idealistic as hell but has not a clue how the world works? Some seventy-five year old who has all the wisdom and experience in the world but little energy left to be a player on the field?

No.

The people just like me who are old enough to have experience but still young enough to be energetic and resourceful and willing to shake things up must, I mean MUST, get out of their chairs and start the process of change for the better. This is imperative. 

If we don’t tell the world, again and again and again, that it is wrong to discriminate based on the color of one’s skin, Martin Luther King, Jr., will have died in vain.

If we don’t tell the world, again and again and again,  that it is wrong to marginalize someone just because they have mental illness, then more Navy Yard shootings will occur. 

If we don’t tell colleges and universities, again and again and again, that it is wrong to look the other way for decades while children are being abused, then more Penn State coverups will happen.

Count on it.

What is wrong with us?

Why can’t we see that we must be stand up and be responsible for the world around us and do something to make it better for those who will come after us? Why can’t we see that there can be, and should be, more than just one Greatest Generation? 

If not us, who?

If not now, when?

 

You Matter

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I had one of those life experiences yesterday that is not pleasant but is not altogether unpleasant at the same time. I went back to my hometown and said goodbye to a woman who used to keep me in her home when I was just a little kid.

Ms. G. A. Hayes, otherwise known as Ethel, died on Monday at age 106. She would have been 107 if she had lived to see November. I learned one thing about Ms. Hayes yesterday that I don’t think I ever knew before. She had a twin who died at around one or two years of age all those years ago. Imagine that. One twin dying so very young in the very early twentieth century, and one living well into the next century.

We told stories yesterday, tales about Ms. Hayes as well as stories about ourselves and how she had fit into our lives. We all remembered the things that stood out with her. Her love of children, her rock solid faith and church life and her commitment to helping others. Oh, yes and that one defining characteristic that everyone was reminded of as soon as they set foot in her little mill village house on First Street in Shannon, Georgia. One glance to the right at the television told you that she was the biggest Atlanta Braves baseball fan who ever lived. Dale Murphy was her man. She also doted on Tom Glavine. She never cared much for Greg Maddux. If some of the baseball players had names she could not pronounce, she made up her own.

One minister, then another, then two young men whose family she had been intimately involved with for years all told of her courage, her resilience, and her compassion for others. They laughed about her stock phrases, remembered her proffered pieces of cake, recalled the radio sitting on her lap playing at full volume, and marveled at how she kept taking care of herself and living alone for many years after other mere mortals would have been packed off to the nursing home and called it a life.

It is not lost on me that Ms. Hayes started caring for me and had her first influence on my life when she was the age I am right now. She had already lived many decades, but she was constantly reinventing herself.

I often write about changes in mood, suicidal ideation and giving up, hopelessness, drug and alcohol use and misery in these blog posts. Just like other media and other writers, it is easy sometimes to write about the sensational, the awful, the shocking and the negative. It gets attention. It hits hard and shocks people, if for just a moment.

It is much harder to write about the quiet, day-to-day heroism and influence of someone like Ms. Ethel Hayes. Someone who taught generations of young girls in the GA program in the Baptist church. Someone who would sometimes have up to eight or nine kids at a time in her little house, paying attention to them, feeding them and loving them through their young lives, shaping them to be the adults of today. It is also easy to forget the influence these kinds of people have on each one of us as we grow and mature. We may not know, consciously, how much we glean from them, but it is a tremendous amount. It has staying power. It is woven into the fabric of our young lives, and it is the bedrock of who we are.

You may get up today and wonder how you’re going to impact the world. You may wonder if anyone will hear anything you say or think any of your opinions matter. You may sometimes wonder if you ever make an impression on anybody else at all.

You matter.

Just like my friend Ethel Hayes mattered to so many of us.

Don’t wait until one hundred and six years have gone by to find out whether or not you touched someone else’s life.

Go out every day and make sure that you do.