Post 72: Can We Become a Nation of Weavers?

In mid 2018, David Brooks started a project at the Aspen Institute entitled Weave; The Social Fabric Project and wrote about it nine months later on February 18, 2019 in his New York Times column, A Nation of Weavers. Brooks describes the project’s purpose as countering “our lack of healthy connection to each other, our inability to see the full dignity of each other, and the resulting culture of fear, distrust, tribalism and strife.”

Brooks sees Weave as “a movement that doesn’t know it’s a movement” because many individuals across the country are already contributing positively to the “social fabric.” A great part of the work of the Weave project is simply to document this.

Below I excerpt Brooks’ description of several “weavers” and the questions he asks about how we can replicate their success on a national level, questions we will agree have a special timeliness today.

…On Dec. 7, 1941, countless Americans saw that their nation was in peril and walked into recruiting stations. We don’t have anything as dramatic as Pearl Harbor, but when 47,000 Americans kill themselves every year and 72,000 more die from drug addiction, isn’t that a silent Pearl Harbor? When the basic norms of decency, civility and truthfulness are under threat, isn’t that a silent Pearl Harbor? Aren’t we all called at moments like these to do something extra?

My something extra was starting something nine months ago at the Aspen Institute called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. The first core idea was that social isolation is the problem underlying a lot of our other problems. The second idea was that this problem is being solved by people around the country, at the local level, who are building community and weaving the social fabric. How can we learn from their example and nationalize their effect?

We traveled around the country and found them everywhere. We’d plop into big cities like Houston and small towns like Wilkesboro, N.C., and we’d find 25 to 100 community “Weavers” almost immediately. This is a movement that doesn’t know it’s a movement.

Some of them work at organizations: a vet who helps other mentally ill vets in New Orleans; a guy who runs a boxing gym in Appalachian Ohio where he nominally teaches young men boxing, but really teaches them life; a woman who was in the process of leaving the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago when she saw two little girls playing with broken bottles in the empty lot across the street. She turned to her husband and said: We’re not moving away from that. We’re not going to be just another family that abandoned this place.

Many others do their weaving in the course of everyday life — because that’s what neighbors do. One lady in Florida said she doesn’t have time to volunteer, but that’s because she spends 40 hours a week looking out for local kids and visiting sick folks in the hospital. We go into neighborhoods and ask, “Who is trusted here?” In one neighborhood it was the guy who collects the fees at the parking garage.

We’re living with the excesses of 60 years of hyperindividualism. There’s a lot of emphasis in our culture on personal freedom, self-interest, self-expression, the idea that life is an individual journey toward personal fulfillment. You do you. But Weavers share an ethos that puts relationship over self. We are born into relationships, and the measure of our life is in the quality of our relationships. We precedes me.

But the trait that leaps out above all others is “radical mutuality”: We are all completely equal, regardless of where society ranks us. “I am broken; I need others to survive,” an afterschool program leader in Houston told us. “We don’t do things for people. We don’t do things to people. We do things with people,” said a woman who builds community for teenagers in New Orleans.

Being around these people has been one of the most uplifting experiences of my life. Obviously, it’s made me want to be more neighborly, to be more active and intentional in how I extend care.

Their example has shown me that we don’t just have a sociological problem; we have a moral problem. We all create a shared moral ecology through the daily decisions of our lives. When we stereotype, abuse, impugn motives and lie about each other, we’ve ripped the social fabric and encouraged more ugliness. When we love across boundaries, listen patiently, see deeply and make someone feel known, we’ve woven it and reinforced generosity. As Charles Péguy said, “The revolution is moral or not at all.”

So the big question is: How do we take the success the Weavers are having on the local level and make it national? The Weavers are building relationships one by one, which takes time. Relationships do not scale.

But norms scale. If you can change the culture, you can change behavior on a large scale. If you can change the lens through which people see the world, as these Weavers have changed mine, then you can change the way people want to be in the world and act in the world. So that’s our job. To shift the culture so that it emphasizes individualism less and relationalism more.

I guess my ask is that you declare your own personal declaration of interdependence and decide to become a Weaver instead of a ripper. This is partly about communication. Every time you assault and stereotype a person, you’ve ripped the social fabric. Every time you see that person deeply and make him or her feel known, you’ve woven it.

 

Post 71: Catherine Hamlin, Shaped by Sixty Years of Care

Last week I reflected on how health workers shape who they are by the care they give.  This week I want to pay tribute to a woman who exemplified that simple truth during her six decades of service to women suffering from childbirth injuries in Africa – Dr. Catherine Hamlin. Her story has a special meaning for me because a foundation on whose board I served helped her and her husband create the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia.

Many of my friends know that I served as a Director of the Public Welfare Foundation for 40 years- 10 as Chair. This came about because Glenn Ihrig, a good friend of mine, did me the great kindness by bringing my name and international experience to the attention of Claudia Marsh, the Foundation’s President and Veronica “Trippy” Keating, its Executive Director. Claudia was the widow of Charles Marsh, the Foundation’s founder and Trippy was his former personal Secretary. Glenn served as their Administrative Assistant at the time. Thanks to Glenn’s recommendation, I was elected to the Board in 1973.

Claudia and Trippy had been carrying on the Foundation’s work for decades and had established a reputation for being forward thinking, risk-taking and compassionate philanthropists. For example, they made grants for sex education in schools and family planing in the 1960’s and were early supporters of the Children’s Television Workshop (Sesame Street). They were internationally minded as well, providing grants to the  humanitarian efforts of Indira Ghandi and Mother Teresa in India. Through their international network, they heard of the work of Dr. Catherine Hamlin and, from 1974 to 1980 the Foundation provided significant financial support to her and her husband as they created the hospital.

Dr. Hamlin died in Ethiopia earlier this year at the age of 96. The New York Times East Africa correspondent, Abdi Latif Dahir, tells her remarkable story in the obituary he wrote on March 20, 2020; Catherine Hamlin, 96, Dies; Pioneering Doctor Treated Childbirth Injury

Dr. Catherine Hamlin, an Australian obstetrician and gynecologist who devoted her life to treating Ethiopian women with a devastating childbearing injury and helped develop pioneering techniques to treat it, died on Wednesday at her home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. She was 96.

Her death was announced by the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation in Sydney, Australia, an independent charity she co-founded.

Dr. Hamlin, responding to an advertisement, arrived in Ethiopia with her husband, Reginald Hamlin, also a physician, in 1959 to work as a gynecologist at a hospital in Addis Ababa. But what started as a planned three-year stint turned into a six-decade-long mission in which the two doctors worked closely with women who had a childbearing injury known as obstetric fistula.

The condition is caused when prolonged labor opens a hole in the birth canal, leaving many women incontinent. For Ethiopian women, the injury often led to their being rejected by their husbands and ostracized by their communities.

When Dr. Hamlin and her husband arrived in Ethiopia, there was little to no treatment available for such patients anywhere in the country. Poring through medical books, journals and drawings of operations by other experts, the two developed innovative surgical techniques that are still used in hospitals today.

“We started with small fistulas, which any gynecologist can fix without much training, and gradually tackled more difficult ones,” Dr. Hamlin said in an interview in 2013.

In 2018, the World Health Organization estimated that more than two million young women lived with untreated obstetric fistula in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

After performing surgery to repair injuries for many years in Ethiopian hospitals, Dr. Hamlin and her husband built the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974 amid a Communist revolution there. They also established a network of clinics and hospitals throughout the country that has provided reconstructive surgery to more than 60,000 Ethiopian women, according to her foundation.

In 2014, Dr. Hamlin told The New York Times, “We’re trying to prevent these injuries and wake up the world.”

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization and a former health minister of Ethiopia, said on Twitter about her death: “You were the best of humanity & very special. We all must continue carrying your mission forward.”

Elinor Catherine Nicholson was born on Jan. 24, 1924, in Sydney. One of six children, she graduated from the University of Sydney School of Medicine in 1946. She met Reginald Hamlin while working as a resident in the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Sydney.

Twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Catherine Hamlin won the Right Livelihood Award in 2009, an international honor given annually to those providing solutions to the most urgent problems facing humanity. In 2012, the government in Ethiopia awarded her honorary citizenship.

At her 90th birthday party in Addis Ababa, her son, Richard, referring to her patients, said: “Catherine has one son and 35,000 daughters.”

In addition to her son, Dr. Hamlin is survived by her sister, Ailsa Pottie; her brothers, Donald and Jock Nicholson; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1993.

Last year, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia dedicated a statue of her and her husband at the hospital they founded in Addis Ababa.

On Thursday, Mr. Abiy said, “Ethiopia lost a true gem who dedicated more than sixty years to restoring the dignity of thousands of women.”

At her birthday party, Dr. Hamlin spoke about the need to improve the world’s maternal care. “We have to eradicate Ethiopia of this awful thing that’s happening to women: suffering, untold suffering, in the countryside,” she said. “I leave this with you to do in the future, to carry on.”

Post 70: “How We Care Shapes Who We Are”

There are two things that have me thinking about boarded up buildings and doorways these days.  One is the extensive damage done to dozens of stores on M St. and Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown during the unfortunate early stages of the protests against police brutality. The second is the number of businesses that have faltered and closed their doors due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Earlier this week, a brief segment at the close of the CBS nightly newscast gave me hope. It highlighted a group of healthcare workers and artists in San Francisco who saw “boarded up doorways as potential canvases.” The outcome was a painted mural telling an emotional story of health workers and their patients: “how we care shapes who we are.”

Some further research provided more information on the Bay area’s amazing effort “Paint the Void,” to turn boarded up buildings into “art walks’ as well as on the mural with the uplifting message from doctors and artists who are pictured below.

This article originally appeared on Real Simple by Hana Hong.

With COVID-19 wreaking havoc in every reach of the world, everyone has felt the impact. Just one stroll down the street, even in the once-busiest of hubs, can feel like walking through a ghost town. The sidewalks are barren, businesses are boarded up, and streets are almost entirely void of drivers.

In the midst of the madness, arts organizations Building 180 and Art for Civil Discourse are teaming up to spread a bit of color—literally—to their community. Their organization, appropriately named “Paint the Void” is reaching out to businesses and artists in the Bay area to turn all the boarded-up businesses into beautiful artwork. Their goal is to prevent the towns from turning into a post-apocalyptic cityscape through messages of positivity, love, and encouragement.

“We see all those boarded up doorways as potential canvases,” says Building 180’s co-founder Shannon Riley. The wooden barriers that were erected to signify the close of a business can be a harrowing sight, so these artists are determined to turn all of the commercial boulevards into art walks while the world waits the virus out.

“We thought that beautifying the streets with murals would be a good place for people who are still working the frontlines and getting out there every day,” said Meredith Winner, organizer of Paint the Void. “We wanted to bring hope into the community and inspire people.”

The members involved include restaurants, bars, and small businesses in the San Francisco and Oakland area who were forced to close due to coronavirus. Paint the Void connects those eligible businesses with visual artists to decorate the boarded storefronts. Most artwork is painted in advance of installation or printed to be wheat pasted in order to comply with stay-at-home orders. A handful of artists will be creating the art at off-hours with personal protective gear.

In addition to spreading positivity through artwork, the organization is also fundraising to cover the cost of supplies and providing a stipend for artists who have been affected by COVID-19. As one can expect, artists are experiencing hardship from canceled gigs, art shows, and festivals. Paint the Void hopes to alleviate financial stress to artists who are struggling to pay rent for their art studios and not having a space to create.

As for what happens to the murals after the shelter-in-place order is lifted, the plan is to continue to pay it forward. Once businesses reopen, many artists plan to auction their murals and donate to those badly affected by the pandemic.

Here is more on the message from the healthcare workers:

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Work started Monday on a new mural in San Francisco that pays tribute to hospital workers during the COVID-19 crisis with a unifying message.

As the Bay Area enters the fourth month of the COVID-19 lockdown, doctors and artists in San Francisco began work on a mural that shows how interconnected we are in the fight to overcome the coronavirus.

Artist Jennifer Bloomer came up with the story told by the mural being painted outside Zuni Café on Market Street. It begins with a doctor treating a critically ill patient.

“The patient survives and is able to leave the hospital,” explained Bloomer. “Because of this, she can bring flowers to a grieving friend. Because of that, he’s able to show up to work at a grocery store. He’s able to bring groceries to an elderly woman who can’t go out right now. Because of this, she’s able to cook dinner and care for her granddaughter, who comes home from a long day of work at the ER. It turns out she’s the same doctor who cares for the patient at the beginning.”

The mural is a collaboration between a group of ER doctors, the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation and a nonprofit known as Paint the Void, which has raised tens of thousands of dollars to commission dozens of murals all over San Francisco.

“It’s kind of a double whammy because we can uplift our community and help our artists find employment during COVID,” said Veronica Pheils with Paint the Void.

SF General ER Dr. Jessica Chow helped organize the effort.

“The thing we wanted to show with this mural is how much we are connected with each other,” said Dr. Chow. “Because someone that you touch — a friend, a family member — also touches other people. So we just want to make sure that we can stay as cognizant and respectful of everyone’s health as much as we can have control over that.”

“They’re doing their part in taking care of patients in the hospital and we’re all doing our part in our individual lives. All we can do is what we can do,” said Bloomer.

As the mural says, how we care shapes who we are.

Paint the void 2

Paint the Void

Courtesy of Paint the Void via Instagram.

Post 69: Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days

In 1979, I copied two very beautiful quotes from a review of the award-winning book by Barbara Myerhoff entitled, Number Our Days. She wrote her observations from a study of elderly Jews who met regularly at a social center in Venice, California. I failed to record from which publication or review I obtained the quotes, but I’ll share a Kirkus Review  in order to give greater context. But first a few words about this early Jewish feminist who taught at the University of California from 1968 until her untimely death in 1985.

Barbara Myerhoff was an anthropologist who believed that “those who are like us – even part of us – are as worthy of study as those cultures thought of as ‘exotic.'” She was capable of both. Her study of the Huichol Indians of Mexico was nominated for a National Book Award in 1976. The above belief led to her research on the community of elderly Jews.  Number Our Days was listed by The New York Times as one of the ten best social science books of the year. Prior to publication, Myerhoff co-produced a documentary also named Number Our Days which received the 1977 Oscar for the best short documentary film along with two Emmys.

From the Kirkus review:

He that would avoid old age must hang himself in youth,”” the Yiddish proverb goes, but for the vital, feisty corps at the Aliyah Senior Citizens’ Center in Venice, California, old age is a time of continued learning and adaptation. “”So what do you want from us?”” “”Are you Jewish?”” they asked USC anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, and at the outset her answers were tentative. Was it anthropology or a personal quest? After all, one day she too would be a little old Jewish lady. Myerhoff spent more than four years listening to bobbemyseh (grandmothers’ tales), interviewing more than 30 regulars (the others grew jealous), and observing the generally “”tumultuous”” Center social life, its “”definitional ceremonies,”” private rituals, and ongoing squabbles. These old Jews are, by and large, immigrants whose children have assimilated and left them; always socially committed, they pride themselves now on their continued independence and activism (many raise funds for Israel) but regret the paradox that America’s religious freedom has meant a loss of sacred traditions. The women, a majority, have fared better in old age–the anthropologist supplies the reasons why in an attractive, accessible manner that recalls Margaret Mead. Storytelling is a passion, arguing an art; forgetting a word becomes, according to Schmuel the tailor, “”a special torture designed for old Jews.”” And it is through their words that Myerhoff documents the world views of the people who call her “”Barbara dolly.”” Like no-nonsense Basha, who says of her first visit to a hairdresser: “”A dressed-up potato is still a potato.”” Or Jake who recalls Old World curses: “”May you inherit a hotel with one hundred rooms and be found dead in every one.”” Or Schmuel, gadfly and maverick, a worthy adversary to the last, who challenges her regularly: “”If I would be like him, who would be like me?””

From my journal more words from Schmuel:

His philosophy was a hybrid of Jewish tradition, socialism, the American work ethic, and common sense. Here Shmuel philosophizes about the meaning of his work:

“What’s so special about a coat? A coat is not an ordinary garment? It was our people who brought coats to the new world. Before the little Jewish tailors came to America, what poor person could have a coat?

The mind must be alive when you sew. If you are in a good shop or a bad. I have been in both and all those in between. The outside conditions do not apply. You must bring it up from the inside, always looking for a way to express yourself.

Do you know what that means to me? When I am in a shop, I am told to make a whole coat for a dollar. It must be done. You can’t tell the boss he’s crazy. You can’t quit. In my shop, the other men would say: ‘Nu, I can do it.’ They put down the little crew on the machine to make bigger stitches. But such a coat doesn’t last the winter. This coat goes to a poor woman, her only garment for warmth. You wouldn’t know this, but it gives out in the Bible that a pawnbroker can’t keep a poor man’s coat for deposit or for pawn overnight. No, it is not the way of a Jew to make his work like there was no human being to suffer when it’s done badly. A coat is not a piece of cloth only. The tailor is connected to the one who wears it, and he should not forget it.”

Also in my journal more about Bashe:

One scene hits home. Bashe dines each Friday on chicken-foot stew (the cheapest kind of food at the supermarket where she shops) cooked on an electric hot plate. But before eating, she spreads a white linen handkerchief over the oilcloth covering her table. “This my mother taught me to do,” she explains. No matter how poor, we would eat off clean linen and say the prayers before touching anything to the mouth. And so I do it still. Whenever I sit down, I eat with God, my mother, and all the Jews who are doing the same things, even if I can’t see them.”

Post 68: Voices from the Seventies

As I wrote in my first  blog, more than a year ago, I like to share with others worthwhile readings that I had preserved in my journals. This is an effort to “become what I might have been” namely a teacher or communicator of  good ideas. I have enjoyed doing that in the past 67 posts and especially appreciated the feedback I have received from many of you.

Recently I paged through a journal I kept from the late seventies where I recorded the ideas of persons whose observations are just as relevant today as they were then. After all, I like to think that there is no statute of limitations on wisdom. These journal entries will be the source of my blog this week and a few to come.

Forty years ago, to some extent, I was a different person.  I had just met Faith and had not yet experienced or benefited from the joys of a happy marriage and the adventure of raising two wonderful children. I was struggling to sustain a consulting business and practice. In these entries I may come across as overly serious. I hope not and promise there will be a few amusing stories to come.

I’ll begin with an entry from June 1977 based on Michael Kammen’s review of a book by Louis Auchincloss, The Winthrop Covenant. Both men, critic and author, were committed to the traditions of the past. Kammen was a professor of American Cultural History at Cornell. He served as President of the Organization of American Historians. His interest was in the importance of tradition in the American culture. He died in 2013.

Louis Auchincloss was the author of some 60 books, (I confess to reading only one of them, The Justin of Rector), essays and novels which “closely observed the past of New York and New England society.” He was a cousin by marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who later worked with Auchincloss as a book editor. In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded Auchincloss the National Medal of the Arts. He died in 2010 at the age of 92.

It was certainly understandable that Kammen’s review of The Winthrop Covenant, contains this passage:

“The genius of Auchincloss most especially in this collection of historical cameos, is that he seems to subscribe to a marvelous observation by Chesterton which W.H. Auden was very fond of quoting: ‘Tradition means giving votes to that obscurest of classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to surrender to the arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.’”

Also in a 1977 journal entry, I copied Michele Murray’s review of a small treatise entitled The Making of Men by Paul Weiss, a Sterling Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. Murray wrote that the book “called for the classic liberal arts curriculum … firmly based on the essential nature of man.” Like Kammen and Auchincloss, Weiss urged us to return to traditional values, this time those that form the basis of a proper education. Weiss died in 2002 at the age of 101.

From The Making of Men:

“It is not the task of school to prepare the student to lead a life that society endorses or rewards. It is not its function to enable him to be more efficient, more successful, or even better informed. Yet these are often explicitly, and even more often implicitly, taken to the proper aims of school. But then the true object of formal education is obscured. Too soon one forgets that the purpose of education is to enable the student to live the best, the richest possible life, then and later. The school provides instruments and opportunities for the living of a full human life.”

Murray observes:

“Weiss asks the questions of humanists since Plato: “What is the purpose of man’s life? How can he best attain to his unique humanity?  What is the role of education in man’s realization of himself?” Not surprisingly he arrives at the answers which spring from the great religious, scholarly, and artistic traditions of the West – and of other civilizations as well. His little book is a beautifully– written clear primer that reminds us once again of the splendor we have lost. Whether we can rediscover it is another question.”

Post 67: Viktor Frankl Provides Hope for Today

Viktor Frankl’s name was invoked three times this May by writers sharing thoughts for dealing with these challenging days. This motivated me to pull out and review a yellowed, heavily marked up copy of Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning, that I read many years ago.

Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who died in 1997. Personal Health columnist for The New York Times, Jane E. Brody, whom I quoted two weeks ago in my blog, wrote about Frankl’s recently translated book entitled, Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything. In her article, “How to Maintain Motivation During Dark Times,” Brody cited Frankl’s path to finding hope even in these dark times. She was referring to the pandemic but the lesson applies to recent social unrest as well.

Kristin Wong, a contributor to The New York Times – Smarter Living series, quoted Dr. Sarah Kate McGowan, professor at University of California medical school, in the April 29, 2020 article “Despite Uncertain Times, Choose Optimism.”

“I’ve been thinking frequently of the quote from Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning: ‘Those who have a “why” to live can bear with almost any how.’ … “We can choose to use this time to connect to ourselves and what’s important to us, our values, who we strive to be in the world.”

In last Sunday’s The Washington Post, Diane Cole, author of the memoir, After Great Pain; A New Life Emerges, provided a review of Frankl’s recently translated work,”In the midst of despair, he discovered a way to have hope.”

Cole begins by mourning the loss of a friend to the “corona virus” –  while her friend was not infected by the disease, the pandemic caused her despair and unable to look forward to all the things she had planned. She committed suicide after seeing her life “crumbling into ruin.” Cole then shared Frankl’s uplifting story:

It’s the challenge posed by any crisis:  How do we hang on to hope?  It is the question that Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), the Viennese psychiatrist and author best known for his exploration of trauma and resilience, Man’s Search for Meaning, devoted the bulk of his career to answering.

Now, with the publication for the first time in English of Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, originally written as a series of lectures in 1946, we have the opportunity to read what amounts to a brief, early draft of the concepts he presented in more accessible form and in greater detail in his later classic. But in whichever version you encounter them, Frankl’s ideas bear particular consideration right now.

Frankl stressed the importance of what he called the will to meaning. He believed that having a sense of meaning or purpose or a goal in life drives us forward from one day to the next, even when we confront personal suffering, family tragedy or public calamity. That is the inner compass that gives us direction; when we lose it, we begin to drift and can become lost in, and to, despair.

Frankl had begun to develop his ideas about the pivotal role meaning plays in our lives before the Nazi regime deported him and his family to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942. As Jews, the Frankls were in Hitler’s crosshairs for annihilation.

But despite four years of being shuttled from one camp to another, suffering the ravages of typhus and starvation and the nonstop threat of being shot, beaten or gassed to death, Frankl endured. He held onto the hope that he would see his family after the war. He also set his sights on completing the unfinished manuscript describing his theories that the Nazis had seized and destroyed when they imprisoned him.

Those goals kept him focused on the possibility of a postwar future. He even jotted down brief notes on scraps of paper, which he hid in his threadbare uniform, about how his experience of life in extremis bore out his ideas. He observed that fellow inmates who were able to maintain an inner purpose were less likely to give up and give in to the futility of camp existence.

It did not matter what the goal was — whether to reunite with loved ones, to bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, to stay true to religious faith or to spite the enemy simply by staying alive. Just having a reason to live bolstered the will to live, to try to persevere, evade death, survive, even if just for another day and then the next, with each day holding the possibility of bringing the goal that much closer.

After the war, Frankl was devastated to learn that neither his parents nor his wife had made it out of the camps alive. But he did have his work, and he buried himself in it, reconstructing and in time completing the manuscript the Nazis had seized, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” as well as composing, less than a year after being freed from his hellish incarceration, the three public lectures that make up “Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything.”

….

How could survivors return to life if they did not believe that their lives held value? In the approach to psychotherapy he developed, which he called Logotherapy, Frankl proposed an antidote to giving in to such nihilism: taking hold, instead, of life’s meaning — and more precisely, the particular aim we set for ourselves. If we search, such a purpose can be found embedded in our values, beliefs, experiences, and capabilities, and in and through the different personal and professional interests, communities, and caring relationships we’ve created.

The fate Frankl confronted was the Holocaust. Our fate today is wrapped up in the coronavirus pandemic. Finding and sustaining meaning in the midst of crisis is not easy. I wish my friend had known about this strategy and had sought help that could have harnessed her back to life.

Post 66: Still Learning from the IHM Nuns

From my years in kindergarten through eighth grade, I was taught by nuns who belonged to the Congregation of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary or “the IHM Sisters” in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I was prompted to write about them today because, over the Memorial Day weekend, I received and read a copy of their semi -annual publication entitled Journey. The publication noted that the year 2020 marked the 175th anniversary of their founding by Theresa Mavis and Father Louis Gillet. Mother Theresa, as she was known, was the daughter of a multi-racial, unmarried couple- quite a stigma in those days. Founding a new religious order was a remarkable accomplishment for her, indeed.

The present IHM community is some 400 plus Sisters strong.  They serve as educators, health care workers, retreat masters and pastoral ministers throughout the United States and Latin America. I am most familiar with their work in Scranton, where they have operated Marywood University since 1915 (my dad served on the board of directors for several years). The Sisters have maintained a center that houses and treats 140 persons with “multiple and profound” health challenges and have conducted a continuous outreach to the poorest families in the surrounding area, the “Friends of the Poor.”

I developed a special friendship with one in particular at IHM, Sister Michel Keenan, when I was a student at Notre Dame.  In those days, the only women who studied at Notre Dame were members of religious orders enrolled in graduate programs. Sister Michel earned a Ph.D. in Education while I was an undergraduate. She went on to a most distinguished career and became Graduate Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Marywood and served as Superior General of the IHM sisters for eight.

Two years ago, I had a wonderful visit with Sister Michel at the IHM Center on Marywood’s campus. She did not talk about her academic or state-wide honors. Rather she wanted to tell me about her sixteen years of service at the Heritage College (now University) in Toppenish, Washington, a school with a “multi-cultural and inclusive” student body, 95% of whom are on scholarship.

In March of last year, Sister celebrated her 95th birthday. I sent her flowers. Six weeks later, I had the sad duty of traveling to Scranton for her funeral.

While the IHM congregation remains a dynamic and active religious community, many of the Sisters are elderly. Sister Ellen Maroney, President of the Congregation, often has the duty of paying tribute to one of the Sisters who has passed on, tributes which are reprinted in the publication I read over the weekend. Sister Ellen has a remarkable ability to find a poem or reflection that portrays the life and personality of the deceased. I wanted to share a few of them as illustrations of what was said of these good souls as well as what we may want said of ourselves – not years later but by the persons in our lives right now.

Describing Sister Francis Borgia O’Donnell, who shared her love of music with students and friends, Sister Ellen quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“Music…will help dissolve your perplexities

and purify your character and sensibilities,

and in time of care and sorrow,

will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.”

She described Sister Jane Frances Dunnigan as always being available to her friends and students, with this poem from an unknown author:

Take the time to love and to be loved;

it is a grace from God.

Take the time to make friends;

it is the voice of happiness.

Take the time to laugh;

it is the music of the soul…

Take the time to give;

life is too short to be selfish.

Sister Theresa Bonanza was one of twelve children, and elementary school teacher and a minister to the elderly. For her, Sister Ellen shared these words by Don Pedro Casaldaliga:

At the end of the road, they will ask me:

“Have you lived? Have you loved?”

And not saying a single work,

I will open my heart full of names.

The tribute to Sister Dorothy Ann Haney, a philosopher and “connecter” contained two poems:

            You were home to us and within the shelter of your good company,

we safely laid our burdens down.

You were healing for us as you listened to what we had to say and,

in so doing, we were made more whole.

You allowed us to be our true selves and because of you,

            we are more of whom we want to be.

You encouraged us not merely by your words,

            but by the example of your own strivings, questionings, and yearnings.

You challenged us, our beliefs, and values with your persistence,

and helped us learn that our differences broadened our perspectives,

spurred our growth, and, yes, at times, honed our patience.

You were our advocate, our compass,

our cheerleader, our light.

You were a priceless gift for us, one we did not earn,

but one we received with wonder, joy, and gratitude.

You were our friend.

~ Melanie Svoboda SND

And…

I will not die an unlived life

I will not live in fear of falling

or of catching fire

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

making me less afraid,

more accessible;

to loosen my heart

so that it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance,

to live so that which comes to me as seed

goes to the next as blossom

and that which comes to me as blossom

goes on as fruit.

~ Dawna Markova

Post 65: “Optinoia” may be beneficial after all!

Over the years I have had fun describing myself as having a serious psychological condition called “optinoia,” a phrase I coined for it. Simply put, optinoia causes me to suspect that there are many people conspiring to help me succeed when really no one is! I guess another phrase for this condition might be unjustified or excessive optimism. Anyway, it has not really done me much harm and brought me a lot of good.

It turns out that optimism may even bring out important health, as well as business and professional, benefits.  Jane E. Brody,  an optimist and the Personal Health columnist for The New York Times since 1976 (that tells you something right there), explained this in her column on January 27,2020 entitled “Looking on the Bright Side May Be Good for Your Health.” She explains below:

My husband and I were psychological opposites. I’ve always seen the glass as half-full; to him it was half-empty. That difference, research findings suggest, is likely why I pursue good health habits with a vengeance while he was far less inclined to follow the health-promoting lifestyle I advocated.

I’m no cockeyed optimist, but I’ve long believed that how I eat and exercise, as well as how I view the world, can benefit my mental and physical well-being.

Admittedly, the relationship between optimism and better health and a longer life is still only a correlation that doesn’t prove cause and effect. But there is also now biological evidence to suggest that optimism can have a direct impact on health, which should encourage both the medical profession and individuals to do more to foster optimism as a potential health benefit.

According to Dr. Alan Rozanski, one of the field’s primary researchers, “It’s never too early and it’s never too late to foster optimism. From teenagers to people in their 90s, all have better outcomes if they’re optimistic.”

Dr. Rozanski is a cardiologist at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York who became interested in optimism while working in a cardiac rehabilitation program early in his career.

In an interview, he explained, “Many heart-attack patients who had long been sedentary would come into the gym and say ‘I can’t do that!’ But I would put them on the treadmill, start off slowly and gradually build them up. Their attitude improved, they became more confident. One woman in her 70s said her heart attack may have been the best thing that had happened to her because it transformed what she thought she could do.”

In a major analysis of 15 studies involving 229,391 participants published in September in JAMA Network Open. Dr. Rozanski and colleagues found that people who ranked high in optimism were much less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event and had a lower mortality rate from any cause than did pessimistic participants in the studies.

“The data are very consistent,” he said. “In every case, there was a strong relationship between optimism and a lower risk of disease. Optimists tend to take better care of their health. They’re more likely to exercise and eat better and are less likely to smoke.”


Another researcher, Julia K. Boehm, a psychologist at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., said: “Optimism promotes problem-solving. It helps people deal with challenges and obstacles in more effective ways. Optimists tend to pursue strategies that make a rosy future a reality. Their hearts are not constantly pounding.”

Dr. Boehm and colleagues examined the association of optimism with three health behaviors — physical activity, diet and cigarette smoking — and found that more optimistic individuals were more likely to engage in healthier behaviors. Their findings were published in 2018 in Circulation Research.

Lewina O. Lee, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, and colleagues analyzed several decades of data from women in the Nurses’ Health Study and men in the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study.

They found that, on average, those with higher levels of optimism, as measured by an assessment tool called the Life Orientation Test, lived longer. Among the most optimistic study participants, the women had a 50 percent greater chance and the men a 70 percent greater chance of surviving to age 85.

In an interview, Dr. Lee said that optimists are better able than pessimists to reframe challenging circumstances and react to them in less stressful ways. They’re also more likely to embrace a can-do attitude toward life and persist in trying to overcome obstacles rather than think there’s nothing they can do about a bad situation, she said.

I also asked these experts whether there’s a downside to optimism. The answer: not if it’s realistic and fosters views and outcomes that are within the realm of possibility.

On the whole, though, optimists tend to be happier people who are better able to bounce back from a serious loss and perhaps even parlay it into a vocational, emotional or financial gain.

Post 64: A Voice For Millennials

Millennials often receive a negative reputation. Some claim millennials exhibit a sense of entitlement and narcissism. I disagree. One person who speaks for this generation’s idealism and concern for others is Rebecca Collins Jordan, a 27 year old teacher in New York City who has contributed to National Catholic Reporter’s Young Voices series. She is a graduate of the University of Montana and the Union Theological Seminary. In two columns she described how she learned compassion as a 14 -year -old and looks for seeds of hope today.

Both columns appeared before the lock-down due to the pandemic. How much more admiration and hope should we have for this generation when contemplating how many of them are risking their lives as front line and health care workers today?

On November 7, 2019 Jordan wrote, “How Simon and Garfunkel settled my years of doubt.”

In December of 2007, the same month that I, a 14-year-old cradle Catholic, began to doubt the existence of God, I also snuck my dad’s complete Simon and Garfunkel collection into my room. Little did I know that their words — the words of two Jewish New Yorkers — would transform my spirituality and propel my life toward justice.

… in the fall of 2008, I began commuting to an all-girls Catholic high school in downtown Portland. Every day on my way between the train station and school, I walked through urban struggles I had never much considered or known before. People begged for money, pushed shopping carts, kept their kids warm under makeshift tents, and lined up outside soup kitchens. The scenes only grew with the recession.

While I struggled with a spiritual vocabulary for what I saw, Simon and Garfunkel did not. Bleecker Street became the anthem of my daily commute…

My sophomore year of high school, a religion teacher handed me a biography of Dorothy Day. As I paged through her life story late at night, the neighborhood of her ministry was already present to me, in the songs of two Jewish musicians. My initial spiritual crisis had concerned my own mortality; Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics nudged me to finally orient my prayer beyond myself, toward the world of suffering under concrete walls. Being a person of faith was about turning one’s suffering outward, finding it mirrored in the words of the prophets “on Subway walls” and “in tenement halls,” and, of course, in those mysterious, scary and doubt-inducing “sounds of silence,” the places that seemed devoid of meaning. The vocabulary came from Simon and Garfunkel; the model continued in Dorothy Day…

On February 13, 2020 she wrote”We all have paper stars of some sort

There’s a woman I talk to when I visit a Catholic Worker House every so often. Her hobby is to go up to people, hand them a folded paper star and say, “Here’s your star. Open your star to find your word.”

Mine was “harmony,” a word that resonates deeply lately in my first year in a new career as a teacher. It’s a year of stress and chaos, but also of a deep sense of vocation and anxiety about caring for the students around me.

The woman with the paper stars makes them constantly, handing them to people on the street, in line for soup, old friends, strangers. People open them to find words like “bliss,” “faith” and “compassion.”

I don’t have any answers for the political times we live in now, really. And as much as we all talk, I don’t know that anybody else does either. The rising tides of hatred and apathy and inequality seem insurmountable, and reinforced daily by political discourse that is locked in stubborn and spiteful camps of opinion. The news is a daily deluge of tragedies, massacres and absurdity. It’s hard to keep a sense of faith and hope in our ability to create and maintain a society of mercy.

So I’ve stopped looking for solutions. I look instead for moments of humanity and tenderness. How do we keep the people around us, in our communities, within and outside of these borders, human and happy? That’s my question.

You can’t think or talk your way to recognizing humanity and tenderness, as much as I’d like to. It requires going outside and looking around. It requires a posture of prayer to which I am not always accustomed. It requires turning on the radio, hearing the story, and having a moment of patience to ask not, “Who did this?” but, “Who will be harmed? Who will be helped? Who can help? How can I help?” It requires a fresh set of eyes. It requires a willingness to plant a seed of hope that might not grow, but to plant it anyway…

One of my neighbors rides around on a bike with a loudspeaker. Every time he passes me, I hear Clarence “Frogman” Henry croon, “I don’t know why I love you, but I do.” The line has become a short passing anthem to all the people in this city — I don’t know why I love you, but I do. These times are high-stakes, not because of ideas but because of the deep hope we all have that the humans around us can flourish.

Other neighbors sit on street corners, some in large groups that make people jovial, that end for a minute the loneliness of being outside in New York City. Others worry about deportation and house people who are at risk. Others worry about their own gigantic worries that are closer to home — cancer, depression, debt — tending to the worries of loved ones as their own with humor and deep care.

… I don’t have a thesis or a platform, except to say that I believe we all have paper stars of some sort, or seeds to sow if you like that metaphor better. Every day, I plan lessons for my students in the hope that some sense of wonder beyond test anxiety will stick for them. Those are seeds planted. And then I go out, searching again for the others, unknowingly and in anonymous and unique ways, planting reminders of tenderness in a brutal world.

Post 63: “All About Eve”- A Vicarious Trip to the Theater

One of the great benefits we all enjoy during this time of pandemic is the ability to stream an abundance of wonderful dramas, comedies, and documentaries that are available on any number of streaming platforms. It is in many ways a golden age of television. Sometimes, however, the range of options suggested by friends or recommended in the papers is confusing. Last weekend, Faith and I solved this problem by responding to a suggestion of The New York Times co-chief theater critic, Ben Brantley. On April 25, 2020 he wrote a beautiful piece about the 1950 Academy Award winning movie, “All About Eve”, and the world of the New York theater. Ironically, we had scheduled, then cancelled, a trip to New York to see some plays the very weekend that Brantley’s article appeared. Reading his review and watching the film provided an enjoyable alternative.

… For readers uninitiated in the joys of this addiction, “All About Eve” is the most pleasurable, most quotable film ever created about those who make their living on the stage. This 1950 anatomy of backstage backstabbing tells the story of an aging Broadway star, Margo Channing (Bette Davis, in full sail), whose romantic and professional lives are imperiled by her duplicitous young assistant, the title character (played by a vulpine Anne Baxter).

Written and directed with galloping wit and gallons of gloss by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, “All About Eve” racked up 14 Oscar nominations, winning in six categories, including best picture. Reviews were gleeful in pointing out that the film industry — long a target of satiric disdain in Broadway plays — was finally getting a bit of its own back.

“THESPIS ON THE ROPES; The Theatre Gets a Sock From ‘All About Eve,’” read the headline of Bosley Crowther’s Sunday column in The New York Times. Crowther, succumbing to the purpleness with which “Eve” tends to infect everyone who sees it, wrote with the excitement of a ringside boxing announcer: “Hollywood, butt of sarcasm from the stage for these many cruel years, has finally sent forth a Goliath that wrings David’s impudent neck after tossing his stinging stones back at him with swift and relentless force.”

But after the dust cleared, it was obvious that theater, the so-called Fabulous Invalid, had not only been left intact but was also standing taller than ever. And for many people, including the 10-year-old, stage-struck me — who first saw “Eve” on television with eyes as big and devouring as Bette Davis’s — the movie became a definitive Bible of this business we call show, as sublime as it is ridiculous.

At this point, I should explain what I do for a living — or did, before the theaters of New York were shuttered by a pandemic. I shall step aside here to let my vocation be described by one Addison DeWitt, a character portrayed with Oscar-winning acidity by George Sanders: “My native habitat is the Theater — in it, I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the Theater — as ants are to a picnic, as the boll weevil to a cotton field.”

Though I, too, am a Theater critic and commentator — and have been for 26 years at The New York Times — I have little in common with Mr. DeWitt other than my nominal profession and a fondness for dry martinis. I do not share his withering trans-Atlantic accent, his soigné wardrobe, his social coziness with the people he eviscerates in his column, nor his love for making and destroying reputations overnight.

Nor are the show folk I write about much like the egomaniacal, mythomaniacal, dipsomaniacal crew that Addison chronicles. Yet the musky, intoxicating fragrance that permeates “All About Eve” has everything to do with why I came to New York, and how I wound up in my job

….

…”shiny artifice is what gives “Eve” its energy. The world of Theater, as Mankiewicz envisions it, is a place where exaggerated style, sweeping gestures and impeccably sharpened zingers are a necessary defense system for people whom Addison characterizes as largely “emotional misfits and precocious children.” It is said of Davis’s Margo that she “compensates for underplaying onstage by overplaying reality.”

This makes the characters incredibly entertaining to watch when they feel threatened. Even as a young teenager, I didn’t mistake “Eve” for a work of realism. But the New York culture it represented, in which everyone is a self-invention and ambition is oxygen, was the place I dreamed of escaping to someday. “We are a breed apart from the rest of humanity, we Theater folk,” says Addison, and for me you could also substitute “New Yorkers” for “Theater folk.” “We are the original displaced personalities.”

Such pronouncements exude the blessed reassurance of belonging to an exclusive sect. And perhaps what I love most about “Eve” is its portrayal of the theater as a religion, a celebration of the divine mystery of what happens when a performance onstage catches fire.

That is, after all, why Eve insinuates herself into Margo’s life and studies her like “a set of blueprints.” The theater-struck, self-effacing waif she presents herself to be may be an act, but the theater-struck part is real. She’s not faking it when, taken backstage to meet Margo for the first time, she pauses to gaze out at the empty theater. “You can breathe it, can’t you?” she says raptly, “like some magic perfume.”

I think most of us who came to New York to “make it” in the second half of the 20th century shared some of the wonder and appetite of Eve. Most of us also discovered pretty quickly that we lacked the ruthlessness (never mind the talent) that propelled her to stardom. And the Manhattan of Mankiewicz’s movie, if it ever existed, had long ago vanished, like a shimmery Brigadoon.