Post 40: What One Man Can Do to Alleviate World Hunger

Yesterday most of us joined our families and enjoyed the traditional Thanksgiving feast.  This makes is a relevant time to remember that some 800 million persons – or 10% of the world’s population are victims of hunger and “are undernourished on a daily basis.”  I bring this to our attention not to instill guilt or to take away from the pleasures of the table yesterday.  Our country has done much to confront the problem of world hunger through support for international development programs, especially the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the  U.S. Food for Peace program launched by President Kennedy in the early sixties and even by tens of thousands of Peace Corps volunteers who have started micro projects in local communities that produce food and income.

Poverty is the principal cause of world hunger. So what does seem appropriate as we consider Thanksgiving is to celebrate those individuals who have devoted their lives to alleviating it. One such individual, Dr. Paul Polak, died last month after close to forty years of extremely creative and practical service to the world’s poor.  His obituary, written by Donald G. McNeil Jr. in The New York Times (October 20, 2019), tells the story.

Dr. Paul Polak, a former psychiatrist who became an entrepreneur and an inventor with a focus on helping the world’s poorest people create profitable small businesses, died on Oct. 10 in Denver. He was 86.

Dr. Polak (pronounced POLE-ack) … advocated training people to earn livings by selling their neighbors basic necessities like clean water, charcoal, a ride in a donkey cart or enough electricity to charge a cellphone.

Although the nonprofit companies he created did accept donations, their purpose was to help poor people make money. His target market was the 700 million people around the world surviving on less than $2 a day, and he traveled all over the world seeking them out.

Before embarking on any project, said Dr. Polak would interview dozens of villagers.

“I’ve interviewed over 3,000 families,” he said in 2011. “I spend about six hours a day with each one — walking with them through their fields, asking them what they had for breakfast, how far their kids walk to school, what they feed their dog, what all their sources of income are. This is not rocket science. Any businessman knows this: You’ve got to talk to your customers.”

His most successful project was in foot-powered treadle pumps to pull water out of the ground. Beginning in 1982, he sold millions for about $25 each in Bangladesh and India, he said. The company he created for the project, iDE for International Development Enterprises, now operates in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The cost included the mechanism, which could be built in a local welding shop, and drilling the well. Dr. Polak’s organization trained thousands of welders and drillers. The customers — small farmers — supplied the foot power and long bamboo handles for the pumps, the device resembling a crude elliptical trainer.

To sell them, Dr. Polak ran a publicity campaign: a singing, dancing Bollywood-style movie about a couple that could not marry because her father could not afford a dowry. But once he bought a pump and could grow vegetables in the dry season, when they fetch more money, love triumphed.

“O.K., somewhat cheesy,” Dr. Polak admitted, “but we bought a van with a video setup and took it to villages. A typical open-air audience was 2,000 to 5,000 people.”

By contrast, he said, the World Bank was subsidizing expensive diesel pumps that drew enough water to cover 40 acres. They were handed out by government agents, who could be bribed, he said, and the richest landowner would thus become “a waterlord,” who could drain the aquifer supplying everyone else’s wells and then charge them for water.

 “It was very destructive to social justice,” Dr. Polak said.

Another franchise company he started in India was Spring Health, which uses battery power to convert salt into chlorine. The bleach is used to disinfect local water, which is then sold door-to-door in refillable containers.

Franchisees get caps and shirts with distinctive blue raindrops, and street theater troupes help uneducated people make the connection between dirty water and diarrhea, which sickens millions of children every day and, when chronic, can leave them mentally and physically stunted.

Dr. Polak wrote two books about his ideas and experiences, “Out of Poverty” in 2008 and, with Mal Warwick, “The Business Solution to Poverty” in 2013.

In 2007, he helped arrange an exhibit, Design for the Other 90 Percent, at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in Manhattan. It displayed the kind of simple products he endorsed: drip-irrigation systems, inexpensive eyeglasses and 20-gallon plastic water containers in the shape of a wheel that could be rolled instead of carried on the head.

Dr. Polak practiced psychiatry in the Denver area for 23 years and, for extra income, bought and managed small apartment buildings, drilled for oil and invented an oil-well pump jack. By 1981, he could afford to think about giving up medicine and focusing on real estate.

“But, instead of trying to become a Bill Gates or a Donald Trump, I came to the realization that, beyond having enough money to cover my basic living expenses, the marginal value of accumulating more wealth was not really useful,” he told an interviewer this year.

Post 39: A Tribute to John Kennedy on the Anniversary of his Death

Today marks the fifty-sixth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, one of the saddest days in the history of our beloved country. On the twentieth anniversary of his death, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts held a concert to commemorate the assassination. Since the president had been kind enough to commend me for my service in the Peace Corps, the Kennedy family asked me to give a spoken tribute at the concert. In the presence of the family, I noted that the Peace Corps was one of the many achievements that would secure Kennedy’s place in history because, “it tells us so much about him.” My tribute was followed by performances by Isaac Stern, Eugene Istomin, and Mistislav Rostropovich, as well as choral excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.”

I am sharing my remarks in their entirety because I believe that John Kennedy’s vision, compassion, and commitment to world peace are more important than ever. (My speech mentioned that 89,000 volunteers had served as of 1983. More than 235,000 have served as of today.)

The tribute:

I have been asked to pay tribute to President John F. Kennedy tonight, and I feel honored. I held no position in his administration. I did not know him personally. I am here only as one of the thousands whose lives were profoundly influenced by him.

When John Kennedy took the oath of office, I was a graduate student in philosophy. Six months later, I entered the Peace Corps. Today, I am still involved with the problems I worked on then. The Peace Corps experience led me to a new life work.

I hope that I speak not only for myself here but for all of us whose lives and careers were inspired by John F. Kennedy.

In the past few weeks, television has enabled all of us to remember President Kennedy again in life—how alive he made us feel and how proud to be Americans. In fact, the greatest sacrifice for me in being in the Peace Corps was to be outside our country during much of that magical period.

Yet we volunteers were never really very far from events in the United States. I was stationed in Chile in a small village 6,000 miles south of here. One day I drove my jeep as far as I could toward the coast, walked a few miles to a local mission, and continued on horseback for three hours to a remote Indian neighborhood. I was feeling very proud of myself. Certainly no other American had ever been there. Perhaps they had never even heard of the United States. After a customary cup of tea with my Indian host, he said to me, “Did you know that yesterday was President Kennedy’s birthday?”

There are many achievements that will secure John Kennedy’s place in history. But the Peace Corps is the one that I chose as my text because it tells us so much about him.

The Peace Corps reflects John Kennedy’s vision of America. He brought out a sense of idealism and participation that runs like us to go to the remotest parts of the world, to live without privileges of any sort, to learn a new language, and to put our skills and energies to work as a symbol of our country’s concern for others.

Ten thousands of us responded to that challenge in the first three months. Today there are over 89,000 Americans who have returned to the United States after serving two years as Peace Corps volunteers in eighty-eight countries.

The impact of these volunteers—and the 5,200 whom are serving today—is incalculable. Perhaps it was summed up best by a little girl in Africa who wrote adoringly to her volunteer teacher—in not so perfect English, “You are a blot on my life which I will never erase.”

The Peace Corps exemplifies the quality President Kennedy admired most—courage, in this case the willingness to take a risk. There was considerable opposition to the Peace Corps when President Kennedy first announced it. Some called it a children’s crusade and a publicity stunt.

The Kennedy administration pressed forward. But one of Sargent Shriver’s aides did ask him, fairly early, “Aren’t we really going on a limb with the Peace Corps? We still don’t know whether the idea will work or whether the volunteers will be accepted.”

“Out on a limb, nothing!” Shriver replied, “We’re out there walking on the leaves.”

The Peace Corps symbolizes John Kennedy’s commitment to world peace. The Peace Corps itself was a peace initiative. In teaching hundreds of languages to volunteers, the Peace Corps learned that in many languages the word for “stranger” is the same as the word for “enemy.” The Peace Corps has shown that the more we know about each other, the less likely it is that we will consider one another as enemies. As John Kennedy said to the Irish Parliament in the summer of 1963, “Across the gulf and barriers which divide us, we must remember that there are no permanent enemies.”

Today the question of peace involves no less than our survival as a planet. In the tragic operas or dramas which we witness here at the Kennedy Center, simple misunderstandings lead the action unavoidably toward its tragic end. This is the essence of tragic art. In the real world of international politics, one such misunderstanding could bring the ultimate tragedy which would end all music and all art.

John Kennedy was possessed by this realization. His eloquence and conviction were prophetic. Popular consciousness of the dangers of nuclear war is only now beginning to catch up with him.

Finally, the Peace Corps highlights John Kennedy’s compassion for the billions around the world who live in an abject poverty and misery. People ask why John Kennedy is so beloved in the developing world? The answer to that question is clear. John Kennedy truly cared about that half of humanity which lacks the basic necessities. He made promises to them and he delivered. He convinced the Congress to approve levels of development assistance and Food for Peace which have never been equaled since.

Then, of course, there was the Peace Corps itself. The people in developing countries saw us as the direct expression of John Kennedy’s interest in them. “Children of Kennedy” we were called in many parts of Latin America; “wakima Kennedy” or “follows of Kennedy” in Africa.

Twenty years ago this evening, there were 5,937 volunteers serving in forty-six countries. Each of them remembers vividly the outpouring of grief which his death occasioned. In Nepal, some villagers walked for five days to where the volunteers were to bring them the sad news. In Iran, a local co-worker told a volunteer, “Our president is dead.” In Bangkok, people dressed in mourning garb. Schools everywhere searched for flags to fly at half mast. A volunteer wrote from Brazil:

If then this awful thing could reach out to the farthest corner of the world and have the effect on all people that I believe it did—then there is a real brotherhood among men—only one family of man.

History must judge John Kennedy not only by what hew as able to accomplish in a thousand days but also by what he inspired all of us to volunteer—in the broadest sense—to do for our country.

So might I suggest that there is a most fitting tribute which all of us can pay to John Kennedy here this evening. We can pay him this tribute in our own lives; in our concern for a just and compassionate society here at ho9me; in our willingness to assist the masses of poor throughout the world; and, most important, in assuring our nation’s commitment to take the first steps toward peace. We can be prepared, in his memory and in his honor, to go out and “walk on the leaves.”

Post 38: An “Opposable Mind” can lead to Creativity and an Advancement in Knowledge

Seeing things in “black or white” can keep life simple and comfortable but ability to hold two different points of view in your mind at the same time and then reconcile them can lead to creativity and advances in knowledge, as David Brooks explained.  All this harks back for me to my studies of early 19th century German philosophers Johann Fichte and Georg W.H. Hegel at the University of Toronto. They pioneered the “dialectical” method of thesis, antithesis and synthesis in the search for truth.

David Brooks on “The Creative Climate,” The New York Times, July 7, 2014.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk has a fascinating description of how Paul McCartney and John Lennon created music together. McCartney was meticulous while Lennon was chaotic. McCartney emerged out of a sunny pop tradition. Lennon emerged out of an angst-ridden rebel tradition.

Lennon wrote the song “Help” while in the throes of depression. The song originally had a slow, moaning sound. McCartney suggested a lighthearted counter melody that, as Shenk writes, fundamentally changed and improved the nature of the piece.

Lennon and McCartney came from different traditions, but they had similar tastes. They brought different tendencies to the creative process but usually agreed when the mixture was right. This created the special tension in their relationship. They had a tendency to rip at each other, but each knew ultimately that he needed the other. Even just before his death, Lennon was apparently thinking of teaming up with McCartney once again.

Shenk uses the story to illustrate the myth of the lone genius, to show that many acts of genius are the products of teams or pairs, engaged in collaboration and “co-opetition.” And we have all known fertile opposites who completed each other — when they weren’t trying to destroy each other.

But the Lennon-McCartney story also illustrates the key feature of creativity; it is the joining of the unlike to create harmony. Creativity rarely flows out of an act of complete originality. It is rarely a virgin birth. It is usually the clash of two value systems or traditions, which, in collision, create a transcendent third thing.

Shakespeare combined the Greek honor code (thou shalt avenge the murder of thy father) with the Christian mercy code (thou shalt not kill) to create the torn figure of Hamlet. Picasso combined the traditions of European art with the traditions of African masks. Saul Bellow combined the strictness of the Jewish conscience with the free-floating go-getter-ness of the American drive for success.

Sometimes creativity happens in pairs, duos like Lennon and McCartney who bring clashing worldviews but similar tastes. But sometimes it happens in one person, in someone who contains contradictions and who works furiously to resolve the tensions within.

When you see creative people like that, you see that they don’t flee from the contradictions; they embrace dialectics and dualism. They cultivate what Roger Martin called the opposable mind — the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time.

If they are religious, they seek to live among the secular. If they are intellectual, they go off into the hurly-burly of business and politics. Creative people often want to be strangers in a strange land. They want to live in dissimilar environments to maximize the creative tensions between different parts of themselves.

This has created two reactions. Some monads withdraw back into the purity of their own subcultures. But others push themselves into the rotting institutions they want to reinvent. If you are looking for people who are going to be creative in the current climate, I’d look for people who are disillusioned with politics even as they go into it; who are disenchanted with contemporary worship, even as they join the church; who are disgusted by finance even as they work in finance. These people believe in the goals of their systems but detest how they function. They contain the anxious contradictions between disillusionment and hope.

This suggests a final truth about creativity: that, in every dialectic, there is a search for creative synthesis. Or, as Albert Einstein put it, “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”


Blog 37: A Prayer for All Saints Day

At the end of last week most of us participated, in one way or another, in Halloween festivities. This week I want to reflect on the origins of Halloween, namely that it is the eve of an important feast of the Christian calendar, All Saints’ Day. In fact, the term derived from the original “All Hallows Eve.” I am indebted to Wikipedia for several paragraphs in this blog.

From Wikipedia:

Allhalloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve, is a celebration observed in several countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed.

All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, the Feast of All Saints, or Solemnity of All Saints, is a Christian festival celebrated in honor of all the saints, known and unknown. In Western Christianity, it is celebrated on November the 1st by the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Lutheran Church, the Reformed Church, and other Protestant churches, November 1st is also the day before All Souls Day.

In the Western Christian practice, the liturgical celebration begins at Vespers on the evening of 31 October, All Hallows’ Eve (All Saints’ Eve), and ends at the close of 1 November. It is thus the day before All Souls’ Day, which commemorates the faithful departed. In many traditions, All Saints’ Day is part of the season of Allhallowtide, which includes the three days from 31 October to 2 November inclusive and in some denominations, such as Anglicanism, extends to Remembrance Sunday. On All Saints Day, it is common for families to attend church, as well as visit cemeteries in order to lay flowers and candles on the graves of their deceased loved ones. In Austria and Germany, godparents gift their godchildren Allerheiligenstriezel (All Saint’s Braid) on All Saint’s Day, while the practice of souling remains popular in Portugal. It is a national holiday in many Christian countries. (Citations omitted.)

In Mexico this traditional rite of respect for departed family and friends is celebrated on November 2, El Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, a public holiday in Mexico where families gather to pray for and remember those who have died. Mexicans see the day as a day of celebration, not sadness. They consider their deceased relatives as awake and celebrating with them. A delightful portrayal of this Mexican tradition was provided in the recent award-winning movie “Coco,” a story of a twelve-year-old boy named Manuel who seeks the help of his deceased musician great-great grandfather to reverse his family’s ban on music.

Other cultures and other parts of the world have similar traditions to honor their forebears.

Again, from Wikipedia:

[In Greater China there is] the Qingming or Ching Ming festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day in English (sometimes also called Chinese Memorial Day or Ancestors’ Day), … a traditional Chinese festival observed by the Han Chinese of Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand. It falls on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. This makes it the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, either 4 or 5 April in a given year. During Qingming, Chinese families visit the tombs of their ancestors to clean the gravesites, pray to their ancestors, and make ritual offerings. Offerings would typically include traditional food dishes, and the burning of joss sticks and joss paper. The holiday recognizes the traditional reverence of one’s ancestors in Chinese culture. The Qingming Festival has been observed by the Chinese for over 2500 years.

In accord with this rather universal instinct to reach out to our loved ones after their passing, and consistent with my own Christian and Catholic tradition, I would like to offer a prayer that I wrote several years ago but have never shared with anyone before. It is a take-off on Jesus’ favorite prayer, the Our Father. It is consistent with the spirit of the feast to pray to all saints, known and unknown.

The idea for this prayer came to me one night in a dream. It is called the “My Father” (it can be the “Our Mother” as well).  Here it is:

My Father, who art in heaven

Hallowed be YOUR name

God’s Kingdom’s come

His will was done, on earth

And is now in heaven.

You gave us our bread on so many days.

You looked past our weaknesses

And taught us to forgive the failings of others

You guided our paths away from temptation

And oh! How you protected us from evil!

And now you are in God’s Kingdom, and His Power

And His Glory forever. Amen

Post 36: “People are more than the worst thing they have ever done”

The above quote is from Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun who is a leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Her book, Dead Man Walking, was about her work counseling inmates on death row and was made into the movie of the same name starring Susan Sarandon.

This week I want to give illustrations of a father and a community who have taken this sentiment to heart—with good results.

The Father

We begin with a story of Charles Van Doren. He was the son of Mark Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, literary critic, and English professor at Columbia University. When Charles died this April, Robert D. McFadden wrote an obituary in The New York Times (April 11, 2019) that described his downfall, his father’s support, and his survival.

Charles Van Doren, a Columbia University English instructor and a member of a distinguished literary family who confessed to Congress and a disillusioned nation in 1959 that his performances on a television quiz show had been rigged, died on Tuesday in Canaan, Conn. He was 93.

In the heyday of quiz shows in the 1950s, when scholarly housewives and walking encyclopedia nerds battled on “The $64,000 Question” and “Tic-Tac-Dough,” Mr. Van Doren was a rare specimen: a handsome, personable young intellectual with solid academic credentials, a faculty post at a prestigious university and an impressive family pedigree.

But on Nov. 2, 1959, Charles told congressional investigators that the shows had all been hoaxes, that he had been given questions and answers in advance, and that he had been coached to make the performances more dramatic.

In (a) New Yorker article, Mr. Van Doren … disclosed that after his fall from grace his father had given him a present: a gyroscope with a quotation from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” by the character called Feste, a clown wise enough to play the fool and tell the truth. “I knew he was saying that I, too, would survive and somehow find a way back,” he wrote. “I just hugged him and said, ‘Thank you, Papa.’ ”

Earlier in the obituary, McFadden reported how Van Doren’s life proceeded from that point:

…he became an editor and a pseudonymous writer, took a job with Encyclopaedia Britannica and moved to its Chicago headquarters in 1965. He eventually became a vice president in charge of the editorial department and edited, wrote and co-wrote dozens of books, some with Mortimer J. Adler, the philosopher-educator. He retired in 1982…[and] wrote a number of books…

Some 50 years later in the New Yorker (July 28, 1988), Van Doren recalled the impact of his father’s gift:

Gerry and I went to Rome in the early spring, a fiftieth-anniversary gift to one another, and one morning I took my little gyroscope out of my toilet kit, where it has travelled with me since 1959. I set it spinning on the edge of my orange-juice glass, and, as I looked at it, I said “Thank you”—to it and to my father and my mother and to all the other people who helped us to survive.

The Community

A second illustration of the benefits of conferring a second chance comes from the Bemba people of Zambia as described by Carol J. Dempsey in the March 22 – April 4 edition of the National Catholic Reporter.

A group of people known as the people of Bemba believe that every human who comes into the world is good. Every person’s deepest desire is for safety, love, peace and happiness. When someone from this group of people acts unjustly or irresponsibly, then that person is required to stand in the center of the village, alone and unrestrained. The other members of the Bemba people are called together and they gather in a large circle around the one who has been accused of some wrongdoing.

Each person gathered around the accused then begins to speak, recalling all the good things that the accused person has done throughout the course of a lifetime. Many good deeds are mentioned in great detail. All of the accused’s positive attributes, strengths, kindnesses and efforts on behalf of the common good are recited carefully by different members of the group.

When everyone has spoken on behalf of the accused one, all the members of the Bemba people break the circle and a joyous celebration takes place. The one who had committed an injustice or who had behaved badly is now welcomed back into the group and given a fresh start. Past deeds are now forgotten as celebration and reconciliation intersect. The Bemba people are stronger and more unified because of this ritual, and their focus is on the positive aspects of the person instead of the negative. This pastoral response, instead of a punitive one, supports the community in the face of difficult situations.

Post 35: The Pope and the Rabbi on Religious Faith

While Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (who later became Pope Frances) served as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he wrote a book with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an Argentine Biophysicist and Rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary. It was called Sobre El Cielo y La Tierra (On Heaven and Earth). Among other things, it discussed the nature of religious belief and fundamentalism. I was especially impressed with Skorka’s views on faith and Bergoglio’s statement that “every man is an image of God, be he a believer or not.”

I learned about the book in the April 5, 2013 edition of National Catholic Reporter, a month after Francis was elected Pope, in an article written by Eloisa Perez-Lozano. (The following quotes are not from the official translation.)


Perez-Lozano wrote:

Francis’ now well-known humility comes across as he describes his response when meeting a nonbeliever.

“When I meet with people who are atheists, I share human issues with them, but I don’t bring up the problem of God right away, except in cases when they bring it up with me,” Bergoglio says.

If that happens, however, the future Pope says he tells them why he is a believer. Since humanity is something rich enough to be shared, he and the person can calmly and easily discuss experiences in life.

“Because I am a believer, I know these riches are a gift from God,” Bergoglio says. “I also know that the other person, the atheist, does not know that. I do not embark on the relationship to proselytize to an atheist, I respect him and I show him how I am.”

I would not tell him that his life is condemned because I am convinced that I have no right to pass judgment on the honesty of the person,” Bergoglio says. “Even less so if he shows me human virtues that make people better and are done in goodwill toward me.”

Bergoglio is firm in his insistence that consistency is necessary regarding the Bible’s message: “Every man is an image of God, be he a believer or not. With that reason alone, he has a number of virtues,  qualities, riches.  And in the case that he has morally low qualities, as I have as well, we can share them with each other to help us overcome them together.”

Skorka agrees, though he adds that he believes an atheist takes a position of arrogance as is also the case of a person who proclaims with certainty that God exists. The ideal position is one of doubt, Skorka says, like that of agnostics or believers who have moments of doubt.

“We religious people are believers, we don’t posit [God’s] existence as fact,” Skorka says. “We can perceive him in a very, very, quite profound experience, but we never see him.”

“To say that God exists, if it were but a certainty, is also arrogant, regardless of how much I believe that God exists,” he explains.

Skorka goes on to say that one can talk about God’s qualities and attributes, but one can never really give God form or shape in any way. Both men agree that instead of saying what God is, people usually end up describing the many things God is not.

Bergoglio mentions a book titled The Cloud of Unknowing, written by English mystics who attempt, “time and time again, to describe God and always end up signaling what he is not.”

He continues this line of thought by saying that while one may have a spiritual experience and feel certain that God is present, the experience itself is uncontrollable.

“This is why in the experience of God, there is always a question, a space to make the leap of faith,” he concludes.

Skorka speaks of certain Jewish circles where fundamentalism is rampant, meaning that when the teacher says to do something, the followers don’t have any other choice but to comply. “Things are a certain way and they are not discussed, they cannot be any other way,” Skorka says.

“These leaders hold back the religiousness that should emanate from the most intimate depths of a person; they dictate the lives of others.”

Bergoglio posits that this type of rigid religiosity “disguises itself with doctrines that pretend to give justifications, but really deprive people of freedom and will not allow them to grow.”

“Fundamentalism is not what God wants,” Bergoglio says.


Post 34: Going Forward with a Backward Glance

As this blog is being posted, Faith, and I are in our second home in Scranton and I am preparing to play golf tomorrow with Cashel, Garrett, and my nephew Jim at the Country Club of Scranton’s nationally recognized golf course. Afterwards we will celebrate three family birthdays, spread out over a six-week period during this beautiful time of year in Northeastern Pennsylvania. We will do this in the home where my parents lived for almost 40 years. Going home to Scranton, being together with family and old friends and relishing happy memories of my childhood and high school days brings me great joy.

David Brooks helps to explain this in an article he wrote in 2014 entitled, “Going Forward with a Backward Glance—The Importance of Going Home.” (The New York Times, March 21, 2014)

… at this year’s TED conference, which was held here in Vancouver, British Columbia, the rock star Sting got onstage and gave a presentation that had a different feel. He talked about his rise to stardom and then about a period in middle age when he was unable to write any new songs. The muse abandoned him, he said — for days, then weeks, then months, then years.

But then he went back and started thinking about his childhood in the north of England. He’d lived on a street that led down to a shipyard where some of the world’s largest ocean-going vessels were built.

Most of us have an urge, maybe more as we age, to circle back to the past and touch the places and things of childhood. When Sting did this, his creativity was reborn. Songs exploded from his head.


Then it was obvious how regenerating going home again can be. Sting, like most people who do this, wasn’t going back to live in the past; he was circling back and coming forward.

The process of going home is also reorienting. Life has a way of blowing you off course. People have a way of forgetting what they originally set out to do. Going back means recapturing the original aspirations. That’s one reason Jews go back to Exodus every year. It’s why Augustine went back during a moment of spiritual crisis and wrote a book about his original conversion. Heck, it’s why Miranda Lambert performs “The House That Built Me” — to remind herself of the love of music that preceded the trappings of stardom.

Sting’s appearance at TED was a nice reminder of how important it is to ground future vision in historical consciousness. Some of the TED speakers seemed hopeful and creative, but painfully and maybe necessarily naïve.

Sting’s talk was a reminder to go forward with a backward glance, to go one layer down into self and then after self-confrontation, to leap forward out of self. History is filled with revivals, led by people who were reinvigorated for the future by a reckoning with the past.

A recent article in the Times helps to explain why golf adds to the pleasure of a family weekend at home. Jack Whitaker, an Emmy award winning Sportscaster and fellow Pennsylvanian, died at age 95 this past August. Whitaker covered every type of sport from thoroughbred racing to NFL football; but, as Richard Goldstein wrote in the Times obituary (August 19, 2019) he “reserved his greatest passion for golf.” Goldstein quoted Whitaker’s 1998 memoir:

“My happy golf travels have taught me that the difference between a Pebble Beach and a Main Line Golf Club is truly incidental. One has an ocean and breathtaking views, the other was split by U.S. Highway 30 and had hard bumpy greens. But the thrill of the well-hit shot, or the frustration of the poorly hit one, was exactly the same. Golf accommodates itself anywhere. It travels better than Beaujolais. Golf is the most moveable feast of all.”