samedi, mai 06, 2006

What does it take to be content?

Recently I concluded a telephone conversation with a charming man who calls himself a "geezer." I haven't yet met him, although he sounds like a lovely gentleman. Because I'm a journalist, and he is apparently quite a gregarious fellow, it didn't take more than about a minute for us to establish a rapport based on nothing more than the common bond of living about five minutes from one another. After taking down my number so his wife could return the call, he told me exactly where he lives-on a small house he and his wife built at the end of one of the developments that has sprung up around here like mushrooms over the past decade. Their little retirement haven nestles next to the 19th century house they used to dwell in, and adjacent to a 23 acre parcel of land which they apparently also own. When I teased him for sounding complacent, he said he wasn't complacent at all. In fact, he was champing at the bit to get down to the Chesapeake Bay, where they own a boat. Married for 57 years to the same person, living in the woods in a place he clearly loves, he owned up to having had a good life. In fact, he sounded content. What is remarkable about his state of mind is that I know so few people who are really, truly content. Admittedly, my new acquaintance's life is made easier because he is obviously a person of means. Lack of life's basic necessities can strip one of hope, which can lead to despair and violence against oneself or one's community. It doesn't excuse the complacency of many affluent people or excuse poverty to say that I've also met economically brutalized people who were serene. Poverty can make one miserable. A lack of fundamentals like decent nutritious food, clean water and good sanitation takes away a sense of innate dignity that we are all entitled to because we are made by God. Yet, though money softens a lot of life's buffets, contentment isn't directly linked to how much money one has. A lot of folks with means are nasty, selfish, and unhappy. Contentment seems more directly connected to whether we are faithful to the best that is in us. "To thine own self be true." A believer would term the capacity to live according to one's ideals being faithful to the image of God in all of us. That's an ongoing process. None of us does it perfectly. Oftentimes we get seduced by the multiple distractions and temptations that surround us. What goes into making us people capable of living harmoniously with one another, with God and with the natural world is in part a mystery. The journey can only begin, however, when we take time to listen to the inner voice of conscience that calls us to look, and to live more wholly within and beyond ourselves. It is not the voice of guilt that changes us. It is the calling to be open to the movement of the Spirit within us...and to follow.

jeudi, mai 04, 2006

PS-Why does God allow "empty people?"

The mixed feelings of Jay S. Winuk, whose brother Glenn died at the trade center, seemed to capture many family members' reactions to the jury's decision.
"My brother died, and almost 3,000 other people died, and you just want to scream for justice," Mr. Winuk said.
He said he did not know what the right verdict would have been.
Rosemary Cain, who lost her son George, a New York firefighter, said she heard the verdict on her car radio. "I had a kind of sinking feeling in my stomach," Ms. Cain said. "I was absolutely hoping they would put him to death."
"He is just an empty, empty person," she said. "There are just some people who cannot be rehabilitated."
NYT May 4, 2o06 There are no easy endings to a trial like this. Nobody goes away completely satisfied. Yet the writer for the NYT, whether purposefuly or not, raises two questions which vex believers in our Judeo-Christian tradition. As Jay S. Winuk asked: what is justice? He was honest enough to say that he didn't have an answer to that question in this case. We also struggle to find a place in the creation for people who are, as far as we can discern, "empty" of normal human empathy. So the other, more bothersome question I face when I read about sociopaths or people apparently born without consciences is: why does God allow that? If all human beings have an innate capacity for good, then why do some apparently show no innate ability to empathize? if anybody has an answer, please give readers, and this writer, the gift of your insight.

mercredi, mai 03, 2006

Woman enough to admit I'm wrong

About a week ago I predicted that the Moussaoui jury would go for the death penalty. I was wrong. We don't know why the jury how the jury arrived at that choice...Perhaps they thought it fit the crime of being an accessory, rather than an actor, in one of the worst crimes in our history. All we know is at the moment is that they chose life imprisonment. Undoubtedly we'll hear more as time goes on. Possibly it will be messy, as democracy so often is messy. We can be happy that Mr. Moussaoui is not going to be a martyr. He will, in all likelihood, become simply part of the fabric of our memories of that terrible moment in history when our dreams of an America safe from terrorists disappeared in the ashes of the Pentagon and World Trade Center. We don't need him to be center stage. Let that place be occupied by the blessed memory of those who died on September 11, 2001. In this moment let us also marvel at the courage and magnanimity of the survivors. They don't have our freedom to consign Moussaoui to some hidden corner of our consciousness. They were not united in agreement at this verdict and many expressed some regret. But they seemed, by and large, to agree that the juries' decision was in accord with the best traditions of our the American system of justice. Sadly, the prisoner's held at Guantanamo have not yet benefited from that system of justice-can we, in conscience, turn our heads on some very bad men and some men who were probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time? As the Moussaoui trial finally ends, we can honor the memory of those killed by Moussoui's colleagues by working hard with all of the tools we have in this democracy to make this not only a safer country, but a safer world.

lundi, mai 01, 2006


Do you know how exceptionally nice HVAC guys can be? Maybe it's sexist to imagine that most of the people who install heating and air conditioning systems are men, but I haven't met a female ductwork expert yet (unless we are talking about the La Leche League of nursing women). I confess that I didn't give HVAC a second thought until a family philanthropist offered to underwrite a new heating system (the old one, electric baseboards and a non-working coal stove, has lost its novelty after the first winter in our house). Taking a hard look at several bids for heat pumps has compelled me to explore some of the fundamentals of how heat pumps works, who makes them, and whose claims survive careful analysis. The fact is that I know as much about heating systems as I do about ancient Syria. Experts, who know a great deal more, warned me darkly that "shills" operate on these websites, paid by the companies to offer advice that suits their own particular bent. But BaldLooney, Robotech and their buddies have been truly kind, explaining the mysteries of refrigerant, different grades of heat pumps, how to evaluate installers, and whether a heat pump should be used in central Wisconsin (ok, it got a little confusing when some other guy jumped into our thread with a question about his house in Wisconsin). The Internet has made it easier to acquire knowledge on almost any subject. There's an exciting kind of democracy about the reams of available knowledge. Pulling up one website after another, piling factoid upon factoid, makes you think you know as much as the person who is selling you something, whether its a vacation in Venice or a used car. But it's also easier to think you know enough to get by when you are still almost as ignorant as you were when you started. As I told my sister's boyfriend, I have more questions than answers, but at least I know what some of the questions are. Maybe, outside of our narrow ranges of expertise, that's the most we can hope for. If you are considering getting a heat pump and you want an educated and well-researched suggestion, I've got some advice for you: ask someone else. You might want to start with BaldLooney.

dimanche, avril 30, 2006

Entitled to what?

Christians who follow the Common Lectionary heard today a story from Luke's Gospel, in which some disciples encounter Jesus after his Resurrection. In this post resurrection appearance, the Risen Lord eats broiled fish with his followers. There' s something marvelously earthy about Luke's narrative. The voice is in keeping with the tone of the other Gospel resurrection stories about Jesus. Mostly, they are wonderfully free of airy-fairy magical tricks. Can one's faith be buoyed, as it were, by a grilled perch or an attractively presented St. Peter's fish (tilapia)? I, at least, find it reassuring that Jesus continued to take pleasure in food and friends. A lot was revealed around the dinner table, even if the table was a sand dune by a windy lake. That's part of the reason that psychologists keep hammering us parents about the importance of making sure we eat with our kids. It's amazing what you can find out if you only listen to what is being said, or not said, in the middle of the laughter and chatter and insults. But I digress. One of the points made by the Gospel writers is that Jesus meets people in all kinds of unexpected places, and that when He does, very often, their hearts are touched. If they don't know Him at all, they learn things about themselves, and about him, that change their lives forever. If they do know Him already, they are offered the chance to accept his invitation to go deeper with Him, or to go their own way. The RSVP can always be a "no thanks." Often it is something ruder. What perplexed me today was how hard it is to truly come to know the Lord if one is materially comfortable or wealthy. Put another way-it is much easier, at least so I observe, if one is poor. Perhaps the choices are that much starker. I do think affluent people in the West feel entitled to a level of material comfort and convenience that would cause the jaw of an African or many Asians to drop. I become particularly aware of my antipathy towards ostentatious displays of affluence when being pursued on suburban byways by women in huge SUVS with cell phones clenched to their ears because I have the bad taste to only drive 50 miles an hour in a 40 mile an hour zone. What makes them think that they, or anybody else, is entitled to have a car that big? Undoubtedly they are on their way to their equally enormous McMansion, where everyone has separate bathrooms, and the garage has room for four cars. When I get home, my little spell of self righteousness fades, and I ponder the clothes in my closet, the flowers in my garden, and the food in my fridge. I'm not at all sure that capitalism and Christianity are a happy marriage. It is too easy to excuse the excesses of affluence by saying: "well, I've earned this, and I deserve it." On the other hand, there are places where Jesus meets those of us who are wealthy like me (compared to the great majority I am wealthy) and invites us to open our hands and surrender more of what we have. Some of us do it dramatically, leaving our homes and loved ones to serve the poor. Some of us do it slowly. Some of us do it silently. And some say "no thanks" or "I'm busy." I've had friends who have been converted. I know I'm still in process of becoming (I hope) a more generous, loving and open handed person. I just pray that when Jesus meets me at a meal, whether it be a one of tilapia or tofu, I'm smart enough to know Him in the breaking of the bread.