Sunday, December 23, 2012

Where Angels Fear to Tread

The other night at dinner I looked at my husband with tears in my eyes and confessed something that I had never really felt before.  I was having a crisis of faith.   I've always believed that no matter what, God and your guardian angels would have your back.  Even if things didn't turn out as you had hoped, there was a grander plan, a reason you didn't get what you wanted or needed - a lesson that needed to be learned.  But after the massacre at Sandy Hook, I was having doubts about this whole divine intervention thing.  I was angry, sad and felt like everything I believed in had been blown to bits.  Max told me that I needed to stop reading about it on the internet, but even if you didn't read the articles - when you checked your e-mail and you would see the smiling faces of children who were barely out of toddlerhood being buried by their families and a grieving community.   You don't have to read the stories - you could draw your own sad conclusions.   I sat there at the dinner table, just crying for what was the fifth time that day.   At work I would feel the wave of sadness come over me and then would excuse myself to go into a private bathroom and sob.  It turns out there were other women where I work that were doing the same thing.  Max tried to comfort me - told me that the children were in the arms of the angels now and they were safe and feeling no pain.  A part of me knew that, but those last moments of their innocent lives were the ones that grieved me the most.  How the hell could God have allowed this to happen?   Where were their guardian angels when they needed them the most?   Why did this have to happen in the season of love and good cheer when those sweet little ones were excited to see Santa Claus?  Why? WHY?  Please God, why?

I remember the shock of 9/11.  I remember seeing people crying in the street and strangers comforting each other.  I asked why then but at that time there was a common enemy - people from another land who wanted to hurt us in the misguided name of God.   In the days, weeks and months after it happened we found a common resolve, we were united if only for that short period of time before the talk of war surfaced.   But this act is different - for some reason - it's personal.  The actions of the 9/11 terrorists were part of a larger global political unrest that just happened to hurt thousands of innocent people who were just trying to get through their day.    It hurt for a long time and we all felt vulnerable but as we've seen since, there are ways to stop terrorists from getting on a plane with a gun or a bomb and over powering the crew.    A terrorist attack of that scope has not happened since 2001 because the government knew what to do to stop it.  But how do you stop a very disturbed person who is trying to take his rage out on little children and the people who are responsible for them with a gun?  It's too random - too unorganized to try to stop anymore than you could keep a madman from shooting out a movie theatre or a Meet-the-Congressmen event.   This one hit too close to home - it was a school shooting with children who were just infants six years ago.  My God, they never really had a chance to come into their own and that's the real tragedy.   My children are in school - they are the most precious and amazing people I've ever known.  I can't imagine the grief the parents of the 20 children who were shot are going through.  I pray for them which is interesting because that's my default no matter how royally pissed I get at God.   

You hear in times like this, faith sustains you.   But what can you say about a mad man that senselessly mows down the innocent and the virtuous women who tried to protect them?  I would hope the grieving families did not hear - "It's God's will," because as reverent as I try to be, my response would be "Then God's will sucks!"  It hurts to feel this way.   But my soul is wounded and the salve is looking for some higher purpose - a reason in the grand scheme of things of why this would happen.  I imagine that even men and women of God are struggling with this.   Minister Mark Wilson in Hayward, Wisconsin wrote about the shootings in his blog.  He quoted the poet John Blasé who observed, "Of the things that befall us, this one pierces deeper, for the lost are the least of these. The killing of children is the killing of everything."  He also said his most articulate answer for this event was to simply and honestly say "I don't know."   I can respect that.   There is no pat answer and there shouldn't be.  He goes onto say that it's easy to have faith when things are going well, but in the darkest times, you have to ask the uneasy questions.  It's in those dark times that God whispers to you to urge you on - to give you the strength you need even if you are cursing his name in anger like a teenager because I think God understands that and like any compassionate parent, he loves us anyway. 

Some cultures believe in a group soul in that when many people leave the earth in the same place at the same time it's because the agreed to be part a movement to help mankind.  Before they are born, the angels literally give them their marching orders, who they will be in this life and when they will end their days.   No one really remembers that in utero conversation but it gives us certain affinities in life and lessons to be learned.  For instance, no matter how tired I get of working for non-profits and think I want to do something else, I keep coming back.  The reason is probably because my mission is to motivate people to help important causes.   I've tried doing comedy improv full-time, but never with the same success as when it's combined with a day job that makes the world a better place.   When I'm doing both the improv and working for a worthy cause, I feel balanced.   I guess other people have felt that affinity as well.  Good or bad, that's why they are attracted to the things they might help or hurt them - for instance, getting out of an abusive relationship might be the lesson you didn't learn in the previous life.     

My spiritual path is for the most part the road not usually taken.   Yes, I believe in God, Jesus, the legions of angels, and the saints.  I'm definitely a product of my Catholic upbringing.   But I also believe in reincarnation because I tend to believe that God gives us more than one shot to get it right before we finally ascend into heaven.    For me, the soul is an evolving spiritual entity and one lifetime does not give you enough time for your soul to be complete.   I guess I feel like I've been here before beyond this life as a 49-year old mother who works in non-profits and loves to do improv.   I have been able to slip easily into the world of international healthcare and grasped that topic easier than I would have expected.  I've had a few people in the New Age community tell me that I've been here a few times - okay more than a few - anywhere from dozens to hundreds of times.   I've got to wonder when I'm finally going to figure it out and my soul's mission will be accomplished but I guess that's not for me to decide.   It's in times like this that believing in reincarnation helps me cope because I know that the victims of this crime will be back again to make the world a better place. 

What strikes me about this incident is that it's reignited a passion to help that many people were not sure that they had.  Sure we've seen it during the Aurora shooting when all those innocent people were attacked at a movie theater - but they apprehended the shooter and at least there were some answers - some closure.  The shooting at Sandy Hook was just too terrible to put into words.  It especially hit home for anyone who is a parent.  But it has also inspired people to do better, to be better and to love their children more.  It touched New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz.   After learning that he was the favorite player of one 6-year-old victims, he wrote "R.I.P. Jack Pinto," "Jack Pinto, my hero" and "This one is for you" on his shoes for the Giants game against the Falcons in Atlanta this past Sunday.  Before this, he probably knew that kids were fans and that many probably idolized him but now I doubt that he will take that celebrity for granted ever again.  When he was told that Jack would be buried in one of his jerseys - his response was  "I don't even know how to put it into words, there are no words that can describe the type of feeling that you get when a kid idolizes you so much that unfortunately they want to put him in the casket with your jersey on. I can't even explain it."   He even went to the Pinto family with his fiancee and daughter to spend time with them and offer his condolences.   No one told him to do that for PR reasons.  There were no TV cameras documenting what he did - it was just the right thing to do.  He later commented that he knew now "how short life can be, how much you have to cherish every moment, how much you have to cherish every opportunity.  Every chance you get with your family, never take anything for granted because just a day at school can change all that."  If we can all come away with that perspective, then those sweet innocents would not have died in vain. 

So as much my faith is shaken and as much as I am still tearing up at the thought of that horrible day, I know that there had to be a higher purpose.  I don't have a pat answer as to WHY but then I guess I'm not supposed to.  It's not supposed to be that easy.  I know that it's okay to question because other people have those same questions too.  I just know that love will help heal and love is the most powerful emotion there is.   Love trumps hate.   Love trumps anger.  Love gives you the perspective to give more than you ever thought you could physically, emotionally and spiritually.  It's just not all that easy to summon when your heart is broken.    I know that our nation loves and prays for the people of Newtown, CT.  We all share their sorrow.   I know that right now, I'm not as mad at God as I was a few days ago.  I'm grateful for the gifts I have including my wise husband and my two wonderful children.   On Christmas Eve I will pray with all my might that the world will be a better place because of what happened.   I will come back to God like a rebellous teenager who ran away and learned that leaving that home is a cold and lonely existance.  I will step back into the warmth of the light and know that even with all my questions, it's the one place I should never fear to tread. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

If Not Now, then When?

My blog is usually pretty apolitical.  I generally blog about my life experiences, angels, improvisation and entertainment trends.  I did a blog on the shooting in Aurora, CO but kept it more towards healing a national tragedy rather than ranting about better gun control.  But after Friday, December 14th , where a crazed gunman shot and killed 27 people, including his mother using her guns, and 20 little children – the time for stepping on egg shells is over.   I like many Americans whether you are a liberal or conservative are hurting – hurting bad and frankly I’m heartbroken and beyond pissed.   If you are a parent, it’s your worst nightmare.   You take the most precious thing in your life and bring them into a safe place – their school.    School is a place to have friends, to learn, to live and hope.  It’s not a place to fear for your life because someone who is mentally unstable can easily get hold of a gun and start to kill people.  Yet, every time there is a horrific shoot-out in which countless of people are hurt, maimed and killed – we are in shock.   We grieve together, we cry in public and try to understand why.   We come together in a united sense of loss.  We vow to do better and strengthen the gun laws until the public opinion polls come in. Unfortunately, if politicians are running for re-election - they back off and the cycle of violence continues.   My prayer is that sad event is the tipping point – when we finally take measures to prevent these horrific things from happening again.

I guess the thing that really strikes me the most when these things happen – is that the people are who are pro-guns always caution against a knee jerk reaction.   But when you see the carnage that guns produce at the hands of a madman it’s hard not to say – “What the hell is wrong with you people?  We need a complete gun ban – stat!”   Now, I understand that we’ve always had guns in our country –the founding fathers were pretty hip on that and gave us the Second Amendment which is “Right to Bear Arms.”  Of course back then, the British would conduct unreasonable search and seizures and most of the country was unsettled so you needed guns to protect you from hostile forces as well as to hunt for food.   I also understand that there are responsible gun owners who don’t want their guns taken from them because of the acts of a few mad men.  But what I don’t understand is why 40% of the households in this country own guns.   We are armed to the teeth – over 350 million firearms in this country.   My question is why are we so afraid of each other?    What do we need so many guns to protect us from?   We’re supposedly the greatest country in the world – not in a country where al Queda decides your life for you.   And yet, out of the all Westernized countries in the world, we have the most guns.   Worse, the rate of people killed by guns in the US is 19.5 times higher than similar high-income countries in the world.  And yet, we want the right to bear arms - forget who it might hurt or kill.

We are not under the threat of invasion from another country beyond our borders – our military could handle Canada and Mexico – so why all the ammo?   Is it the enemy within that scares us the most?  Is it our culture of violence that makes it “cool” or “pretty bad ass” to own a gun?   Most responsible gun owners that I know (yes, being a liberal, I do know a few that even consider themselves liberal on most subjects) will tell you that having a gun holds great responsibility – it’s not a toy or something you use to threaten someone – you have one to protect your family, your home or use it to hunt.  One gun owner I spoke to recently told me that the thing that bothers him the most is the proliferation of violence on TV, the movies and in very graphic video games like Call of Duty allow you to connect other gamers and give you the chance to virtually kill people.   If you are someone who feels helpless most of the time, then those games might be a healthy way to work out your frustration. 

But what happens when the line between reality and fantasy blurs?  What happens when outcasts like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who committed the horrific Columbine mass murder acquire guns obtained by a friend?  They were obsessed with playing very violent video games on-line.  They felt bullied and marginalized.  They had friends purchase firearms for them at gun shows where you did not need a three day background check.  They learned how to make bombs on the internet.  Then on April 20, 1999 the pair murdered a total of 12 students and one teacher. They also injured 21 other students, with three other people being injured while attempting to escape the school. The pair then committed suicide.   All those young lives and the lives of their teachers snuffed out in minutes – for them it was like a big video game.  What came out of that shooting was that you could no longer purchase guns for a minor or a criminal.  Wow, that seems like a no brainer and yet we had to have a law that stated don’t give guns to kids and crooks so we could to keep more people from being killed.  Unfuckingbelievable!

Some gun advocates have pointed out that because the proliferation of guns, crime rates have fallen.  It is true that violent crime has dropped off –  according to the Department of Justice Criminal Victimization report, between 2002 to 2010, violent crime where the victim survived dropped by 22% from  7,424,550 in 2002 to 5,805,430 in 2010.  Some gun advocates would point the  fact that people are better armed and that explains the drop.  However, the problem with that theory is that between 2010 and 2011, the violent crime rate actually increased by 18% from 4,935,980 in 2010 to 5,805,430 in 2011.   Sadly the number of people killed by firearms in the United States remains high. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, between 2006 and 2010, 47,856 people were murdered in the U.S. by firearms, more than twice as many as were killed by all other violent crimes combined! Read that again – twice as many people were killed by guns than any other violent crimes combined.   Now, gun proponents will argue that you can get killed a number of ways without guns.  Sure you can get stabbed with a knife, but knives have other purposes and you can survive a stab wound easier than a gun shot.   Yes, cars do kill people but they are designed to get you from one place to another – they are not supposed to take a life.  Yes, people are more likely to have someone punch you then get shot  - but again we use our hands for other things than hitting.  I’m getting awfully tired of these lame ass arguments because they are just absurd.  Guns are designed to do one thing – kill either people or animals.   They just don’t serve any other useful purpose than to destroy.

The reason I’m throwing so many facts at you from government sources is that I really want you to understand that we need to do something now.  How many people have to die in places like Newtown, CT, Aurora, CO, Virginia Tech, or Tucson, AZ before we do something?  Doesn’t seeing the bright faces of six year olds who were in kindergarten getting ready to go on Christmas break and see Santa whose families must now plan a funeral because of what happened on December 14th make you feel like you were kicked the gut?  If not, then you sure as hell are not paying attention.    In the last 30 years since 1982, America has mourned at least 61 mass murders.   In 2004, the ban on assault rifles was lifted thanks to some heavy lobbying by the NRA because their members demanded it.  In the Aurora Theater shootings this past July, James Holmes had an assault rifle, purchased ammo on the internet along with body armor and still people will insist that we have a right to all this crap because of the Second Amendment.   Sorry, but I have a hard time envisioning that this is the world our forefathers envisioned.

England has very strict gun laws.  You have to have a criminal background check just like here, but you have to go to a police station to get a license, answer a series of questions about why you need a gun and all firearms must be registered.  Assault rifles are banned.   Here in the US, there are 88 guns per 100 people, in England, there are just 6.2 per 100.   In 2010, there were 8,775 people in the US killed by guns – in England it was 600 – a fraction of what it is here. 

I know that mental health plays a big part in the profile of these mass killers – that many are depressed and have a host of other mental illness and that they frequently fall through the cracks of our healthcare system.   I’m in total agreement on that.   We need to take the stigma out of getting mental health services and maybe these situtations can be avoided.  It's so sad that the families of the killers are as grief-stricken as the victims’ families as they deal with the aftermath.  I can’t imagine as a parent what it would be like to lose a child in a mass shooting and I can’t imagine what it would be like to have my child be the shooter.  Both realities would be unbearable and my heart goes out to anyone that has ever been in that position.

During the Civil Rights movement, many righteous people felt they had good reason for keeping the status quo until that terrible day in Birmingham when four little girls were killed because some sick terrorists from the Ku Klux Klan decided to bomb the 16th Street Baptist Church.   The loss of those sweet young girls in safe place like a house of worship caused a national uproar and helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.   This time, it was 20 little children and six of the women whose sacred duty it was to protect them.   It happened at an elementary school to helpless little children.  For the record, I am having a knee jerk reaction because the next time it might be the school that my children are at.  Or maybe it might be somewhere else in another six months when the death toll reaches an all time high and breaks all previous records.  We need to have a responsible dialog and we need to act now - before another mother faces another moment of heartbreak.  If not now, then when?  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Laughing at Bullies - Part 2

The first subject that I ever posted on this blog was about bullying.   Specifically, my bully Lisa when I was 11 who used to harass, belittle and punch me every chance she got.  Even after I had lost weight, got taller than her and was an honor student,  in her eyes, I was still stupid and fat.   One of my last run-ins with her included a pretty good impression of Carol Burnett's Ms. Wiggins which had the element of surprise since Lisa assumed I would start to panic and cry.   When I used the power of comedy to deflect her barbs, eventually she lost her power over me and faded away like so many other unpleasant childhood memories that if they don't kill you - they make you stronger.   But  now as a mother of two kids who have been and still are victims of bullying, the stakes are higher and the ways means that bullies have at their fingers go way behind the school yard.   They have Facebook, Twitter,  YouTube, and a host of other internet resources to humiliate their prey even if they are miles away.  Even worse, there are so many misguided role models on TV who bully in the name of being "honest" that somehow you are supposed to give them a pass - but this brutal honesty is nothing more than one person trying to have emotional dominance over another person - or a bully. 

I honestly think the cyber world got meaner once Simon Cowell arrived on American Idol and he was able to justify his behavior as judge as someone who is just trying to save those singers that he deems unworthy from following a path that will lead to disappointment.   Somehow,  his brutality is saving them from themselves.   I've never been able to watch American Idol or it's new counterpart, X Factor for very long because criticizing people as he does goes against how I feel you should treat someone.  I've been producing and directing comedy improv since the early 90's and if I've learned anything it's that everyone - if they have the desire - can improve their skill set.  It might not lead to fame and fortune, but practice can make better.  I would never tell anyone who auditioned for me that they just don't have it, never will and to just give up.  Trust me, I've seen some really bad improvisors in the 25 years that I've been doing this.   I would not tell them to "hang it up" but I have suggested that they take additional workshops to hone their skills and that I would be more than happy to see them back auditioning next year.  This way I've given them constructive criticism and offered them a goal to work for.  I haven't destroyed them and whose to say the might not came back next year and blow my socks off?   You can't just dismiss someone because they might not be at the place they need to be at that point time but there's nothing to say that they not might get there.   Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to take a giant step forward. 

I guess I'm sensitive to that kind of bullying because when I was in my 20's I actually had three guys in an improv troupe in Miami tell me that I was no good.  They decided to kick me out after I had been in  the group for three years and had developed my own fan base.   What hurt more was that I thought that other people in the group, including my boyfriend would stand up for me.  But alas, they sat silently as I was berated because they didn't have the balls to stand-up to the snarky triad.   I was put on "inactive" and expected to help the group without performing.  I put up with it for a while and then developed a backbone, said "To Hell with it" and started my own comedy group.  In a weird way, I'm grateful to those three bullies because I would have stuck around being treated like crap and never feeling completely valued because those douche bags tried to make me feel like I was unworthy.   But not everyone has that resilience and cruel words can leave wounds that will never heal.  I have to wonder how being told that you are a horrible singer on national TV will scar your psyche. Those people leave with hope and end up shattered all in the name of reality TV.   

My kids love the show Glee which has had a parade of bullies over the last four seasons.   Sue Sylvester started off as this very outspoken, musical hating cheerleader coach who would do anything to stop the glee club.   Her evil was was always stopped with innocent optimism that the world is a place that can always be made better by the sound of music.  She had a vulnerable side too when you found out that had a sister with Down's syndrome that she adored.   She even took a young girl named Becky who also had Down's under her wing to be part of the Cheerio squad because she knew what her sister when through with bullies.   Her jibes were funny because most of them were directed at people who could stand up to her or she got her come uppence by the end of the episode.   Kurt, an openly gay glee high school student was constantly menaced by a closeted football player named Dave Karofsky.   Kurt finally confronts his bully only to find out that this gay bashing jock is also gay and in a lot of pain.  Unfortunately, Karofsky's bullying escalates and Kurt has to transfer out of his school.   Eventually, people find out about Karofsky's homosexuality and he becomes the victim of vicious bullying to the point that he tries to commit suicide.   His attempted suicide leads to some serious discussion about bullying and I thought those episodes gave kids something to really talk about.   It also helped kids who found themselves being victimized at the hands of bullies for a myriad of reasons whether it was their sexuality or just being different a show to watch and feel accepted.   To me, using theatre and music to combat the ignorance of bullies was one way to help elevate a tough situation.   In the end, good always triumphs over evil even if it takes time. 

This season, Glee has a much darker overtone to it.  All the optimism is gone and the bullies are even talking their victims into eating disorders.   Marley, the new girl on Glee ends up face planting during sectionals and losing it all for the group because she believes Kitty, a mean spirited cheer leader, who tells her that she is getting fat and even alters her costumes to make her think she's getting fatter.  When Marley goes days without any real food, is purging and taking laxatives, she faints during their big number and gets the group disqualified.  Unfortunately, Kitty does not get blamed, only Marley.   Rachel, the glee club former diva, is now in New York and being bullied by a failed Broadway actress who is now her dance teacher.   This bully is older and uses her position as a teacher to belittle Rachel who does fight back but the banter between the two is so mean spirited, it's not even fun to watch.   Rachel's bully reasons that she's not nearly as bad as what she'll face in the real world of show business so she better get used to it.  It feels like the lesson to be learned is that mean is lean and evil will win in the end.   It's getting harder and harder to watch the show each week with both of my kids who get upset about how characters they really like are being treated - probably because they have been victims of bullying themselves. 

Amber has autism and is overweight so she's an easy target for stupid people who feel better by putting someone like her down.  The Marley story has had her very upset because she feels like fat people are being made fun of without anyone really standing up to the impossible standards of thin being set on the show.   A few years ago, they had a young woman named Lauren who was on the show who was obese, but she was so self confident that the hottest guy in school wanted to be her boyfriend.   She could kick-ass, take names and was not about to take crap from anyone about her size.  She was a breathe of fresh air in a world of size 0 to 2s that you usually see on the show.   I wish she was still there to offset the negative comments about weight. 

My son Daniel is smart, sensitive and sweet - a tripled threat to most bullies.  He's been told to line up with the "girls" by one boy at school and was picked on by the other boys in his karate class which is what we ironically put him in so he would learn how to protect himself from bullies.  After finally having enough, Daniel asked his fourth grade teacher if he could talk to the class and then launched into a lecture about the effects of bullying including the fact that it can hurt people so badly that they want to take their own life.   He had printed pictures of children who had killed themselves because the pain of being victimized was just too much.   He told them the story of how Phoebe Prince was bullied by six kids in her high school.   He told the story of Jon Carmicheal who was treated terribly in the locker rooms and put into garbage cans.   He told the story of Carl Walker Hoover, a well mannered boy who was bullied because people mistook his kindness for being gay.   All three of these bright young children were dead by their own hands.  Daniel got these stories from a Nickelodeon Nick News story called Sticks, Stones and Cyberslams (  It's a great show to start a conversation with your kids and to send the link to school administrators to ask them to use it as a guide to handle bullying.  The response to his lecture was amazing, just about every kid in class admitted to having been bullied and a few even admitted to being a bully.    The teacher was very impressed in the dialog it opened because it as initiated by a student and not a teacher.   After that discussion, he was not bullied for the rest of the year in elementary school.  But now that he's in Middle School, it's a different playing field.  We keep an eye on the situation and have had help from his teachers and school administrators.   We're lucky that they take these things seriously and are not prone to the "kids will be kids" mentality - because that way of dealing with things can be deadly. 

While my way of handling my bully was to deflect her barbs with humor  -  but that was back in the 1970's before the internet, Facebook pages that could be set up to put hateful messages about another person, or setting up fake Twitter accounts and tweeting obscene things about someone you hate.   Bullies are not just confined to the school yard or bus, they can strike and make their vitriol viral pulling in more people to their sick world.   Kids these days can laugh it off for only so long.  They can switch schools but it's hard to leave the cyber world behind.    There are places on the web like the It's Gets Better Project where kids who are facing bullying can get perspective and learn that as much as their life might suck right now, chances are those bullies will be working for them one day.   

On an September episode of X Factor, a young girl named Jillian Jensen auditioned for the show and told how she had been bullied to Demi Lovato, a person who has also been a victim of mean people and has launched a Cyber Anti-Bullying Campaign.  Jillian sang a hurt felt version of It's Okay Not to Be Okay.  (see clip here  The clip shows a girl whose been hurt but who has used that pain to help her art and to help heal.   Demi got up and gave this sweet young lady a hug and told her that their bullies are home and they are on TV.    There is so much truth to that.  I have no idea where my school yard bully Lisa is, probably making other people miserable or maybe she's gotten help.  The three guys who kicked me out of that Miami improv troupe are probably not still doing improv and yet I have an award winning company with people I truly love working with.   Humor helped me cope with my past bullies and has helped me face the bullies I've met in adulthood (I'd like to tell you that bullies end when you leave school, but the good news is that as you get older, you get better at handling it as long as you don't buy into what they are saying).   After  you have the luxury distance, you can look back though your mind's eye at that picket fence of sorry memories and even laugh at how stupid those mean people are.   Those bullies had nothing on me and yet I cry for the kids who didn't know that and gave up too soon.   There will always be bullies, but raising awareness and learning to love yourself is the greatest defense of all.    Stay strong, live long and smile because you'll be stronger than you ever knew you could be.  Every great person of substance has had to overcome adversity or were told they were totally incompetent by those that know only how to inflict harm on someone else.   Sure it sucks, but it pushes you harder to achieve your personal goals because you need to prove them wrong.  Push through the dark times with all your might, because I promise you will find yourself on the other side of that twisted picket fence in a brighter place where it's finally safe to be laughing at bullies.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mankind is Our Business

It was a freezing night in New York City as the holiday shoppers rushed from place to place in Times Square.  Outside of the Skeeters store, there was a homeless man sitting outside on the pavement, shoeless, his feet covered in blisters.   A young police officer named Larry DePrimo saw that man, I mean really saw him.  Not as person who might have been a petty thief or a drug addict, or a nameless emotionless homeless person who countless people probably walked by that night.  He saw him as a fellow human being who was suffering from the cold.  Officer DePrimo was on the beat with two pairs of thermal socks and shoes and still his feet were cold, he could only imagine how this man felt in the nearly freezing temperatures that night.   So he went into the Skeeter’s store to ask about purchasing shoes for this stranger who needed someone to watch out for him that night.  The manager could not give him the shoes for free but offered to use his employee discount to get the winter boots and some thermal socks.  The officer took out his wallet and paid $75 for the shoes and socks.  There were no documentary cameras following this young man around to document his act of kindness which would have gone completely unnoticed by anyone else.   But a tourist from Arizona named Jennifer Foster happened upon the scene and took a cell phone photo – a snapshot of what is good and kind in human nature. 

This photo has resonated around the internet and made plenty of rounds on Facebook.  Officer DePrimo has been on the Today Show and various other news shows in what many call a fine example of New York’s finest.   Ms. Foster works in law enforcement and comes from a long line of people who serve and protect.  She had seen her father do something similar for a person in the same circumstance and it touched her.  She sent the photo to NYPD with a note about how impressed she was with what the officer did.  The NYPD put it on their Facebook page.   The public, feeling parched for good deeds after a very contentious election season, grabbed the photo and ran with it.  I actually posted the story on my own Facebook page.   For many, it restored their faith in humanity because lately humanity has been getting a bad rap.  You see the horrible things that are happening in Syria and other places like North Korea and wonder what has happened to us as a species.   When did not caring become okay?    Maybe we’ve needed a reminder to remember how good human nature can be under the right circumstances.

Charles Dickens’s pondered the question of kindness in human nature in his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol.  Ebenezer Scrooge is a money grubbing, self-centered curmudgeon who feels nothing towards his fellow man but disdain.  Any sense of love and charity had been snuffed out years ago.   He does not see his only relative a nephew named Fred on Christmas and bristles at giving his one employee, Bob Cratchit the day off with pay which was the custom in those days.  Scrooge is on the fast track to Hell until a visit from his best friend Jacob Marley changes his life forever.   Jacob had passed on seven years to the day and comes back in ghostly form to tell him the torment he now must experience due to the way he treated people when he was living.  When Scrooge reminds him that he was “always a good man of business”, Marley responds:

"Business!  Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"  Marley tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts, one from Christmas Past, one from Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Be.  The ghost of Christmas past shows a young Scrooge who was bullied but eventually found love with Belle but destroys it all when he chooses money over love.  The ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge how he is perceived by his nephew and by the Cratchit family.   His nephew’s fiancée dismisses him as an old greedy geezer who is not worth bothering about.  Bob Cratchit, even as poor as he is, thanks his stingy boss for their meager Christmas, showing more charity then Scrooge has ever shown him.   Moreover, his sick son Tiny Tim warms Scrooges heart by showing courage and kindness and eternal optimism.    Christmas Yet to Be shows Scrooge that both he and Tiny Tim have passed on – the little boy is greatly mourned while Scrooge’s corpse is barely tended to and items from his estate are stolen by his maid.   When he begs the last ghost to send him back because he will repent, Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day, sends a prize winning goose to the Cratchits anonymously and attends Fred’s party to the astonishment of his guests.  Scrooge stays true to his promise to the ghosts and keeps Christmas in his heart, gives money to the poor and is greatly loved.

A Christmas Carol is a great story because it asks all of us to examine our hearts and learn to see things from another’s perspective.   It has never been out of print since 1843 probably because the themes are timeless – to those whom much is given – much is expected and turning your back on your fellow man in need just is not going to cut it in the afterlife – you might well end up like Marley walking around with all your sins linked together in an ungodly chain of misery. (Are you listening Donald Trump?)

One thing that really bothered me about this past election was the sense that it was more over class issues then “Hey we’re all Americans and let’s get this country moving.”  It became more about economic differences –the haves vs. the have nots.  I know that mind-set has been around since the turn of the century (both 1900 and 2000) so this is nothing new but the nastiness of this election took was really bad.  The ferocity of the opposition to a universal health plan really took me aback.  I’m not going to tell you that it’s a perfect plan (nothing is) but trying to choose between feeding your family and wondering if you can get chemotherapy does not move us further as a country.   There are ways to fix it if both sides want to work together and adopt a program that closer to the Swiss Healthcare system that offers subsidies to lower income families but still requires people to have some form of insurance.   The Swiss use a premium-support model that is similar in many ways to the various Paul Ryan proposals for Medicare, and also to the Obamacare exchanges.   Working together, conservatives and liberals can put their differences aside and create a workable healthcare plan that might actually save billions of dollars and help the most vulnerable in our society at the same time.  It’s a win/win that needs to see political pride checked at the door if we have any hope of having it work.   It’s a way to help mankind in the United States as we know it.

I’m not trying to bash the wealthy because in my line of work, I’ve had to serve the Have-Nots while soliciting money from the Haves.   I almost always find generous people on both sides of the aisle who want to help once you make a good case for what the needs of the people you are serving are.  For instance, I used to work at a charity that works with adults with developmental disabilities.   One of the programs was Community Connections where we try to match our individuals and their passion with a professional person who shares that same passion.   We had one older gentleman named Randy who loves anything that flies.   The office was less than a mile from a private airport and the Maintenance Supervisor offered to take Randy around to the different areas of the complex that normally would be off-limits to anyone off the street.  Randy got to see the air traffic tower and the controllers were more than happy to show him how things worked and how to guide a plane safely in.   He got to sit in a helicopter and he got to meet real pilots who were working on their private plane before it got ready to take off.  They were thrilled to share what they knew with Randy because this developmentally disabled man touched them with his excitement and love for the same thing they cared about.    These wealthy men probably had a ton of things to do before take-off, but stopped when they saw someone they could help or just brighten his day.   Their faces were priceless as they spoke to Randy about why they love to fly.   It didn’t cost those pilots anything but time and my guess is that they felt pretty awesome after the visit was over.  To me that is just as miraculous as giving shoes to a homeless person because the spirit moves you to do it. 

Since Officer DePrimo’s act of kindness has hit the internet, there have been so many messages from people who appreciate the fact that as a police officer did what he felt was right.  It would have been easier to ask the man to move along because he might be bothering the tourists.  For my money, he gave this kindness when he thought that no one was watching.  That is the true definition of character. 

Now there are of course the cynics who have left messages that would have you believe that this homeless man was probably a drug addict and sold the shoes for drugs or that there are safety nets and no one is truly homeless unless they want to be.  There are also those that are suspicious of law enforcement and claim that this is all made-up.  They list a litany of abuses from bad cops in the NYPD as an excuse to not be touched by the photo or see the intrinsic goodness in what was being done.   I would hate to see the world through their eyes because while they might claim to want to help, their inability to see the good in anyone either a police officer or a homeless person will keep them in this spiral of negativity.  In their eyes, the world is a terrible place, full of terrible people in which only terrible things happen.  

Yet they will still go to church or temple or whatever religion they ascribe to and claim to be a good person who just hasn’t found the right cause to support.  I like Stephen Colbert’s response to those who put down the needy because it’s easier to turn a blind eye than offer any meaningful solutions:  “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”   There were thousands of people who saw that man and many homeless like him that night and just pretended not to see them because it was easier to not get involved and not acknowledge that person as one of God’s creatures.  I remember seeing a homeless man sitting at a table in McDonalds drinking a cup of coffee because that was probably all he could buy.    When he went the bathroom, I walked over to his dirty and stained book bag and put a $5 bill on it which was all the cash I had on me.   I got my kids and left, peaking around the corner in the window when the man came back and found $5 unexplained dollars on his book bag and no one around.  I don’t know what he did with it - my hope is that he got something hot and nourishing to eat.  I smiled the rest of the day.   

The Ghost of Christmas Present asks Scrooge , "Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of Heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child!"   It’s the Christmas season, and whether you are giving to a toy drive, or offering to help an overwhelmed neighbor, or just writing a check to a cause you care about – everything counts.  It’s a time to share and feel good in a way that a new iPad just can’t give you.   It took a 25 year old police officer to show us the real truth behind the season of giving – it’s to help out the less fortunate because whatever your economic circumstance or what you are able give, mankind is everyone’s business.