Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dear Hollywood: Please Leave Your Sunglasses at Home

I don't usually cry that often. Rarely for people I've never met. Last night, and again this morning, I cried for Robin Williams. 

Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting, The Birdcage, Awakenings, even Happy Feet - his ability to tell stories is unmatched. 

But his character in Dead Poets Society, John Keating, changed my life. He spoke to me in ways for which words are insufficient. Into my small town world of conformity and limited possibility as a teenager, came this remarkable teacher who taught his students that their passions mattered, that their dreams mattered, that they had the ability to love and be loved. Keating had courage, he had a joie de vivre that inspired a bunch of 1950s teenage boys to sneak out of their dorms in the middle of the night to read poetry, of all things. 

He's probably at least 60% of the reason I was an English major. 

Keating told his students, "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering - these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love - these are what we stay alive for." 

In the end, like the powers of conformity beat John Keating down, and got him fired from his job as a teacher, so too did the powers of depression beat down an incredible man, an incredible story teller, a man who knew the full expanse - height and depth, breadth and width - of the human soul. 

And so I cry. 

I have a suggestion to make for his friends in Hollywood. Usually they wear sunglasses to a funeral to hide their tears, to hide their puffy, red eyes, so that their image can remain unscathed. But for Robin, in recognition of his depression, I think the world should see sadness. I think we should see what crying looks like. I think we should see what pain looks like. I don't think we should hide it. I think we should feel it, and know how sad we are to lose such a man in this way. 

I know there's a difference between clinical depression and sadness. But part of the stigma around depression is that we have some kind of fake understanding of reality, that sadness is something to avoid. But sadness, grief, loss, it's all part of the human experience. It's not something to fear, and it's not something to hide. If we try to avoid it, that only makes the stigma of depression worse.  

So Hollywood - leave the sunglasses at home. Let the world see you cry. Don't be ashamed of your humanity. Embrace it. For Robin. 

Rest in peace Mr. Williams. For your incredible life - your passion, your humor, your sensitivity, your wisdom - thank you. You will always be my Captain. 

I'm going to get a Kleenex now. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

What if Israelis and Palestinians Followed the Golden Rule?

When you were a child, did anyone tell you to, “treat others the way you want to be treated”? I heard it. Of course, I interpreted this by thinking that if someone is treating me the way they want to be treated and they’re being mean, they must want me to be mean back to them. Right? It took me a while to get over myself about that. 

What is it about adulthood that we forget the most basic things we learned in our earliest years? 

I’ll never forget that on the night of the Columbine tragedy, President Clinton came on TV and told us that we’ve got to teach out children how to solve problems with other means than through violence. At the exact same time, American planes were dropping bombs on Kosovo. 

Now as adults, we can rationalize this, and talk about whether or not the use of force in that instance actually helped protect life. There are all kinds of complicating factors and exceptions, and it could be argued that that act of violence did prevent a greater evil. But the bottom line is that our nation was using violence to solve a problem. How can we expect kids to see that and conclude that they should never use violence to solve their problems? 

From Afghanistan to Iraq, there is sufficient evidence to at least raise the question - was it worth it? Was the fighting we did there worth the cost? Did the violence we inflicted, or the violence we suffered, actually solve anything or bring about more justice and mercy? With the rise of Isis and the return of the Taliban, I think there’s at least something to talk about. 

My heart breaks for what’s happening in Israel/Palestine right now. It’s very difficult to know what’s really going on with a lack of objective information available in our media, but whether your sympathies lie with the Israelis or Palestinians, everyone is losing right now. From the Israeli Defense Force invading Gaza, killing civilians, even children, to the Hamas rockets - no one is winning anything here. No one is gaining security. No one is gaining stability. No one is gaining freedom. Everyone is suffering. The extreme violence unleashed there is making everyone suffer. It’s not fair and it’s not going to solve anything. Neither side is treating the other the way they want to be treated. 

Paraphrasing President Jimmy Carter, we will never resolve our differences by killing each other’s children. He’s right. We’ve got to put down the guns. We’ve got to be more courageous. We’ve got to be more compassionate. We’ve got to remember the lessons of our childhood innocence, and maybe then, we can reach an adult maturity. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Marathon Spirit

In the spring of 1996, I was finishing up my freshman year at Boston College. It was also the 100th running of the Boston Marathon that year. I made my way down to the finish to see it, and I can tell you, it was quite an event. 

Usually someone has to qualify to participate in the Boston Marathon, but for the 100th running, they let more runners in, if they raised a certain amount of sponsorship. These additional people weren’t all in the same condition that Boston Marathon runners may more typically exhibit. In other words, not everyone finished in under four hours. Or five. Or six, and I think some were still out there at seven and eight hours. 

I saw the first runners come into Copley Square, those elite bodies, practically jogging down Boylston street as if they’d just started a mile ago. We all cheered for them, and were so impressed with their accomplishment. I watched for a little while and then walked back around through the Boston Common to take in some of the sights. A few hours later, I had circled back to the finish line again - to see the folks coming in several hours after the winners.

I remember their facial expressions and body language being very different from what I had seen just a few hours ago. Far from relaxed and nonchalant, these folks were in pain. They looked utterly depleted. I imagine many of them headed straight for the medical tent after crossing that beautiful blue and yellow, 4’ wide finish line that was painted across Boylston St.; but in addition to the pain they must’ve felt, they also showed incredible relief, pride, and joy at just having completed the Boston Marathon, regardless of their time. 

Yesterday as I watched the scenes after the bombings in Boston, I had a lot of thoughts going through my head. Some of my earliest thoughts were for the runners - for those I knew had trained months, if not years for the chance to cross that line, and how many of them didn't get the chance to do that yesterday.

Of course my love and prayers go to everyone who was affected, and their families, along with the whole city of Boston. But I think it’s important that we especially remember the runners.

To be honest, I think it’s a very strange desire to want to run 26.2 miles. But these men and women push the human body to its limits, and they remind us of just how much we can accomplish if we just work hard and pour ourselves into something. Marathon runners remind us of the rewards of long-term commitment, sticking through something for the long haul, not just instant gratification. I don’t know if I could ever run a marathon, but marathon runners will always inspire me with their irrepressible spirit. 

May all of us, in the wake of this tragedy, be inspired by that marathon spirit, and may we persevere against hatred, resist vengeance, and remember that the struggle against fear and intolerance is a marathon - it’s going to take a while. It might be painful and exhausting. But no matter what our time is in the end, imagine the incredible relief, pride, and joy at just having completed the effort. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What's Good About Good Friday?

My nearly six year old daughter asked me yesterday, “Why is Good Friday called that?” Despite the fact that I’m an ordained Christian minister, trained and supposedly able to answer questions such as this, my reaction was probably very similar to how anyone might react when asked such a deep question, with significant theological ramifications. I panicked. I mean, this is the religious equivalent of “Where do babies come from?”!

I said to her, out loud, trying to psych myself up, “I’m supposed to be able to answer that question, aren’t I.” 

In some traditions, they don’t blink at telling a kindergartener - “Because Jesus died for our sins on Good Friday. That’s why.” But I don’t want to give my daughter such an overly simplistic answer, especially one I don’t think fully covers the question. What happened on Good Friday was truly awful. Scandalous even. I don’t want to be the kind of parent that hides the truth from his kids, but nor do I want to give my kids more than they can developmentally handle at their age. 

So what’s a parent and a pastor supposed to do? 

We had a conversation at our church council meeting the other day about having a good bad day. And as it turned out, I think a lot of us came to understand that it is possible to have a bad day, that turns out to be good. We might’ve learned something important on that “bad” day. We might’ve been inspired to turn our lives in a different direction. Or, were it not for a particular event, we might not have met someone who turned out to be incredibly significant in our lives. To put it in another way, sometimes “bad” days, really aren’t all that bad. 

Bad and good sound like they should be different enough from each other that we should be able to easily tell the difference. But Good Friday is a perfect example of something that breaks down that theory of "good" being unambiguously good, and "bad" being unambiguously bad. Good and bad have a far closer relationship with each other than we sometimes admit. 

I ended up telling my daughter that when Jesus was killed, it was a bad day. It was very sad. But what it means is that no matter how bad of a day we have, God knows exactly how we feel, and is with us every step of the way. And the story ended up even better for Jesus, as we’ll hear on Easter morning. 

But in the meantime, I hope you’ll join me in the tough questions of this Holy Week. It’s nice to know we’re not alone - even when things seem really bad. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Wailing, Lamentation, Weeping

"A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." -Matthew 2:18

Every night, when I tuck my five year old into bed, she wraps her arms around my neck and gives me kisses. Every night, she doesn't want to let go, and I have to pull away, as it's really a bit of a stall tactic. Tonight, I held on to her as long as I could. She has no idea about what happened today in Connecticut. So I didn't hold onto her for her benefit, it was totally for me. 

Tonight, I didn't care that my 7-month-old spit up on my clothes, I just watched him chew on his Taggies toy that was also drenched in spit-up and drool, and loved watching him figure out how to move his hands around. 

I read an annoying princess book to my three-year-old, hardly paying attention to the words, as I wondered about what stories will help her handle such terrible events when she grows up. 

And as I came downstairs to my wife, a school psychologist in an elementary school, I could not help but be overwhelmed for Newtown, CT; for the parents who will never again get to read to their son or daughter, never again feel those arms around their neck or those slobbery kisses on their cheek. I could not but think of the families of Sandy Hook's school psychologist, the principal, and the other adults who dedicated their lives to building children into healthy young people, and who are no longer with us.

I am sick over this. Utterly sick. And furious. 

If anyone thinks for one second that I give a damn about someone's hobby, or that the second amendment is more important to this country than the sweet children who were lambs to the slaughter this morning, you are sorely mistaken. 

To the National Rifle Association and your cronies - you are a demonic force in our society. 

If you care more about your passtime than the precious lives of our children, you are sick. If you think this is some kind of protection against an out-of-control government, you are paranoid and delusional. 

If you start to tell me that people kill people, not guns, look into the faces of the parents who lost their babies today and tell them that. If you want to tell me it's too early to talk about gun control in the wake of this shooting, you could not be more wrong. For the students, staff, and families of Sandy Hook, it literally cannot be soon enough.

When I look into the eyes of my kindergartener, and I think about what might happen if someone walked into her classroom with one of these weapons, I am completely terrified. If we cannot have an honest, frank, sincere conversation in this country about sensible protections for the sake of our children, then we do not deserve the freedoms our Constitution provides.