Reverberations Through Time

Note: I have been absent for a month! There are many reasons for that – I will write about it at another time. I am glad to be back! I look forward to continuing our conversation about stories we tell ourselves.

December 15, 2022 would be my father-in-law’s 100th birthday. David Bakst made it to his 98th and for that I am grateful. He passed away a week after achieving that milestone.

As I reflect on his life so many thoughts come to mind. In David’s last years, I would often accompany Gary on his Thursday afternoon visits. Gary doesn’t see patients on Thursday afternoons, so it was a good opportunity to spend time with his Dad. They, including his mom despite her advanced dementia, would go out to lunch to a diner near their apartment in Saugerties. I know Gary treasures that time and the memories they provide.

Many of those lunchtime conversations revolved around David’s memories. We would ask him about his youth and World War II experiences. We heard the same stories multiple times, new details might be offered, but even if not, we never tired of hearing them. One particular comment stayed with me, though I am not sure why. As David described his family life before the war, he said that after Shabbos services, the adults (his parents’ family and friends) would gather at his home and talk (argue) politics. David listened in, beginning a long interest in politics that remained for the rest of his days. He told us that his father was a supporter of Jabotinsky, who he described as more of a right winger. The name vaguely rang a bell, but I didn’t know anything about him or the context. I was curious. I tried to imagine what their political conversations might have been about in the late 1920s and early 1930s in David’s shtetl (village) in Poland (now Belarus).

After that conversation, I googled Jabotinsky and learned a bit but didn’t get very far and I set the subject aside, though it still intrigued me. Oddly enough the other day I came across a podcast entitled Jabotinsky and the Birth of the Israeli Right. I thought this might shed light on the topic, plus I am interested in better understanding the politics of Israel and this sounded like it could offer that.

I am very glad I listened. It accomplished exactly what I had hoped. It reaffirmed my belief that learning about our past illuminates our present; the issues that plagued us more than a century ago still percolate in the lives we live today.

The topic the Bakst family was likely discussing during their Shabbos afternoon visits was Zionism. It is appropriate that I write about this now given the intersection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and the appalling rise in antisemitic rhetoric and violence.

So, what is Zionism? It is the movement to create and support a Jewish homeland. Its roots go back centuries as part of Judaism, with the idea that since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the diaspora, Jews prayed to return to the Holy Land. This was largely a religious tenet until the late 19th Century. It evolved into a political movement, in part in response to virulent antisemitism in Central and Eastern Europe when Jews were largely confined to living in an area called the Pale of Settlement (part of Russia and Poland). In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, as pogroms (violent riots perpetrated against Jews in the Pale of Settlement) became more common and feared, some Jewish thought leaders concluded that the only solution to antisemitism was a Jewish homeland. They believed that there was no future for Jews in Central and Eastern Europe and that ultimately, they needed their own country in their ancestral homeland. The father of this strand of political Zionism is generally considered to be Theodor Herzl, who wrote a pamphlet that was published in 1897 entitled Der Judenstaat (The State of Jews). In it he argued that Jews were a nationality, that it was not a social or religious question, but a national one. In order to escape antisemitism, express their culture freely and practice their religion, they needed a state. This idea became quite popular and was widely discussed in Jewish circles, including David’s hometown of Iwie.

As with most political movements, there were factions. I imagine that David’s family debated the different perspectives. One of the areas of disagreement was what kind of country should it be. Some advocated for a socialist state (David Ben-Gurion emerged as the leader of this wing and in fact became the country’s first prime minister in 1948); others wanted a free market approach. I would imagine David’s father, as a successful businessman before the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1939, would have wanted a capitalist economy for the new state. Jabotinsky, the person David referenced, supported the free market, though he also believed that the citizens of the new state should determine their destiny.

Another thread of discord in Zionism is the role of Judaism, the role of the religion itself, in the creation and running of the state. One of the things that is unique about being Jewish is that it encompasses a number of elements: it is a religion, it is an ethnicity, and it is a culture. Some identify with some aspects of that identity, but not others. The Zionist movement included (and still includes) a range of belief about religion. Some are Orthodox, very observant Jews, for whom the religion and the state are inextricably tied. Others are secular Jews who may even call themselves atheists. Neither Herzl, Ben-Gurion nor Jabotinsky were particularly religious. Though I never had a conversation with David about this subject, I believe he would support maintaining the Jewish character of the state but would not support a theocracy. Defining that balance continues to be a challenge.

Jabotinsky also advocated for a strong military capability. He believed that the new state would be fought over, that the Arabs in the area would not relinquish land or power without a fight. Ben-Gurion believed that in return for economic and political considerations, the Arabs could be appeased. In furtherance of Jabotinsky’s belief in the need for military capability, he created a youth group in Poland, Betar, that would instill nationalist fervor in young people for Israel and train them to respond to attacks on Jews wherever they occurred. David Bakst was a member of Betar.

I wonder if any of the training he received, or the faith and support built as part of that group, helped him in his war experience.

There is great poignancy to these issues. Imagine if there had been a Jewish State in the mid 1930’s. Millions of lives might have been saved. Instead of ships being turned away from ports, instead of country after country rejecting Jewish refugees, people would have had a place to go. We will never know what might have been.

The controversies that plagued the founding of Israel are still playing out today. The tensions between its socialist origins and the demands of a free-market economy are still difficult to sort out. The balancing of the different attitudes regarding the role of Judaism in the state creates conflict. The fundamental disagreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, not to mention its Arab citizens, are as troubling as ever.

And, in an even larger sense, we are still grappling with what to do about antisemitism. It is a pernicious and stubborn prejudice. It is disheartening that over a century after Herzl wrote his pamphlet, and even with the establishment of the state of Israel, lies, misconceptions and hate are still rife. After all he went through, I wonder if David would be surprised by this latest resurgence. In that one sense, I am glad he isn’t here to see it.

More Observations

The midterms are over – or almost over. All the races haven’t been called yet. I am relieved that it wasn’t a red wave, and that Kathy Hochul will be our Governor. It certainly was not a complete victory. I am left wondering how Marjorie Taylor Greene was re-elected and why did Herschel Walker get enough votes to force a runoff? These two people are, as Dave Chappelle said about Walker on Saturday Night Live, “observably stupid.” If I think too long about people voting for such incompetent candidates, I get depressed. So I won’t. I will focus on the more reasonable results and breathe a sigh of relief that the Senate will not be led by Mitch McConnell.

I’ve been thinking about some other things related to the election. For example, why are polls reported on as if they are news? Polls aren’t actions and they are subject to misinterpretation, given that few people understand statistics. How do polls further the mission of the New York Times (‘all the news that’s fit to print’) or the Washington Post (‘democracy dies in darkness’)? Polls should not be considered news! And, I could make a strong case that hyping the polls the way that they do, is detrimental to democracy. It certainly doesn’t shed light on it. The actual election is the engine of democracy.

I understand the utility of polling for candidates and their campaigns. The polls can help them target audiences or messages (whether that is a good thing is another subject I would be happy to argue, but I’ll leave that alone). But, what purpose do they serve to the general public? Why are they covered as if something happened, as if there were new developments? They may or may not be accurate and until the actual vote is counted, they mean nothing. All they do is add to the anxiety, they create an artificial energy (whether you are on the ‘losing’ or ‘winning’ side) that fuels more spending. When you look at how much our political races cost, it is mind-blowing. Think of all the good that could be done with that money.

When I mentioned this idea at a family gathering, my niece pointed out that the media report it because people find it interesting – they respond to the horse race aspect of it – and the media is driven by interest/ratings. I believe she is correct. But does it have to be that way? Isn’t it a vicious cycle? What would happen if mainstream media just stopped reporting on it? It is possible that they could make that choice.

My son-in-law commented that he wished we followed the model of some European countries where campaigns are limited to two months. We had a short debate about whether that would lead to more focus on substantive issues, or whether the candidates wouldn’t bother and would just get right to the bullshit allegations and smear campaigns. It is hard to say how it might play out, but either way we wouldn’t be subjected to the onslaught of ads for months – and it would cost far less. After watching a program where each political ad was worse than the one before it, my husband said, “It makes me miss the drug company ads.” I had to laugh. That says something. Gary, the doctor, would rather be inundated by ads that promise relief from eczema.

* * * *

We have had some extraordinary weather. Two weeks ago, I lamented that with November beginning, we were entering the dreary part of fall. I was premature in my proclamation. We were given a lovely reprieve. It was great timing for my family in that we hosted several gatherings over the course of the weekend. Our newest granddaughter, just over 5 months old, came for her first visit to our home and we invited aunts, uncles and cousins to meet her.

As the weekend approached, we kept checking the weather forecast. I was hopeful we could gather outside to minimize the possibility of spreading Covid/flu or even a cold. I couldn’t believe that it was going to be that warm and it promised to be dry, too! The forecast held. We had a brief drizzle that wasn’t enough for anyone to move inside, so we were able to eat, drink and visit in our backyard. What a delight!

Then to top it off, we had the most amazing sunset. The sky was pastel pink – the air itself appeared to be pink. I have never seen light like that before. Though we didn’t have many leaves on our trees, we still had some lingering yellow ones. We also have a carpet of pine needles – in bright light they look brown, but in this sunset they were orange. This phenomenon of the light was brief, and I couldn’t capture it on camera. I hope I can keep the image in my mind’s eye – it was spectacular. What gift!

Another gift – a tree in our backyard

* * * *

Speaking of gifts, we are coming into the holiday season where we do a great deal of gift-giving. We don’t want to overdo it with our grandchildren. If there are items we know they need, we are happy to get them, but the truth is there isn’t much they need. We are very fortunate. With our older granddaughter, we are starting to focus on experiences, getting tickets to a show or performance we think she will enjoy. And we can contribute to their college funds – who knows how crazy expensive tuition, and such will be by the time they enroll.

They have enough stuff. The only problem is that it can be fun to pick out stuff – cute outfits, colorful toys, squishy stuffed animals can be irresistible. They can never have enough books, in my estimation, either. But, I will restrain myself. In the interest of our budget, and not contributing to needless clutter, I won’t overdo it. At least I will try not to. Plus I can channel some of that desire to give to others who are in need.

VOTE!!!

Early voting has begun in New York State. Let me direct. If you are a resident of this great state, I am asking you to vote for Kathy Hochul. We are being bombarded by ads, paid for by the Republican National Committee or another Republican political action committee, playing on fear of crime to get folks to vote for Lee Zeldin. I ask that you consider the facts. Has the crime rate gone up? The answer to that is: it depends – compared to when? What types of crimes? Where? Here is a chart (using FBI data) that illustrates that New York State’s crime rate is far below that of the United States as a whole and that it is far less than it was nine years ago. (New York is in blue, the United States is red – this is the most current available)

It is all about perception. I looked at current New York City data and again it depends on what you compare. Murder is down year over year. Auto theft is up this year compared to last. But, again, it is all relative because compared to five years ago, when crime was at historic lows, it has gone up. If you compare it to a decade ago, it is substantially lower.

No matter what your perception of crime is, what exactly are Republicans proposing to do about it that will make it better? There is no evidence that whatever increases we have seen are the result of ‘cashless bail.’ If the only solution to this perceived crime wave is to repeal cashless bail, it will not have the desired effect.

There was a reason the state adopted cashless bail and that reason has not gone away. We can’t have a system where persons who commit the same crime are treated differently because one has access to money, and another does not. One person can’t languish in jail while another walks free based only on one having access to cash. The current law may need to be adjusted, if there are loopholes or if aspects of it that aren’t working. In fact, it already has been amended. But, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The criminal justice system is flawed. We need to acknowledge the problems and not pretend that we can go back to some ‘good old days.’ There are no good old days when it comes to crime. I don’t have all the answers. I am not advocating defunding the police – neither is Kathy Hochul. It is a ridiculous notion, we need police. At the same time, though, we need to be honest about the problems inherent in the system. Beware of any candidate who offers simplistic solutions, on either end of the spectrum (from defunding the police to ‘lock ‘em up’). I appreciate that Kathy Hochul, despite the onslaught of these hyperbolic crime commercials, has not called for repeal of cashless bail. She has a spine – a necessary quality in a public servant.

I also believe that New York State has many other issues to grapple with. The more I hear of Lee Zeldin’s positions the more concerned I become. He is advocating lifting the ban on fracking. Again, this might sound appealing in the short term, but it would be a disastrous policy for the environmental health of our state. He advocates public funding for religious schools. This is another dangerous policy that in the long term threatens the very heart of our system of governance. We need to firmly re-establish the separation of church (synagogue, mosque or any other religious institution) and state. That separation is especially critical in education.

Since I wrote my blog post several weeks ago asking that you not be complacent,  the race for governor in New York has tightened. I believe the fear-mongering and relentless advertising is having an impact.

It is essential that we be vigilant – and not just at the gubernatorial level.  The same strategy of fear-mongering is at play in House of Representatives races. In my home district, the Republican candidate, Liz Joy, is portraying her opponent as soft on crime. The law that everyone is criticizing was enacted at the state-level, not federal. The incumbent Congressman, Paul Tonko, had no role in the move to cashless bail. Tonko has voted for the assault weapon ban and every other common-sense approach to crime reduction offered at the federal level.

Once again, I appeal to all to look beyond facile slogans and the relentless fear-mongering. Make sure you are getting your information from reliable sources. When applicable, look at the candidates actual voting record.

As a reminder, here are some of the bills Lee Zeldin voted against as a congressman:

Assault Weapons Ban (ironically, most in law enforcement support this), Inflation Reduction Act (but he takes credit for infrastructure projects and issues press releases to encourage federal spending in his district), Right to Contraception, Ensuring Access to Abortion, Women’s Health Protection Act, Infant Formula Supplemental Appropriations Act, Consumer Price Gouging…the list can go on and on. These bills were not part of some crazy liberal agenda – they are responses to problems and needs that most New Yorkers support.

Zeldin has downplayed the potential for rolling-back abortion access in New York State, despite his ‘pro-life’ stance, noting the Democratic majorities in both houses of the State Legislature. Please do not rely on that – the composition of the legislature can change (and has many times in my lifetime) and the governor has powers through budgeting and executive orders that can circumvent the legislature.

Finally, Zeldin’s close association with Trump is problematic, and it should be disqualifying. We in New York have seen Trump’s career – his multiple bankruptcies, his failures, his lies – up close. We know he is a charlatan. Somehow Zeldin overlooks all of that and refuses to hold Trump accountable for the damage done to our country. This alone makes him unfit to be governor.

I urge everyone to do their homework on the candidates (for all offices). Don’t rely on advertisements. Read their own words; look at their positions; if they have a voting record, check it out. And then vote – it matters.

Don’t Be Complacent

Please don’t be complacent about voting. You may believe you are in a ‘safe’ district or state where the polls show a commanding lead for your candidate, but polls can be wrong. We have seen that. Not only that, but it is important that your voice be heard. It matters if a candidate wins with a clear majority versus a slim margin – the message from the electorate is more powerful when it is backed by huge numbers. So, no matter where you live, make your voice heard.

I write this because I am worried. In New York State, where polls show Kathy Hochul with a commanding lead in the race for Governor, I see the Republican candidate reaching for a familiar election strategy to change the momentum:  fear – fear of crime. We know that is an effective tactic. While we can legitimately discuss crime and whether bail reform is responsible for, or even plays a role in, the rise, it is not legitimate to use propaganda to stoke that fear entirely out of proportion to reality. The fact that the crime rate has risen in states that have not enacted changes to bail would suggest that there are other elements at work. Bail reform is a policy worth reviewing and can no doubt benefit from study, but it must be kept in perspective. It is especially problematic when there are so many other important issues to consider.

I think it is important to consider the candidates’ other positions. I took a closer look at Zeldin’s voting record – he has been in Congress representing the eastern end of Long Island since 2014. Here are some of the recent bills he voted AGAINST: Assault Weapons Ban (ironically I believe most in law enforcement support this), Inflation Reduction Act, Right to Contraception, Ensuring Access to Abortion, Women’s Health Protection Act, Infant Formula Supplemental Appropriations Act, Consumer Price Gouging…the list can go on and on. These bills were not part of some crazy liberal agenda – they are responses to problems and needs that most New Yorkers support.

I believe that among my community some may be considering voting for Zeldin, for two reasons. First, his position on crime and second, his support of Israel. I’ll address the second issue first because it is easier. While Zeldin is Jewish, I could find nothing that suggests that Hochul has not been an ally for Israel and for the Jewish community. In fact, when Cuomo was in the process of resigning, Jewish leaders from around the state voiced their support for Hochul and characterized her as “accessible, transparent and widely liked.” It does not appear that there is a difference between the two candidates on this.

For me, nothing is more concerning than his position on reproductive health. In this post-Roe era, the governor of New York must unequivocally support a women’s right to choose. Lee Zeldin does not. It is painfully obvious that governors and state legislatures are on the forefront of protecting women’s rights. We can’t afford to entrust the governorship to someone who will not provide full-throated support for autonomy over their own bodies, especially for our daughters and granddaughters.

Others may not place that issue as high as I do when they evaluate candidates. Here is another thing to consider. The anti-Zeldin commercials I have seen highlight his closeness to Donald Trump. I don’t trust political ads, so I read his public statements after January 6th and looked at his voting record on the issues surrounding it (Trump’s impeachment, the recent vote to fix the ambiguity around the role of the vice president in certifying the election, among others). What did I find? He deserves to be portrayed as a Trump supporter. He voted against impeachment and against the clarifying legislation. On January 7th, after the insurrection, this was the statement he issued: “ I just returned home from our Nation’s Capitol after witnessing firsthand from inside the House Chamber yesterday the best of America clash with some of the worst of it in a moment of my life I will never forget. For this moment, let’s take one collective deep breath, recharge and renew our spirit for whatever lies ahead. We are all Americans first.”

He took a play from Trump’s playbook by coyly not identifying who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. I didn’t leave out the part of his statement explaining that. To make matters worse, on the night of January 6th when Congress reconvened to certify the results, Zeldin voted to reject Arizona’s presidential election results. He also joined in the lawsuit that sought to discard the votes of Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, which was subsequently thrown out by the Supreme Court.

In the days, weeks and months that followed, Zeldin has never acknowledged Trump’s culpability in that attack or that the election had not been stolen. In fact, he has defended Trump, alleging that a double standard was applied where Trump’s inciting words were criticized but not Democrats. He failed to note which words and by whom. And, in case you were wondering, there are New York Republicans in Congress who have rejected Trumpism and voted in support of a number of the measures I noted above. A person who has not disavowed Trump cannot be trusted to lead our state – he either lacks a backbone or conscience or both.

As I have written before many times on this blog, I can understand and respect different policy approaches. I have never been a Republican and can’t imagine that I ever will be, but I recognize the importance of compromise and finding common ground. I am happy to debate policy issues, from taxes to crime to the economy and everything in between. I must draw a line, though. I cannot accept allowing Donald Trump to continue to be the standard-bearer for the Republican party. He cannot be permitted to skate by without being held accountable for the damage he has done, much less hold public office again. People like Lee Zeldin appear to be all too happy to allow him to remain in party leadership. I hope New York Republicans will reject Zeldin in his bid to be governor.

If crime is your central concern, there are any number of ways to communicate with elected officials and advocate for other approaches. I ask that you not allow the spate of political ads that play on fear and make exaggerated claims to dictate your vote. Look more deeply at the issue and what candidates are offering as solutions. I hope those in my community who might be considering Zeldin will realize he is a poor choice for a myriad of reasons, including that he does not offer real solutions to rising crime. It is a lot more complicated than repealing bail reform.

Most importantly, I urge everyone to do their homework on the candidates (for all offices). Don’t rely on advertisements. Read their own words; look at their positions; if they have a voting record, check it out. And then vote – it matters.

The newest statue in Central Park in NYC – an appropriate reminder of our responsibility to carry their work forward

The Eyes of History

“If I had my way, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”

Sound familiar? Could almost be a sound bite from the 2016 Presidential campaign or current political discourse. It is a statement one can imagine hearing at Trump’s recent rally in Ohio. But it was made by North Carolina Senator Robert Reynolds around 1939 in response to the growing Nazi threat in Europe.

This was one of the many echoes that struck me as I watched “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” the  Ken Burns’ documentary that aired on PBS last week. It can still be streamed for free.

Today it is appropriate, it is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, to reflect on the lessons that could be learned from Burns’ film. Those lessons could be learned if one watched the six-hour series. Sadly, the people who most need to see it, likely did not. It was hard to watch, painful, but so important because of the reverberations that continue to plague our country now. I will need to write more than one essay to explore it.

So many themes addressed by the film are alive today. I believe there is something to be gained by considering them. These issues are thorny, but we need to be honest and talk about them.

First, a word about terminology. Immigrant, refugee and migrant are all words used to describe people arriving at our borders. Theoretically these words mean different things, though I don’t believe there are agreed upon international definitions. A refugee is generally understood to have been forced from their home, while a migrant seeks another home voluntarily (it has the connotation of not necessarily being permanent and can be within a country, like migrants from the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s). An immigrant, on the other hand, is thought of as seeking permanent status in a new country. However, the ‘voluntary’ nature of the person’s move can be difficult to assess. For purposes of clarity in this essay, I am addressing refugees, though the lessons we take from our experiences from World War II are broader than that population.

One of the questions raised is: could/should the United States have allowed more Jewish refugees into the country in the late 1930s and early 1940s. We face this question today on a myriad of fronts – refugees from Ukraine, from Venezuela, from other war-torn or famine-afflicted states, or people displaced because of climate change (flooding, fires).

In the past people argued that we didn’t understand the risk to European Jewry, but as this documentary makes clear, that simply wasn’t true. It was known and it was known early enough to have acted. However, fear was an obstacle; the fear of spies among refugees – that there would be bad actors even among the Jews who were so threatened. That’s where another theme intersects: propaganda.

The Germans were masterful at stoking the flames of anti-Semitism, portraying Jews as evil, all-powerful, Communists. The image was believed even if it was internally inconsistent. Millions, and that is not an exaggeration, died as a result of that combination of fear and acceptance of propaganda – acceptance not just in the United States but in other developed countries that could have taken them in but were vulnerable to that toxic mix.

What can we learn from this? Maybe, just maybe, we need to be careful about stereotyping. When a whole group is portrayed as one thing – Mexican drug lords, Syrian terrorists – it is incumbent on us to think critically. It isn’t that there aren’t Mexicans who could be connected to the drug trade or Syrians who could be terrorists or Jews who could be communists. There are or were, but to what degree? Were the majority? That’s preposterous. The first question is:  Are the refugees at risk of death? If they are, the second question is: can we help in a way that minimizes the danger to our own citizens?

We have been plagued by the question of who can enter our country since its inception. We can’t keep pretending that it is new or that we don’t have biases that impact our policies. I am not suggesting that we allow unrestricted entry. The dialogue on this issue is so poisoned as to make it nearly impossible to discuss rationally. I am not aware of anyone, certainly not President Biden, who is advocating open borders.

The reality is that the vast majority of refugees are ordinary people trying to escape intolerable, life-threatening circumstances. One of the things the documentary so effectively illustrated is the individual stories – several Jewish brothers came to America in the 1910s, one went back to Poland and was never able to re-enter our country. He, along with his wife and children, died at the hands of the Nazis. The family that remained in the United States was devastated by their inability to help and lived with guilt and pain for the rest of their lives. We can become anesthetized to the pain of the individuals if we don’t take the time to understand their stories. It took years in a displaced persons camp for my father-in-law to gain entry to the United States, at least he made it.

The United States in the lead up to and during World War II, as is true today, didn’t want non-Northern Europeans to enter our country, they didn’t want the majority white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants to be ‘overrun’ by ‘ethnic others’. Semitic people were less desirable. It was chilling, and appropriate, that Ken Burns concluded the documentary with footage of the march in Charlottesville; showing men with tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us.” While that sentiment might not represent the opinion of the majority of Americans, it is frightening that our president was unwilling to clearly and unabashedly rebuke the marchers. It revealed something we don’t want to see, but we cannot ignore. If we want to keep our claim to being a force for good in this world, and maintain our democracy, we must face the demons which lie within. We cannot be complacent in the face of the evil. If a politician, no matter what other positions they take (they may ironically be a supporter of Israel), is unwilling to stand up to white supremacists, we must reject them regardless of party affiliation.

The answer to the question I posed above is that the United States could have and should have done more. Let’s not be in the position in the future of coming up short in the eyes of history.

‘Things Are Being Said…’

Here is an excerpt from an article in my local paper the day after school board elections were held last week. [ Note: North Colonie is a suburb of Albany, New York.]

“In North Colonie, some voters said they agree with the “parents rights” movement, though they declined to give their names. ‘Things are going on the parents aren’t aware of,’ said one North Colonie voter. ‘Things are being said in the name of equity.’”

This sounds like the sentiment expressed at the Meet the Candidates forum that I watched for my home district, Guilderland. The idea that ‘things’ are being slipped into the curriculum under the guise of equity without parental knowledge was a concern of more than one candidate. This notion fits in with the larger conspiracy narrative that plagues our nation. It is alleged that unnamed forces are in cahoots to indoctrinate our children.

I have so many questions about this line of thinking. When I watched the candidates express this thought, I wondered first who was slipping this material in? Was it a teacher, a principal, the superintendent, the state education department? No names or titles were offered when they made their argument.

What exactly was being slipped in? One candidate mentioned a math problem where the pronoun used was he/she. The candidate suggested this was needlessly confusing. I thought to myself, it could be clunky, but is it really that big of a deal? What harm would it do? Would it actually lead a 7 year old, for example, to question their gender identity? They probably wouldn’t even notice it unless an adult brought it to their attention.

Or, was there more to it?

I decided to look for myself. Could I find examples of the types of material being used as part of this indoctrination? When I started doing the research the first thing I found was that some of the ‘new’ language being included in math textbooks was because social-emotional learning (SEL) goals were being incorporated into those texts. Furthermore, some commentators seemed to be conflating the use of SEL with critical race theory.

Apparently an analyst at the conservative think tank, Manhattan Institute, said the following about social emotional learning in a New York Times article and it has gained traction: “The intention of SEL is to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of ‘repression,’ ‘whiteness,’ or ‘internalized racism,’ and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology,” said Chris Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, the Times reports.

“Reinterpret normative behavior”? What does that mean? I googled it and normative behavior is that which we think should be normal.  Hmmmm. Is he saying that schools are trying to change norms of behavior? Perhaps reconsidering norms of behavior would be a fruitful effort in view of the state of the world – and I am not just referring to the current state of affairs. Reflecting on my school experience and that of my children, I think school climate (the health of our relationships as they play out in school) could have been better. We might have a more well-adjusted adult population had we addressed this earlier.

And what left-wing ideology is he referring to? Let’s take a closer look at what SEL offers.

I am familiar with social emotional learning from my years serving as a member of the New York State Dignity for All Students Task Force and from research and work done as a writer of policy for school boards across New York State.  One of the organizations at the forefront of the research and implementation of SEL was, and still is, CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning – casel.org). I refreshed my understanding by reviewing some of their summary material. This is the statement from their website:

“We define social and emotional learning (SEL) as an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

In that statement there are five core competencies:

Recognize and manage emotions

Develop caring and concern for others

Establish positive relationships

Make responsible decisions

Handle challenging situations

One might read that list and think either that all sounds exactly right – this is what we want for our children, as much as they need to read, write and do math, they need to know how to cope in the world. Or, a person might look at that list and wonder what the public school’s role is in developing those competencies. I hope we can agree that it is impossible to read this list and see how it teaches critical race theory – it would take monumental leaps to get there.

Over the course of my life, ideas about SEL have evolved. When I was in elementary school, in the 1960s, little time was spent teaching us to manage our emotions. The assumption was that children just figure this stuff out – you pick up on social cues, you make mistakes and go from there. Unfortunately, not everyone was successful at that. When I started my professional career, families and schools were still thinking of aggressive behavior among children as ‘boys will be boys,’ and ‘kids need to toughen up’  and other dismissive adages, without appreciating the price we were paying for that approach. We had normalized that behavior. As we became aware of the dangers of bullying, including the rise of cyberbullying, more enlightened thinking emerged.

Not to go into a whole history of the evolution of this, but societal changes have meant that public schools have taken more responsibility for supporting the whole child, meaning not just their academic needs. Some might argue that this is misguided or that it is asking too much of schools, but needs must be met. Children who are hungry, fearful, or unhealthy can’t learn (certainly not at the rate of their peers who are fed, stable and healthy). If children arrive at public school unprepared to learn, how can a school be successful? If our goal is to graduate citizens ready to contribute to our society, it behooves us to do what we can to meet their needs. Academics can’t be neatly separated from other aspects of their lives. If only we could, things would be much simpler.

I guess the question is: have ‘things’ gone too far? I’m not sure I know what that would look like. I can imagine some satirical sketch on SNL of children spending the day in a circle singing Kumbaya instead of learning to multiply. But that isn’t what SEL advocates, nor is that what is being described by unhappy parents.

One of the places where this controversy is playing out is Florida, which made the news recently when it removed 24 math textbooks from their list of approved texts because they included social emotional learning goals. I tried to find examples of the objectionable text. The New York Times found some examples (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/22/us/florida-rejected-textbooks.html). The Florida Education Department released four pages of offending material.

According to the material released, when SEL is incoroporated it might  involve calling children’s attention to their feelings when solving a difficult math problem – a thought bubble on the side of the text might remind the student to persevere, or might remind them to be respectful when disagreeing about how they solved a problem in discussions with a peer. In a high school textbook they used statistical data on implicit bias as the basis for an exploration of data analysis and statistics. The data came from Project Implicit (https://www.projectimplicit.net/).

What is the problem with these examples? Are the messages softening our children up in a damaging way? One of the recognized barriers in developing math skills is students’ preconceived ideas about it. Encouraging a more positive mindset seems at worst harmless and at best helpful.

Is the data set used in the high school textbook on implicit bias controversial? Why not ask high schoolers to assess the quality and ideas introduced by the data? What a great opportunity for discussion. Those who disagree with the findings might take a deep dive into the methodology and find it flawed, thereby advancing our understanding. If a student is troubled by the conclusions suggested by the data, what a great opening for discussion with parents.

This takes us full circle, back to the original quote from the voter in North Colonie. What ‘things are being done’? Education and society are evolving. This has ever been so.

A lot of issues are getting tangled up and making it more difficult to talk about. Social emotional learning is not an agenda to make children gay or trans, or to make them feel guilty about being white. It is about learning to manage emotions. Somehow racism, gender identity and expression, and the whole history of the United States, have all been tied up together in the culture war and SEL has been offered as the problem. It would be a tremendous loss if SEL was sacrificed on the altar of our current politics.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I have to believe we can have meaningful dialogue if we focus on the heart of the issue (what do our children need), without the accusations and fear of vicious reprisals.

Schools are caught in the middle of all of this. They serve students, parents and the broader community. Sometimes those interests are not aligned. It can be very hard to find common ground. We are not helped in finding that space if people assume the worst about each other, if they use inflammatory rhetoric or rely on sound bites for information instead of looking more deeply into the facts. We must do better. Our children and our democracy demand it.

The Slippery Slope

In the wake of Trump’s presidency, I have been very concerned about the loss of respect for truth and integrity. The discussion I had with my accountant, which I wrote about in my last blog post, did nothing to allay my fears – not because my accountant is without integrity, but because he was unwilling to acknowledge a difference between Biden and Trump when it comes to that quality. My accountant said, “They all lie.” And since they all lie, he concluded, not in these these exact words, “Democrats are being unfair to Trump, Biden is just as corrupt.”

I do not accept that. I believe all politicians ‘spin.’ They present things in a way that reflects most positively on their ideas and actions. They leave out counterarguments. They cherry pick facts. Politicians of all parties do that. We need to distinguish that practice, which is distasteful (but apparently an effective communication strategy in a world beset by short attention spans), from lying and corruption. I will grant that there can be a slippery slope between spin and lying, but we need to examine the rhetoric and call it out when it crosses the line. We cannot throw up our hands and say, “They all do it,” and accept it.

I worry about our capacity for discernment especially after listening to Bill Browder’s assessment of Putin’s reign of terror in Russia and the war in Ukraine. Browder was interviewed by Preet Bharara on his podcast Stay Tuned. I highly recommend listening. Browder has 22 years of experience working with Russia and has seen first-hand Putin’s brutal management style. He described a Russian state hollowed out by Putin’s corruption. In setting the tone at the top, taking his percentage from all the oligarchs the way the head of a crime family does, Putin has not only robbed the country of assets and resources, but has created a culture where everyone along the line does the same. Everyone takes a percentage up the chain of command. In doing that, the essential structures of governance, the paving of the roads, the maintenance of fighter jets, the stores of fuel, have been compromised. Browder suggests that the poor performance of the Russian army is related to this culture.

One of the ironies of the war in Ukraine is that Zelenskyy was elected on a platform of fighting corruption. Ukraine was recognized as having a major problem with it and the people were fed up. Zelenskyy offered a different message. Putin is more comfortable with neighboring countries that either have a puppet as its leader or at least someone corrupt enough to be manipulated.

Corruption in the United States is also a problem, but I don’t think it is endemic to the system. Influence peddling has always been practiced. We have not rooted it out, but politicians have been forced out of office, they have been charged and jailed for their offenses. We have laws against it. I am worried that corruption can become the norm if we aren’t vigilant. I see a straight line between the practice described by Browder, that approach to aggregating power, and Trump. I believe Trump subscribes to a philosophy aligned with Putin, he has as much as admitted it. It is entirely about individual power and wealth – there is no concern for the greater good. Trump cloaks his desire to be the most important, powerful person in the world in patriotic rhetoric. Nothing he has ever done suggests that his patriotism is genuine or reaches beyond his narrow self-interest. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Trump is a murderer, as Putin is.

Some of Trump’s self-interest resulted in policies that benefited the economy, at least according to some analysts. To the extent that this is believed, those folks support Trump. But the grave danger isn’t in those policies (I would argue that those policies aren’t good for the country either, but that is not my point here). The greater long-term danger is in the underlying culture. Policies can change relatively easily. A tax cut can be reversed. Culture is more difficult to meaningfully transform.

In my academic and professional life, I took courses and training in internal auditing. The purpose was to give us tools to evaluate whether existing policies and procedures ensured the integrity of a given operation (in my case the efficacy of New York State funded programs). In every training that I received or delivered, the main message was the importance of ‘tone at the top.’ This was management’s essential responsibility – modeling the behavior and setting the expectations. That’s why I put so much emphasis on this when assessing the risk that Trump represents. The Republican party must reject Trumpism and instead nurture new leadership – people that offer core values of honesty and ethical behavior. I believe that many in leadership positions in the Democratic party do that, most importantly, Joe Biden – but not all of them. When Democrats fail to meet that standard (i.e., Sheldon Silver, Charlie Rangel, etc.), they too need to be cast aside. If you are a Republican and believe that Democrats are as guilty of corruption and lying, then I implore you to not accept that – make sure the Republicans put forward a worthy presidential candidate so that person can be elected. Please cast Newt Gingrich aside – I don’t know why he still merits attention, he gets trotted out on national media platforms as a spokesperson as he was just this past weekend. Why does he still get to weigh in when he has no standing to comment on issues of honesty and integrity?

My accountant asked me about Hunter Biden. I replied that if Hunter Biden did anything illegal, he should be prosecuted. If there is evidence of criminal behavior, he should be investigated. The investigation should follow the evidence and if it implicates Joe Biden, then he too should be prosecuted. The Bidens and Trumps should be held to the same standard. I would like to hear Trump supporters say the same thing about Don Jr, Ivanka and Jared – and about the January 6th insurrection. It is important that we continue these investigations until we uncover the truth and assign accountability. We can’t just sweep their actions under the rug and say it is time to move on. The precedent that sets, the message that sends, is dangerous to our country’s future as a democracy.

We cannot close our eyes to corruption and lies. We cannot let it become the norm. We need to redouble our efforts to expect and enforce ethical behavior at all levels – in government, in business, in media, in our relationships. We must be truthful, and we must call out lying. This is the slippery slope that allows authoritarianism to creep up on us.

Burnout

I have a running joke with the guy who prepares our taxes. When I call to make the appointment he responds, “Now I know tax season is done! I am in the homestretch,” he says with delight in his voice.

The joke is that I am almost always the last of his clients to call, usually with only a few days to spare until the deadline. This year I called on April 5th, a little early for me. Last year he was in shock when I called, and it was still March.

We have been working with the same guy for roughly 30 years, since Gary went into private practice and our taxes became too complicated for me to do myself.

Anyway, the point is not that I am a procrastinator, though I am that. My point is actually the conversation he and I had when we met this time. Over the years we have had many discussions, including an annual update on our respective families. I have always enjoyed our session – as much as one can when the ultimate purpose is to figure out our tax bill.

In all those years, we both understood that we do not share the same political affiliation. He is aware of the organizations I donate to – the usual laundry list of liberal causes, though they are mainstream compared to some of the more leftwing groups out there.  I know he is more fiscally conservative, befitting a CPA.  

Somehow during this visit our conversation strayed farther into the political realm. The Covid relief program came up and he shared his perception that it was ill-conceived, with folks who didn’t need assistance getting it. His message was, “if you saw what I saw, if you knew what I knew, you would agree with me.” I acknowledged that it is entirely possible that the program wasn’t designed appropriately – I know little about it, and I have no personal experience with it. I don’t doubt that our government is capable of mismanaging a program. The difference between our perspectives is the motives we ascribe to it and the conclusions we draw.

I think he sees governmental ineffectiveness and believes it is proof that there is corruption at the root, that inherently it will be flawed, and we shouldn’t support those programs. I see ineffectiveness and I want us to try harder, do better, build oversight mechanisms to ensure the money goes where it is supposed to go.  

What was interesting to me about our interaction this year was that it was more pointed but fortunately it didn’t get unpleasant. We agreed that we have different priorities. As a bottom line, I am more concerned about civil rights (including reproductive choice) than I am about our economy. He is more focused on our nation’s finances and what he perceives as a diminishing work ethic among our younger generations.

Before we got to the point where we concluded that we would agree to disagree, we touched on a wide range of subjects in addition to Covid relief,  such as police, U.S. support of Israel, Hunter Biden, Ivanka and Jared. Don’t you talk about that stuff with your accountant? With each topic, we quickly came to a dead end. We shrugged and kind of laughed. We were not going to come to a meeting of the minds. In between we returned to the task at hand – my (and Gary’s) 2021 tax return. We ended on a reasonable note, appreciating that we could have the conversation since so many could not.

Naturally, as I drove home, I pondered our divide.  Aside from understanding that much of it came down to differences in our respective priorities and foundational beliefs, I had another thought. We are creatures of our environment and experience. Being an accountant for all these years, watching the endless (absurd? irrational? circular? targeted?) changes to the tax code, interacting with a certain segment of the population, would shape one’s perspective. My accountant may not have seen the people for whom the Covid relief program was a lifesaver. This is true in all professions – high school teachers, doctors, police detectives, the list goes on. When you do a job for a long time, you may not even realize that your view has narrowed. You may think you’ve seen it all, but it is still a narrow slice of humanity.

I think about Gary, who is an endocrinologist (he treats many diabetics). He has patients who are non-compliant – maybe they drink too much, eat an unhealthy diet and/or don’t exercise. There is a danger that he could become cynical about people’s ability to manage their disease – I don’t believe he has. I believe he has maintained his compassion, but it would be understandable if that faded. It would not be acceptable, and it wouldn’t be good for his relationship with his patients if he were to prejudge them, but I can imagine it happening.

Or take another issue that all doctors face: insurance and the bureaucracy that has developed around medicine. Having negative experiences with insurance companies, where they look for loopholes to deny coverage, could color one’s perspective. It could lead to giving up more easily before getting the patient the treatment they need. The quality of care can be compromised if one isn’t vigilant.

Both challenges can lead to burnout among practitioners.

I think about my dad who was chair of a social studies department of a New York City public high school. He retired as soon as he was eligible at the age of 56. Not because he was tired of teaching or because of the students – he still enjoyed being in the classroom. It was all the red tape, all the obstacles, and the lack of resources that drove him to end his career. I think it is fair to say, after over 30 years in education, he was burnt out. Today we see educators leaving the field in droves, long before getting their 30 years in.

Every profession is susceptible to it, and if not burnout per se then being so entrenched in the negative that it becomes the lens through which you see the world. I knew it was time to leave school board service when my frustration intolerance got the better of me after nine years. But that was a volunteer position – I could step back without consequence to my family’s well-being. Not everyone has the luxury that I or my father enjoyed. He had a good pension; he could move on.

In some instances that jaded, cynical perspective can be dangerous. I’ve written before about the hazards police officers face, on many levels. Police officers see us at our worst. The consequences of approaching a new interaction with a citizen expecting the worst is problematic. I imagine, after years on the job, police officers may not have the most balanced view of humanity. I’m not blaming them, I think it comes with the job.

The question then is: what can we do about it, if anything? How do we keep our perspective broader than our circumstances allow, whatever profession we practice? How do we guard against the creeping cynicism that may be inherent in any work we do? Self-awareness may be the first step. We need to admit to ourselves that we are susceptible to the bias in the field in which we work, and then we need to pursue professional development or other experiences that keep us fresh. It is not an easy task, but a necessary one.

When I got home and told Gary about my visit with our accountant, he looked at me incredulously. “You had that conversation with the guy who is going to tell us how much tax we owe?” I nodded. I choose to maintain my faith in humanity.

Upward Mobility

Note: The following essay was written by Gary Bakst, my husband. Thank you, Gary, for you thoughtful, insightful piece.

The American dream is you work hard, and you get ahead.  Your children should have a better life than you have.  Their children should have a better life than theirs.  And, to be fair, this country has lifted millions of people into the middle class over the years, especially during the post-World War II years.  While there are all kinds of questions about how you measure this, the middle class is mostly estimated to comprise over 50% of our total population and has been over 60% at times. 

That is the dream.  Then there is reality.  Many people are struggling to achieve that goal.  Many others are struggling to hold on to that achievement.  The share of Americans in the middle class has gradually diminished over the last 5 decades according to most estimates and the percentage living in poverty has gone up.  People have fallen out of the middle class showing us that mobility can go down as well as up. Income inequality has risen.  The wealthiest Americans have seen their share of wealth grow ever larger while most people struggle to meet their expenses for food, fuel, heat, medicine. 

The myth of upward mobility is the real world for so many people.  Not that nobody is able to achieve a better life, a more comfortable financial situation.  Some do.  But, I am writing this because I am thinking about the people I see every day.  I see patients and I see staff working in our office.  So many make decisions about their care that would be different but for the cost of their medications. 

So many patients tell me about their children.  Some are doing amazing things and it is so nice to hear those stories.  I think about the kids who are accomplished professionals, or well on the way to becoming that.  Children who have their own lives, homes, families and are such sources of joy and pride to their parents. 

But it feels like many more of my patients describe children who live in a different reality.  They are dealing with unstable job situations, unstable relationships.  Some deal with addictions, depression.  Some have children but need help taking care of those children.  Many are adults living in their parents’ homes. 

As I have thought about these people, I have tried to make associations.  What is the common denominator that explains who has done well?  Of course, there is no perfect predictor, but I do think that stability in the parents sure does help the children.  I think of some of the married couples I take care of who are just such fine people.  Maybe they are not particularly wealthy, but they are terrific role models.  It seems to me that this, along with the expectation that their children will get a college education, goes a long way. 

But some other people are also fine people, hardworking and with wonderful values.  But life perhaps has just not gone the same way for them.  Perhaps they have had children but a relationship that did not last.  Perhaps they have had career setbacks.  It seems to me that it is so hard to recover from those setbacks in this country.  I know these people hold their children just as close to their hearts as others do.  But I wonder if their expectations for them are different. 

I remember when I graduated from high school, there was a mother who was crying with joy saying she never imagined she would have a child who would graduate from high school.  I recall thinking how different that was from my parents’ expectations and from my own.  Perhaps the child internalizes those expectations, and their goals and decisions are likewise impacted.  My parents had little education, but they sure did believe in its power and were determined that their children would go to college.  

It seems to me that community has an awful lot to do with these expectations.  I see people who live in small towns and may not have the same opportunities that others do.  There may not be a tradition of people going on to higher education there.  That same issue can often be true in urban areas.  While we are nearly all connected virtually, we still live in a concrete world that we see, walk on and experience.  It is a powerful message about what is possible.  

I did not intend this essay as a dissection of American public policy, but I do think that we need policies that encourage that upward mobility and the factors that promote it.  I think we should look at what personal characteristics and family dynamics are most helpful and do more to encourage them.  And I believe we need to break down barriers that prevent people in specific localities from reaching their dreams. 

I am not suggesting that money is everything.  There is so much more.  We should not equate money and success, money, and happiness.  And there are surely lots of paths to a happy and fulfilled life.  It does not have to be, it really cannot be, the same path for everyone. 

But it is hard to imagine that having the means to live a healthy and comfortable life is not better than not having those means.  Money for many of my patients is a direct barrier to health.  It seems like that ought to matter to somebody.  

It is also worth pointing out that I am not suggesting upward mobility means everyone should be richer than their parents.  For one thing, some parents are already doing quite well and there may not be that much room to go up.  How rich would a child of Bill Gates need to be if we used that definition?  For another thing, the goal is surely not endless wealth.  That seems like a bizarre set of values. We are hoping for people to be secure and happy; healthy and safe.  Money is part of that but is not an end in itself.  

I wonder if anyone else out there has thought about this issue.  What factors do you see as positively or negatively affecting these outcomes, be it at the family, neighborhood or even at the public policy levels?  How do we make the dream attainable for more Americans?

Compassion Anyone?

A flash of insight can come at the most unexpected time. I was driving to my poetry group on Saturday and I was thinking about why I was so agitated that morning.  Why was I feeling so ‘judgy’ of others? I suddenly understood something that maybe should have been obvious, but somehow wasn’t.

            Here is what I understood: If I don’t feel the emotion that the person is sharing, I am prone to judging them. If I can feel, really feel, the emotion, I am less judgmental.

            I think of myself as an empathic person. When someone shares their troubles with me, I usually feel their pain or frustration. Sometimes too much. However, there are instances where I don’t, especially these days. I was attributing that to being spread too thin and my general sense of frustration with the state of the world. It occurs to me, though, that isn’t the complete story. I have been ‘judgy’ before the pandemic.

            When a friend or relative is sharing something I can relate to, perhaps have experienced myself, I am able to recall the emotion readily. The disappointment or sadness or anger comes flooding in. When that person shares an experience or feeling foreign to me, that’s when I am predisposed to judgement. If I can’t connect their reaction to my own, I am left to intellectualize – then judgement can follow.

            I may not express it– I usually know enough to keep those thoughts to myself. But I stew in it. I’ve been stewing a lot lately. I won’t say to the person that I think they are wrong or over-reacting, but it is what I am thinking. My powers of empathy are more limited than I care to admit. Sitting in judgment doesn’t feel good, though. I don’t want to be a harsh appraiser, especially of those I love. Plus, I think it is counterproductive. Even if I don’t outwardly express it, it creates distance, or it may leak out in other destructive ways.

            Thinking about this as I was driving, the ‘aha’ moment hit me: maybe if I can’t feel what the person feels, there is another path to empathy. What if I imagine what it feels like to be that person? Not through the prism of my experience, but through theirs. So, if a person is expressing their terror of getting Covid, something I don’t feel to that degree, rather than thinking about whether they are justified and thereby trying to convince them they shouldn’t be so afraid, focus on what it feels like to be terrified. Being terrified is an awful state of mind – I can empathize with that irrespective of the cause. During the conversation, I may share some information that I hope allays their fear, but it would be delivered from a place of compassion, rather than judgment.

            Maybe the divisions among us would be helped if we tried to understand the emotion first, acknowledge and connect to it. Maybe if we named the other person’s feeling – fear, anger, hopelessness – and remembered what that emotion feels like even if it was in a different context– we could start a more fruitful conversation.

            For example, anxiety is something I have experienced, but I have had only one panic attack and that happened when I was an adolescent. Others experience panic as a regular expression of their anxiety. And, I may not be set off by the same triggers, nor have the same physical reaction, but I still know how horrible it is to feel panicky.

            My anxiety manifests in rumination, as I wrote about last week. But, even at the worst of times when I was living in my head, I was functional. Not as productive as I wanted to be, but I wasn’t paralyzed. If someone was to share their experience of ruminating, I would reflect on my own. If they were so tied up in knots that they couldn’t get out of bed, I would feel sorry for them but wonder why they couldn’t manage to get it together. While listening, it might instead be more helpful to imagine myself in my bed so overwhelmed that I can’t get up– how terrible would that feel?  – rather than thinking about whether I would react in the same way as my friend did.

            Maybe we can’t help but see things through the prism of our experience, but it is too limiting. This might be one way to be more open to others.

            I wish I could report, having had this insight, that I was free of judgment the rest of the weekend. It probably isn’t reasonable, or even desirable, to suspend all judgment. There are times when it is appropriate to criticize. Sometimes a person is so dug into their emotional state that they have lost all perspective. A compassionate loved one can offer another view. It likely won’t be well-received if it is delivered in a judgmental tone – the compassion is key. The problem is sometimes I don’t feel much compassion and that is the point of this whole essay. How do I find the compassion?

            It takes some work to locate it and I have to be willing to put in the effort. Yesterday, once again in the car, I passed two lawn signs that got me angry – a kneejerk judgment. Having had the insight the day before, I tried to test my ability to find compassion.

            The first sign read “Fuck Biden.” Great way to advertise your politics! Why would I want to have compassion for someone, why would I want to try to understand someone, who puts up a sign like that? They are entitled to their view, but in putting it out there like that, it invites anger. Should I do the work to look beyond that, to understand their rage? That is a big ask. The answer, for me, was no, no compassion. I stayed angry. My anger met theirs, metaphorically.

            The second lawn sign demanded “Unmask our children now!” My first reaction to it was to mumble ‘asshole’ to myself (actually Gary was driving and I had to explain I wasn’t calling him that). This one was easier to swallow. I could envision having a conversation. Though I am not a parent of a school-age child (I am a grandparent of a preschooler), I can imagine the frustration of dealing with the pandemic and the desire for my child to go back to ‘normalcy.’ It is unlikely that I would come to a meeting of the minds with the parent with that lawn sign, but the starting point wasn’t as hostile. As I mulled it over, my stomach muscles unclenched a bit. I would call it a semi-successful effort to find compassion.

            These two examples aren’t quite the same thing as listening to a friend or family member express something I don’t feel, but there are parallels. My goal is to walk around holding less hostility in my gut. Does my suggestion hold any water for you? If you have other ideas for how to do that, I’m all ears.