Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas reflection on a spiritual path...

Another Christmas.  Alone, this time, and thus an opportunity to reflect on just what Christmas means to me, and how that meaning has changed over the years.  Well, more than an opportunity; more like a mandate, as when you experience Christmas alone there are no distractions with which to busy your mind and your body that speed you through this time that is usually so loaded with activities and preparation that, when over, leaves you ready for the proverbial "long winter's nap."

I was raised in a very fundamentalist evangelical church.  I didn't know that at the time; there was no awareness any gradation or intensity to the religious experience. Nor was there any sense that religion and God were not synonymous.  All that I knew was that there was a sense of warmth and love that permeated the entire season and that that sense included all those around, friends, acquaintances and the whole community.  Even in times of stress and uncertainty, Christmas seemed to transcend all and bring everyone together in an affirmation that regardless of the current challenges, all would be and was well.

Christmas is the one element of my childhood that I wish I could revisit and recreate in my life even now.

Youth doesn't leave us all at once; it is a gradual disappearing act that goes largely unnoticed in the excitement of the new experiences of growing up.  But it does disappear, even if unnoticed.  And those new experiences, for me, included questioning the Faith in which I was raised.  Kids have questions.  While we can be put off with non- and partial answers, our brains are not quieted and questions inadequately answered lead to diminished trust and belief.  Much of the time this reduced belief is based on the false premises that our parents and elders know all and are simply refusing to reveal that truth to us; only much later in life do we realize that they weren't holding out on us; they didn't have the answers either.  After all, it takes more than a little maturity to understand the difference between "faith" and "wishful thinking"; many adults still cannot tell the difference.

So, over the years I became what I only much, much later came to identify as an agnostic; I believed there was a God, but could not reconcile the various beliefs between the different religions in the world, all of which seem to declare supreme exclusive knowledge of the "Truth.".  At the time, this awareness was lost in the main activity of "putting on" Christmas for my family and my children...the desire to reproduce for them the same sort of warm, fuzzy, loving and inclusive feeling that Christmas' past had provided me so long ago.  My personal joy had largely disappeared in the process of trying to recreate that special feeling for the kids.  When it was over I looked for nothing so much as the opportunity for that proverbial "long winter's nap."

But this period was still surrounded by the "spirit" of Christmas.  It permeated the town, the community, the schools and even the Town Hall.  Christmas was a unifier, and it provided a spirit of togetherness and dependence on and desire for a certain guidance from above as well as the the expectation that such guidance would be forthcoming if we only took the time to listen for it.  I understood that my separation, even in part, from this experience was of my own doing, and I accepted that separation as what I perceived as a part of being "an adult."  Time, of course, allowed be to much later discover that I was totally wrong on that count.

Today's life in America has changed so much.  Religion...and the Christian religions in particular...have become unwelcome presences in official circles.  Official America has become an acolyte of Secularism; Man has replaced God as the guiding element in life.  Apparently the absurdity of such boot-strap reasoning is lost on all except me...but I am now old and my opinions are now deemed worthless.  But I look with wonder and sadness at those growing up and now in power with no sense of guidance other than that of other men with no more wisdom that that which those in power already possess...and they know how inadequate and uncertain their own point of view; how, indeed, can they even suspect that any other human has anything more?  How do today's leaders survive such burdens in the absence of knowing that there is available the guidance of a higher power?  No wonder they fail so miserably so much of the time.

As we grow up, some of us put God-like wisdom in the person of our fathers...or mothers, or priests...and know we have grown up when those dependable rocks in our lives pass away and suddenly those younger that we are coming up to us with the same questions that we once asked our elders...and those asking the questions look at us with that same trusting sense of expectation of wisdom that we once put on our elders.  That is the moment of truth, and the moment (for me) that I blessed being imbued with a sense of the availability of guidance from God.

Well, I certainly have no absolute answers.  But I do have a certain comfort level for the present at least.  I know that...again, at least for now (who knows what I will be led to be aware of in the future) matter little what errors we make in terms of mankind.  God prevails, even as mankind chooses to suffer the consequences of bad decisions.  Those consequences do, in fact, lead to learning...although each new generation apparently has to re-learn the same lessons.  That is a shame, but not necessarily a bad thing.

I have come to terms with the fact: that the only absolute answers are those that seem to come to me directly from God; that all men of God may be presumed to mean well, but are fallible and their declarations and commands and judgement should be checked through individual prayer while remembering that all utterances of any man (or woman) are just that...human...and may not be assumed to be commands from God until confirmed in our souls by the almighty.  I leave it to each individual to determine what form that confirmation takes. I, for one, take the utterances of Priests, Ministers, Imams and all other self-proclaimed representatives of religions, both organized and not, as statements worthy of noting but lacking any inherent sense of imperative or command...another human being's statement of "truth" is neither greater nor less than my own.

Age brings upon us a certain sense of quiet acceptance of ignorance and in comfort in knowing that the more you know (or think that you know) only makes you aware how much you do not and cannot know, leading to a willingness to accept the undeniable fact that the universe came into being long before our lives started and will continue long after it ceases and that we can take comfort in the fact that maybe we should often take our hands off the wheel, that maybe there is someone already at the wheel who knows more and can direct our lives more efficiently...and definitely more lovingly.

Christmas has become a time to be quiet and listen.  And often the silence becomes a silent approbation of the fact that I am doing my best to not get in the way, not be too prideful, not be too "full of myself."  Such quiet is reassuring and feels like the spiritual caress of a loving parent seeing my essence while ignoring my foibles.

I wish the same for each and every one.  Merry Christmas

Thursday, December 15, 2011

One main reason that todays schools fail miserably...

I cannot remember not being able to read.  My mother told me that I could read before I was two, but I take that claim on faith...and it doesn't matter.  But, without an age reference, I can recall my mother insisting that I learn the alphabet and learn to sound out words.  And then she insisted that I learn the definition of every new word.  As I got a bit better, she taught me how to look up the definitions in a dictionary that I always had handy when I was reading.  I was taught how to read using phonetics, although I only learned this later.

Reading was my key to the world.  I could pick up a book and travel all around the world.  I could even travel to the stars and in time.  It was not just was entertainment.  If I had a book, I was King; I was the master of my own mental destiny.

Reading was power.  Reading was the vehicle for success and for achievement of my goals, regardless of how I define that at any given moment.

If I didn't fully grasp what a teacher had attempted to teach me in class, I could read the textbook and think it through again...or go to the library and look for additional information...and, in a sense, become my own "extra help" provider.  When I got older, I could get a book to tell me how to fix my beat-up used car, could get a book that would tell me how to properly fix a household appliance, repair a hole in the wall, or even take down or put one up.  Reading has always been the key.  Without it, I would be no better off than an uneducated person in what we call a third-world country.

All of this is merely a premise to my main point:  our schools are failing to educate kids today, and the primary reason is a failure to teach them to read.  Yet these blameless illiterates are graduated from High School, many go to college and the illiteracy is indulged and they get higher degrees.  Why?  You will have to decide that...I cannot know the hearts, souls and minds of those who caused and now continue to enable this failure to qualify our children for success.  But it is undeniable that this had gone on for so long that it is not possible that this is is done with full knowledge of the results...failure.  Our children are not equiped to be self-reliant, to achieve on their own, to learn for themselves.  They are doomed to be dependent on Television, DVDs, CDs, and real life in person direction by others, and thereafter on the ability to remember what they were told.  There is no way they can do independent research, checking or learning...they lack the tools.

In the middle of the last century the schools for reasons unfathomable to me moved away from the phonetic teaching of language to an approach called "whole word" reading which, as close as I can understand, depends on memorization of whole words, and filling in unknown word meaning by using the context of the sentence or paragraph in which it other words, guess.  No dictionary skills, no sounding out the word, no study of the origin of the word in another language that might give you a better grasp of what was meant by the word.  And certainly no test or requirement that you ever learn that unknown word or its real life meaning.

And we wonder why even come college graduates are illiterate.

Yet, our educational system and our governmental powers never question this failure.  All they do is claim that we must throw more money at the problem.  Not only doesn't it help, most cannot even do the math to evaluate how much money per student we are wasting by such illogical action.  They cannot do basic math either...without a calculator.  But that another problem for another discussion.  Just one has asked why Johnny or Carol cannot read.

Isn't it time that we demand that Educators and those that fund and rule them answer that question?

And for those of  you who would like to read more on the subject from someone with some logical thought on the subject, I recommend the following link:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Smartest person I have ever known...

I have a University degree.  I have a Doctorate.  I have known many people with multiple degrees, as well as people who successfully ran large companies.  I have also known those in the Academic World, studying, ad nauseam, the intricacies of various parts of our world, both physical and mental.  I have also spoken to those who were homeless, those who begged on the street and at traffic lights.  Each and every one of those people taught me something that I had not known before speaking with them.  Everyone we meet has the potential to teach us something if we take the time to listen without pre-judging.  Yet they each pale in the mental presence of the smartest person I have ever met or known:  my father.

My father was born in Norway.  His father died in a mining accident when he was very young, leaving his mother and sister in very dire financial circumstances.  He had to quite school after the 6th grade in order to help earn money so the family would not starve.  That experience formed his attitude about life forever.  He had suffered poverty.  He grew into a man who was generous to a fault, yet very, very aware that one needs to be frugal and consider that you never looked at any opportunity with an eye to "what can I make?" but rather to first ask, "what can I lose?", followed by "Can  afford to lose it?".  Only then would he evaluate the possible gain.  When recessions hit, he saw them earlier than most around him and by the time it was obvious to all, he had explained that our family was going to have to do with less, that we were going to keep as much in savings as possible, cutting costs and doing everything possible to be ready if everything "went south."

My father came to this country in 1921, not speaking the language.  He could not tell anyone that he was trained as an electrician.  The saw that he was from Norway and assumed that he was a carpenter and offered him a job laying hardwood floors.  He worked hard, learned well, grew to be a foreman in the firm, stayed employed, albeit at a lower wage, through the depression.  He quickly agreed to take lower pay, understanding that some pay was better than no pay at all.  Again, the experience underscored and intensified his belief that he had to take responsibility for watching out for his own economic security.  He started his own business in the suburbs of New York City (actually, at that time it was "the country", before people started living outside the city and was mostly farmland), and always lived within his means...and trained me to do the same.

I have survived pretty well over the years...mostly by applying the rules of life taught to me by my father.  I did this when I was young out of knee-jerk training, even as I thought my father was behind the times.  But as I grew older and saw the wisdom of being self-reliant wherever possible, I began consciously considering "what would Dad have said about this" whenever making decisions for me or for my family.  The only time I have ever been disappointed was whenever I failed to follow that remembered quiet voice in my mind.

Thank you, Dad.  You prove, as do so many who came to this country with real life experience rather than letters after your name, that being smart is not formal is application of the practical experiences in our lives, using them...even the make the future better.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Do any of us really care anymore?

The curse of retirement has resulted in the time to read, study and ponder on many things, one of which unfortunately turns out to be government and politics.  A friend recently responded to one of my multiple paragraph musings with the observation that these matter have been the subject of thought by untold numbers of individuals over the ages and he stated that he would leave further exploration of the various matters to the "deep thinkers."  He is probably right.  Life was much easier when I knew less.  I could decide matters on what usually ended up being a "black" or "white" basis; grays were minimal and my attitudes tended toward the absolute.

The more I read and study, the less certain I am about the propriety of any action, or belief.  If unchecked, I can reach a state of decision-paralysis because of the now-apparent multiple repercussions of a particular action.

But...I have to discuss, write, and debate with others even though I am fully aware that none of these activities will actually solve, correct, or even answer any of the questions of the day...even the simple ones.  I will do all this because...and I admit to a level of narcissism makes me feel better, more alive, more engaged with life.  At my age I am no longer able to sweat out my frustrations and stress, so I have to "think" and "express" them out.  Fortunately there are some of my friends and acquaintances who find this behavior on my part either entertaining or enabling (I am not sure which, and I don't much care since they put up with far) so I am not yet an exile or a mountain-top hermit in a cave.  Perhaps that will come later.

Meanwhile I wonder if any of us really care anymore...and whether or not we should!