Sunday, September 22, 2019

A Lifetime Of Change

My great aunt, Bertie Ardelle Lee, was born in 1880. She died in 1974, having lived a full life of 94 years. Over the years, I have often thought about what her lifetime encompassed, the vastly different experiences she encountered, and the extraordinary changes that occurred in America and the world – all bookended by the dates on her tombstone.

She was born into an era of Conestoga wagons and horse-drawn buggies, and sailboats and paddlewheel ships. The railroad had only recently connected the two coasts, bringing a new option for travelers and the distribution of agricultural and manufactured goods. Combined with the telegraph wires running alongside the train tracks, intra-national communication could now be accomplished in days, rather than months.

In Aunt Bertie’s childhood years, the telephone would arrive, allowing real-time conversation across ever-increasing distances. As a young married woman, she heard about human beings flying in the air, and watched silent movies (“flickers”) in awe. As a fulltime mom, she sat in her living room listening to the squeaking sounds of news and entertainment out of a box they called a “radio,” or scratchy music playing on “the Victrola.”  Electric lights replaced the flames of candlelight and the dangerous gas and oil lamps; automobiles replaced horse-drawn wagons, thereby displacing most blacksmiths and wagon-manufacturers.

In her middle through late ages, she lived through the prosperity and excesses of the Jazz Age, the economic collapse and poverty of the Great Depression, followed by the greatest expansion of middle-class economic growth and distributed prosperity due to the post-WWII boom recovery. The big changes of her early life moved into their 2nd- and 3rd-generation product cycle: silent movies became “talkies”; expanded automobile ownership led to new roads crisscrossing the nation; rotary dialing phones replaced switchboard operators. Television almost bankrupted the radio and movie industries. Air travel – begun 20 years after her birth – went from novelty solo flights into airlines moving passengers great distances in short timelines; five years before her death, two men landed on the moon. Over the course of her life, she also lived through five American wars.

Perhaps the biggest and most affecting change for Aunt Bertie came in the arena of social change, and the push to expand true civil rights and equality for all. Born in northern Alabama, the daughter of a Confederate Civil War veteran, surrounded by a post-Reconstruction / Jim Crow segregated culture and legal system, she was steeped in the ways of the Old South. As a young bride, she moved to western Arkansas with its familiar system of African-American segregation in schools, housing, public accommodations and services, along with limited voting and legal rights. She became a local leader of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization dedicated to preserving “the old ways” and glorifying “the Lost Cause.” I had left my hometown by the time the various civil rights movements (e.g. African-Americans, women, gays) exploded into the nation’s consciousness in the 1960s, so I never had an opportunity to talk with her about whether she had moved away from her cultural heritage. Besides, these were not conversations that one tended to have in family social gatherings – Jim Crow being nurtured by a conspiracy of silence. Regardless of what her thinking might have come to be, I suspect that an African-American being elected President 35 years after her death would have been beyond her capacity to even envision, much less comprehend.

I have written often about constant change being an inherent and unavoidable aspect of the human story. Little today is what it was yesterday, nor what it will be tomorrow. The only substantive discussion is how different the change will be, and how prepared one will be to respond to it. Some changes are self-initiated by an intent to alter the specifics of our life and to proactively move toward those alterations. Others are brought on by outside agents of change: nature, social convention, the aging process, cultural movements, decision-makers, or the spiritual Universe. Some change happens due to our being part of a larger group; others are personal to us individually. Whether sourced internally or externally, our reactions can be either positive and welcoming, or negative and defensive, yet are often fearful when anticipating as yet unknown outcomes. At times we simply dig in our heels and adopt a “stand pat” posture – a bulwark of resistance to the impending change – either because we disagree with the change calling to us, or this latest change is just one too many to take on.

I have seen many changes during my lifetime. But my changes pale in comparison to what Aunt Bertie experienced. From Conestogas to the moon, the world she was born into seems irreconcilable with the one she left behind a lifetime later. The reality is that each living thing, and all civilizations, move over time. The lifestyle, cultural environments, and beliefs we are so enamored with today will virtually disappear within a few short generations, so we should not unduly be held captive by them. Our changes can be cumulatively dramatic; some prove to be minor blips. Prioritizing the changes we take on; letting the little ones go by; keeping our life structures flexible and adaptable; remembering that all life is fleeting. These are tools that help us steady the boat as we navigate the windstorms of our life Changes. This fundamental movement of Change is simply the inherent way of things. So at any given moment, towards what will we choose to redirect our life?

©   2019   Randy Bell   

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Of Toothbrushes And Toothpaste

The news from America’s southern border continues to go from bad to worse. After all the efforts yielding minimal results over the past two years, now it is the children – infants through grade schoolers – living in 3rd-world squalor without basic sanitary provisions, sleeping on concrete floors. Many hundreds of kids locked up in cages, sequestered in an out-of-the-way facility designed for a fraction of that number, its contents kept secret.

I fully accept that rational rules and processes should be in place to regulate admission into this country. I also believe that our obligation is to use those rules and processes to facilitate how many immigrants we are able to bring in, not use them as a barrier to keeping people out. This posture is in the spirit of the ancestors of each of us who immigrated into this country from across the world, seeking the better life and opportunities that America has always stood for – albeit an ideal not always practiced in fact. Though I continue to have hope that long in the future our aspirations for a world free of fear and filled with compassion for one another may be fulfilled, I also accept that, in today’s world, adult human beings are still capable of inflicting the most monstrous injustices and pain among one another.

But infant and growing children have no inherent predisposition towards inflicting injustice and pain. Yet they are all too often on the receiving end of such. Regardless of the decisions their parents may have made; regardless of whether we agree or disagree with such things as a “family separation policy”; these children have become the innocent pawns in an unconscionable adult immorality play. If this kind of childhood suffering was the result of some weather disaster or other emergency, FEMA, the Red Cross, religious organizations, charity groups, and other “ad hoc do-gooders” would be all over these victims, calling attention to their plight while bringing aid, comfort and needed supplies. Instead, these groups are nowhere to be seen. Our government claims “there is no money to cover these needs.” Yet boxes of donated goods sit unopened at border gates, while government attorneys awkwardly try to convince a skeptical panel of federal judges that toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap and a bath, and clean clothing are not really required for children.

This situation is beyond malicious. It is cruel and inhumane treatment towards a group of human beings unable to speak for, or defend, themselves. We can let the adults continue to act out their political stagecraft and carry on their interminable intellectual debates and speak their untruths. But let every American parent take responsibility for the care of the children that have been entrusted to our care – regardless of how they got here.

This is not an argument about immigration. These actions are a moral argument, a challenge to the truth (or not) of our professed national character and our personal religious values that admonish us to “care for the children and the orphans.” Whatever our political fights, taking it out on the babies is indefensible. For those who say they are committed to the right of each child to be born, Part 2 of that commitment is ensuring that each child is then protected, nourished, and developed regardless of his/her circumstances or nationality.

Yesterday I mailed an envelope with a copy of this essay, along with a small toothbrush and tube of toothpaste, to the President of the United States. That envelope and its contents will not solve this travesty. But if that envelope should make it through the mail check process (questionable), maybe someone will notice and care. Maybe some White House aide will send it along to some scared, lonely, bewildered kid who needs it. Because we are better than this. Better than the decisions we are making. The collective heart of the American people is, and has always been, far better than this.

©   2019   Randy Bell     

Thursday, May 23, 2019

What Are We Afraid Of?

Fear. It is the dominant emotion of our life. It is the primary driver for our decision-making, the basis for our reactive actions in response to life’s circumstances. While love is our aspiration and can serve as our defense against our fears, fear and love exist in a synchronized dance with each other, rising and falling like playmates on a playground see-saw. One is in ascendance while the other is in decendance, reversing from moment to moment, event to event.

We fear tangible things we can see: a wild animal, a gun in the hand of a stranger, a venomous insect. We fear intangible phobias to which we give pseudo-substance: fear of germs, of heights, of confined spaces. We fear mental constructs that upset our sense of being: the loss of a job, being socially unaccepted, our lack of status. Fear of inflicted physical pain – indeed loss of life itself – creates mental pain; mental pain can create physical pain. Mind and body each feeds on one another.

Our laundry list of fears – unique to each of us – continues to grow unendingly. Some of these have been with us for so long, we are barely cognizant of them, perhaps do not even see them as “fears.” They have become part of our life, a structural component of our lifestyle, rituals we perform daily. But are we truly a melting pot of many fears that permeate our life? Or are these familiar acquaintances simply the emotional children of a few overriding fears, emerging from an original well that is our more fundamental source?

Ever since human beings emerged on this planet, we have all begun our lives in the same manner. From our earliest cell form growing into a fully developed infant, we exist physically connected to an enclosed, protective environment totally constructed to meet our needs. We are nourished on demand with no conscious effort on our part. Then, abruptly, we are delivered into a wholly different environment, the one in which we will spend the rest of our human life. A life no longer physically attached to its protective habitat, where little of our needs are met and come to us automatically.

In that one instant of change, our life is turned upside down and redefined. In that moment, our three fundamental fears are also birthed: 1) we are alone, no longer interconnected to our world, a tiny speck in a Universe vast beyond our comprehension; 2) we are powerless to defend, much less nourish, ourselves; 3) by accepting the opportunity of life, we concurrently accept the reality of our death at some unknown moment. At birth, we are now dependent on the willingness of others for our survival, our cries for attention the only tool in our arsenal. The scope of our absolute aloneness, our helplessness, our littleness, our temporariness overwhelms us. The shock of that recognition is more than we can absorb as an infant. So these fundamental fears give rise to the litany of simpler, more identifiable fears that grow out of the seedbed of our subsequent individual life experiences. Fear begets fears which intensifies fear.

And so we hold strangers at bay until they prove themselves worthy of our trust. We band together, with people similar to ourselves, in groups – social clubs, neighborhoods, tribes, cities, nations – believing that there is “safety in numbers.” We fight with our society in various forms of competition or control, believing “a good offense is the best defense” to keep our fears at bay. Or conversely, we build fortresses of conventional lifestyles within which we hope to go unnoticed and unthreatened. We erect monuments to our Truths, and marble statues to our Self, intending that “this is who I am” will be our armor against opposing assaults.

In the end, none of these fear-based strategies truly work for us. The more we rely on them, the more they wear us down (mentally and physically), increase our isolation, and reduce our sense of self-sustainability. That is when we are called to make the real choice – whether our life will be lived in fear, or whether it will be lived in love. Love that accepts that which is different; has confidence in providing for ourselves; and recognizes that the list of genuine fears is indeed quite small. “Common sense” decisions about reasonable risk replace the paralyzing power of fear.

It is in recognizing from where our daily fears come that the opportunity arises to defuse them. In that moment, we are no longer alone, we are no longer powerless, our death is yet one more of our many transitions. In that moment, our freedom of thought and action arises within. In that moment, we begin to truly live.

©   2019   Randy Bell   

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Self-Made Myth

“I’ve been on food stamps and welfare. Did anybody help me out? No, No.” Craig T. Nelson, actor

Americans love their Horatio Alger stories. Written in the late 19th century, these are the stories of the singular individual overcoming obstacles, surmounting disadvantages, often from lowly beginnings, toiling out of view, yet rising to personal accomplishments and success. These multiple stories came to serve as inspirational motivators and icons embedded in our shared cultural framework. The lonely western cowboy standing watch over his herd; the Mercury astronaut circling the globe; the tinkerer crafting revolutionary inventions in his/her garage; the unseen student studying in the library to earn that elusive scholarship. “Pulling one up by their bootstraps” is the opportunity that still lives proudly in America.

Persons who succeed beyond their starting point, who contribute significantly to the betterment of their community, that advance through hard work performed within an ethical focus, are certainly worthy of admiration. But to say that that person is “self-made,” that s/he did it “all on my own,” is not only false in every case, but is also dangerous. Dangerous to the individual; dangerous to the community in which s/he lives.

It may sometimes seem that some of our good fortune is simply an “accident” of time, place and circumstances (although spiritually we might question how much the Universe may have had a hand in our outcomes). In these instances, the accomplishment appears to be an in-the-moment event to which it was necessary for one to be responsive.

Yet in most circumstances, our seemingly singular accomplishments are the direct outcome of the relationships and interactions that others have had with us over the course of our lifetime. When we stop and examine the people and events of our life that brought us to this place we now occupy (mentally and physically), we no longer see it as a series of isolated events. Events that are unconnected to each other, distracting us into unexpected and/or undesirable side ventures. Rather, these events and people – of a forgettable instant or a lifetime memory – all served to put us on that path, to open the doors that showed the way. Charles Lindberg flying solo across the Atlantic in his small, single-prop plane “The Spirit Of St. Louis”; John Glen circling the globe alone in his space capsule; Thomas Edison toiling solitarily in his lab trying over and over again to find just the right element to realize his idea of an “electric light” – each had legions of people that brought them to that moment or stood in support of their unique endeavor.

One of the early lessons in our career life is the discovery that almost no one “gets ahead” on his/her own. Simply being “head down” in the workplace, producing good quality work, rarely by itself moves one to that next step of opportunity. It is from being noticed for that work that doors begin to open, opened by someone who decided to take interest in our skills, our situation, our as-yet unfilled promise. Someone who possibly saw more in us than we saw in ourselves.

Perhaps that someone gave us part of our education. Or financing to start our new venture. Or promoted us into a position of greater responsibility and visibility. We may aspire to be a CEO of a major business. Yet in truth that CEO sitting in a corner office on the top floor is charged only with a) making certain strategic decisions, and b) hiring the “right people” to carry out those decisions. It is the person at the cash register in the local store, the receptionist answering the phone, the salesperson who knocks on a buyer’s door, the shop floor worker who assembles the product, the truck driver who delivers the product, and the construction worker who built the roads those trucks drive over – these are the people who determine whether the CEO’s decisions are successful or not.

We are certainly entitled to pat ourselves on the back for any hard work, dedication, and creativity we have contributed to “our” accomplishment. To have been one of those who sought to lead our life rather than react passively to it. But our contribution is given alongside all the other contributors that ultimately dictate our life’s outcome. In humility, we remember that our self-made life is, in fact, created through the supportive efforts of many sharing, collective selves. Including those people unseen and unknown to us that were willing to provide us with food stamps and welfare checks when we may have needed them.

“When you drink the water, remember who dug the well.”  Zen saying

©  2019   Randy Bell      

Friday, February 15, 2019

Our Capacity For Change

“Change is great. You go first.” A Friend

One of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism is the intrinsic inevitability of Change. Change is ongoing from the moment of an object’s creation, through its continuing existence, stopping only at its ending/“death.” Change applies to tangible things: e.g. humans, animals, birds, plants, mountains, oceans, automobiles, kitchen utensils. It applies to intangibles that we treat as tangibles: e.g. nations, borders, institutions, religions, cultures, races, time itself. It applies to purely intangible concepts: e.g. ideas, philosophies, laws, science, logic.

As human beings, we change physically at the micro level and at our surface appearance. Changes occur due to our preordained growth cycle, or by internal disease, or by external acts forced upon us (e.g. wars, accidents, criminal acts). It can be subtle change; gradual over passing days; sudden, as with a head-on automobile accident.

We change mentally. Changes in our thinking come from the teachings of our parents; the lessons of the classroom; the guidance of our mentors; the result of our self-study. We learn a moral code, shaped by our culture and religion. We factor in our personal experiences, “successes” and “failures,” fears, aspirations, and definition of a “life well lived.” Most of our beliefs are set in place by the end of adolescence, ingrained deeply and rigidly having come from “authoritative sources” and therefore are not easily changed. We then venture out into the Real World with our baseline thinking regarding what life is about and how to interact with it.

With a great rapidity, that Real World comes knocking at our door with a loud shout, a tidal wave of new ideas and experiences that may bare little resemblance to our pre-adult world. The further we drift away from the familiar and protective cocoon of our youth, the more we expose ourselves to – and invite – personal upheaval. Upheaval can come from the challenges of a multitude of sources, and can disrupt any part of our overall existence.

Typically, we prefer to ignore these disruptions and go on with our already busy life. Even within conflict, it certainly feels safer and easier to stay with what we already know. But such avoidance can last only so long. The disruption likely came about in the first place because we have been living in opposition to some greater truth that we are not seeing or acknowledging. So the disruption will continue to plague us, returning time after time in various disguised forms, each time with increasing intensity. Ultimately, we either give it the attention it demands, or we hide ourselves within a life deadened of creative thoughts and honest emotions.

Disruption is the genesis force of Change. When it comes, our first step is to determine if this is just a minor blip on our radar, or the tip of a more meaningful iceberg in our life path. If the latter, we are called to a time of personal reflection to fully understand what new turn is being presented to us. As our reflection gradually unfolds, ideally we begin to change accordingly – opinions, beliefs, circumstances, life roles, personal directions. Appropriately. Deliberately. Without negative judgment or self-criticism for where we have been before. We simply leave behind what was, and allow Life to help guide us through our journey to our next intended place.

Disruption will present itself to us throughout our lifetime, always conflicting with our desire to stay in our status quo. Some Changes we will choose to explore and accept. Some Changes we will let go by, either because we feel they will be too hard; or will take too much time and energy; or because we are simply burned out from having undergone too much upheaval too often.

Over the course of my single lifetime, I have witnessed a remarkable sea change in lifestyles and thinking in American society. Changes in equality of legal rights; racial integration into all segments of society; mixed-race marriage; redefined nuclear families; multiple marriages and single parenthood; women into the workplace; openness of LGBT relationships; new forms of religious / spiritual belief and expression; advancements in technology and communications; exposure to, and interactions with, people from across the globe. These Changes in fundamental, bedrock grounded beliefs have created a modern world with little resemblance to my boyhood society. Keeping up with so many changes, across so many overlapping fronts, occurring in such  a relatively short time (versus the glacial pace of change in centuries past), is almost impossible. That is why we see periodic backlashes and resistance to Changes that have occurred – often from older citizens who may simply feel that they are being asked to accept just one Change too many.

Individually, there is only so much Change we are able make in our one short lifetime, although each of us has a different capacity. That difference is usually based upon our differing degrees of adaptability. The more deeply our life is anchored in “the current,” the less adaptable we are. The more lightly we walk our life’s path, the more adaptable we are able to be.

Our capacity for Change, i.e. our ability to be receptive and adaptable to Life’s disruptions and lessons, is our choice to make, our skill to develop. While it behooves each of us to be sympathetic and compassionate to those whose capacity has been exhausted, we nevertheless recognize that disruptions, and their consequential Change, will still continue. And over the long narrative of human history, the overriding direction of these Changes seems predominately clear – however many side trips are taken along the way. Change comes to us – even as we may think we are warding it away – until comes that greatest disruption of all: our death.

©   2019   Randy Bell   

Monday, January 14, 2019

Joy In The Midst Of Suffering

We are living through very difficult times throughout the world today. Our goal during this period is to remain positive about the state of humankind, and energized regarding our ability to make some difference in its future. Nevertheless, trying to keep an appropriate balance in our life, and not succumbing to despair or stagnation about the state of things, requires a focused effort on our part. The following is an excerpt from “The Book Of Joy,” a series of moderated dialogs between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Perhaps the perspectives of these two highly recognized leaders, who have carried a lifetime of burdens on their shoulders, will give us some guidance in our efforts. Indeed, perhaps even some form of joy in the midst of the suffering we see everywhere?

[Moderator Question:] This question is for people who feel interdependence [among people] profoundly and are so compassionate that it makes them world-sick and heartsick. [A] person wants to know how she can find joy in her life while there are so many who are suffering.

“Yes. Very good,” [Archbishop Tutu] said, looking down and reflecting on the question. “As an old man, I can say: start where you are, and realize that you are not meant on your own to resolve all of these massive problems. Do what you can. It seems so obvious. And you will be surprised, actually, at how it can get to be catching.

There are very many, many people – I mean, my heart leaps with joy at discovering the number of people – who care. How many people walked in New York City for the environment? I mean, it was incredible. Nobody was going to pay them anything. But they were there in droves. There are many, many people who care. And you will be surprised when you begin to say, well, I would like to do something relating to the aged. You will be surprised at the number of people who come forward and want to help. Why are there so many NGOs (Non-Governmental  Organizations)? I mean, it is people who say, We want to make a better world. We don’t have to be so negative.

Hey, remember you are not alone, and you do not need to finish the work. It takes time, but we are learning, we are growing, we are becoming the people we want to be. It helps no one if you sacrifice your joy because others are suffering. We people who care must be attractive, must be filled with joy, so that others recognize that caring, that helping and being generous are not a burden, they are a joy. Give the world your love, your service, your healing, but you can also give it your joy. This, too, is a great gift.”

[Moderator Observation:] The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama were describing a special kind of generosity: the generosity of the spirit.  The quality they both have, perhaps more than any other, is this generosity of the spirit. They are big-hearted, magnanimous, tolerant, broad-minded, patient, forgiving, and kind. Maybe this generosity of spirit is the truest expression of spiritual development, of what the Archbishop had said it takes time to become.

The Archbishop had used a beautiful phrase to describe this way of being in the world: “becoming an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that ripples out to all of those around us.” … 

In generosity, there is a wider perspective, in which we see our connection to all others. There is a humility that recognizes our place in the world and acknowledges that at any other time we could be the one in need, whether that need is material, emotional, or spiritual. There is a sense of humor and an ability to laugh at ourselves so that we do not take ourselves too seriously. There is an acceptance of life, in which we do not force life to be other than what it is. There is a forgiveness of others and a release of what might have otherwise been. There is a gratitude for all that we have been given. Finally, we see others with a deep compassion and a desire to help those who are in need. And from this comes a generosity that is “wise selfish,” a generosity that recognizes helping others as helping ourselves. As the Dalai Lama put it, “In fact, taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life.”


Sometimes, even if the water may be a bit cloudy, nevertheless the glass really is half full.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Year Out, New Year In

Yet another year comes to a close. Like all other years before it, this year has told its own unique story, filled with its own unique actors and actresses. Has there ever been before a year like this one? Our history books may say some yes, perhaps some better and some worse. But our minds remain doubtful; could anything like this experience have preceded us?

As we ruminate over this latest movement in time and our unique role in it, we do well to remember that this year that is ending is 2018. Meaning that there have been 2,018 years that have ended before this one, each with its own story to tell. But even “2018” oversimplifies that measurement, since it only  reflects the Western/Gregorian calendar used predominately in Western Europe and the Americas, thereby ignoring all the years, centuries, millennia and eons of the past.

Time and calendars usually seem to be concrete concepts around which our life is defined and structured. In reality, they are merely insubstantial man-made gimmicks to help us better understand some piece of that which is essentially unknowable. Our “western” calendar measures the length of an era that has been passing since the death of Jesus of Nazareth 2,018 years ago. The Chinese similarly measure their calendars based upon the beginnings of eras of various emperors, their multiple calendars starting in variable years as late as 2156BC or 2698BC. The Jewish calendar begins its new year 163 days after Passover, celebrating the creation of Adam and Eve; this upcoming fall will be the Jewish Year 5779. The Islamic calendar reflects a 12-month year of 354 days; August will begin the Islamic year 1440. What is inescapable is that our one year 2018 is but one pebble in a vast sea of stones. Time may be a reality, but our connection to time is entirely relative. Like many things in life, our measurement of time is not absolute, but simply a human construct, shaped and defined by how we choose to see it.

By whatever calendar we employ, the end of one year simultaneously gives rise to the beginning of another new year. A year that will ultimately be what we choose to put into it – singularly and collectively. For most people, those choices will be built on Hope. Hope for a better, more peaceful existence on this ever-shrinking planet of diverse humanity. Inherently, human beings are an optimistic species, even as their life faces continual attempts to shatter that optimism. While we should be cold-eyed in our understandings of life’s realities, it is Hope – the belief that life has the potential to be made better – that keeps us moving forward in spite of the grievances and disturbances that befall us. It is Optimism that moves Hope into action, our belief that much more can be achieved if we just continue to try. And Optimism leads us into Faith – which is Hope transmuted into Certainty.

Each new year offers us the opportunity to reflect on where we have been, where we now are, and where life is opening for us to go next. Our hope for a life made better, our optimism in its achievability, and our faith in the greater purpose within which we live, carries us into yet another new time of exploration, of doing. May your “doing” in this upcoming year bring you happiness, fulfillment, compassion, and new understandings beyond your wildest dreams. And may we be less judgmental and harsh, and instead be a positive force in bringing happiness, fulfillment, compassion, and new understandings to all.

©   2019   Randy Bell