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  • What Really Matters?

    • Posted on Jun 21, 2015
    This morning's (Sunday 6-21) Courier column--about what really matters.   Not 
    an easy subject, given the shock we've suffered this week--and I'm in Charleston (my second home city) right now, struggling with the unvarnished reality of race hatred that led to the cold-blooded murders of nine Charlestonians in their church.    

    Still, the idea that there's a larger reality that really matters is what's helping people get through that hatred and move toward healing.   

    Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, wrote Gershwin.  It’s true, at least 
    when summer vacations roll around and beaches and mountains loom.   
    Time for a change of scene, for easy relaxing and pondering.  

     Ponder what, you ask?   

    What really matters, that’s what.  It’s the best all-around question to ponder during those days without deadlines and pressures. 

     Everyone will answer it differently.  

     Winning matters hugely for some, meaning being first and best at everything.  The competitors, we might call them.  

     Others spend serious time finding and nurturing a soul-mate, a love of their life, and that’s what matters most to them.  They’re romantics, bless their moonstricken hearts.   

     Fame, for others, so that everyone notices them, seeks them out, makes them the center of attention.   “Look at me!” their lives seem to say, and cameras beckon to them like moths to flame.  They’re narcissists, and they’re everywhere these days. 

     Wealth, for still others, so that they never have to deny themselves a new Luxemobile, a granite-countered house, a fast boat, a perfect vacation.  They’re high-enders who seek big bucks.  

     For still others, friendships, near and far, supportive and intimate. They spend hours cultivating friendships, lunching, writing, catching up on social media.

     They delight in lending a hand or shoulder to those they’ve gotten to know, love to be
    counted upon for favors, and seek to maintain old friendships.  They’re our friends, and thank heavens for them. 

     We all belong to some of these groups, and derive satisfaction from the undeniable benefits that each provides. 

     So, is that all?  Once you’re winning, famous, rich, soul-mated, and surrounded by friends, have you found everything that matters?  Does your happiness at that point know no bounds? 

     Alas, no. We all know such seemingly fulfilled people who still rely on therapists and happy pills to calm their frayed nerves.  They’re still seeking something that really matters.   

     And what might that be?    

     Dylan’s 1979 song “You gotta Serve Somebody” points toward it:  
    "You may be an ambassador to England or France
    You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
    You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
    You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
    But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
    You're gonna have to serve somebody,
    It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
    But you're gonna have to serve somebody."

     As Trish, the character who tries to commit suicide in that great film “Educating Rita” laments, “I’m not enough.”   

     If you live for furthering yourself and meeting your needs only, you’re headed for disappointment and suffering.   Truth be told, none of us are the complete center of anything.  Our egos don’t really matter. 

     Realizing this amounts to growing up, and the sooner the better.  

     This is not easy, especially with our little digital screens tempting us to believe that we are the center of everything. 

     Granted, a strong, confident self does help you succeed. But that’s not what really matters.   

     Religious folks get at what really matters through worship, faith in some supernatural power, and prayer.  

     Non-religious folks do it through wonder, curiosity, contemplation, and seeking enlightenment through in-depth awareness.  

     I’m among the non-religious, and have found what really matters is a spiritual path that’s stimulating, endlessly challenging, and ultimately satisfying. 

     If you like pondering what really matters this summer, and you’re leaning toward the non-religious, let me suggest two books I’ve found helpful:  Tara Brach’s 2005 “Radical Acceptance” and her more recent “True Refuge.”  She’s a clinical psychologist and an American Buddhist teacher who has been pondering what matters for 35 years.   

     If you’re curious and open to new approaches, these books make perfect summer reading. 

     I can’t imagine a summer without spending daily time seeking and pondering.  
    That’s what really matters. 

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  • Santa Barbara Shootings: We Were There

    • Posted on Jun 08, 2014

    This column appeared in the Waterloo Courier today, Sunday, June 8.  My family was  eating a few miles from where Elliott Rodger began killing students and his roommates in Isla Vista, a small section of Santa Barbara.   We didn't know about it until the next morning, and then realized it could have been us.



    Friday night, May 23, I stayed in a Santa Barbara motel in a room next to my son and grandchildren.  

    We enjoyed several afternoon hours at the zoo and the motel pool, taking in the glorious California coastal weather. Walking two blocks around suppertime to an Outback steakhouse, we stayed blissfully unaware of the mass shootings four miles away.

    The next morning when we heard the news, we were shaken.  Horrific.  Senseless. Insane.  Within walking distance.

    Elliott Rodger could have driven by and shot us to pieces, making us part of his “Day of Retribution.”  

    Well, not quite.  Turns out Rodger wouldn’t have bothered with a strolling middle-aged family. He targeted women, specifically pretty blond women, the kind he desired but couldn’t attract.

    Because he thought they avoided him, he grew to hate them, madly and deeply.  He made plans to capture and torture a few, including their boyfriends.  Rodger created a 140-page manifesto, which he called “My Twisted World.” He emailed it just hours before his killing spree.  

    It’s a hard read, filled with angry rants against not just women, but also men who succeed in dating women—‘brutes,” he calls them.  In fact, Elliot Rodger hated the whole world, calling mankind “disgusting, depraved, and evil.”  

     He ends with, “All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all of this.  I am the good guy.”  

    Deeply twisted. 

    Yet how many thousand teenage boys feel rejected, neglected, avoided, made fun of, by the women they desire most? How many of them long for long-term relationships but fail?  How many struggle with acceptance, unable to make friends?  

    In fact, that’s teenage life at times: Lonely, frustrating, self-pitying, lost.

    It’s the school of hard knocks, and most of us eventually grow up and find some of what we want—enough to feel happy most days.  

     That’s what reasonably healthy people do as they become adults.  But Rodgers suffered from serious mental illness. His reality was upside down and inside out; his roommates wanted him to move out.  He stabbed them all to death.     

    At what point do we intervene, putting such lost souls not just under surveillance but in hospitals?  Clearly, that’s where he belonged, and clearly, he should never have gotten anywhere near weapons, including knives.

    Given the warning signs, including threatening videos and that manifesto, he should have been picked up and kept for observation.  Yet police did interview him a few days before his rampage, and found him polite and “normal.”  Unfortunately, they didn’t read his rage-filled online rants or his video postings. 

    Even if they had, they couldn’t arrest him under current laws.  Freedom of speech protects all kinds of crazy talk, as it must.    

    In other words, nothing could be done until he broke the law. He was privileged, leisured, and behaved within legal boundaries.   That’s the most disturbing aspect of Rodger’s killing.  We’re helpless under current laws.  

    A new bill allowing police to impose a “Gun Violence Restraining Order” is now being put before the California legislature, and that might have worked if his parents and police had intervened and a judge had agreed.  

    Yet there are hundreds of Elliott Rodgers out there, and few do anything but rant.  How many can we lock up?  How many more police and investigators will it take? 

    Given the easy availability of guns and the pervasive desensitization of killing provided by “shooter” video games and blockbuster movies, we’ve created a culture where sick minds become dangerous.  

    It could have been me and my family.   It could be you and yours.  

    We keep repeating “Not One More!” at rallies.  

    Until next time.     


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