When my little brother Tom was very young, less than five, a friend of his grew annoyed that Tom wouldn’t share his toy. The boy countered by calling Tom stupid. My brother came home crying. It really affected him, for years. Of course it didn’t help that my brother’s “loving” sibling would bring up this incident time and again. Tom didn’t draw from the good deck when it came to older brothers. I was reminded of this story the other day when my granddaughter suffered through a tragic day at kindergarten after someone called her stupid. That’s a label that really hurts.
For the first forty years of my life I was considered by many to have above-average intelligence. Advanced degrees and numerous successes in the workplace being clear indicators. I could also more than hold my own in Trivial Pursuit.
Then my life changed. I became a Christian. It wasn’t an overnight thing, but a process where I came to the realization that I was living for all the wrong reasons – a boat drifting in a tumultuous sea. The whole ordeal took place over almost two years. It was often painful. And do you know what the hardest thing was for me in this monumental change? Dealing with society as born again believer. I knew I would be labeled as stupid. Yes I know karma suggests I deserved this on some level, but that wouldn’t make it any easier to swallow. If only this was the last time fate came back to laugh at me. Maybe some of those moments can be covered in future postings?
My ego wanted a compromise. Wasn’t there a way to still be smart, acceptable to my scientifically minded peers and yet embrace this new belief that was pulling me in ever-faster? The answer I have discovered over the last ten plus years is no and yes. For many folks religion equals weakness. The opiate of the masses don’t you know. I was destined to wear the identification card, “Hello my name is Leo and I’m terminally stupid.” As an aside, they make these ID cards in different colors and styles so they can go with almost any outfit. At least I can still look good as an idiot. “For a fool, he’s not half-bad looking.”
But I’ve also found a large group of under-the-radar supporters. Some are Christians who wear their ID cards beneath their overcoats. Others accept us as long as we don’t rock the boat too hard. It’s amazing how “acceptable” we Christians become when hard times hit. If a non-believing colleague has just lost a dear one, it’s alright for me to say I’m praying for him, but don’t use the p-word if his trial is limited to his son being bullied, his wife leaving him or if he just received notice that he’s being laid off.
Here are some random things I have ascertained during my transformative period. Please keep in mind this is the work of a stupid man, so don’t expect much here:
• Religious men were once considered the brightest minds in society. Some argue that this is only because the clergy and Biblical scholars were the majority of people who were literate. I don’t bring this up to debate the causality, merely to point out how the pendulum seems to have swung to the other extreme. Such a dramatic shift in society’s appraisal of a group of men feels like it is more based on external factors than actual intelligence.
• The great religious leaders who were once worshiped by society have been replaced by scientists. Although it’s hard to pinpoint a date, some have suggested the late nineteenth century as the beginning of the end of this epoch. Scientists are now treated as the carriers of the Truth. Their work in medicine, chemistry, space travel, and other fields has allowed mankind to surpass numerous monumental hurdles. Traversing these hurdles seems to suggest that we don’t need a Creator. That we have the ability to know everything and given time, solve every problem. The conundrum for me is that I have worked behind the curtain in the applied-science world for over thirty years. Let me bring you in on a secret from back stage. We’re not that good. The amount we know is dwarfed by what we don’t know.
• Having been on both sides of the believers/atheists fence, I have to say the non-believers tend to be much more aggressive about their views. There are of course exceptions and my conclusion is not based on a scientific study. This conclusion is formed through my personal observation of the written and verbal comments of folks when the mere topic of religion comes up. I can say this because I too was guilty of this behavior in my pre-Christian days. Why is this? If we believers are as stupid as the non-believers say, are we likely to become “smarter” because they’re mocking us? Can you shame someone into being more intelligent?
• There actually are some believers who say and do things that are embarrassing to us. We call this spiritual immaturity. Just like there are some adults that never stop acting like selfish kids, there are believers that never seem to quite get it. Maybe they’re a big reason for the anger expressed by the non-believers I mentioned above. If so, I can’t say I blame the agitated non-believers too much. The immature believers can frustrate us too. There is a verse in the Bible that says, in effect, truth shared without love is like clanging cymbals.
I tried to write this post in a fashion that was fair and not overly critical of those who see things differently from me. It would be nice if this writing would generate a healthy, constructive discussion, but such hope would be stupid on my part.
Ever wonder why some conversations stick in your head for seemingly no reason? Almost twenty years ago, I was having a beer with my boss, a German man who was probably in his late forties at that time. He had worked in the US for many years and was well-respected by his peers. I don’t recall how we got on the subject, but he began to compare Americans with his countrymen. He started by listing the things he liked about us and how grateful he was to have had the opportunity to work in our country. Then he dropped his wisdom on me.
The difference, he said, was that in his country you could have a conversation about anything, religion, politics, whatever, with someone you had met for the first time. It was okay to share your beliefs with no fear of starting an argument. The whole concept of our being overly careful, politically correct, struck him as odd for a country created by men not afraid to thumb their collective noses at a king.
Maybe I remember his words because I had no good reply? I felt like I couldn’t defend my homeland? Or perhaps his words stuck because I recognized they were intentional and pointed at me? He was my boss and I think I was weighing a position in Munich at the time. Like I said, almost two decades have passed and the words are still with me.
I’m an author now with one book published and another in development. I also have this blog, for what it’s worth. Why do I put myself through this toil? It’s the same as any author. There are things inside me that I simply must get out. Whether my goal is to entertain, teach or some variant of these, my soul is not well unless I share. Fair enough, I now have a channel to be heard. What should I do with it?
A couple of years back, a writer friend of mine instructed me to stay away from controversial topics on my blog. She said it would hurt the sales of my book – alienating potential readers. Since she was a published author with a good blog that I follow, I took her advice. My other writer friends said this was wise. Just focus on your novels, write “nice” posts and build a following.
But this has left me unsettled. Those who are forced to be around me, know me as a person who uses humor in conversations to go places where the intrepid fear to go. I don’t do this to be mean. I just hate elephants. The ones in the room that people won’t talk about. Our time on this planet is so short, it feels like a crime against humanity to stay clear of these “forbidden” topics. Such timidity diminishes our very existence! Herein lies my problem. The blog, part of the channel that is meant to provide a relief to my writer’s voice, is blocked. I cannot be true to myself in one venue and a liar in another. I don’t do milquetoast.
The solution is obvious. But those are often the ones that we try are darndest to avoid. I need to write what’s on my heart and in my mind. I should do this in a way that isn’t meant to hurt anyone. Some folks might get emotionally charged, positive or negative. Hopefully this leads to discussions. The kind that changes one or both of us. Like a talk over beers with a friend.
So this is my goal from now on with this blog. I’m going to speak my piece about things that stir in me – religion, race, politics, business and yes, the most controversial, what’s wrong with baseball. Why am I telling my readers this, all six of you? Because I need to be held accountable. If you see a post that has the odor of vanilla, that shows no courage, call me out. Ask me where I left my spine. Remind me of this promise I am making to myself and you – I will give no thought to the rocking of the boat when I write in this space.
Little kids get to say “I hate vanilla” and no one takes issue. We just smile and let them enjoy what they want. Teenagers oscillate between polar opposites with no apparent correlation to anything beyond the direction the wind is blowing. Although frequently annoying, we slough if off to hormones.
Then there are the old farts amongst us. Crotchety old buggers that tell you what they think with nary a filter. Men or women, it doesn’t matter too much. They’re respected because they have been on the planet for so long. Our society gives them the right to say how they feel even if some younger folks might be offended by their unyielding positions.
Those of us located somewhere in the middle are stuck being enlightened and sensitive. We knowingly realize that life is just a bunch of grays – the lines all blurred between right and wrong. God forbid we utter anything that could be hurtful or insensitive. This brings me to two questions that I grapple with:
I know, my critics will say we’re still an intolerant society so of course there are still problems. But with all the media and societal pressures brought on anyone who strays from the bland center, surely we must have become more tolerant than previous generations. So shouldn’t we be seeing some improvements? In the good old USA in the last couple of decades violence has risen, general health has decreased, and new designer drugs keep popping up. Where’s the proof this is the right course?
I’m not advocating hurting others for the sake of some twisted pleasure. In fact, those wild stone throwers are some of the ones I’m just itching to mock. I think of them as media-bullies. They’re amazingly fast at throwing the racist, intolerant, insensitive cards at others while they themselves live lives that have a stench worse than three-year old government cheese. I know well their strategy. The best defense is a good offense. Attack others before they can figure out there’s no substance to your being.
Alas, I’m trapped in my mid-fifties and probably out of line for even suggesting that such people exist. I guess I’m destined to sit quietly for another decade, forced to watch the inequities playing out before me. Bliss will have to wait until the 2020’s. Until then I guess I’ll have to settle for writing strong-willed characters that don’t give a rip about what others think. There’s some fun in that, but don’t think I haven’t marked my calendar for the day when my freedom rings.
My father will die any day now. Maybe in a matter of hours. I’m not with him at this moment; I spent most of yesterday in his company. It’s 6:00 AM on a Sunday and I’ll be heading back in a few hours. He may pass before I get back to him, but I’m at peace with that. We’ve said all the things that needed to be said to finish well.
Like many fathers and sons our relationship has had it’s rocky moments over the decades. We had a period where we didn’t speak to each other. Looking back we both could have done things better. Then again, what part of your life couldn’t you handle smoother with hindsight as your guide?
The rocky crevasses that dotted our relationship were always bridged by our common love for sports. It’s the gift that my dad gave me that I have given to my children. In fact, it’s one of the many things that drew my wife and me close over thirty years ago. The role of sports in our society is amazing and probably a bit warped. As a consumer of this drug, I wouldn’t change a thing. I think of Doris Goodwin’s memoir and the movie A Field of Dreams.
Today will be the last time we watch a game together. It’s a football game. I prefer baseball, but it’s October and our team didn’t make it to the playoffs this year. I say we’re going to watch the game, but he is fading fast and probably won’t even be conscious during the proceedings. It’s a meaningless mid-season NFL game that may soon be forgotten. Our team, the Detroit Lions, will be playing against the New Orleans Saints. I’m not sure what to make of that irony – a dying man and his son rooting for the Lions against the Saints. I can only wonder if God will forgive us. Did He forgive the Romans?
I have spent the last few days oscillating between eagerness and dread regarding this game. I would like a good memory to hold on to – a bittersweet sound bite of our fifty-plus-year-relationship. I’m not sure I’ve been a good enough son to ask for that. Will I be able to maintain my composure? Will I lie to my father and tell him our team won if God does back his namesake team? He’ll be seeing our Maker sooner than me and will find out if I lied. I hope He and he see my need to lie as the act of a loving son.
Should I even be concerning myself with the game considering the gravity of what is transpiring? Do I even have a choice? Am I just using this so I don’t have to deal with the grief that is standing outside my door? My head is spinning and kickoff is approaching. A coach would be yelling at me to get my head in the game. I’m not sure I can. All I know is that I’m going to suit up and show up.
Dad wasn’t able to talk but the nurse swore that he could hear us. Although there was no proof, I chose to believe her. The day before we had moved a hospital bed in front of the TV. My youngest brother and my son joined me sitting around Dad’s bed to watch the game. When I apologized for the cheesy bonding event, the hospice nurse, a wonderful lady who showed my father great love throughout his final moments, told me that this was perfect. She also mentioned that her father-in-law was a Saints fan and she would be rooting for the Lions too.
The game was rough for us to watch. Dad’s breathing was labored and it was difficult to focus on the game. Dad was rolled away from the TV screen for the first half, but the nurse said we should roll him on his other side for his comfort. His breathing got more labored as the nurse predicted. The game remained close. The conversation amongst the men in the room focused on football and what our team needed to do. Okay, my son and I bashed the referees, but damn it they deserved it. My father was dying and even now they couldn’t get the calls right!
During a commercial break I spoke quietly with the nurse. She said that my father was actively dying now. I wasn’t sure what that meant – aren’t we all actively dying from the moment we’re born? I called my sister and the other non-football fans in the family. They were at the mall, having been banished from this male-bonding event. (They had left only because none of us knew how close Dad was to passing on.)
The game was coming to a close, under five minutes left, when the rest of the family arrived. The Lions were down by two scores and there was no way they would come back – especially with those devil-spawned referees! We hit the pause on the DVR and loved on each other for a few minutes. There was a lot of love and strength in the room.
Several minutes had passed when I asked my brother quietly how badly the Lions had lost. He quickly checked on his phone and found that the Lions had scored and were driving in for another score that would give them the lead. What the hell? We all hurried to the TV set for the remaining two minutes of the game. We were just in time to see the Lions score the lead changing touchdown. There was little time left on the clock and our team’s defense ran out on the field. By now, I knew that God would have none of these phony-Saints and the satanic officials! Today was our day. God granted us a win in this meaningless football game so my father and his boys could enjoy a final moment together.
My father passed away quietly about an hour after the game. I didn’t have to lie to him. Our team won. Both he and the Lions finished strong.
I love you Dad.
Let me start off by saying that I like people, most days. I’m an engineer by profession and as a rule interacting with other life forms is not one of our best traits. I would judge that I’m a bit off the engineering-norm here in that I generally do well talking to others and don’t even mind the occasional public speaking chore thrown my way.
But there are those days. The days where people let me down. It comes in waves. The folks touching my life are suddenly too human and consistently fail to meet my expectations for a peaceful existence. I have a drama limit, don’t we all? Unexpectedly these other life forms start sharing an abundance of their drama with me. Am I giving off signs that show I desire this type of interaction? That’s probably a longer discussion.
I had a couple of these dark days this week. They’re draining and eventually I know I’ll slip and be “blunt”. That’s my code word for telling other humans I would be happier if they took their need to exist on this planet outside of my environmental perimeters. Generally my previous blunt moments haven’t been good for family, friends or career.
For a portion of my early career I wrote software. It was the perfect occupation on those dark days. It was professionally and socially acceptable to go in my office (work cube), turn off the phone, and just code away. Bang on the keys, develop some elegant code that solved a problem, and at the end of the day come out refreshed and ready to deal with life again. Then I had to leave that world.
Long distance running became the new escape. For the next two decades I could just slip on the running shoes and hit the road. I’d come back tired but recharged. And then I got older. Running hurts now. Old age sucks. I needed a new solution.
Along came writing. You get to be by yourself, punch the keys, create something you hope is elegant, and come back refreshed. Of course, other people will feel the need to judge the effectiveness of your writing. But if that gets to be too much, you just go back into isolation and write some more.
It must be working because these days whenever I feel myself edging toward bluntness, my wife always asks me, “Do you need to write?” I can’t figure out if that’s love she’s showing me or merely self-preservation.
My first book is due out in a few weeks. Like any new author, I dream that my work will be successful. It’s not the money or fame I’m chasing. It’s the chance to have a blunt-free life. I think that my family and friends are rooting for this too. They should be.