Respect – My Lai in Black and White

 

respectThe worst moment for me, in a string of horrible moments, was the sight of Lesley McSpadden standing out on the street on in front of the Municipal Court in Ferguson.  Like most of America, she was waiting to hear the result of the Grand Jury investigation.

But Lesley McSpadden wasn’t most of America. Lesley McSpadden was the mother of an unarmed young black man shot to death by the white policeman who was the subject of the Grand Jury investigation.

How is it that no one in authority in Ferguson had the decency to invite her into the Municipal Court where it was warm, to provide her with a place where she could sit down when she heard the news?

This is not so preposterous a thought.  Had Wilson’s guilt or innocence been determined through a public trial, McSpadden would have had a seat in the courtroom. She would have had been able to observe the faces of Wilson, McCullough and the jury when the verdict was delivered. Wilson, McCullough, and the jury would have had to observe her grief and shock. McSpadden would have been a participant in our (however flawed) democratic and judicial system.

But that Monday night, standing in the street, she was outside the democratic and judicial system.  She was an anonymous woman of no relevance to the stage show being performed by Robert McCullough inside the courthouse.

This small act—or non-act—of disrespect was not the first in the months since Michael Brown’s death. McSpadden was not allowed to approach him as he lay in blazing sunshine in a public street for four hours. Once his body was removed from the street, she was not allowed to see it for two weeks. Based on comments in a recent CBS interview with McSpadden, no one in Ferguson officialdom has yet found the time—or the empathy—to offer “personal condolences” to her or her family.

To all intents and purposes, the mother of Michael Brown—an unarmed teenager killed by a white policeman—was not seen by the authorities in Ferguson as a human being worthy of respect or empathy.

And that most un-human response–small gestures that would have be so easy for a compassionate person to do—reinforces my fear that Ferguson’s officialdom, in the secret dark recesses of their minds and souls, think that Officer Wilson did exactly what he was trained to do. The fact that Michael Brown was an unarmed teenager who appeared to be wounded is an incidental. What counted was that he had been behaving aggressively towards a white policeman.

The scene in Ferguson brings to mind My Lai, the 1968 tragedy in which the members of Charlie Company, an American infantry group, murdered hundreds of women and children in a small Vietnamese hamlet named Son My. While there are many differences between Son My and Ferguson, the soldiers—like Wilson—were trained to respond to potential threats. Told that the village was under control of the Vietcong, the Charlie Company responded to the threat by killing everyone in the village.

Years later, when the Son My investigation was completed, we learned that no one in the village ever fired a shot at anyone in Charlie Company.

Decades later, we know that Michael Brown did not fire a shot at Darren Wilson.

Who is guilty here?  Is it Darren Wilson? Or is it a system that trains a white police officer in a black community, when confronted by what appears to be an angry or aggressive black man, to shoot first and ask questions later?

Or is it those of us who sit by comfortably, with our evening glass of wine and our holiday reunions, as the Ferguson authorities sanction “official” violence based on old tropes about race … as those same authorities are allowed to be rude and disrespectful to a grieving mother because of the color of her skin?

What we should do?  What would you do?

Legacy: What Will Your Verse Be?

 

In keeping with my recent focus on issues of aging, my blog this week comes from change management consultant, Jann Freed, whose most recent book looks at aging with wisdom, or “sage-ing.”

 

legacyWe often think of a legacy as something that emerges at the end—the end of our lives, the end of a job, the end of a career.  But in reality, we leave our legacy daily with what we say, how we say it, and what we do.

I like to ask:  Are we living our lives in ways we want to be remembered?

After the death of Robin Williams, people reflected on his many movies.  While I loved Good Will Hunting, my favorite movie was Dead Poet’s Society.  As someone whose first career of 30 years was that of a college professor, I was enamored by the way in which his character, John Keating, engaged the students in learning.  Here is one of my favorite lines from that movie:

“We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer: that you are here; that life exists, that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

 

What is your verse now?  

We often think of legacies as positive—people who have made a positive difference.  But legacies can also be negative and it can happen fast, as we witnessed with Coach Joe Paterno and even more recently with Bill Cosby, whose legacy went from great to bad almost overnight.

Yet, legacy thinking is forward thinking.  When we are intentional about our words and actions, we are anticipating how we affect others.  Many of us do not have the money and influence to have our name on a building, an endowment, or a stadium named after us.  But are we leaving the world a better place?

When talking about legacy, I advocate writing an ethical will, which is more than a legal document that describes how we want to allocate our financial and physical assets.  An ethical will (www.ethicalwill.com) is a document that communicates our values, beliefs, and other stories that we want to pass onto others.  Sometimes this document is referred to as a legacy letter, but the intent is the same—to share with others what matters most to us.  An excellent book on ethical wills is titled So the Tree Grows—Creating an Ethical Will—The Legacy of Your Beliefs and Values, Life Lessons, and Hopes for the Future by Jo Kline Cebuhar.

Since many families are scattered and most of us are not sitting around the kitchen table every week sharing stories, being intentional about what you want people to know is important.  When I realized that my sons kept the notes, letters, and cards I sent them at camp, during college, and beyond, I have started writing them “legacy letters” on their birthdays.  While I don’t call them that, I write the letter with the mindset that I am sharing what I want them to know and remember right now.  As they have gotten older and grown in maturity, the subject matter changes.  This has been a nice tradition—whether they realize what I am doing or not.

As Barry Baines, the founder of “EthicalWill.com” says:  “We all want to be remembered and everyone leaves something behind.”  It is the little things that can make a big difference.  Being intentional and thoughtful helps give purpose, meaning, and direction to our life.

So rather than drift with the wind, I challenge you to think about how you want to be remembered.

What will your verse be?  

 

Jann Head ShotIn Jann’s first career as a college professor of business management, she held the Mark and Kay De Cook Endowed chair in leadership and character development at Central College in Pella, Iowa.  She retired in 2011 as professor emerita and is now a leadership development and change management consultant with The Genysys Group.  She calls herself “The Transitionist” because her focus is on helping organizations and individuals get from where they are to where they want to be.

She is the author of five books and the latest is titled Leading with Wisdom:  Sage Advice from 100 Experts. If you want to explore how some of our great leaders have created a legacy, you might enjoy Chapter 9, which is titled “Leaders Live Their Legacy.”

A Patchwork of Stories

 

 

My guest this week is Gwen Plano, who writes most eloquently about the way in which writing enhances our understanding of and appreciation for our own life stories.

 

patchwork quiltWhen I was a young child, countrywomen gathered to sew quilts for special events. My mother took us with her when she met with her friends in the basement of the local rural church. Sometimes I snuck under the stretched material on the large wooden frame and listened as the women stitched and knotted. They talked about their families, about their hardships and about love. When they cried, I cried–even if I did not quite understand. It was their emotion that spoke to me.

The cloth leftovers rhythmically sewn one to another helped me see the interconnectedness of life. And as I began writing my memoir, I realized I was creating my own quilt of sorts—through a patchwork of stories.

Even before I put pen to paper, I was awakened in the early morning hours with scenes, faded by time. Drawn into the story they revealed, I began to write. Soon pages of text accompanied these reveries and though I captured some of these glimpses of insight in my writing, others hid and waited—for yet another night. My crowded desk of post-it notes became my companion and sometimes friend, helping me bring the pieces together.

This process, unexpected and bewitching, guided me through the corridors of my heart, where I wrestled with haunting flashbacks and elusive threads of connection. The years of abuse were long past and in tow—its numbness. I could feel again; and, the tears and gasps came and went—because they could.

One story after another unfolded on paper, as sections from frayed journals and yellowed family photos came alive and spoke to me. The dramas that once controlled my life and held me captive were but ailing memories, soon to meet their demise. And as I gazed upon this human collage of struggles and apprehensions, I was humbled by another story that emerged.

I realized that my journey was everyone’s journey. I had thought I was alone.

The person I was decades ago lives only in ashen memories. Hardships have carved the landscape of my youth, shifting dreams and opening horizons. I barely know the adolescent me who trekked unburdened by reason. But as I look back over the years, I now see the terrain she must travel to become who I am today.

Through choices, some chilling but otherwise ordinary, we find our way. While I might take one road and you another, we all face adversity, and we all experience sorrow, fear or regret at some point in time. And, don’t we all go through life trying to make sense of it all?

It is only in retrospect that I have come to see how the journey we travel is both universal—and circular. Life’s summit is elusive because the terminus is also the starting point. Ultimately, any life path we choose brings us full circle. When we meet ourselves again, our joys may have expanded and our hearts may have softened. And then we begin again. We travel until we find the one love we all seek; only then, do we rest.  

T.S. Eliot, in his last verses of the poem “Little Gidding,” wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning…

 

Writing Letting Go into Perfect Love was an integrative process for me; because, as I wrote, I began to understand; and, as I understood, gratitude emerged—for the trials and tribulations, for the sorrows and the joys, for the friends and the foes … for the preciousness of life. For you.

I sit in awe of my traveled life and marvel at its relationship to the whole. Perhaps we’ve met along the way. I wonder which quilt block is yours and what its story might be.

 

Gwen - patchwork quiltGwen Plano spent most of her professional life in higher education. She taught and served as an administrator in colleges in New York, Connecticut, and California. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in nutrition from San Diego State University, was awarded a Master’s Degree in Theology from the University of the State of New York, and then completed a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Iona College. Finally, she earned a Doctorate in Education from Columbia University.

Plano is also a Reiki Master and a Certified LifeLine Practitioner.

Letting Go Into Perfect Love (She Writes Press) is Plano’s first book.

Find & follow Gwen online:

www.gwenplano.com

www.facebook.com/GwenPlano1

 

The Devil Made Me Do It and Other Lies

 

ControlMy blog this week is a guest post by Dr. Flora Brown, who taught critical thinking for 20 years at Fullerton College in California. Dr. Brown muses on the illusion of control in our lives.  

 

The 1970s American comedian Flip Wilson became famous for his portrayal of sassy Geraldine, who excused her behavior by saying “The Devil made me do it.” This trademark quip became a national catch phrase.

It’s human nature to place blame outside ourselves for our behavior. But it is equally unproductive  to believe we have control in situations where we do not.

Each morning when I join my neighbor for a walk, I dutifully push the button and wait until the crosswalk man symbol appears, signaling that it’s safe for me to cross.  Since modern signal lights are computerized, I have no control over activating that light. It just makes me feel better believing I do.  

There’s a similar phenomenon in gambling. When modern casinos computerized slot machines, a decision was made to leave the handles for gamblers to pull for each play. Appropriately nicknamed “one-arm bandits”, these handles give gamblers something to do that reinforces the illusion they have control in a situation where they have none. 

Benefits of the Illusion of Control

Believing we have control in situations where we have little or none can be empowering.  

When I applied for a community college teaching position, it was to be the second full-time African American teacher in the history of a school approaching its 85th anniversary.  While I had strong educational preparation and experience, the decision would be made by a committee of strangers who evaluated my application along with 100 similarly qualified teachers.  My fate depended on many considerations other than just my personal qualifications.

If I had thought about how little control I had over the decision of that committee, I might never have applied.  But I didn’t think about that. I applied for the position and prepared well for the interview.  If I hadn’t applied, I definitely wouldn’t have gotten the job where I enjoyed a 20-year career. 

Sometimes, the illusion of control encourages us to take responsibility for our actions.  

Do We Ever have Control?

When, if ever do we have control?

We all laugh at Geraldine when she says “the Devil made me do it” because we immediately recognize it as a handy excuse for her excessive shopping.  But most of us have difficulty recognizing how we smudge the line between what we control and what we don’t.

In reality, our thoughts and actions are the only things that belong to us. We never have control over what another person does or says, or the circumstance we encounter. We just have control over what we think about and how we react to what we experience. Our attitude will not change the situation or outcome, but it will increase our chances of survival and triumph.

In his powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, one of the world’s best-known Holocaust survivors, tells of the day he began to see beyond the reality of the daily horror he endured in the camps.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

After suffering in four concentration camps for three years, Frankl was released, but his wife, parents, and family had all died in the camps. Frankl went on to become a psychotherapist and developed a treatment called logotherapy, which theorizes that our primary motivation is our search for meaning in life. He believed that if we can find personal meaning in life, we can overcome dismal circumstances.

Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps did not make him vengeful, insensitive, or uncaring toward others’ sufferings. Instead, he realized that the guards could take everything from him, including his life, but they couldn’t control his mind or spirit. They couldn’t stop his sense of the search for meaning in life.

Frankl discovered it is our inner control that gives us power in our lives. It is discovering meaning—in a world that is out of control—that gives us peace.

The Shift in Control

It can be exhilarating to feel in control, to be able to direct our lives like a ringmaster. Some people fight to hold onto perceived control, and others cheat for it, lie for it, and even kill for it.  Even so, the reality is that no amount of victory, good fortune, physical fitness, prayer, personal achievement, fame, yoga, or meditation will spare us from eventually finding ourselves in situations over which we have no control. 

Since we know these situations will recur, how great it would be to greet them like a friend, no longer trying to control them, but learning from them and letting them pass. On that day, we’ll be equally at ease with taking responsibility for our behavior and relaxing when we are not in charge.  

 

Flora BrownFlora Morris Brown, Director of Content for www.ColorYourLifePublished.com, helps take the fear out of publishing, whether it’s your 1st or 7th book. Her 4-week on-demand e-course Rockin’ My Book, helps executives, coaches and entrepreneurs to increase credibility by writing a book. She is the author of Color Your Life Happy: Create the Success, Abundance, and Inner Joy You Deserve, among other books.

Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D.
www.coloryourlifepublished.com

 

Dr. Brown’s comment continue the discussion on the broad range of issues that confront my protagonist, Lindsey Chandler, in my novel, A Fitting Place.  If you would like to contribute to the discussion, please check the topics and guidelines here.