Finding Balance, Fixing Blame

Missy sat on her pillow, only to find most of it had no mattress underneath.

WHUMP.

Startled but unhurt, our disabled ward looked up from the carpet. And then, with a growl worthy of Yosemite Sam, she pointed fiercely at the nearby nightstand.

“No!” she bellowed, with offended justice ringing in her voice.

I glanced at the object of her ire and then helped her up.

“Missy,” I said gently, “the lamp did not trip you.”

Another scowl resulted. Guilty or not, that nightstand lamp would not be forgiven any time soon.

It’s not the first time I’ve had to act as a defense attorney for an innocent object or creature. When Missy’s coordination issues produce an occasional fall, she’s good at slowing herself down into a soft landing. She’s also good at fixing the blame on anything nearby. In the days when we still had Big Blake, our lovably massive English Lab, the Missy Finger of Judgment would quickly indicate her furry friend … even if he happened to be across the room at the time.

“Missy …”

Other times, the accusation has been leveled at our birds. (A real accomplishment, that.) Or an empty chair. Or maybe a passing poltergeist out for a stroll. Anyone and anything except herself.

But then, that shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, many of us do exactly the same thing.

I’ve said before that we’re story-centered beings. We want a cause or an explanation for everything, the simpler the better. But we also don’t want that cause to be us or something we admire. And so, we look for a convenient target.

In sports, we lash out at the ref for making That One Call. (Never mind the 300 bad plays before it that made the call important.) Or we decide that everything’s the fault of one coach or one player – like an ancient king, sacrificing them will prosperity to the land again.

In the larger world, it gets even uglier. I don’t need to recount how many Others we’ve found to blame for the problems of a troubled society or a broken world. Usually we choose a people who are safely powerless and already despised, convenient scapegoats that make us feel good about our prejudice or contempt.

Too often, we don’t look inward. Too often, we don’t dare.

Some of it is simple pride. Many times, we’ve committed ourselves deeply to an action, a cause, a person, a belief. And when someone gives that commitment badly – if the belief is ill-founded or the hero is anything but – turning back means admitting “I was wrong.” Maybe even looking foolish.

That’s hard. Far easier to double down instead, to deny the uncomfortable truth and press on ahead.

The times when we’ve been able to break through those clouds and start to choose a different road are some of the proudest in our history. But they never come without struggle. And the struggle always starts on the inside.

We will find that clear vision again. But how long it takes and how hard it will be depends on us. And when we stumble along the way, I hope we can find our balance in each other and rise again.

Even if it means forgiving that darned lamp.

This Looks Familiar

“Uh-oh!”

That’s one of the Missy phrases that triggers instant attention every time, especially when accompanied by laughter. Our disabled ward likes to pull pranks from time to time, and the more she knows she’s doing something “wrong” – usually putting something where it doesn’t belong – the more jovial she’ll be.

I looked up from the book I had gotten out, on the alert … and laughed as well. Once again, Missy had just swiped my glasses from where they were resting and tried them on. My oversize lenses framed her face surprisingly well,  especially when paired with her crooked grin.

“Go show Heather!”

Off she went. Soon Heather’s laughter echoed as well. And then later that night, after we’d put Missy to bed, she noted something.

“You know,” she said, “it’s amazing how much she looks like Andy with those on. I mean, I always knew there was a resemblance but with those glasses, you can really see it.”

She showed me the pictures – one she’d just taken, the other an old shot of Missy’s brother Andy, who had died in 2006 at the age of 40. Same smile and laughing eyes. Same coloring and facial structure. And now, even the big glasses were similar.

No doubt. None in the world.

Wow.

I’m sure you know the feeling. It’s a little startling, isn’t it? And that sort of déjà vu can lurk around any corner, whether it’s a familiar face, a well-known location, or an old time that seems to become new again.

Maybe especially that last one. Lately, at least.

That may sound a little strange to say. After all, these last 12 months or so have seen an unprecedented use of the word “unprecedented.” (Sorry.)  Maybe in reaction to that, we keep reaching out for comparisons that will make everything make sense. Are we once again seeing the stubbornness and desperation of the Great Pandemic of 1918? The unrest and division of 1968? Are we reprising the corruption of the Watergate years, the economic uncertainty of the Depression, the political uncertainty of Europe between the wars?

Ultimately, of course, every time is its own. But as the old saying goes, even though history doesn’t truly repeat, it often rhymes. It’s still made by us – and our hearts, our minds, still have a sibling’s resemblance to those who came before, however much the world around us may have changed.

And so we find ourselves dealing with the same sorts of core issues given new faces and forms. Fear. Injustice. Uncertainty. Prejudice. Anger. Round and round we turn, sometimes reaching for something better, sometimes grasping only for ourselves.

No, not so different at all.

And therefore, maybe not so hopeless as we might be tempted to think.

At this time of year, it’s common to quote the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe a little TOO common, as we grow tempted to set aside meaningful action for beautiful words, or adopt a spirit of complacency instead of struggle. But with that warning in mind, his words on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize seem to fit these “similar times”:

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights,” he said, “we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.”

That’s not a pat on the head. It’s not an excuse to sit aside and say “Oh, well, things will work themselves out.” A struggle not joined is lost. But it is a call to hope, a reminder that working for hope is not futile. That the worst times carry the seeds of the best – if we’re willing to put forth the labor to plant them and help them grow.

Similar times. Similar fears. Similar promise, if we can face the moment with hope, courage and effort.

If we don’t?

Uh-oh.

Peace Together

My wife Heather is not a fan of January.

The antipathy goes back to her school days, when January meant not just returning to school, but returning without an escape hatch. She and her classmates faced a long, cold, bleak month without the enchantment of Christmas or the myriad minor holidays of February – indeed, hardly anything to break up the barren landscape of the calendar at all.

With, of course, one significant and recent exception.

I’ve written before that King Day is a curious holiday. It’s one of the few we have that’s dedicated to a person instead of an event. It’s a reminder of a fiery time, placed in the middle of a frozen month. (In many ways, the August anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech might be more appropriate.)

And it’s about the only time, other than Christmas, when we spend a holiday talking about peace.

Please don’t think that I’m just referring to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dedication to nonviolence. That is an important part of his legacy and one that might have even surprised him at the beginning of his career, when armed guards and weapons for self-defense seemed to be an option worth considering. As we know, he finally made a powerful and famous choice to walk a different path, one that still inspires people today.

But that’s not what I mean by peace.

It’s a complicated word, really. A couple of my friends – one a pastor, one an author – like to point to the distinctions between two of the “peace” words, the Latin “pax” and the Hebrew “shalom.” The first, they note, is an end to open hostilities, a basic lack of violence. Under that definition, so long as you do not have war, you have peace, regardless of how resentful or conflicted the setting may be otherwise.

The second is something else. A “shalom” peace is a wholeness, a restoration of balance. Under that definition, peace is what you get when things are restored to the way they were meant to be. It has the broader implications of the English word “harmony,” of differences not clashing, but creating a more beautiful whole.

That’s a much more difficult goal to reach. But also a more embracing one.

One can have the first kind of peace and still have injustice, hatred and fear. In fact, “pax” is often just a breathing space between wars, the sort of thing seen in Germany of the ’20s and ’30s, where peace exists mainly because one side lacks the ability to act on its anger … for now.

The second kind—that’s the kind that echoes through King’s words again and again and again.

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

“We adopt the means of non-violence because our end is a community at peace with itself.”

“If you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. …”

Not just the absence of wrong. But the presence of right.

That’s worth advocating. And it’s worth remembering. Even in the coldest, bleakest month in the year. Maybe even especially then – when are we more aware of the need for heat, for light, for the warmth of friends and neighbors?

The power to redeem January. Now that’s something.

And if it’s still a little difficult to rise in the darkened mornings and slide back to work or school – well, so be it.

After all, peace is a great dream. But no one ever said it wouldn’t require snow tires.