When Dark Nights Come

My mother used to say, all of the time, that life isn’t fair.

It isn’t.

I keep thinking of the “newly homeless,” people who used to have jobs, good jobs, who are now homeless. I think of the parents and family of people who have been killed by senseless gun violence in this nation within the last year. I know a family whose son was a good student and athlete and was headed to college ….but who died during basketball practice. In a historical sense, I keep thinking of Solomon Northrup, the free black man who was stolen and sold into slavery, as depicted in the movie, Twelve Years a Slave.”

Talk about unfair. Dark nights do come, no matter who we are.

When I watched that movie, I kept wondering how Solomon did it? How did he …well, how did any slaves …make it through that horrific experience? How did he keep from going insane or losing hope? I wondered if he woke up every day thinking that this would be the day of his deliverance…and how he kept going when the day at hand turned out not to be that day.

What did he tell himself? What did he do with the feeling of life being unfair as he was beaten and almost killed and treated like a brute?

I can’t even imagine.

But stories like that are good to know; Northrup’s story is as compelling for me as was Nelson Mandela’s. How did he stay sane and hold onto hope for 27 years? I read his book, Long Walk to Freedom and was reminded that within us all there is that strength given to us at the moment we were created.

If we can remember that the strength is there…and if we can turn our attention away from our angst and toward, perhaps, the suffering of others, it seems that light begins to seep through.

Even the tiniest bit of light in the midst of darkness gives hope.

It seems that, when dark nights come, we need to look up and out…and remember that dark nights are not unique and that they are temporary – even if temporary is a long time. Darkness, eventually, is overtaken by light …which is always moving toward us.

As my mama would say that life wasn’t fair, she would also say, “this too will pass.”

So true, dark night, so true.

A candid observation …


Knowing Your Strength

The late Whitney Houston sang a song that moves me every time I hear it. “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” is a powerful exclamation of self-affirmation, set to music, a kind of “in your face, tribulations!” rendition offered by a woman who had been through a self-created and self-imposed hell but had come out standing.

If only she had truly believed what she sang, enough to have left the drugs and alcohol alone.

Though I mourn her exit from this life, her song resonates with me. Several people I know have said that 2013 was a horrible year; the latest article in The New Yorker about President Obama written by David Remnick says that for the president, that was certainly the case  (annus horribilis, writes Remnick).

That phrase apparently applies to more people than I originally thought.  My best friend nearly died and was on life support for two weeks. Two good friends of mine lost their mothers; another acquaintance lost her grandchild in a tragic and horrible accident.  A woman I know lost her husband of over 30 years suddenly. “I had no time to prepare,” she said to me one day, tearfully. “I don’t know what I will do …”

So many people shared with me how 2013  rocked their worlds…and my2013, well, let’s just say that “horrible” is an understatement.

But in spite of bad (or horrible) times, it is amazing that all of those people I mentioned, as well as myself, are still standing. We have not lost our minds or our will and resolve to live and thrive. While every one of those people I mentioned could relate to my experience of being so hurt and shattered that it hurt to literally breathe, they made it through. They, as well as I, didn’t know our own strength. It is bad and/or difficult times that teach us that.

Some years ago, I heard Deepak Chopra say that “bad” times are not bad; they are actually “good,” he said, because from them we learn our most valuable lessons. It is from bad times that we become stronger and we recognize the strength within us that we just do not think about and therefore cannot tap into.

The more we push against the adversities in our lives, the more we push the unmovable, the more muscular our spirits become. Our spirits become “toned” by the hard work of pushing against that which wants to take us out. The late Nelson Mandela pushed forward, though he was imprisoned for 27 years because he dared stare apartheid in the face and become in a movement to bring it down. I talked with a young man who withstood being wrongly arrested and convicted of a crime he had not committed. “I made it, Rev. Sue,” he said. “I made it.” He doesn’t know what his life will look like from this day forward, but he withstood an experience which he would only say was “horrific.”

Life was never meant to be easy; unfortunately, we all learn that. Life is meant to shake us to our cores…Tears are necessary from time to time. Depression caused by bad times must, I think, help in the strengthening process. The good thing is that not all of the “trials” we are to go through come at the same time; they are merciful enough to spread themselves out. Theoretically, by the time the “next” trial comes, the strength we have gained from the previous one has kicked in.

When I think of Whitney Houston, I think that perhaps the strength she had within her hadn’t kicked in yet; it was new. She was coming face to face with it, and getting to know herself in a new way. She was a stronger Whitney who had faced the lions of adversity and come out standing. That was her strength …

But her legs were not strong enough yet. She could stand up but couldn’t remain standing.

My prayer is that the strength I have come to realize I have is sufficient to keep me standing …as well as the strength in every single one of the persons I mentioned above. Every single one of them were knocked down by life. What they went through took the breath out of them. They …and I …found out how hard it is to breathe, let alone stand, when a tsunami overtakes us.

Knowing the strength we have inside is only the first part of surviving trials and pain. What we must do …and perhaps what Whitney did not do …is nurture and feed the new self that emerges with new strength. Otherwise, we might fall down, like Whitney did.

That would mean that the pain we just got through was wasted. That, somehow, is unacceptable. The experience of annus horribilis, though distasteful and unpleasant, is a gift. To not stand up in spite of it …just doesn’t work.

A candid observation …

Who Cares for the Poor?

It is very hard to understand why any politician would be opposed to paying people a living wage – meaning, a wage that would allow them to live with dignity as opposed to living as virtual slaves to an unfair economic system.


It is clear that capitalism and democracy are not one in the same thing;  apparently, if  Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson had a face-to-face conversation, they would lock horns on principle: capitalism does not pretend to want to, or to be about, providing a level playing field for all people, as democracy purports to be about.


But to be against helping people get paid what their work contribution is really worth seems immoral. Actually, allowing poverty, or ignoring it, seems to be immoral too, especially in such a wealthy and religious nation.  It seems like more and more, people are just a beggar’s cup away from abject poverty.


The growing gap between rich and poor, the shrinking of the middle class, is not just an American problem. In China, reports Rob Schmitz, “the number of people …who still live on less than two dollars a day is equal to the entire population of the United States.”  (http://www.marketplace.org/topics/world/street-eternal-happiness/celebrating-chinese-new-year-street-eternal-happiness). Ironically, the very poor sit on a street named “The Street of Eternal Happiness.” The well to do most often walk past the beggars; the sense of disdain is hardly unnoticeable.


There is nothing “happy,” though, about being poor. There is nothing “happy” about having to choose between food and medicine, or between diapers or milk for the baby who needs the diaper. Many families cannot afford diapers; hence in some places diaper banks have been created. Many elderly do not have enough to eat. And many adults are working their buns off with hardly anything to show for it except extreme fatigue and deepening depression.


There seems to be such an insensitivity to the poor. In China, Kang Xiaoguang, Professor of Regional Economics and Politics, actually said, publicly, “Although there are hundreds of millions of workers and peasants, they don’t count. You can ignore them. You can also rob and exploit them. It’s not a problem. The most important thing is to get the powerful on your side.”


While Xiaoguang’s statement is harsh and insensitive, it is hard to believe that he is not saying out loud what many people feel.  When President Obama said, in his 2013 State of the Union Address, that he wanted Congress to approve a hike in the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour, he apparently caught Republicans and some Democrats off-guard.  The president said, “Today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong. That’s why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, 19 states have chosen to bump theirs even higher. Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and raise the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.”


Those who are criticizing big government are not impressed with the president’s suggestion, nor are they apt to seriously consider it, and those who stay far enough from the poor to see the misery in which they live are not likely to “encourage” their state and federal lawmakers by threatening to withdraw support for them if they don’t raise the minimum wage.


If you do not see poverty, it is easy to minimize it and the suffering it causes.


Before the 2008 election, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs said, over and over, that America was losing its middle class.  He seemed not to get a lot of support, and I don’t remember what his solution was to the problem, but the fact is, Dobbs correctly called that there would be a crisis of the middle class, which has come to be.


The state and federal jobs which allowed so many people to reach middle class are shrinking, as are the manufacturing jobs. There are jobs available, but many of them require technical training which the vast majority of people do not have.


“Find a way to go to school and get some training,” those who are insensitive would say, not understanding that the working poor don’t have a penny to spend and would probably not qualify for a student loan. The working poor often cannot take a day off, or refuse to take a day off, even when they’re sick, because they cannot afford to miss a day’s wages. Their families suffer, as do they, in all areas of life.


Marco Rubio, who delivered the GOP rebuttal to President Obama’s speech, said, “I don’t think a minimum wage law works.” Addressing and raising the minimum wage would threaten the creation of jobs, those who oppose big government would say, but what kind of jobs? Probably more that are wont to pay workers what their work is worth.


It is no secret that wealth often accrues on the backs of the poor, with the poor getting little benefit. But there is something inherently wrong in that. There is something wrong with a system that allows the wealthy to make and hoard more money they can ever use, while those whose labor made them rich can barely make ends meet.


Professor Susan Thistlewaite, in her book, Occupy the Bible, encourages a moral and religious response to the issue of poverty. She spends a lot of time addressing the debt students are in who took out loans to go to college. Too many of them are not only struggling financially, but they are struggling emotionally as well. To not be able to find a job, or to get a job which does not pay a living wage, is demeaning. Many former students are committing suicide, she writes.


Thistlewaite encourages the religious of our society to read the Bible and interpret it from the perspective of those who struggle with poverty and financial hardship. The struggling don’t have trouble doing that; the wealthy would probably toss it off as Liberal dribble.


But there is no “dribble” in the fact that in this nation there is an oligarchy, not a democracy. There are too many people struggling to obtain the bare necessities for themselves and their families. The Republicans have criticized President Obama for the fact that more people receive food stamps than in the previous administration, but without help, how are the poor and working poor supposed to make it?  To require and expect them to work for the increase of profits for the wealthy and then to give them pittance in return …just does not seem right.


In fact, it seems that in doing that, the wealthy and powers that be are merely ignoring the poor.


The pervasiveness of poverty is not new; the society in which Jesus lived was as imbalanced economically as are the societies of China and Haiti and our own nation. But what is troubling is that it feels like it’s getting easier and easier for the wealthy to act like the poor and working poor don’t exist, that they are whiners and takers, like …they don’t matter.


Perhaps if nationally there could be a shift or an outpouring of programs that teach the poor how to compete in our global economy the picture could and would change. The poor don’t want to be poor; many of them are stuck and don’t know how to get out. Some would rather die than take government assistance. They don’t want a hand out. They want a way up and out of their economic misery. Poverty causes people to live in despair and depression; suicide is not all that uncommon for those who have simply given up hope of their lives ever getting better. There is a lot of domestic abuse amongst the poor, and children end up being ignored and neglected, which causes a host of social problems. It doesn’t make sense to ignore and/or ignore the poor. Poverty ends up costing money …but then, those who are investing in private prisons, the so-called Prison Industrial Complex, would not care about that because their wealth is built upon the backs of the hopeless and despairing.


Capitalism (Photo credit: Juliano Mattos)


You have to have eyes to see that, though, ears to hear it, and a heart to receive it. That, apparently, is what is missing in our great nation.


A candid observation …


Sick or Bad?

If we as human beings were not so frightened of mental illness, if we were willing to talk about it and seek treatment for loved ones who seem afflicted with some sort of mental illness – and if the system supported such treatment, maybe we would have fewer tragedies, fewer massacres of innocent people.

I have long been concerned that there are many children, no matter their race or socio-economic status, who have been mentally ill all their lives, but never got treated.  I am especially concerned that many children may be the victims of an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, but who are treated merely as children with behavior problems rather than as children who are sick and who need medical care.

We are so frightened of mental illness. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to admit that more people than not might benefit from visits to a psychologist or therapist or psychiatrist . We don’t want to admit that perhaps we ourselves may need help. What I worry about is that mentally ill parents are trying to raise children, who may themselves be mentally ill or may develop an emotional problem because of the way they are raised …but nobody wants to talk about it.

Who goes into schools and shoots innocent children, or to a shopping mall or dark movie theater and rattles off bullets from a semi-automatic weapon?  Who drowns her own children? It is easy to say “a bad person” does that, but it feels more accurate to say that a sick person does that. “Bad” and “sick” are not the same.

I have said many times from the pulpit that if one is depressed, one ought not be afraid to admit it. Just as we seek (if we can afford it or have health insurance!) medical care if we are physically ill, we ought to run , not walk, to a doctor when we are emotionally distraught or feel like we are at the end of our ropes.

The experiences of life are not for the fainthearted. Even if one has reasonably good coping skills, the trials of life can strain the strongest of us. The biological creative process is miraculous, but not perfect. How else does one account for the babies born with cleft lips and palates, malformed or imperfectly formed organs, no brains, holes in their hearts, with autism?  We are well aware of the fact that there are congenital defects, which need immediate care and attention. Without medical attention, birth defects negatively impact a baby’s possibility for a quality life. Our denial of mental problems, and our refusal and/or reluctance to pursue vigorous treatment of these illnesses is no less harmful and dangerous than is putting a football player with a concussion back in the game, or breaking a bone and not getting it reset and immobilized so that it will heal correctly.

The signs of mental illness may not be there at birth, but certainly as a child grows, parents can see that something is wrong. And yet, many parents slip into denial. Parents who could afford to get their uncomfortable observations looked into often will not and do not…and parents who cannot afford a doctor’s visit, just in general, deny what they see and fall into disciplining, often harshly, a child who is actually mentally ill.

It would seem that the tendency toward denial does not end once a sick child grows up. The young man who shot the children in Newtown at Sandy Hook Elementary School apparently had problems which people noticed, as did the young man who committed the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech University some years ago. Poet Nikki Giovanni, who had that young man in one of her classes, was reportedly so bothered by what she observed that she asked him not to return to her class.

Our tendency to deny the fact that mental illness lives amongst us – and indeed, within many of us – is going to cost more lives. Putting people in jail who act out of illness is not going to stop the shootings; putting people in jail is just as ineffective – and just as dangerous in the long run – as is denying that mental illness is a reality.

The health care system needs to find a way to improve not only its care but its outreach to people who need help. Employers ought to have something in writing that says “we will not label you ‘crazy’ if you apply for a job with us but are taking an anti-depressive drug.”  Pastors in churches ought to talk about it publicly. You can’t even taste the goodness of God if you are in mental anguish.

I was moved to write this because I looked at the image on television of the young man who shot the people in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado last year. From the first  time I saw that image, I thought he was mentally ill, but even when I heard what he had done, I thought he was mentally ill. The discussion was whether he should be put to death if he is convicted…and I shook my head. America is not getting it. This guy may very well not only be sick but has probably been sick for a long time.

Someone is going to ask what the difference is between sick and bad. I don’t know yet how to clearly argue that question, but it’s coming. All I know is that denying that mental illness is a major problem is a major mistake on the parts of our country, parents, and our health care system.

I have not used the names of the shooters in the tragedies that left 26 people dead in Newtown, Connecticut, or at Virginia Tech or in the mall in Colorado that left Congresswoman Gabby Giffords severely injured or in the shooting that happened in the movie theater in Aurora, or the shootings in Columbine. I have not even begun to address the tragedy that happens in urban areas, where kids are killing other kids by the hundreds.  Some of those kids may be “bad,” but I would bet a whole lot more of them are ill. I I have left the names of the shooters out on purpose…because they all represent mental illness, denied and ignored.

The consequences of us living with our heads in the sand are obvious.

A candid observation …


Keep Showing Up for Life

I have a friend who, in the midst of a conversation I was having with him, said to me, “Keep showing up for life.”

It was like a dose of Advil for a bad headache. Keep showing up for life!

The most unfortunate thing about life and the curve balls it throws us is that there is no instant fix. A bad time emotionally, spiritually, psychologically – or all three – is like a stomach virus. The most exasperating thing to hear when a stomach virus is wreaking havoc on one’s intestinal system is that “you’ll just have to let it run its course.”

That is, however, the awful truth. Viruses seem to have a mind of their own. They do not care what pill or elixir you take. They invade your physical space and stay there until they are ready to go. Spiritual viruses act much the same way.

A friend of mine, going through a tough time right now, complained that life is not fair. That fact gives many people many a virus, and the timing of said virus, showing up and wreaking havoc with one’s spirit, is never “the right time.

And yet, viruses do pass. I don’t know if the physical body is healthier once a virus runs its course, but it does seem that our spirits are stronger once we let these viruses – also called “life lessons,” run their course.

This directive to me – to keep showing up for life – has been particularly helpful. Our tendency when we have a virus, when we do not feel well, is to drop out of sight, out of life. We tend to want to isolate ourselves and let the darkness cover us completely so that we cannot see and people can barely see us. That behavior, however, does not make the virus go away. It in fact makes it worse.

So, showing up for life is a life-saving maneuver. Going out, talking, holding up one’s head, dreaming, planning, mapping once’s course, in spite of the virus, is a life-saving maneuver. It is hydrating one’s spirit, because spiritual, emotional and spiritual viruses dry us out. Just as when we have a physical virus the greatest danger is to be dehydrated, a dried-out spirit is just as dangerous.

I am sharing this because during the holiday season, many people are their most miserable. We as people remember what and who we have lost, we mourn losses and fail to celebrate our gains. We look at cheerful ads on television and cannot relate; they in fact make many of us feel worse. We don’t want to show up for life. We don’t want to move at all.

It’s not an option, staying dormant in our malaise. Malaise tends to turn into despair.  If we have life in our limbs and if we are not clinically depressed,we need to get up and move…showing up for life. If we are clinically depressed, we need to get it treated …and still get up and move. Depression is an illness, and just like diabetes or hypertension, it can and must be treated.

Because sitting in a saucer of malaise is not an option. It keeps us from showing up for life.

A candid observation …