Fear Itself

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As 2015 draws to a close, many of us have heavy hearts. We worry about terrorism, gun violence, disease, and our economic future. We look at the world and see renewed aggression on the part of Russia, disturbing settlements on islands off the coast of China, and a civil war in Syria that has given rise to the fanatical Islamic State as well as the turmoil and anguish of millions of refugees fleeing the chaos.

Here in the U.S., we are fearful of the next mass shooting, distrustful of our police, angry over the loss of skilled jobs, and worried about what destruction our children may inherit due to climate change. Not much of a “Happy New Year” feeling, is it?

Yet I am reminded that every generation has had its great plagues and challenges. My own parents lived through the Great Depression and The Second World War, when food scarcity and rationing of everyday goods was a way of life. Loved ones came home terribly damaged – or did not come home at all.

My sisters came of age during the turbulent 60s and lived through the fear of the Cuban missile crisis, the Civil Rights movement, and our devastating involvement in the Vietnam War. Their male friends waited with dread for their draft number to come up and prayed that it wouldn’t.

In my own lifetime, I have witnessed the Cold War, the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr., the resignation of a president over the Watergate scandal, more than one economic recession, hostage crises, and bloody coups and scores of those “disappeared” as a result.

My own children witnessed the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001, which ushered in a protracted war on radical fundamentalism in the Middle East. They practice school lockdowns in an age of mass shootings on U.S. soil. They are growing up with their own worries and fears too.

Yet our world has endured through all of these terrible times, and men and women everywhere have bravely carried on in the face of hardship and even disaster.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told the American people that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He went on to bring the country out of the Great Depression and through the horrors of World War II.

Fear paralyzes and creates anger and hate. What we need in difficult times is hope and resolve to make our world better and stronger. Here’s to a hopeful new year and a commitment not to let our fear get the better of us.

Peace on Earth Rings a Bell

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This is my column from today’s Hinsdalean newspaper.

The great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the beautiful poem “Christmas Bells,” which was turned into a hymn titled “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The poem begins:

I heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

For more than a month, we have been preparing for the great holiday of Christmas: shopping, baking, adorning our homes with thousands of twinkling lights to herald the advent of the “Light of the World.”

Yet in many ways, our world seems in darkness. Our fears are getting the better of us and causing us to distrust our neighbors. Political leaders are calling for the exclusion of foreign Muslims from our borders. Even at home, anti-Muslim sentiment is fomenting violence. Our own contributing columnist, Hesham Hassaballa, who wrote a moving plea for understanding and tolerance, also sadly posted the story of a young Muslim girl wearing a hijab who was taunted and assaulted by her classmates.

Certainly this fear and hate-mongering are not new. Longfellow writes:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on Earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

The terrorists of ISIS and al-Qaeda are without a doubt scary people. And it is true that they are persecuting Christians in the Middle East. But they also kill Muslims. Their ideology is one of hate, not faith. I don’t pretend to know what the United States should do in the face of such atrocities. But I know what we should not do, and that is succumb to our fears and use them as a pretext to discriminate against or harm our neighbors.

Every year in our little town, I see so many good works. There are food drives and fundraisers, Adopt-a-Family Christmas programs, and festive parties to raise money for the poor, the sick, and the disabled. As I run my errands, I witness a bit of extra friendliness and cheer. (Maybe it’s the egg nog!) And I can’t help but feel that I live amongst good, kind, caring human beings. Such a feeling gives me hope.

Tonight as many Hinsdaleans make their way to religious services, let us be reassured by the final stanza of Longfellow’s poem:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Merry Christmas!

Kissin’ Cousins

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A recent article in the Chicago Tribune extolled the merits of having cousins in a person’s life. Cousins, the experts say, are close enough to understand the family dynamics but distant enough to provide perspective. Cousins are also often the keepers of the family lore, passing down the stories that provide a family’s collective identity.

As the child of parents who both came from big families, I have been blessed with many many cousins, including ones “adopted” from my mom’s first marriage. Cousins have always made it fun to visit family, and I have many fond memories as a result. Visits to the cousins out in the country (as we thought of suburban Downers Grove, Illinois) were always a blast because of the wide open spaces and relative freedom we had there. I remember watching the moon landing with them on the TV in their den. Our cousins in Wheaton would always take us on walks to the local 7-Eleven for Slurpees, and the ones in Riverside would lend us bikes so that we could ride around the curving streets of the quaint little town. The Robinson cousins were mostly girls, so we sisters always enjoyed our get togethers with them.

My cousin Wally once took my younger siblings and me to see the Christmas trees from around the world at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Chrissy and Ceil showed us the wonders of Arizona, as well as Chrissy’s cool volcano that she had made for science class. And my cousin Trish and I, who are the same age, have been steadfast friends and pen pals since early childhood. We shared a love for teeny bopper magazines, Dark Shadows, and the Chicago Cubs, among many other things. I will never forget the time we visited her house and picked cherries from the tree in the backyard. Upon bringing them home and starting to stem the cherries, we realized they were riddled with worms.

My own children have also been blessed with dozens of cousins since my husband and I also hail from large families. Their cousins have taught them invaluable lessons, such as how to watch violent, scary movies their parents would disapprove of. They have shared lots of laughs, embarrassing moments, and clothing styles over the years. I have loved seeing the cousins grow up and maintain the bond that comes from having to put up with the same crazy family together. A tradition from my side of the family has sprung up at family weddings. The adult cousins get together and do “cousin shots,” which are followed by much hilarity and pizza consumption.

Like siblings, cousins grow up together and share the family secrets. Yet unlike brothers and sisters, who tend to fight and experience rivalry, cousins don’t see each other enough to get on each other’s nerves too much. To paraphrase a common expression, keep your friends close and your cousins closer.

Christmas Tree

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We finally put up our Christmas tree yesterday. When I was a child, my dad would usually wait until the last minute to get our fresh balsam fir tree and wrestle it into its stand in a corner of the basement. We kids waited impatiently while my perfectionist father strung the lights just so. Then we lined up to be handed strands of tinsel, which we were instructed to hang one by one around the tree. Only when the tree was brilliant with lights and tinsel would we be allowed to place the ornaments on the tree.

Nowadays, we don’t have much of an excuse for waiting so long to put up the tree. My father could justify his procrastination with a desire to keep the tree from getting too brittle. Our tree, however, is artificial. Somehow, though, the weekends after Thanksgiving go by in a blur until I am finally able to badger my husband and sons into getting the tree up from the basement.

Our Christmas tree would never make the cover of House Beautiful. Some of the branches hang too low, and the lights are out in various spots. There is also no theme to our tree decorations. They consist of all different kinds of ornaments collected over the years: gifts from others, souvenirs from trips, post-Christmas sale finds, and most special to me, the ornaments I have picked out every year for each of my four children since they were born.

When I finally corral my busy teens and twentysomethings into the living room to help decorate the tree, our time is filled with laughter as the kids recall each ornament, joking about some of the “ugly” ones they always hide in the back of the tree and teasing each other about their little faces in the picture frame ornaments I gave them one year. They find and hand me the special Precious Moments ornament “Our First Christmas Together 1988,” commemorating the year my husband and I got married. One year, one of the kids accidentally dropped and shattered that keepsake, and I was crushed. That Christmas, my husband presented me with an identical, brand new version of that Precious Moments ornament. If you have kept up with my blogs, you’ll know I cried.

Some day, each of my children will take all their special ornaments and (I hope) use them to decorate their own Christmas trees. For now, though, I will enjoy our far from perfect, yet perfectly lovely, Christmas tree.

 

Making the Holidays Merry and Bright

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With an entire month focused on Christmas, it’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla of the season. As we rush from one activity to another, we don’t often pause to actually enjoy it. Here are some of my suggestions on making the holiday better for all.

  1. Slow down. I realize there is a lot to get done before December 25. A sign in a store yesterday reminded me that there were only nine shopping days left! But it’s important to drive safely and give pedestrians and other drivers a break. And let’s face it. An accident would surely put a damper on the holiday spirit.
  2. If it should snow, please shovel your sidewalk. I realize we have been having a California-style December in the Midwest. But no doubt, as soon as we get complacent, the snow will arrive. Remember that commuters, dog walkers, and just anyone who enjoys taking a walk in the great outdoors will be trying to navigate your sidewalk.  They should not need snowshoes to do so!
  3. Make an effort to learn about other faith and cultural traditions. December is filled with festivals of light: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice. Learning about how other people celebrate to banish the darkness will be intriguing as well as a great way to learn respect and tolerance for each other’s differences.
  4. Give freely of not only your money, but your good will. Smile at the bell ringer as you deposit that dollar in the Salvation Army can. Be kind and patient with retail clerks of all kinds, who are burdened with all the extra merchandise and the crush of customers shopping for Christmas gifts and the stuff of holiday feasts. Take the time to thank those who have made your life a little happier or easier this year.
  5. If you are a spiritual person, pray. Pray for peace, unity, understanding, healing, and joy. This world could use a little more of all of the above.

The Christmas season should not go by in a blur, but rather be savored as the joyful, warm, and blessed one that it is meant to be. So this season, make some hot chocolate, watch a holiday movie with the kids, plan an outing to see Christmas lights or the giant tree in your favorite department store. Wear an ugly sweater and sing carols, no matter how bad your singing voice may be.

May your days be merry and bright!

 

Much Obliged

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Last week in the Catholic Church, we celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is considered a holy day of obligation. As with Sunday Mass attendance, Catholics are required to attend Mass on these special holy days. Hence the term “obligation.”

For most people, obligations have a negative connotation. They conjure visits to unpleasant relatives, daily chores, and other less than enjoyable activities that we feel bound to perform. Think, for example, about the books you were required to read for school. For some reason, those were never as enjoyable as the ones you picked up yourself.

Yet there is a positive side to obligations. If I did not feel obligated to go to church every Sunday, I would probably rarely attend Mass. Yet going to Mass every Sunday meets a spiritual need, and I am grateful for the sense of inevitability entailed in the obligation.

Obligations bind us together as a society. We can expect certain behavior from others based upon accepted norms. It is natural to be self-centered and even selfish. Obligations force us to think of others and their needs. Imagine if parents did not feel obligated to feed, clothe, and show affection to their children.

At Christmas, our sense of obligation brings light to those in darkness. We visit family, give gifts, contribute to charities, and otherwise bind ourselves to our fellow human beings. In fact, the word “oblige” comes from the Latin “obligare,” meaning “bind toward.”

So this holiday season, when you wish others the obligatory “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah,” or “Happy Holidays,” remember that we are one human family bound together by good will.

Happy Holidays!

 

Republican Hypocrisy

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The New York Daily News may be a sensationalist newspaper. But they had it right when they called out Republican officials and presidential candidates on their hollow response to the massacre in San Bernardino last week. Republicans’ prayers are cold comfort to the families of gun violence victims.

Now I’m not knocking prayer. As a lifelong Catholic, I am well acquainted with the centrality of prayer in a faithful person’s life. But God gave us reason, and using reason (not to mention actual facts),  we can conclude that limiting access to guns will prevent death. That does not sit well, however, with our senators and representatives who have made it into office through the financial support of the NRA. So yes, Republican candidates should be praying that Americans don’t wake up and realize the con job to which they have been subjected.

On a similar note, Republicans have tripped over themselves to disavow Donald Trump’s virulent anti-Muslim sentiments. They say high and mighty things about how disallowing Muslims to enter the country goes against everything our great democracy represents. Yet out of the other side of their mouths, they vote “Yea” on a bill that would deny the United States visa waiver program to anyone from abroad who has traveled to Syria, Iraq, Iran, or Sudan. I wonder what religious group will be most adversely affected by such a ban.

I also find it ironic that the House of Representatives moved so swiftly in the wake of the San Bernardino mass murders to do something legislatively that might make a difference (however racist and misguided it might be). Yet when 20 children and 6 adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, not one piece of legislation of any kind passed to prevent another such horror. Oh yeah. I forgot. The killer was just a crazy white guy, not a Muslim terrorist.

If you’re a parent, you know that when you pay attention to children’s bad behavior, it often gets worse. I say we put our Republican Congressmen and women in “time out” and serve notice to the Democrats that we expect better from them, or they’re next.

At Christmas time, I realize that we live in a broken world, and that is the reason God came down in the form of a tiny Hebrew baby named Jesus. Yet it is still our duty to help bring about “peace on Earth.” So I say to our political leaders, let your actions be your prayers.