If we were to compose a story about who we are and what we believe, we might begin with the words "once upon a time." The composition might be a letter or a simple statement. But it would reveal things and thoughts that happened to us in our past that have carved us into the people we now are in the present. In most cases, we cannot divide one from the other--what we believe about life, about ideas in the present are always shadowed by our past.
Living is never static and how we see yesterday is colored by what is happening today and vice versa--how we see today is colored by how we lived in the past.
For many that explains why the past seems to shine more brightly as if the reality we lived before has more power over us than the present. Photographs can be metaphors for this; we look upon snapshots of graduations, weddings, family portraits and the youth we see in them creates a profound longing. Nostalgia becomes a physical feeling. And we think life was better then, life was simpler, the grass was greener. Youth allowed us to conquer negatives and to plunge from one day to the next.
Sound familiar? Actually some of it is true. The younger a healthy human is the further away from death he or she mentally resides. The powerful feeling that life extends into some unknown infinity allows the car or motorcycle racing, the experiments with drugs and sex, the instant fights that hurt friends, etc. because there's lots of time to fix things. Death or illness or accidents aren't on the wavelength--at all.
The variable, of course, is individual life experience: the child with cancer has more empathy and knowledge of the preciousness of the future than many adults. The immigrant who is finally living in a warm building with plumbing and three meals a day complains little about the weather or traffic on the highway.
But all of us--the young, the rich, the dying, the discriminated against, etc.--have ideas about living and often live for those ideas. And because ideas vary there are clashes in thought and arguments about those thoughts--about the way people look, dress and live.
Once upon a time, I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of whites, Catholics and Protestants. If there were clashes, they were between the last two--like a priest telling us we couldn't frequent the YMCA. Fortunately, those days passed, along with lots of others that included racial discrimination--insidious, but present. Many times I have recalled my relationship with Anna, who cleaned for us when I was a child. At that time, I had some understanding and empathy--but not enough. In high school and college I began to live in a more integrated world, but teaching in an integrated school truly woke me up.
My close friend and I attended what our high school called a Human Relations workshop. We were eager to participate, our desire to be fully a part of society was newly awakened--after all we were college graduates bearing the shining flags of freedom, inclusion and yes, empathy. But the awakening that night was daunting--the African Americans who ran the sessions at one point singled me out and accused my father of raping black women. I didn't get it--I shouted out "no!" I started to cry. How could they say that? My father was a good man who died at a young age. The method was to break me down, to take away the barriers I didn't realize I had built.
I get it now. I had to cross some threshold, to realize how prejudice lodges deeply in the brain and rears its ugly head--sometimes when we are not even aware of it. Having lived in the world I had lived in I was in some way complicit. I changed. These were new ideas and they frightened me at first until I could get my proverbial head around them.
It's a continuum: the acceptance of change, like our very own body that changes on us. Oh yes, we fight back with diet and exercise, with creams and sunblock--but it's unwinnable unless you have tons of money for cosmetic surgery--but that won't stop your heart from wearing out or other system failures. We must accept bodily change and death, because we have no choice.
But on a much more positive note, we must accept new ideas for the same reason. And it is how we accept, the nature of our acceptance that can make a difference--that can have us longing for the future instead of the shadowy past--even though new thoughts can be frightening. I like to look at the words United States and then abbreviate it to U.S.--which is the objective form of "we"--in other words, us. Let us approach new ideas with open minds. Evaluate, consider, refrain from immediately yelling "no!" Could we become the United States of new ideas?
Marie Curie wrote, "be less curious about people and more curious about ideas." (What a potential leader's ideas are.)
Joseph Stalin supposedly said, "ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas."
Pope Francis implores us:
Even today we raise our hand against our brother... We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal that we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death.
Do you have new ideas about how to live in the coming weeks, months and years? I love the recent commercial from GE about new ideas. At first, I didn't get it, until I really looked and realized that yes, new ideas are scary, frightening, but they are the legacy of living. We bring children into the world to replace us--our minds generate new ideas to alter, change, perfect the old ones. Once upon a time, we changed the world. And we must be an "us" (US) country that represents inclusion (people get angry when they are not invited to join in), helpfulness and inevitably peace. We cannot go backward to fear, exclusion and hate.