Sunday, December 13, 2015

December reflections

We are midway through December and nearly at the end of another year. We are also more than halfway through Advent—a time before Christmas in the Christian church that lends itself to reflection. I haven’t written much on this blog lately; I’ve been very busy, but also unsure of what to write about. This year passed by rather quickly, and the tone of the year was influenced in many ways by my brother’s death from cardiac disease in February. When I received the news of his death, I realized yet again that there is no escape from life’s sadness and suffering. I knew that already when I was twelve years old and my father had his first of several heart attacks. He survived the first one, and was progressively weaker by the time he had his second one. I felt then that life was unpredictable, unsafe, and often dark. I struggled to find meaning in life. Was it only about suffering and death? I was a churchgoer but was at a loss to know what it was I really believed in or sometimes even why I went to church. It was not until a good friend of mine helped me to find what I could personally relate to in my faith that I began to understand what it was I professed to believe in. When I understood and believed that God cares about me personally—that is when my relationship to my faith changed. Many years later, my conclusion is that it is love, and love alone, that transforms people, changes lives, allows for forgiveness and acceptance, offers hope and gives us a safe haven during life’s storms. It gives us something to believe in and to act on. I am not talking about romantic love, although that is definitely a part of love. I am talking about the love described in 1 Corinthians 13, the passage about love that is read at countless weddings:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.        

These words were first uttered/written many centuries ago, and speak for themselves. They have shown themselves to be quite prescient in my life. It is clear to me after many years in academia, that higher education does not always enlighten its recipients or make them better people. Unfortunately, there are a number of self-centered people with PhDs and MDs who are mostly concerned with titles, incomes, amount of grant support, and the number of high impact-factor publications a person has. There is no direct correlation between higher education and good behavior, unfortunately for the world. It doesn’t matter much in our current world that a person treats his or her students well, gets along with his or her colleagues, or finds happiness in playing a supportive role for others. These characteristics are simply not valued in the same way as is being a cash cow for your organization. As long as a person brings in research money, bad behavior, bullying and envy are tolerated. So yes, knowledge will pass away, as will titles and honors. Aging takes care of that--the top person of the moment in any profession will lose that status, replaced by someone younger and smarter—and the cycle continues, as well it should. If all a person has had is his or her job, and he or she has not treated colleagues, friends or family well, then he or she can end up bitter and lonely in old age. Or frantic, desperate and borderline hysterical, because no one remembers the ‘important’ contributions he or she has made. You would think that people gain perspective as they age; some do, but you’d be surprised at the stories I’ve heard about former professors (men and women both) in their eighties and nineties arguing about who was the better scientist, or convinced that their contributions to the field were those that revolutionized it. ‘You’re only as good as your last publication’—is a common expression in academia. The problem begins when a person begins to believe the hype he or she hears about himself or herself—that one is irreplaceable, brilliant, a genius, the best in the field. It’s nice to receive the accolades. Far better to have reflected on what is really important in life, and to have treated your colleagues and students in a way that reflects the kind of love that 1 Corinthians 13 talks about--patience, kindness, lack of envy, lack of boasting, and humility. How many former top professors will mentor and encourage their one or two brilliant students without envy, and how many of them will keep those students down so as to hinder competition? How many of them will actually let go of their control over their students and let them fly and shine? I’ve seen a few of the latter, and many of the former.

What have I learned this year from my reflections upon the good and bad things that have happened? My brother’s death was a real shock to me (and to my sister), and permeated our lives during this past year. The complicated situations surrounding his death introduced me to a dark world where nothing was as it seemed. My brother was a master at pretending that everything was ok, when in fact it was not during the last two years of his life. He opened the window into his life a crack and let me see some of what he had to deal with (financial problems, his being the primary parent), but he shut it just as quickly, either so I would not worry, or so that he would not lose face. Either way, he was afraid that he would be judged, because he himself was often quick to judge. He knew that I would not judge him; perhaps that made it harder for him to open up, because it would have meant breaking down his own walls. I wish he had, because I loved him and however difficult his life had become, I would always have loved him. He, like many others in our materialistic society, did not want to admit that money, fame, a city job, an apartment in a tony Manhattan suburb, or materialistic things generally, were not the answers to happiness in life. But it’s hard in our society to let go of that way of thinking. He was on the verge of changing his life when he died. Sometimes you’ve got to just toss in the towel and start over in a simpler world, where love is the foundation, and not materialism. There were many people who got in touch with me after his death to tell me how he had affected their lives, especially when we all were younger—how he helped others, was a good listener, took a back seat to others—all things I knew and loved about him. My brother was my good friend when we were younger; we spent many a Saturday evening in Manhattan, meeting friends, dancing and having a good time together. My friends knew and liked him, and his friends knew and liked me. Despite having the Atlantic Ocean between us after I moved abroad, we always got together in Manhattan when I visited each year in the summertime. He would use his company expense account and treat me to lunch at one or another restaurant that he had discovered, and we would walk around lower Manhattan for a few hours and just talk. I am grateful for those memories.

I am grateful for so many other things this past year—my closest friends who were and are always there for me, in good times and in bad. I am grateful for having been a part of a joyous May wedding (the daughter of my close friend got married) that balanced out the sadness of my brother’s death. I am grateful for having met a lawyer (the father of my good friend) who helped me with a specific legal situation related to my brother’s death; I am forever grateful to my friend for having arranged that meeting with her father. I am grateful to my husband for always being there for me, without a lot of fanfare and fuss. I am grateful to my workplace that approved and financed a yearlong leadership course from which I learned a lot—a course that changed my perspective about leadership, about my own leadership qualities, and about the importance of real dialog and communication in the workplace. It seems strange to say it, but often out of sadness come many good things—reminders as it were that there is a reason to continue to hope and to believe.  There is good in the world, and real love does exist. 

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