Thursday, December 13, 2012

What if Christmas were only recognized by Christians?

(From the December 13, 2012 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I have a Jewish colleague who was upset earlier this year when a meeting was scheduled on a Jewish holiday. She felt disenfranchised because she could not participate in the meeting.

I see her point, to a point. It may seem frustrating when American workplaces have days off during major Christian holidays, but the special occasions of other faiths are not recognized or noticed.

On the other hand, where would we draw the line on days off for Jewish, Muslim and countless other holidays? According to a 2010 survey, the U.S. does have more Jews than any other country besides Israel. But the number of Jews in the U.S. is 5 million, which is less than 2% of the US population of around 300 million. So changing official holidays for a minority does not seem to make sense when a Gallup survey says 78% of Americans consider themselves Christian.

But there is another thought that came to mind when I thought about the recognition of religious holidays. I actually sort of envied my Jewish friend.

What if Christmas were only celebrated in churches? What if the day were only recognized by people who consider the occasion to be one only of spiritual significance? What if the Christmas returned to being what a “holiday” really is supposed to be, a holy day?

It might mean not having an automatic time off at work for Christmas. But some are already calling the season a “winter break” or something of that sort. I have no problem with that. We could still retain the worshipful celebration of the birth of the Son of God, the Savior of all who believe in Him. All the other aspects of our modern Christmas would cease, but I think that might be refreshing.

I mean, my Jewish friend should be careful what she wishes for. Would she really want society to do to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Chanukah what has been done to Christmas? There would be a jolly, fat Rabbi appearing in silly movies and TV specials. There would be a plethora of record albums blending pop music with sacred songs. People would frantically invade shopping malls to participate in some tradition gone amok, largely missing the point and spirit of the season even as they refer vaguely to “the true meaning” of the holy day.

My Jewish friend seemed offended that others did not recognize her holy days. She would likely be more offended if society embraced Jewish holidays to the extent that Jews no longer recognize them.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of the cultural aspects of Christmas that I enjoy—the food, the lights, the time off, and even the Jim Carey version of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” But at times I sit back and think about the true, really true, meaning of Christmas and I get a little sad and even offended about what has become of a holy day.

The goofy movies and TV “Christmas” specials rarely if ever mention Christ. There are movies focused on Santa Claus, elves, and all manner of tragic and hilarious family relationship issues that are resolved in the end because people remember the “true meaning of Christmas.” What that is exactly is always understated, left to the viewer, or ridiculously light of moral reason.

I also do enjoy Christmas music. At our house there is a whole separate CD tower of just Christmas music. But that’s also because a lot of what is played on commercial radio is just plain annoying. It’s hard to name one professional musician who has not marketed a Christmas album. They don’t do this because they suddenly found Christ. They do this because Christmas albums are easy to make and sell. Many of them are not even very good. I recently heard a free version of Rod Stewart singing “Silent Night.” I’m glad it was free. I would sooner pay for an album that was a recording of an actual silent night.

The most upsetting is the commercialization of Christmas. I get annoyed when ads remind me that there are a certain number of “shopping days until Christmas.” As if buying things and boosting the economy is why God sent His Son into the world. I want to reply by asking sarcastically how many shopping days until Jesus comes again, because I may want to load up on stuff to take with me.

My colleague is understandably upset that she is part of a minority faith group whose special days are not recognized at work or by society at large. But to that I want to tell her: count your blessings; your holidays are kept holy.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Leaders Don't Need to Be Elected

(From the November 8, 2012 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I am writing this on election night. It looks like it will be another election like those in years past in terms of being a close contest. There will be delighted cheers and deep disappointment when it is all over.

But it need not be this way. It’s not like the president, senators and congressional representatives we elect are the only leaders we can rely on. Far from it. In fact, while national policy and laws have far-reaching impact, national lawmakers may not be as directly relevant to our lives as certain people who we live near and see every day.

I thought about leadership in this context this past weekend when I was inducted into Omicron Delta Kappa (ODK), the National Leadership Honors Society. I was one of 39 new inductees into the Grand Valley State University chapter of this organization that recognizes those who show leadership in scholarship, athletics, community service, social and religious activities, media, and the arts.

Of interest to readers of this newspaper is the fact that John Mauro, a math teacher from Grand Haven, was an alumni initiate. He also was the keynote speaker at the little ceremony on the downtown Grand Rapids campus at noon on Sunday. The gist of his appropriate message was that if you have had the privilege of going somewhere or doing something, you then have the responsibility of taking someone else.

That’s a nice model for leadership. Politicians can be humble and selfless like that sometimes, even though many seem more focused on gaining power than in passing it on. But the point here is that we should not look only to politicians to benefit our society with leadership. This room of students being recognized is a microcosm of the potential we all have to benefit from emerging leaders in many fields, not just politics.

For example, three of the students honored have been in my classes. One graduates in December and has just returned from a study abroad opportunity in Spain. She has just been accepted by the Peace Corps, and expects to be assigned to a teaching role in Latin America, where she can use her Spanish language skills. After a two-year assignment, she hopes to work doing public relations for a non-government organization (NGO) in Latin America. Another student is an officer in a student organization I advise. She has already done two internships with Volkswagen in North America and even during the semester the major company taps her to represent them at trade shows, such as an event in California from which she has just returned. She will graduate in April and I fully expect her to be or advise corporate leaders within the next few years. The third student is an international graduate student from Belarus. I had her in a master’s class last year and am chairing her thesis committee currently. I was very impressed with her proposal to study the use of social media in crisis communications by multi-national companies.

None of these students has expressed an interest in running for political office. But I believe they all will make a meaningful impact on society, ours here in the United States as well as around the world. Their leadership is not in politics, but in business and social organizations. Their leadership does not come from being elected, but being inspired and ambitious. They do not lead on the basis of power but out of a desire to empower others.

That’s what real leaders do. They seize opportunities, seek solutions, mobilize people, and communicate by example. They are known not by title but by character of heart and selfless action.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, as important as it is (and which I don’t know as I write this), I am nevertheless optimistic about the future. That’s because I see real leadership all around. It doesn’t just get passed down from state and national capitols. It bubbles up from human capital.

Some are complaining that, regardless of who becomes president, the United States will suffer from an unwillingness of politicians in either party to compromise. That would be a annoyance and a problem if such partisan pettiness continues. But a greater problem would be a gridlock of the spirit. As Edmund Burke noted, the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men (and women) do nothing. It is interesting to consider that Burke, a British philosopher of the 19th century, was praised by both liberals and conservatives.

If you don’t like the result of the election we had two days ago, don’t complain about the quality of our leaders. Do something. Be a leader.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Choices in This Election

(From the October 11, issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

All the candidates in this election season are talking about the important choice or choices we need to make as citizens. Well, yeah, that is what happens when you go into the booth. You choose.

But other than considering statements of the obvious, the emphasis on choice has made me think about that word. That’s when the irony hit me: so many candidates and/or elected officials who claim to be “pro-choice” on abortion seem to be working against allowing choice on other issues.

Certain politicians years ago framed the abortion debate as one of “choice.” A woman should be allowed to choose what happens with her own body, the logic goes. At rallies you would see signs that read “My body! My choice!” All of this was to turn attention away from the fact that a human life was at stake. So people against abortion described themselves as “pro life” and have bumper stickers and rally signs that say “Choose life!”

But if choice is so important as an operative word, it is interesting to me that our society lately seems to be working to remove choices. Let me run through a few examples.

One has to do with school vouchers. The basic idea here is that, since a portion of taxes people pay go to public schools, parents should get a voucher from the government to send their children to a school of their choosing. So if they don’t like the local public school, they could use the voucher to send their child to a private school, a charter school or any other school that charges tuition. Parents could use the tax dollars they paid—or the portion “covering” their child’s public education—for another school if they so choose. But there are many people against school vouchers. This is the first societal hypocrisy—people should have the right choose to end the life of their unborn child, but if the child is born and reaches school age the same parents can’t choose their school.

But say school isn’t an issue. Say kids are in the public school. Then we have the issue of choosing what to have for lunch. Recently, federal guidelines went into effect mandating what types of food schools serve for lunch. There have been stories of some school employee telling a little girl not to eat the lunch her own mother packed for her. Late last month a group of students launched a YouTube campaign to protest the new school lunches. Good for them! They are showing critical thinking and communication skills, not to mention exercising the right to protest abuses of government in a democracy. But, so far, it still remains that parents can choose to end the life of an unborn child, but they can’t choose what to feed them.

Let’s say that these children survive school food and live to see graduation. Then they want to get a job at a place that has a union. “Right to Work” legislation that has been hotly debated is about whether or not a person should be allowed to decide whether or not to join a union. Many are advocating that employees have no choice but to be part of a union. This is a great way to bolster union membership. But it’s not so great if you say you are in favor of personal choice. So our society says it should be a right to snuff out the life of an unborn child but a grown-up child can’t choose whether to be part of a union or not.

The recently passed massive health care legislation includes one controversial aspect called the “insurance mandate” that requires everyone to buy health insurance. There are lots of arguments for and against this. But on the issue of choice, it’s another case where personal responsibility and choice is being taken away from individuals. So add to the list of hypocrisies that our modern society endorses the right to terminate “fetuses” but if they emerge into the world as actual human beings they don’t have the right to choose whether or not they want to buy health insurance.

The most recent example is specific to New York City, but it could spread. I’m speaking of course about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s dictate that people in the Big Apple can’t buy big sodas, at least nothing as big as 16 ounces. Apparently it’s an effort to battle obesity. Whatever happened to “My body! My choice!” Apparently, what you imbibe and how much is a government decision in New York. You can get an abortion there, just not a large diet coke.

The real irony is that many of these restrictive policies are advocated by folks who call themselves liberals or progressives. The original political meaning of “liberal” had freedom at is core—it seems the opposite lately. As for progressive, one wonders toward what we progress if we keep making government policies taking away  freedom of choice. Perhaps England, before the American revolution?

One choice we do still have is in the ballot booth. This election really is about choice.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Humanities Deserve Celebration

October is National Humanities Month. Unfortunately, not too many people know about that or even care. Fortunately, there are efforts in West Michigan to address that.

Grand Valley State University once again has its Fall Arts Festival to celebrate the arts and humanities in our region. And new this year is an effort in Muskegon called the Muskegon Area Arts & Humanities Festival that has the same goal.

Not only are these fun and thought stimulating events worthy of our participation just for personal enjoyment. They are important efforts to remind us collectively as a community that the arts and humanities matter, and matter greatly, even in an era when the emphasis increasingly seems to be on science, math and technology.

We should not disparage one field of academic study or professional pursuit to elevate another. Rather, we should recognize that while individuals may have different competencies and interests, as a society we are better when our talents and interests are as diverse as our ethnic backgrounds.

Never has there been a stronger and more timely endorsement of this than Steve Jobs, the legendary CEO of Apple Computer who died one year ago today. His company's products were known for technical genius, but also magnificent design and aesthetic. As he says in a video tribute posted on today:

"It's technology married  with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields the result that makes our hearts sing."
Yes. That sentiment may be more important than any of the gadgets he gave us.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Regional Mass Transit Disappointment

I have to say I'm disappointed that the regional mass transit system that was investigated by Ottawa County officials as been deemed not feasible at this time based on a consultant's report. The news was reported in both MLive and the Grand Haven Tribune.

I was particularly excited about the potential to take mass transit from city to city in the West Michigan "triangle" -- Muskegon to Grand Haven and Holland and to Grand Rapids. Routes would also have gone from Grand Haven to the Grand Valley State University Allendale campus, potentially giving me a different way to work.

Ridership on the "Rapid" from GVSU's Allendale campus to area apartments and to the downtown Grand Rapids campus exceeds 1 million per year. I know that this includes primarily college students, many without cars or on lower budget, and that the route is subsidized. But I ride it myself when I have to teach or have a meeting downtown, and I see many other faculty and staff on the "Route 50" bus in recent years.

This shows that even if people have cars, they may find mass transit an advantage for gas savings, the ability to read or relax instead of drive, and no need to search or pay for parking at your destination. They took the bus because it was free, and obviously available at many stops on campus or between campuses. In other words, people who never would say in a survey that they would take the bus are now doing so once they have the opportunity to experience it vs merely imagine it.

Officials who looked into this option no doubt have to consider the cost factor. The initial capital outlay of nearly $2 million followed by about as much in annual operating expenses isn't cheap, particularly in times when municipalities across the country are pinching pennies and cutting services.

But I can't help but wonder if there would be an "if you build it they will come" phenomenon if there could be a creative way to raise seed money to build the system and operate it for its initial one or two years. I can hope. At least the officials are saying they'll hang on to the consultant study in case economic conditions warrant reconsidering the transit system in the future.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

To Comfort Those in Pain, Sometimes Saying Less is Best

(From the September 13, 2012 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)            

Since my wife’s diagnosis of cancer a little over six months ago, we have learned a lot about medical terms and procedures. But we have also learned a lot about human interactions and relationships between those who are sick or experiencing other trials in life and those who intend to comfort them.

There is no doubt that everyone means well. My wife and I always meant well too when trying to comfort others in the past. But when on the receiving end of those intended comforts, we have learned that some things should not be said, other things are very effective, and sometimes saying little or nothing is the best.

Let me address delicately some of the things that are best to NOT say, based on the experience of my wife and other cancer patients with whom we have talked. The first type of comment we heard, back at the time of diagnosis, was the surprised question and almost accusation, “didn’t you get a mammogram?” In fact she did, and it didn’t catch anything. But thanks for insinuating that cancer is her fault. A related question is what we think caused it. Doctors don’t even know that; cancer just happens for a variety of reasons. Such comments are not really comforting to a patient. They seem more motivated by fear.

Another category of bad questions are those that seem to come from personal curiosity more than an effort to calm or comfort someone who is suffering. These have been at times shockingly intimate and personal. Everyone is different, but a good rule of thumb is that people will share the level of detail they are comfortable sharing. Sometimes they share more with some than others based on the relationship they have. Don’t be offended if you don’t get the full report. This is not about you and satisfying your curiosity; it’s about comforting someone else.

When you do get more details, resist the urge to “kiss it and make it better” with comments that tend to diminish a person’s feelings. To a cancer patient losing hair, saying “it’s only hair” or “it’s only temporary” may be true to you but it may not be how the patient is feeling currently. It’s important to acknowledge a person’s pain and allow them to grieve. Don’t make comments that offend them by suggesting that what they feel isn’t normal or serious.

Recognize that each person is different and goes through trials in their own way. Telling someone “you can relate” because your cousin’s co-worker had the same thing does not necessarily provide comfort. If you went through exactly the same thing yourself, you may be able to relate at a closer level. However, don’t expect the fact that others or you went through something will make another person going through it now to feel better. The fact that “many others” have gone through this does not make the experience any less troubling for someone going through it now. It is still a very personal trauma.

So, what can you say? The best is often the simplest. My wife has found the most comforting statements from friends and medical professionals is a simple “I’m sorry you’re going through this.” That’s all. A simple acknowledgement that what she is dealing with is tough. No attempt to mitigate it, show your own knowledge about it, make it seem less serious or real, or any other well-intended effort that just misses the mark of basic compassion.

A way to allow a person suffering to be in control of what information is shared is to ask what to pray for specifically, or if there is anything you can do. Maybe offer something, but allow the person to decide if they need that or are comfortable with that. This leaves things up to the individual and they feel loved without feeling overwhelmed.

A simple “We love you” or “we’re praying for you” goes a long way too. Sometimes the most important thing is not trying to fix the problem, because we can’t, but letting someone know you are going through it with them, that they are not alone. Being there and showing you care is vastly more comforting than trying to persuade someone to think differently about what they are facing.

Also, people going through cancer or other struggles often have a strong desire to feel “normal” for a while. Remember to see them as people and not as patients. Don’t make “cancer” or whatever else they face the top part of their identity. Sometimes saying nothing about their troubles but just spending time with them, talking about their regular interests and activities, can be a tremendous boost to distract from the otherwise constant burden looming over them,

So to sum up, think about your objective when you speak to someone going through a trial. Don’t try to merely satisfy your own curiosity with inappropriate questions or “fix” the problem. Seek to listen lovingly and then validate and understand the other person’s feelings. Show that you see them as an individual.  Mostly show that you care about them.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Cancer Tries to Steal Our Summer

(From the August 9 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Many will remember this summer as one of the hottest and driest on record. My wife and I will remember this as the summer stolen by cancer.

Like most Tri-Cities residents, we love living along the lakeshore all year long, but particularly in the summer. The days are long, giving ample time to enjoy many activities. There are the bike paths for our daily run and frequent bike rides. The lakes and river await for boating, kayaking, and swimming. And there’s nothing wrong with just sitting on the beach relaxing, reading, or taking a delightful summer nap.

But not this year.

Last week we realized that August was already upon us. The sun goes down noticeably sooner in the evening. And we had hardly enjoyed any of the long list of summer rituals listed above, other than the daily run which my wife insists on.

Instead, we find ourselves at medical appointments related to her cancer treatment. It seems that time flies between doses of her chemotherapy. But also in between appointments there are doctor visits, various scans, and consultations with doctors for upcoming phases of treatment. We look at our calendar each week and realize there has not been one week without an appointment of some kind interrupting what should be a summer reprieve.

When not at appointments we—and in particular my wife—is on the phone with doctors’ offices making appointments, changing appointments, asking for the notes and records from past appointments. She also spends considerable time on the phone with insurance company case managers and the human resources staff at my employer discussing various issues related to cancer treatment and medical coverage. It’s a good thing she has experience and education as a medical social worker. Otherwise all of this could seem even more overwhelming.

In between appointments and phone calls, it seems we are reading cancer literature or talking almost constantly about “el crappo,” my wife’s blunt term for the disease we’re fighting. We talk about all of the above, weighing options, making plans, and sometimes crying. Occasionally these talks happen while on a run along the Grand River, or on very rare occasions, a quick evening walk on the beach or pier. But the subject of these conversations has ruined the otherwise beautiful setting.

Sometimes, when not consumed by any of the above, we have talked about doing some fun summer activity. But then we may just feel exhausted, or just not in the mood. Also, the heat has been too tough for my wife to endure while under chemotherapy and its side effects. At times like this I have enjoyed summer vicariously, looking at my friends’ Facebook photos of a day on the lake or some other summer adventure.

But we are fighting back and trying to recover some of the losses of cancer stealing our favorite season. With the help of great friends and fellow church members, we have enjoyed some nice meals, visits, boat rides and short getaways. Sometimes it has taken a sudden invitation to get us to turn off the “All Cancer All the Time Channel.” People are gracious and caring and ask what they can do for us. The truth is that after prayer, the most important thing is to divert us and get us to enjoy a sense of normalcy and to savor summer, even in small doses.

We have had two brief evening walks on the beach, one on the pier, three or four boat rides, one bike ride, and just last week, an evening paddle in our kayaks on the Grand River. We hope to put a beach day on the calendar, maybe more than one, in the next few weeks. We made it to a handful of outdoor concerts. I am going on a brief annual camping trip with a friend and his son. In other words, part of fighting cancer is not letting it take all your fun away.

So as we approach a transition from one phase of treatment to another, my wife and I will try to take back some of what cancer has taken with us during our favorite season. And then we’ll do what we always do when the days shorten and the air becomes cooler—we’ll look forward to next summer.