In Memoriam

Memorial Day (also known as Decoration Day) is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.

Memorial Day has been observed on the last Monday of May since 1971; before then the holiday was held on May 30 from 1868 to 1970.

It wasn’t until after World War I that Memorial Day was expanded to honor all veterans who died in any American war.

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of the summer vacation season (Labor Day, the first Monday of September, marks its end).

Memorial Day is slightly more likely to fall on May 25th, 28th or 30th than on May 26th, 27th, 29th or 31st.

Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service.  Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.

Memorial Day is not the same as Veterans Day (November 11), the day America celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.

Memorial Day 1946 fell on a Thursday.  My parents married each other on that Thursday, about a year after Victory in Europe (VE) Day, celebrated on May 8, 1945.

My dad served in World War II with United States Army as a radio operator stationed in the Philippines.

I think all Americans recognize that we owe a huge debt of gratitude and appreciation to the families of the men and women of our military services, especially to those whose sons and daughters, fathers and mothers made the ultimate sacrifice defending and protecting this great country.

I am very grateful for the men and women who serve in our armed forces.  I had the honor of having a young man as a student in my World Religions class back in the fall of 2010; he had just completed a two-year Army hitch in Afghanistan.  One time after class, we rode the same bus home to our respective apartments.  He talked about some of the atrocities he witnessed while serving there – not in any great detail, mind you, but enough to let me know that the experience left him with a sadness that obliterated every last vestige of innocence.

In memory of all those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, whether you’re conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, of any religion or of no religion, I ask you take a moment today to remember the families of those who sacrificed everything for us.  Thank you.

That “More-Than-Me” Feeling

It happened one day on the bus coming home from work.  We’re barreling northbound on Lake Shore Drive, a pleasant spring day, a mass of eighty folks give or take, sitting, standing, or otherwise occupying the crowded articulated bus.

While not diagnosed as “borderline autistic,” I am intensely introverted; it feels like I’m imprisoned within myself every waking moment of my existence.  It doesn’t help that I don’t have a lot of folks to interact with, but even when I do, often I’m still overly self-conscious, unable to let my guard down enough for other individuals to register upon my awareness.

On this particular ride I was standing fairly close to the very back of the bus, for the longest time just looking west out the window, at the parks and the buildings rushing by.  I was bound up solely within my own awareness – had you been in my head, you wouldn’t have known that anyone was anywhere in any direction – that’s just how tunnel-like my awareness usually is.

For some reason, I recalled a conversation I had a long time ago with one of my grad school mentors, a very likeable, gregarious individual, an extrovert’s extrovert, with the capacity to relate to others not so gifted in the social graces.  I was preparing to teach my first class the following term, going over strategies of how to keep students’ attention for seventy-five minutes at a time twice a week.

I was irked that we spent any time talking about this.  It’s the student’s job to pay attention – entirely up to them, not me.  Whereupon my mentor offered this small but memorable nugget of truth:  “each of us is the star of our own show.”  This gave me a lifeline to get out of my own head; I knew that I was the star of my show – but it had never occurred to me that the exact same thing is going on again and again and again, with every single person on the planet:  each one of us living our lives, each one of us the lead actor on the stage of our own conscious awareness.

“Each of us is the star of our own show.”  I shifted my glance northward, looking up the long aisle of riders, and seeing – everyone, experienced all at once, each bound up in their own show, and now a seamless, single piece of cloth, an “all-at-once” that I never experienced before.  And it wasn’t a “we” or an “us” feeling – any sense of selves, singular, plural, or otherwise, just wasn’t part of the experience.

It was a “more-than-me” feeling.

Try a Little Tenderness

We had known each other for a long time.  I’m not sure we were ever friends – certainly not very good ones.  If I was feeling sad or lonely or depressed and needed a little compassion, she usually refused to give any.

The final straw came when I expressed my dissatisfaction with our situation, that I was looking forward to spending some quality time with a friend over dinner, and that an unwanted third wheel kind of soured the occasion.  I was disappointed, sure – but she was immediately on the defensive, first by saying it wasn’t her fault (I never said it was), and then by asking me if I was depressed.

That question was unnecessary.  Whenever she asked me this question, it was her way of saying, “hey, I don’t really want to talk to you when you’re like this.”  This time, though, it sounded more like, “hey, I don’t really want to talk to you at all – this kind of thing upsets me and I don’t want or need to be upset.”

Was it so much to ask for a bit of kindness?  Maybe she could have pretended to care about me at that moment, and maybe be uncomfortable for all of what, ten seconds?

Too many people in my life seem to like me only if I keep to myself – as long as I don’t ask anything of them, they’re more than happy to know me.  I’m not doing that anymore.  I’m done being invisible.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable for friends, at least once in a while, to put their friend’s needs before their own, especially when that friend is hurting.

Whenever I wrote her anything like this, she was dismissive – a wave of the hand, as if she couldn’t care less.  Friends don’t act like that.

I sent flowers to acknowledge the good times we had had.  I was struck by the florist’s recommended note:  “The more I know the people I love, the more I love the people I know.”

She didn’t really want me to know her, so … I’ll accept her as she is, not as I want her to be.

What Is Your Intention?

When I meditate, I’m asked to notice sensation (“what is your body telling you right now?”), emotion (“what feelings are you experiencing right now?”), and intention (“why are you doing this?”)

The “intention” question strikes at the heart of my Catholic-upbringing, seminary-reinforced idea of meditation.  Within that context, meditation is solely a spiritual exercise, a practice one develops to recognize the larger world oozing and overflowing with God’s joy, love and happiness.

Since then I’ve re-imagined meditation in more exclusively “secular” or “humanistic” ways.  Spiritual meditation is a whole lot like secular “meditation,” although the latter is probably better cast under the term “reflection.”

Reflection, I believe, is a common arena shared by this world and the more-than-this world, where the immanent and the transcendent picnic together, get to know one another.  My move from seminary to philosophy shifted my attention from what it must be like for the other-world picnickers to what it’s like for the picnickers here and now.

But the reflection involved in critical analysis aims to be a purely cognitive activity; noncognitive elements such as joy, pain, suffering, passion, and love are impurities that contaminate thinking.  You could recognize them as variables, but only as other phenomena or experience to bracket, to set aside, so that the horse of reason has full throttle of your investigations.

Daily meditations have allowed me to accept these other aspects of my experience, to value them as much as thinking.  One of meditation’s key assumptions is that the mind tends to be so agitated, so intent on ignoring the emotional AND the physical, that we lose contact with these other core parts of being human.

The person leading the meditations said, “Keep in mind the others in your life; your intention will help you that much more when you want to do this not only for yourself but also for them.”  But not in another “self” way, as if you’re there for a bunch of selves.  What you’re there for is to become more aware of the connections between those selves, between you and your friend, between that friend and her husband, between that husband and his job, between … again and again and again.

The aim to be more mindful of these connections (rather than who or what they connect) for me proved to be a huge help in coping with, dealing with, managing my existence just a little better.

The other caveat I picked up from meditation is that, in becoming more mindful of these connections, it helps to not see yourself at the center of this vast network of connections.  Think of the solar system in relation to the Milky Way galaxy – it’s not at the center of things:  it’s a tiny dot among billions of tiny dots of a starfish swirling around a center defined by the collection of the dots.

That’s what I visualize when I’m asked, “what is your intention?”  My intention, I tell myself, is to become more mindful of the connections that make up this huge galaxy of awareness, human and more than human, me a dot among billions and billions of dots that make the swirling starfish possible in the first place.

Reframing for Revelation

A friend wanted to know what I thought about the concept of “reframing.”  I asked her what she meant.  She replied that, in trying to come to terms with some of the more painful experiences in her life, her therapist asked her to “reframe” those experiences, to see whether anything positive might be extracted from them.  But she couldn’t shake the feeling that reimagining these experiences in this way felt inauthentic, that the meanings of those experiences were inextricably tied to their original “framework.”

Now I can see why being told to “reframe” an experience seems somewhat false, fake, maybe even dishonest.  But many people may think the opposite – for them, “going with the best truth” or “looking on the bright side” seems false, contrived, even naïve.  “Reframing” may seem false because it lacks content – it only tries to “reassemble” the event or issue.  By contrast, “looking on the bright side” may seem more authentic because it brings out content – albeit in a “predetermined” way.

The difference between “looking on the bright side” and “reframing the issue” concerns whether meaning (content, reality, truth – it goes by a bunch of different [yet similar] names) is a matter of definition (“reframing”) or of intuition (“looking on the bright side”).  If “reframing” seems false compared with “going with the best truth,” then meaning is a matter of intuition; if “reframing” seems more true than “going with the best truth,” then meaning is a matter of definition.

But this isn’t an “either/or” matter – meaning requires both intuition and definition.  A famous line from the history of philosophy captures the idea quite well: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”  In other words, if all you have is definition (and no intuition), you don’t really have anything worth having (“empty”), and if all you have is an intuition (and no definition), you have content but without any direction (“blind”).

Long story short:  “reframing” is bogus if it only reshuffles the pieces of the experience puzzle.  But, if reframing reveals some new meaning or content or information ABOUT the experience not previously realized, then the concept will have some practical value.