Funny how you can look back at things and see the impact certain folks have had in your life, and when it was that you started thinking in a different way about things.
It's possible that the folks who made a real difference may not have thought anything unusual at all about what they said or did which caused the transformation. Yet in some way their words or deeds did make a difference. Is it true that what goes around, comes around? Do we really reap what we sow? Do folks ever get back any of the good they dispense? Were The Beatles right? Is the love you take equal to the love you make?
Or is it more along the lines of a contemporary song I've been listening to lately? Nickel Creek asks, in their "Doubting Thomas."
"What will be left when I've drawn my last breath besides the folks I've met and the folks who've known me? Will I discover a soul-saving love or just the dirt above and below me?"
I don't know. But I was sitting here, resting my bones, thinking on life as I know it and juxtaposing my world with that of the folks I see in the news from other places. And it's amazing to me that we've lasted as long as we have, given that people treat other people so badly. Folks in other parts of the world just don't seem to value human life at all, and that bothers me a lot.
That started me thinking about my views on life, and how my world changed with the birth of our children. I remember the emotion at the moment of delivery and thinking that if everyone in the world could experience that joy, then surely nobody would ever want to harm another person in any way.
And yet people in the Middle East blow themselves up, taking as many innocents with them as they can. Despicable people in Africa turn children into warriors and have them slaughter others. But atrocities and violence and lack of respect for life are not relegated to third world nations. Our nation's experience with Hurricane Katrina proved that all too well.
When New Orleans deteriorated into bedlam and the horrors of what transpired inside the Superdome were revealed, I couldn't help but remember a quote from Eldridge Cleaver in his "Soul On Ice." Cleaver wrote that "the price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less." His epiphany came from realizing that the hate he directed towards others was basically a result of not loving himself. And, to his credit, Cleaver became a changed man.
In the mid 1980s my wife was very pregnant with our third child. We'd been walking and trying to stay in shape during the pregnancy, but when she hit the third trimester, I found that the best thing I could do was stay as far away from her as possible. Oh, I tried to do little things around the house to be helpful, but for some reason nothing ever seemed to work out just right.
Now, as it happened back in those years, I was singing in the choir at First United Methodist with a mix of unusually amazing folks. One of them, the Honorable Ben Hendricks, was celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary with his lovely bride, Libby. The story in the choir loft at rehearsal one evening was that Ben arose and fixed breakfast, telling Libby that she'd cooked breakfast for the first 25 years of their lives together, and he'd take it for the next 25 years.
Well, all the women in the choir started ooh-in' and ah-in' about how wonderful that Ben was, and it got my attention.
So it came to pass that not long afterward I arose and fixed breakfast for my very pregnant wife and told her that I would keep at it for at least as long as we had kids in the house. The realization that she'd been doing basically all the work in what was supposed to be a partnership had hit me like a ton of bricks; at least I could take over breakfast duty and give her that wonderful opportunity to slap the alarm clock snooze button and enjoy those delightful few extra minutes of slumber.
I kept on cooking breakfast after our youngest made his way into the world, and in the mid 1990s, studying Montaigne's "Essays" at Walla Walla's Whitman College, I learned that Montaigne awakened his children every morning with classical music. Not being a smart man, it took a while for me to realize that the essayist must have been quite wealthy, for in 16th century France in order to hear classical music, you had to have musicians present who were actually playing.
So I added music to our family's breakfasts in the mid 1990s, choosing a different genre of music each of the five school days, so that the kids might have broader horizons - even if the range of musical selections tended to run to my favorites.
Musing on raising kids took me back into those mid 1980s. Another in that eclectic mix of choir members was a local physician by the name of George Smith. You'll have to go a long, long way to meet a nicer guy, and George's sense of humor makes it impossible to feel bad for long when you're around him.
Anyway, the good doctor and I were lamenting in the choir loft at a break in a rehearsal as to how we could never find time to pursue one of our favorite sports - tennis. George had to make rounds at the hospital really early, and again really late in the day. I was teaching school and coaching, and by the time I got home, it was usually dark-thirty.
So we hit upon the great idea to play tennis at 5 o'clock in the morning, three days a week.
Now, read that sentence again. It's true. We played tennis. At five o'clock. In the A-doggone-M.
Well, that didn't last long. But during those few weeks that we did seek to persevere and regain our youthful court form, we had some meaningful conversations.
One morning we were talking about being daddies, as our kids were about the same ages. George asked me what I got most upset about. And I remember telling him how it irritated me when the baby would just sweep food off the high chair tray onto the floor, or at other times would occasionally take a big mouthful of milk and just spit it out everywhere.
And the good doctor suggested that I might want to look at that closely. If I got upset and went ballistic over a little thing like a child spilling food, what would I have left for the really big stuff that might come later in, say, the teenage years?
Well, you know, the comments of my tennis buddy George Smith made a huge difference in the way I looked at things from that point on. I'll never make it to sainthood, but that morning - right out there on a tennis court - I became a better daddy just because a friend was concerned enough to offer a thoughtful suggestion.
So, in the end, I don't know if good truly goes around. But even as I debate issues which cannot be decided, and wonder if I'll ever be able to see the forest for the trees, I can agree with the conclusion of the epiphany described in "Doubting Thomas."
"Please give me time to decipher the signs. Please forgive me for time that I've wasted. I'm a doubting Thomas but I'll take your promise though I know nothing's safe, oh me of little faith."
For now, at least, I have the luxury of being able to look back and see moments when things changed for the better on the road I've traveled. Folks like Ben Hendricks and George Smith, perhaps serving as angels unawares, made a big difference in my life. And as I seek to decipher the signs, I recall one of French philosopher Blaise Pascal's thoughts on the matter.
"If there were no obscurity," Pascal wrote, "man would not feel his corruption; if there were no light, man could not hope for a cure."