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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Inner excellence matters more than physical appearance

I am presently visiting Phoenix, Arizona where my son and daughter-in-law are residing at present. It is an amazing oasis in the middle of what must have been a burning desert only 100 years ago. I thought Bakersfield, California was hot but Phoenix makes Bakersfield seem tame by comparison as Phoenix is more Texas-like in its 100+ degrees every day (109 day after day). One effect this has is that when one goes for a walk (I have no car) one has to have some water, sun screen (60+ or more) and a hat. It is interesting to visit with so many young people and hear their views and to meet both  athletes and business people. When one comes to a place like this, which is rather far from the centers of culture and far from the sort of people one usually consorts with one is taken aback at times.

Of the young people I met -all college graduates- not a single one reads the daily newspaper or subscribes to a single magazine. What news they get they get from the Daily Show and the Internet but it seems to me they are far more interested in 1) gossip 2) popular culture which includes vampire shows and pop music 3)professional sports and or gambling and 4) sex and pornography (not necessarily in that order). All of the young men in question had his own very attractive "squeeze" (some married some not) but still the talk turned to a discussion on collections of hard core pornography. The kind that makes Playboy seem like Shakespeare! It appeared there was a fascination with hedonism of all kinds particularly the sexual but also food and drink and simple animal pleasures. Everyone was having a Good Time and it seems every lust and appetite was being satisfied and new stimulants for lust were being invented. It appears to me that much of the wealth of America is being squandered before my very eyes on women, drink, drugs, sports, gambling and other modern circuses.

We always talk about education and the future but we must consider the very real possiblity that the American people might just commit suicide. People respect education in a way because they know it is a necessary outward sign of a person of means but that doesn't mean they really like it. Suppose our economic problems were solved and the work week were shortened and vacations of six weeks or more were guaranteed. Which would these people prefer? Art? Music (fine music? Books? or video games, gambling and pornography? I know the new Planet of the Apes film is about to premiere. can't help thinking we MUST be closely related to apes because so few of us understand that hedonistic pleasures are not the same as happiness.

Ingrid Berman in her 20's circa 1943
Irish actress Maureen O'Hara still spry in her 90's
A young actress without any English, French or Italian (she later added these to her native Swedish and German):
INGRID BERGMAN circa 1937 about 19 years old
I thought of the young women I saw last night. As I said they were all very attractive, far above average I would say and all less than 25 years of age; perhaps one or two was 27 or so. Females must be especially burdened by the attention they receive for their pretty faces, curling locks and slender appealing figures. From the time they are young such women must have been flattered by males and evaluated heavily only in terms of their physical appearance.

Unfortunately, if a woman only tends to her looks and physical appearance because she figures that is the way to get a man's attention she may let her inner gifts and talents atrophy. Such a woman puts all of her efforts into enhancing and maintaining her physical beauty at the price of distorting her natural self to pleasure others, chiefly males. Despite all the furor of Equal Rights and Feminism some things have not changed at all especially here in the provinces.

I think it is mistake many people make -and this includes men as well as women. They put all their efforts in managing their physical appearance and the impression they make on others. I could not help but think that some of these young women ten or fifteen years hence will be discarded for "newer models". The lucky ones will have at least gotten married to someone with some money and thus gained some security. Yes, the world may reward us for wrong or superficial reasons -such as our youth and physical beauty- but what really matters now and in the long run is character and culture -who we are inside and who we are becoming.

All of us seek the happy life and a secure life but many confuse the means -wealth and rank- with life. The really worthwhile things are family, children, friends, faith, good books, time spent together with shared leisure -swimming, going to a ball game, telling stories, singing, laughing, cooking family recipes passed down from lip to ear and to tongue, watching fireworks and hiking in the Grand Canyon. The things that make life worthwhile are sound, healthy virtuous activities not the external means that seem to produce it. We are all tempted to buy the fanciest car, the special shoes and the stylish shirt. I saw shirts priced at over $100 each. I saw shoes and accessories priced at over $500 each. But I must say I was very happy with my discounted cotton shirts from JC Penny and my comfortable, well-fitting New Balance (American-made) walking shoes.

But just when I was about to write off an entire generation of Americans I found myself renewed at the ball park.

 There I saw the great mass of Americans lower middle class, middle class and upper middle class, enjoying a common moment of leisure. There I saw many families with young children -2, 3 or even 4 -this isn't Madrid or Rome or Berlin or New York. One of the most touching moments was when they had a romantic frame on the scoreboard for kisses and they moved across the stadium crowd for couples from 18 to 80 and asked them to show us all a kiss. Then they focused in on a pretty young Hispanic woman and a muscular young American with a short crew cut -he might have been an off duty soldier- and he asked her live not for a kiss but on one knee "WILL YOU MARRY ME and MAKE ME THE HAPPIEST MAN IN THE WORLD". The young woman was completely surprised and doubly surprised to be on television and on the big screen of the scoreboard. She literally had to wipe the salt tears from her eyes and gave a big , almost shy smile to the entire crowd and then said yes (THE ENTIRE CROWD CHEERED "YES") and then kissed him. The lucky man then took out an engagement ring and placed it on her finger. My son said to me, "Well, Dad, what do you think of that?" And I sad, "I hope they live happily ever after!"

Some people become very pessimistic that young people are impossible, that illegal immigrants are going to destroy this country, that the Black hate the White and the White hate the Brown etc. But when you go out teach the people as I have, and go to their weddings and baptisms, and see them at their pastimes you have to feel very, very optimistic. Because when it comes down to it the melting pot is still bubbling on.

John F. Kennedy said: "And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future."

My mother used to say that "life and love were just a brief moment in time, so let us forgive each other and let us love one another while we can." When we walk down the street with our son -who is now 26- I remember when we walked out of the Polo Grounds and the old Yankee Stadium three generations of my family. And as the generation of leaves so are the generations of men! It is hard to remember now the loved and the lost but we must remember them with gratitude and tranquility for I was very lucky to have had them as mentors and companions if only for a brief moment in time. Yes, we are all mortal that is a certainty. What lies beyond is not; it may be described as a fond hope.  As Jake Barnes said: "Isn't it pretty to think so."  My father, ever the sceptic said, "I vote yes for all the good it will do me."

I recently re-read MAN'S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl. I first read it almost 40 years ago and I think I have read it at least once every five years since then. It was not the edition I was used to but a new edition belonging to my son which he had bought at ASU. The older book had a different introduction by a psychologist a certain Dr. Gordon Allport; this edition (2006) had and introduction written by a clergyman, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner. Kushner wrote: "terrible as it was, his experience in Auschwitz reinforced what was already one of his key ideas: Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.

I think the reason so many teachers are happy despite everything is that their work is very, very significant. They are not usually rewarded in a material sense but the teacher's true rewards is the love and gratitude of his or her disciples. And I think teachers find joy when they have to be courageous during difficult times.

Think back to Columbine when a teacher sacrificed his life to save his students.

Frankl's love for his young wife -torn from his breast before even a final kiss were possible-is very, very moving: "That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of us wife. Occasionally I looked in the sky, where the starts were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife' image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth -that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: THE SALVATION OF MAN IS THROUGH LOVE and IN LOVE. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be if only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way -an honorable way- in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved {MUNRO: I would say BELOVEDS}, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."


"My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive. I konw only one thing -which I have learned well by now. LOVE GOES FAR BEYOND THE PHYSICAL PERSON OF THE BELOVED. IT FINDS ITS DEEPEST MEANING IN HIS SPIRITUAL BEING, HIS INNER SELF. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importantance." ...nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved....."

Yes, Dr. Frankl suffered and was very unlucky. And he would say that suffering is of itself meaningless. We give suffering and sacrifice meaning by the way we respond to it. In our lives there will be forces beyond our ken and beyond our human control. There will be storms, floods, fires and acts of God and acts of the Godless. All our human posseessions could be smashed or taken from us. All those we love might be killed or separated from us forever. But if we live there is one thing , one freedom that no one can take away from us. That is how we respond to the storms, temptations and travails of life. Rabbi Kushner said, following Frankl, "you cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always, control what you will feel and do about what happens to you."

Argyll and Sutheland Highlanders arrive in France, August 1914:
The many Scottish Pals Aye the Floors o' the Forest are a' weed awa

They suffered over 6,000 killed and 25,000 casualties.  My grandfather lost his brother, his brother-in-law, most of his best friends, over 10 first cousins, all of his commanding officers and NCO's from 1914. All of them. 1914-1918 was a journey of the cross for an entire generation of Scottish manhood; after 1918 over 400,000 Scots (10% of the population and 30% of the youth emigrated most never to return.++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
We count our blessings.

I like to put quotations on my bulletin boards. I think I have found a new one for this fall. Teachers all over America must do what men and women will do and must suffer what teachers -especially American teachers must. But no matter what happens or what indignity we suffer we can control how we behave, how we feel and do something about what happens to us and our schools. We are not sticks upon strings adrift without pattern or hope; we are human beings and we are swimmers, strong swimmers. We can endure, we can reach the shore and we can carry on despite everything.

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