Difficult Times Require Perspective

My mother, when faced with a difficult situation or going through a trying time, would always step back and put things in perspective with a few simple words.

In her rolling Scottish accent, she would take deep cleansing breath and repeat five words of solace – her personal mantra.

“And this too shall pass.”

She was a happy person. Always smiling, always thankful. And her words, when said, would wash over her and magically – at least from my perspective as a child – making all her troubles wash away. As a child, I would follow her lead and relax.

I hear these words in her voice rolling out whenever I find myself in a difficult situation or my nerves ready to explode. While the wisdom is valuable, hearing her voice adds a powerful and soothing impact on me. Suddenly I’m back in kitchen, her making breakfast, and hearing her voice.

I recently read a piece in the Harvard Business Review about my mother. Well, not her specifically, but encouraging the practice my mother employed. Teams of researchers determined one of the key elements of navigating periods of uncertainty, extreme stress, and facing an unknown outcome, can be better managed by taking charge of the situation through adding a dimension of perspective.

My mother didn’t need a Harvard education to know how to successfully manage life.

The piece recommended taking what you fear or packaging what you are going through at the moment and asking yourself how would you view this a year forward. Or ask yourself will the outcome change the most important aspects of your life such as your family or those you love.

Personally, after both saying and hearing my mother’s words, I dial back to what matters most in life – and they are never material. Will my wife still love me tomorrow? Will my children be safe? Will my heath allow me to wake up the next day? Honestly, after that, the list runs dry. Everything else is simply everything else.

A good friend of my recently lost a lifetime of possessions in flooding. Household furniture, her car, and all the appliances. But as traumatic as this is, she is remarkably calm and confident.

“It is a hard thing to see your life piled up on the curb waiting to be picked up,” she said to me. Then, remarkably, she shrugged her shoulders and offered a hint of a smile. “But what can you do but move forward,” she said.

And there it was – another example of taking the worst the world could dish out and taking control over the situation by defining the impact across what is considered most valuable. She has her health, her husband, and her family. She is remarkable and strong.

We all go through moments in life where we can’t seem to imagine coming out of the other side. We ask God for guidance, we ask others for help, but in reality, the answer will always begin deep inside each of us and our hearts.

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The Texas Miracle

Hey America. Are you watching Texas? No, not to floodwaters – the people and how they are getting along during the largest natural disaster in US history.

A couple weeks ago our nation was a powder keg of emotionally-charged division. The streets and media channels seemed to be flowing with an ever-increasing volume of hate and divisive words. This was not the America we all knew and loved.

And then came Tropical Storm Harvey.

If you didn’t know, Houston is not only the fourth-largest city in the US, but also carries the distinction of being the most racially and ethnically diverse major metropolis in the nation. To visit this part of the country is to witness what experts project America will be inside of a generation.

Were Houston a box of Crayons, this region would be the big 64-count set – with every nationality, creed, or orientation generously represented.

And herein lies the what I believe is the Texas Miracle.

Tropical Storm Harvey put a hurt-on Texas like nothing ever before in history. Dumping feet of rain in short windows of time, people found themselves fleeing fast-rising waters. The storm’s damage, now estimated at $160 billion, is the largest ever recorded. And Harvey, unfortunately took innocent lives and displaced tens of thousands of people.

Stress, displacement, fear, and uncertainty  – the perfect storm for people to turn against each other.

But Texans are different. Fiercely independent and determined to always do the right thing, the DNA of the state is on full display for the nation to witness. In this region populated with every race, creed, color, or orientation, people repeatedly pull together with a higher purpose. To help one another is normal. To help someone during times of need is an unspoken tenant of the Texas fabric.

What some may see coming through television screens as remarkable acts of kindness or generosity is truly not unusual in this fiercely independent part of the country. Texas is a place where a long strong steak of independence continues to run close to the surface. And for those on the coast, getting knocked down repeatedly by Mother Nature is simply part of life. Getting up, rebuilding, and moving forward is a discipline forged over dozens of generations.

When I first arrived on the Gulf Coast of Texas a friend explained to me why, at least in his interpretation, this immigrant-rich region is so welcoming to others and repeatedly rises together during times of crisis.

“During a hurricane, if you see a hand coming up from the water you never stop to wonder who is behind it,” he said. “One day it could be you.”

With all apologies, excuse me if I am not too surprised at seeing people pouring out their hearts or putting themselves into extreme danger to help one another. Learning to respect, value, and put the needs of other ahead of yourself during these trying times is normal. And if this represents the future America, our nation is in good hands.

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The Flood Damage No One Talks About 

Now we rebuild. With Tropical Storm Harvey behind us, Galveston County is left with the monumental task of rebuilding lives, homes, and businesses. And in many cases, these threads creating the fabric of our communities are at risk.

Furniture can be replaced, cars repaired, but there is something much larger here – the potential for psychological suffering as people face the long road of rebuilding their lives.

Mental health is an underreported aspect of disasters. The lasting effects on our emotions or psyche tend to live quietly beneath the surface of our minds, quietly brewing or festering until a trigger moment arrives. And it is the trauma of the recent flooding that may put many people in Galveston County at risk 

According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, studies point to 50% or more affected from natural disasters suffering from clinically significant distress. And unaddressed, such psychological scars can lead to depression, feelings of helplessness, and create a corrosive force on impacted individuals. This condition is more widely referred as post-traumatic stress disorder or simply PTSD.

Times of disaster can cut people off from their natural world of interaction, creating feelings of being overwhelmed and an unsettling sense of depression. These elements can lay in wait for days, week, months, or even years. But they are real. 

In Galveston County there are thousands of people unable to either return or to live in their homes in a normal fashion. And to most, a home is a safe space, a place where you retreat to when the day is done or you need to unplug your mind. The challenges for children can be even more dire and unsettling as young emotions are less developed. 

The World Health Organization regularly deals with the emotional challenges of disasters. Key contributors to the condition include family separation, loss of employment, concerns for safety, and a low level of familiarity in those helping or providing resources. And if anyone remembers Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation, these elements are rooted in the foundation of our basic needs.

This is not to say the outpouring of generosity from individuals, companies, and organizations from across the nation in unneeded. On the contrary, they play an important role in the rebuilding of both the immediate and near-future needs of those impacted. And we thank them for opening their hearts.

But as a community we need to understand there is something that cannot be trucked in from surrounding states. What we need to do is recognize the need to offer support and care to those who are in the crosshairs of this tragedy. For every truck filled with water, we will also need to understand those on the receiving end may need our help as they navigate this life-changing event.

 Galveston County needs to recognize and take action to address the potential for this power symptom of natural disasters taking hold. Not doing so could further destroy the lives of people who unknowingly slip into a dark and dangerous place.

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Define Harvey’s Legacy Now

This space is usually dedicated to thoughts or observations of the world we all share. This week, with Hurricane Harvey coming ashore, is no different.

But today I’d like to encourage everyone to focus on looking around and finding ways to help one another. There are people who may very well be in need during this time and even a well-timed phone call to a shut in can make a difference.

Hurricane Harvey, while now ashore, is now only potentially getting ready to drop dangerous rains on Galveston and surrounding communities. From weather reports, we’ve more rain ahead of us in the next  than behind us. For this we should be careful, cautious, and thoughtful.

I am sure all of us are on the receiving end of emails, calls, and text messages from friends around the country. They mean well and we should be thankful for their concerns. We should also all feel fortunate someone thinks enough of us to reach out during this time. What I’d suggest is to remember the gesture and pay if forward.

Even a forecaster only reports what they think will happen in the future. And we are no different. But what we can do is keep our minds focused on others, looking for opportunities to help not only today, but in the days and weeks ahead. The people who tend to lose the most are many times those with the least to begin with.

I make no secret I am a support of both the United Way and Salvation Army. Both groups do great work in helping those in need. I would encourage you, if you are sincere in your wishes of helping and unsure where to reach out, start with either group. Both can serve as a powerful connection to a larger network of smaller agencies and people working to help others.

Also, take care of your circle of influence – that is family and friends. Make sure older family members are safe and staying put if at possible. Encourage them to not take unnecessary risks. And if a phone call to them would be reassuring, make that call.

The big picture is Hurricane Harvey could be that one day you always talk about – the time you stepped up to lend a hand or help someone else during a time of need. Make that one day be this day.

When the rains pass, here is to hoping the legacy of Hurricane Harvey is it brought out the best in people during a difficult time.

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Reach out:

The United Way of Galveston: 409.762.4357

United Way Galveston County Mainland: 409.948.4211

The Salvation Army of Galveston County: 409.763.1691

 

Hate Not To Be Taken Lightly

Charlottesville reminds me of what a powerful word hate can play in our lives.

As a child, I hated beans. White beans, navy beans, any beans my mother would serve. And I would use the word protesting them on my plate.

But one day my mother had a talk with me about hate. She was calm and quiet. Hate, she told me, was a word we should carefully reserve for only the most evil of things in life. She also told me, the emotion of hate was to give someone or something else power over me. Considering I had not yet reached double-digits candles on my birthday cake, this might have been a bit difficult to comprehend. But somehow, her words stuck. To this day I sparingly use the word.

Don’t take my mother as a Pollyanna or simpleton to the world around her. At the same kitchen table, she also shared her memories of the Nazi’s destroying her childhood in Europe, and the taking the lives of her neighbors by reducing their homes to rubble as bombs and rockets fell from the nighttime skies. Her stories shook me to my moral compass – some I refuse to ever write or tell others.

But she never outwardly hated anyonep. Sure, she would get upset or angry with others, but to put them in a bucket labeled hate, was something reserved for only the strongest of convictions and moral principles.

This week I am hearing and seeing this word, hate, spewing across everything from apps on my cell phone to newspaper reports. And this is troubling.

The terrible events that unfolded in Charlottesville are horrific. People and lives are forever changed. But will hate go mainstream in America? I pray to God this does not happen.

Hate is a learned behavior. We see it in third-world nations where generations of people hate others without ever looking them in the eyes. ISIS is building an entire generation of fighters against the West with this primitive formula: embed and incite hate against another.

Hate is evil. In the truest sense of the word, hate is a sledgehammer preventing two people from ever being able to trust or respect one other. And once that bridge is destroyed, rarely does one come back.

What I fear is that people will too easily surrender to hate, turning on one another, forever destroying a chance for us to be one people working towards one goal in this nation.

You are not born hating another. Rather, you either learn it through experiences or being taught to hate. But rational people don’t cross the line without first understanding what awaits on the other side: anger, pain, and a smaller world.

I hurt for Charlottesville. I also hurt for families explaining these tragic events to their children. This is one of the most important responsibilities of parenting. I pray – and trust – they will make the right decisions and not plant the seeds of hate. Our nation may depend on it.

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Every Day Is A New Day

A friend was telling me about how in when in high school he missed an important test. He had gone out of town on a Thursday night with a friend to a concert and on the way back their car broke down. Unable the get home, they stayed the night with a friend’s family member, eventually making their way home the next day.

He missed an important test on the Friday morning. Being the honest person, he told the school about the car breaking down on the way home – keeping him from taking the test. The school, however promptly issued an unexcused absence, preventing him from taking the test.

My friend was crushed. Not only was the test important, but also he was being shown his honesty was costing him the opportunity to take the test at all. Asking his parents to fib an excuse for his being sick, would have allowed him an excused absence – therefore be able to test with the other students.

“But you know what?” he said. “As big of a deal it was then, it’s not like it kept me from seeing the world.”
My friend is not kidding. He’s lived and seen the world – and he’s not done. But the lesson he took from his experience was no matter what, you alone chart your own course in life. Each and everyday you accept the world around you, try to understand the circumstances, and make decisions to move you forward. Every day is an opportunity to live your life as you dream.

Perspective is an important element over the course of life. My friend and I are now in the second half working towards living a century. He even refers to this stage as mid-life. I remind him of the math – how we’d have to exceed 100 by nearly a decade.

But both us understand, from this vantage point in life, very little that seems a big deal at the moment is a truly a big deal in life. Life moves at its own pace and, if you will make the effort, it will let you chart your own course over time.

Life is a bit like sailing a boat. Waters can become difficult and unpredictable. And winds can be in your face or at your back. But the one thing for sure is your direction rest solely in your actions, your mindset, and your hands.

I wish I’d known when I lost a parent. I wish I’d known that when I found myself on the outside looking in after a particularly difficult semester in college. I wish I’d known that when I found myself in what I thought was a dead end job.

In the end, the outcomes all rested with me. There were moments that changed my life, but like a winds, I was able to use each as a catalyst to redirect my attention, my efforts, and where I ultimately wanted to sail.

The difference is I know now I can sail anywhere.

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Being Grounded Key to True Happiness

A friend was recently telling me about he deeply admires his father-in-law.

“He is so content, wants for nothing, and almost kind to a fault with others,” he said.

My breathing paused as his love for his father-in-law pieced my heart. I thought about his words and how any of us would be honored for someone to one day say the same of us. If only we could all one day measure up to such a humble and honorable standard.

Going through life is not easy. While the earth is home to 7.4 billion people, we tend live within tiny fraction of people – listening, watching, and interacting with them. And no matter how many or few, we must always protect against allowing the outside world to overly shape our personal self-worth or self-importance. To do so is to let go of the anchor of reality and set sail in across a sea without a rudder – a dangerous journey.

I’ve been there. And I also believe to a certain extent, most of us have been there at one time or another. The road through life is filled with material attractions and ego-stroking words. Like the Sirens in Greek mythology, they work to pull us away from the anchor of reality. And most times, that center of reality is your family and those who genuinely love you.

In today’s world, the Siren’s words can be interpreted as the need to accumulate large and glamorous amounts of material objects, accepting hollow praise as genuine, and losing your perspective that you are simply another rider on this big blue planet. Our journey and time is temporary – and to a great extent, so is our influence on the world around us.

Which brings me back to my friend’s father-in-law. Many times, the most successful people in the world are playing a different game – one scored by being humble, helpful, and honest. They understand the value of not what the world around them thinks, but what those who love them feel. And they know the collection of material objects beyond what they need falls into a larger bucket labeled wants. And finally, they know their word is this bond, their actions the signature on which truly defines them to those who they love.

Recently my brother-in-law passed. To say he would give you the shirt off his back would be a literal example of his generosity. He lived a humble life with a few good friends and surrounded by a family’s deep love. And like my friend’s father-in-law, he was content, wanted for nothing, and kind to a fault with others.

The world needs more people like my friend’s father-in-law and my wife’s brother who recently passed. They are the symbols of who and what we should all strive to achieve in life – a place where we are comfortable with ourselves, focused on the needs of others, and know the real riches in life are measured by the love surrounding us and not in our bank account.

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Small investment pays off big

The most thoughtful gesture I witnessed in the past week involved a small bar of soap and a travel size tube of toothpaste.

Driving to the airport tends to bring a familiar landscape – brake lights ahead of me, billboards to the side, and someone who needs help standing on a street corner. Last week what happened to the last one changed my perception of how to help others.

As the light off the highway exit turned red, I slowed to a stop. From a half-dozen spots from the front I noticed a woman with a handwritten cardboard sign walking up to cars. Some windows opened and an arm extended with a paper dollar or two. But from the third car came something unusual – a clear zip lock bag filled with toiletries. The woman grasped the bag closely to her chest and leaned towards the car offering heartfelt thanks.

The light ahead changed – but so did my understanding of how to help others. As I entered the intersection I discovered myself telling myself to remember sometimes a few dollar bills can be less meaningful than a bag of travel-sized thoughtfully packed for someone in need.

We are all human – and we all have our pride. For some though, a detour can take them to place where they not only recognize their surroundings, but the face in the mirror.

There is a dynamic local church that tries to remember this as well. Every few months they gather up hair stylists who volunteer their time to cut the hair of those in need. The result is remarkable – transforming or returning many to the person they know they are inside.

And for someone living beneath a concrete underpass, a bar of soap or toothpaste can do the same.

A friend of mine invited me to join him and he and friends took socks to those living outside. A staple most of us take for granted is actually one of the more valuable items to those living without a roof over their heads. And as anyone knows, wet or cold feet are difficult to ignore.

Which brings me back to the incredibly thoughtful person in car number three from the light. Somewhere along the line they learned there was something they could do beyond pulling out a few paper dollars from their billfold. Could be their paths once crossed with someone who tipped them off. Or it could be they read an insightful article. Or it could be they were once on the other side of the widow.

From my vantage point in car number six I will never know. But what I do know is the powerful emotional response the plastic bag filled with toiletries brought from the woman in need.

Next time I find myself standing in front of the travel-size toiletries at the store, I think I will double up. After all, if doing so can so easily help someone recapture the person hidden in plain view, it could be the best investment I ever make.

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Fireworks Reflect American Dream

When we closed down my childhood home I was ready to let everything go into the back of a large white Salvation Army Truck. My hope was there was something left behind from my childhood could help someone else’s life going forward. Could be the pair of green high back chairs or set of mismatched dishes. But the small cloth American stick flag my mother kept on her dresser went home with me.

I am afirst-generation American because my mother believed in the American Dream. Growing up in Scotland – a small child during the Second World War – she wanted to leave the wars, the limited economic opportunities, and everyone and everything she knew behind for America. Her children, she promised herself, would be Americans. She was 21-years of age when she sold everything she owned for a one-way ticket on a New York bound liner across the Atlantic.

American was not easy. She worked as a waitress or low-wage jobs while working her way forward. But beyond the paycheck, there was one item she wanted more than anything else – citizenship of the United States. In sorting through a box of jewelry and letters I ran across a brown newspaper clipping. The list was recently naturalized citizens. My mother’s name printed alongside others who were collectively on the same journey. I kept that as well.

But her work was far from done. Shortly afterwards she married and settled down to raise a family in the Heartland – almost as geographically centered as if she’d sat down with a slide rule and calculated the center of America. But her American Dream did not start and end with her – she wanted to deeply embed the essence of the American Dream in her children.

I learned more about life sitting at the kitchen table than I ever did in a classroom. In my mind I can see her sitting down across from my younger brother and me telling stories of how America was special and unique from the world she had left behind. The opportunities, the wonder, the endless ability to reinvent one’s self.

No matter how much time passed, the fire of the American Dream burned brightly inside of her.

She loved America like no one I’ve ever known – right down to her final heartbeat in 1978.

Rarely a day passes that I do not recognize this ember of optimism glowing inside of me – ready at a moment’s notice to jump in and help change the world around me. I will help a stranger, I will take a risk on someone down on their luck, and I will forever believe whatever comes can be overcome. America works that way, so mother planted inside of me. Whatever comes your way can be overcome if you work hard enough and dream big enough.

I hold the Fourth of July dearly. In the fireworks I see my mother’s face – each burst representing the sparkle in her eyes and the land she loved with all of her heart.

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Indian Culture Cut Deep Into Rocks

“When I was a kid we would run all around here, climbing the ladders, jumping off the rocks.”

Simon is guiding me through a Pueblo settlement north of Santa Fe more than 800 years in the making.

“Yes, this was our home.”

His voice is strong but wrestles at times in finding the right word to communicate what he is trying to tell us. His long black hair is woven into a braided tail and hangs from beneath a mesh baseball cap. He is genuine, he is proud.

Our walk is unstructured as if he is doing this for the first time – but he is not. His words, rather, are genuine and unscripted. A life of living and absorbing history cuts you free from talking points.

As we walk across the mesa he recounts of how hundreds of people lived in the communal area, building two-story adobe structures accessible to the upper floors by ladders.

“This was for whenever danger came you would pull up you ladders,” he said.

The ground is a barren and dry. An open area surrounded by stones that once housed fresh water is now barren and overgrown. His ancestors dug the retention area out of the surface of the rock allowing for the water to remain clear and drinkable.

We climb down a wooden ladder into a small hole dug out from the surface of the rock. The floor rests ten feet below the surface, the air noticeably cooler.

Back up on the mesa we look out across the valley. Trees, rocks, and brush populate the grounds.

“There is the volcano the created this land,” he said, his arm pointing to tall conical structure miles off into the distance. The image ominously looks over the valley.

“We farmed below and lived up here. This was our home.”

Simon lead us down the face of the cliff to the homes cut from the face of rock where his ancestors spent their winters. Following his footsteps, we work our way down a hand carved aquifer that also served as stairs as his ancestors moved back and forth.

Pointing up he shows us pictographs etched into the walls. Animals, men, and nature are celebrated. The carvings date back hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. Simon’s ancestors did not need to be discovered.

The caves, created by stone on stone, are small, but spacious. The ceilings darkened from the soot of fire inside during the winter months.

“The rock walls retained the heat from the sun helping make the rooms warmer,” he said. “In the summer months they would return to the cooler mesa village.”

We continue to climb down the cliff – something I never would have imagined doing earlier that day. But somehow I never felt in danger. There was something there, something bigger than me watching over us.

Standing at the bottom and looking up I understand the world is not always what we are told. And for Simon, his is one of great depth and honor.

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