Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An Attitude of Gratitude

Thanksgiving has never been a favorite holiday of mine. For one thing, I don't like turkey. And for another thing, when I was growing up, holidays meant spending time with assorted relatives; and let's be honest-- not all of us like or get along with our relatives. I was no exception to that rule.

But this year, while I still don't like turkey and while I don't have any social obligations (no relatives to see, no parties to attend... just a nice, quiet day at home with my husband), I do have a different attitude about Thanksgiving.

As many of you know, the day after Thanksgiving last year, I received the phone call nobody wants to get-- the one where the doctor told me my tests had come back and yes, I did have cancer.  Truth be told, I wasn't entirely surprised:  as I've mentioned before, nearly every female relative on my mother's side of the family contracted and later died from cancer.  But knowing you might get it one day versus being told for sure that you have it are two entirely different things.  And suddenly, there I was, getting the diagnosis I had long expected and sometimes dreaded.

The good news was that I had one of the most treatable kinds of cancer.  The better news was my doctors believed they caught it early.  And the best news was that I live near several internationally known hospitals that specialize in the treatment of various kinds of cancer.  In mid-December of last year, I had surgery.  I am told it went well-- the tumor was removed, and my oncologist didn't even leave a scar.  (And once again showing how things have changed since when I was growing up, the oncologist, as well as nearly everyone else on the team that provided my care that day, was female.)

After a course of radiation that lasted over several weeks, I went right back to work.  Although I didn't entirely have my energy back (I was told the recovery process would be gradual, and it could take months), working kept my mind occupied. In fact, all my life, whenever I've been worried about something, or whenever I just didn't feel healthy, I've always preferred to keep busy.  So, I taught my classes, wrote a number of essays, went to a conference and gave a talk, and generally tried to carry on with my life as though nothing had changed.

But in reality, a lot had changed.  I am now about to complete a year as a cancer survivor.  And although I put on a brave front about it all, sometimes I'm still afraid:  What if it comes back?  I know that the doctors believe they found it in time, but it's still very disconcerting to know that cancer is now a part of my story.  I understand that there are no guarantees in life: we live as long as we live, and not one minute longer.  But as I said, there's a big difference between knowing that something might happen, and knowing it did happen.

So, on this Thanksgiving, I guess you can say I have a different way of looking at the holiday:  this year, I am profoundly grateful to be alive.  I especially want to thank those who were so supportive during this time last year.  My husband went above and beyond in so many ways, as did several of my friends; but a special hat tip also goes out to the many Rush fans who reached out to me, proving once again that Rush fans are the best.

Above all, I am all too aware that this story could have turned out very differently-- my grandmother died at age 44, of the same kind of cancer that I just had. Her prognosis was so bad because of the times she lived in; mine is far more positive because of advances in modern medicine.  And so, even though at times I'm still in pain and at times I'm still worried about the future, most of the time I am just grateful.  I have a lot to be thankful for. And I know that. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Keeping the Immigrants Out

Like all people of good will, world-wide, I was outraged by the brutal attacks on Paris this past Friday night.  The terrorists who committed these murders claim to have acted the name of Islam, but I do not know any Muslims (including the Muslim students who have been in my classes over the years, the Muslims who were my neighbors, the Muslim professors and journalists to whom I speak online, or the imam who led the mosque in my hometown, and with whom I served on an interfaith committee) who subscribe to the version of Islam practiced by these extremists.  Unlike all the Muslims I know, these proponents of the so-called Islamic State are totally without ethics:  in Iraq and Syria, they believe it is okay to torture and rape women and enslave children; in other countries, like France and Belgium, they believe it is okay to murder civilians.  Some sources report that Le Bataclan was intentionally chosen by the terrorists because the owners were Jewish and had held pro-Israel events there in the past. Whether or not that is true (other sources say the owners had long since sold the concert hall), innocent people enjoying a night of dancing and rock music were killed, as were people having dinner at a restaurant.  Online news reports say supporters of the so-called Islamic State rejoiced, and called the attackers heroic. The rest of us see things quite differently:  these are the lowest kind of human beings, and if there is a hell, I hope they spend eternity there.   

But since it's election season, the political rhetoric has been all too predictable.  This is especially true for certain Republican presidential candidates, who are taking the opportunity to blame President Obama, while calling for war, and demanding that thousands of American troops be sent to Syria and Iraq.  And of course, some of these candidates are insisting yet again that immigrants are the problem (yes, one Syrian passport was found among the Paris attackers, but police have said they believe it was a fake; the terrorists themselves were all from France and Belgium, and by most accounts, they were not immigrants at all).  But using the theory that immigrants are causing chaos wherever they go, these politicians are insisting that no refugees from Syria be allowed to enter the United States.  In fact, 26 American governors (25 of whom are Republican, and 1 of whom is a Democrat running for re-election in a purple state) immediately asserted that no Syrian refugees are welcome in their states.

While we can have honest disagreements about whether President Obama has or hasn't done a good job with foreign policy, and while we can debate whether there should be Americans fighting and dying in Iraq and Syria, I am totally puzzled by the assertion that NO Syrian refugees should be allowed to enter the US.  Contrary to Donald Trump's claim that many thousands of Syrian refugees have been given permission to come to America, the real number is far smaller: in the past year, only 1,869 have settled here.  And contrary to myths that these immigrants (like all immigrants) are potentially dangerous, there is little credible evidence that immigrants commit more crimes than non-immigrants; in fact, there is evidence that immigrants commit far fewer over all, since they are generally happy to be living in their new country and don't want to cause trouble.  (Lest you think I'm showing my "liberal bias," one of my sources is research from a conservative scholar, published in the Wall Street Journal, which is certainly not a liberal newspaper. You can read that article here, and there are many others like it.

It's also worth noting that it's not easy to get permission to settle in America.  The majority of immigrants, including those from Iraq and Syria, are subjected to several years (!) of vetting, and there is a rigorously process before the US government decides to grant permission.  So, I was especially saddened several days ago to read about the Syrian family who had finally, after three years of waiting, gotten permission to move to the US; they were scheduled to be relocated to Indianapolis, IN, and all the arrangements had been made.  But just before they were supposed to arrive, the mother and father and their four year old child were told that Governor Mike Pence no longer wanted them there; he was refusing to allow them to settle in his state after all.  Fortunately for the family, the state of Connecticut has agreed to take them in, and they will begin their new life in the city of New Haven. But the entire episode seemed wrong to me.  It may have played well for Governor Pence and his constituents, but to suddenly roll up the welcome mat and close the door for no apparent reason other than politics is troubling.

Unfortunately, it's nothing new.  Back in the late 1800s, America refused to allow Chinese people to emigrate; in the 1920s, there were stringent quotas to restrict immigrants from such places as Japan and eastern Europe; in the 1930s and early 1940s, America restricted Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis.  And with each new generation, there have been quotas on other immigrant populations too.  The groups being restricted may have changed, but the reasoning remains the same:  fear that these immigrants are potential criminals, or that there will be too many of them and we won't be able to handle the flood of desperate refugees, or these days, that they will turn out to be terrorists.  And although there's no evidence the family Governor Pence suddenly decided he didn't want was dangerous, refusing to admit Syrian refugees (or others from Muslim-majority countries) gets loud applause when Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or other candidates say it.

I understand that America cannot open its doors to everyone, and that there have to be some common-sense rules. But supposedly, we pride ourselves on being a nation of immigrants, a land of opportunity, a beacon of hope for those who are fleeing persecution.  Political rhetoric aside, most people who want to come here are not evil and they do not have evil intentions.  Yet according to the current political rhetoric (which sounds suspiciously like the political rhetoric from past generations), we should turn away as many immigrants as possible.  In the past, it was the Chinese, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews we didn't want... today it's Hispanics and people from Muslim countries.  But instead of the same old slogans about "securing our borders" or "keeping out the terrorists," I keep hoping that members of congress will stop posturing and sloganeering and develop a sensible plan, something that makes it possible for new immigrants to come here and feel welcome, while preventing the few "bad apples" from spoiling things for everyone else.  I realize that during election season, the chances of congress actually working on an immigration plan are unlikely.  After all, partisanship and polarization are worse than ever, and even the few moderates who have expressed ideas about immigration policy don't seem able to get any agreement.  And yet, despite the challenges, I wish they'd keep trying:  given how much we are paying our senators and representatives, wouldn't it be nice if they surprised us and came up with something useful?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"True Believers" and the Rest of Us

Several days ago, the Boston Globe published an editorial praising the Catholic Church for something it did fifty years ago-- the actions of the Second Vatican Council in officially rejecting centuries of anti-Semitism.  Led by the late, great Pope John 23rd, and the equally commendable Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, the church moved away from teaching that the Jews were to be hated and persecuted for their alleged central role in the killing of Jesus (a role that modern historians of all religions have called into question); in addition, Catholic educators no longer had to teach that the "faithless Jews" practiced a false religion and thus needed to be converted to the true faith of Catholicism.  This ushered in an era of interfaith cooperation between Catholics and Jews, one that many people (myself among them) have benefited from. 

But not every denomination of Christianity agrees.  There are still some evangelical denominations who, while not necessarily calling for Jews to be persecuted, still believe we are in the wrong religion and must be "shown the truth."  A good example of this attitude is former congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who recently asserted on a Christian radio program that it is imperative for the Jews to be converted, since Jesus is returning soon.  (I must admit this line of reasoning has never made sense to me:  given that Jesus was Jewish, if anyone is supposed to be converted, shouldn't they all become Jewish like him?)  But all joking aside, I do understand that to some of my Christian friends, Judaism was replaced by Christianity and only those who believe in Jesus can be "saved."  Still, while I have my differences with those who believe they must come to my door and try to witness to me, I respect their views.  Most of the missionaries I know are courteous (although somewhat intense), and they sincerely believe they are doing me a favor by telling me that I'm in the wrong religion and need to "get right with the Lord."

We seem to be living in a time when "true believers" are everywhere.  Some are peaceful, using their powers of persuasion, and their interpretation of scripture, to show that only they know what God wants. But sadly, in some parts of the world, the true believers don't rely on words-- they resort to violence, in order to impose their faith on others.  We especially see this in certain Muslim countries, where extremists have hijacked Islam and now seek to return it to a medieval worldview, rejecting interfaith tolerance in favor of a rigid and harsh orthodoxy that forbids dissent of any kind.  The rise of  extremist Muslim groups like al-Qaeda, the so-called "Islamic State," the Taliban, and Boko Haram thus poses a grave danger to Islam: if violent extremists become the face of a religion, there can be no room for modernity-- no education (several of these extremist groups have forbidden the study of history or science, and they refuse to let women study at all), no ethics, no respect for "the other."   Meanwhile, moderates and dissenters in countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan or Syria or Iraq are being silenced or killed.  It remains to be seen whether those Muslims who disagree with extremist interpretations can take Islam back.

There was a time when Christianity too promoted this kind of rigidity, punishing anyone who disagreed.  Dissenters were shunned, excommunicated, exiled, even killed.  If you have studied American history, you know that some groups who came here for religious freedom thought it was okay to deny it to others.  And in some groups, they even turned on their own members, who were not considered sufficiently religious-- the Puritans, for example, drove Roger Williams out of Massachusetts; he ultimately founded what came to be known as Rhode Island.  That state became a haven for those of divergent views: the oldest surviving synagogue in America, the Touro Synagogue, still stands there, and in an amazing show of religious tolerance, it was visited by President George Washington, who asserted in 1790 that America would not accept bigotry, even against its smallest minority.

Some Americans seem to forget that today.  These days, it's not the Jews who are the most common victims of religious bigotry-- it's American Muslims, who are seeing their mosques vandalized or being told they are unwelcome in certain communities. As someone who remembers all too well when anti-Jewish attitudes were both common and acceptable in the culture, I cringe when I hear some of the screeds by anti-Muslim bigots. I may not agree with my Muslim friends and colleagues on religion (or on the Middle East), but they have as much right to live here as I do. What worries me more than the presence of Muslims in my neighborhood (where they've lived peacefully since about 1910) is the presence of people of any faith who believe theirs is the only way, and everyone else is going to hell.  No religion seems to be immune from this:  it is worth noting that in Burma-- also called Myanmar-- it is Buddhists, members of a religion not generally associated with extremism, who are expressing some of the most extremist views, denying the Muslim-minority Rohingya the right to be citizens, and subjecting them to constant persecution.  One wonders what the Buddha would say about that. Somehow, I doubt he would be amused.

Periodically, I read comments by atheists who say this just proves religion is the cause of all the world's problems.  That's a facile explanation, although I would agree that extremist interpretations certainly contribute to a climate of hatred and bigotry.  But religion in and of itself is not to blame: it depends on what you do with it.  For those who have a religion, it can be a comfort in times of trouble, and it can provide an ethical guide for living one's life.  And yes, for some people, it can promote feelings of smug superiority ("I'm saved, and you're not") or it can be used as a cudgel to beat up the infidel.  It seems to me that organized religion is at something of a crossroads:  will the extremists, the ones who believe only their way is the right way, be the ultimate winners?  Right now, they seem to be speaking the loudest.  I can only hope the rest of us, those who believe "the other" isn't synonymous with "the enemy," will raise our voices too.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

What I Learned from my Mentor

Many people who have met me assume I have a lot of confidence.  After all, I've spent many years working in broadcasting; I've interviewed a number of celebrities; I've been quoted by newspapers and magazines; and I've given talks in front of audiences of all sizes.

But the truth is I'm only confident in a professional context.  Giving a presentation in front of hundreds of people rarely worries me; being a guest on a radio show doesn't make me nervous at all.  But invite me to a party, or ask me to socialize with even a small group of people and I'm completely at a loss.  It's always struck me as bizarre that I can MC a rock concert and feel completely comfortable, but sitting in a room where a few people are chatting makes me feel totally awkward and out of place.

There was a time when I wasn't confident professionally either.  How I acquired that skill is a long story, better told some other time; but suffice it to say one major factor was having someone in my life who encouraged me.  It was a professor of mine (his name was Bob), and he believed in me when no-one else did.  It's funny what having a mentor can do.  I had never had one before-- I grew up in an era when girls were not expected to have careers, or if they did have one, it was only until they got married.  When I told people I wanted to be a disc jockey, few of them took me seriously; disc jockeys were men with deep voices, and if there were girls on the air at all, they were giving fashion tips or talking about recipes. The fact that I wanted to play the hits seemed strange to most people, but for some reason, Bob understood, and he even told me he thought I'd sound great on the air.  

Many times, when I was frustrated because no-one (not even the folks at my college radio station) would give me a chance, and when it seemed my dream might never come true, Bob remained certain that one day, I would get that opportunity and I would have the career in broadcasting that I wanted.  He was right: in October of 1968, I finally was allowed to be on the air, the first female d.j. in the history of Northeastern University.  He was proud of me, but he wasn't surprised.  He has always known. He also knew I'd be successful:  he helped me to develop coping strategies when things seemed bleak, and he helped me to overcome my own self-doubt.

I'd like to tell you that he continued to cheer me on, but unfortunately, he couldn't.  Although he was an amazing professor, who was very popular with his students, he was also an alcoholic, and in the end, that is what cost him his job. It also contributed to his death a year later, at the young age of 43.  I admit that at the time, I knew very little about the disease of alcoholism:  I don't drink at all, and my parents rarely did. I had heard all the stereotypes about alcoholics being lower-class or skid-row bums, but Bob was an educated man with a good heart and a PhD.  As I later learned, this disease can affect people of all ages, races, and social classes.  But at the time, all I knew was I had lost the one person who had faith in me.  And all I could do at that point was learn to have faith in myself.

To honor him, I got a Master's Degree in Counseling, with training in working with people who have been affected by drug or alcohol problems.  And to this day, I try to be a mentor whenever I can, especially when I encounter students with alcoholism in their family.  I teach them about the Three C's-- a valuable lesson I learned when I went to Al-Anon meetings:  you didn't cause his (or her) disease, you can't cure their disease, you can't control their disease.  In other words, it's not your fault that the alcoholic drinks; you can't make them quit if they are not ready; and while you love or sympathize with the alcoholic, the best thing you can do is focus on your own emotional and physical health.

 Next month, it will be the 46th anniversary of his passing, yet every now and then, I find myself thinking about him; I am still saddened by his death, but I remain grateful that I knew him.  A part of me still wishes I had more knowledge about alcoholism back then-- perhaps I could have given him the kind of encouragement that he gave me.  On the other hand, I came to understand that he wasn't ready (or able) to quit drinking; and although that fact was difficult to accept, I also realized it was time for me to get on with my life. And while my broadcasting career, and years later, getting my PhD, resulted mainly from my own hard work and determination, I sincerely believe that none of it would have happened if a certain professor had not seen my potential and decided I needed a mentor (and a friend).