Overcoming Fear and Excuses in a Pandemic: The Note I Should Have Written Years Ago

Overcoming Fear and Excuses in a Pandemic: The Note I Should Have Written Years Ago
Photo by Liubov Ilchuk on Unsplash

On March 20th, after just one week home because of the coronavirus, I saw this question on Reddit: “What has the pandemic ruined for you?”

‘Gosh,’ I thought. ‘What a terrible way to look at it. What about the bright side?’

Two weeks later, I understand this person’s mindset somewhat better.

Though most of us are not physically ill, there is tremendous suffering. Fear, anxiety, grief, loneliness, educational concerns, and serious financial distress. For every person who is trying to embrace the benefits of wide avenues of time, there is another who can only think that this time is coming at great cost.

There are blessings, silver linings for sure, but telling anyone, “You should be grateful,” is callous and unfeeling when they are suffering.

That’s what I was thinking as I stared out the window on a gloomy Saturday afternoon. The rain had stopped for a bit and between drops still falling from the roof, I saw my gray-haired neighbor Ed* come out of his house in his sweatpants and slippers and collect his mail. He stood still for a second or two, rifling through the stack, then turned away from his home. My curiosity piqued, I watched him amble across the street and up onto the porch of Walter’s house, where he put some misdelivered letters and catalogs into the red square mailbox under the awning.

‘That’s neighborly.’ I thought, and then warmth filled my heart as I remembered…

This is the same man who’s helped me countless times to track down our belligerent Beagle Luna after she’s jumped our fence and followed her nose into the woods behind his home. A man who, with his wife Carol, has always bought Boy Scout popcorn from our oldest son, is generous at Halloween, and has offered to help my husband with troublesome trees that cascade over our yard.

‘But,’ I considered, as I watched him slowly retrace his steps and open his own front door, ‘I appreciate him most for that tree.’

It’s a 20-foot pine in his front yard that he’s decorated with colored lights all 18 Christmases I’ve lived in this neighborhood, a sight that blesses my entire season every single year. I can see it from my bedroom, so every December night before I close the drapes and put on my pajamas, I stop to look at it – red, blue, green, and gold twinkles in the inky darkness.

I never told Ed and Carol that I appreciated the effort it takes to trim this tree each year, that I have always felt outdoor decorations were somehow meant for the entire community, and that I have accepted this tree as something of a personal gift from them and am immensely grateful for it.

But – I had long felt that I should.

One of my favorite truisms is, “Never ignore a generous impulse,” and yet this was a strong inner nudge I had ignored for far too long. For years in fact, I’d rationalized it away.

‘A note thanking them for their Christmas tree would be just too weird,’ I’d thought. ‘You don’t know them well. You’re so sentimental, Gretchen. It’s too much and it would make them uncomfortable.’

But the nudge never let up, so I finally settled on this excuse: unusual times call for unusual measures.

Three weeks into the pandemic I wrote the note and taped it to their front door. Thanked them for all the things….especially the Christmas tree. Figured they wouldn’t be afraid to read it because Ed carried mail barehanded over to Walter’s.

Within two hours they called. Ed said Carol could hardly stop crying from the shock of it – that the note made them both feel so good, it meant so much to them. After several minutes, Carol got on the line and told me, “I didn’t know people noticed.”

She didn’t know people noticed…the kindness, the consideration, the attempts to be neighborly.

Do you see this around you, too? Is there anyone you have felt nudged to thank?

In a time when gratitude can be hard to muster, it’s helping me to keep my eyes and memory open to see what’s been there all along – loving, good-hearted people, living just a couple houses away.

With an abundance of love and a little precaution, our shared hope is that the pandemic won’t ruin that for any of us.

No one should seek his own advantage, but that of his neighbor.
1 Corinthians 10:24 (NAB)

*Names have been changed

The Great Scoutmaster’s Promise

The Great Scoutmaster’s Promise
Candles at my son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor signifying the Scout Oath and the 12 points of the Scout Law.

I was having a hard time finding words.

My son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor had been Saturday night, and I was sending an email to the entire Troop – Scouts, leaders, parents, etc. – to thank them.

To thank them for helping our family prepare for this great celebration. For attending it in such force. And then for disassembling every piece of it and putting items away into cartons, closets, and cars with orderly and cheerful precision – without bending cherished photographs or neglecting to sweep up the last crumbs of crushed Doritos on the carpeted floor.

The event was so much more than the sum of its material parts, of course. But I was unable to say precisely why.

Just hours before, I had let the ceremony’s prayers roll over me….

God, we thank you for the opportunity to come together ….  Today is a celebration of a journey…full of challenges, friendship, struggles…. Little by little, month by month, and year by year, he was faithful and we celebrate his faith, commitment, and hard work.

With everyone in attendance, my husband and I recognized our son’s perseverance and efforts, the many merit badges he earned, his final large-scale community service project, and especially the character traits and leadership skills he’d developed along the way.

For more than 100 years, the Boy Scouts of America has been molding boys into young men, and our son is no exception. We are in awe of what he’s accomplished by the tender age of 16.

But my pride wasn’t the point, either.

What was bursting at my seams? Why had it been so difficult to keep conversations light and airy on Saturday night?

I wrote my email Monday morning, attaching some additional words of thanks from my son, my husband, and me that had appeared in the program that was handed out to guests.

From my son (in part):

…I am honored that you have elected to spend your time here at my Eagle Court of Honor. You have each influenced me for the better in one way or another, and for that I am forever grateful.

And from my husband and me, to the Troop leaders:

….The thousands of hours you volunteer for these kids can never be repaid, and we are so grateful for your devotion…

I hit ‘send’ and resumed my daily tasks.

Later, a dear friend and Troop chair wrote back to me:

“Through His people, He gives back to His extra special Matthews family!  We love you all so very much!”

I could barely see through my tears to respond.

I understood then – and not for the first time in my life – what had actually happened.

It was evidence of the timeless miracle of faith – that when we walk toward God believing in His goodness, the outpouring of His love will be more than our arms and hearts and minds can hold.

I live (and have for some time) in expectant hope that God’s promises to me, my children, and you are true now and forever. His love for us is perpetually strong and faithful (Psalm 117), even when we are unaware of His presence in our lives.

God’s grace was present throughout my son’s journey in Scouting. In every Board of Review, camping trip, merit badge assignment, Scoutmaster’s Minute wrap-up at the end of every Wednesday night meeting – God was there in all of it, working through His good people who day-by-day live out virtues that please His heart. Virtues including kindness, obedience, trustworthiness, helpfulness, thriftiness, and more.

When the Spirit of God is present and moving, there is indescribable joy.

The Boy Scouts welcome Scouts of many faiths. Scouts are encouraged to be reverent in their own faith tradition and to be respectful of the beliefs of others.

But the fact is – few organizations welcome the reverence of God at all anymore.

Few groups pray together.

Even fewer which shape the character of young people suggest that honoring God is important, much less provide regularly scheduled meeting time to do it.

Those that do are places of special strength and character.

And – I would submit – of peace. And love.

Praise the Lord, all you nations! Give glory, all you peoples!

The Lord’s love for us is strong; the Lord is faithful forever. Hallelujah! (Psalm 117)

Choosing the Significant Over the Short-Lived

Choosing the Significant Over the Short-Lived
Me and some of our “Founders.” Having a bit of fun in Des Moines, Iowa,
at the 74th Convention of the P.E.O. International Sisterhood, September 2019.

Are you choosing what’s significant over what’s short-lived?

Alright. It’s a loaded question. And I bet you’re caught for a second – not sure if you want to read on.

Hear me out.

I spent a good portion of the last week in Des Moines with 6,000 of my sisters from the P.E.O. International Sisterhood celebrating the 150th anniversary of our founding. We hail from across the U.S. and Canada and every year give out millions in grants, scholarships, and low-interest loans to women pursuing higher education. We also have our own college – Cottey College in Nevada, Missouri – which we’ve owned outright and supported since 1927. Formed in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in 1869 by seven bright young ladies at a time when women’s education was hardly a foregone conclusion, we have never forgotten to be grateful to God for opportunity. We are drawn together by the core values and virtues to which we adhere: faith, love, purity, justice and truth. Check us out at www.peointernational.org.

Officers are chosen from among our sisterhood of 258,000, and Friday evening, I was standing with one of Iowa’s past state presidents who had been charged with the enormous responsibility of bringing so many women together for 4 days of meetings and parties. Though she had done a brilliant, brilliant job – she was, of course, exhausted – and still considering all the ways that each day could have gone better.

No matter how much goes right (and there was an overwhelming preponderance of excellency here), you will always catch wind of every little thing that doesn’t.

So I encouraged her.

“Look around,” I said. “Just look at all these women enjoying one another and making meaningful connections. Real connections. That’s what matters. You did this. Well done.”

I wanted to elevate the reality of the situation for her, because too often we lose the significant as we chase the ephemeral.

If you are like me…

  • you’ve got a to-do list a mile long
  • you haven’t called your best friend this week
  • you haven’t connected with that new friend you promised you would
  • but your phone is almost never beyond arm’s reach
  • somehow, you have found time to look at Facebook or Instagram…and you think you know what’s going on in acquaintances’ lives….and that matters to you….

Consistently, we are choosing the short-lived over the significant.

Where are our priorities?

Four days of deep, eye-to-eye contact with women I love from all over the country – some I know very well, some I would give anything to know better – reminded me that THIS IS WHERE IT’S AT.

Working on a long-term vision together.

Revisiting our ideals.

Or just sharing the day-to-day aches and pains.

Breathing new life into one another.

A quick text or a “your kids are so cute” comment on social media is no substitute for longer, substantive, and yes – face-to-face conversations.

We do not intimately know one another until we sit in the same space, hear the tremor in one another’s voices, watch and clasp each other’s hands, and see the crinkles at the corners of our eyes as we speak – or don’t speak – of love, woe, and everything in between.

We use the excuse that we are busy and can’t “get it together.”

We wear it like a badge of honor.

But c’mon. We know better.

We know small efforts yield big results.

So let’s just start.

Let’s get together. For coffee. For conversation. For the sake of love. And life. Women’s education and a sisterhood that endures. The future of the planet. Some other lofty goal that God has put on your heart.

For all that we know is good.

Choosing the significant over the short-lived.

For real.

How’s Your New Year’s Activism Going?

How’s Your New Year’s Activism Going?
Witness by Ariel Burger and Night, by Burger’s teacher, Professor Elie Wiesel.

Are you an activist? Is activism something you do – or observe?

Last night I finished Night by Elie Wiesel. It’s a short book I meant to read for years, and I put it off out of selfish knowledge that its contents would rattle me. And they did, because every word is true. I felt physically ill. I don’t remember the last time I read something this painful, powerful, important, or necessary.

In the very unlikely case you’ve never heard of it – Night is a harrowing first-person account of survival in the Nazi death camps. Taken – along with his family and the entire Jewish community of Sighet, Transylvania – to Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel recounts with lucidity, humility, and eloquence the unforgettable anguish of passing through hell and leaving behind every person he had ever loved. Deeply observant, this Jewish teenager faced a prolonged dark night of the soul unimaginable to most. I defy anyone with a heart to read this book and remain unmoved.

You will read Night and feel bereft. But there is a mighty epilogue. Elie Wiesel was much more than a survivor. Before his passing in 2016, he wrote 40 books (both fiction and nonfiction), was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and most notably, in 1986, the Nobel Peace Prize. He taught Humanities at Boston University for nearly 40 years.

In conjunction with Night, I recently devoured a sort-of primer on moral education – Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger, who was a student of and later an assistant to, Elie Wiesel in Boston. It’s the next best thing to being in Professor Wiesel’s classes, pondering eternally significant questions such as, “How can we make the world a more compassionate place?”

Which brings me back to the whole point of this post – the steps we take after we are consumed with sadness and fury over the injustices in the world.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Professor Wiesel said he had faith. “Faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.” (emphasis mine)

To sit on our hands and do nothing when we are outraged is to fuel evil’s fire.

We may feel powerless, but we are not.

“Walt, a retired academic dean who [had] attended Wiesel’s classes for over a decade, [said], ‘My problem is, I do something small, write a check or something, and I feel better. I don’t want to feel better; I want to hold on to the outrage so I can do more. How do I do that?’

[Wiesel replied,] ‘The question is, how real are other people to you? Do you feel their suffering?…We can feel overwhelmed….And you can remain asleep to others’ pain. We need to find a balance between sleep and paralysis. Start with one person. A person is not an abstraction – we must be against abstraction. Six million pairs of shoes taken from children in the camps are a statistic; one is a tragedy.

But don’t just write a check; help them somehow with your own effort, your own energy. Buy them food and bring it to them. Help them find shelter. Speak to them, take the time to really speak and listen. Who will listen to them? We must be the ones who do. This means that your feelings of anxiety or calm, your presence or lack thereof for another person, your smile at a fellow human being or your turning away, your feeling overwhelmed and how you manage that – all of these little, internal things contribute somehow to the destiny of the world.’” (Witness, p. 176)

We cannot live lives of vicarious righteousness. We must step out and take action wherever we see a need. Big steps. Small steps. Forward steps.

So I ask you, and I ask myself, “How I am doing this new year, living an activist’s life? Am I obeying the daily, divine call to love?”

Am I feeding the hungry? Clothing the naked? Giving shelter? Speaking up – loudly – for the defenseless and oppressed?

Am I listening without judgment to the person who suffers from addiction? Am I offering compassion to the one who is sick, the one whose marriage is failing, the one whose child is estranged, and the one who has lost his job? Do I give rapt attention to the one who talks aimlessly because she’s been lonely for ages?

Who will welcome these battered hearts, if not me?

Am I asking God for help in discerning my next steps, and am I willing to accept that I am part of a greater whole, and that because God so loved the entire world, I must as well?

Or am I avoiding pain, because getting involved might cost me something?

These are questions for the would-be activist. Questions for you and me.

“We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them,” wrote Elie Wiesel.

So – how are we doing?

It’s World Kindness Day! How Are You Celebrating?

It’s World Kindness Day! How Are You Celebrating?

Today is World Kindness Day. I wrote another blog post about it yesterday, but the real question is this: How will we mark this day?

We all know from experience that…

A good seed planted in darkness can burst forth to produce a tree large enough to host entire communities in its colorful branches.

Things that start small can become big.

So what seeds of kindness will you plant today? Tomorrow? For the rest of this month? I want to know.

Are you making soup for a neighbor?

Giving more than usual to a charity of your choice? Which one? Why?

Mending a relationship because you know you’re not guaranteed tomorrow?

In November, we focus on gratitude. And gratitude is good. Very good.

But it isn’t enough to be thankful – to sit around enjoying the fullness, ruminating on all that’s pleasing or teaching us. We are called to share what we have and know.

If we have love – we share love.

If we have hope – we share hope.

If we have means – we share our treasure.

If we have time – we give hours or moments – with intentionality.

If we have hands, or feet, or ears, or eyes…..If we’re alive, friends! (so that’s all of us) we offer ourselves. Whole and present when nudged to do so.

When you hear the whisper in your heart….Help her. Go to him. Say this in peace….Do it. And make a mental note.

This is God’s work in the world.

And then, please share your stories with me. I’m saving them for an end-of-the-month blog post, where I’ll offer a few tips about the ways we’ve all found to share love throughout the Christmas season and beyond.

Your kind acts will inspire others. And wouldn’t more love and kindness be a nice gift for the world?

Tomorrow’s “World Day of…”

Tomorrow’s “World Day of…”

Photo by Dawn Lamper. creationswap.com

Do you know what tomorrow is? November 13?

It’s World Kindness Day.

Haven’t heard of it?

Neither had I.

Not until I saw it on a “Content Calendar” created by Amazon for bloggers and other creatives like me. But apparently it’s been around since 1997 and even has an official flower, the Cosmos bipinnatus. Pretty little thing.

(In other news, National Button Day is coming up on Friday, November 16. Don’t miss it.)

Humor aside, perhaps we really do need a day every year to reconsider the merits of kindness. Especially now.

For clarity’s sake, let’s review the word’s definition.

Kindness is the quality or state of being kind – and that is, having a sympathetic, helpful, forbearing, or gentle nature. (Combined definitions from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.)

We can all think of someone we know whom we consider to be kind. And a few whom we think are not.

We also know what it feels like to extend kindness, and to be on the receiving end of such a gift.

(A door held open, a garden bouquet, or some of Mom’s fresh cookies come to mind.)

And all too often, we write off certain people as “unkind.” The truth is, they probably do the same to us. We can all seem cold and unfeeling at times.

We know what kindness is and what it isn’t – and that we don’t see true kindness nearly enough.

In today’s world, strength and power are prized over self-sacrifice and humility – two components that are necessary to make an act kind.

Kindness goes farther than tolerance, which is also touted as a modern virtue. But tolerance of others – simply living side by side with them without doing them harm – does not require the deeper level of compassion that kindness brings to interactions.

Kindness creates connections; when it’s sustained over time, it builds bonds.

Kindness is about extending grace and love. It’s meaningful because it’s a movement of the heart.

The giver’s heart touches the heart of the receiver, and both feel the tug of something more.

A vastness…the Truth.

Our hearts are connected to our souls, friends, and our souls know what’s what….

That every person is to be valued beyond measure. Every person is imprinted with the eternal.

We are here to love and be loved. And acts of kindness remind us of that.

Few of us are actually cold as stone. Most of us beat with warmth at our core.

Imagine…. if we were really convening with our hearts, souls, and Maker before we set out each day….

If every decision was based on the principle that each person unequivocally mattered….

If we always took the time to look into one another’s eyes….

And listened for as long as necessary to find common ground until we could say in all sincerity, “I sympathize. I understand.”

That would be a kind world. We wouldn’t need World Kindness Day.

“They” – It’s a Bad Word: My Thoughts After the Shootings at Tree of Life Synagogue

“They” – It’s a Bad Word: My Thoughts After the Shootings at Tree of Life Synagogue

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

The tiniest phrase in a recent article about the latest massacre – the one at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh – infuriated me.

It said the shooter “raged against Jews.”

Who are these “Jews”?

I’ll tell you who “they” are. Over the course of my life, people – who happen to have Jewish heritage and espouse a time-treasured faith – have been to me one or more of the following: family members, neighbors, classmates, teachers, doctors….friends.

They are people I love, respect, and deeply admire – just as I would anyone of integrity and goodness who seeks to do unto others as he or she would do unto himself or herself.

And over this week, as I cried for the beautiful people who lost their lives while worshiping God, I considered the state of things…a nation where “raged against Jews” still seems an apt phrase.

Our world repeats many lies to its constantly thrumming drum, but the biggest one is this…

There is a “they” – separate from us – that we can treat as “other.”

The list of self-identifying groups and sub-groups is endless….Christian (i.e., Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical and hundreds of denominations in-between), Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic, Democrat, Republican, Men, Women, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Straight, LGBTQIA+, Graduate of Such-and-Such College, Having X Degree, No-Degree, Hard Worker, Slacker, Pro-this, Anti-that – you follow?

Add on your own tags – the ones you apply to yourself – as many as you can think of – and stand in your circle to see how many fellow humans are left there with you. One? Two? None?

When we push outward we discover we are all alone.

There is NO “they.”

They are us.

And we are them.

Mother Teresa said it best when she declared, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to one another.”

I don’t know much about the shooter at the Tree of Life Synagogue, but I do know this: his hatred was homegrown and it started as a seed in his heart.

The call to action for us as citizens of the world is to LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

There are no caveats in that.

No exclusions if we think the person has strange ideas, smells, does her hair in a funny way, or is infringing on our space.

And whether you happen to agree with me when I say that God created each person – and in His own image – formed to be imperishable for all eternity, unique and sacred as an individual – I would venture this…

Deep down you know that freedom from self-absorption and egotism – those inclinations that isolate us and proliferate fear by pushing others away – means reaching out and extending the thing we all want most. Love.

We all play a role in making this world the place we want it to be.

Call out the darkness and bring it to light.

The darkness within each of us is where the battle is waged.

There is no THEY.

There is only US.

And LOVE that surpasses us all.