War Is For Grownups

[Warning: fiction ahead] Pining for one big happy united world does not jive with the fact that we would not want to be in the same room with a hefty percentage of the seven billion people we share it with. Just step outside our little bubble and that’s clear. At best, you and I might feel at one with several million or so.Well if Earthlings cannot be one big happy seven-billion member family then much less can we become one big happy united Universe. You see there are whole worlds operating on premises more alienating than Earthlings who belong to the wrong political party.

It just so happens I stopped in one such goofy planet that made me curious in spite of myself. They have a way to keep war at a minimum, but by means most Earthlings would find unpalatable. Like many places on Earth, the inhabitants have a life-span of approximately seventy to ninety years. But no one may join the military until they are at least sixty years of age. I know this because my tour guide Buroh explained this to me when I remarked how peaceful their planet is. The creature said, “This policy has many benefits. Top on the list of course is that wars are infrequent and short. Old people don’t have much stamina for prolonged conflict, and with the perspective of their years, often keep a cool head to avoid wars in the first place. Another great thing is that by either training for war or in extreme cases going to fight, the ancients have something to do once they retire. And lastly, when our people are young and most fit, they apply all that energy to their occupations and family life instead of wasting it on wounding and killing. On Earth, you take such a foolish risk of wasting citizen resources when they are at their most valuable. That is so inefficient; it’s hard for me to relate to your species.  Doesn’t it make more sense to let the young live decades more whereas an old person has already given their best years and risks losing at most about ten years of life?”

No doubt their way of life has its charms, but I was too polite to say to my guide that rare is the Earthling who would countenance having the elderly endure the physical and mental strain of say, driving a tank over bumpy terrain. More fundamentally, we like to get bad things over with in our lives and look forward to taking it easy as we wrap things up.  A united Universe? What were we thinking?

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If you like this whimsical sort of satire blended with science fiction, then you might like my gentle sci-fi book, Curiosity Seekers, about an endearing old-fashioned couple in the future who sometimes has trouble feeling united with each other let alone with the larger society. See reviews and a free chapter on Amazon. It is available on Kindle and as a paperback and can be purchased wherever books are sold.

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The Words Of Our Mouths

The following guest post by Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff is about the trickiness of offering group interfaith prayer that includes all and offends none. He is a retired Navy chaplain and former Special Assistant for Values and Vision to the Secretary and Chief-of-Staff of the U.S. Air Force. Fittingly for this time of year he refers to the Constitution and to the Gettysburg Address:

“In a scene from TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, a surgeon tells family members he’s done all he can, and the rest is up to God. He invites them to pray together, but they say they’re not religious, and don’t believe in God.

All right, he says, perhaps we could take a moment to hope together instead. But what about organized public prayer: a leader’s call to prayer in a secular setting?

Such prayers follow a tradition dating back to the same Continental Congress that wrote about religious non-establishment, so the question of constitutionality is complex. But the separate question of sensitivity is more straight-forward: given today’s pluralistic society, how specific or “sectarian” can a public prayer be before it is simply inappropriate?

There is also a question of lost chances: when people feel excluded, they stop listening—and an opportunity is lost to hope together, reflecting on shared goals and common dreams.

Religions are not all alike, but neither are they completely different. The more we focus on visions of the end of days, the more we differ. The more we focus on getting through the end of today—and making this day better for the hungry, homeless, and hopeless among us—the more we find common ground, and a potential for shared prayer.

In the Capitol for a ceremony honoring Holocaust survivors and liberators, I prayed “if the time has not yet come when we can see the face of God in others, then let us see, at least, a face as human as our own.” My goal was to remember shared nightmares within a context of common dreams.

Some maintain that Christian references in prayer are always appropriate, because we’re a “Christian nation.” But even setting aside the Constitution’s non-establishment clause, as early as 1796 Congress unanimously ratified a treaty with the Islamic nation of Tripoli of Barbary that explicitly declares “the United States of America is not in any way founded on the Christian religion.”

We’re a unique civil society, not founded on any specific religion or faith, and public sensitivity to the beliefs and feelings of others is part of being…civil. It would be inexcusable for a rabbi to invite an interfaith group to pray for faith “despite the fact that the Messiah has not yet arrived.” In a public setting, it’s just as inappropriate—and uncaring—to offer prayers that assume he has.

There are challenges for all faiths regarding inclusive prayers, but there are precedents for such prayers from the Psalms to the Our Father, and theological solutions for every challenge. For example, since “God hears the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts,” prayers can begin with inclusive language and end with silent words grounded in the leader’s faith.

Non-religious military personnel with whom I’ve served—including many atheists who, despite the old saying, have spent more than their share of time in foxholes—prefer no mention of God, but still appreciate shared words of hope. (After all, “Humanist Chaplains” in foreign militaries participate in official ceremonies.)

Some friends who call themselves secular tell me they experience “degrees of discomfort,” and prefer “faith inclusive prayers” that use broad references to God rather than narrow images tied to specific religious beliefs. Legal discussions sometimes refer to this distinction as ceremonial deism. It’s a compromise between no religion and no-holds-barred religion — and a way to use the approach to religious language in the Declaration of Independence as a guide.

In some ways that Declaration is a prayer—as is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It’s not clear, based on reporter notes and early written versions, whether Lincoln explicitly referred to God at Gettysburg, although “under God” is included in some later written versions of his remarks. Either way, his words invoke God’s presence. I imagine many listeners joined together in prayer by saying amen. For all present that day—and for us today, as well—his words are a call for hope.

Not a bad model for public prayer.”

And If I may add, many of the points in Rabbi Resnicoff’s article are relevant to health care chaplains too. In my post, The Rosary and the Rabbi, I show how I struggled to strike a balance between serving a patient of a different religion and maintaining my own integrity: https://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2016/11/13/the-rosary-and-the-rabbi/

As a final note, of possible interest to my regular readers, my blog is now four years old. Thank you for your readership.

Reprinted with the author’s permission, this article appeared 12/20/2013 | and was updated Feb 19, 2014 in the Huffington Post online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-arnold-e-resnicoff/the-words-of-our-mouths_b_4481122.html

The Demise Of Time

Novelist Eric Kraft writes in Leaving Small’s Hotel that if events or periods of time do not have a marked end, even such mundane phenomena as a weekend, or even a day, then time has no rhythm and thus no meaning. I get a taste of what the lack of this rhythm is like from my experience with hospice residences and nursing homes. When I went to work on a recent Sunday, it struck me how that day felt like any weekday. I was expecting a different feel, a different mood to set apart the day. I thought it would at least feel quieter with less staff, somehow slower. Or that there would be say, a Sunday brunch option instead of the usual breakfast, or different kinds of activities than on a weekday, or maybe more informal dress on the part of staff. Nor did anyone seemed surprised that I was there on a typical day off, saying, “What are you doing here on a Sunday?” I actually felt let down. Not only had I given up part of my weekend, I had stepped out of time into a perpetual hell of monotony.

Then I thought about how much worse this must be for my alert patients, and how when I visit them and at times ask what’s new, they  frequently say every day is the same. It came home to me how a lot more than boredom is at stake here when a patient anxiously asked me for a pocket calendar. “I want to know what day it is. Can you bring me a calendar?” When I did, she was remarkably relieved. She took it like it was a gift of great moment and said: “I will mark off each day, and now know where I am and what’s going on.” Before getting the calendar she implied she felt disoriented and lost. She made me realize how strange the artificial environment of a facility is, including the deprivation of a sense of time passing, despite efforts to decorate for holidays and the like. Residents might as well be in a space vehicle between worlds.  (Which reminds me of a concern among some Jewish sages as to how to observe the start of the Sabbath if you were to find yourself on another planet. It cannot make sense to ask what time it is or what day it is except on a purely arbitrary basis such as the actual time it is in a given location such as your hometown.)

We tend to think that endings, however necessary, are undesirable. We may think we want our vacations to go on forever or have a festive occasion go on and on. But if they did, the experience of these periods would be subverted. An endless vacation would be a void rather than a vacation. A festive day that went on indefinitely would cease to be festive. We end up with nothing when we do not place boundaries on events and periods of time such as the seasons.  We remove the meaning that accrues from going forward in time. Perhaps we can restore a sense of a patient’s life unfolding in time by at least referring to how that is happening in our relationship with them. I can mention to a patient how long we have known each other.  I can refer to some of our earlier conversations and how they connect with the current one. I can acknowledge what I have learned from them and that I like to see them and look forward to seeing them again. Relationships with patients are not static; they are evolving. Let us at least refer to that.

Observing this temporal isolation of my patients makes me more conscious of how I should honor, as Eric Kraft urges, the end of such things even as seemingly trivial as one day. I rarely, for example, work on the computer past midnight (though the writing of this post on this particular day is taking me just past!)  I am looking ahead, dear readers, for your responses, in good time.

A Hippie’s Homily

Lucy, a patient not much older than myself, remarked to me last week, “I was at Woodstock, and tried every drug in the book…just like everyone else was doing.” Even on a cold day like that one, she was outside her home, seated by the back door, indulging now only in the drug of nicotine. She had unruly grey hair, except for a garish red clutching at the lower half of it. She had explained that she used to dye her hair red, but now found it was too tedious and tiring to sit long enough to have her hair dyed again, so she is just waiting for the rest of it to grow out. I gather you get the picture for why I then burst out, “So you are a hippie, right?” Lucy replied, “Oh yeah. Old hippies never die.”

She then turned her attention to her smoking habit after I mentioned further along in the conversation that I like to write. “I have a story for you to write about. And you don’t even have to attribute it to me.” I thanked her for that, as it can be a challenge to decide what to write about in Offbeatcompassion.  Oh boy! Fresh material dropping right into my lap! I settled in for the story, glad I had kept my pink button-down sweater on, not having anticipated the visit would be outdoors. She took one last puff on her current cigarette and began, “I’ve known Mr. Nicotine since I was ten. When I was ten, Mr. Nicotine was young, energetic, and cool. Handsome and cool. And a great talker. Everyone wanted to be with him, so we all joined in. But now, Mr. Nicotine is old and horrid and grumbles. He has a long grey beard and there’s food in it. He is very dirty, but now it’s too late for me to get away from him. So watch out you don’t get caught. That’s the story about Mr. Nicotine. He fooled me.”

I listened some more, and as the cold  penetrated past my sweater, I gave out some hints that I was about to put the brakes on the conversation. Her response as I left: “You’re givin’ up, huh?” I wish I had been quick enough on the draw to retort, “Certainly not. Chaplain visits never finish.”

No Pain Much Gain?

Just think: Suppose I had a condition called “congenital insensitivity to pain.”  This means I could slice my way through mosquito-infested swamps and not feel insect bites. This means I could go on a Polar Bear Plunge as easily as taking a dip in a heated pool and look heroic with nobody the wiser, and romp about in extreme heat without feeling like I was wrapped in cellophane. Best of all, I could impress my dentist by being unfazed by any procedure and brag about not needing Novocaine. “That? Oh that’s nothing. You should see me on the operating table.”  Or  I could consider a boxing career…

Actually this condition is no joke. Not experiencing the warning signs of pain makes serious injury quite certain. But even if in the future I was fitted with artificial sensors for hot and cold and pain so that I would react in time not to be injured, would I still feel deprived in some fashion? Would I be alone in my lack of pain, the way the android  Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation  feels like he is missing out on something by not having emotions, painful as well as pleasant? Setting aside an extreme case such as intractable pain, if I had the choice, would I opt to have this condition?

I am not sure because I do not know how it would shape my personality and assumptions. And if it happened at birth, I might have become insensitive not just to my own pain, but that of others. Poof! That would have derailed me from a chaplaincy career faster than saying “Clinical Pastoral Education.” If you could have congenital insensitivity to pain starting now, how do you think it would  influence your outlook?  What do you think it would be like?

Magical, Oh So Clinical

On the job, I feel like the person described in Supertramp’s 1979 hit called “Logical Song.”  The song describes a happy existence that is later in life replaced with an impersonal emotionless one. The difference on my job is that both halves of the excerpt quoted below are true simultaneously, every day. Part of me is the chaplain who with no agenda engages in dialogue with patients, reacting on the fly to whatever they wish to share. I am there sometimes facing the most intense emotions and sometimes I am there to savor life with them or just sit with whatever mundane moment is in progress. But then a separate part of me goes to my office to document the visits. Documenting involves a very strict set of rules and I have to write out a description of the visit in a detached tone. There are countless lists of things to put check marks by, and there are some words I must use no matter what the visit was like, for example, “A trusting relationship is being established.”

The first lines of the “Logical Song” symbolically correspond to the actual visits:

“When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily,
Joyfully, playfully watching me.”

Even in hospice, sometimes patients look back to “wonderful” and “beautiful” memories, and ponder the miracle of existence. They communicate this to me and I feel the poignancy of it and am in awe that they are letting me in on this ultra-personal dimension of their being.

The next lines correspond to the completely structured paperwork I must do:

“But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.”

The song actually says “clinical!”  Yep, that is a part of who I am. When I forget to put in a certain detail or do not do it on time, my supervisor may say, “You are out of compliance.” Ouch! (She does like and appreciate me, though, it’s not that she doesn’t.)

On one level, this may seem to be too painful a conflict. I have seen budding chaplains who found they could not reconcile these disparate identities, and ended up leaving their jobs, or doing one part well and the other not well at all. On another level, I try to see the paperwork as two things: superficially, it can be a nice neutral break from the intense emotions and deep thoughts I must respond to: Good! I can do something mindless for a little while. Beyond that, I think of it as the tax I must pay for the privilege of being present with people who are giving of their most intimate selves, who are revealing to me their innermost beliefs as they risk getting nothing back in return.

Book Review of GRATITUDE by Dr. Oliver Sacks


Reading  Dr. Sacks’ farewell book with its mournful black cover was like going through a typical day on the job as a hospice chaplain. Just like my patients, this famous author, well-known for his medical narratives such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales lists his regrets, his triumphs, his hopes, and his efforts to make sense of the life that he had led. In a word, this book is about how he dealt with his approaching end. Many of us can relate to his regrets, which included wasting time, being shy, and not traveling more. He also hoped to love and work as long as possible; again, much as the average person might yearn for in this circumstance. He also mentioned his regret at not having learned a second language.

Finding out what he had to say about his own medical narrative may interest those who almost never hear about or think about what it means to review one’s life as death nears, but for me I initially found that very predictable. Nevertheless, because he expresses it so eloquently,  even as a jaded clinician, I became more and more captivated by his life review. More than that, reading this little book became a ritual means for me to say goodbye to this spectacular and compassionate doctor. For example he explains, “[As I get older] I begin to feel not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective…One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts…One is more conscience of transience, and perhaps, of beauty….One can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.”

The book was engrossing in so many other respects as well. Like his other works, he offers a distinctive view that makes it a privilege to saunter among his words. Who else would link the number assigned to each element in the periodic table with one’s age? He opens his essay entitled “Gratitude” by saying, “Mercury is element number 80….on Tuesday I will be 80 myself.”  He goes on to say that  when he was eleven years old that instead of referring to his age, he explained, “I could say ‘I am sodium.’”  (Sodium is the eleventh element). Such an association alone should be enough to entice the scientifically minded and the intellectually curious to get this book.

It is poignant to read that his defense mechanism for dealing with loss was to “turn to the nonhuman.” It saddened me to learn that when he was sent away to a boarding school, “numbers became my friends.”And that “the elements and the periodic table became my companions.”

The last chapter is entitled “Sabbath.” Here he mentions his Orthodox upbringing, and his growing indifference to the practice of Judaism and finally his rupture with it when his mother utterly rejected him when she found out he was gay. Much later in life, he was introduced to positive experiences of the Sabbath and found he could enjoy its peace not only on the seventh day of each week, but on the “seventh” day of his life as well.
The act itself of perusing the book is a sort of Sabbath. It causes the reader to reflect, to pause, and to savor existence. “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

This article was first printed in pallimed.org on March 20, 2017 and is reprinted here with their kind permission. the link is:
http://www.pallimed.org/2017/03/book-review-gratitude-by-dr-oliver-sacks.html