Watching the families of people killed at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church repeatedly declare their forgiveness of shooter Dylann Roof was, for many including this writer, somewhat surreal. Seriously? Set aside the rage, grief, unbelief, and go straight to forgiveness?
For some faith traditions, that is indeed possible.
Also possible is the response for good coming out of Roof’s act for evil: removal of an emblem – the Confederate flag I recall seeing on some of my ancestors’ gravestones – from public spaces, and serious confrontation of the racism firmly embedded in U.S. culture. Not just the south, not just in police forces, not just in politics; in the U.S. culture.
One small part of the attempt to confront, and hopefully address, those issues in one small piece of the culture began recently when John Weems, pastor of mainline (if hardly traditional) Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, got to talking with Bishop Ernest Jackson, pastor of Grace Tabernacle Community Church across town in San Francisco’s largely African American Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood. This conversation led to a group of mostly white Calvary members leaving their 10 AM Sunday service early to join the 11 AM worshippers at Grace Tabernacle. (We were saved from embarrassing Caucasian-ness by one tall African American and one third-generation Chinese American.)
Calvary’s Minister of Spiritual Care Victor Floyd was preaching before the group set out – on a day the long openly gay Floyd said he never thought he’d live to see – and admonished the group that worshipping with Pentecostals would mean staid Presbyterians (the Frozen Chosen, we are commonly called) would have to raise their arms above the level of their waists.
Well, who knew?
The incredibly gracious Pentecostals greeted the chosen-frozen Presbyterians with exuberance. And a forgiveness for our frozen-ness that would probably be understood only by people like the survivors of the Charleston massacre.
“Forgiving is not forgetting,” Bishop Jackson said. “We have little control over what we remember or what we forget.” But he reminded the uniquely mixed group that it is wise to remember “the wrong that harbors no malice.”
There was a great deal of praise music – hands waving, or for the more frozen, clapping, higher than the level of one’s waist. There was some extraordinary dancing by three costumed young Grace Tabernacle women. There was talk about the burden of unforgiveness. And there were parting words of the sort that will bring exactly the change and reconciliation Dylann Roof (for whose immortal soul a lot of great Americans are praying) sought to prevent.
“Thank you,” said John Weems, “for helping us thaw out.”
“We must disconnect,” said Ernest Jackson, “from hatred and racism.
“We are instruments of peace.”
One can only hope.
Master storyteller David McCullough, touring with his new book, entertained an unabashedly admiring San Francisco audience recently with stories historical, literary and political. Including more than a few stories about the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, subjects of his latest literary achievement.
McCullough was interviewed – to the extent that anyone needs to provide a launch for a McCullough commentary – by Roy Eisenhardt for a City Arts & Lectures event. To McCullough’s story about The Little Engine That Could being the most important book he’s read – “I kept saying ‘I think I can, I think I can’’’ – Eisenhardt remarked, “I think you did.”
So far in his career – and he gives no indication of retiring any time soon – McCullough has won two Pulitzer prizes (for Truman and John Adams), two National Book Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But it is his down-home, one-of-us persona that wins over audiences (and readers) and provides the unshakable foundation for his comments and stories. Following are a few from the City Arts & Lectures event:
Another favorite childhood book was Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me, “the true story of Benjamin Franklin as told by his friend, Amos the mouse.” Though Amos lived in Ben Franklin’s house, McCullough explained, he left 25 siblings back home in Christ Church. “I wondered if their relatives weren’t still there. And every time I go to Christ Church I wonder if they’re not somewhere behind those walls.”
The motivation for his first book, The Johnstown Flood published in 1968, came from happening upon an extensive collection of photos of the event. He was struck by the fact that “it was an entirely preventable tragedy, caused by human actions,” and by what he could discover through looking deeply into the photos. McCullough said he had been fortunate to know many great writers when he was at Yale, including Thornton Wilder. “If you want to write a book,” Wilder had told him, “write a book you’d want to read.” Looking closely at the Johnstown flood photos, McCullough said, “I thought there had been a lot of bad books about it, and I wanted to write a good book – a book I’d want to read.” Judging by its thousands of enthusiastic reviews, and the fact that it is still selling nearly 50 years after publication, a lot of others seem to have found McCullough’s Johnstown Flood a book they want to read.
A few McCullough observations on literature and life:
How does one become a writer? “Start writing. And thinking. John Adams sometimes in his diaries would simply make a one-line entry: ‘At home, thinking.’ Imagine anybody doing that today?”
About Wilbur and Orville Wright’s achievements despite having only three (Orville) and four (Wilbur) years high school education? “They grew up in a home which encouraged and stimulated intellectual curiosity.” Reading the classics that filled the home amounted to what McCullough terms a liberal arts education. “There are over 1,000 letters (written among the Wright brothers and family members) and it is humbling to read those letters. Not only were the brothers brilliant, they were superbly educated.”
Is there anything about American law and politics you would change? “The role of big money has become a disgrace. It is rank corruption. I think of Harry Truman. After he left office, he would never accept a fee for making a speech or serving on a board because it would be a disgrace to the office of president. When the Kennedy campaign announced they were having a dinner to raise money, Truman said, ‘There goes democracy.’”
After lamenting the fact of political fundraising dinners with $50,000 price tags, McCullough closed the San Francisco event by leaning forward in his chair and addressing the audience with a mix of righteous indignation and urgency: “We need someone who will lift the American spirit,” he said; “don’t you agree?”
He got a responsive standing ovation.
(Part Two of Data Today – Better Tomorrow)
Could this be you? Creating a better tomorrow through brain research??
It turns out one does not have to be a pro football linebacker to have a brain worth studying. One does not even need to have a brain like Albert Einstein’s, Steven Hawking’s or any of those scientists/exceptionalists/geniuses whose brains would seem worth figuring out.
One only needs to be 18 or over and willing to be studied, and then to go sign up on the Brain Health Registry. This entitles you to sit back and wait for your brain to help discover a cure for Alzheimer’s or ADHD or depression, or perhaps help find better ways to treat traumatic brain injury. Not bad, for just having a brain and investing a little time (no money.)
This writer got off to a sluggish start as a Brain Health Registry member. Signed up early on because it sounds like such a great endeavor, but then I ran into a few off-putting instructions like “This will take about 20 minutes. It is best done in a quiet room where there will be no distractions or interruptions.” Twenty minutes, quiet rooms and absence of distractions are three things hard to come by around my house.
Eventually, however, the requisite conditions were found, and I was off to create a better tomorrow – well, in partnership with a few thousand other participants and some very smart neuroscientists – by finding out stuff about the human brain. And this is one fascinating journey. The neuroscientists find it fascinating because they really are going to figure stuff out. But for participants, the fascination is in the process.
Participants enter a little basic, very general data about medical/family history etc. Then the fun begins. We have two sets of ‘Cognition’ tests aimed at assessing our memory, attention and other cognitive characteristics. “These tests give us a sense of how your brain is currently functioning,” the screen says. This participant can only wonder what the Brain Health assessment people think about how her brain is functioning. The ‘Cognition’ tests are computer games on steroids. For a while you try to remember and replicate the pattern of dots, and then you go to the card games. The card games require Yes or No answers about what the cards are doing, press D for Yes and K for No. My brain kept trying to tell me what the cards were doing, while my fingers tried to remember that K was not for Yes.
It is, all in all, a lot more fun that the computer games the rest of the world is playing.
In another three to six months, the BHR people will be reminding me to go back and do it again, or do something else, to see how the brain is getting along. Perhaps they will flag my entry and advise me to check myself into an institution. But more likely they will just combine my data with the data of a zillion more or less anonymous others – and find a cure for Alzheimer’s! Or depression! Or improvements in treatment of traumatic brain injuries! All with the help of my weary, aging brain. Plus, when the survey was completed I got an email from UCSF professor Michael Weiner, MD telling me I am a medical hero. “You’re helping to make brain research faster, better and less expensive – and ultimately that gets us closer to a cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other brain disorders that strike tens of millions of Americans every year.” Who could resist?
You may want to go straight over to the Brain Health Registry and join the fun.
Some of us are suckers for studies: clinical trials, focus groups, surveys – whatever promises to shed a little light on the human condition, or possibly make that condition a little better.
This writer is a hopeless volunteer.
I have had my knees examined by MRIs, perhaps studying why I still have the originals despite a long history of abuse. I have had blood drawn for a study of celiac disease by someone who came to the house as part of the deal but unfortunately was not trained to find veins without causing excruciating pain. I have filled out lengthy surveys about addictive behavior – which may include addiction to study-participation (though that was not among the category choices.)
Currently, I am proudest of being an original part of the Women’s Health Initiative, which launched in 1993 with more than 160,000 postmenopausal women including this writer. In 1993 this was a Very Big Deal: studies had been made for all sorts of things with all sorts of participants, but finally there was a study of WOMEN. It sought to discover links between cancer (imagine! Studying women and cancer!) medical protocols, diet and other factors. Being a congenital wimp, and knowing I wouldn’t change my diet or stick to other proscribed regimens, I just signed up for the control group… but still. Even we control groupies are useful.
Over the years, WHI has developed a huge amount of useful data, probably the most beneficial being the finding that (imagine! Studying women!) hormone replacement therapy was not the be-all and end-all we had originally thought, but actually not such a good idea. (Read all about it.)
WHI has published over a thousand articles, approved well over 300 ancillary studies, and twice conducted extension studies. Findings have been about links between age, daily activities, diet etc and things like body fat, omega oils, heart disease, endometrial cancer – there is a list of useful discoveries resulting from this one large and ever-growing study project that boggles the mind.
Some – though surely not all – of this data is collected through regular survey forms received every year by WHI participants in addition to the annual birthday cards that by now this writer accepts as a “Congratulations! Are you’re still alive?” greeting. They seek data about lifestyles and life changes along with the traditional general health issues – and sometimes make one wonder what the next findings may be. My personal favorite question was, “When you enter a room full of people, do you often imagine they are talking about you?”
Paranoia after mastectomy? Who knows.
It is fascinating to be on the questioning end of tomorrow’s answers. Next blog: The Brain Health Registry. Assuming my closely-watched brain is still functioning.