Saturday, September 27, 2008

Beyond Forgiveness

"Forgiveness is the answer to the child's dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean."

- Dag Hammarskjold

Once upon a time I had a brother, he was my only brother, the youngest of four kids in the family. Jim. James. Jimmy. He was the long awaited only son, but by the time he came along my parents were tired, busy, and as they had always been, emotionally unavailable. Although I was the second eldest I looked after him quite bit. When I was younger my mother read stories to myself and my sister at night, later I read stories to him.

He was a legend from birth in our family because he was born in the car on the Kennedy expressway. My mother delivered him while my father was speeding to the hospital. Dad was in a panic; she was calm. It was her fourth delivery after all. She was on the evening news and few days later there was an article in both major newspapers, with a photo of all of us at home, Mom holding the new baby.

I like to tell people how he was in the newspapers when he was born and when he died, almost 21 years later.

It would be nice to say there was a good story to tell about his life, but in truth I learned more from his death.

The basics about him are; sometime in his mid teens he shot up like a weed, and was over 6 feet tall. He was good looking, sensitive, mischievous, and very intelligent. He loved other animals but kept parakeets as pets. I think he had a hard time in school, with rules and fitting in. He played electric guitar, a little. He started getting into music at a young age; Pink Floyd was his favorite, then David Bowie, but he had quite a varied record collection by the time he left this earth. I know, because I carted those albums around for years, and still have some of them.

He started drinking at the age of 12, and taking pills sometimes. I remember hearing he was falling asleep in school. You could say we started drinking and getting high around the same time, though not together. His Greek friend would steal Ouzo from his father & bring it over. Our older sister would bring him beer & he’d lower a bucket on a rope to her in the driveway and pull it up to his room. I had been away from home and he got my room when my parents didn’t think I was coming back. I came home for about a year to get myself together in order to move out again, and Jim’s room was the party room, where we would drink, smoke pot and listen to music. Then when I moved out on my own, several years and numerous apartments later he came to the city and stayed with me for a while. His first real girlfriend was a friend of my boyfriend at the time. Perhaps a year later, after going back and forth from suburb to city he got himself a room at a hotel that was an “el” ride from my newest home. We spent a lot of time together, talking and talking – about war, life, nature, what it all means. I got him to listen to Bruce Springsteen with me, and he started to appreciate the lyrics. We had both decided we wanted to listen to the blues more, and went to the Blues Fest together; he held my hand in the crowd. He was my best friend.

July 21 1985. He was at my apartment and I was getting ready for a date with a new guy. We were going to a street fair right near Jim’s hotel I kept asking him to meet me there. He had his own plans though. He was going to go to a pier on Lake Michigan he and he his friend had discovered. At night people hung out at the very end of the pier around a garbage can fire; they would climb to the top of the narrow steel tower to drink and get high. So I went to the street festival and all I could think about was where my brother was and why he wasn’t there. On stage the band was playing the blues, it was Muddy Waters Jr. I kept thinking I have to tell him, he missed it. And I kept looking and looking for him.

Next morning I got a call from my mother. With no preliminaries, she said “Jim’s dead”. I said “no”. My parents had already identified the body. It had washed up on the rocks. I then had to call both of my sisters to tell them the news. My younger sister was living in St. Louis. I had visited her only a few weeks prior, for the 4th of July, and I brought back some fireworks for Jim. Being a typical delinquent in many ways, he liked to light them and throw firecrackers in front of people. I specifically told him not to do that when I gave them to him.

But that was exactly what he did that night. He and his friend Alex, who survived and has told me the only account of the incident I know, were up on the tower drinking cheap wine and smoking pot. And lighting firecrackers, and throwing them down at the people on the pier below. There was one guy in particular who became enraged. He and some friends climbed the tower to beat Alex and my brother up. There was only one way to get away and that was to jump into the lake. Alex said he was yelling at Jim to jump and my brother was saying he didn’t have his glasses; I guess they had been knocked off his face. Alex then jumped into the lake and made it to the beach I don’t recall how he got home but he did not wait to see what happened to my brother.

Alex had jumped into the shallower side of the pier, but my brother was found on the other side, the deep side. We do not know if he eventually jumped, if he fell, or was pushed in. The autopsy showed numerous bruises, including heel marks on his face. My older sister and I didn’t see the autopsy until after the funeral; it explained the thick makeup on his face and why he was almost unrecognizable in the casket. We also visited the detectives and cleaned out Jim’s room at the hotel. The police said they had questioned people who were on the pier that night and no one really knew what happened or were not telling. They did know that the leader of the guys who attacked my brother was a white guy with a lot of tattoos named George. He was familiar to the police, but they had not been able to find him.

My sister picked me up that day we got the news, to take us both to our parents’ house to wait for our younger sister to arrive from St. Louis. Once there, all I remember of that day, of the next few days, was sitting in the dark smoking joints and cigarettes, and drinking. That first night I was sitting in the driveway on lawn chairs with my father. The man who rarely showed any emotion was drunk and yelled and cried and regretted he had been in conflict with his only son. Later, as we sat there drinking Dad said he was worried about me, because I had been closer to Jim than anybody. I said, oh don’t worry about me, I’m happy for him. He got out of this life. I just wish it had been me.

Several years later I had gotten into recovery and was sober for about three years when I met my friend Linda. By this time I had been living by the lake -- very close to that pier. I liked the neighborhood and wanted to be near where my brother had last been alive. I thought maybe I would be closer to his spirit.

One summer night Linda and I were sitting on the beach and, with the pier in our sight, I told her about my brother’s death. When I got to the part about the guy George with the tattoos she said, “I know him”. Not that long ago she used to party with this guy and some of his friends and she knew that they went out on the pier often to hang out, and light a fire in the garbage can. A blond guy with tattoos. She said he was a Vietnam Veteran and he was drug addict. She said she remembered in the summer of '85 he did disappear, left the state for a good long time, maybe a year. She said he was back in the Chicago area, she’d heard, and thought she knew where to find him.

I really only thought about finding him for a moment. What would be the point? This was what I thought, but really it was more of sense, a feeling: Jim was a peaceful kind of guy, in spite of the mischievousness; he’d only been in one fight that I knew of. He and I had talked about the futility of war, especially Vietnam. Then there was George, a Vietnam vet. Jim, with that side of him that liked to push the edge threw down firecrackers, and George reacted, most likely because of post traumatic stress. So if you look at the three of us, I was an alcoholic and addict, my brother I believe was also, and George was a addict. We were the same. Any one of us could have been the other, given the circumstances. Had I been to war and was addicted and someone threw firecrackers I would have been enraged. George could have been he one in recovery. George could have been the one throwing down firecrackers; Jim could have been the person who had been in Vietnam. There have been times in my life, and this was the first, when a feeling has swept over me and, like a fresh breeze, blown away any resentment or anger I might have had. What I have been left with is sweet, clean air.

There was no need to find George, to try to make sure “justice” was done. I know, without a doubt, that he was living in his own hell, not that I wished that on him. My foremost feeling was that, given he was living nearby, perhaps someday he would get sober and I would meet him in an AA meeting. And what I felt, really, about the whole situation was beyond forgiveness – it was, I think, Love.

So there the saga ended and yet it has never ended. I heave never seen nor heard anything about George since that day. Linda did not talk to her old friends anymore. But Jim, well, he’s with me all the time. In fact many days I believe I am living life for the both of us – as best I can. In the beginning I had many dreams about my brother, some were scary, and he was bloated and covered with seaweed. Another type was a recurring dream where he was walking along silently beside me in a field of grass stretching out to infinity on his side – on the right. I was on the left, on the edge of a cliff, below me was a rushing river with a forest on the other side, and there were animals frolicking in water and woods. Jim was speaking, trying to tell me something, but I could not hear his voice.

One day, a few years later, I realized I had not had the dream in months, not since I had stopped drinking. I credited that with helping me to get sober; to choose life. This was what he was trying to tell me. I had gone from wanting to die in place of my brother, to wanting to die because he was gone, and acting in self-destructive ways, to finding something to live for – that had to be some force greater than me. The dreams I still have occasionally – this summer I had them more often, perhaps because I had been grieving - are the best. In them, my brother is alive, and we are talking and hanging out, and it’s as if he has just been away for a while and now he’s back. As if he was never gone.

As for George, if you are out there – I forgive you, and I know he does too.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The DNC, Illinois, and Group Empathy; a theory

A caveat: I am a supporter of Barack Obama. However the following is meant to be more in the nature of a sociological essay than a political one. It is primarily about my unique (I think) point of view of the situation, and due to my current (and probably unhealthy) obsession with everything election related. Comments are welcome.
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Approximately nine years ago I had the good fortune to hear Barack Obama give a talk at a small youth conference I attended when I had just started counseling teenagers. He was a state senator then, and though I didn’t pay much attention to what his role was I did notice that the way he was introduced was as if he were someone very special. He spoke about youth – particularly inner city youth, as was appropriate – with knowledge and empathy. Not knowing his background I assumed he had been raised on the South Side of Chicago. One of the things that really stuck with me was how he discussed the (false) viewpoint that African American boys don’t read, and that it’s not considered cool by their peers to be a reader. This was one of those vague concepts I think I knew but had never heard anyone speak out loud.

I was so impressed by this thin, well spoken black man that I wrote down his name on the program (it was not listed). Years later, when he became U.S. Senator and gave that now famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I actually looked for and found that program to confirm that he was indeed the person I had heard speak that day.

Hearing him talk about changing the 'us vs. them’ mentality, I thought to myself if he ever ran for president I would support him. The buzz on all the local news stations was that “everyone” said he would be president one day. That day is almost here – if he wins, that is. I never expected him to run so soon and I was torn, at first, because I did want to support Hillary, but the message of conciliation quickly won me over.

My one experience volunteering for the campaign was wonderful. I went to Gary, Indiana to help out on primary day. There were so many volunteers I had little to do, but just being there around the diverse group of supporters, including a retired life-long steel mill worker and Republican (a white man), was invigorating. Obama lost Indiana, but by a lesser margin than anticipated by the polls – in large part due to volunteers helping supporters in the Gary area get out and vote. Few thought he would win the state, though the hope was great. It was, for lack of a better term, an experience in group optimism.

This brings me to my most recent experience with the campaign, which to me occurred completely through my television and internet connections (a virtual experience). This was the most recent Democratic National Convention, starting with the candidate’s wife -a strong woman if ever there was one - and ending with a stadium full of supporters who were just as excited as I was. The glimpse I had of Mayor Daley in rolled up sleeves, with his hair in disarray, bouncing around, was one I will not soon forget!

What sort of phenomenon do we have here? Brainwashing? A cult? These are some of the accusations I’ve seen by critics. Obamaniacs, some call us. Lately some say we think he is the messiah. I don’t know, they could be right, I could have been brainwashed and am in denial. But I have a different idea, perhaps just as wacky, but everyone has the right to their opinion. I call it group empathy.

Just to clarify, the definition(s) of empathy:

- The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
- Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives. (American Heritage Dictionary).

I did a little reading about group dynamics – very little, actually. Just enough to be able to say there are various theories about group behavior. One believes a group will follow a charismatic leader, others believe that groups take on a personality of their own, yet others say that it is the members in the group that reinforce each other. In any case, it does appear true that the phenomenon of group belief and behavior can be for negative or positive reasons/purposes. In this candidate’s situation, obviously, I choose to believe that it is for the good.

On the one hand, in his critics’ minds, you have Obama the elitist and out of touch candidate, on the other you have the community organizer who doesn’t have leadership experience. I would say neither is true. My belief is that Barack is like me and millions of ‘ordinary’ people who attempt understand others, to find what is common and similar in others, rather than to focus on our differences.

For example, some may think that since Barack didn’t come from the South side, didn’t grow up with the same disadvantages that many poor African Americans did, that he can’t understand them. He doesn’t really know what it’s been like for them. I disagree, and, using me as an example, here is why: I grew up a as middle class suburban white girl, someone with no idea what it was like to be poor, a minority, or involved with or witness to violence on a regular basis. Yet I immersed myself in urban youth culture for more than five years, and I can attest to having an understanding of these kids -- because I put in the time and effort. I watched, listened, asked questions, and was present for, or near, numerous disturbing events that they became involved in. I know enough to say that I know.

Empathy is also, in part, the ability to put aside one’s ego and personal beliefs, at least while in the service of the other person(s). I would never claim to completely understand someone who has walked in different shoes. However complete understanding is not required for empathy, for “intellectual identification”. All of us – all human beings – are capable of feeling the same feelings. Almost everyone knows what it’s like, for example, to feel angry over having been unfairly treated – regardless of the reaons.

I say all the above to say this: I think what we witnessed at the DNC was an ideal example of what I call group empathy. Because the candidate attracts people who identify with him, who identify with his call to service, to his vision of working together in spite of differences, having had some experiences in these areas ourselves. We identify with him because he identifies with many of us; we believe he is authentic because he has put in the time and effort to understand people. Also, with his example (which meshes with many supporters’ values) of taking the high road, not bashing his opponents and sticking to his beliefs I believe others were also able to take the high road.

Had Barack been saying things for example, similar to what John McCain says about him, regarding Hillary (had he insulted her) would she have wanted to stand up at the convention and not only support him but ask her supporters to support him? Would she really have placed the unity of the party first, without his example? Had Barack reacted to Bill Clinton’s comments, would Mr. Clinton have gotten up on that stage and said what he said -- to the point of saying Obama will make a good president? I doubt they would have been able to put aside their egos that much – it’s only human nature. (I realize that people in Barack’s CAMP said things about them, but the man himself did not).

It’s the golden rule. It’s Karma, it’s what goes around comes around. No wants to be shown up as being petty and a sore loser when the winner has always been gracious. They cannot complain that he said this and such about them, because he did not. He didn’t cheat them, lie to them, or manipulate them in any way. In fact he lauded Hillary and is helping pay her debts. Perhaps it’s safer in the long run to be cynical. But I did not see resentment in Bill and Hillary’s eyes. Perhaps a bit of envy or nostalgia on Bill’s part, but at that time their anger appeared to be subdued. I saw Bill Clinton’s face, when Barack acknowledged him, saying he was a president who cared about people. He looked – humbled.

To add to all the good feelings, there was the Illinois contingent at the convention -- hugging each other!! I don’t know if this was shown on national news but a description of what happened is here. The short version is that Jesse Jackson, Jr., gave a speech about reconciliation and proceeded to hug some people who were his political enemies (then Mayor Daley hugged him), then insisted that our governor and the speaker of the house hug and make up – these two who had not spoken in years!

I am not so na├»ve to think everyone will all get along back in Springfield, because of a hug, but for that moment they allowed their common humanity to come to the forefront, due, I believe, to the example and the atmosphere of the people in the campaign. What I do believe is this is not brainwashing, that a cult would emphasize an “other”, people who are somehow different, as opposed to trying to bring people together. Empathy is inclusive.

The news had almost nothing negative to say about the DNC, except to comment that it wouldn’t last, or that they still have to deal witch the McCain camp. Well, I don’t have cable, so I mention only what I saw. And what I saw, and felt, was empathy.