Monday, July 25, 2011

Are Random Acts of Kindness Really Random?

A fellow named Forrest Gump once pondered one of life's basic questions: 
"I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze. But I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

Is there a grand plan for each of us?  Are the events of our lives predetermined by a higher being?  Or, as Gump wondered, is life just one giant random walk, with the plot being made up as we go along?  It's a fascinating question. I am sure that you would not be surprised to learn that there are entire schools of thought devoted to this concept called synchronicity, first articulated by Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung in the 1920s. 
"Synchronicity is the occurrence of two events that are not linked causally, nor linked teleologically, yet are meaningfully related. Once, a client was describing a dream involving a scarab beetle when, at that very instant, a very similar beetle flew into the window. Often, people dream about something, like the death of a loved one, and find the next morning that their loved one did, in fact, die at about that time. Sometimes people pick up he phone to call a friend, only to find that their friend is already on the line. Most psychologists would call these things coincidences, or try to show how they are more likely to occur than we think. Jung believed they were indications of how we are connected, with our fellow humans and with nature in general, through the collective unconscious." 
                                                                                            – Dr. C. George Boeree

It sounds as though Dr. Boeree is describing what in "Star Wars" parlance is known as "The Force," doesn't it?  Simply put, synchronicity is the result of two seemingly unrelated events producing a meaningful consequence.  I go back and forth on the idea of synchronicity because I believe that those who claim that everything in life is predetermined are absolving themselves of the consequences of their actions.  If everything is predetermined, how can we be blamed for the mistakes we make?  However, believing that all life is chance would imply that one does not believe in God and I certainly don't want to do that. There is, after all, very little upside in disavowing a belief in a supreme being and lots and lots of potential downside.

Do things happen for a reason?  Ask my friend Angie Godfrey and she will tell you that they do.  Here's her story, as related in a Facebook post this morning:


There's more. 
So I told her I wanted to take her home and she let me. Her and her mother lived alone in an apartment behind 7-11. Her mom has a degree but lost her job almost a year ago to layoffs. She then found out she had a tumor in her foot and can't walk very well. She is still living in the apartment but they are getting evicted next month. She is still waiting on disability but with the issues now she may not get it for a few more months.
Angie, who has had her own struggles but is grateful for the help she once received, has put a human face on suffering that for many of us is an abstract concept.  You may not see it, but it's happening.  The teenage child of a college-educated parent is dumpster-diving for food in America?  How can we proclaim the greatness of this country when people like this routinely fall through society's cracks?  How can we send billions of dollars in aid to other countries each year yet ignore the suffering of our own citizens?  Certainly there are people in this country whose problems are of their own making, but there are also people like this woman and her daughter, beset by misfortune and caught in a vortex of suffering not of their own making and from which there seems to be little chance of escape.

Until Angie decided that she needed a V-8. 

Is it synchronicity that it was big-hearted Angie who saw this girl and not some other, less compassionate, person?  Is it synchronicity that I visited with Angie last weekend for the first time since we were 7th graders and that I have this blog and can use it to spread the word of Angie's good work? It would appear that these seemingly random occurrences have turned out to be "meaningfully related."

Synchronicity.

We are not hard-hearted but many of us do not know how to get involved or are distrustful of any big organization's efforts to effectively allocate our donated resources. We all know that government-administered programs are supremely wasteful and inefficient.  We do not necessarily want credit for our generosity but we do want to know that our good intentions are not being squandered. When we can get right at the problem, when the abstract concept of human suffering is crystallized for us as Angie has done here, we do get involved. Included in the 49 responses to Angie's post are offers of financial assistance, lodging, food, clothing and school supplies. Angie humanized the abstract and her friends have responded in overwhelming fashion. 

She is working hard to help this family.  She is organizing a car wash to raise funds for the rent on an apartment she has a lead on and she has talked to her boss about hiring this woman part time to do some accounting. She collected some money and went to get the power turned back on at the place where they currently live.  She is doing the heavy lifting. She is paying it forward.  Apparently, these people have nothing, not even a bottle of ketchup.  Their needs are immense.  

Her email address is agodfrey6@yahoo.com if you are interested in helping.  Synchronicity.  

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Reunion Crashing

As I have written before, reunions are my thing.  I love 'em.  I can't get enough of seeing old friends, so much so that this past weekend I traveled to Virginia Beach to attend the reunion of a high school graduating class that I was never a part of.  I'll explain.

I was going to be a member of the 1981 graduating class of First Colonial High School, having attended elementary and junior high school with those who did graduate.  However, my mother in her infinite wisdom decided that a change of venue would be of great benefit to me, so in the ninth grade I packed up and took my act to boarding school in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

With the benefit of hindsight I have come to understand and appreciate the boarding school experience, but the forced separation at age 14 from my childhood friends and all that was familiar was tough. I still saw my pals during the summer and over school breaks, but the interaction was not the same as it had been.  I wasn't part of the gang anymore, instead becoming the guy who used to be but no longer was "one of us."  I suppose it didn't bother me too much at the time because I was at the age where I was making new friends and was too busy figuring out who I was to be introspective.

The gang.  Tommy Pedicone, Page Ewell, David Ford, me, D.R. Ford.
After eighth grade I never lived fulltime in Virginia Beach again.  Boarding school, college, and life afterwards took me to Colorado, Washington, D.C., and eventually here to Lexington, Kentucky, but never back to Virginia Beach. As time passed, I found myself increasingly curious about the people with whom I had shared my early years.  After all, it wasn't that I had chosen to lose touch, but without school as the common bond, the old social system fell apart for me. I didn't lose track of everyone, just most of them. 

I suppose some in my position would have just gone on with their lives, never looking back, but that's not who I am.  I thought about my old friends and wondered about their lives. For years I toyed with the idea of crashing a First Colonial reunion, thinking that would be where I would see the most people and get myself back in the game. I went so far as to call my buddy Page Ewell to secure a wingman commitment from him.  I don't think he ever thought I was serious. 

Enter Facebook.  I know Facebook isn't for everybody but it has worked for me.  Thanks to my unique name I have to be among the most easily findable persons among Facebook's 500 million registered users.    

"Seward Totty, Seward Totty...oh yeah, I remember that guy!" Boom!  I am Facebook dynamite.

Seward and Page. Then.
Page and Seward. Now.
It was Facebook that got me back in the game, if only in a virtual sort of way.  As great as this social networking is for finding people and as much as I have enjoyed knowing that I once again had a connection to these people's lives, it wasn't enough.  The reunion.  I still needed that reunion. 

When I got word this spring of the upcoming 30th, I floated with the organizers the idea of making an appearance and was delighted to get an positive response.  The setup seemed perfect. Rather than a structured event staged by the school and held in the gym, this instead was organized by a few members of the class and was to be held at a local bar/restaurant. That little bit of encouragement was all I needed.

So, last Friday I hopped a plane and flew to Virginia Beach to visit my mother and also to take care of this reunion business. As he had promised, Page signed on as my wingman and, thanks to Facebook, I didn't have to go in stone cold.  I knew how people looked and knew some of their stories.  Still, I was nervous. I rarely make it back to Virginia Beach anymore and it had been 35 years since I had seen some of the people I thought I was going to see.  I was about to answer some questions that were almost half a lifetime in the making.  Would it be all that I hoped?

Damn right it was.  It was great, it was cathartic, it was the best wayback ride I have been on in a long time. Of course, you don't just pick right back up with people after a few decades' absence, but it was a great start. We laughed, we told stories on each other, and I had more than a few people remark that they didn't remember me being so tall.  I was happy to learn that my reputation as the class clown had survived the years intact.

I saw my pal David Ford for the first time in at least two decades.  As kids, we were inseparable until one day we weren't anymore.  At some point we had reached a fork in the road and he had gone one way and I the other and that was it.  Thankfully, those two roads merged again last weekend  in Virginia Beach, just a few miles from where we grew up together.

David Ford, me, Terry "Shotwell" McPherson, Page Ewell.
Not everyone I hoped to see was there.  Not everyone who was there was someone I knew, but I made a lot of progress on the mental checklist I have been compiling since about 1978. I am happy to report that if the quality of one's life can be measured by the friendships we make along the way, well then I have been and continue to be mighty lucky.  

Monday, July 18, 2011

Procrasta-Nation

The United States is a nation of procrastinators.  Is there any doubt about this?  It's only human nature, after all, to avoid dealing with unpleasantness.  Two unfolding events should make this clear to everyone.  At the same time, however, we also are a nation that excels at crisis management, which is precisely where our national predilection for procrastination lands us time after time.

Look at the current events that are dominating the national and sports headlines right now.  The National Football League is in a work stoppage, the owners having locked out the players over a disagreement as to how to share the billions of dollars in revenues that professional football generates each year.  In reading the paper, it would appear that both sides are stubbornly locked into their positions, unwilling to concede most of the minor and none of the major points to the other side.  However both sides know that a work stoppage that lasts into the regular season is financial suicide, so a deal will of course get done in time for the players to report to training camp and for the season to start on time.  The alternative is unthinkable and both sides know this, even if for the sake of negotiating leverage they hope that somehow the other side doesn't.


Because there is still time to reach a deal, there is little reason for either side to give in to the demands of the other.  Only when time runs short will the talks get serious.  Until then, each side is only too willing to give pessimistic interviews to the press, hoping that the negativity and fear of backlash will force the other side to cave. The other side is using the same tactic.  This is posturing posing as negotiation, with both sides using the media to try to gain public support.  


The same scenario is playing out in Washington over the debt ceiling issue.  Both parties know that a default is unthinkable, yet both sides are trumpeting default in the media to try to wrangle some concessions from the other side.  There are no compelling reasons to strike a deal until a deal has to be struck, and as unsettling as this stalemate is to the rest of the world, this is the way it works.  Why agree to anything when there still is time to try to wait out the other side?  It's political poker and is as old a negotiating tactic as there is.

Think about it for a minute.  Who doesn't wait until the last minute to deal with life's unpleasantries?  I think we can all agree that wrangling over money is absolutely one of life's less pleasant undertakings.  If you can find me one person who starts working on next year's taxes on April 16, I can find you ten million who don't.  How many of us have picked out and/or bought a cemetery plot or even made more than a first pass at putting together a will?  It is rare the person who proactively tackles the responsibilities that make life more of a chore.

So fear not America.  There will be football on Sundays this fall and our elected representatives will come to an agreement over the issue of our national debt ceiling.  Heck, they may even figure out a way to put off for a few more years the real discussion that needs to be had —forcing our government to spend only what it is able to take in, because if there is anything that we are as good at as procrastination, it has to be buck-passing.