Last Thursday, the Center for Civic Engagement at LSC-CyFair hosted a powerful event featuring members of The Journey of Hope, a non-profit advocacy group that opposes capital punishment. Two activists, Shujaa Graham and SueZann Bosler, shared incredibly moving stories that captivated the audience. Mr. Graham spoke about serving time on death row before his exoneration. Ms. Bosler told us about the horrific day in 1986 when she watched a man murder her father in their family home. The man also stabbed her multiple times.
How do some people overcome their anger while others let it destroy them? Anger is a strong emotion that can cause a person to unravel if he or she doesn’t thoroughly process an experience and then let go of the negative feelings associated with it.
We all know someone who is held hostage by their own bitterness. In all likelihood, they will never be truly happy unless they change their mindset. This requires some level of emotional awareness that you can’t develop without self-examination. The problem is that holding on gives a person the illusion of control over a situation when, in fact, it’s an emotional dead end that will never yield any peace inside. Here you only have one option: forward, and yes, that realization hurts like nothing else.
These activists inspire me to reconsider how I handle the difficulties I encounter because painful experiences should lead to a personal evolution, not devolution. Moving forward must include forgiveness because if you’re mired in pain, then a victim narrative becomes your creed. I never want that to dictate the terms of my life.
…are genuine at all times…inspire us to do more…provide truthful explanations for their actions while taking responsibility…show compassion…ask thoughtful questions even in the most difficult of moments…understand which boundaries they should maintain and which ones they should transgress…rethink their current approach…believe in a myriad of possibilities…fight like hell to uplift the human condition…demonstrate their gratitude…know who they are and what they want…defend the defenseless…change their mindset and behavior when necessary…acknowledge their flaws and own their mistakes…resist in strategic ways…lean into their fears…effectively communicate their needs…build an extraordinary life predicated upon integrity…are willing to express their feelings…have patience for others…work hard to achieve their goals…never speak in platitudes…invent and innovate in an effort to advance our civilization…believe in the ideas of justice and equality for all beings…are direct…explore all of their options…speak out…reflect upon the choices they make…grasp how ecosystems are delicate and interconnected…are composed of substance…take risks…challenge institutions…listen to others and attempt to understand them…call out those who are disingenuous…know what they won’t settle for in their own life…walk nontraditional paths even when that means walking alone…self-examine…don’t submit to the manipulation of other people…champion ideas that will change the world for the better…never trade in empty social niceties…embrace their own vulnerability…protest in an effort to illuminate…admit their faults…and love their partner deeply. I believe that we all have courage within us.
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It’s hard to believe that another fall semester is just weeks away. Can someone please tell me what happened to the spring? The last several months have passed so quickly. I digress (yet again). Each year I set new professional goals for myself because I believe this is key to growing as an educator. If I want to be a different person at the end of the year, then I have to push myself on multiple levels. That is part of the reason why I applied to be the interim chair of my department at the college. The following is a list of what I’d like to accomplish by May of 2018:
Anyone who knows me well knows that I love my work, I’m a planner, and that I can’t remain idle for long. No apologies. There’s. Little. Slowing. Down. Now, yes, sometimes you need to ease up so that you can appreciate the moment. I’ve gotten better with enjoying the company of others and absorbing as much as possible from experiences. That said, I believe that we choose our fate – that we each have agency to make use of in this life. Furthermore, I’m conscious of the fact that the time is passing. Here I encourage you to make the most of yours.
*Indicates that the goal will be addressed this fall. Click here for image source.
It has been a long five years. Too much has happened. If I think about all of the changes and disappointments, I start to feel dizzy. If I think too much, the stress manifests in my head, chest, and abdomen. It gnaws at my insides as the tension grows. There are fleeting moments where everything comes into focus and I feel more at peace, however those feelings have yet to fully coalesce. I believe that reflective people grow from examining that which causes them pain. That said, you simply can’t tell how long it will take to experience a release.
Months ago, I considered driving out to Big Bend National Park after multiple people suggested that I explore west Texas. Then, at some point it occurred to me that I should go farther (and elsewhere) because I had three weeks free and I felt a great need to disappear for a while. For me, the open road is rather alluring – especially when you’re looking for an adventure that can induce a shift in mindset. So, I sketched out a 4,600 mile road trip across six states. I thought, why not? I have friends and family in the Southwest that I hadn’t seen since I left Arizona in 2013, and I had long wanted to visit places like Arches National Park in Moab, Utah (click here to see a picture of Turret Arch). I’m not one to simply talk; I act. Important plans must come to fruition.
I believe that you have to lean into your fears if you want to become a stronger person. This includes the fear of being alone. Spending dozens of hours staring out of a windshield never bothered me because I’m enthralled by the desert landscape. Passing through deep gorges with rock walls hundreds of feet high reminded me of how small and insignificant we are in the universe. Our lives only have meaning because we attribute meaning to ourselves and those around us, but the natural world – despite all of the human manipulation – is largely unconcerned with our existence. Organic matter is dust in the making. While I have always enjoyed listening to music in the car, I drove for unusually long periods of time in complete silence. Focusing on the road felt like some form of meditation. There were some stretches where I found myself driving 105 miles per hour and I wanted to go faster. I didn’t know that my foreign subcompact could handle that speed that smoothly. Now, if only I never had to return home.
“Say goodbye to all the things in life that try to pull us down.”
Somewhere along a near empty road in the high desert of central Utah, two conflicting thoughts occurred to me. The people who designed and built the highway accomplished an incredible task worthy of acknowledgement because the engineering is quite amazing given the rugged terrain. Moreover, I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to brave the elements during the construction process. The other thought emanated from my conscience: they permanently scarred the Earth so that we can drive across it. By scarred, I mean removed large portions of beautiful rock formations. As someone who appreciates topography, I will admit that this causes me some cognitive dissonance because building the road required a lot more than just laying asphalt.
How did I spend my time? Tricia and I rode a tram to the peak of the Sandia Mountains to view Albuquerque from a precipice at 10,378 feet in below freezing temperatures and 45 mile per hour winds. Joelle and I hiked into Ice Box Canyon in Las Vegas because climbing over boulders on the way to a dry waterfall is how we like to spend part of a Saturday. Jackie, Stephanie, Tim, and I shared a meal at a quaint Italian restaurant in Lake Havasu City where we discussed our careers and the nontraditional life paths that we’ve taken. Liz and I took her dog, Maggie, to a couple of local parks in the Phoenix area, and we also bought a solid wood dresser for her apartment. That’s the abridged version of my interactions with the people I care about. I reconnected with them.
There are several good words that I could use to describe my trip, however “cathartic” is the one I will default to when asked about it. I needed a new experience that would displace the painful thoughts in my mind that stay for far too long. After all, patterns must be altered for emotional growth to occur. A handful of the darker feelings that have plagued me for years just diffused into the vast openness that surrounded me as I made some peace with myself. Yes, I left them behind on the side of the highway somewhere that I can’t recall. To me, it’s better that way.
Photograph: A stretch of I-15 between Las Vegas, NV and Barstow, CA.
A map of my route:
Whether it’s trying to find the hope in a demoralizing situation or the truth hidden behind all of the political drivel, the struggle to understand human behavior can leave you staring into an emotional abyss. It can leave you crying out for honesty and authenticity.
Like many, my life is compartmentalized. While navigating the different contexts, I’ve encountered people who left me with a number of questions that I don’t think they want to answer.
In some cases, they simply can’t answer because they don’t understand themselves well enough to explore their own motivations and choices. Other times, people don’t think they’re obligated to explain themselves or what they’ve done out of sheer arrogance. Some even opt for outright denial.
Whenever someone’s actions make me feel uncomfortable or give me pause, I remind myself of the following: I know who I am. I want to walk the fine line between being naive and jaded because I believe that our experiences should inform, not distort, the way we perceive the world around us.
Now, this becomes increasingly difficult when a person accrues disappointments. Here I find that reframing the way you think helps you avert despair so you can rebuild from the ground up.
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Earlier today, I hiked over seven miles on a series of trails at Huntsville State Park. Rays of sun pierced the tree branches to illuminate the forest. Leaves rustled in the strong breeze to produce a soothing, white noise. The solitude that I found during my visit provided the time I needed to disengage thoughts that often cause me distress. While standing all alone on a path composed of sand and pine needles, I closed my eyes and listened to the birds chirping in the distance. I could hear the sound of my own breathing and truly felt at peace. Moments like that are an antidote to life’s frustrations and disappointments. Hiking is an invaluable form of self-care that reinvigorates me.
When I think about it, I can’t exactly pinpoint where my desire to follow the news originated. I delivered papers as a young kid in the early 80s, but I don’t know if that experience is the independent or dependent variable here. My memory is a bit fuzzy. It has been 35 years. Whatever the root explanation, I feel that my students can benefit from reading, listening to, and watching the stories that are swirling all around us. In 2015, I started a feature in my classes called “Get Yourself Plugged In” that some appreciate and dare I say look forward to. Each week, I post stories about a variety of social and political issues on my Twitter feed. Then, on Fridays, I re-post up to two dozen of them in the learning management system newsfeed of every course section that I’m teaching. I do this about 10-12 times a semester. Now, following these stories is not a formal assignment, but we can talk about the issues if anyone has comments or questions. So far, the response has been really positive.
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Marriage? I don’t know much about it. While I’ve been in several long term monogamous relationships since high school, I’ve never been close to reciting vows because the circumstances haven’t been conducive to taking that step. So, periodically I ask some of the married people I trust and respect about their experience of making a lifelong commitment to another person. I sense that most have been forthright with me. Usually, I begin the conversation with a question like “What do you think makes a marriage work?” The one word that I hear most frequently in their responses is “communication,” which doesn’t surprise me because a relationship thrives when it’s done effectively.
Now, the last time I asked someone about their marriage, the person initially mentioned communication and then connected it to his ability to be vulnerable with his wife of thirty years. This revelation surprised me because you rarely hear men discuss opening up to their partner. Unfortunately, socially prescribed gender roles continue to attribute vulnerability largely to women, even though both men and women have to let their guard down if they truly want to be emotionally available to someone. I really appreciate my friend’s willingness to share this intimate detail with me. His story gives me hope for our species.
“How much you wanna risk?”
I grew up in a staunch Catholic household with parents who have been together for almost 46 years. Whenever I visit them, I see two people who really love each other – two people who have never given up on their relationship despite the incredible difficulties they’ve had to confront. The affection they demonstrate toward one another has endured and I find it inspiring. In my opinion, their model, while imperfect, is worthy of emulation. Occasionally, I wonder how they’ve managed to survive this long as a couple when so many people find themselves mired in conflict to the point their relationship totally unravels. I also wonder about how they managed to raise three children who have not followed a similar path. Neither of my siblings are married either. Hmmm.
When compared to other people my age, my life is somewhat atypical. Daily routines. Taste in music. Identity politics. Worldview. These are some of the more obvious ways I’m different. However, one of the more subtle ways is that I’ve sought to embrace my vulnerability regardless of the emotional discomfort that it causes me. Yes, unlearning what I’ve been socialized to accept as normal male behavior is a somewhat challenging process. I believe that you have to be able to share intimate thoughts with a partner for a relationship to be deep, meaningful, and lasting. Furthermore, a partner must understand this and be willing to reciprocate. Over the years some people have coached me to conceal my feelings when it comes to romantic involvement. How does that move a person closer to attaining what he truly wants from a relationship? It doesn’t. The more experiences I have, the more it becomes clear to me that we need to deconstruct part of what it means to be a male in our culture.
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To me, emotional awareness is the sense of self that one develops from reflecting upon life experiences, which includes examining your own feelings along with how your behavior affects the well-being of other people. You have to admit and own your mistakes. You have to commit to changing your behavior when necessary.
None of this is easy work because analysis can be painful and processing takes time. Undoubtedly, it’s complicated; even for those who have a solid understanding of themselves.
The last decade has been a period of incredible growth for me. I don’t want to bury my feelings somewhere inside as if they don’t exist. I never want to be detached. Not only is that mindset unhealthy, but it totally undermines platonic and romantic relationships.
One of the most important realizations I’ve come to as of late is that I want to be understood, validated, respected, and loved and I won’t accept anything less than what I believe I deserve. There, I said it. In addition, it is imperative that I demonstrate the same toward the people I care about because you have to be consistent in your expectations. This composes the bedrock of the human condition as I conceive it.
Now, will there be missteps along the way? Yes, but what matters is how you navigate those missteps in an effort to maintain an upward trajectory.
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Geographic location. Career direction. Interpersonal relationships. There’s a lot in life that can be negotiated, however, time will never make the list. After all, we only have so much to divide up in a variety of different ways. I know who and what matters to me; I’m focused. It probably has something to do with my personality type. Moreover, it has a bit to do with something my father said to me as a teenager: “John, people make time for what’s important to them.” He’s right. Now, I want the people I love to know what they mean to me, and this is reflected, in part, by the time that I make for them. I never want anyone to wonder about how much I care. The older I get, the more I think about the fact that I won’t be here forever. You know, everyday behavior says a lot about a person’s values and priorities. The more responsibilities and/or diversions that you have, the less invested you can be in anything you do. I’ve long believed that the people who claim to be everywhere are really nowhere because it’s simply impossible to effectively divide one’s time, attention, and/or energy between a variety of different obligations. In the end, someone is going to be shortchanged, and, let’s face it, nobody likes feeling penciled in. Do you? I don’t. Ah, but there’s a solution to this problem: be honest with yourself and exercise the power of individual choice by focusing on who and what is truly central to your life.
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Recently, I rewrote a presentation on political parties because I felt that it needed to be updated. While looking for supplemental materials that will be used to generate an in-class discussion, I found polling data from earlier this year that indicates 42% of people surveyed self-identify as “political independents,” i.e. they don’t claim either the Democratic or Republican label. It’s a significant phenomenon that journalists and pundits have discussed at length (click here for a story). Just what does this other label mean in a political system dominated by entrenched parties that leave many dissatisfied with everything from institutional operation to the policies that are enacted? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, independent is defined as follows: “not affiliated with a larger controlling unit…not looking to others for opinions or guidance in conduct.” Here I’ll admit that I’m a bit perplexed by how these folks categorize themselves. It’s not that I think anyone should have to choose a side. That suggestion would be antithetical to our foundational, democratic principles. Instead, I question how truly independent a person is when he or she allows him or herself to be corralled into casting a ballot for a major party candidate as many of them do (click here and here for stories). All that does is legitimize and reinforce a flawed system that some people claim should present voters with more options.
Routines. I really like them. I embrace the consistency of a healthy pattern because repetition brings me comfort. That said, sometimes routines have to be intentionally broken. Why? Challenging yourself is vital to a purposeful existence. A couple of months ago, I decided that I wanted to do something in addition to teaching over the summer. I’ve been in Houston long enough that I felt it was time to get directly involved with a couple of local non-profit groups that work on animal issues. My career is incredibly important to me, but I think it’s imperative to find different avenues and outlets where you’re able to act on your values.
During a committee meeting this past spring, a colleague of mine who teaches environmental science talked about the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition. Never having worked with animals in this capacity, I thought I should become a member and volunteer at their facility (click here to learn more). After attending the orientation in May, I committed to four shifts where I played a couple of different roles and completed a variety of tasks. Immediately, I noticed how everyone in the office was friendly and welcoming. Furthermore, the professionalism of the leadership impressed me. They have instituted a number of procedures so that volunteers know exactly what to do when they arrive and there’s always enough work to stay busy. The organization has numerous animals (e.g. opossum, woodpecker, owl, turtles, squirrels, a Chinese water dragon, and snakes) on site that require care. Unfortunately, they can’t be released back into the wild because they would not survive. So far, I’ve assisted with cleaning their enclosures and preparing their food. I’ve also done everything from washing animal transport containers and sweeping to laminating signs and folding laundry. What surprised me is the number of injured and orphaned animals that people bring into the office on a daily basis. I had no idea about the level of need for the center’s services.
While volunteering to help area wildlife has been a meaningful growth opportunity for me, I will never lose sight of the animal liberation advocacy that I started doing in college. I adopted a vegetarian diet in 1995 and then progressed to veganism three years later because I reject the instrumental view of animals that reduces them to ‘things’ subject to human manipulation (click here to learn more about a cruelty-free lifestyle). Last fall at an anti-fur demonstration, I met the president of a great local group, Vegan for Life, who informed me about the work he and others were doing. Now, I’ve attended a handful of protests organized by different groups in Houston, but I’ve never played a role in planning any of them. In some ways, I had been on an organizing hiatus after spending years at the center of multiple grassroots campaigns (e.g. animal protection, clean government) in two Illinois cities. When I heard about a Vegan for Life public meeting in May, I felt it was time to start doing educational outreach again. Since then, I’ve joined the group’s core members to leaflet at Summer Fest and table at Pride Fest. Between these two events, we distributed countless pamphlets encouraging people to extend moral consideration to sentient creatures that are often viewed as nothing more than a food source. A simple conversation can be so powerful. Our presence generated a number of very positive responses. As an observation, the crowd at Pride Fest appeared far more sympathetic. My theory is that people who have been historically marginalized from society might be more predisposed to rethinking their food choices. After all, injustice transcends the species barrier.
Yes, routines need to be intentionally broken to reinvigorate yourself. This is accomplished, in part, by reflecting on the values that define your life. Individual purpose evolves by seeking new challenges. Moreover, it is developed through reexamining which values compose the core of your being, understanding your social position, surrounding yourself with thoughtful people who share a similar worldview, and then acting in concert with them to improve conditions that warrant attention. Each semester I tell my students the following: nobody has the time to work on every issue, but everybody can make the time to dedicate themselves to one issue. Just imagine how much further along we could be in addressing a myriad of problems if more people made this a priority. I am not a cynic. It can be done.
Please consider donating to either of these organizations because they could use your financial support.
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Some nights you can’t forget. I remember pulling into the driveway of the suburban Chicago home where I spent my adolescence one July evening twenty-five years ago. The sun had not yet totally disappeared from the sky. You could still feel the warmth of that summer day lingering as dusk approached. I longed to take off my work uniform – a blue shirt, slacks, and dress shoes – because they never felt comfortable to me. I never felt at ease in that outfit and don’t know why we had to wear those clothes at the hardware store of all places. After I got out of my car, I walked toward the back step and opened the storm door. Almost immediately, I encountered my mother. She looked rather unsettled and said that she had something to tell me. A painful conversation ensued. I recall hearing the words “Scott died” spoken at some point, but the next few minutes were a total blur. I couldn’t process what she said.
At seventeen, you never think you’re going to hear someone tell you that your childhood friend from down the street is gone, his life energy diffused into an oblivion. It simply doesn’t happen. It simply should not happen – to anyone. The summer before your senior year in high school, your attention is focused elsewhere because there are so many exciting possibilities to explore and decisions to be made about a future that has yet to be determined. Now, maybe, just maybe, infinite possibility contains its own hidden constraint. After all, countless options can inundate a person. You feel like you’re ready for adulthood, but you lack the self-awareness that accompanies being a mature, reflective adult. This is further complicated by another life circumstance: your suburban refuge largely insulated you from a complex world plagued by social ills – the myriad of dangers that existed beyond the edge of your neighborhood. When you grow up in a stable household where your everyday needs are regularly satisfied, there’s a good chance you’ve never experienced emotional trauma. Learning of Scott’s death crushed me that night and the pain I felt simply couldn’t be described. Loving parents attempt to shield their children from all that’s ugly in the world, but what about the dangers that lurk within? Scott’s parents couldn’t save him from the medical condition that claimed his life and my parents couldn’t save me from my inability to let a thought go.
Weeks earlier, Scott and my sister were talking late one night in the same room where my mother told me about his passing. I came downstairs from my bedroom to get something to eat in the kitchen and I saw the glow of the light under the door at the end of the hallway. I could hear their voices. While he had become my first true friend when my family moved to Crystal Lake in 1985, we had been estranged for quite some time. Honestly, I don’t recall the exact reason why we parted ways. I think it was a combination of factors. I know we had our personality differences. In addition, we embarked upon distinctive paths. Scott leaned more toward the athletic crowd, but I’m not sure how much he embedded himself with them. Disinterested in much of what my high school offered, I eventually found a home on the periphery of the punk rock subculture. Something about him made me angry and I didn’t understand or like how he and my sister had become close to one another. Upon leaving the kitchen, I walked toward the room where they were hanging out and I stopped just outside the door. If I close my eyes, I can see myself standing there. I listened to their conversation for what felt like a few minutes. My heart pounding in my chest, I contemplated knocking on the door, walking in there, and offering a heartfelt apology. I wanted to shake his hand and tell him how sorry I was for letting our friendship slip away and for all the times I slighted him because he never did anything wrong. Instead, I returned upstairs to my bedroom and went to sleep. That decision remains the greatest mistake I’ve ever made in my life to date.
There are experiences that turn your world on end – that make you question yourself and what kind of human being you’ve become. Initially, the shock of his death wouldn’t let me breathe. Then, a wave of regret came like an emotional deluge. I could feel the thoughts pulling me under. One of my closest childhood friends had lost his life before he really had the opportunity to explore the world beyond our neighborhood and the awkwardness of our teenage years. What’s more, my apology would never be received. I find the irreversibility of death as perplexing as it is unnerving. Scientists claim that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it merely changes forms. People of faith claim that there’s an afterlife waiting for us. Me, I’m not sure about either explanation. Not long after my mother told me what happened to Scott, I walked out of the front door of the house alone. Staring up at the clear night sky, I wondered if he could see me. I longed to talk to him and felt so helpless. While the shock has long since dissipated, I sense the regret will always remain.
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When I listen to Ignite’s A War Against You (2016), I can’t figure out if it’s an arena rock-influenced melodic hardcore record or a melodic hardcore-influenced arena rock record. In my opinion, many of the guitar leads and chord progressions, combined with the vocals and slick production, make it sound like more of the latter. Hardcore purists may deride them for continuing down a path that began on A Place Called Home (2000) and continued with Our Darkest Days (2006), but this evolution has generated some well-crafted anthems that fit into a solid catalog. I like the fact that they challenge the standard formula by incorporating different elements to forge a unique sound that sets them apart. Furthermore, they shouldn’t put out another Call on My Brothers (1995). As one might expect, the lyrical content is thoughtful again here as they address a number of political issues (e.g. race, environmental degradation). However, the most interesting theme that singer Zoli Teglas explores is his family’s experience in, and decision to leave, Hungary after its government fell under the dictatorial control of the former Soviet Union. Songs like “Where I’m From” deliver a poignant history lesson: “Great grandfather worked himself to death – it all got stolen away. Nothing left for us to look back upon – realized that we couldn’t stay.” While this isn’t the first time he’s addressed the topic (listen to “Poverty for All” and “A Place Called Home”), I would like to hear more about the effects of communism and the challenges that accompany immigrating to another country. Without question, there’s plenty of substance on this album for those of us who appreciate hardcore’s politics, intensity, and ethos.
As a teacher, it would be really easy to resign yourself to defeat when students don’t follow directions or meet your expectations. Those of us in education have all been there. You grade a round of assignments or exams that leave you feeling befuddled and exasperated. At times like that, I think we really need to guard against adopting a cynical attitude about student capabilities. Yes, we’re frustrated, but that doesn’t mean our efforts are devoid of meaning or that we haven’t positively influenced anyone. I think that during the most difficult of times we must reflect on how we approach our craft and focus on developing new ways to increase the likelihood that our students will improve in the future. Sometimes we need to adapt, i.e. we need to be more mindful of our audience because they’re a major reason why we went into this profession in the first place. To me, self-examination presents a more challenging path to walk because you assess the choices you make and the implications of those choices. I believe that students have the capacity to reach the goals that I set if I more effectively communicate my objectives and directions and revisit my methods when and where necessary.
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