My Dad, Who Made the World Better, Take 2

ScannedImageRecently I was going through some old files when I found a back issue of the Mennonite Weekly Review, with an article about my dad on the front page. Back in 2003, the periodical had taken notice of a “silent dialogue” he’d started about a controversial subject.

I remember it well. When his sign protesting the war met with surreptitious changes, altering its meaning, his response was characteristic of him as both a mental health worker and a Mennonite. Instead of shutting down, he sought more engagement.

In late winter of 2003, the US-led invasion of Iraq prompted Dad to place a sandwich board sign in the front yard. One side read “The Nations Say No to War” and the other said “The Whole World is Watching.” (Originally he’d worn this placard at a protest march.)

At some point that spring, someone took a pen to these antiwar sentiments, flipping the meaning with the addition of a few letters.

ScannedImage-2Dad didn’t get mad. Instead, he decided to invite passersby to participate in the commentary. He posted a blank sign, attached a permanent marker, and waited. The sign became an anonymous forum for the neighborhood to share a range of deep feelings about war.

Back in the day, at Goshen College, we had the opinion board, where anyone could scribble their random two cents. Entertaining, enlightening, enraging at times, the content was a freewheeling snapshot of campus controversies and dilemmas. Dad’s more targeted opinion board showed the diverse positions among his neighbors: concern for slain children, desire to stand behind both military and government, gratitude for free speech, comparison to Vietnam, prayers for peace, and so on.

The safety of that anonymous pen reminds me a bit of today’s comment threads online, where faceless speakers can quickly turn meanspirited. For the most part in Dad’s case, the discussion was civil, though passions were clearly high. He posted a thank-you note after the white space was full to the edges, and took the sign down.

After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2011, he began to go through decades of accumulated belongings and papers. We searched for the yard signs in the basement, but they didn’t turn up, and I’m not sure there are any photographs. I was happy to find this somewhat crumpled record of his bridge-building efforts.

ScannedImage-3I lost a precious father and friend upon his death, and my family will never be the same. But this clipping reminds me that the wider community is also poorer for his absence.

From Dismemberment to Oneness

Rebecca Solnit, on how leprosy numbs the extremities so that sufferers don’t realize when they are damaging their own tissues:

“The disease strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of.”

She speaks of a kind of dismemberment, of patients who feel no pain, so they injure themselves, even blind themselves.

She quotes a missionary doctor: “One of the boys said to me, “My hands and feet don’t feel part of me. They are like tools I can use. But they aren’t really me. I can see them, but in my mind they are dead.'”

Reading, it struck me that this statement could also sum up the dominant cultural attitude toward our own earth home. Though we belong to her and she to us, for so long we’ve disowned her, exploiting her riches as just so many dead “resources.”

We’ve been operating under the delusion that we are separate from the biosphere and the myriad life forms that share it—and separate from each other too. The results are catastrophic. If we lack feeling for each other, the soil under our feet, the waters that flow, and the skies above, we won’t consider these worthwhile of care.

"Holding Hands," by Paige Shoemaker, via Flickr Creative Commons

“Holding Hands,” by Paige Shoemaker, via Flickr Creative Commons

But perhaps that’s changing now, bit by bit.

More and more of us are waking up to our empathetic selves. We’re feeling a kinship not just with other humans but with the earth herself. We’re re-membering our entire human family and our deep connection to the planet that holds us.

I think of the empathy displayed by Antoinette Tuff as she disarmed a young mentally ill man bent on violence in her school. In the midst of her fear, this bookkeeper found a way to connect with the young would-be shooter, seeing him as a hurting soul. Her ability to reach him on a human level may have averted a major tragedy.

Meanwhile, this summer a group has been tracing the route of the Keystone XL Pipeline in the Great Plains. The pipeline, as I posted in May, would allow the release of enormous levels of carbon—enough to create irreversible climate change.

Trans Canada Keystone Oil Pipeline, by shannonpatrick17, via Flickr Creative Commons

Trans Canada Keystone Oil Pipeline, by shannonpatrick17, via Flickr Creative Commons

Taking both a physical and a spiritual journey through the heart of North America, Compassionate Earth Walk aims to nourish the earth, while inviting all humans to return to oneness in the community of life.

From the story on

“We walk in response to climate change and in gratitude for the earth which has given freely to us for so long. We walk as an act of healing both symbolic and literal, including healing of the walkers, the land, the communities impacted by the pipeline, and the whole human consciousness of separation.”

No more numbness. No more dismemberment. The pain of our suffering planet and fellow earthlings might be difficult to face, but feeling it means we’re awake. It means we can care.