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Wed, Jul 30, 2014 01:19 PM
Issue of July 23, 2014
A hope note
A hope note
Dr. Wayne Willis reflects on life and hope.

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The Great Disconnect

July 30, 2014 | 10:27 AM

A car salesman the other day told me that in five years cars will no longer be built with CD players because we'll be getting all our music and audio books through our smartphones.

It's hard to exaggerate how digital media has taken over our lives. Michael Wolff, writer and media critic, claims that adults now spend 11 hours a day on digital media and 23 hours a week texting. He writes: "We are only at the dawn of the age of immersive and total connectivity, living in a world that is once-removed. It is surely one of those historic moments, as from the farm to the city, from hand-tooled to industrial production, from horse to auto, now from reality to para-reality."

Fourteen years ago, in his groundbreaking book "Bowling Alone," Robert Putnam showed how disconnected from family, friends and neighbors we were becoming. Drawing on half a million interviews, he showed how we were signing fewer petitions, belonging to fewer organizations that meet and knowing neighbors less. More people were bowling but not bowling in leagues; they were going bowling alone.

In "Affluenza," the authors point out that in the 1950s families sat with neighbors laughing at Red Skelton. As late as the 1980s, we still watched "Family Ties" as a family. But somewhere in the mid-1990s, each family member watched his or her own TV; isolation and passivity had become the new lifestyle.

A Randy Glasbergen cartoon features a man sitting at his computer, his wife looking on. He writes: "Dear Andy. It's your father again. How have you been? Your mother and I are fine. We miss you. Please sign off your computer and come downstairs for something to eat. Love, Dad."

Are we evolving or devolving? Are we happier now? Are we a better people?

Dr. Wayne Willis

Taking stock

July 23, 2014 | 10:37 AM

Sequoyah, the great Cherokee leader, inventor of an alphabet for his people, never became a chief because he was born with a club foot. Only the unblemished, according to Cherokee standards, could ever become a chief. Disqualified from serving his people as their chief, lame Sequoyah became a medicine man, a great role model and a healer for his people.

Nazi Germans believed that blemished individuals like Sequoyah were worthless and a terrible drain on their economy. They thought of the poor, sick, old and disabled as "useless eaters" who needed to be exterminated.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, written by Essenes who had withdrawn from society and lived in the desert to keep themselves pure, were quite clear on who would and who would not be welcome at the impending Great Messianic Banquet: "All the wise men of the congregation, the learned and the intelligent, men whose way is perfect and men of ability, the men of renown" would be invited, but "no man smitten in his flesh, paralyzed in his feet or hands, or lame, or blind, or deaf, or dumb, or with a visible blemish, none of these shall come." Imperfects like Sequoyah, useless eaters and women would have no seat at the table.

How interesting that Jesus, a contemporary of the Essenes, taught his followers the very opposite: "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and you will be blessed." (Luke 14).

Emma Lazarus put these words in the mouth of Lady Liberty greeting the newly-arrived to our shores: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ... Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me."

Gandhi wrote: "The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members."

How is our civilization measuring up?

Dr. Wayne Willis


July 16, 2014 | 11:34 AM

"The self-made man."

Was it Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Horatio Alger or Andrew Carnegie who first claimed to be self-made?

The critically-acclaimed television show "Shark Tank" introduces its panel members as "self-made multi-millionaires and billionaires."

Henry Clay may have introduced the term in 1832 when he spoke of "enterprising self-made men who acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor."

Whatever its origin, it has come to stand for Americans who achieve great things without much help from family name or inherited wealth. Andrew Jackson is often cited as the first self-made American president, the first one not "well-born."

Can everyone with a work ethic and a positive attitude make it to the top? I know several individuals who, trying to get ahead, work long hours at several jobs but still live modestly and barely make ends meets.

Some, like Mike Myatt, believe that the concept of the self-made man is largely bogus. Myatt, regarded by many as America's top CEO coach, tells executives: "Other than in a Rambo movie, there is no such thing as an army of one."

Young Columbian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez writes in "The Sound of Things Falling": "No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people's wills, with little or no participation from our own decisions. Struggling against their effects is all I can do: repair the damages, take best advantage of the benefits."

Moses said to the Israelites on the verge of entering the Promised Land: "Beware lest your silver and gold increase and you say to yourself when you have become successful, 'I'm rich, and I've earned it all myself' " (Deuteronomy 8).

If you have "made it," do you give any credit to anyone else?

Dr. Wayne Willis

Overcoming our odysseys

July 09, 2014 | 12:14 PM

"No quest is worth pursuing that does not require you to pass many tests and take numerous risks. The hardest tests of all show how determined you are to live your dream and how strong your heart really is." —Robert D. Ballard

Ballard speaks from personal experience. He is history's most successful underwater archaeologist. He led expeditions that finally found the Titanic, the Bismarck and John Kennedy's PT-109.

History's most famous story of a hero overcoming obstacles is Homer's Odyssey. After fighting the Trojan War, it took Odysseus 10 difficult years to make his way back home.

One of his daunting challenges was getting past the island of the Sirens. The Sirens were beautiful singers who were so seductive, so beguiling, that no man could resist them. Odysseus devised a plan. He ordered all his crew to plug their ears with beeswax (so they could not hear the Sirens' irresistible songs) and to tie him securely to the mast and ignore any pleas he might make to untie him until the ship had passed the island.

When the ship got within earshot of the Sirens, Odysseus (who didn't plug his ears because he wanted to hear the Sirens sing) became a man possessed, totally captivated. He ordered his crew to untie him immediately or be executed, but they couldn't hear him because their ears were full of beeswax. As he struggled to free himself from the ropes, strong men lashed him even tighter and re-knotted the ropes' ends.

The captain and crew sailed safely beyond the island.

Why has this story endured 2,500 years? Its message is clear: When we face a huge trial on our individual odysseys, we should draw up a strong plan and enlist the aid of our crew in staying the course.

Independence, indeed

July 02, 2014 | 10:31 AM

Three memories come to me when I think about Independence Day. The first two you would expect from an old history buff.

The 1776 Declaration of Independence seemed foolish, if not crazy, to most of the world. How dare 13 upstart governments declare that they are no longer subjects of the invincible British Empire! But Jefferson's statement that "all men are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" became the moral standard for freedom-loving people throughout the world, but only after the colonies won a Revolutionary War.

The 1863 battle at Gettysburg, "four score and seven years" later, tested "whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." More than 40,000 men were killed or wounded at Gettysburg. On July 3, the failure of Pickett's charge up Cemetery Ridge secured the survival of the one-nation dream.

I'm grateful that teachers made me memorize Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the first few sentences of the Declaration of Independence.

My third Independence Day memory goes back to 1962, when I was working my way through college by selling books door-to-door in West Texas. I sold more books and made more money on July 4 than on any day that summer. Farm families were at home cooking out and feeling good, good enough to fork out cash for a new dictionary or Bible to this Tennessee boy who convinced them he had a book they should not be without. I collected more than $500 cash that day, enough for my college tuition that fall. They may have bought because they felt sorry for me, having to work on a holiday, but I smiled all the way back to my little rented room.

Is this a great country or what?

Dr. Wayne Willis

Life happens

June 25, 2014 | 10:19 AM

Robert graduated from high school at the top of his class and won a scholarship to Dartmouth. Bored, disappointed and missing Elinor White, his fiancé and high school co-valedictorian who had enrolled in another college, he dropped out of Dartmouth after one semester. Returning home, he tried to convince Elinor to marry him immediately. She insisted that she would have to finish college first and that he would first have to have some success at writing poetry.

Robert began to hear reports that she was dating other men. One letter from her convinced him that their relationship, already very tense, was over. Depressed out of his mind, at age 20, he took a train and then a steamboat to the most depressing place he had ever heard of, the Dismal Swamp on the border of Virginia and North Carolina.

It was dark when he arrived, but he started wading into the Dismal Swamp, full of vines and logs and water moccasins, not caring whether he lived or died. Ten miles into the swamp, he came upon a boat of duck hunters who transported him back to civilization.

Surviving that suicidal period, Robert Frost became one of America's greatest poets. After she finished college, Elinor married Robert. Their personal lives were full of grief and loss. Four of their six children died young.

Robert Frost died full of years, at 88. Inscribed on his tombstone are these words: "I Had a Lover's Quarrel with the World."

When we were young, most of us had some "wish to die" days. Possibly all the grownups reading this are glad that they did not act on those feelings.

Beware of any behavior that is permanent and irreversible. 'Tis far better to carry on a lover's quarrel with the world.

Dr. Wayne Willis

True tales

June 18, 2014 | 02:52 PM

This is the true tale of two mothers and two sons.

For this mother's son, school was from the beginning a disaster. However hard he tried, reading, writing and arithmetic were unfathomable mysteries to him. He may have been dyslexic. His parents and teachers were confounded, but his doting mother believed in him unconditionally. "If you become a soldier," she told him, "you'll be a general. If you become a monk, you'll end up as the Pope." Her son was Pablo Picasso.

The other mother's son, Robert Benchley, beginning with the Harvard Lampoon and then through many articles published in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, achieved fame as an author, humorist and actor. The future did not look very promising for Robert when he was 9. His older brother, Edmund, the apple of his mother Maria's eye, not long after he graduated from West Point, was killed in the Spanish-American War. When a bicycle messenger delivered the notification telegram to his mother, Robert, who was standing by her side, heard her cry out, "Why could it not have been Robert?" Mrs. Benchley repeatedly apologized to Robert and worked hard to atone for that unfiltered, grief-stricken, straight-from-the-gut utterance.

We all carry internal, invisible wounds or gifts related to sentences spoken to or about us when we were young. How can old sentences control us?

When we take curses to heart, we can allow them to script us for life. "You are unloved" may be the most toxic script of all to overcome; however, many people consider the source — and the circumstances — and move ahead.

A parent's sincere, prostrate apology and appeal for forgiveness, as with Maria Benchley, sometimes can help us move ahead.

Affirmation, like that of Dona Maria Picasso to son Pablo, can become a guiding blessing that lasts a lifetime.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Happy Father's Day

June 11, 2014 | 08:27 AM

This is the true tale of two fathers and two children.

I once worked with a highly moral, highly successful woman who, for more than 30 years, had sought her father's approval. He had never molested or abused her. He had provided well for her material needs. He was a good citizen and an active church member. But he had never found it within him to say directly to his daughter, in any arrangement of words, "You're a good daughter, and I'm proud of you."

The night before he underwent a high-risk, potentially lethal surgery, sitting on the side of his bed holding his hand, his daughter summoned up the courage to ask: "Dad, do we have any unfinished business? Is there anything you'd like to say to me?" She waited — the yearning of her soul etched on her face — and, after a long pause, heard these words: "You know where my insurance papers are. And you know where my will is. And you know I love all my family." Dad missed the prompt; daughter missed the blessing she craved.

Sam Keene, popular professor, philosopher and author, delivered this tribute to his father as his father lay dying: "Dad, you have always been there whenever any of us children needed you. And across the years you have given us the best single gift that any parent could give: you took delight in us! In all sorts of ways, you let us know that you were glad we were here, that we had value in your eyes, that our presence was a joy and not a burden to you."

If you have trouble expressing love for a child or a parent, I have the game plan for you:

1. Memorize nine words: "Have I told you lately that I love you?"

2. Go deliver.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Attitude is everything

June 04, 2014 | 11:29 AM

He was adopted when he was 6 weeks old. At age 2, he came down with a mysterious mal-absorption syndrome that caused him to stop growing for several years.

Scott Hamilton's life took a turn for the better when he discovered ice skating. He loved hockey but preferred figure skating. Compensating for his small frame (5 feet, 2 inches tall), he competed with Herculean energy and determination. He won four consecutive national and world titles and then, in 1984, the Olympic gold medal.

In 1997, Hamilton was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Years after recovering from that, he came down with a brain tumor that was surgically removed. An artery was nicked during that procedure and physicians had to use another procedure to remove an aneurysm. One side effect of the whole ordeal was the loss of two-thirds of the vision in his right eye.

At 57, Scott Hamilton lives in Franklin, Tenn., with his wife and two children. He runs the Scott Hamilton CARES program that shares online information about chemotherapy and provides one-on-one mentorship for cancer patients. He works as a volunteer with Special Olympics. In 2009, he published "The Great Eight: How to Be Happy (Even When You Have Every Reason to Be Miserable)." The "eight" are his eight principles of living positively.

Two things I heard him say in interviews I wrote down and memorized as soon as I heard them. Coming from him, I thought, made them "keepers." Once, when he was being interviewed, someone used the cliché about seeing the glass half empty or half full, and Hamilton interrupted: "As long as you are alive and kicking, as long as you have another day, you have a full glass."

The second insight is like the first: "The only disability in life is a bad attitude."

Dr. Wayne Willis

Do you choose hope?

May 28, 2014 | 10:39 AM

"Hope is rooted in the spirit" —Mark Hertsgaard

The ground was so saturated from rain that, when I pulled on the dandelion plant, the entire taproot slid out. The slender white root was 11 inches long!

Human hope, like the dandelion, has deep roots. Hope reaches down to our core. It is our nature, as is the nature of every living thing — from bacteria to whales, from the sequoia to the dandelion — to do everything it can to live and thrive.

Albert Schweitzer summed up his reverence for life philosophy in one sentence: "I am life that wants to live, surrounded by life that wants to live." We, like all that lives, are hardwired for hope.

"Hope is chosen by the heart" —Mark Hertsgaard

Unlike the dandelion, we humans vote daily, consciously or unconsciously, for or against hope. Each year, about 50,000 Americans, in a population of more than 300 million, complete suicide. Many more of us choose risky behaviors — poor eating habits, under-exercising, tobacco use, alcohol abuse, road rage, tanning booths, distracted driving — that fight our innate hopefulness. Scripture says: "I set before you life and death, blessings and curses; choose life" (Deuteronomy 30: 19). Hope is a choice.

"Hope is guided by the mind" —Mark Hertsgaard

A dandelion does not lie awake at night strategizing how it should behave tomorrow, but we use our minds to choose whether to fly off the handle or extend a hand of friendship, to care only about No. 1 or jump in the water and rescue the perishing, to spoil the land or plant an orchard, knowing that we will not live long enough to taste its fruit.

Milton wrote: "The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven."

Dr. Wayne Willis
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