5 Life Shaping Lessons in 100 Days

Some time back, I wrote about what can happen in 100 days. It was related to how quickly life changes, how it moves on, and how we forget even in the wake of the horrible trial like that of Caylee Anthony. Life goes on and new lessons are learned in 100 days (or less).

Such is the situation with my family and the personal lessons we are learning over these past 100 days. In these months, my in-laws, because of significant health care issues and the medical supervision they need have been moved into a nursing home. Additionally in this time, my father in-law has moved into Hospice care following an unsuccessful heart surgery; end of life care for what is now a rather immediate terminal condition. Once again, I am made aware that we cannot predict the next 100 days of our lives—let alone the next minute.

There are lessons, however, I am learning in these days that are forever imprinted on my soul and conscious mind to use as guides for my own life and future. These are life shaping lessons that are ones I believe we must all understand to live well in the time we have on this planet.

Lesson One: Your material possessions should never define who you are
My in-laws’ 82 years of life and material accumulation have been reduced in the past 100 days to an 18 x 15 foot room (I know because I measured it). I have been responsible to help my wife clear out their house of material possessions. I have thrown away so much that they held sacred because no one wants it; Goodwill Industries is getting a large share or college students who need furniture getting another hefty helping. What we have and accumulate in life are tools to use but should not define who we are. Hold all the things you own loosely, not being afraid to give them away or discard them when not needed. What you treasure someone will ultimately discard as so much clutter or trash. Travel light in this world. (And thus by corollary don’t buy in the first place what you don’t need and use or invest your financial resources more wisely. Savings is a really good thing to have….it gives you options)

Lesson Two: Prepare for your own health future in your working years
Related to lesson one is preparation for one’s own health future and the options you are preparing to have in your later years. We WASTE, and I don’t mean this as a literary figurative image, significant financial resources while we are alive on stuff no one will want in the end; therefore using up valuable resources needed in old age for health care and living with dignity.

We don’t think about this when we are young but I have witnessed a full nursing home (with a waiting list to get in) where long life has been reduced to 18 x 15 foot rooms, normally shared with another person (thus a 9 x 7.5 foot cubicle separated by a curtain, if you are lucky). If you have enough resources available you might find space in assisted living or a retirement community, but that is a fantasy unless you spend your working life preparing for it. Wasting money on things one does not need or making poor financial decisions during one’s working years will leave very few choices when one is old. If you don’t plan now, you will reap the reward for that lack of preparation in the future. Take a minute to read Aesop’s “Grasshopper and the Ant” fable (and if you don’t believe me, take a field trip to a nursing home beyond singing there during the Christmas season for ½ hour). The delusion is thinking someone else will pay for this or Medicare has too. They will….but you won’t be pleased with the accommodations.

Lesson Three: Dying peacefully in your sleep is a fantasy we should hope will happen
In the last 100 days, I have witnessed that slipping away in one’s sleep is not the norm for the end of our lives. I have witnessed rooms of people who are alone, dying slowly by the tick-tock of the clock where a few minutes become an eternity of time. Most people I observe are in a slow, long, sometimes painful process of dying. We often lament those who die unexpectedly by a heart attack or accident. But in what I am witnessing it is the blessing not to be feared. What should be feared is the long, painful struggle toward death that I’ve observed by most people in the nursing facility that I am visiting regularly. (This too has a corollary: make nursing home visitation a part of your life choices of service. There are many lonely people in these places…no one visiting them. A place where the television or the occasional nurses’ aid dispensing medication or cleaning is your only companion. And by a second corollary, don’t tell people—or their families–you will visit them if you actually don’t take the initiative to set the time aside and do it. The most honest comment I’ve had to date is from an elderly neighbor of my in-laws who said, “I would tell you, call me if you need anything, but that’s not true. Best of wishes to you.”)

Lesson Four: In the US Western culture, we live in delusion by using nursing homes to keep us separated by the realities of aging and death
Nursing homes, at least for me and in my observation, have become a repository for the aging and sick, so that we can live a delusional state during our younger, healthier years. Somehow we believe we will never die—and keeping the aging and infirmed separate from us keeps us in this fantasy worldview. We are all going to die—you, me, everyone. It may be quick or long, but we are not living forever here on this planet. The US culture via media, advertising and all the books on a blissful heaven with streets of gold are a means of self deception to live “happily ever after.” (By corollary, I personally am in the camp of British theologian, NT Wright related to heaven and the afterlife. I don’t fall into the norm of the evangelical position here. If you want know my position, see the April 16, 2012 issue of Time Magazine, “Rethinking Heaven,” by Jon Meacham)

Lesson Five: People can rise to the occasion and exhibit the best of the human spirit and character
Lest you read this post and slide into depression or “doom and gloom,” let me end with a word of hope (which is also my conviction and belief about the afterlife as well–hope). I have witnessed the human spirit and the most cherished character qualities of humanity rise to the occasion for what is needed in times of struggle and heartache. Again in the West, we love our heroes. But I have observed the true heroes in this world over these 100 days; those who rise to the occasion over long periods of time and who are not a flash of heroism as we dramatize constantly (it has its place, instant heroism, but it is not the norm to be coveted or to gauge our lives against). I have watched my wife—and other family members in the nursing home–as my prime example. She has worked diligently to be present while being employed full time, giving dignity, and being an advocate for her parents in that 18 x 15 room. She has worked hard…there is no other descriptor—to do what is needed. I, too, have learned what being a husband is about. It is taking care of all the chores in the house so there is a place of safety when my wife does come home. It is hugging and loving as a companion or spouse and not as a sexual, romantic gesture—just being present. It is knowing to keep my mouth shut and opinions to myself on how to do something. It is just being there when needed, and engaging when asked….to bring some chocolate or a diet soda “just because” to that 18 x 15 room. To BE LOVE in the most important ways possible.

So my advice, dear reader? Evaluate your life now. Take stock of what is important and what is illusionary. Plan and prepare for your future (no one….I mean no one….will take care of that for you). Learn about aging and dying slowly….read some Hospice materials. Make nursing home visits a normal part of your life service, not just a Christmas feel good visit to sing a few songs and make old people smile. And learn about real love, commitment and fidelity beyond romance, so that relationships can be sustained and grow over a life time.

Blessings to you for this day, in the reflection, and the commitment to undertake understanding. Grace and peace.
David Neidert

“A Box of Crayons Changed Everything”

I know the answer to the question, “Where were you on the day JFK was shot?” I was getting ready to leave my fourth grade classroom with Mrs. Hoffman and my classmates at Jackson Elementary School in Ohio to head home from a day of student toil. The announcement came from the principal over the brown, wooden, high gloss varnished loud speaker box that hung above the chalkboard in every classroom. That speaker was there for daily announcements that all little kids needed to know (like what’s for lunch), and for sharing important announcements (like parent teacher conferences) or the siren that occasionally blared ‘telling’ us to hurry to the bomb shelters to practice our nuclear holocaust drills.

I grew up in a sea of change in the United States from 1954 to my high school graduation in 1973. I didn’t know how turbulent the times where. It is only in retrospect that we learn the lessons of our lives and the power of those days unfolding around us.

These years carried many national events that changed this country and the world. In 1960, American advisers were sent to South Vietnam and would be followed by US troops in 1965. In 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man to orbit Earth in a spacecraft and the race was on toward the heavens. Kennedy was shot in 1963. The first men landed on the moon in 1969 (I was in Washington DC that night at my mom’s relative Joyce’s house while we were on family vacation; the landing beaming at us from the Black and White TV set), and Woodstock drew 400,000 people to experience flower power and love. In 1970, Ohio National Guard soldiers fired on (and killed) Kent State University students protesting against the US invasion of Cambodia (just a stone’s throw from my home and where my mother graduated from college) and Vietnam ended for the US in 1973 (and I was thankful as a high school senior since my selective service draft number was in the top ten to go to Southeast Asia to serve in an unpopular war).

But there was a part of my life I didn’t know anything about growing up in an all white world. I didn’t really understand the civil rights movement. It was happening around me, but I was not paying attention to it because of school, football, girls, and well, girls. There were society altering events going on like the Jobs and Freedom March on Washington in 1963, the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968. Except for Kennedy’s death, the social plight of my fellow Americans went undetected by me as I tried to make sense of a white teenager’s life.

I sit now, at another point in my life….where the world has converged and I have chosen to know that history of the civil rights and the freedoms sought and fought for by my African American brothers and sisters. It was sparked by my now 18 year old biracial African American daughter when she was only 5 years old. We were coloring a picture one day after a preschool lesson on MLK when she said, “Martin Luther King was a great man.” “Yes,” I replied…”a very great man,” figuring this had been the subject of some preschool celebration. “I am glad he worked hard,” she continued. “Yes,” I replied as we filled in the lines of the picture. “I am glad he lived so I could not be afraid and be free.” That statement from my brown skinned African American daughter startled me. At five, she had connected with a time in history I knew nothing about because she already, somehow, identified with the skin tone of MLK and what he preached 30 years before her birth. Tears began softly rolling down my cheeks. “Yes,” I said…”you don’t have to be afraid and you are free.” That exchange over a box of Crayola Crayons changed my life and brought me fully into the time I had overlooked as a young man growing up in a world I did not really understand.

I have chosen these last 13 years to honor MLK day, not just on that day alone, but by reading books written by African Americans, and trying to understand this time in the history of our nation (and world). I try to understand this world from the perspective of my African American son-in-law for the sake of him and for my biracial grandsons. And I choose to consider this for my 18 year old daughter who is “free and does not need to be afraid.” I need to protect that for her and others intentionally….not simply by chance.

So on this day, I invite you to begin by watching the “I Have a Dream” speech of MLK from August 1963 in Washington DC. These 17 minutes are an important place to start. The speech of Martin Luther King Jr., is essential for us all. As he says in it “our destinies and freedom are intertwined.” It is a truth I missed long ago, which I will not miss again.

Blessings to you for this day. Grace and peace as you more fully come to understand the fullest meaning of our Declaration of Independence when our fore bearers wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” July 4, 1776

David Neidert

“You’re Probably a Have”

If you bought or own the tools to buy something online this year, you are in an elite economic group; the haves. This is the result of globalization and a growing divide in our national and world economy. It is a two-tiered economy of haves and have-nots. You may not have thought about it before and maybe don’t consider yourself in the ‘have’ group of wealthy people (as we have traditionally thought of this term). But if you own a bank account, credit or debit card, a computer, smart phone, and internet (whether dial up or broadband) you possess the tools to be a part of the thriving global economy.

Choice-what we treasure as people-is at your fingertips. If you possess none of the tools I mentioned above, you are relegated to the selection of the stores or shops in close proximity to you. If the merchandise you want isn’t on the shelf in front of you at the time you are in a store, you are forced to purchase what lays before you…no choice.

The global economy raises social and spiritual questions for me. How will we engage our world economically? What is my responsibility as a human being to help the have nots? How will the haves connect with the have nots if it is easier and easier to isolate ourselves by the touch of a mouse for purchasing what we need or desire? As a believer in Christ, what is my spiritual responsibility to others less fortunate? If I can purchase electronically, I actually have no further need to even be in proximity myself to those who do not have resources available to them. I can by choice become more isolated, and by implication make others irrelevant to me and my situation.

I don’t have many or all the answers to the ramification of this kind of world. There are many good books and those speaking about it in our world. Ron Sider is one I recommend who might help you (as he has me) think through this perplexity.

But from the computer sitting on my lap in my wireless connected, broadband home (I know I am a have), I want to challenge you to consider your response both socially and spiritually. I cannot answer all the questions you might raise in your own heart, but I encourage you to consider working through your local church (if you participate in one), work with the Salvation Army, United Way Agencies, and also global agencies that are trying to help those caught in the lowest tier of our global economy. One agency I recommend is the India Gospel League. I have personally witnessed the changes in people’s lives through this organization on my own travels in India. Or “Word Made Flesh;” an organization that a young friend of mine has given his life to for the purpose of bringing peace and equality in a divided world. These two agencies I highly recommend to you as a have.

You’re a have because you are reading this blog. The question is, “What will you do about your status through your actions and in the attitude of your heart?”

Blessings for this day…grace and peace to you.
David Neidert