Dr. Joe

The Meaning of the New Year

I found my old copy of “Tale of two Cities” by Charles Dickens.  I’ve had it since high school.  I never got by the first sentence.  I took the shortcut and read the cliff notes. At the time, Dickens was much too intimidating.  However, I read that sentence a thousand times.  Its brilliance of metaphor makes it the most profound first sentence in the annals of English literature.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way, in short, it was an age so like the present age that some of its noisiest authorities insisted, for good or evil, on its being received in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Dickens tries to tell us that the years that have passed us by and the years that still lie ahead are interwoven and connected and mesh with this phenomenology called life.  The bittersweet duality of life is the experience of life…you have to confront both pleasure and pain.  And…whether we realize it or not, the world is unfolding before us as it should.  It’s what happens between January 1 and December 31.

Throughout the world, New Year’s is the most celebrated event.  Dating back 4,000 years to ancient Babylon it was initially commemorated in the spring.  However, in 153 B.C. the Roman Senate changed the date to January 1.  The initial celebrants used the concept of the New Year as a way of improving themselves and their world.  They did something different; something new that somehow would change their lot.  Thus, the New Year’s resolution was born.  They saw it as an opportunity for new beginnings!  It’s a rebirth!

On New Year’s Day when the festivities are over, many of us become serious about life.  We take our values to heart.  At the turning of the year, we look at our collective lives and we look at our own individual lives, and we ask…”What we ought to do to make them better.”  It has to do with a course of action, a sense of determination to do something; to solve a problem that surely must transcend losing weight and getting in shape.

Every resolution you make implies that you are in control of your self, that you are not a victim fated by circumstance, controlled by stars, owned by luck but that you are an individual who can make choices to improve your life.  We make resolutions because we strive to be happy…and happiness come from the achievement of values.  New Year’s makes the attainment of happiness real and possible. This is the meaning of New Year’s and why it is so psychologically important and significant to people throughout the world.  It’s a second chance!

Walt Whitman’s Poem “Oh me, oh Life” expresses so beautifully the tremendous potential that we possess to make our lives extraordinary during the coming year.   Poets never tell you directly…you must read between the lines.

“Oh me, oh life!  Of the questions of these recurring.  Of the endless trains of the faithless, Of the cities filled with the foolish.  What good amid these?  Oh me, oh life.  Answer?  That you are here.  That life exists-an identity.  That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

What will you contribute?  What will your verse be?

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Life is Good

I always enjoy saying hello to Anthony Portantino.  You know him; our city councilman, for La Canada.  He greets you with a smile, an engaging handshake, and a demeanor that’s sooo… ‘East Coast Italian.’  For a moment, I’m back in the Bronx hanging out in front of my dad’s delicatessen pitching nickels against the wall.  But that’s only part of the experience.  What really captures me is what Mr. Portantino says…maybe you’ve heard it… “Life is Good!”

Yea, “Life is Good,” and that’s a good perspective.  Recognizing the potential of our existence is indeed the first step toward fulfillment.  And fulfillment, especially this time of year seems to be the method to our madness.   However, that which makes life good is relative.  Pondering the question we might all arrive at different answers.  Believe me; it’s very easy to define what makes a good life.  The real challenge lies not in the defining but in the living.  The hook is taking the time and making the effort to really savor our existence, our world, and those around us.

I want to share some prose with you.  I found it in a book; and I think it is the answer.  It’s a few lines by an unknown author…so…we don’t even know whom to thank.  You’ll have to read this profound expression more than once for it to work its magic.  A cursory reading will not suffice.

“If as Herod, we fill our lives with things, and again with things; if we consider ourselves so unimportant that we must fill every moment of our lives with action…When will we have the time to make the long slow journey across the desert as did the Magi?  Or sit and watch the stars, as did the shepherds?  Or brood over the coming of the child as did Mary?  For each one of us there is a desert to travel…A star to discover…And a being within ourselves to bring to life.”

That’s it!  Trust me on this one!  That’s the underlying secret to what makes life significant.  It’s taking the time for quiet reflection and peace.  And…as the poet Constantine Cavafy expresses:  “…It’s traveling the desert to Ithaca; stopping at Phoenician markets to buy mother of pearl, coral, amber, and ebony…”  Its message transcends self-discovery and enables us to focus where we should focus…experiencing the rapture of life.  It’s the foundation that allows us to savor how we arrive at our vision of what makes life significant.  First we have to believe… and then we believe.

Tonight is the perfect time to have our own epiphany, a deeper insight and understanding into the mystery of Christmas.   It is a holy mystery that transcends faith, culture, and creed so maybe touching instead of solving is all we can hope for.  The answer is not found in the convivial chaos of toys and gifts and cards and dinners and parties.

“Perhaps the Christmas spirit is our soul’s knowledge that things, no matter how beautiful, are only things, and that we were created not always to do but sometimes simply to be.”  (Sarah Breathnach)  The elements of a good life…they are all around us…savor them!  Take that slow journey across the desert and by doing so you may discover your star and finally come to realize that we bring meaning to life.  All meaning is derived through the duration of time.

During the later stages of Napoleon’s life, he was exiled on the island of Saint Helena.  There, he became quite prophetic as a writer.  He left a message in a bottle and sent it a drift for us to read.

What is the past?  What is the present?  What is the future?  What magic liquid is it, that hides us, and keeps us from the things we ought most to know?  We live and we breathe; in the midst of miracles.”

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Recently, I volunteered to man one of the game booths at the Halloween Haunt hosted by La Canada Elementary.  As I took my post, I was alerted that the behavior of many children was despicable.  I was warned to watch for cheating, lying, cutting in line, and disrespect.

At the booth, I learned something that we already knew.  This realization is the worst form of affirmation since its reality is often masked by a subliminal repression.  The truth is often too frightful, too overwhelming or too difficult change.   We never give it our full attention; but only glance at it; and only from the corner of an eye.  Thus, its reality looms as a transparent vapor which ultimately lets us off the hook for failing to do something about it.

At the booth, I did see cheating, lying, cutting in line, and disrespect.  I instinctively knew that these behaviors are symptomatic of a larger demise.  What I learned is what we already knew.  The cornerstone of all virtue, ‘Reverence’ is indeed not alive and well among us.  No…I’m not overreacting to the rambunctious behavior of children or to my own hypersensitivity.  Working on the docks in ‘Hells Kitchen’, and seven years in the Marines cured me of that.

Reverence is an ancient virtue that barely survives and often exists in half forgotten forms of civility.  Reverence is the capacity to appreciate, acknowledge, and respect something higher than ourselves.  It is the greatest of all virtues because it is the only virtue that guarantees all of the rest.  It keeps us humble and in sync with the ebb and flow of life as it tempers our ego and assures us that we never forget where we came from.  The Buddha assures us that, “Reverence gives life, beauty, happiness, and strength to those who embrace it.”

According to mythology, whenever early human beings gathered, they would hurt each other because they did not have the knowledge of how to form a society.  Thus, they would scatter and perish.  In order to preserve society, Zeus sent Hermes to bring reverence to humanity. Reverence is not something that you turn on or off depending on the situation.  You either have it or you don’t.  You either are or you aren’t.  Without reverence we have little commitment to society, resulting in aloofness and a lack of awe as we seldom give a higher authority a second glance.  Without reverence we do not know how to respect ourselves and each other.  Without reverence we wouldn’t even know how to learn reverence.

In Plato’s “Republic”, the community is implored to instill ‘reverence’ into the soul of youth.  Plato asserts that “There can be no nobler training than that;” and as a result of learning ‘reverence,’ “Youth will dwell in a land of health…and receive the good in everything.”  Socrates asserts in his dialogues that society must find a balance in cognitive and moral development.  This affirmation gives credence to Saint Francis of Assi’s postulate, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and in the end lose his soul?”

Living in La Canada affords us the best teachers and schools.  We hold high expectations for our children, hoping for A’s in school and goals on the soccer field.  The sole pursuit of extrinsic goals leaves one empty.  Without cultivating knowledge of the heart, we ask ourselves, “Is that all there is?”  If our answer is yes, we have failed to realize the rapture of life.  If our answer is no…we’re growing and there’s hope.  And…that’s where we want to be.

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Reverence At GCC

It was my high school history teacher, Brother Charles who taught me the importance of a forgotten virtue, ‘Reverence.’  He was an imposing man possessing a duality of temperaments similar to both Saint Francis and Genghis Kahn.  I remember the odd way he wrote on the board.  He had lost three fingers from his right hand in a gun fight on Iwo Jima.   More than once he beat the ‘be-jesus’ out us attempting to instill civility in a rather insolent bunch.  In those days the Irish Christian Brothers believed, that if you spare the rod, you spoil the child.  He always said, just before he whacked us, that we were going to remember him.  Brother Charles was right.  I do remember him, not for his punch; but for his message and for the overwhelming concern he had for us.  He was a great teacher. I learned about the Greeks. He also taught us the importance of reverence and respect for authority, society, each other, and ourselves.  He would say, “You either learn reverence from history or you learn it from me, the hard way.”  Most of us chose the hard way!

On September 11, the Associate Students held a memorial for those who lost their lives on that fateful day.  The ceremony was well planned, executed, and possessed a certain reverence that did justice to their memory.  Where were you?  Why weren’t you there?  The lawn was rather empty without you.  During the ceremony, Dr. Knight, our Vice President, in a rather moving address, asked for a moment in silence.  You knuckle heads hanging out in front the San Rafael Building, sitting on the benches in front admin building; and sitting at the tables near the food court did not have the decency and respect to show Dr. Knight and the ‘spirits’ of 9/11 some semblance of reverence.  You just kept right along with your senseless chatter.  You truly do not represent the best of us.

Have reverence and respect atrophied from the human condition?  Reverence is an ancient virtue that barely survives and often exists in only half forgotten patterns of civility.  We know what the word means but due to a lack of practice reverence stays dormant in our memory.  Heracles, speaking to the leaders of the Greeks, told us, “Remember this, when you lay waste to the land to Troy, be reverent to the gods.  Nothing matters more, as Zeus the father knows.  Reverence is not subject to the deaths of men, they live, they die, but reverence shall not perish.”

Reverence is a virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods.  It tempers our ego with a dose of humility with assurance that we never forget where we came from.  It develops within us the capacity for respecting each other.  When we are reverent we are able to appreciate, acknowledge, and respect something higher than ourselves.  Reverence holds us all together and makes us accountable to each other.  It is the core of our collective humanity.  According to mythology, whenever early human beings gathered, they would hurt each other because they did not have the knowledge of how to form a society.  Thus, they would scatter and perish.  Zeus, fearing that they would be whipped out, sent Hermes to bring reverence to human beings in order to enhance society and bring people together in friendship.

Reverence is not something that you turn on or off depending on the situation.  You either have it or you don’t.  You either are or you aren’t.  Without reverence we have little commitment to society, resulting in aloofness and a lack of ‘awe’ as we seldom give a higher authority a second glance.  Without reverence we do not know how to respect each other and ourselves.  Without reverence we would not even know how to learn reverence.

Has Zeus deserted us?  When is Hermes, bringing the magic herb of reverence that will once again give us a soul.  He ain’t coming!  We are Hermes… you and I…because, if we don’t do it, it ain’t gonna get done.  So…next time there’s a memorial ceremony, you begin to be reverent by showing up.  And…when Dr. Knight asks for a moment in silence……make sure she gets it.

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The La Canada Junior Women’s Club

I remember my wife Kaitzer returning from a meeting and saying that she had become a member of the Juniors.  I thought!  Did she join a softball team?  I assumed that the Juniors were either a softball or bowling team.  It’s a women’s club!  I was surprised to learn that the California Federation of Women’s Clubs (CFWC), organized in 1900 has over 500 general clubs with a membership of about 40,000.  The Junior membership of the (CFWC) began in Redlands, in 1913.  Today the Juniors have 2,000 members with approximately 140 service clubs state wide.  The La Canada chapter is an integral part of that consortium.

I have since learned that “Strength United is Stronger”.  The Juniors’ motto is more than a cliché!  It’s a calling to serve others.  Collective efforts do enhance an organization’s ability to affect change; because we are all a significant part of a communal vortex of life.  Aristotle implied more than two thousand years ago that, “Humanity’s social nature is acutely defined prompting us to contribute to the greater good.”   Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Our greatness as a people is an aspect of our collective character manifesting itself through good works.”  Yes…by helping others the Juniors enhance life in the community.  You set out to save the world, and by doing so, you save yourself.

The La Canada Junior Women’s Club with over 80 members is rich in the tradition of service.  They pledge to…“Live each day trying to accomplish something and not merely exist.”  This is not mere rhetoric or self-reporting platitudes.  The altruism of the members is deeply imbedded in service to the community and making a difference.    Their uniqueness lies in the diversity of services as their philanthropy represents the passions, and will of its members.    The Juniors purchase pines for the forest; they care for a bear, Ms. Montana, at the Way Station; they promote literacy; they support libraries; they provide trauma bears for frightened children; they sponsor an orphanage; and work with local nursing homes and hospitals.  These are a few of the projects that their members initiate and champion.   It’s an investment…in the future…and the greater society will collect the dividends.  Are we not part of the problem, if were not part of the solution?

Service makes us better people; it gives a perspective to life; it helps us teach the next generation the value of giving.  A child, watching their parents give to others is a great teacher of values and character.  Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear a word you are saying.”

Often, we sit idly by and let others carry the torch to make a better community.  John Kennedy said, “God’s work must truly be our own.”  We can talk a great deal of what we would do if we were ‘king of the world.’  But…if we don’t do it, it ‘ain’t gonna’ get done.  The poetic lyrics of Simon and Garfunkle remind us:  “Don’t talk of love, I’ve heard these words before; they’re sleeping in my memory.”

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