The Power of Words: Shire Edition

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I believe in the power of words. I suppose that would be a requirement for someone who writes and teaches. Don’t mistake power for omnipotence, for words can be quite limited in their reach. While the passion and sincerity of delivery truly matters so to does the disposition of the listener (or reader). Cynicism builds walls and egocentric dispositions destroy well intended messages. Even so, words have power so I would like to deliver a brief story in the hopes it brings a little extra life to a sterling passage from the great J.R.R. Tolkien.

New England was in the midst of a heat wave yesterday. It so happens that on this hot day I was preparing a breakfast buffet for my children. About three weeks ago my 12 year-old mentioned to me that we have not held a “dad buffet breakfast” in some time. She was correct. My oldest daughter is now married with a son. My oldest son is in college and, as anyone with a child in college can attest, such a situation can make you feel like your kid is exploring the galaxy on the USS Enterprise.

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She was undaunted and we were able to arrange event and did I cook! And did they eat! Breakfast potatoes on the grill with kielbasa and sausage. Loaded scramble eggs, strawberry crepes, cherry stuffed french toast, and bacon rounded out the menu. It was truly a lot of fun. It was fantastic having all my kids and grandson together in the house. After the meal we headed into the basement and played catch with my grandson and built with blocks while two of my kids strummed on their guitars.

Playtime can’t last forever and the kitchen needed cleaning. Cue the music! With Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, a little Ed Sheeran, and even Pink lending musical support the dishes didn’t stand a chance!

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As I washed some dishes with my kids on drying duty (we do dishes old school style) I found myself looking at the wooden plaque hanging over my sink. It’s inscription may be familiar to you.

If more of us valued food and cheer

and song above hoarded gold

it would be a merrier world.

So there I was laughing with my kids, listening to our music, and – somehow – enjoying the dishes. And before me were words from one of my favorite authors.

Take the words of this story as you will. All I know is this: the heat didn’t stand a chance of ruining the joy in that kitchen.

Be well, dear reader!

Until next time: Keep fighting the good fight…with all thy might!

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Avengers: Endgame Through the Eyes of my Kids

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Hello! It has been quite some time since I’ve posted but nothing like the worldwide pop culture event that is Avengers: Endgame to bring me back to this site. There are so many angles I could approach this movie from but, for this post, I’ve decided to allow a glimpse of the movie through the eyes of a twelve year-old girl and a ten year-old boy with some commentary from their forty-eight year old father. Hopefully you enjoy the post as much as I enjoyed watching and discussing the movies with my children.

There are spoilers ahead but the Russo brothers lifted the spoiler ban so here we go!

Dad…that didn’t mean anything

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The above heading came courtesy of my son. Thor dropped Stormbreaker across Thanos’ neck, decapitating the titan and bringing forth a collective gasp from the audience (wait…what? I mean…wait…hey killed him in the first 15 minutes? Be honest, nobody in all their Endgame predictions had that on the table. Nobody.). The great thing about the scene, however, was my son pulling on my arm and whispering, “Dad…that didn’t mean anything.” When asked why he answered, “The gems are gone. Nobody is coming back.” I loved the fact that he instantly understood this fact for it showed he understood the moment and it enabled us to discuss later why Thor was, in his words, “super sad.” From there we delved into the idea that the beheading of Thanos was not actually a victory. It was, in fact, a stunning act of shallow revenge and powerless rage which allowed for a nice discussion about how problems can and can’t be solved. Empty anger rarely leads to satisfying results. Another wonderful aspect of this moment was discussing Thor’s depression with my son. As he put it, “But Thor’s super strong!” I agreed, but told him, “Even the strongest people can hurt real bad inside.” This seemed like a stunning revelation to my son and, while it did not make Thor his favorite Avenger, it definitely made for a powerful connection. What more do you need from a story?

Dad, just so ya know, we’re suing Marvel

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This one comes from my daughter. The instant . . . I’m saying the INSTANT . . . Clint and Natasha arrived in Vormir she stated saying, “Ohnonononnono.” Again, the power of these stories to stick in the imagination from movie to movie was on full display and my daughter knew someone was being sacrificed for the Soul Stone. She held my arm the entire scene and my hand when Natasha plummeted to the bottom of the pit (They really had to show her dead at the bottom Dad?!Really??!).

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She understood why it had to happen but it didn’t stop her from declaring Marvel is being sued. Her proclamation for the pending law suit was based on a truly fantastic declaration, “She’s been my favorite since I was 8!” The MCU has become the campfire story of her childhood…that is simply wonderful.

HE’S BACK!

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This one is a combination of my younglings. I saw Endgame before taking them, both because I knew I wold want to see it twice and also to prep myself for moments when I would want to put my attention on them and not the screen. Spider-man’s return was a huge moment for both of them. As Spidey came through one of Dr. Strange’s space portals, my son grabbed my arm and looked up at me with pure joy. He pointed at the screen and whisper-yelled, “Dad! He’s back!” He was vibrating with excitement, the sorrow he felt watching Spidey disappear in Infinity War matched by jubilation. My daughter was smiling ear-to-ear, not speaking but staring at the screen with a huge grin. Faith rewarded.

She. Is. Awesome.

My daughter loved the charge of the female Marvel heroes. I think she wanted to join in and protect the gauntlet. One hero, however, stood above the rest  – the Scarlet Witch.

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“Dad,” she told me after the film, “she was beating Thanos all by herself! She just used her power and twisted him up. She’s awesome!” I informed my daughter that the Scarlet Witch was always a VERY powerful member of The Avengers. Not sure how many comic nerds are reading this but my daughter was intrigued to learn that, in the comics of my youth, Ultron was pretty much unstoppable and the only Avenger he truly feared was the Scarlet With. In fact she used her hex power to completely shatter Ultron in one classic tale.

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This just made my daughter even happier. I did not share with her that Wanda, in her grief and rage due to the loss of her children, becomes a force of devastation in some comic arcs. She can learn that later.

Honesty check: How many people thought this was going to be a section on Captain Marvel? Go ahead, admit it. It’s okay. To be clear, my daughter is a bit lukewarm on Captain Marvel. The reason: Wonder Woman! Scarlet Witch is powerful in a non-physical  manner. My daughter is a huge Wonder Woman fan so another super-strong woman didn’t impact her very much. Or, as she put it, “She’s cool and all, but no Wonder Woman.”

Also, and I found this hilarious, my daughter doesn’t like the name Carol. “Dad, she sounds like a soccer mom. Carol, did you bring the cookies? Carol, could you give Lisa a ride home. Carol, Thanos has the Infinity Gauntlet, could you help us get it back?” Guess it’s hard to be the favorite super hero when you drive an SUV.

On your left

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This one was particularly meaningful for me. When Falcon said, “Cap. On your left.” in the movie I got some goosebumps. After the film, as we discussed how SPECTACULAR it was to see Spider-Man again I mentioned the phrase, “On your left.” The kids didn’t remember where that was from. I explained how, not only was it the first words Steve Rogers spoke to Sam Wilson but the phrase had become a simple saying packed with meaning. It means I’m always there for you. I’ve always got your back. You’re never alone and you can call me at anytime and I’ll be there for you. On you left.

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About a week after the film I was driving the kids to their mother’s house. One of the tough things about being a co-parenting divorced person (and, hell, being a parent in general) is you never know for sure if the lessons you teach are taking root. You hope the foundation being laid is strong and that you do enough for your kids. Anyway, my daughter was getting out of my car and I told her I love her and would see her soon (nice thing about 50/50 time split is I always see them soon). She replied in kind and paused a second as the door. She looked back in and said, “Hey Dad, on your left.”

Doesn’t get much better than that. So let me close this by saying to all four of my kids, and my grandson, on your left. Always and forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks, Stan

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By this point, I would think, anyone with an affinity for comics and superheroes is aware that Stan Lee died recently at the age of ninety-five. Today, December 28, would have been his ninety-sixth birthday. Sounds like the perfect day to remember and give thanks as we look forward to a new year of challenges and hopes.

Like so many people my life was touched by Stan Lee (1). The day Lee died I received a text from my twelve-year-old daughter which read, “STAN LEE DIED!!!!” I hesitated before answering, stunned not so much by the news as I already knew Lee had died, but of the thread flowing from his work through me and now touching my daughter. At forty-seven I have read the news of numerous celebrities and singers whose deaths gave me moments of pause and reflection, but never one who entrenched themselves in my life on such a fundamental level. Aware that I did not want to project my thoughts into my daughter I carefully responded to her with the following, “I know. I saw that. It’s so sad, but made me think how his characters brought me so much entertainment as a kid and he brought my kids entertainment, too. So, thanks for the gift, Stan Lee.”

So Much More than Entertainment…Even When I Didn’t Know it

 

After sending the text I instantly thought how it was so much more than entertainment. So much more. Carol Pearson, a teacher and student of archetypal psychology and myth, wrote, “Humans are storytelling creatures…we are sensitive to the tone of narratives lived around us and already (by age two) we have begun collecting thousands of images that resonate emotionally with us in some important way” (2). This was, perhaps, Lee’s greatest contribution. He provided mythic heroes and tales, morality plays and role models, for anyone (but in particular kids) who stepped into the mighty Marvel universe. I didn’t realize it at the time, but many of the “images that resonated with me” came from Marvel Comics.

In high school the book 1984 made more sense to me when I imagined Dr. Doom pulling the strings of Big Brother. Hamlet can’t make up his mind? Are those doubts anything like Peter Parker struggling with the decision to remain Spider-Man or Ben Grimm’s struggle to accept his life as the Thing? The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had nothing on the Hulk. Loyalty – Captain America. Courage – Black Panther! I mean, he has no super powers and yet he charges into combat with powerhouses like Ultron and Michael Korvac (3). Is Odin King Lear? I can’t lift Mjolnir but can I make strong stands like Thor? How do the X-Men keep persevering when people hate them so much? Come to think of it, why do people hate and can it be overcome?

These are not small questions or unimportant character traits to consider. I was given the opportunity to contemplate them at my level as a kid and, as an adult, I am amazed at the issues Stan Lee challenged me to wrestle with – even when I didn’t realize I was in the match! It is sometimes said the best learning is achieved when the student doesn’t see the lesson coming. There is curriculum and then the undercurrent of meaning that cannot be forced. I call them “lesson grenades” as they often “explode” well after a class session is over. At the age of Forty-seven and with twenty-four years of teaching experience I can say I learned more about constructing lessons that have the possibility of leaving a lasting impact from Stan Lee (and Tolkien, and Spielberg, and Lucas, and…) then I ever did from courses on education which were far more business than art. It is any wonder there is a soulless lack of wonder that often permeates schools?

Don’t be Fooled (or should I have said Hasty?)   

I can imagine there are people who would read the previous line (…soulless lack of wonder…) and be dismissive of it or find it too cynical for their taste. People tend to dichotomize the world into opposites; either you’re an optimist or pessimist, and never the twain shall meet!

It is this form of splitting the world that prevents growth and community. The middle path is the hardest to walk but also where enduring healing and sustainable progress is found.

I do not see the admittance of a “soulless lack of wonder” as pessimistic or cynical. I think it is far more accurate to view such a proclamation as a sign of cynical hope (or, perhaps, optimistic cynicism). No problem was ever solved by failing to admit its existence! Now, I am not in favor in seeing a problem just for the sake of pointing out flaws and casting blame. Such behavior exists somewhere on a scale between immature and reprehensible. Almost as reprehensible as ignoring problems or making molehills out of actual mountains. You see, mature negativity can only exist with a positive core.

Positive Psychology

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In a previous post (Don’t Say the H-Word) I introduced positive psychology. This school in the world of psychology is far more than merely having positive and healthy thoughts or donning rose colored glasses while spewing Pollyanna while the world is on fire. As Christopher Peterson noted, positive psychology does not “ignore or dismiss the very real problems that people experience” (4).

It does, however, focus on the strengths people possess and, more importantly, how to build those strengths to increase one’s fulfillment while buttressing them to overcome hardships. Positive psychologist “…realizes the value in growing through adversity” (5). Diener (2008) wrote a chapter for the book The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration. His contribution evaluated the positive psychology of Marvel icon Peter Parker/Spider-Man. In his conclusion he praises Spider-Man as “an inspiring example of a person who rises to challenges on a consistent basis, and flourishes because he has the opportunity to use his greatest talents and strengths. He inspires all of us to harness our virtues…” (6).   

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Spider-Man is an apt exemplar for such an evaluation for almost no hero fails and rises quite so much as Spider-Man. Granted, you and I cannot lift  cars, stick to walls, or utilize spider-sense but Diener is not asking us to. He states, quite rightly, that we can “harness our virtues” like our fictional heroes. It is these virtues that enable Spider-Man to endure hardships.

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Perhaps the best example of Spider-Man failing (7) is when (in the iconic Amazing Spider-Man #122) his girlfriend Gwen Stacey is killed despite his efforts to save her. This scene was brought to the big screen thirty-one years later in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Super powers did not avail Peter in these scenes, but his humanity enabled him to endure the dark night and, eventually, rise to fight another day. It is what our humanity is supposed to do for us as well, even without Spider powers.

The Greatest of Super Powers

Two of the character strengths identified by positive psychology are hope and perseverance, traits Spider-Man has in abundance. In the long term they helped Spider-Man come to grips with the death of Gwen. Sometimes, however, life demands powerful bursts of energy that find their fuel in these twin traits.

One of Spider-Man’s earliest story arcs, found in Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 (1965-66) and written by Stan Lee, finds him desperately seeking a serum to save his beloved and ailing Aunt May. Naturally, a villain (Dr. Octopus) also has his eyes on the serum. After a battle with Octopus, Spider-Man finds himself pinned and seemingly helpless under a mountain of rubble, the serum mere feet away from him as his enemy has fled the collapsing building.  After initially despairing over his predicament, “I’ll never make it—I can’t–!”, Spidey digs in deep. Giving himself a pep-talk he declares, “Anyone can win a fight—when the odds — are easy! It’s when the going’s tough—when there seems to be no chance—that’s when—it counts!” With a final surge of energy Spider-Man throws off the rubble, accentuated by Lee’s exposition, “…from out of the pain — from out of the anguish — comes triumph!”

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This scene, which has been homaged in Spider-Man comics through the years, was brought to the big screen in the MCU’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). While I was not alive when the moment was first rendered in 1966 I was well aware of it as I sat, and relished, watching it play out (with my kids) in the movie theater.

There is another trait at work in this scene. In the original story from 1966 Spider-Man notes the presence of love that is driving his efforts, proclaiming, “I’ll do it, Aunt May! I won’t fail you!” Homages to the scene have him pinpointing his wife (Mary Jane), his unborn children, and the memory of his Uncle Ben as the source of his drive (8). Of course, they all have one thing in common – love. Love drives Spider-Man to his greatest victories. Without it he would not be the hero he is. Perhaps his greatest super power is ours as well.

Back to the Beginning

If it seems we have gotten a little away for Stan Lee with this foray into positive psychology and Spider-Man you can rest assured we have not. He’s been with us all along. One of the driving forces of my teaching is the Buddhist adage, “Remember the lesson, forget the teacher.” I’ve been told by truly valued colleagues that this is likely impossible as students, even over time, tend to remember the teachers who taught them memorable lessons. This is likely true but it does not change the fact that I strive to teach lessons that are so much bigger than me. So much more important.

Spider-Man, and the power of love and hope, is but one of Stan Lee’s lessons so when we discuss Spidey, we are discussing Mr. Lee. He’s there, in his creation. Offering inspiration and guidance. So allow me to say, “Thanks, Stan. You’re the best teacher I ever had.”

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This story, thankfully, does not end with me. My daughter responded to the my text with the following message. “Yeah. I didn’t grow up with the comics but without the comics we wouldn’t have marvel movies. And the movies have had a big impact on my life. So thanks for the gift Stan Lee.”

See you next time, true believers!

Excelsior!     

  

Notes

  1. I think necessary to note that almost every word I wrote in this essay could be applicable to the great Jack Kirby, who collaborates with Stan Lee for years as they combined their creative powers to build Marvel Comics. Kirby died in 1994, well before I had this website or, frankly, any real insight. So, even though the title of this essay thanks Stan, Jack Kirby’s presence is a prevalent force throughout.
  2. Pearson, C and Marr, H. “Introduction to Archetypes: A Companion for Understanding and Using the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator Instrument” (2002). Center for Applications of Psychological Types, Inc.
  3. So, any dedicated comic geeks reading this who remember the “Korvac Saga” from the late 1970’s?
  4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-good-life/200805/what-is-positive-psychology-and-what-is-it-not
  5. Rosenberg, R and Canzoneri, J (Editors), The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration (2008). p 73
  6. ibid. p 74
  7. Okay…fine…second best. Sorry Uncle Ben.
  8. As noted, in the first version of this scene Aunt May was the source of inspiration. The homages and their sources of inspiration are as follows: MJ as inspiration in Spectacular Spider-Man 168 and Peter Parker: Spider-Man. Kids as inspiration in Spectacular Spider-Man 229. Uncle Ben as inspiration in Amazing Spider-Man 365.

When the Midnight Demons Come Calling

Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
It takes a lot to change a man
Hell, it takes a lot to try
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die

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Thus sang Bradley Cooper in the powerful reimagining of A Star is Born. (Beware – spoilers coming. If you haven’t seen the movie you will want to stop reading). Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a singer/song-writer who is an alcoholic struggling with the reality that is best days may well be behind him. During a night out drinking he discovers Lady Gaga’s Ally Campana and helps catapult her into stardom even as the two build an intense, loving if not flawed and co-dependent relationship. Jackson and Ally both have doubts and demons – from less than ideal childhoods to lingering fears of inadequacy – that they share with each other and strive to overcome. In the end, Maine succumbs to his demons and commits suicide.

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One could say that he was pushed to the decision by Rez Gavron, Ally’s controlling and condescending manager. Rez confronts Jackson, accusing him of holding Ally back. Ally, Rez assures the recovering alcoholic, would be better off without him. When Ally lies to Jackson about why she canceled a leg of her tour he decides to kill himself. An inconsolable Ally blames herself. The audience can blame whomever they want, but Rez’s verbal attack could be viewed as a triggering event. His words, however, would have no impact if they were not reinforced by Jackson’s demons.

You might know those demons. Those fears and doubts that emerge from their daytime hiding places to plague the soul when one is alone. The demons that lurk in your mind and lend power to the criticisms of others. They augment negative messages and reduce what should be the powerful support of friends to gossamer threads. Ally’s grief, to a degree, is fueled by such doubts. Thankfully she has the strength to listen to Jackson’s older brother.

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Bobby, played by Sam Elliot, explains to Ally that Jackson’s death was of his own making, not hers. Bobby has a point. The Jackson’s downward spiral began long before Ally came along. I would like to suggest that perhaps…and this may be stretch…but perhaps Jackson could have begun the process of reversing his downfall if he had learned to employ a little fuck you therapy.

Excuse me? Did you say…

Yup. Sometimes people need to employ a little fuck you therapy to their lives. To be clear, I don’t mean Jackson should have shouted, “Fuck you!” at Rez. In fact, that would not have worked at all (even if it would have felt good to witness). In the end, Jackson still would have committed suicide. You see, Rez’s words only had the power to cause pain because Jackson believed them. Deeply. His soul was receptive to the sharp criticism of a man who essentially hated him.  The words fed his doubts and fears, amplifying them to the point that only one path could be seen by the beleaguered singer. It is truly a tragic moment in the film.

The fuck you that Jackson needed wasn’t an immature expression of rage designed to protect his ego and hide his shattered sense of self from prying eyes. You know, the way we usually use the phrase. But there might just be a quiet use of the phrase that promotes healing rather than spreading anger and reinforcing delusion.

Calling Sean Maguire

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In Good Will Hunting we encounter the brilliant but…shall we say…difficult and anti-social Will Hunting played by Matt Damon. Will, through the patient guidance of Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire, comes to grips with his abusive past, transcends his attachment disorder, and willingly takes the risk of pursuing a relationship with his ex-girlfriend Skylar. During the breakthrough therapy session – the “It’s not your fault” scene – Will weeps and hugs Sean. As the camera pulls out Sean whispers, “Fuck them, okay?”

I love that line. That moment. That idea. The whispered use of “Fuck them” was and is fantastic. Both Will and Sean had suffered physical abuse as children. One can only imagine what the midnight demons used to torture these two characters. We can try to outthink our demons – and I definitely believe talk therapy can be helpful – but racing thoughts at two in the morning can’t be subdued by more thinking. Alone at night there are sometimes no friends to comfort or loved ones to offer hope. Anger is nothing more than a tattered cloth failing to contain fear while tears burn rather than baptize. But, what if the knowledge that friends are part of your life, your mind is ultimately your own, and where anger fails the earned pride of having fought the good fight enables a moment of calm? Perhaps in that calm there is a moment where one can look at the demons with mature strength and just whisper a forceful “Fuck you.” Perhaps on occasion we need a little vulgarity to find our peace and to stand with confidence before our dark fears, our midnight demons (1).

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Still

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In the Walking Dead (Episode 12: Season 4) Daryl and Beth engage in a memorable moment of what we are calling fuck you therapy. The unusual paring brought us one of the best episodes in that show’s run. Both characters are stung by the death of Hershel, Beth’s father. Beth suggests they have some drinks and, after initially declining, Daryl drinks some of the moonshine he supplied for his younger companion. The drinking leads initially to arguing and insults but, ultimately, hearts are opened as grief is shared. Daryl does not merely share his guilt (he feels he should have saved Hershel) but also divulges information about his difficult childhood with his brother Merle.  A calmer conversation ends with Beth suggesting the duo burn down the dilapidated house they had holed up in as a form of letting go of the past. The house is consumed by flames and the friends salute the flames with their middle fingers. Fuck you, painful past.

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Midnight demons often get their strength from past pains that we struggle to let go of, as if the pain is necessary to our identity. Jungian analyst Carol Pearson contends that one of the archetypes that helps us grow is the destroyer. When used without skill or in an immature manner the destroyer’s energy causes us to lash out, harming ourselves and our loved ones. When used with acumen, however, the destroyer archetype allows us to break unnecessary chains that bind us to past pain, allowing us to move forward unfettered. Well before Jungian archetypal psychology another great thinker counseled all who would listen to let go of the past – the Buddha.

Buddha and Fuck You Therapy

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Okay…I hear ya. Now I’m just being ridiculous. The Buddha never said “Fuck you” to people. That is likely true, but he surely advocated the difficult step of letting go of your attachment to the past. The very first chapter of The Dhammapada includes the verse,      ” ‘He was angry with me,he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.” Think about the way such a line could strike one’s ears. Buddha is not saying you have negative thoughts for no reason for you were “attacked” or “robbed.” He is saying, however, nurturing that pain binds one in chords of hate. We must sever our bonds with our pain – actually break them not merely claim to have done so –  if we hope to be free from hate. To be free from the Midnight Demons. 

Before we move on from Buddha there is another aspect of Buddhism that will be useful. Many people have a tendency to split reality into categories that makes life understandable (my side good/yours bad) but ultimately does not allow for the richness or totality of life to be felt. Buddhism is sometimes portrayed as a religion of undisturbed peace and tranquility. While that is the final goal, it is also a tradition of effort with a deep understanding of the human condition. The wrathful buddhas of the Tantric tradition remind us that some Buddhist thought has a more direct approach to what we sometimes categorize as negative emotions.

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The wrathful buddhas are ferocious beings with intense passions that absorb hostile emotions in order to dispense them. Only by embracing the darkness do we ultimately transcend it. While Buddha (Prince Siddhartha) wold not have said, “Fuck you” to the midnight demons the wrathful buddhas are portrayed as ferocious entities (picture Wolverine in one of his berserker states) that battle evil at its own level. A couple cusses are well within their realm.

Brining it Home

The dark side of fame, a therapist’s office, a zombie apocalypse, and Buddhism have all made an appearance to help vanquish our midnight demons. I would like to close with a brief story to ground this conversation. 

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My oldest son used to attend a parkour gym. He would train and work on skills that he would bring to the concrete jungle he and some friends ran through. His instructor had a phrase he would share with his students when they were holding onto fear instead of trusting their bodies and their skills. I remember the first time Logan sheepishly shared the phrase with me, unsure how I would respond. It was a fine phrase and I hope he follows this advice the rest of his life. “Sometimes,” his coach told him, “ya just gotta say fuck it and chuck it.” Nike’s PG-13 “Just do it” has nothing on parkour!

Thanks for reading everybody. Do me a favor. If your Midnight Demons come out to play tell ’em I said, “Fuck you.”

(1) I must confess, it was difficult to use this movie because of Robin Williams’ own tragic death. I decided to do so because the film’s powerful message of healing is still valid despite the sorrow of the loss of the great Robin Williams.

Perseverance: TheUndercurrent of Success

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A few months back I offered some thoughts on courage. Tonight I’ve decided to take a look at perseverance. How many people give up when the road gets too long or doubts overwhelm us? On a personal level I wonder how often I have failed, not because of a lack of talent, but because of the inability to persevere? No success story ever occurred without perseverance. Hopefully this essay serves as a reminder of the necessity to battle on even when hope is obscured.

Perseverance

Results! Why man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know of several thousand things that won’t work.

-Thomas Edison (1)

We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step in a longer and even more difficult road…

-Nelson Mandela (2)

If one has not been a ronin at least seven times, he will not be a true retainer. Seven times down, eight times up.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure (3)

Badlands!You gotta live ‘em every day.                                                                                            Let the broken hearts stand as the price you gotta pay!                                                          Keep pushin’ till it’s understood                                                                                                      And these badlands start treatin’ us good.

-Bruce Springsteen from the song Badlands” (4)

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  1. One of the unfortunate mindsets I see students (and, sadly, adults)  adopt is the idea that people from different places, times, and cultures can’t share much in common. Humanity, when we allow it, overrides many barriers. What commonalities do we see in the message from the 19th century inventor (Edison) and the 20th-21st century songwriter (Springsteen)?
  2. It may be difficult to picture a 17th century samurai at a rock concert, but what message is Springsteen communicating that Tsunetomo would agree with?
  3. How do the quotes on perseverance provide support to the virtue of courage?
  4. Can you recall a time when you lived Tsunetomo’s quote? What emotions and thoughts do you have looking back on this chapter of your life? What was the source of your ability to persevere?
  5. Read the following passage spoken by the character Samwise Gamgee in the film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Does it strike you in a personal way or merely as a(n) interesting, good, etc message?

 

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But, in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances to turn back, but they didn’t. They kept goin’.

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Perseverance

 

If courage does guarantee other qualities, it can only do so with a healthy dose of perseverance. Many of life’s challenges take more than raw courage to overcome. Courage may start you on a journey, but the willingness…the ability…to persevere keeps us going. Few of the meaningful challenges of life are easily overcome. Some struggles last for years. We fight the good fight and we fall, because we are human and have all the weaknesses that accompany that condition. But when you fall, and fear threatens to overwhelm you, do you stay down? Do you convince yourself that you have gone far enough because some progress has been made? This is not to say that when you fall along a journey you have to jump up and move forward with frantic energy, ignoring the pain of failing. To pause to lick one’s wounds is not the same as giving up. To attend to the damage done by the hardships of life is necessary for few injuries heal without attention. Still, if you can persevere you may find yourself capable of looking back on the trips and stumbles of your life with a sense of humor as Thomas Edison did, laughing about the numerous ways you learned how not to do things.

When in the middle of a difficult time, however, we often don’t feel like laughing or we, perhaps, we aren’t tuned in to the humor of life. The weight we carry seems unbearable and taking just one more step seems beyond our scope. At times like this the words of the Roman philosopher, dramatist and statesman Seneca strike us like truth, “For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live” (5).  Courage exists, even when we don’t see it clearly.   Courage fuels our persevere, propelling us forward. My mind, yet again, turns to Frederick Douglass, his life a greater lesson than even his profound words.

An Amazing Journey

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Douglass was born a slave in 1818. He escaped slavery in 1838, but that victory was only the beginning of his life’s story. By the time of his death he had become one of the most prominent men in America. He became publisher of various newspapers, including The North Star. He not only focused on slavery, but on woman’s rights as well. He published his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845. His writing and lecturing skills made him one of the most effective abolitionists of his day. These talents made his a sought after lecturer in Europe as well as in the Northern section on the United States. When the Civil War began he found himself in correspondence with president Lincoln. When Lincoln was afraid he would not be re-elected he sought Douglass’ council on an important issue – how to make the Emancipation Proclamation permanent enough to survive him losing the presidency. The point became moot when Lincoln won, but it offers clarity to the fact that Lincoln admired Douglass. As Douglass’ life progressed he became involved in freedman’s rights, became ambassador to Haiti, and spoke in favor of Irish home rule. Advocate, publisher, writer, lecturer, statesman and humanitarian. Many a title can be attributed to Fredrick Douglass, but that is not the key to appreciating this great man.

To look at all Douglass accomplished is impressive in and of itself. To gaze upon these deeds with the backdrop of his first twenty years is all the more inspiring. Born a slave he started his life in the most crushing of situations. No chance for an education. The structures of society, both in the North and South, creating obstacles the like no one in America faces today. Yet he struggled and persevered. Could he have possibly have known what he would one day accomplish while he was sneaking towards freedom? Was the ambassadorship to Haiti in his mind? The correspondence with a President? Douglass did not know what he would one day become. He just knew, as did hundreds of other runaway slaves, what he did not want to be anymore. It is impossible to know what can happen when we forget to quit, when we forget to give in to our fears.

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Of Fears and Failure (and perseverance)

But fears can be powerful adversaries, ones that cause us to cease our efforts. They creep into our minds, especially when we realize just how hard some of our goals are to accomplish. We fall. We fail. We say or do the wrong thing at the most unfortunate moment. We wonder, are our efforts worth all this frustration? Bruce Springsteen shouts to us that it is. His song Badlands is an anthem to perseverance. It’ll be hard to move forward, sometimes the effort will, as he points out, break our hearts. His advice is to  “keep pushin’” because someday the tides will turn.

As Samwise spoke so wisely, “Even darkness must pass. A new day will come.”  These words are insightful. The use of the word “even” communicates the fact that, to many of us, it feels as if bad times will never end. This despair can be powerful, but “even darkness must pass”. You don’t know what your efforts will bring, but standing still leaves you where you are. We must take some responsibility for the coming of Samwise’s “new day.”

Positive thinking alone would not have enabled the two hobbits to reach the heart of Mount Doom. They had to move forward, to persevere through the difficult journey that they took up due to their courage. Their fictional struggles reflect the real world wisdom of Fredrick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning” (6).

Granted (and thankfully) most of us will not have to struggle for our physical freedom, but our personal struggles can never end in success if we are not willing to work (“plowing up the ground”) or endure frightful elements of a struggle (“thunder and lightning”). Be brave and persevere, my friends. You don’t actually know where it will take you.

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Character Challenge: Find a goal you have, but gave up on. Did you give up because you lost interest? If this is truly the case, mind you, you ought to feel good about your decision. I contemplated switching majors in college, but upon evaluating the change did not. The main motivator in my decision not to change was my interest in history. However, some goals we actually want but quit because we deem them too difficult. These are the focus point of this challenge. For younger people: do you wish you made the honor roll but decided the work was too much? Was making varsity too intimidating so you stopped working out because it “didn’t matter anyway?” For adults: still thinking about a new degree? A new job? Write down the goal and the excuses you use to justify not chasing it. Are they impossible to overcome or just daunting? Can you accept, now that you are looking at your words, not pursuing this goal? Make a decision and good luck.

 

Endnotes

(1)  Meadowcroft, William H. The Boy’s Life of Edison. (New York, Harper & Brothers,  1911),  p 301.

(2) Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. (New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston,  2000), p. 460.

(3) Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Hagakure. (New York, Kodansha International, 1979), p 54. Translated by William Scott Wilson.

(4) Springsteen, B. (1978). Badlands. Darkness on the Edge of Town. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(5) Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (Letter 78). This letter can be found at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Moral_letters_to_Lucilius/Letter_78

(6)Frederick Douglass (1857). “West India Emancipation” speech can be found at http://www.blackpast.org/1857-frederick-douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress

 

Don’t Stop Believin’: Avengers Style

Hello everybody. This post comes to you curtesy of my daughter and The Avengers: Infinity War. We left the movie and she was very upset! I would not categorize it as sad per se, but upset.

Time to pause this writing for the spoilers alert!!!!!!

Not big time spoilers but still:  SPOILER ALERT!!!!!

As I was saying, she was more like, “Where’s a ship to take me to Nidavellir so I can get a weapon to help the Avengers fight Thanos” upset! I’m not sure but she might have some Asgardian blood pumping in her veins!

Well, I had no ship to help her on her quest but I did have knowledge. Specifically, I had knowledge of her current favorite song, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”. So, as we were driving home, I told her, “I know what the Avengers need” and played her anthem. She smiled and shook her head. As the song ended she asked me to play it again. Before doing so I told her we should write a special version of the song for The Avengers. She thought that a fine idea but told me to just do it. “And you’re a teacher,” she stated. “So you have to do your homework!” We made a pinky promise over the shards of Mjolnir and the deal was sealed!

So, with all apologies and respect to Steve Perry, Neal Schon, and Jonathan Cain, here’s “Don’t Stop Believin’: Avengers Style”!!

Here’s a link if you want to hear Journey dong it right!!! 

 

“Don’t Stop Believin'”
Updated for Avengers: The Infinity War

Just a billionaire
Livin’ life without a care
With Nick Fury he formed

the Avengers

Just a mad Titan
With a genocidal bend
He seeks power to kill half of

 the universe

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A doctor with an anger issue
A brave man of years he’s seen a few
They’ll need some help to win the day
The list goes on and on, and on, and on

Heroes gather
Striving to prevent the end
Their powers tested
In the fight

Wizards, soldiers
Taking chances that most would shun
Hoping somehow to bring light.

Natasha has so much skill
Please don’t be too mad at Quill
Can Thor ignite a dying star
Just one more time

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 Thanos came, to the Earth
T’Challa again proved his worth
Wakanda you will never end
You’ll go on and on and on and on

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Banner confused

What happened to my green skin?

Rhodey and Falcon

Take flight

 

Wanda, Vision

Trying to stop the devastation

Heroes fading from sight

 
Don’t stop believin’
Spidey has you grievin’
You know that Cap will not quit!

Don’t stop believin’
Spidey has you grievin’
You know that Cap will not quit!

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Thanks for reading everybody. If you’ve gotten this far you probably already know this but it’s worth saying. Movies may not be true but they can be real, as real as the struggles we all face everyday. Songs may be over the top, but inspiration should be a part of our personal utility belts as we face our challenges. So, let me say, keep fighting the good fight with all thy might!

See you next time!

 

AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!

 

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It is less than a week until the release of Avengers: Infinity War and people are pumped!! Ten years…that’s right, ten years of storytelling culminating in round one of the climactic battle with Thanos. Yes!!

This post, however, will not focus on speculation regarding who has what Infinity Stone or who will die. This is not because I don’t feel interested in those intriguing matters because I do! Rather, plenty of sources exist online and offline where those conversations are being held. Rather, as we approach April 27 I wish to pay respects to these characters who meant so much to me as a kid and, thank you Marvel Comics Universe, have been brought to life in my adult years.

 

Marvel Characters and the Call to Character

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When discussing the concept of role models Professor Mark D. White wrote, “Good role models provide not just inspiration to achieve our goals, but also an example of the right way to achieve them” (1). He argued that, despite what some might think, fictional characters can be role models because they model “positive character traits such as honesty, courage, and wisdom – which means more if actions resulting from these virtues have consequences, even if only in their fictional worlds” (2). The beauty of a movie like Captain America: Civil War was the fact that my kids, while captivated by the action, weren’t entirely sure why The Avengers were fighting each other. Are they still friends, dad? They were so interested in the “why” of the fight that we were able to have a real discussion about choices, consequences, and standing up for beliefs. Fiction, be it super heroes or classic literature, can open channels of conversation allowing opportunity to discuss what truly matters most. For those moment with my kids I say, again, thanks Marvel.

 

 A Little help from Confucius (yes, you read that correctly)

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As the Marvel Universe expands it can be easy to lose one’s footing. I must admit, Iron Man 3 was far from my favorite Marvel movies. Far. Like, Asgard far. But there was a concept in it I loved. Of all the Avengers Tony Stark, despite his OUTRAGEOUS confidence, should have had the most difficult time adjusting to this new life. This was never the life he envisioned. Even the other human characters (Cap, Black Widow, and Hawkeye) were far more prepared to face such horrors than Tony. Struggling with anxiety and PTSD made perfect sense. To be honest I wish this issue was explored in a better executed movie, but the whole of the Marvel ride is greater than the sum of its parts.

Looking at the concept of character can feel a bit overwhelming. Where to start and where do we go? How to write it so my ten readers don’t lose interest? Like Tony, I need a little grounding. For my purposes I am turning to the great philosopher Confucius. There are three key concepts from Confucian thought that will prove useful in our look at the Avengers.

Jen – This virtue focuses on the ideal relationship that should exist between people. This astounding commitment to relationships was both beautiful and exceptionally difficult to obtain. A person exhibiting Jen displays a feeling of humanity towards others, respect for oneself, and a deep sense of dignity for human life everywhere. Just a moment of reflection should allow you to see how much time in the Marvel Comic Universe is spent on both relationships between the characters and the needs of the larger community. If you are reading this I doubt you need my help to generate a list.

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Chun Tzu – The individual exhibiting Jen would be said to be an example of Chun Tzu, often translated as the Superior or Higher man. This superiority is not from wealth or title; it is about one’s character. The Chun Tzu is at great ease with themselves and, by extension, brings ease to others. The more people who can become chun tzu who exist the greater the possibility of achieving social harmony and enduring peace. The world can never have enough people who are chun tzu. Sadly, I would say we’ve also never had enough of them in the world…but there’s always Captain America!

 

Li – This complex concept can be presented as the way things ought to be done. Confucius felt that people would not be able to discern Li from other paths completely on their own and therefore tried to provide models for them to emulate. He used maxims (short sayings), anecdotes, and his own life to create these examples. Following the correct path, while maintaining a deep regard for humanity and relationship, help create life as a sacred dance with seamless patterns, awe-inspiring fluidity, and transcendent beauty. (3).  The world The Avengers envision.

 

Following the correct path, while maintaining a deep regard for humanity and relationship, help create life as a sacred dance with seamless patterns, awe-inspiring fluidity, and transcendent beauty. That sounds like a very tall order, perhaps well beyond our grasp. Perhaps it is too daunting or fanciful. A view Abraham Lincoln proposed when looking at the ideals of the Declaration of Independence proves helpful in such times. Lincoln stated the ideals of the Declaration could be, “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated…,” (4). This approach to ideal is exceptionally helpful. It is so easy to look at the idea of becoming chun-tzu and feel disheartened by my shortcomings and weaknesses. Yet, armed with the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, I need not focus on my fragilities so much as the inspirational role models before me. I like to think Confucius would approve of this as he stressed the need to not allow a negative mindset to stop someone found following the difficult path he endorsed (5).

 

The Big Three

 

 

 

As we are stressing character strengths in this post we will focus on three original members of The Avengers (Thor, Ironman, and Captain America), utilizing each as an exemplar of a single character trait. To be sure each one of these heroes could be used to exemplify any number of character traits but those are conversations for another day!

 

Sacrifice

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The willingness to set aside one’s personal interests for the good of the community does no come naturally to most. It can be hard not to fall into the mindset of wondering what’s in it for me. I find Thor to be the best example of the willingness to make sacrifices. That may strike the reader as slightly surprising but consider this list.

Thor (in depowered human form) allowed himself to be killed by the Destroyer (Thor)

Thor shattered the rainbow bridge, choosing protection of others over his heart as he effectively cut himself off from Jane Foster (Thor)

Thor risked damaging his relationship with Odin to seek victory against Malekith (Thor: The Dark World)

Thor risked his death (almost crushed by falling ship) in his final effort to defeat Malekith (Thor: The Dark World)

Thor turns down the throne of Asgard (Thor: The Dark World)

Thor is told by Tony he may not survive the explosion his blow wold cause as he sought to destroy the falling landmass in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Thor sacrifices Asgard itself to ensure the defeat of Hela (Thor: Ragnarok)

Confucius noted that by looking at a person’s intentions, examining their motives, and scrutinizing what brings someone contentment then you can see who a person truly is.  In fact actions make it all but impossible to hide what you truly are (6). In that case, Thor is someone driven to do all he can to guarantee victory for his comrades, even if he should ultimately fall. One wonders how far he will go in the upcoming war with Thanos?

Growth

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Not that kind of growth, sorry Ant-Man. We’re talking about personal growth. The desire to becoming a better person tomorrow than you are today. Tony Stark, despite your unrelenting ego, that’s you. Tony’s run through the Marvel Cinematic Universe started as a misogynistic arms dealer who saw war as the perfect way to make HUGE profits! Damn. There was almost nowhere to go but up! And while it is true Tony’s ego is still a bit much to take. His relationship with women (Pepper Potts in particular), willingness to admit a mistake (his truce with Captain America when tracking down Zemo in Civil War), and capacity to offer guidance to young Peter Parker all are actions that would have been far beyond his ability a decade ago. Confucius informed his students, “Those of the loftiest wisdom and those of the basest ignorance: they alone never change” (7). Living things grow. Stagnation is the death knell of life. Tony has grown as much as any Marvel character over the years and, quite frankly, still has work to do. Maybe some humble pie served up by Shuri will help? Yeah, probably not.

 

Loyalty

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Or perseverance. Or maturity. Or commitment. Or…you get the point. There are so many virtues I could place at feet of Steve Rogers that it was hard to pick just one. I rather doubt that I have. Loyalty, however, seems to be a good place to start. Captain America’s loyalty to friends (I’m thinking Peggy Carter’s deathbed scene from Winter Soldier), the Avengers (recall his “together” speech from Age of Ultron), his ideals, and to people is inspiring. In many ways he has become the moral backbone and inspirational foundation of the MCU. It hasn’t been easy but it has been done with a determined grace that is quite noble. Whether willing to stand by Bucky (Winter Soldier and Civil War), to stand up for his ideals in numerous debates with Tony and Nick Fury, to stand by people in trouble as when he refused to get off the landmass ripped from Sokovia when Ultron was preparing to drop it, heading to New York in The Avengers without any of the “big guns” because, well, someone had to, or his commitment to tear down S.H.I.E.L.D as well as Hydra because both violated the grandeur purpose (Winter Soldier) Captain America remains loyal to his unyielding conviction to follow the right path even if it is difficult.

I would like to take a moment, however, to focus on a simple but powerful act of loyalty Cap performed at the end of Civil War. In a simple but heartfelt note he reached out to his estranged friend Tony Stark promising to be there for him should the moment arise. What a small but wonderful gesture. In that movie Cap stated he stood by Bucky because, “He’s my friend.” Tony’s response was, “So was I.” Wrong tense, Tony. Captain America, more than any other Avenger, doesn’t live in an either/or world. He strives, with great loyalty, to find both/and solutions when possible. Even when dealing with the most difficult of battles…navigating the murky world of human relationships and friendship. That letter…combined with his friendship with James “Bucky” Barnes allows us a cinematic vision of something quite rare, an adult male who not only takes his male friendships quite seriously but his willing to let that be known in no uncertain terms. Confucius once lamented to his student Lu, “Those who understand integrity are rare indeed” (8). The great sage is probably correct, which is why we all could use a little Captain America in each of us.

 

Never the End

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As we close out this post it is so easy to see where it could go. Every member of the Avengers deserved a place in this discussion. The focus on Bruce Banner, the integrity of James Rhodes, the dedication of Black Widow, and the honor of T’Challa. It could go on and on, but I like to think the point is made. Role models are everywhere…even in the MCU. So sit back. Take a moment to appreciate what we can learn from our heroes and the great ride they’ve taken us on. And, if you need to, tremble a little for Thanos is coming and all the character strengths in the world won’t be enough for all of them to see the final victory. Who else, however, would you want fighting such an overpowering and malevolent foe? Yes, Thanos is coming so…Avengers Assemble!

Endnotes

(1) White, Mark D. The Virtues of Captain America. Wiley Blackwell. 2014. p 27.

(2) ibid. p 27.

(3) Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. Harper San Francisco. 1991. p 172-177. In summarizing the first of the five key elements of Confucian thinking I condescend professor Smith’s writing to fit the length of this post. Whatever elegance or poetry you found in those three sections work of the great Huston Smith.

(4) From a speech delivered by President Lincoln on June 26, 1857.  It was Lincoln’s public refutation of the Dred Scott decision.

(5) Hinton, David (translator). The Analects of Confucius. CounterPoint. 1998. Chapter 6.11.

(6) Ibid. 2.10

(7) Ibid. 17.3

(8) Ibid. 15.4

 

 

 

  

 

Black Panther: The Challenge of T’Challa

 

Spoilers Ahead!!! Proceed with caution.

I saw Black Panther on Friday with two friends and, like most movie goers, we left the theater thrilled! About twenty-five minutes into the film I leaned to one of my friends and noted, “I could leave now and this has already been worth the price of admission.”  Thankfully I stayed! Afterwards we, naturally, began discussing the movie.  There were many topics covered but we can place them in three broad categories.

  1. Inspirational. As we left the theater I turned to my friends and stated, “I gotta tell ya, I feel like I should be going outside and trying to make the world a better place.” How many movies can make you feel that way? This feeling brings us to category two.
  2. Leadership. At various times during our post-movie chat one of us would exclaim, “T’Challa 2020!” What makes a great leader? How does a leader weigh the best course of action? When should a leader lean on tradition and when must he or she blaze a new trail? To bend a line from T’Challa’s father T’Chaka into a question, why is it hard for a good man to be king? To whom is a leader most responsible?
  3. Balance. This concept was brought up as we had witnessed a powerful blend of technology and spirituality. Powerful and prideful male and female characters seamlessly sharing the films multitude of subplots. Compassion balanced by conviction. The list went well on into the night.

For this post, however, we will focus on an aspect of balance I did not raise with any particular force with my friends. To be honest, I am not sure I mentioned it at all. It was, however, percolating in my mind. It will continue to do so well after this post is complete.

Some years ago I was blessed to encounter Stephen Biko’s essay, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity.” This was mentioned in the first post on this website but the time has arisen for a little unpacking of the power of this thought. What might our “True Humanity” look like? What dangers do we face when we allow ourselves to venture far from our greatest potential? Is it an ideal to achieve or a goal we can forever chase, perpetually approximate, and raise us up while never achieving full realization? An, as of this moment, incomplete manuscript considering the implication and power of True Humanity rests in my mind, in a variety of notebooks, and on my desktop. A brief summation of that idea resides in a single word: balance.

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The quest for True Humanity includes the balancing of five human components. Our physical, intellectual, psychological, emotional, and spiritual sensibilities have been on display throughout history and across cultures. These components, in a multitude of forms from harmonious balance to harmful overemphasis, were also on display in Black Panther. Here are examples from each trait for your consideration.

1. Emotional

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T’Challa has profound respect for his father T’Chaka. He sees his him as a great king, loving father, and wise protector of Wakanda. When he learns of his father’s handling of his Uncle, T’Challa is shaken to his emotional core. He only regains his equilibrium when he stands before his father in the spirit realm of the ancestral plane and gut wrenchingly declares his father was wrong (I must confess here that I so want to hear a conversation between T’Challa and Thor about the trials of being raised by kings). The struggle of losing and regaining his emotional center is central to T’Challa’s final victory. The fact this victory transpired in the ancestral plane also reveals how one aspect of our humanity, in this case spirituality, must lend support to another.

2. Psychological

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Psychological maturity is not something we effectively promote in this country. The failure to do so is reaching tragic proportions. In Black Panther a fine example of psychological strength (again supported by love of tradition – an aspect of spirituality) is exhibited by M’Baku, chief of the Jabari. M’Baku, who was defeated in ritual combat by T’Challa, saves his rival’s life after his subsequent defeat at the hands of Erik Stevens aka Killmonger. M’Baku is offered the power of the Black Panther by Queen Ramonda who is desperately attempting to remove Killmonger from the throne of Wakanda. She is unaware her son lives in M’Baku’s lands. She just knows she needs help. M’Baku has his heart’s desire offered to him…and he refuses it! Opting for honesty and the noble (and old fashioned) idea of repaying a debt he brings the Queen to her son.

3. Spiritual

 

According to psychologist James Fowler one of the challenges people of deep faith present is the expansion of our sense of community. Who gets to be included under the protective umbrella of “us” and who must remain a “them.” Spiritual leaders throughout history have attempted to shake people from their parochial worldview so they can adopt a more cosmopolitan perspective. Wakanda, as presented in the film, has a long isolationist tradition. Isolation, be it personal or national, often arises rom the logic of fear. In Wakanda’s case it was fear of vibranium falling into the wrong hands (There was also the Wakandan intentional isolation of the Jabari as presented by M’Baku. This action struck me as a form of regal superiority). T’Challa, who was taught the responsibility of royalty by his father throughout his life, has a traditional isolationist outlook. His sense of community is challenged, quite regularly by Nakia, who declared not only that Wakanda should give aid (as other nations do) but would likely do it better. Nakia also challenges Okoye, general and leader of the Dora Milaje, when the two debate the correct course of action when Agent Ross is injured. Their disagreements continue when briefly debating what matters more serving the throne or saving it. The film’s mid-credit scene, T’Challa vowing to end Wakandan isolation and build bridges instead of walls, speaks to his expanding view of humanity and the inspirational power of Nakia’s moral courage.

4. Physical 

 

All of these human traits have literal and metaphoric interpretations as well as real world manifestations. A prime example of this is witnessed through the physical lens to our humanity. Beyond the striking physical prowess of so many characters we see the physical mindset where might makes right and problems can be rectified by physical conquest. The captivating Erik “Killmonger” Stevens forcefully dismisses all other paths as an expression of his righteous fury (Not unlike another complex and wrathful Erik in Marvel’s pantheon of villains, Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr). Killmonger, in an ironic twist, confronts Wakandan isolation much like Nokia. He, however, does not want to send aid. He wants to conquer and will kill anyone, black or white, who does not agree with his vision. He declares, without remorse, that the families an children of his opponents must also die. While his anger is understandable his path would only produce a cycle of violence that would consume the world.  

5. Intellectual

 

Who other than the scene stealing Shuri would be the finest representative of the intellectual realm of life? Inventor, scientist, physician, and wise cracking younger sibling she brought spirit, humor, and the joy of intellectual pursuits to the screen. I smiled wide when my eleven year old daughter leaned to me in the the theater (my second viewing of the weekend) and said, “I want to be her.” One of Shuri’s greatest traits was a humbler approach to her intellect than some other Marvel geniuses (I’m looking at you Tony Stark). This speaks to the balance she has embraced in her young life. I also found great enjoyment when she referred to Agent Ross as a “colonizer” but did not hesitate to turn to him for help during the final battle (“You were a great pilot.”). This action by Shuri underscored the greatest example of hope presented in the movie. She viewed Ross as a representative of historic misdeeds while recognizing the past need not hold sway over the present. A present day ally need not share our past so we can help each other to a better future. That is the promise of Wakanda and the challenge of T’Challa. Are you ready to heed the king’s call to action?

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Chapter 1: A Meditation on Pain

 

Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage?

          -Frederick Douglas, My Bondage and My Freedom

 

Why is there laughter, why merriment, when the world is on fire?

When you are living in darkness, why don’t you look for light?

          -The Buddha, The Dhammapada, chapter 11

 

Some guys they just give up living

And start dying, little by little, piece by piece

          -Bruce Springsteen, “Racing in the Streets”

 

images-1Chapter 1: A Meditation on Painimages

 

     There are no diamonds in the deep places of the Earth. We have all been told that if we search the primordial darkness we will find our precious light. The diamond deep in the earth awaits discovery by the weary traveler. Such a cherished and foolish fantasy. I have learned there is only the darkness of the pit. Yet, I still crawl through the muck. Do I, somehow, cling to the fable of the light? I am more fool than prophet, crawling because I am too stupid to stop. I chew dirt, one mouth full upon another. My teeth shatter on stone. My nails peel from my fingers, a sacrifice to the unforgiving rock. Fool am I as I continue to search for diamonds, having been told by men I call wise that they are hidden in this darkness. Gems are not mine to have. Maggots and lice are the reward of my faith. The holes I dig open not to treasure, but to the abyss. The treacherous precipice calls me, a sweet release from my labors. My death would not matter. Clumsily I resist the Sirens call.

     I do not plummet, but still I fall. Sliding along the jagged stone my skin is ripped and shredded. I am flayed by my efforts to rebuke the abyss. Tumbling uncontrolled I crash onto a slab of rock, dirty and unforgiving. Blood mixes with the dirt. I know, instantly, that my life’s fluid will not regenerate this place. This is no blood rite, it is a bloodletting. Nothing else. These wounds will not heal. Scars run along my body as fault lines in the Earth. As those mighty fissures shake the planet to its core, so my scars rend my very soul. I wonder, do I even have one? Was it lost long ago in the subterranean dark? Did I ever possess such a thing? Could it have been shattered by a mighty quake leaving me a husk, an incomplete man? I would pray for answers, but I have lost that right.

Still I rise. Why? What stubbornness is this? Too stupid to realize hope is dead I stand again on wobbly legs. I do not know why I choose to stumble forward, ever deeper, into the darkness. Into the pit. Yet, it is not impenetrable. As I stagger my eyes develop unnatural nocturnal vision. I am gifted, quite unexpectedly, with the ability to see an arm’s length ahead. Is this some form of mockery? Am I not encountering darkness that cannot be dispelled? Why am I taunted with this…gift…of limited sight?

Is he here? Hunting. Searching. I do not feel his presence, his horror, in this dark place. Why is he in my thoughts? Time for that later. I am not safe here but I am alone. So I wander. Groping. Lurching. Graceless. I have reached it. Not the dragon’s treasure or the rare gem in the cavernous deep. I have not found a blossom in the muck or reached some distant and beautiful shore. No, I have found the Door.

Why am I before you again? Has this not been settled? Did Pandora not teach us well enough? Some portals, like the Box of Set, should remain unopened. Yet the Door taunts me. Calls me, after all this time, to find it here in the darkness. Still here. Always here. Daring me to enter. I run my hands along your rough wooden engravings. I feel images that make little sense to me. The gibberish of lunatics engraved in wood. Confusion reigns where understanding is sought. I feel your arch, carved and ornate. My fingers, bleeding and gnarled, find a doorplate with no name. Lastly my hands come upon your door knocker. I must pull for nothing will grant me entrance save my own courage. Would that I was Arthur before Excalibur or Thor with his magic gloves, ready to hoist Mjolnir and strike down my foes. I am not such a man. There is no mythic strength coursing in my veins. No gods are with me. I am small. I have been called, again, to a place of defeat and humiliation. Why have I been called back? Why do I answer? All I have is the strength to not weep before you. On my knees struggling not to drown in another torrent of meaningless tears. Enough tears have been shed here. I should not have come back.

 

Courage: The key to our Character

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There are many strengths and virtues a person can possess but none may be as important as courage. For if fear can immobilize then courage can liberate.

In an effort to explore courage this post is divided into two sections. First you will be presented with five quotations that focus on courage. The quotations are followed by questions that can be utilized for personal reflection. This is followed by my brief meditation on the topic. 

Courage

Hence also courage involves pain, and is justly praised; for it is harder to face what is painful than to abstain from what is pleasant.

-Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book III.9

To see something you ought to do and not to do it is want of courage.

-Confucius, The Analects, Chapter 2.24

We fear encounters in which the other is free to be itself, to speak its own truth, to tell us what we may not wish to hear. We want those encounters on our own terms, so that we can control their outcomes, so that they will not threaten our view of world and self.

-Parker J. Palmer (1) 

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

-JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit (2)

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He (Abraham Lincoln) calmly and bravely heard the voices of doubt and fear all around him; but he had an oath in heaven, and there was not power enough on earth to make this honest …backwoodsman…violate that sacred oath.

-Frederick Douglass, “Oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln” (April 14, 1876)

  1. When have you encountered courage causing pain? How did you navigate those difficult waters?
  2. Read the quote by Confucius. How does it strike you – as a challenge, a reprimand, a fact, etc.? Is he correct in his assessment? How did you come to your conclusion?
  3. In the passage from The Hobbit, Bilbo is proceeding down a tunnel toward the lair of the dragon, Smaug. How can the words of Aristotle, Confucius, and Palmer all be related to Bilbo’s moment or heroism?
  4. What “voices of doubt and fear” surround you? How can you overcome them?
  5. Courage takes many forms. For Bilbo it included taking the next step down the tunnel. What small act of courage have you recently taken? Did you take a moment to appreciate this small victory, even if others would not recognize your efforts as courageous? If you didn’t, why not do so now?

 

Courage

When considering the virtue of courage people often find themselves drawn to examples of physical courage. Truth be told, however, many of us will never be required to dive into raging waters to save someone from drowning or race into a burning building. We may never have to risk our lives for another. This does not mean we lack courage. I would dare say many of the problems facing us will NEVER be overcome until we develop and strengthen our sense of moral courage.

Almost any action we deem difficult requires a certain amount of courage, even those actions that are not dramatic or that come easily to others.  If you have never been bashful, you do not understand the courage a shy student must muster to complete an oral presentation. If you have always been athletic it would be hard to understand the courage required for a player cut from the team one year to shows up next year to try again, risking great disappointment for the possible reward. Stepping into an office for a job interview, listening to an aggrieved friend while withholding judgment, moving to a new city or state in pursuit of a job or simply asking someone on a date all require different amounts of courage for different people. If you look back at this list you note courage does not predict success, merely opportunity.

This frustrating aspect of courage – that it does not guarantee success, it merely guarantees the opportunity – brings us to a sometimes bitter conclusion. Courage is, and we must allow it to be, its own reward. Knowing you did not give in to fear could fill you with a sense of pride or, at the very least, embolden you to try again. Perhaps acting courageously in small ways allows the virtue of courage to be strengthened and easier to access the next time it’s needed. So be courageous! Your future self may thank you! Speaking of gratitude, here are two examples of courage exhibited by former students which I am thankful to have been privy. 

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Stories From School

The first example addresses the common problem of relationships gone awry. Teenagers, like adults, can make a fine mess of their friendships. Many of us have been wrong but never offered an apology to the one we offended because as our pride overcame our courage. We would rather continue pretending we are not to blame and risk a relationship than take the steps necessary to make amends. At such times Confucius’ voice chastising us for our “want of courage” is entirely appropriate. But alas, we heed not his words and the relationship ends. Granted we take comfort in blaming the other person, if only they weren’t so stubborn and saw things our way. Now, I am not saying that the other is blameless, I am just noting that, on occasion, our own shortcomings add to the problem. What relationship in your life right now is under some strain or pressure? Who will find the courage to reach out the open hand instead of the closed fist so healing can begin?

Some years ago a student of mine (we shall call her “Alexis”) exhibited the courage necessary to save a friendship. On this day a class discussions on the ideal of “Carpe Diem” (seize the day) inspired the most extraordinary action. I did not witness the event, but a tearful Alexis came to me and told the tale. Evidently, she and a friend had been quarreling for some time. When she left the “Carpe Diem” class she, naturally, saw the girl walking towards her. The girl looked angrily (in Alexis’ estimation) at her. Alexis responded by embracing her friend in a strong hug. The friend tried to pull away, but ended up bursting into tears and returning the hug.

Some weeks later I asked Alexis how she and her friend were doing. She answered fine; we just need to work on some stuff.  What a fitting answer. Whatever problems Alexis and her friend had to overcome was not solved by the hug, but that courageous moment enabled them to move forward, rather than remain stuck in a perpetual state of animosity. Courage alone did not solve the problem, but it enabled other tools, forgiveness, faith, patience and love to come into play. Just as many tasks require multiple people to complete, so too must we call upon many facets of our character to solve personal problems. Often times, however, courage must be tapped first.

Unfortunately, not all scenarios tie up so neatly. Another student once approached me with a very profound problem. Her father, an alcoholic, was about to be released from prison and wanted to see her again. He had promised in the past to give up drinking for her, but had never successfully done so. She was simultaneously insulted, hurt, resentful and sad. She wanted a relationship with a sober father, not the drunk she had grown to know. I counseled her the best I could, leaving the decision to see him up to her. I hoped she realized by the end of our talk his situation had a lot more to do with his own being than with his love for her (she said more than once during our conversation, “If he loved me he would stop drinking”).

She returned to me a few weeks later, proclaiming she did see him, but it didn’t matter.

“He won’t quit,” she said sadly.

“He hasn’t quit. We don’t know what the future holds,” was my hopeful reply. If memory serves my tone did not support my words.

I don’t know if our conversation actually helped her, but we talked some more and I complimented her for her bravery. If the father exhibited the courage of his daughter he may have a chance. As of that moment the only comfort courage provided was that, despite hurt and fear, a teenage girl reached out even when she doubted her own strength. Whatever road her father’s life takes, her courage is her own.

From School to Society

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Courage, of course, transcends the small stories of individual lives and can infuse groups of people with the energy to move forward. Every great social movement, every step taken against restrictive structures, every stand taken against well intentioned (but wrong headed) opposition requires courage. The dozens of young women (including but in no way limited to Rachel Denhollander, Jamie  Dantzscher, Aly Raismon, and Megan Halicek) who have come forward to end Dr. Larry Nassar’s reign of terror are all courageous. Facing a less heinous, but no less insidious problem, Joyce Rankin, Dan Snowberger, and Shane Voss have decided enabling cell phone and social media addiction is not the province of schools. Due to their courage cell phones are banned in Mountain Middle School in Colorado. The list of courageous people in the modern world is, in fact, quite long. As a history teacher for over twenty years, however, I am going to reach into the past for my final examples.

From Society to History

 

Moral courage is our focus today. This form of courage demands that we look inward for those beliefs in need of redress instead of always demanding others weed their gardens while ours remain quite unkept. Abraham Lincoln is a fine example of this. We often fall into the trap of proclaiming a historic figure to be a solid rather than fluid figure. “Abraham Lincoln was…” is a shallow statement as he, perhaps unlike others changed over time. A word of caution, if you contend “people don’t change” the lives of Abraham Lincoln and the great Malcolm X proclaim from the mists of time the falsity of your words (3).

A careful study of Lincoln exposes a man wrestling with the issue of race and racial prejudices. The attitudes Lincoln held in 1847 had changed by the time 1858 rolled around. The views of 1858 stood in stark contrast to the one present in 1865. Stephen Oates points out in his book Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths:

He had come a long distance from the harassed political candidate of 1858, opposed to emancipation lest his political career be jeopardized, convinced that only the distant future could remove slavery  from his troubled land, certain that only colonization could solve the ensuing problem of racial adjustment. He had also come a long way in the matter of Negro social and political rights,…The Proclamation had indeed liberated Abraham Lincoln, enabling him to act more consistently with his moral convictions (4).

 

For Lincoln to transform his beliefs he had to complete a thorough examination of them; mulling them over and admitting they needed changing. What could be more difficult, for don’t we all wish to believe our views correct? To stand up and admit to oneself a core belief (in Lincoln’s case his view of black men and women) incorrect is painful, but necessary if we wish to grow. Only by admitting, honestly admitting an error, not saying we are wrong just to appear magnanimous, can we truly begin to correct it. By struggling with his beliefs Lincoln not only, as Oates puts it, liberated himself, he earned the respect of the great black leader of the time, Frederick Douglass. Douglass admitted American blacks had come to admire, and some even love, the complicated man. Unfettered by the bonds of racial prejudice Lincoln would ask Douglass to review his second Inaugural Address, pointing out, “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours” (5).

Douglass’ “Oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln” (1876) reveals to us a quiet courage that allows patience and compassion to thrive. Douglass proclaimed:

“We (black leaders and the black community) saw him, measured him,…not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations,…; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses,…but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events,…we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln” (6).

I do so love the use of the word “somehow” in this passage. I can hear Douglass’ muted shock at the idea that Lincoln was the driving force of the 13th Amendment, the abolition of slavery accomplished by the President who sometimes proceeded with what could be described as overly cautious steps. In Douglass’ words I feel a challenge before me to not judge others by “isolated” events but to give way to allowing a broader picture to unfold. This is a fine example of Palmer’s call to give “the other” room to reveal him or herself to us. In so doing we may find ourselves, like Douglass, a bit shocked at who our true allies are. Conversely, if condemnation must arise, let it come from a place of solid standing so my discontent is righteous and not merely egocentric. Compassion sometimes requires the courage to punish the guilty. This must never be forgotten. Hopefully patience allows for more allies than foes to arise. Perhaps such patience, augmented by courage, allows unexpected gifts to arrive.

Douglass’ courage enabled him to keep faith with Lincoln, even when “..faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed” (7). The gift of faith rewarded. What could be greater?  Such strength is inspirational. Such courage is almost otherworldly to me. Douglass stands a giant in my imagination for good reason. He deserves greater acclaim as a titan of our past.

I wonder, was the courage needed to lead the country through the Civil War possibly less than the courage Lincoln needed to alter his beliefs and become the man who could save the nation? As courage redeemed Lincoln so he redeemed a nation. Does it now fall to us to find the courage to keep the great experiment on course?

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Character Challenge: Pick one action you have been wanting to take but have been nervous about facing. Remember – it does not have to be some great feat;  it just has to be something you have been shying away from. Is there someone you should apologize to? Someone you should be thanking? Do you need help but are afraid to ask for it? Decide what to do and do it! Run the experiment and feel the power courage brings to our lives.

 

Endnotes:

(1) Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach. Jossey-Bass. 1997. The exact passage is found on page 37. I strongly recommend Palmer’s book to teachers. If you should read and enjoy it do pick up a copy of Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness.

(2) Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Del Rey. 2012.

(3) While I do not feature Malcolm X in this article students are often shocked to learn about his transformation after visiting Mecca. When teaching about Malcolm I present the three phases of Malcolm X; pre-prison, post-prison (pre-Mecca), and post-Mecca. 

(4) Oates, Stephen. Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths. Harper Perennial. 1994. (p 118).

(5) ibid. (p 119).

(6) Frederick Douglas. “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln.” Washington D.C. April 14, 1876.

(7) ibid.