Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Zero Sum Game

By Susan Esther Barnes

I remember, when I was a teen and I felt like my life was a mess, I thought that somehow each of is allotted only a certain amount of happiness in life, and that if we are happier in part of our life, we’ll necessarily be less happy in another part. So I remember making a deal with God, saying, “Ok, things suck right now. Go ahead and let the first part of my life be awful, because I know later on it’ll all balance out, and I’d rather be unhappy now and happy when I’m old, than the other way around.”

Over the last several years, as I experienced large changes in my life and everything seemed to be getting exponentially better, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Things can’t really stay this good for long,” I thought, but then I’d also think, “On the other hand, most likely I’m in the second half of my life now, so maybe now I finally get to enjoy all the happiness I ‘paid’ for in my youth.”

During services this morning, I kept thinking about the man who recently told me he’s looking for a good way to kill himself. I kept thinking, “My life is so good right now, in so many ways, and his isn’t. If only I could take some part of my happiness and give it to him. I have more than I need; it would be worth it to have a little less if it would help him.”

Then suddenly it dawned on me: That isn’t the way happiness works. The more good feelings and caring I have shared with others over the last few years, the more happiness and caring has flowed back to me. It’s like throwing a little yeast into dough. Sprinkle some around, and before you know it, it starts expanding. When I try to give this distressed man some of my caring and happiness, I don’t have less. I have more. For the first time in my life I finally understand it’s not a zero sum game.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trying to Save a Life

Because I spend a lot of time standing in front of the synagogue greeting everyone who approaches, I meet a lot of people. A good number of them have become my friends, some are acquaintances, and some have faces I recognize but I’d have trouble putting a name to them.

The other day, one of these acquaintances responded to the question, “How are you?” by saying, “I’m looking for a good way to kill myself. Do you know a good way?” I told him I hope he won’t do that, and that a lot of people would be upset if he did, but that didn’t seem to be enough. I asked a rabbi for advice, and was told to try the local suicide prevention hotline.

Calling the suicide prevention hotline was a little surreal. The voice of the person who answered was very soft and calm. In fact, it was so soft and calm, I had to switch to a better phone so I could hear what the man was saying. In addition, he put me on hold a few times, which gave me the impression he was a new person just learning the ropes, and therefore he had to confer with his trainer from time to time even though what I was calling about wasn’t particularly complicated.

At any rate, the suicide prevention person suggested I try to find out how serious the person was with regard to his comment about killing himself. He also suggested I try to find out why he was considering that option.

I found the man’s phone number and address in the phone book, and gave him a call. I told him I was worried about him, and wanted to know how serious he was. He told me, very matter-of-factly, that he was not sure he was going to do it, but he was thinking about it, and was looking for a good way to do it. “Something not too messy,” he said.

I reiterated that I hoped he wouldn’t kill himself, and I asked him why he was thinking about it. He told me about some of the frustrations in his life, and ended by saying he felt like he wasn’t any use to anyone anymore, including himself. I was able to interest him in a meeting on Sunday, so I have some reason to believe he won’t kill himself before then. In the meantime, I’m looking for more ways to help him get involved in the local community, so he can see that he’s needed and has value.

I understand intellectually that I’m not responsible for saving this man’s life, but if I can help him add some value to it, and he sticks around a little longer because of it, it would still be a relief.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Pleasant Surprise

With my lunch today I got a fortune cookie that says, "A pleasant surprise is in store for you soon in the coming week," and I thought, "That's not new news. I get a pleasant surprise every week."

For instance, last night I had to drive out to a board meeting in Galt on Hwy 12 (a one-lane, notoriously dangerous road), and although it was raining on the way out, I was pleasantly surprised that the rain had stopped before I had to drive back. I was also pleasantly surprised at the board meeting when my client, without any prompting from me, asked that my item be moved up on the agenda since I had a long drive back.

I would expect that all of us get at least one pleasant surprise per week, if we'd only keep our eyes out for them and recognize them when they happen.

On a related note, I'm compiling comments from a survey we mailed recently for a recreation & park district. Some people are saying, essentially, "Why should I pay for something I don't use?" while other people are saying, "I won't use this, but I understand the value parks have to the community so I'm willing to pay for them anyway."

I'd rather live in a world where we all try to enjoy our pleasant surprises and are willing to do things to help one another even when those things may not benefit us directly, than live in a world where we spend too much time focusing on our own self-interest.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Today Was a Much Better Day Than it Might Have Been

This morning I encountered much heavier traffic on the freeway than I expected. Not only that, but when I was filling my gas tank, I noticed one of my tires seemed to be low on air. When I looked closer, I discovered a large crack on its side. Its twin on the other side didn't look too good, either.

So far, this doesn't sound like a great start to the day. But the fact is, I spend a lot of time driving on the freeway. This morning, I was able to drive to the tire place without mishap, and I was able to get both tires replaced. It's possible that the unexpectedly heavy traffic on the freeway helped to keep my tire from blowing out. It certainly would have been possible for me to shrug and decide not to further investigate what looked like a slightly flat tire.

When I compare the inconvenience and even the expense of some bad traffic and the need to replace two tires, it seems like nothing next to the possibility of blowing out a tire at 65 MPH and possibly injuring or even killing myself or others.

So, I have to say, today was a much better day than it might have been.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Standing Together

By Susan Esther Barnes

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

- Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller

The poem above is a cautionary tale about what can happen when we don’t stand up for each other. On October 25 we will hold the Founding Convention for the Marin Organizing Committee (MOC), an organization of religious and secular institutions dedicated to standing together for the public good.

One of the issues the MOC has been working on for the past two years is the need for a permanent open shelter for the homeless in the County. Unfortunately, progress on this issue hasn’t been as fast as we would like, and there isn’t enough time left to put such a shelter in place before winter comes this year. As a result, about a dozen churches and synagogues in the County have agreed to step up and provide a rotating temporary shelter for the homeless for this winter.

The County supports the plan for a permanent shelter, as well as the plan for an emergency rotating shelter for this winter, as long as the churches and synagogues providing the temporary shelter in incorporated areas obtain the necessary approval from their own cities and towns. The only place where this appears to be a problem is the City of San Rafael.

Apparently, the City of San Rafael is the only jurisdiction in the County that requires a Conditional Use Permit to provide a rotating shelter for the homeless. This means that the five churches in the City which want to participate in this program each need to pay between $6,000 and up to an estimated $9,000 or more to the City in order to get the City to process their application. Even if they pay these fees, for a total of $30,000 to $45,000 or more, there is no guarantee that any of the permits will be approved. This strikes me as particularly ironic. Since taking care of the homeless is a public good, it seems the City should be paying the churches to do this; the churches shouldn’t be paying the City.

Last night on the agenda of the San Rafael City Council was an item to discuss the possibility of waiving the fees for these churches. Before the City Council meeting, the MOC held a pre-meeting to prepare for their presentation to the City Council. The room was full. When those who were there from the five San Rafael churches were asked to stand, less than half the people in the room stood up. Why? Because MOC is not an organization in which individual member institutions stand alone. More than half the people there did not attend in their own institution’s interest, but were there to support those churches facing this dilemma.

We agreed that, instead of a host of different people expressing different opinions and possible solutions to the City Council, we would have just two people speak. Those two people read their prepared statements to us. Not everyone in the room agreed completely with those statements. But we all came to the City Council meeting to support them. Why? Because we are practicing the discipline of standing together.

In the City Council meeting, we sat quietly while the City staff presented their case about why the permit process and the fees were necessary. When the time came for our two representatives to speak, about 80 of us stood to show our support. We stood respectfully and silently through their statements, and when they were finished, we respectfully and silently left the Council chambers. Unlike the infamous town hall meetings held throughout the country over the summer, there were no outcries, no shouting matches, nobody attempting to stop anyone from being heard.

In San Rafael last night, we stood together for decency and for the common good. And for the first time in my life I felt that if, God forbid, some time they should be foolish enough to try to come for us, it is possible that we may not stand alone.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Third Thoughts

Right after I started this blog, I had second thoughts about whether I should do it.

Today, I saw a post on my friend Willow's blog, at in which she wrote a beautiful piece inspired, in part, by my most recent blog entry.

It brought tears to my eyes. Partly because what she wrote hits so close to home. She and I certainly have some things in common in regard to having stayed too long in a toxic relationship and then learning how to do the work of moving on.

I also found it moving because if my blog can, in some small way, help other people to make their lives better, then I couldn't possibly ask for anything more.