Capt. Dan Willis and ‘Bulletproof Heart’ offers lifelines to first responders as suicide rates rise

PARIS (Reuters) – Thousands of French police officers marched in the streets of Paris, protesting against poor working conditions they say have led to dozens of suicides among their ranks since the beginning of the year. The number 52 on this coffin is the total of suicides among their colleagues so far in 2019. (Click on this photo to read the original Reuters October 2, 2019, story.)

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

This book could save a life.

I write that sentence after watching thousands of French police officers protesting conditions that have led to a tidal wave of suicides—52 so far this year from among their ranks. They certainly are not alone.

A growing number of professional organizations, researchers, journalists and public-health agencies are calling for more training and other practical resources to save the lives of their colleagues.

A widely cited research report shows that first responders—police and firefighters in this particular study—are more likely to die by suicide than by any threat they encounter in their careers. That’s due to the accumulated impact of hundreds of traumatic incidents many first responders encounter in the course of their career.

So, this week, we are recommending Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder’s Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart. We also are publishing this interview with the author, Capt. Dan Willis.

(Please, stay tuned: Yet to come this autumn, we  will feature a new interview with psychologist Dr. Robert J. Wick, author of many books on trauma and resilience including Night Call: Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled WorldWick’s book underlines principles that are similar to what readers will find in Willis’s newly updated book.)

We also recommend that you organize a small-group discussion of Willis’s new book in your congregation, library or community center. To help you spark interest from friends in hosting such a discussion, here are some recent headlines that show the urgency of these issues:

‘PRACTICAL, EFFECTIVE METHODS’

Although he is best known for his work with police officers, Dan Willis welcomes a wide range of first responders in the opening pages of his book. Standard definitions of “first responders” always have included police, firefighters and often military personnel who are deployed in tragedies.

U.S. Homeland Security has expanded that list further to include all “individuals who in the early stages of an incident are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment, including emergency response providers, as well as emergency management, public health, clinical care, public works, and other skilled support personnel and equipment officers who provide immediate support services during prevention, response and recovery operations.”

Researchers and educators who have devoted their lives to helping men and women cope with trauma, such as psychologist and author Robert J. Wicks, point out that there are other professionals who share similar challenges. That even longer list can include doctors and sometimes teachers or clergy or other.

Willis opens his book with a similarly broad invitation to readers who find themselves regularly confronting trauma. He lays out the purpose of his book in a concise paragraph:

“There are practical, effective methods to help first responders survive emotionally and to heal their spirits. It is no longer inevitable that these careers will lead to broken lives and irreparable harm. There is absolutely no reason why police officers, as well as firefighters, career military officers, and all other first responders, cannot thrive and be well throughout their careers and retire from a lifetime of noble service with a vibrant mind, body, and spirit. They deserve to enjoy their careers and the rest of their lives in peace, happiness, and good health. They should be able to look back on their careers with pride while looking forward to savoring all the good that’s still to come.”

FROM WARNING SIGNS TO LIFELINES

What’s in this book?

The success of Willis’s book since its first edition in 2014 is proof of the pragmatic value of these 288 pages. That’s also why Willis has now expanded the book, after years of crisscrossing the nation with educational programs. He has now added a couple of chapters, reorganized others and updated some of the data since his first edition. For example, readers now will find thoughtful new chapters on “The Spirituality of Service” and “Brain Injuries Caused by Trauma.”

Reading this book in light of the long-standing work by Wicks and other experts in coping with trauma, I can affirm that Willis is in the mainstream in the advice he provides. What he adds is the authentic voice, and stories, of a lifetime in the trenches of public service.

Willis writes about both the strengths and the vulnerabilities that are present in a vocation that calls men and women to “be consciously aware, purposeful, compassionate and spiritual in our service.” He then writes in plain, helpful language about the steps professionals can take to ensure that they are not suffocating their vocational desire to compassionately serve.

Among the dangers he points out are the tendencies we all share to expect success when we devote all of our energy to a cause. First responders, in particular, often see as many tragic outcomes as they do life-saving ones. Balancing the spiritual vocation to serve with the realization of frequent tragedy becomes a lifelong journey for both the first responders and their friends, family and community.

That’s why his book has chapters, including “Peer Support,” “Support from Home,” and “Effective Use of Chaplain Services.”

‘TRULY A VOCATION OF THE HEART’

Willis talked about the double-edged sword of public service in our interview about his book and his ongoing educational work.

“There is a deep spiritual component in this vocation, but we have to balance our lives outside the job, and our expectations while on the job, so that this job does not eat us alive,” he said in our interview.

He continued, “I can tell you this as an absolute fact: This is truly a vocation of the heart, and it is possible to withstand the repeated trauma that first-responders will encounter. The values of selflessness and humble service can be the cornerstones of a fulfilling career. We have to learn the ways to balance our lives so that our hearts are not suffocated by all the trauma we will encounter throughout our careers.”

“So, why publish this second edition?” I asked. “Some of our audience may have the first edition on their shelves already. How is this new second edition different?”

Willis said, “Since the first edition came out, I have traveled all over the country and have learned a lot. This book includes some new chapters, plus a lot of things needed to be updated since the first version five years ago.”

“One thing that is consistent is your message that—while there is more data compiled on suicides among police—these dangers run across all the professions that are on the front lines after tragedies strike,” I said.

“That’s right. It’s harder to get all the data on trauma and suicide among firefighters, because so many of them are volunteers and there’s no standardized reporting procedure in place for many of them. As a result, it’s true: We have better data on police,” Willis said. “But it’s clear to all of us who are trying to respond to this problem that trauma touches many professions. Doctors and nurses who work in emergency medicine, the military, and also other men and women whose skills are needed in response to catastrophes.”

“You’re saying that they share a long-term vocational challenge,” I said. “That challenge is not always triggered by a single big event. In many cases, it’s an accumulation of years of tragedies.”

‘A Powerful Cumulative Effect’

“My message is that it’s not as simple as saying: Let’s focus on the people who responded to one particularly horrible scene. While that one big trauma may be particularly difficult to deal with—my message is that the greater danger is the debilitating effects of all of the smaller cases and scenes we are part of day after day. That has a powerful cumulative effect.”

“So there are many potential readers for this book,” I said. “That means lots of people who read this column today know someone who might benefit from receiving a copy of the book.”

“That’s right,” Willis said.

“Anyone who reads your book will get your message: Compassion ultimately is the solution, not the problem,” I said.

Willis said, “One response to this ongoing, almost daily exposure to trauma—at least in the careers of some first responders—might be to say: Well, we can’t continue to be compassionate. We have to harden our hearts. If we are too compassionate, that will lead to fatigue. But it’s not compassion that is the danger. The real danger comes when we start to isolate ourselves, to become irritable, to deaden our hearts, to stop talking to the people around us, and even to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.”

“That’s a good outline of your chapter on ‘Warning Signs,’ ” I said.

“That’s right,” Willis said.

‘Compassion is the DNA of Service’

He continued, “I say to people that compassion is the DNA of a career in service. And, when I talk about compassion, I relate that to other values: to the desire to be helpful, to act in a selfless way, to serve the public humbly. Altogether, compassion is the breath of life in our professions and, if we understand that correctly, then we realize that compassion ultimately is the key to a long and healthy career.

“In this book and in my classes, we go through many reasons that we can become confused and frustrated. We can lose our balance. For example, we can tie our compassionate response to an unrealistic expectation that we have the power to save everyone. Of course, we don’t. We have to realize that there will be as many tragedies as there are success stories in our work over the years.”

DISCUSSION GROUPS: ‘EVERYONE KNOWS SOMEONE’

I talked with Willis about the value of discussing his book in community groups.

“I can see a lot of value in church-based classes or discussion groups devoting a series of weeks to discussing chapters from this book,” I said. “I can see hospitals offering community discussions of the book, perhaps even public schools or libraries in their community-outreach programs.”

“I certainly encourage that kind of community conversation,” Willis said. “Pretty much everyone, if they stop and think about it, knows someone who could be helped with this kind of information as at least a starting point to dealing with accumulated trauma.

“I hope some people who read this article about the book will respond that way,” he continued. “And here’s another way to think about this: The safety of any community is intrinsically linked to the health and wellness of the first responders who serve that community. When those first responders are struggling, members of the community are likely to feel the effects. So, even if you are not a first-responder yourself, you can still play a helpful role by calling together a discussion group. I hope we see more of that happening across the country.”

Care to read more?

LEARN MORE ABOUT WILLIS’S WORK: His website is FirstResponderWellness.com and on this “about us” page, you can watch a 7-minute video featuring Willis and his new book. That page also includes Willis’s extensive travel schedule for classes and public events. If you have further questions, including inquiries about Willis’s availability, you can contact him through this page. Willis also offers an online course through his website, which he built around a video lessons.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

LEARN MORE ABOUT POLICE: One reason we are featuring this Cover Story on Willis and Bulletproof Spirit is that our Front Edge Publishing house has a long-standing commitment to improving community relationships with police and other first-responders. That includes the valuable book, 100 Questions & Answers about Police Officers, which was produced by the Michigan State University School of Journalism—with input from law enforcement professionals. We also have published an inspiring story about the teams of MSU students, The Bias Busters, who have produced these helpful books. If you want to move beyond the volume on police officers to explore more of the Bias Busters’ work, we have a new 2019 “library” of their guides to help community groups nationwide promote a positive awareness of diversity.

 

 

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Fields of Dreams: In October, our ‘American Odyssey’ calls us home

Ed and Jean Pratt grave Laurel Hill Cemetery, Erie County, Pennsylvania Photo by Debra DeSantis

The Pratt family gravesite at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Erie County, Pennsylvania. Photo by Debra DeSantis.

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By BENJAMIN PRATT
Author and Contributing Columnist

Baseball—
The crack of the bat,
The sweep of the curve,
The slide into second base.

My dad loved the game—maybe more than he loved Mom.

As millions of Americans step into October, each year, the liturgical season of baseball either brings elation or somber reflection on what might happen next year.

Yes, there’s always next year, isn’t there?

Filmmaker Ken Burns understood this kind of timeless spiritual yearning, calling baseball the “American Odyssey.” In his 18-hour documentary, Baseball, narrator John Chancellor tells us: “It is an American Odyssey that links sons and daughters to fathers and grandfathers, and it reflects a host of age-old American tensions, between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope—and coming home.”

If we are true fans of the game, those words give us a little shiver, don’t they?

What that soaring description misses is that each American’s odyssey is as much a solitary pilgrimage as it is collective. Surely, you have your own.

And, this is mine. The memories and dreams all flowed back recently as I walked across my father’s final field.

My wife Judith and I had not visited my parents’ gravesite in a decade. Like Odysseus, we came back armed—packing grass clippers, fearing that we might need to catch up on 10 years of grave tending.

At journey’s end, we rolled our car to a stop along the lane through Laurel Hill Cemetery, Erie County, Pennsylvania. Got out. Stretched our legs.

Strolled across the lush green.

Sure enough, the grass had crept right over the evidence of his name and lifespan—Mom’s too, etched beside him in stone. I couldn’t help but think of Carl Sandburg: “I am the grass. I cover all.”

In that granite, now partially obscured, all that is left of these two people for the world to see is a few words and dates—the simplest of signs that, somewhere below that verdant expanse, lies:

PRATT
THOMAS EDWIN, 1908-1985
GENEVIEVE OPAL, 1917-1980

Time has obscured so much. Yes, those are facts. But those weren’t their names. They were Ed and Jean to friends.

To us: Dad and Mom.

In Ken Burns’ potent phrase—”between workers and owners”—Mom and Dad lived their lives on the “workers” half of that balance. They labored so hard, and yet remained so poor, that I only made it into college because of a scholarship.

In fact, they were so poor that, despite my failing eyesight in high school, we had no money for me to afford an eye exam and glasses. There went my own baseball career! I will never forget a ball nearly taking my head off in one big game—a ball I never saw coming.

We were so poor that, for years, some of us slept in an unheated attic in a tiny house we shared with other family.

So poor, I told Judith, “I don’t think Dad could have ever afforded a ticket to a world series game when his beloved Pirates were playing.”

She shook her head. “Never heard any mention of a world series game.”

“During the regular season, I know he made it to the old Forbes Field more than once,” I said. “Remember that old story he loved to tell about going with his buddies, one time, and downing so many hot dogs that—”

“Of course!” Judith said. She has heard these tales far too many times, already, but she was game once more on this special occasion. “Fourteen hotdogs, wasn’t it? I think that’s how the story went.”

“Maybe 14 hotdogs,” I said, “but I think, by the time he told it the last time, it was 16 or more. Who knows?”

We looked at each other and smiled. The truth is: All too soon, given our own stage in life, there won’t be anyone left to keep telling that story.

The work at hand refocused our resolve. We stooped to trim the grave.

“One thing’s sure,” I said at length. “He loved baseball more than anything or anyone in life.”

Judith looked it me. That was quite a statement. She had heard me say that many times before, but it remains a startling truth. Dad loved the game—maybe more than he loved Mom.

“It’s just a fact,” I said.

As a young man in the Great Depression, Dad did whatever he could to survive. He hustled pool in the winter—and pitched semi-pro ball in the spring, summer and fall.

“His greatest dream was that I’d grow up to be a major league ball player,” I said. “Too bad we didn’t have the money to figure out why I was losing my eyesight.”

Judith, always the reality check, said, “Oh, and you think glasses was the only reason you didn’t turn into Willie Stargell or Barry Bonds?”

Yeah, right.

I chuckled. “But, that’s not the kind of baseball I’m thinking about right now,” I said. “I’m talking about the baseball in his blood.”

Dad grew up playing rough and eventually made it onto a semi-pro team sponsored by a gas company. He loved to tell about a game in the 1930s in a country field just over the Pennsylvania line in rural West Virginia—so poorly suited to the sport that a dirt road ran right through the diamond.

“No kidding,” Dad would say, “I’m talking right smack through the pitcher’s mound and home plate! If we heard a car coming, we had to pause the game. And that wasn’t the worst of it. The left fielder could not even see the right fielder, because there was a hill between them!”

He lived for baseball.

He paid the bills as an auto mechanic, which meant his fingernails always were tinged with black grease, no matter how hard he scrubbed. I can still see that left hand with the black-rimmed nails pressing a transistor radio to his ear, so that he could hear his Pirates play. When we moved from southwestern Pennsylvania up to Erie—blocks from the lake—he used to hole up in the attic to listen.

“So, I won’t disturb anyone,” he would say.

The truth was: He didn’t want anyone interrupting the best part of his week—those exciting adventures at the ball park brought to life by the creative narration of the Pirates’ Rosey Rowswell.

An extra-base hit wasn’t just a stat to Rosey. It was “a doozie maroonie!” Oh, he had a million of ’em.

And the best? When a Pirate slugged a home run, Rosey’s voice would soar as if yelling over his shoulder: “Raise the window, Aunt Minnie! Here it comes! Right into your petunia patch!” Then, we all heard it—the glass shattering! “Awww, that’s too bad,” Rosey would say. “Aunt Minnie never made it in time.”

I suppose there’s a prayer in that vibrant life of eternal hope, as Dad curled up in the sweltering attic on a hot summer’s afternoon with that little radio piping Rosey’s voice directly into his ear.

I mean: God, Dad loved baseball.

Baseball was his odyssey and, for a time, our shared journey. The hard truth about all such pilgrimages, though, is that they span time and expose all manner of human frailty. Dad’s body stooped more each year—the weight of his own life and limitations. He was bent even further by the burden of Mom’s debilitating illness—rheumatoid arthritis—that took the ferocious form of insufferable pain. Dad was helpless in the face of it—no way he could make her feel better. Every day, her body was wracked with pain, the joints distorted so much her hands would not close.

Somewhere in that saga, a particular line of that family story was draped around my shoulders: Mom became an invalid because I was born. That became part of our family odyssey—and I had to live with that onus for many years.

All in all: A curse from Hell played out in our tiny home. Eventually, Mom died too young. Just 63.

When we first laid that shared cemetery marker for them, more than three decades ago, the granite slab stood just above the blades of grass, formally proclaiming the family name even from a distance: PRATT.

Now, as Judith and I paid our respects, we could see Sandburg’s sod swallowing what we had tried to establish there.

I was about to say something about that to Judith—when another vivid memory stopped me cold.

It was Dad, standing right there in that field just after Mom’s death. We had just buried her and Dad raised his hand toward the distance—pointing over toward a line of far bigger stones in the distance. My eye followed his fingertip.

“This cemetery has two sides,” he said, “that one over there with the big monuments—and our side where everyone is equal.”

I can still hear his matter-of-fact intonation of that phrase: “Our side where everyone is equal.”

It wasn’t a boast. It wasn’t a political statement. It was fact. Just a fact about his place in this world.

And, somewhere in those words, I think there might have been another prayer.

God, in the end, we are all equal.

I stood beside Judith, as we stared at their granite marker all these decades later.

I gazed up along the cemetery’s gentle, sloping hillside with a lane running through it.

This could be that West Virginia ballpark with that lane right through the pitcher’s mound all the way to home plate.

For a moment, I closed my eyes. Someday—

Someday, before the grave marker is completely swallowed by the sod, perhaps my father will rise.

He might use the marker as the rubber on his pitching mound to hurl a few fastballs again.

He just might pitch a no hitter! Why not? Our dream once was to be baseball stars. Make it a no hitter!

We both set out on that journey with high hopes—and only discovered life’s many truths along the way.

Dad did make it to Forbes Field a few times, at least, as a spectator. But, no, I don’t think he ever could have afforded a ticket to a World Series game—and there were precious few, of course, in the span of his life. He was only a baby in 1909 when the Pirates won their first World Series. Then, throughout the rest of his life, there were only five more trips to the Series: ’25, ’27, ’60, ’71 and ’79.

Yet, every autumn—whatever had unfolded since March—October was a special season all its own, defined by hope. If not for this year, then for another.

Yes, there definitely is a prayer somewhere in that odyssey. One day—

One day—we might stand together in a field of our dreams, once again.

And tell the stories that define our lives.

At the end of our journey to Dad’s final field, Judith and I packed up our clippers and returned to our car.

We buckled up, started the car. All too soon, reality set in again. You can’t avoid the truth. All too soon, who will be left to tell these stories we love so much?

Well, in this moment, I’ve given this story to you. Even in this instant, it’s a part of your own odyssey.

Ben and Ed Pratt during Little League season.

Dad as my Little League coach. He is in the upper right and I’m sitting second from his right.

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Public school teacher William Meyer shares the good news about meditation in 2 new books

‘BIG BREATH’ and ‘THREE BREATHS AND BEGIN’

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Cover of Three Breaths and Begin book by William Meyer

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Story By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

The moment I read this paragraph, I wanted to talk to high school teacher William Meyer—because I am certain that our readers will find this very good news. In his new book, Three Breaths and Begin—A Meditation Guide in the Classroom, Meyer writes:

Since 2012 I have introduced meditation to my classroom as a tool to deal with the growing stresses of the school day, but also as a lens by which to facilitate greater connection between the students and the curriculum. What started out as part of a student research experiment involving a small group of six students sitting in the corner of a science classroom has grown into a club, a common occurrence in my classroom, and now an integral part of the community. As a result of the growth of this practice in the school over the years, students can be found meditating before tests, performances, speeches, sports games and even assemblies. The meditation bug has not only bitten the students, but it has also caught the attention of the administration, faculty, and community. It has become incorporated into weekly department meetings and has become a part of professional development workshops, book studies, and even faculty wellness programs of the school. The parents have been equally enthusiastic, embracing meditation in the form of a weekly Thursday evening circle.

Are you as surprised as I was by what Meyer has achieved throughout his high school? He teaches at Bronxville High School in Westchester County north of New York City.  In seven years of developing what is now a very popular practice among students and staff—and extending it into a public invitation to the community on Thursday nights—Meyer has not encountered one angry parent. That’s what he writes in his book; and that’s what he told me in our interview this week. I will admit that, as a journalist who has covered religious diversity for 40 years, I was surprised to hear this.

Of course, it helps with community-wide acceptance that some of the past leaders of his student meditation club wound up going on to top Ivy League schools—and these students credit meditation as one of the practices that boosted their academic abilities.

COVER Big Breath by William Meyer

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Aren’t you eager to find out how Meyer has developed this program? Now, thanks to New World Library, two books bring Meyer’s guidance on meditation to the world. Three Breaths and Begin is a 256-page overview of his approach to meditation and mindfulness, especially geared toward teachers who want to bring these ideas into their classrooms. Then—although Meyer teaches high school students—he also has published a brief, beautifully illustrated introduction to meditation for children, Big Breath—A Guided Meditation for Kids.

In addition, he has an information-packed website with links to lots more news-media coverage of his work. If you dig a little deeper into that website, you’ll find a section with contact details and links to his schedule as he occasionally travels to teach and consult.

With the publication of Meyers’ two new books, I expect his travel schedule for the coming year will quickly fill to capacity. So, if you are discovering his work today through this column, and you might want to invite him into your community or upcoming conference—then, you will want to act quickly.

MYTH BUSTING:
THE POPULARITY OF MEDITATION

Pew Research Center chart on frequency of meditation

Click on this chart to read the entire Pew story.

In my interview with Meyer this week, I asked him about a Pew Research report on how widely meditation has been accepted across the American landscape. He had not spotted this particular Pew report, so I asked him several questions about the data.

I began by telling him, “First of all, here’s the headline news: Pew’s conclusion—drawing on their in-depth Religious Landscape Study—is that meditation is very popular these days. I think that’s one reason you have been so successful in winning over your community. Millions of Americans regularly meditate. Overall, Pew reports that 40 percent of Americans meditate at least weekly. You’re a Catholic yourself. Does that level of meditation surprise you?”

“Not at all,” he said. “My dissertation work includes Thomas Merton and his connections with meditation, so I’m very familiar with this practice among Catholics.”

I said, “When Pew divides up the data by religious groups, Catholics are exactly at 40 percent—the same as the overall population. So, now, let me ask you about a couple of other groups. You haven’t seen this chart yet, but would you guess that ‘evangelical Protestants,’ as a group, meditate more or less than the average 40 percent?”

“Less,” he said.

“No, actually, a higher percentage—49 percent,” I said. “Clearly the concept and terminology of ‘meditation’ has changed quite a bit over the decades. I think this is another reason you’re finding such a wide-open acceptance. Millions of Americans are quite comfortable using the term. So, what about members of black churches? More or less than 40 percent?”

“Less again?” he asked in response.

“Nope. Even higher—55 percent meditate at least weekly,” I said.

Of course, traditional approaches to meditation around the world do vary. A Zen approach to meditation might be closer to “clearing out minds,” while Christian contemplation might be described more like “deepening our focus” on a prayerful concern. The Pew researchers point out that people overall are using the word to describe quiet, personal reflections—even though their exact steps will differ, based on a person’s tradition.

However, the Pew researchers stress that meditation has never been foreign to Christianity. Meditative prayer goes back to the early centuries of Christianity, Pew points out: “Within Christianity, the practice of meditation or silent contemplation dates back to the Desert Fathers (early Christian monks and nuns who sought God in the quiet and solitude of the Egyptian wilderness) during the first centuries after the death of Jesus. Today Christians of various traditions still encourage meditation as a means to try to get closer to God.”

HOW WILLIAM MEYER DISTILLS MEDITATION

As we continued the interview, I said, “Having read both of your books—including this wonderful new children’s book—one thing that struck me is that you have distilled meditation down to its essentials in many ways. You don’t include elements that could raise community concerns. Let’s start with the fact that you’re not clergy, and you’re not trying to bring in an outside spiritual teacher to lead these sessions. And you’re not teaching someone’s religious doctrine.”

“That’s right. And, that’s a big factor in the acceptance. I’m just a high school teacher and we started all of this as a way for students to connect better with their studies,” he said. “It helps that the founder of our student meditation club went on to Harvard. Another leader of the club went on to Dartmouth. The word gets around that this really does help students.”

I continued: “I think there’s another factor. Given your looks, and the way you dress in the photos I’ve seen online, you seem more like a Fortune 500 vice president taking part in a corporate conference—rather than any kind of religious leader. There are no eccentric visual symbols or garb.”

He laughed, “Yeah, that’s true.”

“Plus, you don’t use music, or incense, or bells,” I said.

“That’s right,”  he said. “We don’t need that stuff. I don’t have students bring in yoga mats and sit on the floor. We just make a circle of chairs and sit there. I usually turn down the lights. But that’s right. When I lead these guided meditations, I am stripping away many of the trappings that might raise people’s anxiety.

“And there’s nothing secretive about what we do,” he added. “We do the same kinds of things for the students, the faculty, the members of the community who come on Thursday evenings—and I’ve published the texts of some of my guided meditations in Three Breaths and Begin. I’m taking the mystery out of what we do—what millions of Americans like to do every week, according to that Pew report.”

‘TAKE A BIG BREATH’

Both of Meyer’s books are as straight forward as his successful introduction of meditation has been in his community. Anyone who has visited a meditation group or has taken instruction in meditation will recognize his techniques. They start with relaxation and awareness of one’s own breathing.

The first meditation in the book for adults begins this way:

“Find a comfortable spot on a chair or cushion. Make any adjustments you might need, rotate your shoulders, relax your arms, and let your legs be loose. When you are ready, either lower your eyes into a soft forward gaze or, if you are comfortable doing so, close your eyes.

“Now take three breaths and begin.

“Feel yourself breathing in and breathing out. Feel the space around you and within you.” (And the text for this guided meditation continues from that point.)

The children’s book begins this way:

“Find a comfy spot.” (A cute little girl is shown hugging a big, fluffy, red blanket.)

“Maybe on a squishy cushion or a soft blanket.” (A different child arranges some pillows.)

“Let your arms be long and your hands be soft. Place one palm in the other and gently squeeze your hands together. Take a BIG BREATH and close your eyes.” (A third child sits in a meditative posture.)

“Can you hear your breath? Can you feel it? What does it sound like?” (Now, the illustrations open up to evoke an abstract blue swirl of sky and water behind this seated child as the process expands awareness.)

WHY THIS MATTERS

These practices work. They have worked for thousands of years to improve mindfulness, attention to work, compassion toward others and a general sense of wellbeing.

But bringing these practices into a public school can be tricky, Meyer admits.

“How we carefully introduce these practices is important, because as educators we all know that it only takes one really angry parent to rise up and scare school administrators,” he said.

“What I’m sharing in these books is our story of how much difference this has made in so many lives—students, teachers and members of the community. I know that we are fortunate to have the whole community really embracing what we’re doing. The good news is: I know this is possible—we’ve done it here.”

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Care to Read More?

William Meyer’s work involves offering students tools to develop what educators often refer to as their social-emotional resources. Our publishing house has worked extensively with educators on these issues, including in early childhood—the audience for Meyers’ colorful book Big Breath.

Funding cuts and shifting public priorities nationwide mean it’s more important than ever to get involved in your local community. Front Edge Publishing partnered with United Way to produce a book series highlighting six nonprofits that work tirelessly to improve early childhood education. In order to help you facilitate early learning in your own community, we’re also offering free discussion guides for the books in this series.

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ARDA Ahead of the Trend: Studies follow uneven paths of secularization while debunking popular myths

Click on this photo of Dr. Kelley Strawn to read Richard Cimino’s entire column about the stalemate between religious and secularizing movements.

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By Richard Cimino

The debate about whether the world is entering a more secular age and whether the growth of religiously non-affiliated people is hastening such secularization in part revolves around questions of timing.

In other words, when did these trends start and what led to them?

Two new studies using time-related data argue that the growth of secularism and non-affiliation has been happening for some time, that its causes are far from clear, and that they don’t necessarily signal a one-way secular future.

A recent article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion looks particularly at “political secularization,” which relates to the degree that nations show religious influence in their political life.

The study finds that most of the secular changes took place several decades ago.

Read the rest of Richard’s article …

Visit the website for ARDA. Here is a direct link to Richard Cimino’s complete August column. ARDA welcomes sharing of these columns, of course with a proper attribution. Plus, there is also a lot more fascinating data about religion to discover on ARDA’s website.

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Timothy McMahan King’s ‘Addiction Nation’—’Building a Culture That Makes Recovery More Possible’

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. …
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Front cover of Timothy McMahan King’s Addiction Nation

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Americans coast to coast are waking up to the enormous problem of addiction, fueled by fresh news stories every week about the toll of opioid addiction nationwide. This time, we are no longer deceived by the 50-year-old myth of drugs as mainly an “urban problem,” an evil enemy we should battle with a “war on drugs.” That myth, dating to the Nixon era, led to mass incarceration and did nothing to stem the tide of addiction that is sweeping the nation today.

Now, Americans are becoming increasing aware that this problem is ourswherever we live, even in rural communities. And that means community-based—and especially church-based—discussion groups an ideal place to explore these complex problems and our most effective responses.

That makes Timothy McMahan King’s new Addiction Nation—What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us an ideal book for individual reflection and small groups as your fall and winter programming ramps up. The book is published by the Mennonites, a Christian movement that arose five centuries ago and is best known today for public service and pacifism. (Herald Press is a publishing imprint of the Mennonite Church USA and Canada.)

King himself is a recovering addict. For years, he worked for Sojourners. Now, he is following a more rural vocation: farming, writing, speaking and consulting. Check out his website for more details. Over the coming year, he is devoting a large portion of his time to traveling nationwide, speaking and teaching.

Is this topic close to home for you? Are you part of a congregation or nonprofit interested in responding to this national crisis? Now is the time to visit King’s website and inquire about his travel plans over the coming year.

Evidence of Overwhelming Numbers:
Addiction Touches All of Us

USDA photo of a lethal dose of fentanyl compared with the size of a penny

Fentanyl is an especially deadly part of the illegal opioid trade these days. To illustrate the dangers of fentanyl, he U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration provides this photo that compares a common penny with the tiny amount of the powder that would be lethal to most people.

Before I share some of King’s insights from our interview about his new book, let’s look at the scope of the problem. You can use some of these details and links to convince friends to join you for a discussion series.

Among this week’s headlines are the bankruptcy filing of Perdue Pharma and law-enforcement agencies’ efforts to track down the riches of the company’s owners, the Sacklers. Purdue Pharma makes OxyContin, the drug widely seen as igniting the opioid crisis. Also this week, AP is reporting on a 29-year-old Eagle Scout in the suburbs near Salt Lake City who became an online drug kingpin via a deadly mail-order marketing scheme that sent fentanyl directly to addicts.

Earlier this year, Pew Research issued a summary report on the opioid crisis, which began with these facts about the dramatic rise of addiction in rural America:

The increasing number of drug overdose deaths in the United States has hit rural areas particularly hard. Between 1999 and 2015, overdose deaths increased 325 percent in rural counties. In 2015, they surpassed the death rate in urban areas. Additionally, nonfatal prescription opioid overdoses are concentrated in states with large rural populations. Helping to drive this trend in rural areas are high opioid prescription rates and challenges accessing medication-assisted treatment (MAT), the gold standard for treating opioid-use disorder.

A Pew poll, which was reported in June, asked Americans what they believe to be the biggest problems in our country today. Addiction topped this list: Percent of adults who say each is a very big problem in the country today, listed in order—

  • Drug addiction—70
  • Affordability of health care—67
  • How the U.S. political system operates—52
  • The gap between rich and poor—51
  • Made-up news and information—50
  • Violent crime—49

Concerns cut across all types of communities, Pew reported.

Americans overwhelmingly see drug addiction as a problem in their local community, regardless of whether they live in an urban, suburban or rural area. The public’s concerns come amid steep increases in the number and rate of fatal drug overdoses across all three community types in recent years. Nine-in-ten Americans who live in a rural area say drug addiction is either a major or minor problem in their community, as do 87% in urban and 86% in suburban areas.

Nearly half of all Americans have a friend or family member who has struggled with addiction, Pew also reported.

It’s common for Americans to know someone with a current or past drug addiction—and it’s an experience that mostly cuts across demographic and partisan lines. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in August found that 46% of U.S. adults say they have a family member or close friend who is addicted to drugs or has been in the past. Identical shares of men and women say this (46% each), as do identical shares of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents when compared with Republicans and Republican leaners (also 46% each). There are no statistically significant differences between whites (46%), Hispanics (50%) and blacks (52%).

It’s obvious that huge numbers of men and women are touched by this crisis and are looking for answers—and that the audience for community discussions cuts across all the other lines that divide us these days.

NOTE TO READERS—Please, share this week’s Cover Story with friends via social media or email with a suggestion to spark further discussion. If you want to print out this particular data-packed section of the story, you will find an easy-to-print button at the end of the text, below.

Addiction Nation:
This Story Will Surprise You

Were you surprised to find the opening quote from Jesuit teacher Pierre Tielhard de Chardin? A longer version of his verse appears in the middle of King’s book. It illustrates a central theme of this combined memoir and manifesto: This vast problem took a long time to manifest itself across our entire landscape—and it is going to take a long, multi-faceted response before it will subside.

No quick fixes are prescribed here. There is no 10-point list of public-policy priorities—or Top 10 personal goals—listed in a final chapter of this book.

If anything, King’s book is meant to stir us to action by debunking myths of quick fixes—including the idea is that all we need to do is organize more 12-step programs. In fact, as anyone within the 12-step movement will tell you, no one can force or compel an addict to successfully engage in 12-step programs. King also points out that, while 12-step groups continue to serve as a lifeline for millions, they are not the answer for many addicts—for a wide range of reasons that he details in the book.

One reason is that an opioid addiction is excruciating to tackle because this addiction often begins with a medical response to real, acute, physically based pain. Ending the addiction often requires a plan to manage the underlying, chronic pain. In these chapters, King tells the true story of his own life-threatening medical crisis that resulted in an agonizingly slow recovery in which his body was wracked with severe pain. At critical moments, opioids were all that kept him going through a very uncertain recovery.

For millions of addicts, medical help and alternatives play an essential role in recovery, he writes.

‘Building a Culture That Makes Recovery More Possible’

Timothy McMahan King

Timothy McMahan King

As they delve into this story, many readers will spot themselves—or loved ones.

“I wrote this book because I want people to understand that—when we’re talking about the addiction-and-overdose crisis—this isn’t just a problem for other people,” he said in our interview about his book. “It’s something we all need to think about because it’s not an issue that’s going on way over there in the distance—affecting all those other people.

“The subtitle points to this truth: ‘What the Opioid Crisis Reveals about Us.’ This really is about us. This is our collective story. And now, together, I am hoping we will start building a culture that makes recovery more possible for more people.”

King talks, teaches and writes from that broader perspective because, he argues, a whole range of changes need to be made in our existing communal responses.

“The more I researched the field of addiction, I realized that there is no single unifying theory of addiction that the medical or scientific community has agreed will solve the whole problem,” King said. “I have heard from a few early readers of my book who told me they were surprised that I avoided giving people a chapter that we might have called ‘My Answer.’ I resisted that temptation because that would not have honestly given people a picture of all the various answers—across a broad spectrum—that people are developing.

“Think about cancer research,” he said. “No one talks about The Cancer Cure as a single silver bullet. Instead, researchers are developing specific kinds of therapies for specific kinds of people with specific kinds of cancer.”

‘Trust in the Slow Work of God’

In the course of the book, readers will learn that Christianity has been one of King’s core sources of strength, which he describes in a couple of particularly moving chapters. But we should not confuse faith with a magic wand, he writes.

“It’s true that spirituality and faith are a deep part of my story—and they are an important arc in the narrative of this book. But, there is a real danger if people start to think that addiction can be reduced to a spiritual problem with a spiritual solution,” King said in our interview. “There are medical and scientific realities to addiction that require medical and scientific responses.

“The other danger is that we don’t want people to think that they can find all the answers to addiction by having a talk with their pastor or spiritual advisor. For the most part, clergy are not experts in addiction.

“I have been asked: ‘Should I call my pastor as a first step?’

“I answer: ‘Your first step should be going to see a doctor—but your pastor could give you a ride.’ ”

‘A Reflection of Forces Within Our Own Society’

That image of a pastor giving someone a ride to a doctor is a vivid reminder of the most important theme in Addiction Nation: A new cultural awareness and response is needed if we ever hope to turn the tide on addiction.

“This returns to the central point I talked about earlier: I want people to realize that this is not a problem caused by some outside group of individuals,” King said. “That’s very tempting these days, when people are regularly demonizing outsiders and connecting them with threats like drug addiction.

“That’s such a strong social impulse, but it’s not true and it’s not helpful. We don’t have an addiction crisis because evil foreigners have invaded us with drugs. We have this crisis because too many Americans demand too many drugs. If they read my book, I want people to realize that what is happening is a reflection of forces with our own society.

“For decades, we’ve tried to reduce drug addiction through whack-a-mole policies of chasing suppliers. What I’m calling readers to think about is this much more important—and much more personal—question:

“Why are so many people looking to these substances to try to deal with their pain or to seek something they feel is lost in their lives?”

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18 Years Later: The Parable of Flight 93

EDITOR’S NOTE: As a journalist, I was assigned several times over the years to report and write 9/11 anniversary stories, which were carried across a nationwide wire service. Each time, I interviewed men and women who were affected by the attacks’ legacy. These 9/11 milestones are important moments to reflect on America’s role in the world. This summer, I celebrated with Americans nationwide when John Stewart and other activists successfully pressed Congress to extend health benefits for the volunteers who helped in the aftermath at Ground Zero. Like most of us, I am not looking forward to the trial in 2021 of five men accused of plotting the attacks, a long-overdue trial date that was set a week ago. Eighteen years after 9/11, anger is rising in America, not subsiding. As Americans, any enduring lessons we might have learned after 9/11 seems ever further from our grasp. That’s why we welcome Benjamin Pratt’s thoughtful column this week. Please, share this column with friends.
—David Crumm

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THE PARABLE OF FLIGHT 93

By BENJAMIN PRATT
Contributing Columnist

A parable is a mirror into which each of us can look to examine our better or lesser selves.

My wife and I recently visited the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Spending two hours there was a memory evoking, emotional, tender and tough experience. It was also an opportunity to look into a mirror, a parable that shook my soul.

I believe it is there to shake the soul of all Americans in our present time.

On September 11, 2001, forty men and women faced the unimaginable horror of being victims of a terrorist coup, hijacking the United Flight 93 to use as a weapon of destruction and death at our nation’s Capital. The crew and passengers came from varied backgrounds—and from across the nation and around the world.

They bonded in a courageous, heroic vote to confront head-on the evil they encountered. Their action is a parable worthy of our reflection and action in our current contentious, divided time.

The Flight 93 National Memorial is set on 2,200 acres of rolling, pastoral, sacred land.

We drove down the long road from the entrance to the visitor center, passing the Tower of Voices, a musical instrument that eventually will hold forty wind chimes representing the voices of the passengers and crew members. The visitor center on the hill above the crash site introduces the chronology of Flight 93 and the personal and communal stories of the passengers and crew.

At that complex, there are multiple places one can peer over the wild flowers to see the Memorial Plaza below, which consists of the impact site and the debris field. The fields and woods beyond are the final resting place for the passengers and crew, thus only family members are permitted to enter that hallowed area of the Memorial.

We walked about 500 yards to the crash site, which is marked by a huge boulder where Flight 93 hit the ground, traveling at 563 mph and carrying more than 5,000 gallons of jet fuel. It exploded on impact and threw debris into the nearby hemlock grove. There were no survivors.

Next to the crash site is what appears to be a solid wall that marks the flight path of Flight 93. At first approach, it appears to be a solid wall, but upon closer observation it is clear that the wall is composed of separate panels with only two inches between them. Each panel has the name of one of the forty passengers and/or crew members. Separate individuals are united as a team in this symbolic expression of the wall.

Forty people who didn’t know each other and who were from numerous places, ethnic groups and cultures united in that crisis to vote to change the course of history and save lives in our nation’s capital. Standing before this wall I experienced many emotions—sadness, pain for the forty and their families, as well as the chilling awareness that the unity of those forty was felt throughout our nation for months following the attack. Sadly, divisions and contentious rancor have replaced unity in today’s time.

Flight 93 departed Newark for San Francisco nearly 40 minutes late. Thus, when terrorist hijackers took over the plane, passengers and crew began calling family, friends and authorities to report the hijacking. The calls—13 people placed 37 calls- informed them of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They then realized they were part of a larger assault.

Passengers and crew then made a collective decision, by vote, to rush the terrorists and try to retake the plane. Ending their calls to loved ones, they rushed forward.

The plane’s “black boxes” record erratic flight and sustained struggle in the cockpit. The cockpit voice recorder captures the voices of both native English and Arabic speakers, as well as screams, shouts, breaking glass, alarms and sounds of fighting. In the midst of the counterattack, Flight 93 crashed into the field near Shanksville, less than 20 minutes flight time from al Qaeda’s intended target.

The Congressional Gold Medal, authorized by the Fallen Heroes Act of 2011, recognizes the “heroic and noble” actions of the passengers and crew of Flight 93.

I anticipated I would be flooded with emotions and memories of that pivotal day in our history. I did not anticipate being confronted by art that questions my values, my commitments and actions, and those of each American.

As I look into the mirror of this parable I continue to ask myself what I would have done.

I also examine what I am doing in our divided nation.

Do I have the courage under pressure, enough hunger and thirst, enough ache racking my body to work with others to save ourselves and our country from itself?

Benjamin Pratt
September, 2019

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PHOTO CREDITS: These images are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, shared under Creative Commons. The top photo was taken by Stephen Wissink. The maps are provided for public use by the National Park Service (clicking on those maps gives you access to larger versions of the maps). The photo along the wall was contributed by Acoterion. The memorial wall is from Jeff Kubina.

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Rabbi Bob Alper: A Shot Heard ‘Round the World

By RABBI BOB ALPER
Author of ‘Thanks. I Needed That.’

Rabbi Bob Alper on stage.

Rabbi Bob Alper on stage.

I never met or even heard of D. G. Martin.  But I like him and respect him as well.

D.G. hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch” on the University of North Carolina TV, and is a columnist for a number of North Carolina papers.

On August 19, he wrote a powerful defense of a friend, North Carolina Elections Board Chair Bob Cordle.  D.G. began by quoting a joke I told a week earlier, to a burst of laughter from 1,200 listeners, at the famed Chautauqua Institution.

D.G. writes, “On the same day, Rabbi Alper was accepting a warm and appreciative reaction from the audience at Chautauqua, Elections Board Chair Bob Cordle was getting a very different reaction after telling essentially the same story, set in Ireland and Wales rather than eastern Europe, to a conference of elections officials.”

OK, so here’s the joke, in its entirety, as transcribed and included in D.C.’s column.

Years ago in a small shtetl, a Jewish community and very poor, the communal cow died.

They collected 300 rubles, all the money they could gather, and sent a representative to Moscow to buy a new cow. He came back with 300 rubles and no cow. The cheapest cow was 600 rubles.

What are we going to do? The committee met. They thought, they thought. Finally, they came up with an idea that maybe cows are less expensive in smaller cities.

They sent him off to Minsk. He came back leading a cow.

This cow gave milk like no one ever remembered, amazing amounts of milk, to the point where they said, we need to breed her.

So they got a bull, and brought the bull to the pasture. The cow went to the far end of the pasture. The bull went to the far end of the pasture. The cow went to the east side of the pasture. The bull went to the east side,  The cow to the west side, and the bull….

Nothing was happening.

They went to the wisest man in the village, the rabbi, and told him what was happening.

He stroked his gray beard, and he thought and he thought. And finally he said, “Let me ask you a question. This cow: she’s from Minsk, isn’t she?”

“Why yes Rabbi, she is! How did you know that?”

“Heh, Heh,” the rabbi said, “my wife’s from Minsk.”

While I received guffaws, Cordle was forced out of his Elections Board chairmanship when he told his version.

“Cordle,” D.G. angrily observed, “has led an exemplary lifetime of unselfish public service. As his longtime friend and admirer, I have followed his laudable record of goodness and strength. To have his story characterized in the news as “a lengthy joke about cows, sex and women,” “sex joke,” “off-color joke,” “dirty” and even “misogynistic,” was unfair as was having him summarily forced out on the basis of these inaccurate characterizations of the story he told.”

My take on all this?  I’m deeply saddened that Bob Cordle ran into a buzzsaw of righteous indignation while I received only the sweet sound of guffaws from the intellectually sophisticated people in my audience, and not a single complaint.  In fact, I told that joke again last week at a “Solidarity of the Faiths” in Brick, NJ, co-sponsored by nine churches and three synagogues, with the town mayor and quite a few clergy in attendance.  No complaints there either.

As an outsider, I’d infer that some in the North Carolina audience were gunning for Bob and found their weapon.  Amazing they could brand it a sex joke.  “Dirty?”  I was listening to Raw Dog on Sirius/XM, and heard a “joke” in which the comedian spoke about performing cunnilingus on his wife while wearing hearing aids.  That’s a dirty joke.  And misogynistic?   The cow joke could easily be interpreted as being an example of misandry, about the sexual undesirability of the man, rather than the frigidity of the woman.

Plus, it’s funny!  I devote a section at the end of my shows to jokes, and that one draws some of the biggest laughs.

Sounds like Bob Cordle was faced with an audience, or part of an audience, who, as we say, were comedically constipated.

I have a line in my stand-up routine that I hope will cheer Bob.  “What I love to do just before Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, is to go around to family and friends and tell them, ‘If, during the past year, there is anything I have said or done that has hurt you or offended you, I want you to know – you’re too sensitive.’”

And the bottom line is that in this very painful era of national and international turmoil and fear, combined with all of our personal problems, sadness and challenges, what Bob Cordle did was to bless his listeners by providing a badly needed laugh.

As D.G. rightly observed, Bob deserves an apology.

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Care to read more?

VISIT BOB’S WEBSITE where you can check out his upcoming appearances as well as his various books and his DVD.

VISIT BOB’S AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE where you can order a copy of his books ‘Thanks. I needed that.’ and ‘Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This.’

 

 

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