Friday, November 18, 2011



"Never say never." My mother often said this to us. A seeming contradiction, we took it to mean we should keep our outlook free of arbitrary roadblocks, and refrain from embracing absolute limitations. If you knew my mother, you would know she is all about possibilities.

Another phrase she said frequently was, "don't put labels on people." The list of wise things mom said (and still says) to her children wasn't terribly long, but it was consistent, intelligent, and heartfelt. She taught us that labels were useless both to ourselves and to those being labeled. While a label might seem handy for categorizing someone or some group of people, it is wholly wrong in mom's view. First of all it is a limitation. Having labeled someone according to a stereotype or other unseeing metric, one would be prone to shelve further review, effectively ending the path to understanding. Describing someone by easy tags relating to their height, weight, age, race, and so on, leads nowhere if you want to know the person. For mom it is a mandate to seek the person, to assume that they have merit, that they deserve to be treated with dignity.

Mom knew that we would encounter situations where we would be led to follow the crowd, where we might emulate others who took easily to labels and categories, usually with unkind and unenlightened results. This was so anathema to the person who is my mother, she virtually campaigned against any brand of thoughtlessness our entire childhood. This she could creditably do, because she herself modeled kindness, consideration, and respect. When my siblings and I get together, it's not uncommon for us to recite some of the sayings we heard regularly in our childhood:

"don't be ugly." (meaning: don't have an 'ugly' or unkind temperament. Nothing to do with appearance.)
"be a second miler."
"put yourself in their shoes."
"find a need and fill it."
"no man is an island."
"hate what they do, don't hate them."

You will recognize most of these sayings; my mother doesn't claim to have authored them. But her parents, and especially her beloved grandmothers, tried to live according to these principles. Mom seems to have had a drive to take it a step further, making it a point to use her voice and her actions against injustice. To preempt behavior that too often is the order of the day. Whatever moral compass a young heart or mind might already have, mom took her task seriously and sought to grow and reinforce what is good and right.

Increasingly, it seems our societies have undergone a cultural laxity that discourages civil restraint, that is apathetic about speaking up for justice, that finds plenty of excuses for turning a blind eye to unkindness or worse, brutality. This should distress anyone who is paying attention. Mom is a keen observer, and pays attention to things like this.

Sometimes I find myself apologizing for comparing someone's outlook to mom's. (another favorite phrase of hers is "don't compare.") It seems somehow unfair to hold someone up to the uncanny sensibility she models. She herself is not comfortable getting attention for her humanism. Anonymous action suits her better. Kindness and fellow feeling drives her. Her outlook, however, includes a solid expectation of accountability, not just "warm fuzzies." That we should all pay active homage to this process of civility.

To be led by someone like this woman I'm speaking about, is not to feel inadequate or chastised. Instead, the pure power of her optimism and overflowing positivity makes you feel that "all things are possible," another phrase she says often. The ability to spread joy and yes, sometimes even moments of giddy silliness, is a trait mom is known for.

How fortunate we are to be her children. If I am only half the positive force for good that she has always been, that would be saying something.