May is foster care awareness month. I decided to write about children in foster care, every day this month.
I am tired. I’m laying in bed. I’ve been on Zoom calls all day.
This is my post for the day, the fourth day. My first post has been shared hundreds of times on Facebook.
RFK is developing a national response to COVID-19. Particularly, we aim to support social workers in the hundreds of counties where we work. They are absolutely overwhelmed. And when they are overwhelmed, guess who received even more neglect?
They need us.
Children are separated from their biological parents because the courts are closed.
They need us.
Someone messaged me a few days ago and asked how I’m “holding up.” If I get discouraged or feel hopeless.
Yes, I do. I’m am exhausted. I broke down and cried during a staff meeting today. I’m the CEO. I’m supposed to be strong and in control.
But these children are being neglected and abused in ways they never have. They are dying and being raped. They are dying and being raped.
I can’t stop. We can’t stop.
Go to RFK.org and join our mailing list. Follow us on social media.
I looked over and noticed José, alone. The 11-year-old was one of the five boys that slept in our cabin.
Coming toward him I shout, “José, let’s swim.”
In an eerie sound of terror — with fear in those shaken brown eyes and the grimaced contortion of his lips — he screamed, “NOOOOO!”
Almost in a shriek, “Get away from me!”
Immediately, I stop.
Please don’t touch me.
Twenty thousand RFK volunteers spread across the country and world, all trained not just to identify those symptoms in children in foster care, but more importantly, how to respond. Trust-based relational intervention (TBRI):
I remembered the basics:
Stay calm: no matter what.
See the need: behind the behavior.
Meet the need: find a way.
Don’t quit: if not you, then who?
Backing away slowly. “Hey no problem, Jose. Your game looks fun.”
“Yeh, yeh, yeh yeah Paul but please don’t come close to me again. I don’t want to learn how to swim. Please don’t make me.”
“No problem buddy, I just liked your alone game. Dunking yourself over and over. By yourself. So cool! I want to do that, by myself, just like you.”
“Will you teach me how, José?”
“Well. Um, okay, but you have to go over there.”
I slowly walk five feet to his right.
“That’s too close, further! And you can’t come closer or teach me to swim, or touch me!”
(Please don’t touch me.)
“I just want to do your dunking game.”
I grasp the coping. I assume the position. I submerge myself.
Then up down up down, like an oil rig. Up and down and up and down. At a summer camp. For a child in foster care. In a pool. In the shallowed end — Jose and me — holding onto the coping. I wore no goggles.
Last month, the United Nations reported, “[h]undreds of millions of children around the world will likely face increasing threats to their safety and wellbeing—including mistreatment, gender-based violence, exploitation, social exclusion and separation from caregivers—because of actions taken to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The chilling symptoms of child abuse.
The next day, I earned Jose’s trust. I said we should play “follow the leader.” Eventually, he let go of the coping as we walked along the side. Then I showed him how to walk from one end to the other. Then I showed him how to put his face in the water while walking, bending over forward. Then I showed him how to jump forward like a torpedo.
The process took two days. On the third, day, 11-year-old José swam.
An hour later, I felt these electric-like freezing cold tingles throughout my body – up and down up and down. This ebullient José — how to find words to convey the contrast in his confidence? —he sprinted through the cafeteria, announcing to dozens of children, “I know how to swim!”
Today, I wonder about José. I wonder if his father was released from prison. The father that “Got a new tattoo across his face.” The father he called “very rough.”
Is COVID-19 forcing José to stay in a home, alone, with that “rough” father?
There are so many things I love about Jesus. And I could write them all down here, but I’m just going to write about this one thing: suffering.
I love that Jesus suffered.
From the very start, we know that his birth was steeped in controversy. Mary was pregnant before she married Joseph. The gossip surrounding that surely plagued Jesus in his early years. He didn’t come from a perfect family. And when kids don’t come from that little perfect family, they suffer. Trust me.
We know he was a refugee. We know Mary and Joseph had to flee for his safety in the same way tens of thousands of families do today from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia. The Syrian crisis is the most massive humanitarian crisis since WWII.
And of course, in our own neighborhood, families from Central America flee to us for the same reason Joseph and Mary did — safety.
I don’t know about you but it’s weird to think of Jesus and being some refugee kid — but it’s a brute fact.
The scriptures fast forward to Jesus’ last three years on earth. And you want to talk about suffering? For starters, he walked around knowing he was going to be martyred. He was certain about it. He talked about it often. Again, I don’t know about you but being certain you are going to be murdered — that is suffering.
In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky talked about the guillotine. He talks about the “spiritual suffering” of knowing you were going to die.
“But the chief and worst pain may not be in the bodily suffering but in knowing for certain that in an hour, and then ten minutes, and then in half a minute, and then now…the soul will leave the body and one will cease to be a man and that that’s bound to happen; the worst part of it is that it’s certain.”
Jesus walked around for a long time, certain he’d be murdered.
The shortest scripture in the entire Bible: Jesus wept.
The prophet Isaiah referred to the Messiah, Jesus, as “a man of many sorrows.”
My friend, Pete Wehner, wrote a piece in The New York Timestoday. He wrote about life as a Christian, given COVID-19, given how there will be no Easter miracle this year with churches packed with people.
Pete is a real writer and one of the best people I know.
He writes, “What those of us who are Christians do believe is not only that God entered a world filled with suffering but also that through the incarnation God sided with those who suffer and suffered himself. Jesus grew weary. He grieved. He wept. And in anguish at the Mount of Olives, just before he was betrayed, the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus “prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”
I’m not sure I could be a Christian if it wasn’t for the countless passages in scripture about suffering.
I love that Jesus suffered.
I’m not sure I could be a Christian if it wasn’t for the fact that many of my spiritual heroes — Job, David, Solomon, Paul, Saint Augustine, Mother Teresa, and, yes, Jesus — spoke with no candy coating about their suffering. Grave suffering. Depression. Grief. Maybe it’s because of the trauma that I experienced in my life — the trauma I’m not yet prepared to write about. But I wrote about coming out of the closet on the limits of faith.
Sixteenth century St. John of the Cross spoke of the “dark night of the soul” — a deep feeling of being abandoned by God. “Both the sense and the spirit,” he writes, “as though under an immense and dark load, undergo such agony and pain that the soul would consider death a relief.”
We Christians must remember the great paradox of our faith: the greatest event, the crucifixion was the most evil event. In his dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and A Christian 12th century philosopher Peter Abelard writes, “The Lord Jesus Christ’s being handed over into the Jews’ hands is mentioned as being done by Jesus himself, my God the Father, and by the traitor Judas.”
Without God being murdered, there would be no resurrection.
I get concerned when reformed churches basically fast forward through Holy Week to Easter. Not so with the Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists.
Nobody, even Christians, likes the notion of lament. But I love that Jesus suffered.
I’m all for Easter. I’m all for the joy and pastel colors and happy songs and all the “victory.” The historicity behind of resurrection is undeniable to any serious student of history. And it gives me great hope,
But if I’m honest, I relate far more closely with the mystery, the pain, the sorrow: Good Friday.
My thoughts on human rights, social justice, mercy, philanthropy, advocacy go far beyond my job as the CEO of an international NGO.
But this wasn’t always the case.
I once sought to live in life sequestered in an Ivory Tower. In my 30’s, I decided I would give my life to thought — hoping to master the canon of western (analytic) philosophy. I would earn my Ph.D.
I finished UCLA with a BA in philosophy at 38, having studied informally and formally since my mid-twenties. (I didn’t go to college after high school. And I think my GPA was under 2.0.)
Preparing to become Doc Martin, I studied for the GRE, fervently. I toured my reach schools and traveled to some campuses — Christ Church, Oxford, Georgetown. I looked at homes in the suburbs north of South Bend, Indiana because I wanted Notre Dame.
As I prepared to pivot my work, my family, my life, I hit a big fat fork in the road: to the left, academia, to the right, social justice.
An ivory tower is thought to be a metaphorical place — a place where people wrest themselves from the rat-race world, in favor of their own pursuits, usually mental destinations.
I had spent much of my life caring for people. Trying to bring physical, emotional, and spiritual healing to those who need it most. I learned most of it from my mom. The one I can no longer see.
A fork in the road. To the left, academia. To the right, social justice.
I chose to stay on the right path. Some of my decision, like all decision, was out of pure selfishness. Job prospects for philosophy professors were, and remain, bleak. One professor friend of mine at UCLA warned me: “I have a BA from Princeton and Ph.D. from Harvard. I work my brain to the core every single day, producing papers, getting published, so that, hopefully, I will be one of a few associate professors here in the past 30 years to become tenured. (I was so glad to see the Pamela Hieronymi was tenured a few years later, and also recently was a chief contributor to the TV Series, The Good Place.)
But what drove me to philanthropy was probably my keen awareness of my limitations. I don’t think I would have made a good academic. Those guys are really smart. I’m more of a generalist, a jack-of-all-trades who knows just enough about a bunch of things (business, history, marketing, music, theology, public speaking, writing, cooking, botany, finance, digital, politics) but not a lot about any one thing.
I’m a hack in so many ways. Just look at the post; what is even really about?
I’m not that good at focusing if you want to know the truth. I get too distracted. I didn’t think I’d be good at being a philosophy professor — those guys are Albert Einstein’s, figuring out the non-physical world.
Plenty of professors live balanced lives — help advocate for these in need, and they remain in academia. But most are not. Most live in their ivory tower.
Believe it or not, Einstein wasn’t one of them.
He did not lock himself in. One can find countless volumes of his letters and articles written on pressing political and social issues of the day. He would advocate for peace and disarmament. He would write to high officials of various countries.
Nearing the end of his life, Einstein said, “I have expressed an opinion on public issues whenever they appeared so bad to me, and so unfortunate, that silence would have made me feel guilty of complicity.”
A decade or so earlier before the Nazi Adolf Eichmann trial, he wrote that “external compulsion can, to a certain extent, reduce but it can never cancel the responsibility of the individual.”
I feel that I have a responsibility to use my voice when I must.
May we never let ourselves feel guilty of complicity.
Ivory towers are not only of those in academia. An ivory tower can be your job, school, church, your image, your family.
An ivory tower is locking yourself up and in so doing, ignoring the crucial social issues of the day.
One of the biggest issues today is ignorance — calling a wicked and unpredictable pandemic, “the flu” because you heard it on some news station or from an email chain.
The other big issue is those millions of children living in foster care — in group homes, without a mother or father to assure them that all will be okay. They don’t know about Coronavirus, but they know they are hungry and more scared than you and me.
Mom’s bed is right next to a large French window with shutters. I could show-up and get one of the nurses to put her in her wheelchair. We could sit a few feet apart, separated by glass. I’m afraid it would confuse her more. (I decided after I wrote this to drive and look into her window but not let her see me. At least I’d get to see her on her birthday and feel closer to her.)
Every single time — every single time — I visit her she reaches out and touches and caresses my face and laughs and cries, kind of at the same time. It’s a joyous kind of cry with a hint of sadness if that makes sense. I’m told she responds to me unlike anyone else. I’m not boasting or anything. I’m really not. I just think it’s the only son of an Italian immigrant mother kind of thing.
I didn’t know this for most of my life, but I really was the apple of her eye. This photo was from two years ago. You see what I mean?
I remember those throbbing growing pains around my knees when I was 11 or 12. I’d be moaning late at night because it hurt so badly. She’d come into my room and rub Ben Gay on my legs and bring a hot water bottle and then the pain would subside and I would fall back asleep.
One of the hard parts of being a parent is when your child needs you in the middle of the night and you have to get out of bed – even though you’re super tired.
Every single sports game I played — she’d be there. It wasn’t Dad’s thing to come to my games much. He did come to one flag football game when I was in 6th grade. Then one tackle football game when I was a sophomore and we played against the high school he went to (and dropped out of). He had other strengths.
How she’d care for the destitute. It came naturally to her. She didn’t flout it. It wasn’t some “cause.” She didn’t go to any swanky galas or anything like that. Her unconditional love — not only for me but for countless orphans and poor people — propelled me to my new role as an advocate for children of neglect, abuse, and abandonment.
Without her genuine compassion for those in need — like her mother, my Nonna, who also truly felt the pain of others — I’d be in the business of moneymaking today.
My heart hurts today.
But hurt isn’t damage.
We all need to know this in this time of Coronavirus.
Inconvenience. Pain. Damage. They are not the same.
Inconvenience. Too many are whining because they have to stay home and watch Netflix. But nobody here is starving. No bombs are traumatizing our children in the way Nazi bombs traumatized Mom and her family in Umbria in the early 1940s. Trauma as a child, damages the human brain, forever.
This Coronavirus is entirely inconvenient. But for the overwhelming 99.9% of our population, it’s a mere inconvenience. Yes, people are scared. And fear has the capacity to bring pain. That’s legit, but it’s still nothing like living in London during WWII.
Pain. Today this virus causes me pain. Emotional pain. Sadness. I can’t hug and caress and listen to Pavarotti and eat Trader Joe’s fig bars with mom — the one who brought me into this world and loved me, without condition — and it causes me pain.
We don’t like inconvenience. We don’t like pain.
And I’m fairly sure that we are all pretty spoiled here in the richest country in the history of the world — that we can’t even cope with either of them very well.
Some believe pain makes us stronger, which is why we push our bodies and push our minds and meditate and go to 12 step groups.
The Marines say that pain is weakness leaving your body. I’m not sure I disagree. All the good biographies are about people who experienced great pain and adversity and overcame odds, not about those wimpy kinds of folks.
Damage. I work with children who are victims — young children — of patent neglect, abuse, abandonment. Children who are locked in closets and thrown against the wall and whipped with bicycle chains. That causes damage. Trauma causes damage.
Damage sticks with you, forever in most cases. It etches literal lines into the carbon of your brain. Damage is due to a physical state of affairs. Literally you have to think of a car after a collision. Damaged.
Aristotle said that the youth are steered by the rudders of pain and pleasure. We crave pleasure; pain, we resist. We can’t help it.
But we can acknowledge the fact that social isolation (when you are well fed and warm and with your loved ones in the comfort of your home) is not going to kill anyone. It’s not even going to hurt anyone.
Mom understood pain. Those who grow up poor understand pain. Those who immigrate from war-torn countries understand pain. The over five million Syrian refugees freezing in the desert would trade places with you and me in a second, even with our Coronavirus situation. They wouldn’t give a rip about the stock market.
Life expectancy in Afghanistan is just over 50 years of age today.
Approximately 15,000 Americans die each year from gun violence. That doesn’t include suicides, just homicides.
Pol Pot oversaw the deaths of an estimated one to two million people from starvation, overwork or execution.
Just over 100 people in the U.S. have died from COVID_19.