Category Archives: Personal

Letter To New Grandchild

Crying newborn baby
A New Life

It’s early morning on May 16, 2017. About two hours ago my wife and I picked up our four-year old granddaughter who is now safely with us. The occasion is the imminent birth of our new granddaughter, who should be born in the next few hours.

It is hard to know what say about a new birth. There are about 353,000 births each day worldwide, about 255 each minute and 4 each second. That places what seems so special to you in a larger context. Still, if the birth directly affects you as a parent, grandparent, or sibling, the event is momentous.

What Kind of World Will There Be?

What I think about most is what kind of world awaits my new granddaughter. Will the world improve, will we we progress, we will overcome the legacy of our Pleistocene brains? Or will we remain ape-like, driven by out-group hostility and destroy ourselves?

Cosmic Evolution

I know one thing—the Gods will not save us. They either don’t exist, don’t care, or are impotent. (They almost certainly don’t exist.) Thus only we can save ourselves, for we are now the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. To save both ourselves and our planet, we must enhance our current moral sensibilities and intellectual capabilities. There is no other way. If we are important at all, it is as links in a chain leading onward toward higher levels of being and consciousness. If we succeed, the universe will become increasingly self-consciousness. This is the story of cosmic evolution—the universe becoming self-conscious through the creation of conscious beings. Our obligation is to aid this upward march.

Now I don’t know if we can make it, if we can create heaven on earth, but we can try. Perhaps the chance to try is our greatest gift. Here is a favorite poem to express these sentiments:

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.
If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time!

Keep Striving

And when you get down, my little grandchildren, take comfort in these words:

Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
… for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Life Is Good

Remember too that the world is full of beauty and truth and goodness. There is love, friendship, honor, knowledge, play, beauty, pleasure, creative work, and many other things that make life blissful. There are parents caring for their children, people building homes, artists creating beauty, musicians making music, scientists accumulating knowledge, philosophers seeking meaning, and children playing games. There are mountains, oceans, trees, sky and flowers; there is art, science, literature, and music; there is Rembrandt, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Beethoven.

Hope

I’ll conclude by giving my best advice. We should adopt a hopeful attitude—expressed as caring and striving—because it is part of our nature, spurs action, and makes our lives better. We should also adopt a wishful hopefulness—wishing without expectations—for the same reasons.

Still, we don’t know if life is meaningful; if truth, beauty, goodness and justice matter; if there is any recompense for our efforts; if suffering can be ameliorated; or if anything matters at all. We don’t know if our wishes will be fulfilled, or our hopeful attitude can be sustained. But I see no value in giving into despair, at least not yet. For now I still have hope.

All of my advice best comes together in a famous passage about from William James’ essay, “The Will To Believe.” I first encountered it more than 40 years ago, and it still moves me. I hope it provides comfort on life’s often rocky road:

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

With love, your grandpa

My Mom’s Birthday

Nana

My mother was born 98 years ago today. In her memory, I reprint this letter which I sent to her 17 years ago.

April 29, 2000

A SPECIAL 81ST BIRTHDAY WISH FOR MY MOTHER

This letter should arrive on your 81st birthday—a time of rejoicing for a life well-lived. Emerging from the stable background of loving parents, a young woman with girlish charm, an ear and talent for music, a fluent reader of Latin, and pursued by a plethora of west St. Louis beaus, in 1935 you met a bicycle delivery boy, in whom, despite his relatively low economic status, you saw something good. His honesty and gentleness shone through beneath the rough exterior; you would marry him when you were just nineteen. A hard-working man who would be a devoted father—somehow you knew.

You courageously endured through an economic depression and a world war in which your husband was absent for two long years, forcing you to raise your first son without him. Your parents lived with you through the war and, as they prepared to leave at its conclusion, you and Ben told them they could stay with you for the rest of their lives. They had helped you during the war, and now you would care for them—they both lived with you for the rest of their lives and died in your home. In the post-war era you gave birth to three more children, all of whom you showered with the deep love and affection. With them you shared warmth and comfort—you were mother to them all. Like a chameleon you changed to meet their differing needs, always putting others before yourself. 

Your firstborn was typical of firstborns, independent and forceful like his father. He left home at an early age for college, and went on to travel the world and settle far from home, where he became the head of his own household. Your daughter was more like you—gentle, nurturing and cautious—an only daughter must have a special place in a mother’s heart. For your sickly third child you shed more tears than you deserved. You nursed him back from the edge of death, and even now you play an indispensable role in his life. And the baby was inspired by his father’s mandate to be inquisitive. This intellectual wanderlust caused much unintended heartache, but he’s still the same young man who talked of life’s search so long ago.

With your children raised, your husband’s love for you deepened, as did your love for him. The young boy on the bicycle—in whom you saw so much more than fifty years ago—had aged. No longer did he participate in the virile games of youth. The arms that once hit golf balls long distances, the coordination that nestled many a wedge shot close to the hole, and the shoulders that carried large sides of beef—did so no longer. As Thorton Wilder said, he was being “weaned away” from life. But his love for you was deeper than any that emanates from youthful vigor alone.

As his own physical vitality faded, his main concern was Mary Jane Hurley, the beautiful young woman on whose door he had knock so long ago. In his eyes that is who you still were. After fifty years of sleeping in the same bed, separated by war, struggling to make your payments, and watching children to whom you had cared for leave your loving home, after all that … you still had each other. A love so strong that all the cynics could not or would not ever understand. Yet, tragically, it ended after just fifty years.  But be assured that when Ben’s very last breath was taken, it was your name on his lips, your face in his eyes, your presence in his heart. The wind still murmurs outside your window, and its sound is his sound calling you. Now … wait.

For living this well lived life, one of joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, you are to be praised. In the times since your husband left you—not of his own choice—you have endured and survived and re-created yourself. While the body deteriorates, your heart is still strong. You are the hero of your own life—my dearest mother.

With my deepest love and affection,
With my most gracious appreciation,

With yours and my father’s spirit always within me,
I remain, your devoted son, John Gerard

(Postscript – Mary Jane Hurley Messerly died in of a stroke on Sunday, September 18, 2005. She was 86 years old and had taken her usual walk the day before.)

 

To My Grandchildren on the Eve of the 2016 American Presidential Election

“The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

~  Thomas Mann & Norman Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism

I have no illusions that—despite a life dedicated to careful, conscientious, and critical thinking, a lifetime of reading, thinking, teaching, and writing—one can change the mind of those who suffer from cognitive closure. If you can’t convince people of the truth of biological evolution or global climate change for example—about which there is no reasonable doubt—then good luck convincing them of much else.

But I want my grandchildren to know that I vehemently opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump for the office of the American Presidency in 2016. I want my grandchildren to know that your grandfather was on the side of progress; he was with the women and the young and the immigrants, who disproportionately embrace a better future, not a bitter one.  

And I want you to know that I was a public signee of the Scholars and Writers Against Trump. (To read a roundup of tweets, blog posts, and other mentions of that document click here: https://storify.com/andrewhazlett/scholars-and-writers-against-trump)

I have written multiple posts in the last few months on this issue because Trump represents a unique danger to our political system. Here are a few excerpts from those posts, and here’s to a better and more civilized world.

From, “Is America on the Verge of a Civil War?

… Trump is obviously unqualified for the office of the presidency in every conceivable way—from his personality and moral character, to his psychological instability, to his lack of experience and knowledge of virtually anything relevant to the job. Trump is a poster boy of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which the ignorant assume they are knowledgeable about things of which they are ignorant. His supporters no doubt suffer from a similar malady.

And while the American Psychiatric Association prohibits its members from offering a psychiatric diagnosis of a public official without their having conducted an exam on that person, I’m not a member so I’ll take my shot. (I have studied abnormal psychology in some detail.) I’d say a cursory glance at Mr. Trump reveals that he suffers severely from a number of psychological maladies including: bi-polar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and quite probably borderline personality disorder. He also suffers psychologically from the lack of sleep he brags about. Among the big 5 personality traits he would be rated very high on neuroticism and low on emotional stability. There are also plausible but unproven claims that he is a child molester.

Putting such an unstable individual at the helm of the nuclear arsenal is just one unintended consequence (and a particularly scary one) of a broken political system, especially today’s dysfunctional, obstructionist Republican party. The Republican party, especially its Tea Party wing, is in fact a Confederate party, a white, racist party whose power is most prominent in the American south. As the basic functions of democratic government are eroding, the ignorant look for a strongman to save them. Needless to say this does not bode well for the republic or for international peace and prosperity.

And here is an excerpt from the historian Ken Burns‘ 2016 commencement speech at Stanford which I quoted in my post, “Summary of Ken Burns’ 2016 Anti-Commencement Speech at Stanford,”

For 216 years, our elections, though bitterly contested, have featured the philosophies and character of candidates who were clearly qualified. That is not the case this year. One is glaringly not qualified. So before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process, divided our house, to fight against, no matter your political persuasion, the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned but subtle art of governance; who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for anything, offering only bombastic and contradictory promises, and terrifying Orwellian statements; a person who easily lies, creating an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter; who has never demonstrated any interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment; who insults veterans, threatens a free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants and all Muslims; a man who took more than a day to remember to disavow a supporter who advocates white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan; an infantile, bullying man who, depending on his mood, is willing to discard old and established alliances, treaties and long-standing relationships. I feel genuine sorrow for the understandably scared and—they feel—powerless people who have flocked to his campaign in the mistaken belief that—as often happens on TV—a wand can be waved and every complicated problem can be solved with the simplest of solutions. They can’t. It is a political Ponzi scheme. And asking this man to assume the highest office in the land would be like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747.

Finally, an echo of my sentiment can be found in this wonderful post by a fellow blogger titled “I don’t know why we’re having this conversation.”

So in conclusion I say again to my grandchildren: I want you to know that your grandfather was on the side of progress; he embraced a better future, not a bitter one. I will never accept our current medieval, anti-intellectualism, and ignorance and superstition will not save us. We must reject the influence of our reptilian brains and reconstruct ourselves.

50th Wedding Anniversary

My parents on their wedding day in St. Louis, October 27, 1938

Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream. ~ Kahil Gibran

The last wedding anniversary my parents celebrated was their fiftieth, in 1988. I remember all my siblings and I pitched in to send them on a vacation. They never made it; my dad died just two months later. But they had a good marriage; their love satisfied and comforted them—it was sufficient in its own time.

As for marriage in general, it is hard to talk sensibly for, as George Bernard Shaw noted, “There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage.” Will Durant wrote somewhere that no institution was so designed for unhappiness as marriage—and this from a man happily married for 68 years.  All I can say is that anyone happily married for 50 years has succeeded in one of the hardest jobs in the world: living and loving a single person for a half a century. That is no small feat. They have instantiated in their microscopic world what is so desperately needed everywhere.

So if your parents or friends are celebrating 50 or more years of a happy marriage, think to yourself “in at least one respect, they are worthy of respect.” Remember too, as Will Durant said, “The love we have in our youth is superficial compared to the love that an old man has for his old wife.”

As for how to have a good marriage, the most poetic advice I’ve ever heard was from Kahlil Gibran, an almost embarrassingly sentimental (some would say mawkish) poet whose work I encountered as a teenage. In his most famous work, The Prophet, Gibran says:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Mom

Nana

Mary Jane Hurley Messerly (1919 – 2005)

The tenth anniversary of my mom’s death has just passed. Eventually, like every one of us, she will be forgotten. But in another sense those who came before us aren’t gone; they pulsate through our being in ways unknown.

I have written about both her and my dad before, and it is difficult to add to those sentiments. But there is something about remembering, that which motivates the ancestor worship of the Far East, which is valuable. Worship is too strong, but we should remember that, as Santayana put it, “We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.” I am a futurist; I find the only hope for our species and their descendants in the future. But the future will be built upon the past as surely as it is built upon the present.

As for my mom there what I can say is that she loved me and my siblings unconditionally, showed us with her affection, and lived for her family. There are many stories to tell about her, but her is a simple one from my childhood that I remember vividly. Our near unbeatable St. Ann’s grade school soccer team had just suffered a devastating loss in the semi-finals of 6th grade division of the CYC. We lost because of bad luck—multiple shots of ours hit crossbars and goal posts—and an incredibly bad play by me as goalkeeper—on the only time the opponents got near our goal. Even a couple of my neighborhood friends came with me and mom to watch our expected victory. I was devastated. I had cost the  team the game singlehandedly. What did my mother do? She bought me and my friends ice cream on the way home. And not just any ice cream. That rare treat of 1960s St. Louis—Velvet Freeze!

And what better way to comfort an 11-year-old than ice cream. What she was really comforting me with was love.