Saturday, September 11, 2010

Haunted by Ghosts

I’m not telling a ghost story, not that I don’t have them. It’s true that there were ghosts that frequented the rooms and halls of my college dormitory, but that will have to wait for another time.

There are times I feel haunted by ghosts. Not the kind that go clink in the night, the spirits of the departed, I have a working relationship with them. The ghosts I speak of are my own. They are not external entities, but internal to myself. This is about the ghosts that we carry around with us, the memories that haunt.

When I was growing up, times were different, our nation was different. I would hear jokes, often with racial epithets in them. As the world and I changed, I would grow more and more uncomfortable with what was being said, eventually telling people I didn’t want to hear the jokes. They were offensive. This is one of my ghosts.

I am not perfect. As much as I try, there are times where these jokes and ideas come into my thoughts. Rarely they slip down lower and come out my mouth. I am always embarrassed when this happens. (It happened the other week, in public, ouch.)  If I can, if I’m aware of it, I apologize. If it’s too late and been pointed out to me later, I really churn on the inside as a result. There are some things I wish I could take back, but I cannot. These become more of my ghosts.

Hate Speech

I’ve written previously on Anger discussing some of my encounters with racism and hate speech in my hometown. In Dubuque during 1991, there was a group of people running around my town, burning crosses in front of people’s homes as well as vandalizing them with racist remarks. I loved where I grew up and these people were embarrassing me and most of the city.

It didn’t sit well with my friends and I with what they were doing. We became a national embarrassment. We spent a lot of our time, effort and dedication to fight what was going on. We organized [Active Students Against Prejudice], we stood up, and we fought. So why has this become a ghost?

What’s happening in New York, at Park 51 (aka Cordoba House and the “Ground Zero mosque”) looks a whole lot like what was happening in my hometown. People are yelling hateful words, just like in my hometown when people would say hateful things to people brown of skin. People are standing up with signs and causing all kinds of disruption, just like the burning crosses in my hometown. And the people it’s aimed at are scared – maybe not all of them, but many are.

It is once again embarrassing. It feels just like it did back in 1991 in Dubuque. I’m happy to see people organizing and standing up in New York in support of their Muslim friends and neighbors, but not enough of us are doing it. We need to stand up in Minneapolis, NOLA, Dallas, Denver and Seattle – cities across America. We need to take a stand and stop the hate speech in emails and jokes. We need to stand up to our families, friends and acquaintances and tell them we don’t like what they’re saying.

To be Muslim in America today is to receive a lot of hateful speech and intention. On this day, with the memory of the 9/11 attacks we need to understand that Muslims didn’t attack America, but people with extreme views and an extreme agenda did. I could have been one of those who died that day. I wasn’t. But many Muslim-Americans did die that day. Not just ones in the towers, but many that were first responders. Many then went to war serving in the US armed forces to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and our fellow Americans. To turn our backs on them now would be wrong. They’ve lost loved ones. They deserve the same constitutionally protected rights as everyone else: the right to buy property, the right to celebrate and practice their religion. To do otherwise would be un-American. It least that’s my view.

CAIR '9/11 Happened to Us All' PSA, Firefighter (60-Second)

I will stand up and fight for these rights of my fellow Americans like I fought for those in my hometown. Keep the jokes inside your head. Let them become ghosts of the past. Let them fade with time. Those jokes aren’t funny, they’re just embarrassing.

What really encourages me is that the description of Park51 closely matches the description of what we’re trying to build in New Orleans, the New Orleans Healing Center. The services offered at Park51 are these: 500-seat auditorium, theater, performing arts center, fitness center, swimming pool, basketball court, childcare area, bookstore, culinary school, art studio, food court, September 11 memorial, and prayer space. Contrast this with what we’re working to build in the New Orleans Healing Center: organic grocery store, hydroponic garden, internet café and juice bar, alternative healers, street university, retail bazaar, art therapy and galleries, community center and theater in the round, child care, Woman’s Infants and Children (WIC) program, environmental office, woman’s center and a spiritual space. Many of the planned facilities are the same. Give people in the community someplace to go, someplace to heal and things will improve for all of us.

Extreme conservatism seems to want to go on the attack in this country. My other issue (and thorn in my side) I will defend or champion is marriage for all, straight, gay, or whatever. I have no idea why people say they need to “defend marriage”. If your marriage needs defense, seek marriage counseling. Someone else’s marriage isn’t going to ruin yours. If you fear for your children, set a good example in your own home. If you find yourself wanting to claim the moral high ground, please claim it through this, the Great Commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself.” If people truly followed this core belief the world would be a better place.

Shame and Criticism

Some of my ghosts haunting me aren’t so obvious. They come from my sensitivities from my childhood and my upbringing. I grew up feeling criticized for everything I did. I felt I could do no right in my father’s eyes. If I did well in school, something else would be wrong. No matter how much I achieved, some fault could be found. This led to feeling a lot of shame and guilt.

These ghosts of my upbringing come to haunt me in my adult life. I am oversensitive when my wife speaks to me of something, almost anything that seems critical to me. My past haunts me consciously or sub-consciously and immediately I take it personally, get defensive and at times lash out. It’s led me to anger management, marriage counseling and personal counseling. It’s a ghost that lurks and hides inside me. It makes me say and do stupid things. It’s really just me.

These are the ghosts I have the most difficulty dealing with. The parts of myself I let bother me. I can say it makes me a better person for having fought through it, but I am still fighting through it. It’s my subconscious post-traumatic-stress disorder, the ghost of me and my past. Like demons I have to face it. I have to remember it. I have to be aware and follow certain protocols and procedures I learned in my counseling to keep it from ruling me. I’m still learning.

If only in my life mistakes, past feelings, shame, guilt and criticism were something where I could say, “I’m all over it now.” But to do that lets it lurk on. Like racism, I can’t unlearn it. My innocence has been lost and I can’t regain it. I admit I have issues – I hold a torch for them, bring them out, speak about them and give them honor (in this post), to keep them happy and cared for. Sometimes this reminds me so much of my other priestly duties.


So once I’ve examined my life’s ghosts – particularly my reoccurring themes in my adult life, then my childhood and the ghosts I’ve held since, I must then look beyond this life. Do we carry ghosts from before we were born? Are we still afraid of ghosts that follow us and rule us throughout our lives?

I’ve been contemplating this for a few weeks now. I know people that have fears that come from places they can’t explain. Others that are superstitious about things that can’t be easily explained.

Are there issues that surrounded us and our past lives or our deaths so intensely that they live on in our current lives now? What issues and karma are we still facing? What lessons are we still struggling to learn lifetime after lifetime that for one reason or another we just can’t seem to get beyond?

This concept is something I’m contemplating, just as much as those things that continue to bother me, that continue to rule me. These are ghosts that aren’t going to go away when I die. I can continue to ignore them, but until I face them they’re going to continue to not ignore me.

What Is A Ghost?

So good old Oxford has a few definitions, the one I like for this piece is: “the memory of something, especially something bad”. I’m not sure my ghosts are always bad, but their memories live on. They continue to haunt me. I don’t always like value statements of good and bad, they’re too relative and judgmental.

Some ghosts don’t even necessarily need dealing with. Some of my ghosts are nothing but reoccurring themes in my life that keep happening over and over like an invisible friend. Some have nothing to do with me, but our society, our country, our race or our environment. We go round and round again and can’t seem to change our actions for the better.

Today’s 9/11. It is also my father’s birthday – he passed away a short while ago. I will always remember this day. But I choose to remember it for our strength, our resilience and how we can come together and do good things in its wake. The day should be for building and repairing, not destroying.

When I started writing this piece, I was sitting in New Orleans (NOLA) on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The memory of the storm was very prevalent; it will be a ghost to people for some time. It was a day of perspective and healing, a day of remembrance. We’ve seen the city change so much in the years we’ve been going there since the storm. We have the perspective of not living there caught up in the day to day, but going every few months. That perspective helps me see the changes. The renovation has started for the New Orleans Healing Center, it opens early next year.

That’s a theme, or a ghost I’d like to see happen again. It doesn’t need to be us, but some other group that does this kind of project. Maybe that’s Park51, maybe all kinds of groups could build centers to spread beyond one religion or one group of people. Maybe they could be inter-denominational. That’s something I could happily be haunted by, something to really be proud of. I bet it would really do well for our karma too.

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