Thursday, October 8, 2020

#282 / Life Tributes

In my blog post on Monday, "The Revelation of Marilynne Robinson," I made an assertion that I thought might not find immediate acceptance by many of those who read that blog posting. Specifically, I said that there is "goodness found in each of us." It was my claim that if we look for it "we can and will find goodness in other people."

Because there is plenty of evil to be found within us, and among us, and because we are all deep-dyed with selfishness, arroganace, narcissism and unconcern - all the bad things - I have to admit that it is pretty hard, sometimes, to believe that despite all those bad things, there is goodness within each one of us, too. 

The snarling racist, the antisemite, the unempathetic employer, store clerks who can't be bothered, the people who throw their trash in the streets, or who cut into the front of the line, the parents who abuse their children, the sexual predators - there are many examples of how evil invades us, in greater and lesser degrees. We see it in politics, and we see it everywhere, and all the time, and sometimes the examples are as bad as that racist William Zanzinger, portrayed by Bob Dylan, who "killed for no reason, who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warning." If you have heard the song, you know what I'm talkin' about. 

The presence of evil within our world - and in each one of us - is so evident that it is difficult, sometimes, to maintain a belief that there is also a deep goodness within us all, which is what that review of Marilynne Robinson's latest book contends. If there is such a goodness - a goodness not only in ourselves, but in others - that is a goodness to which we can appeal.

One way to help strengthen our belief that we can, and should, rely on our ability to find goodness within other people is to read the obituaries. Mostly, judging from my own habits, we may scan the obituary pages to see if anyone we know has died - or if anyone famous has died. Older people - again, judging from my own habits - are inclined to check the birth year of the persons who have died. Were they born before I was? Great; I've still got some years to go. Were they born after I was? Watch out! Caution! Will I be next?

What I am suggesting is that reading the obituaries - "Life Tributes," as the San Francisco Chronicle calls them - can serve another purpose, too. These brief reports on the lives of those who are no longer alive are almost always revealing of the depths of goodness that reside within our human community. These are persons you don't know. If you passed them on the street, you might not attribute any goodness to them at all. They might well not agree with you on politics or anything else. In fact, one of them might have done something selfish, inconsiderate, or rude right in front of your very eyes. But.... if we learn just a bit about their lives, and compare their lives to our own, that can help us appreciate that there are many, many good people in the world. 

I had that feeling when I read the "Life Tribute" to Ellen Sorah Horwitz Harris, who is pictured above. I didn't know her, but now I have read about her life, as you can, too (at the end of this blog posting). 

In politics, which at base is a kind of community conversation between ALL of us, leading to decisions that will then guide our collective actions, it is hard to make the process work if we can't talk to everyone. To make politics work, we must not only recognize our differences, but also our commonalities. If we can assume that everyone has some goodness, deep inside, to which we can appeal, it will be a lot easier to work together to confront our challenges and to realize our possibilities. When we no longer believe that such appeals are possible as to those of a different party, race, ethnicity, gender - when we have lost faith in the essential human goodness of those with whom we are in disagreement - our common life together becomes at first difficult, and then impossible. 

We are pushing the limits of impossible right now. So, I am reading the obituaries more and more, realizing how people I didn't know are a lot like me: filled with flaws and imperfections, undoubtedly (like I am), but decent and good, persons to whom I can appeal. 

If this realization is true for those who have died, it must also be true for those still living, those with whom we share this world. It is worth my time to get to know other people better, as a reminder that we must never give up on our human connections, and that despite all our differences, which certainly exist, which are often profound, and serious, there is always a possibility for us to cooperate, and collaborate, find common ground.


Ellen Sorah Horwitz Harris
December 3, 1922 - September 28, 2020
Ellen Sorah Horwitz Harris born December 3, 1922 (Minneapolis, MN) to Bertha and Aaron Horwitz, Eastern European immigrants, passed away on September 28, 2020 in her home of 70 years in San Francisco's Noe Valley. 

Listening to her own drummer and not overly concerned with convention, Ellen lived an adventurous and full life. She took a high school journalism class from Ellis Harris and it seems it was love at first sight. After graduating from the University of Minnesota she received her MSW from Smith College. In 1944 Ellen accepted a job in Hawaii (her choices were Hawaii or Alaska and having been raised in Duluth, Hawaii sounded good). During WWll, travel out of San Francisco required a convoy, and while waiting for her ship to depart, she and Ellis, who was stationed in Dallas with the army air corps decided to get married over the phone. The presiding rabbi was a "little deaf" and the phone connection was weak, but the marriage was declared legal and they remained partners in love for 70 plus years. 

Upon Ellis's discharge, he joined her and a second wedding in Hawaii followed for friends and family. Ellen's first job was at Children and Families Service in Honolulu. Their years in Hawaii were magical, full of remote hiking adventures, close friends and causes including support of the sugar cane workers and the creation of the state of Israel. In 1950 they moved to San Francisco where they raised three children. Not wanting the confines of a single job Ellen had many: private practice therapist, school counselor, social worker at Family Service and Mt Zion Hospital, and teacher. Ellen kept a psychotherapy practice well into her 90's. She championed civil rights, social justice, world peace, protecting the environment, and improving education, both on local and international levels and often incorporating these causes into her work. 

The Harris house was open to all, hosting a wide variety of people and events. In the City Ellen and Ellis enjoyed art, ballet, theater and playing tennis, and at their beloved second home on the Russian River there was more tennis and the peace and beauty of nature. As a mother she provided both a rich environment to play and learn and freedom to explore. As a grandmother she delighted in her four granddaughters, and took pleasure in watching many soccer, basketball and ballet performances over the years and took great pride as a fourth generation of women obtained their college degrees. Ellen was proud of her mother Bertha who was the first in her family to graduate from college.

Always fully engaged, Ellen's intellect and passion for life kept her involved in many activities and projects. She was a constant reader. She loved her plants, and nurtured multiple gardens. She and Ellis traveled the world, she taking movies and he editing and narrating them to share with friends and family. 

She is survived by her three children, Michael Harris (Becca) daughter Zoe, Deborah Harris (Don) daughter Jennifer and Peter Harris (Sheri), Erin and Toby, and many, many books and plants.

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