On Finding A Raccoon by George Merrill


I’d just finished breakfast. I left the kitchen to walk over to my studio and write. An ordinary day . . . at first.

Just to the left of the studio door, next to the steps, I saw the broom that usually rests against the wall. The broom had been knocked over and lay halfway across the walk. I hesitated. Then I saw the raccoon. He must have knocked the broom down. The raccoon was lying in a small garden area looking as if he were in a bed and asleep. The sight of the raccoon frightened me. I began to back off slowly, fearing that if he were alive and rabid he could be dangerous. Still no movement. I feared he might be dead. I was also afraid he could be alive. A raccoon in daylight can be an ominous sign as they are nocturnal and avoid day time traveling. Rabid raccoons may become disoriented and wander during the day. I knew nothing for sure.

I’ve seen raccoons occasionally around our house, although it’s not usual. However, I’ve seen more this year. A couple of them had found a way to take the lid off the garbage pail and dine sumptuously on bags of ripe garbage, leaving leftovers scattered unceremoniously around my yard.

We took defensive measures with the trash can, securing a bungee cord over the lid tied to the garbage can’s handles, and we had no other incidents.

Not long thereafter, taking the tarp off the outdoor grill to cook, sure enough, I saw muddy animal tracks all over its shiny metal lid. How they ever were able to get up that far onto the grill under the tarp even with a tight cord secured at the base, I will never know. Raccoons are resourceful.

One day I looked out of the living room window. Close by is an old black cherry tree with a significant hole in its trunk. I saw something moving, and two raccoons, side by side poked their noses out, looking expectantly at me as I looked curiously at them. I must say they were adorable, projecting their heads out, like a couple of young kids, full of mischief, but looking wide-eyed and innocent.

I watched them for a while and smiling to myself went about my business.

But what to do about this raccoon?

I called the DNR. They said they’d get back to me. Not wanting to wait and still unsure whether the raccoon was dead or alive, I called the State Police to ask them how best to handle it. The desk officer asked me a few questions and told me that he would dispatch an officer straightaway and not to go near the animal.

The trooper, Officer Todd soon arrived. I showed him the raccoon. He approached it confidently, shone a light on it and stood for a minute. I could see where the beam of light struck the raccoon’s head and that his eyes gleamed but didn’t blink. The trooper came over to my wife, Jo, and me and said that indeed the raccoon was dead and that he would call Animal Control. Should they not be available, he said that he’d help get rid of it. I was relieved.

As the trooper went to his car to make a call, my wife, Jo, commented that since the raccoon was sick and was ready to die, that she felt oddly comforted that he might have come here because it seemed a safe space to spend his final hours. He had, after all, become a frequent diner at our house. In fact, the raccoon looked as if he had snuggled down into the small patch of garden neatly edged by two by fours. He looked asleep on his side as if in bed. Jo’s tender thought shamed me. I had been only aware of my fear, afraid of how dangerous the animal might be and really did not consider his life as any part of my universe except as a potential threat.

To have the capacity in oneself to be kindly disposed to the ‘other,’ even as that ‘other’ may present a threat, whether man or beast, does have a way of mitigating fear and keeping fear from being the sole determinant in how we might act when uncertain. To say it differently, a generously caring attitude creates an aura of kindness that makes potential threats feel less menacing and keeps our actions from being fear-driven. I did think, in an earthy kind of way, of St. Paul’s statement about how perfect love casts out fear.

I’ve often thought about the vulnerable people from foreign countries who are coming to our shores in order to be safe. The government has systematically created a climate of fear and danger that has only made us, as a nation, behave less humanely and more fearfully, as the immigration policy of separating parents from children has made painfully apparent.

I must comment on the kindness of the Trooper, Officer Todd, who responded to my call. When it was clear that Animal Control couldn’t do anything, he offered to stay and volunteered to help remove the raccoon’s body and bury it in the woods. Far beyond the call of duty, in my book.

He remained, friendly, professional and remarkably good-natured offering to perform a task for which you can be certain he had not undergone rigorous police training to learn; like burying a dead animal for an old couple. A strapping young man like that I’m sure wanted to be out catching bad guys and protecting the public. I supplied the shovel and with it he removed the body. He dug a hole deep enough to make sure other animals could not get at the raccoon as this raccoon may have had rabies. We’ll never know.

We could not give Officer Todd even a cup of coffee for his trouble. He’d have none of it. “Just doing my job.” We did arrange for a hose with which he could wash the mud from his shoes.
As this seemed such a piddling gesture to offer him for his trouble, I comforted myself with the thought that in human history, washing a stranger’s feet is one of the most revered expressions of hospitality.

For me, the whole episode served as a reassurance in these troubled times that there are kind and generous people in the world, people vested with power and authority, who are also people of genuine character and we will find them, not in some spectacular headline event, but in the most ordinary and oddest circumstances, like over a raccoon’s dead body.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Illusions by George Merrill


The book of psalms is filled with wisdom. The psalms are rich in time-tested truths, including bold assertions, agonizing supplications and often lengthy diatribes. Unlike lyrical and poetic spiritual writings, some psalmists will get in your face – and also in God’s face. Some are furious and vengeful and a few make threats. Psalm 88 warns God that, if He should let this psalmist die of his afflictions and the psalmist winds up as a corpse, it’s not going to look good for God. Not only would His failing to act damage His standing among the people who worship Him as a savior and a rescuer, but the dead don’t honor God with the conviction the living can.

This psalmist does not report how far this may have gotten him, but among all the psalmists, I’ll bet God prefers straight talkers best. He can be sure they’re not being pretentious.

I’m fond of Psalm 51. It speaks to my spiritual struggles. It’s not confrontational, but is an impassioned plea. The psalmist speaks to us in earnest about the state of his soul. He is painfully aware of his faults and shortcomings and, apart from wanting forgiveness, he wants something else; to be right with God and with himself. But how does he see this happening?

He puts it this way:

“You (God) desire truth in the inward being; therefore, teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” He sees these conditions as the terms for a right relationship with God . . . and I would add, a right relationship with the world including everyone in it.

To have a clean heart, to have a right spirit within and wisdom in the secret places of the heart, I believe looks like this: not prone to be suckered by illusions, but living by what’s true. In spirituality, the worst enemies we have are the illusions we cling to. They are like sea water to the thirsty sailor; momentarily satisfying, but ending badly.

I’ve grown more conscious of illusions recently. Twitter and email are in our faces 24/7. Today’s political rhetoric and marketing endeavors, whether it’s our president telling us who the liars are, or the automobile industry claiming their trucks come equipped with guts and glory, we are awash in images and verbiage designed to sell us just about anything.

Never in history has information, whether true or false, been so easily and widely distributed to a world electronically wired to consume it. It’s become a way of life, filled with illusions repeated over and over again to manipulate. Differentiating truth from lies can be an hour by hour challenge.

Plato’s timeless allegory of the cave explores how skewed our perceptions can become, and depending on what we accept as real, how misleading they can be.

The allegory tells about prisoners confined to one room. They don’t think of it as a prison since that’s all they’ve known from birth. They are shackled in such a way they can see only one wall of the prison. On that wall, they see the light reflected from the world outside, but only its shadows. Outside, people are walking by, talking with each another, carrying boxes, holding children or shouldering tools for their work; the prisoners perceive only dark phantoms in motion; shadows are their only reality.

One prisoner escapes.

He sees the outside world for the first time; he watches actual people, the places and the things he knew only by the shadows they cast. He sees them for what they are and returns to the prison to tell all his cell mates the wonders of what he has seen in the light.

The prisoners are incredulous; they’re frightened about what he is saying. He insists they too can see what he has if only they throw off their shackles and get out into the light. They refuse. Because his disclosures are strange to them, they’re confused and fearful about what he tells them, and they remain determined to stay just where they are. As the freed prisoner tells his former cellmates what he’s seen, they threaten him with harm and tell him to go away. Time has inured them to the shadowy illusions of reality. It’s the only world they know.

Writing in Politico in 2017, Maria Kannakova investigates the effects on our brains of lies and misleading statements that are repeated again and again: “As it turns out” she writes, “sheer repetition of the same lie can eventually make it true in our heads . . . Eventually, without quite realizing it, our brains just give up trying to figure out what’s true.”

Giving up is not going to gain us the wisdom we hunger for in our secret hearts and put us right with God or ourselves. It’s in quietness and reflection that our inner vision becomes clearer and less troubled. There, in that inner space, light illuminates everything and casts no shadows.
There is a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer that I believe has wisdom and meaning extend far beyond any sectarian boundaries. I have come to treasure it even more in these unsettled times. It is one way I try to stay focused on what the light is illuminating rather than the shadows it throws. It’s called a prayer for quiet confidence.

O GOD of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength; By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Nothing Personal by George Merrill


The tragic history of the Ford Pinto is an old story. However, it illustrates how people in groups often behave in ways they never would in their private lives.

In 1968, the idea of the Ford Pinto was conceived. It was designed to compete with the small cars with which the Japanese had successfully flooded the American market. Lee Iacocca pushed aggressively to get the car on the market. The program was given a delivery deadline of just 25 months, a record time in the industry.

Design flaws soon appeared. One was significant. The gas tank was easily punctured and could catch fire. Management was determined to get the car into production. They did a cost-benefit analysis. To rectify the flaw would cost eleven dollars a vehicle. The cost was weighed against the projected injury claims for severe burns, repair costs, and other claims including liability for death. The total repair costs would have been approximately one hundred million including production delays and parts for thousands of cars. According to Ford’s calculations, damage payouts would cost only forty million. The Pinto went into production in 1970 without addressing the design flaw. The Pinto was hot, in more than one way.

The decision to go ahead and manufacture the Pinto was decided in the atmosphere of a cooperate boardroom. The decisions to weigh the human factors against company profit goals were intentionally calculated. To me, the deliberations seemed reminiscent of the moral vacuity and emotional detachment Nazis exhibited when discussing their policies. They sought the most economic means to execute their corporate policy that history knows as the final solution. An overstatement, maybe, but the moral detachment in both deliberations can’t be ignored.Admittedly this is an old incident but illustrative of corporate malignancy. Similar incidents of corporations signing off on fraudulent dealings like Volkswagen’s fudging on diesel emissions and Enron cooking the books with devastating effects on employees.

I am guessing that many of the executives supporting the decision to produce the car and go for profit were average family men who lived in nice homes and loved their wives and children. They were not by nature monstrous and without feeling. I’m sure many had religious connections, and presumably gave generously to community causes. As many corporate leaders frequently are, they were pillars of the community. Can their decisions be dismissed as nothing personal, just business?

My question is how is it an average person leaves basic human values at the boardroom door?

The biblical tale of the unclean spirit has one suggestion.

“When an evil spirit goes out of a person, it travels over dry country looking for a place to rest. If it can’t find one, it says to itself, ‘I will go back to my house.’ So, it goes back and finds the house empty, clean, and all fixed up. Then it goes out and brings along seven other spirits even worse than itself, and they come and live there. So, when it is all over, that person is in worse shape than at the beginning. This is what will happen to the evil people of this day.”

The evil spirit, as the parable goes, having been exorcized from the demoniac, eventually returns. Why? Because the empty spaces its original exit created were never filled. There was no one home. Spiritual emptiness invites all kinds of mischief.

Values make a difference.

A look at the recent immigration crisis illustrates the point. The decision to separate the children from parents was made ostensibly to follow the law. Where the decision was made, compassion never entered the decision.

Nothing personal; just politics

In the evolution of humanity’s moral development certain values emerged as timeless. They don’t make headlines today, as you might well imagine. We’re far more familiar with the seven deadly sins. But here are the seven heavenly virtues: chastity (fidelity); temperance (moderation); charity (aiding the disadvantaged); diligence (being focused and responsible); patience (not acting impulsively); kindness (benignly disposed to others); and last, but not least, humility (don’t think more highly of yourself than you ought.)

I’ve wondered whether if a conscious awareness of half these virtues had been inculcated in the interior lives of those Ford executives signing off on the Pinto’s production, would the results have been different? Would the appetite for financial gain and economic power still dominate? Internalized values serve as a moderating influence in human interactions, whether in politics, business or in domestic affairs.

Ironically, a mother’s relationship to her child is probably one of the most intimate, self-giving and sacrificial in the human equation. The peculiarities of this maternal bond incarnate some of the timeless human values: kindness, patience, and humility. I include humility here because as every mom soon learns, her needs are not going to be the priority for a long time. That’s humbling.

What, then?

The question remains: How will we, average Americans, fundamentally decent people, behave collectively when we, symbolically speaking, meet at the boardroom to vote on our future? Will we leave our conscience at the door, and simply run the numbers, or will our deliberations include guidance by the values of our common humanity?

This is about as personal as it can get.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

On The Light Side By George Merrill


I’m looking forward to presenting some of my photographic images at the Trippe Gallery exhibit in Easton for the month of August. Owner Nanny Trippe, invited me, along with her daughter, Charlotte, to present a joint exhibit we have titled, “The Eyes of Three Generations.” We call it that because one of us is young, one, middle aged and the other is, well, old.

Light promises us its magic when streamed through the lens of a camera, capturing the light on tiny silver halides and transforming them into images. I’ve enjoyed this promise for seventy-one years.

In 1839, the famous mathematician, astronomer and chemist, Sir John Herschel, exclaimed, “It’s a miracle!” when first seeing a Daguerreotype. He was smitten. “They surpass anything I could have conceived.” He thought photographs would replace painting. French essayist Baudelaire wasn’t about to sit still for that. Instead, he lamented the rise of photography by commenting, “From that moment onwards, our loathsome society rushed, like Narcissus, to contemplate its trivial image on a metallic plate. A form of lunacy, an extraordinary fanaticism took hold of these new sun-worshippers.”

And this long before selfies.

In my opinion, Baudelaire was an unregenerate luddite and a snob. He spoke with forked tongue. Since 1685, when the monk Johann Zahn invented the Camera Obscura – the precursor of the modern camera – artists have used primitive cameras regularly as an aid to painting and architectural drawings.

I’ll allow that Herschel may have been over the top in his enthusiasm.

Icons of early photography report almost to a person about the rush of excitement, the thrill photography afforded them. Jacques-Henri Lartique, at age seven, took his first photos. His camera was a simple box with a cork for a shutter which he inserted or removed to adjust exposure. It was cumbersome as the box had to be secured to a tripod. He said of his first photographic adventures: “It’s marvelous . . . nothing will ever be as much fun.”

Renowned French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson took candid shots of people doing what people do; which is just about anything. He was unobtrusive, almost furtive in his photographic sorties and yes, on occasion he wore an oversized overcoat. He secured black tape to the chrome of his Leica’s to make them less visible so no one would realize that they were being photographed. The “right time” was his guiding mantra. There is a decisive moment in life when, he believed, circumstances conspire to create a once-and-for-all scenario. He sought to capture such ‘decisive moments’ or, as he put it, “[You] I want to catch the whole world in that tiny box . . . details that live up to life.”

“There’s an excitement about using a camera that never gets used up,” Edward Steichen said at 94. Steichen took his first photo when he was sixteen and photographed actively up until his death in 1973.

In his last years, Steichen planted a Shadblow tree in his yard in Connecticut. He photographed it seasonally in all kinds of weather, documenting its growth as we might take baby pictures. Reflecting on the magic of photography, he wrote, “I was coming to realize that the real magician was light.”

No doubt, but that the magic of photography is the light.

I know that same rush of excitement many of my photographic forebears did. In my early career, orthochromatic films could be developed with a safelight. In the darkroom, watching images emerge dimly on the negative was like standing by a mist-covered valley at first light anticipating a sunrise. Initially nothing is differentiated; all you see is a milky blur. Then, as the developer does its work, it’s as if the sun had begun burning off the mist, and the contours of the landscape slowly reveal themselves. I’d feel a rush of delight every time I’d see this as if I, like God, had wrought a world into light from the void of darkness.

Many of the chemicals used in early photographic processes were lethal. Before their toxicity was known, some photographers succumbed, if not to death, to madness by exposure to mercury vapor, lye and silver nitrate. I don’t know whether this phenomenon contributed to an interest in photographing corpses, but the practice was in fashion for a time. This would certainly have addressed photography’s early problem of having the subject remaining still for the protracted exposures then required, some as long as an hour. After the legendary shootout at OK Corral, some members of Clanton and McLaurin clans were photographed posthumously, appropriately in Tombstone, Arizona.

I developed Metol poisoning. Metol is a toxic agent found in developing formulas. When I started developing pictures it never occurred to me to wear gloves. In a few weeks, a rash developed on my hands and they itched furiously as if I’d sustained a bevy of bug bites. It grew worse. My photography mentor, the local pharmacist treated me for the condition. He concocted a formula with camphor and other smelly agents. It was a cream that I spread on my hands. To secure it I had to wear white cotton gloves, even to school, which was embarrassing. The kids said I looked like a bellhop and smelled like a cedar chest.

Time frequently imputes greater value to what once seemed ordinary. Photographs are typical in that regard. The first informal portrait I ever made was of my grandmother. It was in the late forties. She was being treated for cancer and had come to live with us. She had a warmth about her. It was infectious and her presence in the house, although we all knew where it would eventually lead, was a blessing for all of us.

I took her picture one day standing in front of a mirror in the dining room. She was wearing her half-hidden bemused smile the way I always remember her. Considering how inexperienced I was, the photograph was well composed combining soft shadows and muted highlights, graphically portraying the gentleness of her personality. Time increased the portrait’s place in the hearts of the entire family. Her time, then, standing before the mirror was a split second, maybe only one thirtieth of one, just a fleeting moment of one’s life captured as only a photograph can.

Please join Nanny, Charlotte and me on Friday evening, August 3rd at the exhibit and an artists’ reception from 5pm to 7pm at the Trippe Gallery in Easton.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Wisdom of Scotties by George Merrill


When I was a boy, I’d go to my grandmother’s house on Wednesdays for dinner. Two Scottie dogs awaited me on the hallway table. They were made of metal, less than an inch high, and each one was secured to a small magnetized base. I liked playing with them.

I’d place them on the dining room glass top table and put them through various exercises. Turn one Scotty this way and he’d spin or flee from the other. Turn him around and both would race and crash into the other with lightning speed. If I maneuvered them correctly, I could get one or the other or both spinning out of control. It was one more instance of how attractions and aversions can behave as we try regulating their differences. The Scotties, one black, the other white, each possessing the properties to repel or attract depending on which way they were maneuvered.

In America, matters of gender and race have always generated aversions and attractions, reduced to simple black and white formulas. Both were poorly understood but nevertheless were assigned barriers never to be crossed. Regulating their differences in American society has been as confused and unstable a process as I could ever recapitulate with the two Scotties. I think ignorance has contributed mightily to the instability. We understand only dimly the forces of aversion and attraction inherent in gender and in race, except perhaps for one factor we know for certain is always a part of the equation: power; who has it, who doesn’t, and who wants to keep it.

One of the iconic figures in our country’s racial strife was the African American writer James Baldwin. I remember as a boy seeing his picture – I’m not sure where I saw it – but I never forgot it. I had never seen so much pain and passion in one man’s face. His eyes reflected the soul of suffering. He had been wounded by two cultural aversions; a white society’s aversion to blacks and a cultural aversion to homosexuality. In the early forties advocacy for gays and blacks barely existed. He had to forge a meaning for his life with almost no help from the society in which he was raised.

When a society loses its way, it fails to nurture its citizens. When a culture has no vision for inclusion and when it begins living the lies it perpetrates, where does anyone like Baldwin, seek what’s true and enduring? I found James Baldwin’s comment on the matter prophetic. He wrote: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive.” In literature, he found the stories common to our humanity’s suffering. He found validation for himself in those stories. Religion didn’t help. If the cultural tides that ran against Baldwin’s sense of self-worth were not enough, his stepfather, a preacher, only added to the tragedy. He said of James that he was the ugliest child he’d ever seen. As preachers do, he had a way with words.

Our gender and our race automatically connect us with others. Those connections can be the occasion for pain or happiness, depending on how they are understood. We are, by virtue of race and gender, necessarily a part of something larger, a piece of some greater whole.

I knew very few African American kids. There was an exception; a family in our church, the DeHarts, that I would see on Sundays. They were among other parishioners whom I recognized but didn’t really know that well. As many Yankee liberals of that era who would later claim they were never prejudiced, I was simply clueless about the layered society in which I occupied a privileged place. I was cushioned by white middle-class class surroundings that protected me from the hard-edged realities of racial discrimination. Like so many whites of that era, I lived in the innocence of a Mary Poppins world.

My grandmother (in whose house the Scotties resided) came from an old Staten Island family. In researching Island families’ years later, I learned many were Dutch and I saw the name DeHart mentioned, my grandmother’s maiden name. The DeHarts of Island history owned a large farm on the north shore. During the American Revolution, George Washington was reputed to have stopped at the farm with some of his troops. He remained long enough to refresh the horses and enjoy the hospitality of the DeHarts before resuming his journey. The account didn’t indicate that he slept there.

At that time in America, owning slaves in the north was as common as slaveholding in the south. I have wondered since, whether the African American DeHart family in my church may have been more intimately woven into my DeHart family fabric than I could ever have imagined. It can be a small world.

One afternoon in one of my idle moments while playing with the Scotties, I discovered something about their particular ability to attract or repel. Placing them head to head drove them apart. It was only when I placed them side by side facing in opposite directions could I make them sustain contact. Placed that way made them appear as if they were looking out for each other, that they “had each other’s back” as the saying goes.

I’d seen just such an arrangement once in a field in Vermont. Two horses stood closely side by side, facing opposite directions. The farmer told me that they often stood that way so when the flies deviled them, they could sweep their tails and brush the flies away from each other’s heads.

In the configuration of the Scotties, I also noticed that they exercised greater power of attraction than they possessed individually, so much so that they were able attract my grandfather’s metal pipe reamer from a short distance across the glass top table.

Joining together, they had greater pull.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Soul Whispers by George Merrill


I had conversations recently with two friends. They are long-time colleagues. One is a rabbi and the other a priest. They are seasoned clergy. Both think outside the box of sectarian religion and political affiliation. They’re reflective people.

We’d not seen each other for a while. We were catching up. Soon we were discussing the social and political scene in America today.

America’s moral decline soon came up.

We agreed that our social, political and moral codes are fraying. Those supporting the president are as angry and uncivil as those opposing him. The anger finds expression in hostile and mean-spirited exchanges and a pervasive feeling of uncertainty, if not helplessness and doom. We are stuck in a climate of malaise. That’s pretty much the state of affairs and we agreed it’s not going away any time soon. Given those realities, in the interim how might we live our inner lives and help others live theirs? Put differently, how can we stay sane and relevant in a world gone mad?

The rabbi suggested a spiritual exercise. In the short haul, he said, we are limited in what we can do to change things, except to hope and vote. He suggested that we write a letter to our own souls; take the matter up there, rather than engaging in the habitual no-win criticism and carping which I, for one, slip into so easily. What would emerge from such an exercise?

The idea of writing to my soul intrigued me. I began collecting my thoughts. It was a delicate exercise trying to assemble the data to write. A soul brooks no fudging.

Souls whisper. I have to listen carefully to hear. I can con my ego – which typically shouts – but never my soul.

As forthrightly as I could, in the interests of full disclosure, I prepared to write first that I didn’t like Trump one whit. When I see him on TV, the sight of him ties my stomach in a knot.

My soul whispered, “Merrill, don’t give me that, these are not your real thoughts; I know better. You call him a creep and a sleaze.” My soul, mischievously, goaded me: “I’ll bet the ‘Reverend’ would not like those sentiments made public. They’d make him look, well, not any different from the creep and sleaze he’s just scorned with such derisive language.

Listening to one’s soul isn’t always fun. I then had the thought that the meanness and contempt I feel for Trump was as reactive as many conservatives were when Obama was elected president. I’ll bet they said and thought a lot of ugly things, too.

While composing my letter, this first tangle with my soul highlighted what I have suspected is the real heart of the matter, not only in politics, but in how we deal with others; What am I to do with my knee-jerk responses of aversion? They can be vicious and waspish. Do I, as is common, build rationales to justify them, cling to my atavistic impulses and retaliate with all my righteousness blazing? Do I simply ignore them?

Ignoring powerful emotions never works. I know that. They only come out sideways.

What then?

As I consider writing my letter, I know that this internal struggle is timeless. It’s a part of being human. It’s about how discernment is different from reactive judgements and how I distinguish one from the other.

Reactive judgments often carry contempt – at least on this side of the veil – which is why God advises we leave the judging to him. Such judgements have incendiary qualities that stoke an inner seething. That’s when we wish only the worst for who or what we loathe. Such judgements will either mobilize energy or create malaise. When their energy is released, it rarely if ever ends well, or worse still, legitimizes my own craziness. I know this even before my soul confronts me. But, my soul also knows full well that there is also something deliciously seductive about feeling hateful, especially when the hate has been seasoned with a healthy dose of one’s personal sense of rectitude. It’s a rush, a high, and in an absence of anything more substantive, hate and resentment can offer a sense of purpose, a cause to champion. I can feel righteous and ready. It fills a spiritual vacuum.

Discernment is different. Discernment is nuanced. It is a form of discrimination (not prejudice) that reaches beyond outward appearances and sees to the heart of a matter, like an X-Ray goes beyond the surface to reveal what lies beneath. Discernment will not be driven by ignorance, in the way the ego is when making reactive judgements.

A Buddhist myth about an old monk makes the point.

He sits by a stream and watches the current go by. He listens to the gurgling water. He is at peace with himself and the world. He sees a scorpion. It’s floating on a leaf. The Monk knows that downstream the current gets turbulent and will flip the leaf over and surely drown the scorpion. The Monk reaches for the scorpion to take him safely to the shore. The scorpion stings him. In a few minutes, he does the same with another scorpion. It stings him. One of the monk’s disciples standing nearby sees him and rushes over to him. “Master, why do you reach for the scorpions, you know they will sting you?” The monk replies, “Yes, that’s just how they are.”

It’s an odd parable at first glance. Initially I thought the monk was foolish; after all he knows what will happen. I also thought that the monk might do better for all concerned to let the scorpions meet their fate downstream as they would not pose a danger to others.

A closer look at the myth is revealing. In the face of harm that might cause the monk pain if not death, he did not behave reactively. He was a kind and compassionate man. He had no illusions about what scorpions do. He did not react to them with revulsion, anger or fear. He responded with the kindness of his soul, transforming the moment dramatically. The moment was like Dr. King’s March on Washington. King was fully aware of the venom of his adversaries, but he turned a moment that could be potentially toxic into one of hope and promise. The event changed America. Dr. King did not, as with many frustrated Americans today, identify with his angry adversaries and behave like them. He did not lose his own soul under pressure.

Our challenge today is to be as wise as serpents, and as gentle as doves.

For those of us, however, who will hopefully continue to struggle with soul, ego, and specifically with personalities we can’t abide, George Eliot offered this kind but wistful lament: “It was a pity he couldn’a be hatched o’er again, and hatched different.”

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Good Samaritan by George Merrill


Who is my neighbor? The real question is, who are my neighbors?

I remember attending a Eucharist years ago. The homily was memorable, partially because it was mercifully short but also poignant. I’ve never forgotten it.

During the liturgy, the celebrant recited the Summary of the Law: “Thou shalt love the lord thy God will all thy heart with all thy soul and with all thy might, and thy neighbor as thyself.” During his homily, the celebrant posed the question again but rhetorically this time, asking who is my neighbor? He responded, “All those with whom I share space.”

There’s a Biblical story called the Good Samaritan. The story is well known beyond its sectarian boundaries. In fact, it has found its way into American law; it’s known as the Good Samaritan Law. It offers legal protection to people who give assistance to those who are, or whom they believe to be, injured, ill, or in peril. If the help does no good, there are no legal repercussions. We’re free to do good whenever we can. It’s comforting to know in today’s litigious society that when we risk caring for others, we have the full weight of the law behind us.

It’s a humane law. It underscores the assumption of a basic solidarity among humans, and all those with whom we share space. Everyone is our neighbor; some are next door while others are thousands of miles away. Our job, where it’s within our power, is to look out for one another.

Today there’s an undeniable rip current, pulling against our humane instincts. It’s a mindless drive to make those who would naturally be our friends, into our adversaries. One loyal public servant after another is mocked or fired; agencies that serve not only the administration, but also the country’s safety are relentlessly demeaned; the agency for assuring environmental protections, the planet on which all of us share space, exhibits no vision. It’s being sold out to short term economic interests. Migrants, America’s future lifeblood, are being driven from the land.

By now this is old news. I don’t want this to be an “ain’t it awful” rant. Instead, what I’d like to consider is another way of understanding ourselves in today’s adversarial climate. There’s one vision of being with our neighbors and ourselves that might give us heart again and help mitigate the loneliness that our prevailing atmosphere of suspicion has bred.

I’ll paraphrase the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s from the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus is teaching. A lawyer in the crowd asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies; love God with all your heart, your soul, your strength, your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.

The lawyer (pitching a trick question) asks, so who is my neighbor?

Jesus tells him a story:

A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho has been robbed, beaten and his clothes taken. He’s left half-dead. A priest (establishment clergy) passes by to avoid him, as does a Levite (privileged citizen with social capital). A Samaritan (regarded as a low-life) comes by. He has compassion, goes to the victim, administers first aid as best he can, and puts clothes on him. The Samaritan places the victim on his donkey, takes him to the nearest inn, gives the inn keeper money, instructing him to ‘look after him.’ In the event the inn keeper incurs additional expenses, the Samaritan says he’ll pony up for whatever the amount when he passes by this way again.

So, Jesus asks the lawyer, who of the three was the victim’s neighbor?

The one who showed the victim compassion, the lawyer responds.

Now you know who your neighbor is and what you need to do.

Seems to me as if Jesus was saying to the lawyer that if he really wanted to inherit eternal life, he’d first have to get down to earth and get serious and become personally involved with the needs of his neighbors.

One writer said of our time that we live in a season of vanities and spiritual emptiness. Our psycho-spiritual diet has few nutrients. We’re fed mostly junk food. The symptoms are ennui and hopelessness.

Stories can help; parables, sayings that illuminate the soul, can lift us. We need to hear good news; we yearn for a loftier vision.

I’ve read some of the accounts of the early Christian monks, sometimes called hermits. They meditated in the Egyptian desert. They were a quirky lot, one of whom, Simeon, was reported to have lived sitting on top of a pole in order to have a clear and uncluttered spirit to be with God. It’s similar to Buddhists who, when they meditate, say that they “take the one seat,” only Simeon’s practice was more precarious and surely not as comfortable. All were good men.

As quirky as some were, they spoke the language of the spirit and knew the music of our hearts; they knew of the things that are eternal while at the same time were earthy and temporal. One story from that era illustrates this:

“Once, a certain brother brought a bunch of grapes to the holy Macarius. He, however for love’s sake, thought not on his things but on the things of others, carried it to another brother, who seemed more feeble. And the sick man gave thanks for the kindness of his brother, but he too, thinking more of his neighbors than himself, brought it to another, and he again to another, and so that same bunch of grapes was carried around to all the cells, scattered as they were far over the desert; and no one, knowing who first had sent it, it was brought at last to the first giver.”

Considering the miserable climate these men lived in, and despite their personal idiosyncrasies, in my book they sure are the kind of neighbors I’d take any day.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Handwriting On The Wall by George Merrill


I liked taking photographs of old, dilapidated buildings and rusting farm machinery lying in fallow fields; or drift wood that’s stripped bare by the sea and bleached in the sun.

Graveyards also fascinated me, especially colonial sites on the island where I grew up and here on the Shore. On their weathered and crumbling headstones, I’d read tributes to, or lamentations for, the deceased. Whatever else, the headstone epitaphs affirm one’s existence –wanting passersbys to know they had once been – along with a synopsis of how the deceased or someone who knew him or her felt about their life and their death.

When I look around in old cemeteries, I wonder what these brief headstone testimonies mean and what the deceased persons once thought. There are few places on earth, other than a cemetery, where our mortality is declared so definitively. The markers identify not who’s there now, but who isn’t any more. The silence and emptiness of a cemetery’s terrain has a paradoxical effect on me, and, as I’ve learned since, on many others. Even while being in the midst of so many absences, I have a strong feeling of a presence while standing above those who’ve long gone. Among the old stones I stand waiting, as if for a revelation. It’s a haunting feeling, not as though I expected ghosts, but in the stillness of the space, some primal feeling in me is being called forth for which I had no name.

This feeling I’ve come to understand as yearning or longing, not for death, but from a desire to have a more complete story to which the brief epitaphs on the headstones allude. I wanted to reach my hand across the divide of time and experience the world as these people had once known it. I longed to hear their stories, see the landscape through their eyes. It was perhaps as I understand it now, my yearning to feel more deeply connected to the others through whose history, I too, had been shaped.

I long for connection.

Years ago, I read an essay by Bruce Mills titled. “An Archeology of Yearning.”

Mill’s story was about exploring the delicate terrain of the mind; the space deep within and surrounding us, and the symbols each of us use to travel in and out of one another’s terrain. Mills had written a moving account of the years he struggled to find ways to communicate with his autistic son, Jacob.

He seemed to be speaking about something I knew about intimately, but how, since I knew little about autism?

Living with Jacob’s autism, Mills tries to interpret his son’s inner space. Since there is little common language that parents, teachers, or playmates can share with Jacob, he lives in a lonely world. So, do his parents. They are woven tightly together by family bonds, but don’t have a common language. It’s painful being close and yet so far away, like standing next to a headstone that has a story, but no one to tell it.

Jacob drew pictures with the skill of a professional’s hand. He sketched perfect replicas of TV characters from the scenes in the children’s shows he watched on TV – like Sesame Street and various Disney movies. He constructed his inner vocabulary from these images. He mastered drawing perspective and depth perceptions of a much older child.

Jacob thought in pictures, not words, while imputing emotional significances to particular characters and certain colors. Through his art, he developed a visual language to give meaning to his inner space, to reach out to others. It was, however, a pictorial language and his father could not be sure that the pictures meant the same to him as they did his son. Often, they didn’t.

In general, when children pose the question to parents, “Where did I came from?”, I believe inherent in the question is a lot more than curiosity about the mechanics of sexuality. I suspect that in the question lies an eternal yearning to know the continuum of life beyond our own. How is who we are today connected to others who had been there long before? Who were they and what’s our connection to them?

While working with his son, Mills begins to describe his situation with a beautiful metaphor. In the relationship to his son, Mills sees the same mystery that archeologists experienced when first entering the ancient Chauvet Cave at Vallon-Pont d’e Arc in southern France. The images of animals on the cave’s wall witness to a story some tribesmen wished to tell. For the discoverers, in the silence of the cave which they found inscrutable and dazzling, they also felt a deep yearning to know more. What did these images mean?

Like Jacob’s, the images that the Paleolithic inhabitants drew on the cave’s wall were exquisitely crafted. There was the wondering about why this particular cave, and what the paintings themselves signified about the mind-set of the artists who painted them, the culture in which the artists lived and the significance of the particular subjects they elected to paint.

Art is a way of knowing. Art expresses what we feel about the world in which we live. Art is not confined to any one medium. It’s born of the primal human urge to create, to weave the strands of experience into the whole cloth of a vision. For years photography had been my artistic expression. How I ultimately became skilled in photography may not have been that different than the way Jacob became proficient in drawing: he wasn’t able to express his interior space in conventional ways, and so he naturally gravitated to another. It was important for him to create.

When I was a boy, my uncle took me to the countryside to paint. He was was a natural. As I watched him paint the rolling hills and farm houses, I felt lost, helpless. I could not sketch a landscape so that anyone might recognize it. I had no feel for rendering perspective. I wanted to be a part of my uncle’s world, to be creative in the way the way he was, but I had no aptitude for it. I had only a vague sense of color. After a while I’d find reasons not to go with him. I gave up.

That is, until I discovered photography.

It was apparent early on that I had “an eye.” I took quickly to the tools of photography that equipped me to render pleasing and imaginative photographs. As the saying goes, I found my voice, or more to the point, my eye.

In today’s world, the teaching of various forms of art is regarded as “soft” next to serious courses like business or science. Art education, in budget squeezes, is the first to be cut. I think this reflects a spiritual vacuum that exists in our consumerist culture. We have marvelous tools by which to serve our outer needs, while the tools to nurture our inner lives, to feed our souls, languishes.

It does not bode well for society when its young have no visions of possibility nor can its elders dream dreams.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

The Hidden World of Despair by George Merrill


From the outside looking in, I find it almost impossible to spot someone who’s despairing of life sufficiently to want to end it. The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain illustrated this dramatically. To all appearances, they were living the American Dream: successful, creative, wealthy, icons in the public eye, attractive and decent people. Only after the fact, do people try reading signs for motive, but any conclusions are guesses at best. Only years after the suicide of my father did I feel safe enough inside of myself to try piecing things together.

When incidents of suicide increased with the returning combat veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq I began to put together a credible theory. During WWII, the non-physical wounds of war were treated dismissively as either shell-shock or battle fatigue. My father, returning from the war, was clearly troubled. Then, there was also a tacit implication of moral failure associated with the condition. Despair and despondency carried the additional burden of shame, and implications of cowardice. Those suffering from what we now recognize as PTSD, had no place to turn. ‘Be a man’ was about the best counsel veterans got in those days. They were trapped with their nightmares and directed their fear, their sense of failure and despondency onto themselves. There’s always the wound that those surviving the suicide of a loved one, suffer. It’s living with the unanswered question: was there anything I could have done to change things?

Among the relationships we must manage in life, none gets more complicated than the one we have with ourselves. This is the relationship only we know about, if we are aware of it at all. The relationship to self involves nuanced values and proclivities that are uniquely our own, like our fingerprints. They are formed mostly unconsciously through family myths, societal values, personal temperament, circumstances, aversions and attractions. Some people are aware of this inner life because they’ve learned of its existence and found tools to nurture it. Others are not curious about it at all and dismiss it as ‘touchy-feely.’ Even out of our awareness, this inner relationship to ourselves can be as volatile as it is invisible. Self-hate is malignant and undetected it can grow like cancer. If it doesn’t kill someone else, it can kill you.

If we could ever know just what drove Bourdain and Spade to despair enough to take their lives, I’m sure, most of us would not see in their conflicts necessary reasons for despair. We ultimately value ourselves through our own judgements, and as our own critics, we can be merciless.

There is a difference between the ego and the soul. The ego governs life when we’re dealing with immediate challenges like making a living, choosing a spouse, raising children, making friends, or being successful in life. Important, of course. The soul, on the other hand, imputes a sense of ultimate meaning to what we do and who we are; souls are often referred to as our spirit, our essence. Some have an inkling of it, some have no idea.

To gain the whole world and lose one’s soul is a timeless cautionary tale. It’s easy to do in a consumerist culture that has little time for matters of the soul. A soul’s needs are not marketable, but advertisers give it a go; I’ve seen the word love invoked by advertisers in promoting toilet tissue and cars.

In Brisbane Australia, Professor David Tacey once addressed a Conference titled “Spirituality and the Prevention of Suicide.” His concern was that strategies for suicide prevention did not include a serious investigation of the role spirituality might play in preventing suicide.

Tacey is convinced that in the western world, there is little attention given to developing an inner life, encouraging the fundamental skills to help people develop meditative and/or prayerful skills that allow us access to our deeper selves while sensitizing us to the wonder of being alive. He believes this leaves us vulnerable to despair since the only values left for us to hold in dark moments are the social skills that the ego practices. Substantive values offer staying power for the soul and spirit and they are timeless. Consumerist values are all about buying and selling. People are commodities, targeted audiences, valued for their capacity to purchase. Making a bundle or being a celebrity has been likened to Chinese carry out; after you’ve had all you can eat, you’re hungry all over again.

Professor Tacey grew up in Central Australia, Aborigine country. He says “This need for spiritual experience and its therapeutic effect on the troubled soul, should become a major priority for all religions interested in their social relevance and their future existence.”

Lives can be deepened. Tacey cites an example.

Aborigines actively cultivate a spiritual life. It’s cultural, a part of their way of life. They know they possess a deeper self, called “churinga.” The word means one’s own hidden body. Youths are introduced to their churinga or “second life” by engaging in rites of passage. Tribal elders initiate the youth into his or her “churinga” with the words, “Here is your body, here is your second life.” The initiate is expected to live life from this spiritual core, and not allow the surface self to dominate because it leads to illusions and falsehood.

It’s worth noting that Buddhists also teach that the ego creates the illusions that mislead us, cause needless suffering, the kind of illusions that encourage the falsehoods that plague our personal, political and social lives. Meditative practices that characterize Buddhism are concrete methods proven to access the hope and calm, and I would add, sanity, that lies within us underneath the layers of the sand castles that our egos constructed.

I lived and worked in Baltimore for many years. I loved the city. It is a dangerous city, once called the ‘murder capital of the world.’ Not to despair. There are flowers blooming in the urban desert.

The Robert W. Colman is a public school in a hardscrabble neighborhood in West Baltimore. I take this quote from the Washington Post that reported on the school:

“A boy who tussled with a classmate one recent morning instead found his way to a quiet room that smelled of lemongrass, where he could breathe and meditate. The focus at Robert W. Coleman Elementary is not on punishment, but on mindfulness — a mantra of daily life at an unusual urban school that has moved away from detention and suspension to something educators hope is more effective. Here, students are referred to the Mindful Moment Room when they misstep or need calming. In a space decorated with bright curtains, lavender cushions and beanbags, program staff members coax students to explain what happened, to talk about their feelings, to breathe deeply. The third-grader who scuffled with a classmate broke into tears. Staff member Oriana Copeland held his hand as they talked. There were no harsh words. He came around slowly.”

Urban decay is one of America’s worst breeding grounds for violence and despair, violence perpetrated against self and on others. I am profoundly grateful to the people of the Robert W. Coleman school for giving as a vision of hope and possibility in an increasingly despondent world.

The long journey toward inward discovery begins with that first step, taken by the people who care.