Our hearts: A work in progress

From the Citrus Chronicle:

As a young boy growing up, I used to help my Italian grandfather with his garden on Saturdays. He was a tailor by profession, but he could grow the most delicious, red beefsteak tomatoes you have ever tasted. 

He used to tell me, “Ralphie, the most important part of growing anything is the work you put into them. If you want great tasting tomatoes, you need to stake them as they grow, prune them, water them when it’s dry, feed them when they are hungry and keep the bugs and pests as far away as possible.” 

The older I become, the more I appreciate his wisdom and its application to most every area of life … particularly raising children. His simple, straightforward technique of growing tomatoes was analogous to how he lived. Looking back, his success in business, his generosity and kindness, and his sacrificial dedication to his family and community all mirrored the behavior patterns he repeated in everything throughout life. One might say my grandfather was a good man and goodness was a product of his faith and a continual conscious effort to control the evil tendencies of greed, pride and insecurity that are characteristic of our human condition. He reasoned in his mind he would control his heart and worked to accomplish what his responsibilities required of him. How wonderful if the same could be said for all of us?

In Cortney Stewart’s recent Seeing Beyond column, “Violence: A condition of the heart,” she did an excellent job detailing the tragedy of the June 17 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and explaining the apparent ineffectiveness of throwing federal dollars into communities to combat similar occurrences and the aftermaths that often ensue. It is also unfortunate some tend to use such tragedies to promote their own ideological agendas i.e., gun control in this incidence. The problem isn’t with the guns, it’s with the people who use them. And if such problems in our society are a matter of our hearts, then we need to understand why they occur, and together strategize and work to minimize them as much as possible. 

I’m not sure there are any words in any language that can adequately describe the “core” or “heart” of our human nature. We are complex beyond description. But in deference to that fact, all of us struggle with evil and its root manifestations of greed, pride and insecurity. When you carefully consider their implications you will discover that most hatred, bigotry, racism, and violent crime all find their roots in such evil. Unfortunately, there are those few monsters among us whose personalities are such that they manifest evil through their actions as in the case of Dylann Roof. He, unlike my grandfather, was unable to produce any good in his life because he did not work to contain evil and instead allowed it to grow and consume him. He is responsible for his actions and there will always be people like him who kill innocents with the excuse of some evil agenda of hate. 

We will never be able to totally eliminate such mentality from our society. In fact, in the United States, our constitution protects the very freedom of speech and false religions that may at times promote evil and hatred. Many of us are hesitant to even confront these issues for fear of not being “politically correct” or labeled in some demeaning manner ourselves. However, if we are going to make progress on these problems, we have to approach them courageously and correctly. We need to come together as was so beautifully manifested at the Emanuel church in Charleston the Sunday after the shootings. Hatred can be defeated with love. Violent rebellion begets more pain and suffering and marginalizes the cause of the protesters. We need to stop being divisive and using these tragedies to promote agendas or grow political capital. We all need to be more involved ourselves in promoting the freedom, liberty and equality that built our great 

nation. We need to teach it to our children, promote it in our schools, reinforce it in our media, and expect it from our leaders. We need to take responsibility for what we are growing in our lives’ gardens … particularly our children. We need to address our social issues without the excuses of past and confront the problems of today so our future may be brighter tomorrow. We need to stop race- and gender inequality baiting. It does no good and is counterproductive. We talk about it taking a “village” to raise a child (an African proverb). We can define that pragmatically in a modern sense to include parents, families, teachers, friends, church families, business leaders, local community and civic leaders, and lastly the central government. We all need to be responsible, accountable and involved because our children are our future.

Do you not find it ironic the more disenchanted and dissatisfied we are with our government, the more we expect them to fix our problems? Perhaps we are becoming indifferent or just lazy. The fact that we can’t get a majority of our citizens to even vote is sad, and that needs to change if we want our society and our lives to improve. The truth about America is government is powerless without the will of the people. It’s our job and our duty and, without “we the people,” all we’ll accomplish is wasting money and making noise. History has proven that to us time and time again. In America, apathy is one of our greatest enemies. We all need to involve ourselves courageously and selflessly to defeat it. Such efforts cannot be legislated from Washington or Tallahassee. They need to start with you and me … in our hearts and expressed through our actions.

I can still see my grandfather smiling as he picked one of his beautiful, red, ripe tomatoes. It always takes a lot of work to produce something worthwhile. The answers to life’s problems may often be simple, but they are never easy. It’s another axiom of our human condition.

Dr. Ralph Massullo is a Citrus County dermatologist.