~ News, announcements, events, and ruminations about my books, including Slant of Light, This Old World, The Language of Trees, and Scattered Lights, and about creativity, fiction, Missouri, the Ozarks, and anything else that strikes my fancy
This is from Roger Deakin’s book Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees:
“It was the eve of Oak Apple Day, and the annual reassertion of rights to collect wood in the Royal Forest of Grovely by the villagers of Great Wishford in accordance with a charter granted to them in 1603. The charter affirms that their rights to the wood have existed ‘since time immemorial,’ usually taken to mean since well before Domesday. In all seriousness, it requires the whole village to ‘go in a dance’ to Salisbury Cathedral six miles away once a year in May and claim their rights and customs in the forest with ‘The Shout’ of the words ‘Grovely! Grovely! Grovely! and all Grovely! Unity is Strength!”
I’ll admit that my first reaction to this story was Is-he-pulling-my-leg incredulity. But a quick bit of research soon told me that Oak Apple Day is a real thing. The Great Wishford celebration is unique among the few English celebrations of Oak Apple Day in that it dates back farther, but a few other towns in the U.K. also observe it. If you’d like to hear more about the Great Wishford celebration, here’s a video.
I love a small town celebration and have attended many – some by accident and some by intention. Our American festivals often focus around a local product (the various Apple and Blueberry and Salmon festivals, etc.), or something more generic, like the “Freedom Fest” in my hometown of Annapolis that celebrates, well, freedom I guess. Hey, any excuse for a parade. But few of them could claim anything near the heritage of that festival. According to Deakin, there have been recorded conflicts between the villagers and the local nobility over their right to collect wood in the forest since 1292. So the charter of 1603 sought to lay to rest a dispute that had been going on for more than three hundred years already.
Ancient rituals with obscure origins. Our minds turn to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” but perhaps instead we should contemplate the power of the past, the hold it has on our imaginations. Every generation imagines itself to be facing the world in a new way, and to some extent that is always true. But every generation is also the inheritor of its predecessors’ struggles and triumphs, and feels the pull of the old.
And in case you’re wondering what an “oak apple” is, it’s the colloquial name for an oak gall, the hard round protuberance that grows on an oak branch or leaf when a gall wasp lays its eggs there. So it has nothing to do with actual apples at all.
But my favorite venue is a library. Whenever I speak at a library, I always come away having learned something new myself. Library-goers are a varied and curious bunch, knowledgeable about many things, and eager to share that knowledge.
So I’m excited to rejoin the Missouri Humanities Council and State Historical Society of Missouri’s joint project, the Missouri Speakers Bureau. This project provide a wide range of speakers to libraries and other nonprofit organizations around the state: civic groups, historical societies, you name it. And if your organization is located in a rural area (defined as any county outside Jackson, Greene, Boone, or St. Louis City/County), the speakers are totally free! As a kid who grew up in small-town libraries myself, I love the experience of visiting a library and meeting new people who have a love of learning and history similar to mine.
The link to my page on the Speakers Bureau website is here. I’ve put together a presentation on Missouri utopian communities that should be interesting, and am adding new material to the presentation all the time. If you have a group that needs a speaker, get in touch!
I mentioned earlier this month that the year was off to an excellent start in Ozarks writing. This book is not technically an “Ozarks” book, but its author, John Mort, grew up in southern Missouri and has written several fine novels and story collections based in the Ozarks. So, close enough.
Oklahoma Odysseyis, if you’re looking for a descriptive category, a novel of the West. It mainly takes place in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma in the time leading up to the Oklahoma Land Run of 1893, with briefer forays to Kansas City and elsewhere. But it toys with and re-imagines the stock characters and situations of the Western genre. We have a hero, love interest, sidekick, and villain, but none of these people turn out to be what you would expect. There’s a killing and a call for revenge, but again, don’t expect it to go the way you have been conditioned by decades of Westerns.
I have a complete review of Oklahoma Odyssey coming out in the next edition of OzarksWatch magazine, so I’ll leave my discussion for there. If you’re not already a subscriber to OzarksWatch, what are you waiting for? But for now, I’ll just say that this novel is a real gem, with rich characterization, historical insight, and a compelling story.
Great ballads always have surprises, and this one is full of them. It opens like this:
The king has been a prisoner, and a prisoner long in Spain,
And Willie of the Winsbury has lain long with his daughter Jane.
Talk about narrative economy! Openings don’t get much faster than that. As is always the case in old ballads, the sexual misbehavior has led to its inevitable result. Although Jane denies it, her father resorts to an extraordinarily cruel method of getting to the truth:
Take off, take off, your robe and gown, stand naked on the stone,
That I might see you by your shape if you be a maiden or none.
He forces the identity of her lover from her and calls to his serving men, for Willie of the Winsbury is no duke, gentleman, or man of wealth. So hanged he must be.
But when Willie is brought before the king, surprise number one. He’s gorgeous! The king is ravished by his beauty, and declares that if he were a woman, he would have taken Willie to bed too. In an over-the-top fit of forgiveness, he asks Willie to marry Jane and promises that he will be the heir to his lands.
Surprise number two: Willie agrees to marry Jane, but says,
But I’ll not be the lord of any man, I’ll not be the heir to your lands.
And in a surprise ending to the song,
He’s lifted her up on a milk-white steed, and himself on a dappled gray,
He has made her the lady of as much land as she can ride in a long summer’s day.
Who is this Willie of Winsbury, this mystery man who barely escapes hanging but then rejects the king’s offer because he’s apparently even greater? Some scholars think the song is a fictionalized version of the courtship of James V of Scotland and Madeline of Valois, the daughter of the king of France. James had traveled to France in 1536 in order to marry the king’s other daughter, Mary, but ended up taking Madeline home instead. As for myself, though, I’m perfectly happy with Willie being a mysterious figure who captivates everyone he meets, and who never does what one expects him to do.
It has already been another good year for writing from the Ozarks, and it’s only March. I have several books that I plan to write about in the coming days, but a good place to start is with this one, the third volume of Brooks Blevins’ History of the Ozarks.
Subtitled “The Ozarkers,” this volume takes us into the late 20th century, what we might call the modern history of the Ozarks. And there’s something in it for everyone.
The book opens with the legendary 1934 contretemps between Springfield businessman John T. Woodruff and folklorist Vance Randolph at the first-ever regional folk festival in the Ozarks, during which Woodruff accused Randolph and his associates of tarnishing the image of the Ozarks with their descriptions of Ozarkers as ignorant hillbillies, superstitious, barefoot moonshiners who idled away their days waiting for the next opportunity to coon hunt. The fact that Randolph’s portrayal came from actual interviews with actual Ozarkers, of course, was a difficulty to this accusation. But the conflict presages and sets the theme for the book: the divide between the modern Ozarks as perceived and the modern Ozarks as lived.
The “real” Ozarks have never been a place as simple as Dogpatch, U.S.A., and we all know that. This book shows just how complicated the history of the real Ozarks has been, with waves of immigration and internal migration, a constantly shifting economy based on the extractive industries of mining, farming, and timber, and an array of conflicting perceptions both from outside and within. So much has happened within the last century in the Ozarks that the book has to move swiftly from incident to incident and theme to theme, and sometimes I wished for it to slow down and devote more time to the things I am interested in the most; but such is the nature of historical writing. The book clocks in at about 300 pages and could easily have been three times that long, and still wouldn’t have covered everything.
One section I especially appreciated was its careful delineation of the changing agricultural economy. When I was a kid growing up in Madison and Reynolds counties, the typical farm was very much “mixed agriculture”: a pen full of hogs, a field with a few dozen cattle, a chickenhouse, maybe some row crops in the bottomland, even sometimes a specialty crop like sorghum or ducks. That model has nearly disappeared these days, replaced by farms that are strictly pasture-and-cattle or rows of giant chicken or turkey sheds (or occasionally, feeder pig operations) with the farm operator in a feudal contract with one of the big poultry juggernauts. Dairy farming has nearly disappeared. The societal impacts of these economic changes are hard to see at first, but when you consider them carefully, one obvious implication is that it becomes harder and harder to maintain a self-sufficient life in the remoter regions as farming becomes more dependent on connections to the larger industrial-agriculture machine. Thus rural counties empty out while population centers remain viable. In addition, these large operations, which seek to minimize labor costs through mechanization, rely on low-skill immigrant populations for their workers, leading to the pockets of impoverished immigrants we see in places like Noel and Aurora. The ripple effects of this demographic shift are hard to miss.
A History of the Ozarks: Volume 3 is now resting on my shelf alongside the other two volumes, but I don’t expect it to stay there long. It’s going to be taken down again and again as I re-read its accounts of Ozark historical events and refresh my understanding of the region’s rich, troubled, and treasured history.
But 1857 was a dark year for the abolitionist movement. The Fugitive Slave Law, passed by Congress in 1850, had survived court challenges and had made escape from slavery extremely difficult. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in 1854, had legalized the expansion of slavery into the Western territories and led directly to the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict. And the Dred Scott decision had been handed down earlier that year, depriving enslaved persons of any Constitutional protection. So the United States appeared to be heading in the opposite direction from Great Britain, toward the permanent establishment of slavery and few legal means of combatting it.
So when Frederick Douglass stood up to speak at a ceremony celebrating slavery’s abolition in a different country than his own, you can imagine that such a celebration might feel rather hollow. And perhaps you can see why he felt the need to speak in unsparing terms.
About halfway through his remarks, Douglass says:
“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”
The radicalism of Douglass’ thoughts here is pretty apparent, but in case we missed his point, he goes on in the speech to do a remarkable thing. He cites a number of people whom he identifies as heroes in the fight against slavery, and they are not the usual list. First up is Margaret Garner, who in his words, “plunge[d] a knife into the bosom of her infant to save it from the hell of our Christian slavery.” The incident, which caused a great stir in the 1850s as Garner was put on trial for murder, served as the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, currently the subject of censorship attempts at various schools around the country. Also on Douglass’ list is Joseph Cinqué, the leader of the rebellion aboard the slave ship Amistad, and the early rebellion leader Nat Turner. Douglass’ enumeration includes a number of other enslaved people who either killed or were killed in their pursuit of freedom. Not a peaceful protestor among them.
His point couldn’t be clearer. Progress is accomplished, he is telling us, by people who are confrontational, who are difficult, who are even kind of scary. Power concedes nothing without a demand. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. Martin Luther King deliberately echoed Douglass’ words in his famous ”Letter from Birmingham Jail,” when he wrote, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” although King took the path of nonviolence rather than Douglass’ approach, which I suppose we could call the any-means-necessary view. This is not a message I think most of us want to hear. It’s a call to make trouble, to be trouble. And if there’s anything in this world I dislike and try to avoid, it’s making trouble.
I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this tension. I believe deeply in the goals of social justice, equality, and progress. But by upbringing and temperament I try to get along with people. I avoid conflict, and I put a premium on being amiable and accommodating. So I find myself wondering if there’s any way to reconcile these two conflicting tendencies.
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
It seems to me that the relevant principle to consider here is the second one, the call for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. If that’s the goal, the question is how to reach that goal. Because it’s all too clear that justice, equity, and compassion in human relations are in short supply nowadays. They always have been, and it’s not my place to say whether the “arc of history,” as King called it, is bending upward or downward at the moment. I’d like to imagine that it’s bending toward justice, but I don’t have that degree of confidence. But what I can say is that if you want to increase justice, equity, and compassion, you need to be able to exert power.
The seven principles are reticent on how power should be attained and used, other than that we are supposed to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and presumably that includes people we consider distasteful or wrong. Even oppressors have inherent worth and dignity, I suppose. And the exercise of power should be done democratically, according to Principle 5. In an ideal political world, these general guidelines would work just fine. But in the world as it is, they seem to put us at a disadvantage in the effort to gain power, treating people respectfully and reasonably even if they are neither reasonable nor respectful. King gets around that dilemma by relying on patience and numbers. Present setbacks can always be seen in the arc of history as temporary things. And our own setbacks and victories fade when we see them as part of a larger movement. I may not be able to make a difference in the world, but perhaps hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people acting like me might.
But these are big, abstract thoughts, and big abstract thoughts don’t help a person much in moments of decision or daily challenge. What I need at such moments is a reliable sense of how to act, how to behave when I want to influence people. How to gain and maintain power, in short, without violating my UU principles.
Anyone thinking about power has to consider Machiavelli. We don’t like to think that Machiavelli, with his famous statement that “the end justifies the means,” would be a proper model for our behavior. But we do have things to learn from Machiavelli. Remember that he began that passage by observing that if everyone was good, then it would be reasonable and logical to act in good faith at all times and to rely on mutual respect and goodness. But, Machiavelli says, people are not good. In fact, people cannot be trusted to do the right thing. So to act as if they will is to invite destruction.
Some of the statements attributed to Jesus appear to do just that. Love your enemies. Do good to them that hate you. When I hear these words, I have to admit, my first reaction is, “Is he kidding?” How could a person hope to accomplish anything in the world with that approach? I don’t want to get into the theological swamps here, so I’ll just say that I am not saintly enough to live up to those admonitions. On a good day, I can be respectful and decent to my enemies, but that’s as far as I can go.
So to circle around to the original question again. How to gain and use power ethically, within the framework of freedom and responsibility. I pondered this question for a couple of days until I realized I was making a fundamental error.
If you’re from my generation, you probably remember the Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum, whose book Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was a huge cultural phenomenon in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. If I were ever to write a version of that book, it would probably be titled, “Everything I Need to Know I Taught in Freshman Speech Class.” For a good 30 years at various colleges, I taught some version of freshman speech, a class that typically includes some basic elements of interpersonal communication and group communication as well as public speaking. And I remembered that in our group communication unit, we always did a section on power.
Power, simply defined, is your ability to get other people to do what you want. When you put it in those simple terms, you realize fairly quickly that there are a lot of different kinds of power. What Frederick Douglass was talking about is coercive power, the ability to make people follow your desires through fear of the consequences if they don’t. When the state trooper asks to see your driver’s license, you produce it, not because you share common goals, but because refusing could put you in a world of trouble. But in daily life, we don’t respond to, or use, coercive power that often. More often, we use other forms of power.
How do you get somebody to do what you want? I recall that when I worked at Columbia College, I had a co-worker who always got people to do things her way. What was her secret? Well, if you didn’t agree to do things her way, she would bite your head off, question your integrity, bombard you with scathing e-mails, and complain to the higher-ups. And I don’t even want to tell you how she treated her students. She was someone who took to heart Machiavelli’s precept that it is better to be feared than loved. I suspect many of you have similar stories of workplace ill behavior. People who exert power, not respectfully or responsibly, but through intimidation and bullying, or manipulation and emotional plays.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history Through corridors of light where the hours are suns Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition Was that their lips, still touched with fire, Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
By “truly great,” Spender means people who are true to themselves, who act with imagination and integrity. These are the people he thinks of continually and tries to emulate. Each of us has our own personal library of those who were truly great in our lives, people whose example we try to live up to. That’s another kind of power, the power to affect people’s behavior by presenting them with a model to shape their decisions on.
And finally, if you want people to act in a particular way, the highest and best form of power is to get them to agree with you. Nowadays we use the word “rhetoric” pejoratively, as if there’s something suspicious about it, but rhetoric has traditionally been seen through the centuries as the art of persuasion. A skilled rhetorician is someone who uses the power of persuasion to get people to see things their way, and thus exerts influence by creating common consent.
We may despair of such a concept nowadays, in what has been called the age of disinformation, in which falsehoods and manipulations seem to proliferate faster than our ability to stamp them out. But I am not giving up hope on that form of power. I think it’s ultimately the answer to our dilemma, no matter how unsatisfying it may be in the short term. If we educate our fellow citizens, our neighbors, our co-workers, and especially our children, in the ways of recognizing faulty logic and manipulative argument, we inoculate them against the misuses of power that we see all around. If we provide them with an example of how to behave in our dealings with others, we give them support when they have to make those kinds of decisions. And if we rely on reason and moral persuasion when we argue, we can follow our UU principles while at the same time making the kind of demands on power that are necessary for change.
About three and a half years ago, I wrote on this blog about the 1939 tenant farmers’ strike in the Missouri Bootheel, an event that I had not heard about until that moment. It reminded me just how much history is lost or overlooked, especially history that the dominant social group finds unpleasant. Since that time, I’ve learned a bit more.
One thing that I knew then, but didn’t fully grasp, was the extent to which the tenant farmers’ dispossession was the result of Federal policy. The Roosevelt administration was trying to prop up agricultural prices to rescue farmers, who had been going broke by the hundreds of thousands for many years by then. One of the tools they were using in this effort was direct support payments, paying farmers to take land out of production in order to increase prices. But a side-effect of this policy was that once farmers took their land out of production, they no longer needed workers. This doesn’t make the farmers any less culpable or racist in their attitudes, but it does help explain their motivation.
My friend Trevor Harris, who creates the Mo’ Curious podcast sponsored by Missouri Life, got interested in this topic and has been down in the Bootheel making recordings. I’m eager to find out what he obtained, and to hear the podcast that will surely come out of it.
In the meantime, I’ve learned that a documentary film was made in 1999 about the strike, entitled Oh Freedom After While. If your library allows you access to Kanopy, you can view it on that platform. It’s also viewable on Vimeo.
From a journal article I’m reading: “On September 20, 1948, Lucinda Crenshaw, Carryola Dickson, Georgia Jones, Otelia Scaife, and Rosie Holman, all members of the North Wyatt [Missouri] Women’s Club, decided to take matters into their own hands. They walked their children from North Wyatt to the white elementary school, at the edge of the nearby town of Wyatt, and tried to enroll them in the school. They were denied permission on the grounds the state constitution of Missouri forbade African American and white children from attending school together. . . . Notes from a Delmo board meeting suggest the women were threatened with arrest for disturbing the peace.”
Just in case you are looking for ideas for a statue to replace some of those Confederate generals. And think about that date, too: 1948. These women were real pioneers.
Source: Heidi Dodson, “Race and Contested Space in the Missouri Delta,” Buildings & Landscapes 23:1 (Spring 2016), 78-101.
“What just happened?” is a response that I think many millions of people can identify with. Over the past half-decade, I’ve greeted the evening news with variations on that phrase day after day, as events, statements, mob scenes, and bizarre behavior seemed to tumble out daily, each one more insane than the last.
What Just Happened is also the title of a book I’ve been reading lately, an interesting effort to capture that craziness in real time, a book in the form of journal entries from the beginning of the COVID pandemic to early 2021.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to relive 2020, a year that undoubtedly marked one of the low points of American history. A deadly virus came to the country and millions of people both in the government and in private life tried to pretend it wasn’t a threat. Video recordings of police officers killing black people in a variety of sketchy circumstances became an almost weekly occurrence. A presidential election was held, in which the person who lost by nearly eight million votes declared without evidence that the election had been stolen and (shortly after the new year) urged a mob to storm the Capitol during the certification of the outcome.
But I found myself drawn in to this book. Its raw accounts of the panic and anxiety he felt as the disease swept ashore in the early part of the year reminded me of my own. His horrified description of watching the George Floyd killing on TV, over and over again, brought back my own reactions. Even the parts I couldn’t personally connect to had interest. Charles Finch, the author, lives in Los Angeles, a city I’ve never felt particularly involved with. But his depictions of people’s pandemic responses, which like everyone’s were both highly individual and yet predictably patterned, had a universal feel.
Not that the book is objective, or tries to be. It’s a personal record, with all the personal obsessions, concerns, anxieties (lots of anxieties), and moments of victory that such a record demands. But as long as you read it with that understanding — that it’s not trying to be a comprehensive account, but rather a single individual’s record of a year that revealed much that is dark and troubling about America — it’s a compelling document.
Even after finishing the book, I still don’t get what he hears in Taylor Swift’s music that’s so great, but whatever. I’ll take his word for it.
Recently, the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, along with the Tri-States Civil War Roundtable, dedicated a marker in Woodland Cemetery at the grave of Edward Prince, a Quincyan who distinguished himself through service in the Civil War. Colonel Prince, who had been an attorney before the war, was the second-in-command of a daring cavalry raid in 1863 that diverted Confederate forces away from the defense of Vicksburg, allowing Ulysses S. Grant to move troops into position to take the city, a major turning point in the war.
It is right and proper to honor Colonel Prince’s leadership and valor. At the same time, I find myself wondering: What if Edward Prince’s father, instead of moving his family to Illinois in the 1830s to take up farming, had moved to Mississippi? Unfortunately, one scenario I can easily imagine is that Edward Prince would have distinguished himself in the service of the Confederate Army, and that his service would have been recognized, memorialized, and honored, and that today a controversy would be brewing over whether his statue should be taken down somewhere, or his name removed from a public building, or some other form of reconsideration of the meaning of his acts.
We all have our private forms of reverence. People we respect, honor, and seek to emulate. But reverence also has a public face, in which our society tries to single out people who demonstrate particular virtues, values, or actions, and that’s where things can get tricky.
For much of history, the idea of publicly sanctioned honor, and especially state-sanctioned honor, was tied up with power. And for much of the world, it still is. The emperor’s profile on coins, the triumphal arch in the public square, the dictator’s portrait in every schoolroom. These things show who’s in charge and whose will is to be obeyed. For the rest of us, our job is to admire from our lowly place, not aspire to their exalted status. But in modern times, we have adopted a more expansive idea of public admiration, one that does include an element of aspiration. We are called not only to admire these acclaimed people, but to be like them.
The complication comes in the fact that people’s idea of what is admirable changes over time. Take Andrew Jackson, for example, first placed on the modern twenty-dollar bill in 1928, although his image has been on American currency, and thus a pre-eminent symbol of what it means to be an American, since the 1860s. What was it that led to his placement on such a widely used banknote? I’d have to say that for earlier generations, Jackson represented what many Americans liked to celebrate and found worthy of recognition: aggressiveness, domination, military prowess, distrust of elites and intellectuals, and boundless ambition. A lot of Americans today still think of those as admirable traits. So it’s no surprise that our former president placed a bust of Jackson prominently in the White House and frequently posed for pictures in front of it.
As for myself, I prefer the person who is being planned to replace Jackson, Harriet Tubman, as my virtue model. She was tough but focused, committed to human liberation in ways both large and small, and unafraid to risk her personal safety in the service of others. And she cared for her aging parents in their later years.
So our ideas of public honor change over time, and one generation’s heroes become the next generation’s problems. Will something similar happen in future years? You can count on it. So perhaps we need to think about how we as a society dole out praise. Maybe we don’t need a statue in the traffic circle to tell us how to act.
It’s a commonplace among pollsters that when people name the person they most admire, they most frequently identify their mother or father. Favorite teachers come in pretty high on that list, too, along with more distant relatives like grandparents, aunts, and uncles. I’m not suggesting that we start putting up statues to our parents in the backyard, or even the household shrines that are commonplace in some countries. But I am wondering if our definition of heroism needs to be reconsidered, and whether it’s not as inaccessible as it might seem.
What is the phrase that heroes so often use when given praise for their accomplishments? “I was just doing my job.” I think we tend to attribute that comment to modesty, or maybe even false modesty, the idea that if someone says, “Yeah, I did great,” they’re crossing a line of appropriateness. But let’s take the hero at her word for a minute. Let’s say that’s the true and simple feeling. “I was just doing my job.” What does that say to us?
I think it tells us that if we’re looking for greatness, we don’t have to look too far. I’ll spare you any corny stories about everyday heroes because that’s not exactly what I’m talking about, but rather the simple observation that an action that may feel ordinary, even mundane, to the doer may have an impact far beyond its visible effects, or even its intended ones.
I am something of a worrywart in daily life, the kind of person who likes to plan and plan, and think of all the things that might go wrong, and as a result I sometimes rob myself of spontaneous enjoyment. I remember a friend of mine telling me once that on his kids’ birthdays, they would celebrate with a “Whatever Happens” day, deliberately unplanned, following the birthday child’s wishes as they unfolded and sometimes ending up with large blocks of empty time, whiling away a few hours engaged in what even a charitable observer might describe as goofing off. My initial thought about this was that it was kind of cheating, to make a tradition out of not planning anything, and part of me still thinks that. But looking at it from the other direction, I think about the birthday child’s perspective and what it feels like to know that your parent is clearing the day and letting you decide what to do. And if you want to spend the afternoon at the arcade, or go out for indulgent pancakes for breakfast, or just stay in bed until you feel like getting up, that’s what will happen. The implicit message of “Whatever Happens” day is: You matter. I will listen to you. Your wishes count.
And this is where I turn back to reverence, how we show it and how we perceive it in our daily lives. An ordinary encounter can be reverential. When we approach a conversation thinking equally of the other person’s perspective and needs, as well as our own, we are recognizing that individual’s fellow humanity.
But there are many obstacles to that kind of interaction, as we all know. For one thing, and let’s face it, people tend to be pretty selfish much of the time, focused on their own desires and needs and not those of others. I expect you’ve had the experience, as I have many times, of being in a conversation with someone and realizing that they were not paying any genuine attention to what you were saying, but instead thinking ahead to the next thing they were going to say. It’s not a pleasant feeling to recognize that you’re basically serving as a placeholder for someone else’s monologue.
And to complicate matters further, we are surrounded by a great deal of noise these days. How many times, when you ask someone how they’re doing, you receive the stock response, “Busy.” Now there are different kinds of busy. There’s the busy of someone who is trying to make ends meet, and that’s a busy we can all respect. There’s the busy of someone in search of wealth or status, something we’ve all engaged in, although we sense instinctively that this kind of busy has to be monitored so it doesn’t throw one’s life out of balance. And then there’s the busy of someone who is using busy-ness to avoid any empty moments, as if there’s something disreputable about sitting on the deck to watch the sunset, or standing out in the yard getting to know your neighbor, or catching up with an old friend through a note, an e-mail, or even a posting on our current villain, Facebook. Sometimes busy-ness serves as a protective screen, keeping us at arm’s length from the rewarding, but emotionally taxing, labor of more genuine interaction.
And of course the social media themselves are often part of the noise. For every rediscovered friend and engaging conversation, there are a thousand predigested memes, stock comments, and smart remarks that are momentarily funny but ultimately corrosive. I find myself posting less and less on social media these days, not because I don’t recognize their potential as a medium for true engagement, but because they have failed to live up to that potential again and again. In 1985, long before the arrival of the Internet era, Neil Postman wrote his famous critique of the American mass media, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I’m sorry to report that the trends he identified in that book have not slowed or reversed, but accelerated, so that today we find ourselves in a state of near-terminal amusement, drowning in hashtag blessings.
I realize that I may appear to have wandered from my original topic by now, so I’d like to try to bring things together and show the connections. My point is that we are presently caught up in a great debate, here in the United States and elsewhere, about what sort of public honor should be given to people, and what kind of people should receive it, and I don’t want to downplay the importance of that debate. Earlier this week, for example, the city of Mexico City announced that it was replacing the statue of Christopher Columbus that formerly stood along one of the city’s main thoroughfares with a different statue, a replica of a pre-Hispanic sculpture depicting an indigenous woman, known as the Young Woman of Amajac. This is a powerful shift in emphasis, from the conqueror to the conquered, and we should not minimize its significance.
But in our daily lives, we are not likely to have the opportunity to behave heroically, to lead troops into battle, free enslaved people, or anything else that might put us in a portrait gallery. But what we can do is what I’ve suggested here: we can engage with our fellow humans in an authentic and reverential fashion.
I was thinking about the Golden Rule a few days ago. It occurred to me that most of the time, we think of the Golden Rule in instrumental terms. Why do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Because it’s good business in the long run. If I honor my agreements, and keep my word, and that encourages you to do the same, we both come out winners. Kind of like the rules of the road. Drive on the right and you won’t wreck. But there’s another level at which the Golden Rule speaks to us. In treating others as we would like to be treated, we are recognizing our common humanity, the bond that joins us all regardless of race, gender, age, or any of the other accidents of circumstance.
When we treat someone with courtesy, listen to them without prejudice, and act with compassion and kindness, we are just doing our job. Our job as human beings. And not that it matters, but it’s possible that someone will be building a little statue of us in their heart as a result.