~ 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
The Animals were never among my favorites of the British Invasion bands, although you had to give them credit. In their short initial incarnation, they produced a string of unforgettable hits and had a distinctive sound. Their version of the folk standard “House of the Rising Sun” is the one that most people remember today.
But “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” has a curious history. It was originally recorded by Nina Simone, in a slow, somewhat jazzy version that focuses on the subtle lyrics. You can hear the ache of the lyricist in her version, the apology and the explanation for foolish behavior, the longing to improve. The memorable guitar hook that the Animals led with is hidden in a violin section, partial and barely noticeable.
When the Animals recorded it, they turned it pretty much into straight-ahead blues rock, capitalizing on Eric Burdon’s gritty voice to make it a perfect anthem for the moment, echoed by teenagers throughout the decades who are dealing with complicated emotions and a sense of disaffection.
But the version that has stuck in my mind the most is the one by Santa Esmeralda, and I remember the first time I heard it. I was in the basement of Douglas Pokorny, a friend I have written about before, and he put the album on. Keep in mind, this was the late ’70s in the eastern Ozarks, where musical variety was hard to come by. How he came to possess the Santa Esmeralda album I’ll never know. But when I heard the flamenco-influenced Latin rhythms of the song, overlaid on the clearly recognizable template of the Animals version, I knew I was hearing something memorable. And the song just went on and on for more than sixteen minutes, filling up the whole second side of the album, the phrases repeating and building into some kind of pop-music ecstasy. In later years I learned that it was a disco favorite, which makes sense, given its propulsive beat and infinite energy.
Three different artists, the same material, three entirely different versions. Whose is the best? Don’t ask me. Each song fits its performer and its moment. The later versions are influenced by the earlier ones, but it would be wrong to say that they were unoriginal.
I’ve been asked several times lately about who my favorite writers are, or who the writers are that have influenced me. I can’t honestly say. I think the best answer is all of them, and none of them. I pick up things from many writers, but I don’t think that I’ve ever consciously copied or been directly influenced by one in particular. I’ve read that there are only [x-number, take your pick: 3, 5, 7, whatever] plots in narrative, the Journey, the Revenge, and so forth. So of course stories will bear resemblance. I think my essential plot is People Who Are Trying to Make Some Sense of Their Lives, but They Keep Getting Thwarted and It’s Usually by Their Own Damn Selves. Not sure if that’s one of the 3.
As usual, I quickly lost track of time. One of the great pleasures of walking in the woods is the sense of being freed from ordinary time, of entering a different kind of clock, one in which things are not measured by hours or minutes. Instead, I think of tasks to be accomplished, distances to travel. The answer to the question “How much longer do I have?” is not necessarily a half hour or forty-five minutes, but “Up a little rise, along the ridge for a half mile, and then up the last steep slope.” Float trips are similar. Time becomes, if not irrelevant, at least a secondary thing to think about.
I remember reading a book a few years ago that noted the shift that took place in the Ozarks when the economy moved from subsistence farming to manufacturing and larger farm operations. Instead of the rhythm of the seasons governing people’s lives, the clock took precedence. Many people had difficulty adjusting to the change in how life was ordered, employing various strategies of resistance against the tyranny of the clock.
Even though I’m officially “retired” from my day job, I still live a pretty ordered existence, as if an invisible timekeeper somewhere is punching me in and clocking me out. But I do love those occasions when I can stop counting time and simply live in the eternal moment.
When I was a kid, our parents would occasionally take my brother and me to what we called the “Castor River swimming hole” or alternatively, the “Castor River Shut-Ins.” Mom, as usual, fretted about our safety, while we boys just enjoyed the sweep of water through the tight passages of rock, bouncing downstream to where Dad waited to catch us.
There are a couple of swimming holes on the upper Castor, a river that receives much less attention than its more famous cousins to the west, and I honestly can’t remember which one we visited in my childhood. But one of the most unexpectedly beautiful places in the Ozarks is what is now the Amidon Memorial Conservation Area in northeast Madison County.
If you’ve visited Elephant Rocks, you know the remarkable pink granite that crops up in places across Iron, St. Francois, and Madison counties. At Amidon, that pink is lighter than at other places, far more sculpted, and shaped by the flow of water into a remarkable display.
Why doesn’t the Castor get more attention? It’s shorter, for one thing, and it quickly traverses from dramatic shut-ins to a relatively uninteresting, muddy stream, with lots of debris and agricultural runoff. But for several stretches, it’s as beautiful as anywhere in the Ozarks. Its lack of fame means that you’ll probably have the place almost to yourself, although do note that most of the ownership along the Castor is private. So you have to look for access points. The pink granite is unearthly in its strange beauty, and the flooding and debris has created a rich alluvium that lends to the growth of wildflowers in abundance.
I don’t think I’d let my kids bounce down through the shut-ins, though, unless the water was pretty low.
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.
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.
“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.
I read Walden about once a year, or at least dip into it for refreshment. Lately I’ve been reading the “winter” chapters: “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” “Winter Animals,” and “The Pond in Winter.” These are much quieter chapters than the showy, occasionally verbally extravagant flourishes of “Economy” and “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” and they tend to get overlooked, I think. But I’m appreciating them anew this time around.
The “former inhabitants” section is a quiet catalogue of the abandoned houses and waste places Thoreau encounters as he walks around his Concord neighborhood, and a recollection of what he knows about the families who once lived there – which in some cases is very little. One might wonder what he’s up to with this melancholy inventory. I wondered, too, until I noticed, this time around, that the people he memorializes are almost all Black, poor, or both. All that is left of their life’s labor is an overgrown hummock, a portion of a cellar wall, a vague tale of their occupation.
This section of the book is a meditation on disappearance and loss, and it’s especially telling that this meditation focuses on the poor. Thoreau approaches their stories with his usual wry humor. In one instance he tells of a comical adventure with the volunteer fire department, when they respond to an alarm and mistakenly think the fire is some distance away, when it actually turns out to be an abandoned hut just down the road. But that scene is followed by the poignant description of the sole remaining member of that hut’s last family, who returns to the home of his childhood and pokes through the ashes for any remnant of his family’s existence, turning up only the hook from which the well-dipper was fastened. “I felt it,” Thoreau writes, “and still remark it almost daily in my walks, for by it hangs the history of a family.”
Disappearance, withdrawal, diminishment. These chapters are full of such things. The visitors are few; the animals go into hiding; even the pond itself, frozen over, is sawn into blocks and carried away, ice to cool the beverages of the privileged in distant cities. But this condition also yields new perspectives. Thoreau takes advantage of the winter to go out on the ice of the pond and observe, to take measurements and to peer to the bottom, activities that would be impossible during warmer times.
Winter brings clarity as the essential parts are revealed. There is melancholy in this, of course, but also opportunity for a deepened understanding. And of course, the chapter that follows “The Pond in Winter” is “Spring.”
A friend of mine, retired teacher/principal/superintendent Terry Adams, recently wrote this:
“I think this is the most beautiful fall I have ever experienced. The colors are still beautiful if a bit muted, and leaves are falling everywhere. The cattle herd settled under a huge oak tree and the cows were covered with leaves (a sure sign that fall is coming to an end).
“It seems that everything is beautiful in its own time. The peach trees are bare now, but in the spring when they flower, just before the frost kills the buds, they are at their best. The autumn blaze maple trees were at their peak a couple of weeks ago but today they look a little sad and adjusting to the concept that winter is coming. The burning bushes just keep getting more attractive. All the plants have plenty to offer, they just give you their best at different times and in different ways.
“People, it seems to me, are much the same way. As a young school administrator, a very wise experienced special education teacher told me that the special children learn just as well, it just takes them longer. When you pop popcorn, the temperature is the same for all the kernels but they tend to pop at different times. We would do well to accept that and try our best to help all children learn as much as possible in their own time. Some are lucky and seem to be able to do everything well. Some have special gifts in music or sports, or can build works of art in wood working classes. It is our responsibility to help all children and appreciate what they have to offer. Just like the trees, they are all beautiful in their own way and in their own time.”
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.
I am currently floating (metaphorically) because the University of Missouri alumni magazine just published a long essay I wrote about floating (literally). I love taking float trips on Ozark streams and tried to convey some of the feeling of those experiences.
They also assigned a writer and photographer to do a profile of me to accompany the essay. Tony Rehagen and Nic Benner both did wonderful jobs.