Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
THE LAST THING YOU WANT TO DO
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
It’s part of the cycle. You don’t want to tell anybody else, because if you tell anybody else, then you have to tell yourself, and that’s the last thing you want to do. Josh Bearman’s mother
I love listening to “This American Life,” just like a lot of America. It may not be the original podcast, but when the term “podcast” was invented, the radio show was already one. I have my favorites – the telephone booth on a cliff in Japan where people call their dead relatives, the two firefighters who almost burned down a house chasing a squirrel, the discussion of how racial and economic integration are the best ways to improve public schools. But the wisest insight I ever heard on the show was in a conversation between Joshuah Bearman and his alcoholic mother. And it was from her.
You can find the episode on the website (Episode 334, Duty Calls) and learn a lot about Bearman on Google (he is pretty famous). You won’t find his mother’s name, though. Most of her adult life right up to her death was a train wreck, and in a stunning act of respect, he has not identified her publicly, near as I can tell.
In the process of documenting his attempts to prevent her ultimate decline, he challenges his mother about why she did not call him in a moment of serious hardship. The back-and-forth concludes with her insight: admitting to someone else that you are in a state of need means admitting it to yourself. And sometimes the only survival mechanism a person has is denial…until that doesn’t work anymore. (Listen to the episode.)
This tactic is not just a strategy of an addict or someone with a compulsive behavior. Maybe it is an overstatement to say everyone has at least one thing in their life that fits this pattern, but if you know the one human being for whom this is not true, please introduce me. I would like to know how they do it.
Sometimes the denial is about a genuine physical problem, like substance abuse. Sometimes it is about a challenge to a person’s internal landscape, like depression. Sometimes it is about a fact of life that could provoke disapproval from a loved one, like sexual orientation. And sometimes it is about a sense of self that is likely false, one that a person believes about themselves, but hopes against hope that they can conceal it from others who might affirm it.
Most usual is what is popularly called “imposter syndrome.” Some successful people live into the arrogance of extreme self-confidence. More of them believe that they are frauds and that it is only a matter of time until other people find out. No matter what it is – profession, parenthood, personal conduct – late at night, when sleep won’t come, some version of “I am the great and powerful Oz” begins playing in the brain.
Of course, it is not true. But what an irony that the people most likely to help the person who cannot admit the obstacle to a better life through skill and caring will not allow themselves to be rescued from their own obstacle.
I know someone who is a bundle of insecurity, but unless you were up close you would never guess. The testimonials to this person are universal. They always seem to care, to know the right thing to say, to brighten a day. A social butterfly, this person has a remarkable memory for a detail or two about everyone they met and makes a point of recalling it at each subsequent meeting.
By pigeon-holing everyone else into a particular role, this individual can control every interaction and deflect conversation and concern away from themselves. The very thought of genuine self-disclosure is enough to throw this person into a panic and cause a redirection of the topic at hand. What a lonely way to live, without understanding how much caring can come your way.
Bearman’s mother’s observation was an answer to his persistent question, “Why didn’t you call me?” But it is an answer not only from her to him. In a lot of ways, it is the answer we each give to whomever proposes to help – family, friend, professional caregiver, clergy, even God. With few exceptions, really few, the offer of support is genuine. Perhaps it is not a solution, but it is a remedy for the loneliness of denial.
And I think that going through life lonely is the last thing you want to do.
Wisdom Wherever You Find it
First love teaches two things: 1) I can choose to love and 2) I can be chosen for love. Sen. Chris Coons
Most of us, I hope, grew up with parents who loved us. And if any of you doubted it, I hope you were fortunate enough to have a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or family friend who was uncompromising in their love for you. The kind of love you find in a family is called, in Christian circles, storge (rhymes with “chore day”).
There are other kinds of love that are described in Christian thought, including philia (“brotherly love,” hence Philadelphia), agape (God’s love, which is selfless) and eros (romantic love).
Those descriptions of love come from Greek culture, and whether you accept the distinctions or not, this much is true: the love you experience as a recipient (in this case, storge, philia and agape) is a different kind of love than one you experience as a partner (eros). And it is eros that is the subject of this wise observation by Sen. Coons.
“Eros” has an association with “erotic,” which has tainted the meaning and, to some minds, cheapened the experience. But giving your heart to another, the more innocent meaning, is not necessarily sexual in nature. It is, however, a gift that comes with frightening vulnerability most especially the first time. Almost everyone survives first love. Almost everyone has it reciprocated. Almost everyone loses it.
If you are in a relationship that is not your first love (as I am for more than forty-four years as of this writing), you know that unique as it may be, it is not as uncomplicated as it felt in that original rush. Lasting love has elements of all four types and, just to make things more complicated, is not always pleasant. But you never forget the first time you fell in eros, and in many ways it becomes the template for all subsequent relationships. It is worth not maintaining a romantic relationship with that first romance unless, of course, you are still in that partnership.
With all those disclaimers and explanations behind me, it is worth considering this remarkable understanding of what first love opens in its blossoming.
The first is liberation. There is, of course, no physical location of love, but when it is offered it nonetheless is taken from a place deep inside. You can give someone a gift that you buy, but it comes from a store. You can give someone a toy, a book, or a keepsake, but you received it from someone else. You can give someone a pie, a photo album, or a bunch of flowers, but the ingredients came from somewhere else. The lesson of first love is that you can make a free choice to surrender a part of yourself to another. It is nothing you can take from elsewhere, and it is something that cannot be returned or, I would argue, replaced. The gift may be considered or impulsive, but it is only yours to give.
“I can choose to love” makes you the agent of your own life.
The second is affirmation. No one is obligated to reciprocate a profession of love, of course, if they don’t share it. (That’s not to say some people don’t do so, but I don’t recommend just being polite in these circumstances!) But there is no denying that nothing nurtures a sense of self-worth more than knowing someone holds you in the highest level of esteem and affection. To love is to put the needs and desires of the other person ahead of your own. That someone would offer to set you ahead of themselves? Amazing.
And it’s true, I think, that when you are the recipient of a parent’s love or even God’s love, there is an inclination at certain moments to think, “Yeah, well, they sort of have to love me. But if they had an actual choice…” Not so with that first person to offer you their heart. Mutual or not, it takes your breath away. Suddenly, you are aware of your own worth in someone else’s eyes.
“I can be chosen for love” makes you appreciate your ultimate value.
I know not everyone has the great good fortune to be swept away by first love. Sometimes it comes at the wrong moment, or not at all. But mostly, we learn to love better and more deeply by paying attention to the remarkable moment we discover love’s possibilities. We learn about ourselves and our agency, our identity and our desires, our value and our values.
“First” only comes once. I hope it is (or was) wonderful.
WHY I AM A COWARD
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
I only killed one human being in Vietnam, and that was the first man I ever killed. I was sick with guilt about killing that guy and thinking, “I’m gonna do this for the next 13 months, I’m gonna go crazy.” Then I saw a Marine step on a “bouncing betty” mine. And that’s when I made my deal with the devil, in that I said, “I will never kill another human being as long as I am in Vietnam. However, I will waste as many gooks as I can find. I will waste as many dinks as I can find. I will smoke as many zips as I can find. But I ain’t gonna kill anybody.” Turn a subject into an object. It’s Racism 101. And it turns out to be a very necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars for them to stay sane doing their work.
I spend some time each week tending to people in public service. It’s the least I can do. I am a devoted patriot, and I subscribe to the notion that the blessings and freedoms we enjoy as Americans are secure only as long as they are defended. So I pay my taxes without complaint. I vote in every election, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. I join with others to seek redress of grievances. I defend the rights that are ours as citizens.
But I would not serve in the military, and I recognize that, all my life, that meant sending someone else to do my job.
I have known a lot of people who served honorably – my dad, an uncle, many friends and colleagues, and now, even some of my friends’ kids. But I am a coward, and cowards have no place in a circumstance that makes people dependent on each other to survive.
I am not bragging, by the way. I am just being honest. I have enough courage to speak truth to power, to say aloud uncomfortable facts and to hold to unpopular opinions even when surrounded by those who disagree. I have handled firearms. I have been in fights, though few and far between. But I would be no good in combat.
Part of it, most certainly, is self-preservation. I do not wish to be shot or blown up. I do not think that people in the military disagree with me, but I know that I actively imagine myself in harm’s way whenever I think about service, and it is paralyzing.
But part of it, too, is a conscious decision not to become the person John Musgrave describes in discussing his Vietnam experience in the Ken Burns documentary about that war. More than a fear of injury, I think I was afraid to lose my moral compass.
When I was a kid, my father would not discuss his service in World War II. He acknowledged that he shot and killed enemy soldiers, but only in a brief answer to a direct question. When I was a college student, I asked him if he ever thought he was shooting some other mother’s son during the war. He replied, without irony, “I wasn’t shooting anybody’s son. I was shooting Nazis.”
Turn a subject into an object. It is a necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars.
As I said, I have known a lot of people who served honorably. One was a high-ranking officer in Vietnam. He was one of the kindest people I ever met. Another was a combat-proven officer who eventually served as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He holds every casualty in his heart. It is not necessarily the case that you lose your moral compass in battle. On the contrary – sometimes, it is the only place you can be sure you have it.
And I am not a pacifist. War may be obscene, but there are times it is a necessary obscenity.
Call it my moral shortcoming or my self-indulgent privilege or my character flaw, but I know myself well enough that I could not carry heavy arms and do my duty. My fear – rational or not – was that I would lose myself on the back end of a weapon. And that makes me a coward.
It makes me more grateful for those who serve. And more concerned.
THE CONTAGION OF EVIL
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
When you label something as “evil,” you create an inevitability of violence. Rev. Steven Paulikis
I sat down at a table while attending a conference with a lot of people I did not know. This guy in a clerical collar sat down next to me. We introduced ourselves and, before too long, were talking about evil. Occupational hazard.
I won’t do justice in these few words to the insights of Steven Paulikis, who has done a lot of thinking on the subject, but in one sentence – his – he sums up what he has concluded after much study and introspection. In a world that values Good (note the capital “G”), the enemy is Evil. And in a world that is posited to have begun with the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, baked into our perceptions is the notion that if we could just eliminate evil, all we would have left is good.
I have thought about that conversation a lot since then. The transition from Biblically-based theology to social behavior is as simple as the transition from a capital letter to a lower case letter. It is as simple as the difference between Good versus Evil and good versus evil.
It is important to make a distinction between other obstacles to goodness – injustice, falsehoods, ignorance, wrong behavior, lack of integrity, etc. – and evil. Evil is existential, organic. It cannot be corrected. It must be eradicated. Evil is a pollutant that poisons good. People of good will can correct an injustice, educate themselves out of ignorance, correct bad conduct. But evil is inherent. Like the bloody murder scene cleaned up with bleach on a TV show, the residual is always present and incriminating.
And therefore, evil must be eradicated. In some theologies, evil has an incarnation. It is depicted as a fallen angel, a collector of souls or the ruler of some netherworld. This demonic creature – sometimes called Satan or the devil or Beelzebub (literally, “lord of the flies,” feeding on offal) – cannot be converted, only defeated. And that defeat, in this world outside of the Garden of Eden, is always temporary. The struggle against evil is perpetual and unrelenting.
A human being who is in league with evil is therefore beyond redemption. Such a person must be eradicated.
I know, it sounds like the premise of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” or any of a number of comic books or horror movie franchises. But those things didn’t come from nowhere. They are merely pop culture iterations of what some faith traditions and the cultures that emerge from them keep simmering in the background. Though the few adherents who carry on about the real presence of Mephistopheles in our world are viewed by most everyone else as fanatics or kooks, the powerful aversion to evil in our culture is not far below the surface for everyone.
Please bear with me as I embrace that notion for a moment. I was raised to believe in the dignity of every human being, created as we were in the image of God. That is, the imprint of the divine is on every person. In that sense (and only in that sense, to my way of thinking), each of us is an incarnation of the Holy One.
I like to think I strive to love God with heart, soul and might, as we are instructed to do. And that love demands at the very least respect for the image of God that has become animated in my neighbors near and far.
What, then, do I do with the paradox of a person I label as evil? Not the obnoxious neighbor, not the bigot, not the criminal, but the irredeemably evil person? Inevitably, unless I am indifferent to evil, I want to wipe it out. If it is a book, I would burn it. If it is a flag, I would destroy it. If it is a person…
What an irony – in my zeal to destroy an evil person, I become an opponent to the image of God imprinted on their soul. And what is the nature of opposing God? Of course, it is evil.
You won’t catch me arguing for moral relativism. Some behaviors, some ideas, some people are wrong, period. But they are not irredeemable. Thanks to my conversation with my accidental lunch partner, I have abandoned describing people as evil, and most things that people believe as well. Evil is contagious. You catch it from yourself.