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
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Silence can’t be misquoted. Bishop Larry Campbell
In Hebrew, a “koontz” is a trick, sometimes what in English would be called a prank, sometimes a hack, and sometimes what a smart aleck says to get away with something. I really considered using a koontz for this column, putting Bishop Campbell’s words at the top and leaving the rest of the page blank. But I can think of other ways to provoke eye-rolls and cheap laughs.
Plus, I don’t think his observation is always right.
The context of his remark is worth telling. He and I served together on the Commission on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of the Commonwealth of Virginia (how’s that for a title?) established after the demonstrations in Charlottesville that attracted violent extremists, mostly from among domestic supremacists. The work of the commission lasted over a year, across two administrations, and yielded very little in the way of measurable results. If you have never worked with a large bureaucracy, you may find that more discouraging than it should be. If you have, you know that changing the course of a cargo ship from a rowboat looks impossible in the moment, but even a slight adjustment can affect the vessel’s direction significantly before it reaches port.
As part of our work, the members of the commission spent time in groups of a dozen or so to talk about our own experiences that challenged a sense of being fully enfranchised in community and society. As you might imagine, a collection of citizens that was racially, religiously, ethnically, geographically, and self-identifyingly diverse produced some very powerful personal stories. There were tears and shivers and a whole bunch of hugs as the stories of discrimination, disadvantage and denigration were shared, mostly in quiet tones and the expected combination of sorrow and shame. I found it very hard to wrap my mind around how the people in the room – indigenous, gay, black, rural and others – could find the equilibrium to contribute to our efforts enthusiastically and optimistically after the formative experiences they shared.
Only one person wasn’t talking. When I asked him why he wasn’t saying anything, he replied with a deadpan look on his face, “Silence can’t be misquoted.”
It was the perfect thing to say in that room so thick with emotion you could almost hear the hearts breaking. The room exploded in laughter (which brought people from other groups rushing in to see what happened).
The bishop wasn’t trying to pull a koontz. He correctly perceived the hazard of basing important justice work on a collection of grievances. The notion that by addressing the particular individual or group concerns to correct a particular circumstance – tribal land claims, local teacher shortages, lack of broadband access – our Commonwealth could declare victory and move on was simply false. It was important for us to know each other as stakeholders, but not to presume a course of action based on sympathies alone. Our concerns needed to be systemic, not piecemeal. Our commission was formed because of a battle over a statue. Our work involved more than figuring out what happened that August day in Charlottesville.
At the same time, there are times when silence speaks volumes, and volumes can be easily misquoted, or at least read selectively. The Talmud insists that silence implies agreement, and there are times when that agreement is morally wrong and times when that agreement is factually wrong. But that’s the subject of another discussion.
When the work of the commission ended, we send out a note of thanks to each of the members acknowledging that the dreams we had when we first met felt unrealized despite our best intentions. But we also listed the initiatives that emerged out of our collective work, the individual initiatives we inspired and the forward motion to which we contributed. We were in that rowboat, alongside a ship filled with Virginia’s long history and entrenched culture, pushing hard against the bow in an open sea.
Take a look at the heading of the Commonwealth and how, in these years, it has shifted in new and more just directions. The course correction is far from complete, but it is underway. If you ask me if the Commission on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion had much to do with that, I will have no comment.
Silence can’t be misquoted.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
To many a modern Jew, the Tanakh is at once a holy book and an embarrassing one. Benjamin Sommer
He’s talking about me.
Tanakh is an acronym for the Jewish Bible formed from the first letter of each of its three divisions – Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (the prophetic literature) and K(h)’tuvim (the various scrolls and historical writings). Some folks call it the Old Testament, a name I used to take great offense at until I got old myself. When I refer to it in English, I mostly just call it the Bible. People who want a more expansive definition of what constitutes that collection are welcome to raise the issue.
What I love about the Bible is how messy it is. You can’t get past the second chapter of the first book (Genesis, for those of you uninitiated) without finding a contradiction. The scientific illogic of the story of creation – in which plants spring up from the newly-formed world before the creation of the sun – is apparent to anyone who has put a healthy Ficus tree in a moving van for the half hour it takes to get to your new place. And the unanswered questions about where Cain and Abel got their wives and who the giants were that coupled with human women are mind-bending. And those are only a few of the narrative problems. Wait until we get to Leviticus!
As the (purported) record of God’s interaction with human beings in general and Jews in particular, the Bible’s claim to authenticity is powerful for believers like me. When I am asked by skeptics how I explain verses that are inconsistent with what I believe the divine will to be, my go-to answer is that the Bible is true, just not always accurate. That generally gives me some time to escape while the listener is parsing my reply.
But that answer does not work well when considering certain non-negotiable aspects of the eternal instructions for being a Jew in right relationship with God. For example, if I accept the notion of sin (I do), then how do I return to right relationship? The Torah prescribes animal sacrifice and does so in such specific terms that even my modern and squeamish sensibilities cannot substitute “something of material worth” for the unblemished goat, let alone contrition, prayer and a generous act without knowing it is a hack.
I find myself embarrassed by both belief and doubt, by both practice and neglect. My consolation and comfort are that the Bible itself seems to be self-aware, metaphorically speaking, of the inconsistencies and challenges that emerge not just in the Torah, which covers a relatively contained period of history, but in the Nevi’im and K’tuvim, which cover a much broader span of history and geography. Of course, we are thousands of years and billions of experiences beyond even that sweep of reportage. If there is embarrassment about the contradictions, inconsistencies, anachronisms, and outrageous presumptions in this sacred collection, it is holy embarrassment. It is a commitment to struggle with the Tanakh and with what is in it in the name of being in a living relationship.
It may be that there is no time that is more embarrassing than the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. As remarkable a day as it is with its message of the power of atonement and forgiveness and its penetrating ritual and liturgy, there is only one small part of the day that resembles the Biblical origin of the ritual. Buried in the doldrums of the afternoon, a long telling of the atonement sacrifices and ceremonies in the Temple – which has not stood for almost 2000 years – is often truncated or eliminated by us embarrassed contemporary Jews.
I have grappled with and groaned through it fifty or sixty times but finally arrived at a place that justified my holy embarrassment, thanks to the circumstances of this terrible pandemic that opened opportunities I might otherwise never have experienced. Ishai Ribo, an orthodox Jewish Israeli folk-rock singer, delved into the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur and created his own interpretation. It became the basis of that liturgical dead spot at B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York City in a way that moved me to deep (and penitential) tears in my Virginia home.
(It begins at the 5-hour, 42-minute mark here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lx7dBX00lR0. Be patient with the introductory comments – you will not be sorry.)
The potential for such moments of explosive meaning keeps me returning to all the difficult parts of my Holy Scripture. Not despite my embarrassment. Rather, because of it.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
I don’t kid myself that anything I do is ever done. Mazie Keiko Hirono
One of the most underappreciated punctuation marks in the English language is the ellipsis. It is three periods in a row, and it indicates that something has been omitted. When used in a quotation, the missing part is often some of the words. But when reporting a suggestion, an emotion, or a potentially controversial idea, it is an invitation to the reader to finish the thought out of their own experience.
I am a serial abuser of the ellipsis.
It is my belief that any idea worth considering is an invitation to the reader to add their own perspective. And while I probably give the impression (okay, maybe sometimes intentionally) that I have the whole picture, the fact is that the observation of Sen. Hirono of Hawaii is the wisest attitude to have. Though she has accomplished plenty in her life of public service (read her book, Heart of Fire, An Immigrant Daughter’s Story), she learned early that whatever goal she achieved was never permanent. It is true of federal legislation, which is of no surprise to anyone. But it is likewise true of a garden or even the deepest of friendships.
I remember hearing her say those words and connecting them in my head to one of the earliest teachings I learned from the Talmud, the compendium of Jewish law and lore. “Yours is not to complete the work, but neither are your free to refrain from it.” It is amusing to me that I went there because Sen. Hirono identifies as a Buddhist, not a theistic Jew like me. And the rest of that Talmudic teaching is a thinly-veiled admonition about God’s insistence that we all overcome our laziness and do God’s will while there is time. There’s a catchy tune to the whole thing.
But the essence of the teaching, wherever you find it, is captured in those three dots. Imagine them at the end of any claim of achievement or accomplishment: I have fallen in love… We bought a house… The voting rights bill has reached the floor… The war is over…
So whether it is with an autonomous authority (God) or it is with an internal compass (mindfulness), what does the ellipsis demand of you? When those three dots appear at the end or even in the in the middle of a sentence, what are you supposed to do?
I think the first thing to do is wonder why they are there. What was the author’s intention in leaving something out? Compare these two thoughts:
Though she spoke to him tenderly to him, his heart did not respond.
Though she spoke tenderly to him, his heart did not respond...
Call it provocation or laziness, when there is something known to be missing, the reader must (quite literally) fill in the blank. The thought cannot be complete without the participation of the reader’s curiosity and conjecture.
The ellipsis is a convention of punctuation and a literary device. When it is used to create intrigue in a written text, yours may not be to complete the work, but neither do you find yourself free to refrain from trying. Used in print or on the screen, it allows the author to purposely engage the reader.
But real time has a place for the ellipsis as well, not as punctuation, but as mandate. Nothing we do is ever done, no matter how definitively we declare so. Sen. Hirono’s observation illustrates the truth that life is an ellipsis. Either something is missing in the middle, or something is left to be done at the “end.” You shouldn’t kid yourself otherwise. There may be no author to engage you, but the ellipsis is there nonetheless.
I am a little worried that I have beaten this metaphor to death, but…
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
He couldn’t construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well. Cormac McCarthy
The book from which this quotation is taken is called The Road. It is absolutely exquisite while, at the same time, absolutely brutal. Read it at your own peril.
In the course of the story I will not recount here, a father realizes the price of remembering his life during happier times for his son who, like all children, has an interest in earlier days. Imagine the simple delights of your own youth – ice cream, a first kiss, a trip to Disney World – being described to a child who will never know them. Remembering those happy times aloud also means delivering the despair that will accompany the telling and the hearing.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite TV shows was “Insight.” If you never heard of it, don’t be embarrassed. A production of Paulist Fathers, it was a sometimes heavy-handed series of what I can only call morality plays. Every actor you remember from the 1950s-1970s was in one or more of these half-hour dramas about “the spiritual crises of our times.” In particular, I recall an episode that starred William Windom and Jane Wyatt. He was an executive of an energy company who had been unwilling to listen to the dire predictions of the impact of production on the environment. Wealthy beyond reason, he and his wife lived in a climate-controlled apartment outfitted with a machine that would play the sounds of birds and other animals now extinct. From all those years ago (more than 50, in fact), I remember the denouement: his little granddaughter removed her gas mask outdoors and was killed by the polluted air.
Across half a century, McCarthy gives voice to the casualties of nostalgia dramatized in a slightly hokey TV show. We all grieve for pleasures past, pleasures that cannot be recaptured. If the good times have not been succeeded by others, recalling those memories means recalling the grief.
A colleague of mine who comes from the Mediterranean Jewish community once told me that he never understood the European Jewish custom of naming a child for a deceased relative. “Every time I go to a naming ceremony, people are crying in remembrance. They seem to overlook the joy of the baby!” I have to admit it made some sense. No matter the intent you have in naming a child, it won’t take long before the name becomes their own. But the world we try to construct for the child out of our loss carries with it a reminder of what is no longer.
Faith communities deal with this phenomenon all the time. The foundation of Christianity is hope emerging from loss. The Christian worshiper is confronted with the reminder of both in the symbol of the cross. It doesn’t matter if the cross is empty, as among the Protestants, or if it has the representation of Jesus, as is Catholic tradition. And on the most sacred of days – Easter – the story of loss is necessarily recounted as part of the message of hope.
My own Jewish community is no different. Every day traditional Jews recall the destruction of the Temple as we hope for its restoration. Every year we devote a full day to mourning that loss, chanting the Book of Lamentations (another book to read at your peril), to be followed less than a week later by a celebration of love. And, of course, we cannot remember the glories of our vital and productive communities in Europe (and elsewhere) without reconstructing their decimation. It is present in their music, their humor, their art, even when we reinvent it.
This sad truth has dawned on America in many ways over the last generation, but especially over the last five or so years. We can’t celebrate progress without emphasizing those who have been left behind. We can’t bring our soldiers home without recalling every life fallen for the cause. We can’t acknowledge the miracle of an almost instant vaccine without reporting the numbers for whom it came too late. I would suggest, all as it should be.
But there have been those who have stirred up anger over inevitable loss as they tried to construct the world they (think they) knew for the next generation’s pleasure. The disappeared ice cream, kiss, or trip to Orlando was a snapshot, not a context. That’s the perniciousness of the word “again” when it is used in a slogan.
No one persists in a moment of time because no moment of time persists. I guess in the end, pain is what makes sweet memory sacred rather than cause for continuing despair. Hard as it is, the loss is both necessary and inevitable.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
My grandfather was my Google before there was an internet. Luis Gutierrez
First, some context. This Luis Gutierrez is not the congressman from Illinois.
Joe Schifrin thought he would be a bachelor his entire life. He was especially devoted to his elderly mother despite the fact that his childhood had not been a halcyon time. Later in life, he met Nancy, and before they married, she embraced the Judaism that was so important to him. Nancy’s daughter had a complicated life, so when her two oldest children were still little, Joe and Nancy took them in and raised them as their own. So there was Joe – just a few years earlier quietly resigned to life as a single man now raising grandchildren he hardly knew.
I know it was not always easy for Joe. Though he was possessed of a gentle demeanor, he never had a good role model for dealing with frustration. I was the family rabbi, and Joe and I had many discussions about childrearing. He was reluctant to believe he was doing as good a job as I assured him.
Luis is one of those children. His gentle and beautiful sister Jacqueline died tragically young as his grandmother Nancy declined into dementia. In the end, Luis was all the family Joe had. When Joe died, Luis had become the remarkable and successful young man Joe had raised him to be. And in paying tribute to him, he said these words: My grandfather was my Google before there was an internet.
If you have children or grandchildren, you know there is a period in their lives, beginning when they first learn to talk and continuing until you die, when they have a proclivity to ask questions. (Our family favorite came during errand-running from the back seat: Mom, how do they make car seats?) Until and unless you put a computer screen in front of them, the major source of information they have is you. You can tell them to look it up or ask their other parent or figure it out for themselves. You can answer them with the letters introduced to our family by another one of my kids: LMGTFY (let me Google that for you). But they will ask you anyway.
And that is something to celebrate.
As Luis discovered, when a person knows a lot, there is a lot to learn from them. And when that person is willing to share that knowledge, conversations take place that deepen not merely learning, but relationships. All the challenges that persuade a parent (or someone acting in loco parentis) that they are failing at the job melt away from a child’s memory if you just take their questions seriously.
Joe was a pretty smart guy, but you don’t have to be. Nobody knows everything, even if someone small thinks you are Grandpa Google. “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. In those circumstances, adding “that’s a great question” makes it better and “let’s look it up together” makes it best.
The old aphorism that necessity is the mother of invention is only partially true. Curiosity, though perhaps fatal to the cat, is really what impels a person to learn and then to apply that learning. A parent who can help a child cultivate curiosity offers a skill set that can last a productive lifetime. A curious child who becomes a curious adult asks questions that are answered not because of practical necessity, rather because of a longing for broadening and deepening understanding of the world around us.
I am part of that generation that had to develop research skills if I wanted to know something, and so I have a basis of comparison with the speed and comprehensiveness of the internet. I am glad for Google, but I yet contend that when you do research online, you never learn things accidentally. You get what you ask for…and nothing else.
But in a conversation between younger and older people, you get the best of both worlds. And, honestly, if it turns out Grandpa Google is wrong every now and then, it is a small price to pay for the appreciation that builds between two people, one flattered to be asked and the other thrilled to be answered.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
It’s the damnedest thing: the dead abandon you; then, with the passage of time, you abandon the dead. Jennifer Senior
In the last episode of the Israeli television series “Shtisel,” the father quotes Isaac Bashevis Singer, a secular Yiddish writer. It is a bit of a stretch for even a fictional ultra-orthodox rabbi to be quoting Bashevis Singer, and all the more so to be quoting the real author of the quote, Romain Rolland. Rolland was a French Nobel laureate and Stalinist. Here is what Shtisel quoted: Everyone, deep down within, carries a small cemetery of those he has loved.
Those words were going to introduce this column originally, until I encountered the formulation of Jennifer Senior. She is more correct, at least in my experience.
Among the occupational hazards of being a rabbi in a congregation is a long and intimate relationship with the dead. A friend of mine recently lost his mother, who was 104. A long time ago, another friend lost a child at nine days. And, twenty or forty times a year, I became acquainted closely with someone whose age was in between.
I have been personally bereaved of friends and family of all ages. A first-grade classmate was killed in a riding accident. A high school classmate was a suicide. My two best friends from high school died young and unexpectedly. One of my dearest friends of four decades was felled by a rogue disease. Great-grandparents, parents and in-laws, friends of an older generation and my own – I have eulogized them all. It is no surprise that as I struggled to put into words what I learned from their lives and deaths, I resolved to cling to the important place each one held in my own life.
I have been introduced to so many more people who anchored the lives of their surviving family and friends. Sitting around a table, people have shared with me remarkable stories of otherwise ordinary people. A sweet older man for whom English was a late-life third or fourth language turned out to be a most respected and generous member of the community from which he was forced to flee. A father and grandfather was so skilled a percussionist that he could play “Happy Birthday” on a kettle drum. A Hadassah lady who survived three husbands had turned down Flo Ziegfeld personally when he tried to recruit her for her piano skills. A fastidious and elegant woman had survived a childhood eating bugs and rats and sleeping on the forest floor while searching for her mother and avoiding the Nazis.
It is rare for me to hear survivors describe a loved one – even one they didn’t like so much – without regretting not having had the chance to get to know them a little bit better. As Senior says, they abandoned me, even when it was me least of all who was abandoned.
In fact, it is this lament I hear most often from the freshly bereaved. Even among those who feel relieved that a loved one’s suffering has ended or that they did not need to face an enervating struggle to cling to life-in-name-only, those who grieve most often feel left behind. There was another question to be answered, another piece of advice to seek, another interpersonal issue to resolve. Small or large, there is a dose of anger at being abandoned, and a resolve to cling to the vitality of memory in both protest and tribute.
But is it true that we abandon the dead in return? That small cemetery of the heart is almost always left to neglect. I don’t mean that we forget the dead; my mother died six months ago and my father more than thirty years before that and neither of them is ever far from my thoughts. But the intensity of remembering diminishes and all the vows and obligations, pledges and promises that seemed so compelling in the freshness of grief are, with the passage of time, more or less abandoned. The gaping hole in life we noticed begins to close and, eventually, scabs over, and then remains a tiny scar.
It is as true of the most profound of our losses as it is of the people I came to know intimately only in preparation for their funerals.
You may think I am being cynical or critical. I am not. At the other end of life – birth – there is a similar sense of trauma for mothers, the pain of childbirth, that is likewise forgotten, or we would be a human race of only children. There is too much joy in life to be held captive to inevitable pain.
But this piece of wisdom reinforces for me the rituals of remembering that exist in so many traditions – not the large memorials for the many, the famous and the wealthy, rather the candles and flowers and headstones that exist for the sole purpose of reminding us not to abandon the dead entirely.
In my own tradition, that includes the annual recitation of memorial prayers on the anniversary of a death and the dedication of a space in most every synagogue for a small plaque that recalls a loved one’s name. But most especially, on the most solemn day of the year, Yom Kippur, when Jews rehearse their own deaths, a time is set aside for all of us collectively to remember our dead individually. For a moment, we return to that exact point when neither of us has abandoned the other in a visit to the small cemetery of the heart.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
You’ve got a mouth. Use it. Carol Davidson
Carol Davidson was my mother-in-law. She was born and raised in the badlands of New York City and managed to maintain her accent, her elbows, and her pithy observations despite being exiled to Virginia as a young bride. She was a mere slip of a thing, as much a function of a childhood illness that damaged her heart as anything else. Her face was graced by two distinctive features – a wide smile and a set of very expressive eyebrows, both of which she could deploy effortlessly.
In her life, she never used the expression “y’all” nor lost the additional “r” at the end of certain words. She was adept at finding her way to the head of a line or the front of a crowd, when necessary, with a special affinity for navigating Loehmann’s (which closed at the same time as she died, too perfect to be accidental). And she had no patience for whining. If someone had an issue that was generating empty complaints, she had this response: You’ve got a mouth. Use it.
She gave that command to her friends, her children and even her grandchildren. (She never had to give it to me.) And she took her own advice.
At first blush (and because I set it up this way), you might think this is just some sort of New York edginess. But this piece of wisdom is not some line of dialogue that sounds like it came from “My Cousin Vinny.” It is, instead, an understanding that words level the playing field. Spoken or written, eloquently flowing or passionately firing, speaking up is the great equalizer. Words are power, and power should not be squandered or misused.
Carol would not have called herself a Jewish scholar, but her lesson is thoroughly Jewish, even foundational to the Bible. After all, according to the Book of Genesis, our entire world exists because God has a mouth and used it. Let there be this, let there be that, let there be these other things and, oh yeah, the humans in God’s image. The very first action God takes is speaking, and out of that speech everything happened.
It doesn’t matter whether you understand that narrative literally or figuratively, it puts using your mouth at the very center of life. Speak up and create a world. Stay silent and live in darkness and chaos. Whine and complain about the way things are and they things will remain the way they are. Take your issue to the source of the problem and repair the world around you.
I’ve been told that I was born talking and haven’t stopped since. My college roommate once described my course of study in communications as a major in talking. For me, words come pretty freely. I expend a few hundred of them like this almost every week. Not everyone has that proclivity.
And, to be sure, there are people who, though they have a mouth, are not always able to use it. For some, there is a physical impediment. For some, there are legal impediments. For some, instead of a bully pulpit, they only have a bully. But this bit of wisdom is no less important figuratively than it is literally – just like the Bible.
Each of us, in our own way, has the capacity to make our circumstances better. We also have the inclination to accept the status quo as a grievance. It’s a choice at every step along the way. Sometimes your voice is spoken and sometimes written and sometimes sung. Sometimes it is a vote and sometimes a contribution and sometimes an invitation. Sometimes it is just showing up.
Any way you look at it, if you don’t like what’s going on, there isn’t much to be gained by wallowing in misery and muttering about your lot in life. Arch your eyebrows, smile your widest smile and then – you’ve got a mouth. Use it.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Thirty years ago – thirty – on the other side of that corn we filmed a movie that stood the test of time. Kevin Costner
I will admit that the quotation that begins this week’s column makes no sense out of context. At the end of my words you will find the link to a video of a little more than seven minutes that includes those words, but you will already know them and, I would put money on it, you will be crying.
The movie in question, “Field of Dreams,” is a work of fiction. It imagines a down-on-his-luck farmer, played by Kevin Costner, who converts a section of his cornfield in Iowa to a baseball field after hearing a voice tell him, “If you build it, he will come.” If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil the plot. If you have seen the movie, you know the rest.
More than once, from among the cornstalks growing high beyond the outfield, a team of ghost ballplayers emerges to return to a game they were forced to leave behind. The first time it happens, like so many others in the film, is as moving as it is incredible. Baseball fan or not, the subtexts of the story about the enduring power of love, faith, history, and (most important) redemption create impressions on the heart that thirty years later – thirty – can be summoned with a phrase, an image, or a summer day.
Every spring, just as the baseball season starts up again, Jews gather around a table to retell a story of love, faith, history and (most important) redemption. From out of the imagined world of darkness and death, the ghosts of our enslaved ancestors emerge liberated into a wilderness without a horizon. Sitting in our comfort, recounting stories we mostly know by heart and elaborating in ways we hope are brand-new, we seem to be responding to the disembodied voice saying, “If you tell it, they will come.”
And not just Jews. Every time communion is served, if you take it, he will come. Every hajj that is undertaken, if you complete it, he will come. Every rocket’s red glare we launch on the Fourth of July, every turkey we carve in November, every vote we cast. Each one resonates with the power of love, faith, history and (most important) redemption. You can fill in the blank as to who “he” or “she” is.
Thirty years is not really the test of time, at least not the way 250 or 2000 or 3000 years is, but the phenomenon that W.P.Kinsella, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, and John Lindley, the cinematographer who created the image of the ballplayers among the corn, illustrated does not need to be old to stand the test of time. We all need it. We all need to feel that connection to a time in the past when everything seemed possible, especially if in our immediate situation the most important things seem unlikely.
I am a Chicago Cubs fan and a partisan of the National League, so you might think that a ballgame between the White Sox (my brother’s team) and the Yankees (no comment) would hold no interest for me. But on a clear summer afternoon, in a ballfield on the other side of the corn from where the movie was filmed, Kevin Costner walked across a pristine outfield to a microphone just beyond the pitcher’s mound and, flanked by the current iteration of those two teams, began with the words at the top of this column. I wouldn’t call him a spokesperson for love, faith, history, or redemption, and I am guessing he was not responsible for writing all his words. I will admit to sobbing in recognition regardless of the uniforms being worn by a decidedly diverse group of players so different from the original teams they represented.
Do I know why I was crying? An old friend of mine once told me that people only cry out of a sense of loss, and maybe that’s true. But I was gobsmacked by a sense of discovery, or maybe re-discovery of something I refuse to lose. Whether it is religious ritual, civic observance or, yep, baseball, I need to be reminded every now and then that the dreams of the past find expression in the fields of our hearts and lead us to love, faith, history, and (most important) redemption.
Which leaves only one question. But, as you know, a whole lot of right answers. And one response.
Yes it is.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
My values are deeper than the culture of the moment. Tony Beam
In today’s political climate, Tony Beam’s words may be a dangerous and divisive statement. Indeed, there are plenty of people on the right and the left who may take them as fightin’ words. I consider them wise.
The culture of the moment has a lot to teach us all, whether we are being challenged or doing the challenging. Any adult alive today remembers a time when homosexuality was treated as aberrant and cause for derision. And thanks to streaming services, we can see just how ensconced that attitude was in the 1990s – spend a little time with “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and compare the fearless way race and class were critiqued with the constant stream of demeaning jokes about being gay. You may be persuaded that sexuality is a continuum or that “male and female God created them,” but the respect due to all people, however they identify, has permeated everyone to the left of Westboro Baptist Church.
At the same time, some immediate cultural norms have allowed for very bad behavior directed at people who are out of favor with some thought leaders. Just about everyone agrees with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream to judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, but there are plenty of judgments being passed on people based on their age, income, privilege, or ethnic/religious identity unapologetically. The notion that the culture of the moment has the authority to exclude an individual from society by consensus of the aggrieved does not pave the way to a better world for us all.
Tony Beam and I do not share an identical set of values. In fact, we may have fewer values in common than most, all things being equal. But he understands that the evolution of values must be thoughtful and deliberate, resting on deep-set foundations, not swift and impulsive as a response to what is momentarily in favor – even if motivated by a desire for a more just society.
Impatience is a hallmark of contemporary social change. As I have noted before, patience is something too often urged on the oppressed by the oppressor. Yet I also contend that decisions made out of pain are as impermanent as those made out of pleasure – both are fleeting and almost always result in overreaching. The better solution, though not the immediately popular one, is reached by a process that seeks to understand causes, not merely address manifestations.
Most faith traditions rest on values that are deep and long-standing. People who hold to those traditions – Beam to his, Moline to his – find that a sense of grounding is essential to embracing change. After evaluating it.
And there, of course, is the rub. Whatever metaphor you choose – roots, bedrock, foundation, age – carries with it a presumption that persistence equals worth. If it has borne fruit, remained unmovable, kept the roof over our heads, lasted this long then there is a logic to offering the presumption of merit
The counter argument comes from those without food, permanence, shelter, or a place in history. And they are, of course, correct.
Is it possible to redress those material and cultural grievances without demanding that deep-set values be abandoned? I think – mostly – the answer is yes. The process is neither so dismissive as those who hold uncompromisingly to the status quo would desire, nor so facile as those for whom change is the only important thing would contend. It is hard work to prevent today’s people of advantage from merely swapping places with those lacking advantage, thus beginning the cycle all over again.
The mandate of the culture of the moment – any moment – is to persistently pose questions to the deep-seated values that brought us to our current resting point and thus cause, forgive the pun, unrest. The purpose of deeper values is to challenge the culture of the moment to provide more than slogans as answers to those questions.
It is, I admit, exhausting. But in the end, the only way to reach higher is to go deep.
Wisdom Wherever You Find it
We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were killers besides. And so what should we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties, whatever they may be worth, our symphonies however seldom they may be played, our peaceful acres however often they may be converted to battlefields, our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk, but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses. Robert Ardrey
These are pretty dreary times, when you think about it. It is hard for producers of news programs to decide which fatal circumstances to put at the top of the hour – a runaway virus, a sociopath with a gun, a collapsing building, fires on one coast and floods on the other with tornados in between, heads of state, journalists, political activists and just hungry people who lose their lives to angry people who just don’t want to hear it. By the time you get to the happy story about the kid or the dog at the end, it is easy to wonder if it’s even worth it.
For the individual who begins with a sour view of humanity as the point of origin, none of this is a surprise. Imagining that the human species was created fully-formed as inherently and inerrantly good only to be sullied individually and perpetually by the momentary bad judgment of a single common ancestor makes beheadings and assassinations and murdered children something to be expected. We need an intervention – maybe daily, even hourly – to prevent us from slipping further downward into a pit filled with vice and vermin.
Ugh. Who wants to believe that?
I know what the adherents of that world-view say: you can believe it or not believe it, but it doesn’t change whether it is true. We have an authoritative document that describes our pitiful state, the stains on our souls, the marks on our foreheads, the sin crouching at our door. Paradise is lost, and it cannot be regained in this woeful world.
Without abandoning a realistic view of the challenging behavior of the human race, we can choose to aspire. I don’t care if we were dropped from the heavens or evolved from the “lesser” creatures. It is when we do not succumb to our worse instincts that we rise above our proclivity to misery. That’s a choice we can make and being able to choose against those instincts is what makes us different from murders and massacres and missiles.
I know and admire lots of people who devote almost all of their time to resisting the wrongs in the world. My wife sums them up in three words: they’re just mad. A beautiful Sunday afternoon is made for carrying an angry sign about a political cause. A night at the theater must be only to see a brilliant work by a marginalized playwright. Your brand of ice cream is a political statement. And do not laugh at the foibles of others, especially if the humor is at the expense of people unlike yourself. I am not a righteous enough person to live a life so principled. And I don’t know if I am a hedonist or just lazy, but I spend plenty of time hoping that when the history of this blue marble is discovered by the residents of some other planet, I will have been witness to and celebrant of what they find to admire.
Some very rich men who likely could have eradicated some scourge or disease if they had so chosen decided instead to spend ten minutes in weightless rhapsody beyond the pull of gravity. In fact, they did privately what governments have done with public funds since everyone alive today can remember. They used their privilege to reach for the stars, carrying their symphonies and their poems and their dreams.
Against good evidence, I am a person of faith. I don’t mean faith in God – I have that, too. I mean faith that there will come a time that we will be known among the stars, as Ardrey said, not by how far we have sunk but how magnificently we have risen. So I am doing my part by limiting the time I spend fretting and fussing and fixing so that I make sure there is time enough to love.
(PS – Yes, I know where the phrase comes from!)