Authors and Finishers

My country is increasingly fractured and divided these days, with this oncoming election widening the rifts deeper every day. The election has, to an extent, become a clash of ideologies. And though there are still more things that unite us than divide us—all the candidates love their country, all the candidates are trying to protect it—the rifts are so deep that compromise is becoming not just a dirty word but an equivalent to “surrender.” Too many have come to the conclusion that even agreeing with their political opponents is tantamount to treason. I will not pretend that all parties are equal in this respect; one political party, after all, has seemed to drift rightward in the wake of the other’s extremism. Now, it’s possible that the election will end some of this; if Governor Romney wins, he might attribute his success to his late-race moderation, and if he loses, the Republican Party may recognize that it is because of their ideological extremism, and adjust accordingly. But there is no guarantee of that. And with the politics of rage reaping a rich harvest of hate for both parties (though to an unequal degree), I do not see politics in this nation becoming more civil any time soon. The electorate is remarkably divided this year, with few swing votes up for grabs. This means that first, most voters were set along party lines long before Election Day, with few people deciding not on party name but on the merits of arguments, and second, the way to win the election is a matter of firing up the party base and bolstering loyalist turnout. Which means more vitriol and more hatred, because the easiest way to motivate people is through fear. It is almost becoming a situation where we no longer have the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but the Anti-Democrat and the Anti-Republican Parties. Or at least that is how they bring out the vote.

This makes me deeply uneasy. Continue reading

What I Mean When I Say Compassion

This one is about definitions. This is how I define respect, how I define compassion, how I define the old Quaker injunction to “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in every one.” And since it’s me writing this, we start with a story.

When I was in high school, there was a student named April who was developmentally disabled, with the conversational ability and habits of a seven-year-old, though she was older than I was. She was always cheerful, always smiling. On two separate occasions, I happened to see two different people interacting with April in similar ways. Both times April was brightly telling the other person about her day, or what she was headed off to do next. The difference, however, is what stands out. Continue reading

An Adolescent System

Capitalism’s basic mechanism is sometimes boiled down to “Find a need and fill it.”*

Growing up, as I often teach my students, basically means, “You don’t always get what you want.”

If capitalism seeks to profit by filling every need (and inventing new ones, or trying to fill them faster), and if maturity means setting aside what you want, for a time, for someone else’s sake, or forever, then doesn’t it follow that capitalism is adolescent?

Some needs are best filled slowly, some needs are best filled only in part, and some needs are best not satisfied at all. But with the market’s efficiency, capitalism will try to fill the first category rapidly, the second category fully, and the third category quietly.

To say “I want everything and I want it now” is classic teenager behavior. But instead of advising us, “You can’t always get what you want,” capitalism says, “Absolutely! And here are more things to want, and ways to get them faster! Just type in your PIN here…” In fact, in doing some research for this piece, I came across many comments that “find a need and fill it” is bad business advice: the real money is in filling wants. Capitalism will even go so far as to suggest, “If you don’t get what you want right now, then you are a failure.” Capitalism does not understand self-sacrifice, and has forgotten anything it knew about delayed gratification.

Growing up means, in part, controlling one’s desires. This was something our wiser teachers tried to get into our heads. But capitalism would much rather our desires controlled us, to profit by us. The most insidious form of capitalism, after all, is to make money off never-ending desires: promise to fulfill a need/want, and not quite deliver, so that there’s more need tomorrow. This is why the drug trade is capitalism perfected: create a want so strong, so controlling, that a person will give you everything, including selling their children, in order to get it. And they’ll come back tomorrow for more.

Of course, since we are all participants in a capitalist system to one degree or another, capitalism is us.

So let’s pause for a moment, shall we?

What do we want… and what do we need?

I have been experimenting with paring back my desires. Some of my most heartfelt wants are for things that we capitalists have always promised each other but never could quite deliver: Time. Love. Peace. I also want justice, but I can’t remember capitalism ever promising that. I’ve wanted glory; I’m learning better, though my desire to leave a mark on the world is no less—I’m just much less excited about getting the credit. But let’s turn to the tangible. I want books; I’ve been selling off my library. I want music; I never buy albums, and have learned ways to borrow. I want games; I don’t buy new ones, and I’m contemplating throwing out or giving away the ones I have. I want TV shows: instead I watch online, or just tell myself no. I want a nice place to live—quiet, well-lit, safe, with a good kitchen. I’ve settled for a place to live, period. I want good, healthy, clean food; I’m still spending a lot of money on that, but I don’t buy meat even though I will eat it, and I’m starting to figure out how I can grow some of my own food.

I mean to control my own wants, needs, and desires as much as I can—because that’s what growing up means. I think most mature people would agree with me, and I hope they start to find similar ways to cut back the wants, scale back the desires, and focus on what needs to happen and what’s most important in life. If enough of us start to do that, we can begin to sort out the adolescents from the adults… and I think age would have nothing to do with it.

 

* The quote is attributed to Ruth Stafford Peale, wife of Norman Vincent Peale, but it was possibly popularized by Kaiser Cement Co., among others.

The Emmaean Christ

One of my favorite Bible stories goes like this: two men went down the road to Emmaus, and ran into a third man, who explained something to them that they didn’t understand. At dinner, their new companion blessed the food, broke the loaf, and was gone — leaving two men at a table with three pieces of bread, knowing that they had spent the day in the presence of Jesus. Their eyes hadn’t seen what their hearts already knew.

I love this tale because it ties together several passages at the heart of my faith. First is, “As you do to the least of these, you do also to me,” and its parallel, “I will not always be with you [to honor me], but the poor will always be with you.” And then there are the greatest commandments: “Love your God with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” The road to Emmaus shows me why these commandments were given: if I do not know who walks beside me, then I have to love my neighbors, because they might be my God. So when I see street folk with their hands out, I try to stop to talk, to give them a dollar or two. I don’t know who I’m feeding, or who I’m talking to… and when I pass them by (as I do) I don’t know who I’m ignoring.

For those who don’t believe in such things, there’s a secular version, too: you have no idea who these starving strangers are. Are they ragged because they’re on drugs, or because they’ve got kids to feed? I try to err on the side of the kids.

There have been times when I’ve just walked past, or when a panhandler’s gotten in my face and I’ve pulled a few bills from my pocket with serious reluctance, times when I had other plans for those dollars. So when I have a dollar I don’t want to part with — be it on the street or at tax time — and someone’s standing there who needs it more than I do, it’s good for me to remember: am I on 3rd Avenue, or on the road to Emmaus?

Altar Call

It was cloudy and drizzling; not the kind of weather you’d be out in by choice. My friend Ron, of course, has no choice. He has to beg for money every day so he and his brother Jim get a room for the night. So, huddled under his umbrella, he stood at the stoplight, waiting for people to take pity. I had a dollar for him, and stopped to talk. He was in low spirits, due to the weather, exhaustion, and little luck that morning, and he predicted with gloom that he’d still be out there when I got off work hours later: the money his brother had gotten wouldn’t even fold, and Ron wasn’t doing much better.

“It’s no way to live,” I said. “If you’re still out here when I leave, we’ll see about getting you what you need.” I had a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet, you see. Then I hurried up to work to get myself out of the rain.

But it bugged me, as I dried off inside. Ron was miserable waiting for a handout, thinking about old friends who now drove past avoiding his eyes. And I had a twenty in my wallet. Continue reading

Safety Net

Our social safety net is still fraying. In some places it is altogether worn through. This is perhaps not surprising, what with the rhetoric that fills our airwaves and legislatures: poor people are lazy, drug-addicted parasites, and safety-net programs like TANF (welfare), SNAP (food stamps), and others are just enabling their lazy, drug-addled leeching. “Leech” is more commonly applied to welfare recipients than to Social Security recipients, but even there we hear talk of “hard decisions,” which always come back to “How do we cut back?” instead of “How do we raise more?”

Democrats being what they are, there’s not much language coming back from the Left in defense of welfare recipients, but I’d like to provide some. A Google search turns up a few people, mostly actors and singers (perhaps because they get asked a lot of questions about their lives), who have stories about growing up in poverty and relying on one or another social safety net. Let’s have a roll call, shall we? There’s Shania Twain, famously, but also Kelly Clarkson, Tobey Maguire, JK Rowling, Jesus, Charlie Chaplin…

Wait, what?

Yes, that Jesus. Obviously the social safety net took a different form in his day, but he made use of the ancient version. In Israel it went like this: the law (specifically Leviticus 19:9-10) commanded that everyone had to leave some of their crop for poor people to eat, both by leaving some of the crop unharvested when the rest was brought in―leaving some grapes on the vine, leaving the ears of wheat at the edges of the field, and leaving anything that spilled on the ground lying there. In fact, those with more land had to leave more behind, which is almost progressive taxation. Moreover the law also said that anyone could eat from anyone else’s fields, though they couldn’t take anything out of the field in question. In this way everyone who had something left a little for those who had nothing, and the reason for this is given in a rather important commandment later in Leviticus 19: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus? Listen to this: “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.” (Matthew 12:1) That’s all twelve disciples taking advantage of the laws protecting the poor. Jesus himself presumably never had to worry about going hungry (lilies of the field, and so on) but he had to feed his flock, after all.

Now it’s true that Jesus likely worked as a carpenter before his ministry began, and his disciples had all sorts of jobs from fisherman to tax collector; it’s also true that where they could get freely-offered hospitality, they took it. That was the better way, and it remains the better way. But for those in-between places, Jesus and company relied on Israel’s form of food stamps.

In fact, if you squint a bit, you can see another connection to today’s situation, because just one verse later the Pharisees chide the grain-plucking because the disciples did it on the sabbath. In short, when they used the social safety net, the disciples were accused of immorality. Some things never change.

So when Jesus said, “As you do for the least of these, you do also for me,” he meant it. He and his group had used the laws protecting the poor; in all likelihood they were poor, having renounced all wealth, property, and careers to follow the call. Israel had protections and help for its poor citizens, and Jesus was among them. Which means, as I’ve often stated, that those who slander the poor are slandering the man from Galilee. “As you do for the least of these” cuts both ways.

Which is, I think, worth remembering.

Microactivism

I have developed some habits of action that I try to follow when I am out in the world — small gestures or practices that I hope make our society a somewhat better place. But after reflecting on them, I’ve realized that some don’t do much good unless shared. So I pass these along to you, in hopes that you may find them useful.

I doubt I invented the term “microactivism,” which I derive from the term “Microaggressions,” referring to the small assaults on human dignity that women, LGBTQ people, ethnic minorities, and (occasionally) straight white men run into on a daily basis in this society.

My “microactivism” may in fact be too small to have any effect, but I still do these things anyway. Better to light a single candle, etc.

Unlike my other posts, I may update this one from time to time as more ideas come to me — and if any of you out in the audience have ideas or practices of your own, put them down in the comments! I’d love to get some talking going.  Continue reading