Why I Go To Church

No one has ever asked me why I go to church, though I suspect some people have wondered why. It may have something to do with people not wanting to be rude by posing such a loaded question, but I suspect the real reason may be sheer terror of a response that might be the length of a sermonette, interrupted only by a quick escape excuse of having cookies, or kids in the oven at home.

I suppose that there are parts of religion that are childlike in the best sense of the willing suspension of disbelief, discussed by writers like Edgar Allan Poe.  Despite my having to use a cane to walk confidently, however, if a stranger at Publix were to ask me in the canned goods aisle if I were “saved,” I could probably manage the hundred-yard dash faster than Roadrunner. Meep meep!

What is there about openly expressed religious devotion that can embarrass folks in venues other than a chapel or sanctuary? Large gatherings of people praying in public after a fire or other disaster don’t seem to agitate passers-by, but someone in the Walgreens parking lot proselytizing with pamphlet handouts makes us uncomfortable, perhaps because we can feel inadequate to deal with something that for many or most of us is excruciatingly personal, requiring a venue, where we know our feelings or convictions are shared.

There is no such anxiety, however, when on Sunday morning (or any other time), I enter church. As soon as I pass through the doors into the narthex, I am offered a bulletin and welcomed into a place where kindness, acceptance, and fellowship are offered unequivocally, always with a message of love, hope, and healing for all who enter. All of this is shared without the requirement of a ticket, my SAT scores, proof of my worthiness, academic knowledge of scripture, or a spotless record of my past behavior. Who among us could enter otherwise? It is a place of healing that begins within ourselves as we are reminded that there is what may be called the eternal within every visitor, something wondrous that connects us all to what is inestimably beautiful and unimpaired by the world outside, where there are still greed, envy, and cruelty that can at times blind us to an inner light that is always ours for the asking, a light that is shared sympathetically for all of us who are at times world-weary.

My answer to that question of why I go to church can never be answered too easily or accepted by all who hear it, but if I distill the response to its bare essentials, it is that the hope and strength I find there give me (messages through sermons and music) something I can take home with me, like a lit candle, and share through my behavior and outlook all the remaining days of the week, even when darkness comes, until the candle is relit the next Sunday.  JB

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The Cost of Social and Political Division

What is there about that adrenalin rush that comes for some from the self-satisfied, arrogant, and self-righteous emotion that is looking down one’s nose at people who are “different” from us? Perhaps in an increasingly diverse society and wider melting pot, arrogance grows faster and more easily when we think that there is some level of encroachment on our personal or ethnic turf. It’s not necessarily even to know the names and diverse stories of those whom we revile. Skin color, language background seem to be enough to validate the narrow and insensitive judgments about what we believe belongs only to us.

Never mind that less than half of us are third-generation or older, or that American Indians are the only true natives. It’s so much more convenient and efficient to clump together and cast aspersions upon groups of people whom we don’t know and call them invading foreigners not eligible to work for or participate in the American Dream. Stereotypes are so much easier to deal with than personal stories of struggle and hope. It’s simpler too to ignore the tremendous incentives those folks can have to work hard and earn for their families that sense of safety and belonging that can come for citizens in a land of opportunity for all.

Diversity is terrifying to one whose insecurity and terror are based in some way upon the myth of supremacy and the dread of possible competition for rights and benefits locked in an imaginary safe reserved only for those who are already here. There are many whose shared dream is to follow that path to citizenship and security for themselves and their families.

The fear that exists now for too many Americans is fanned by those who want and need political points for their own power and leverage, whose voters continue to shun the words of Emma Lazarus, words printed at the base of The Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your, tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Diversity is probably terrifying to one whose insecurity and angst are based in some way upon some myth of supremacy and the dread of possible competition for rights and benefits locked in an imaginary safe, reserved only for those who are already here. There are many whose shared dream is to follow that path to citizenship and security for themselves and their families.

The terror that exists now for too many Americans is fanned by those who want and need political points from their voters, who are too often stirred to action by words invoking fear and division. The result is that we are at war with ourselves and as divided as we were during the American Civil War more than a hundred and fifty years ago. That combination of greed, ignorance, and fear could be our undoing if we can’t widen our collective view of humanity.

I read an editorial this morning in the Sun Sentinel (Florida) suggesting that any long-term solution “will have to be comprehensive, including pathways to citizenship for the undocumented workers who are critical to the economy, more judges to consider asylum and other appeals, more agents to police the border and a properly managed guest worker program.”

If many readers see me as a bleeding heart liberal who believes in pie in the sky, then I admit to having lost touch with the America in which I thought I grew up, the line, “with liberty and justice for all” now ringing a bit hollow for me and so many others, especially those struggling for their very lives in a world gone mad in its quest to maintain a false sense of safety on a foundation of division and hypocrisy.   JB

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Songs about Being Dumped

I love music and listen to many genres, jazz and classical being my favorites. The jumble of styles and selections that Alexa has stored and sorted from my CDs also includes country, along with Blue Grass. Among the vocals in the former category is a surprising number of vocals about being jilted. Lady Antebellum sings one called, “It Ain’t Pretty,” and Pistol Annies do “Hell on Wheels.” Waylon Jennings, Marty Robbins, and others wail about being cheated on by their girlfriends, but the quintessential song, to me anyway, about an unfair transfer of affection is Dolly Parton’s pleading song, Jolene.

I do like Dolly Parton for her being one of the most talented, creative, energetic and generous folks in the entire entertainment industry. However, the lyric for the song, Jolene, seems to demean the narrator as being very insecure, lowering herself to begging for the continued affection of a man who probably doesn’t deserve her in the first place. I mean, how unsure can this simpering woman be to solicit mercy in order to keep the very doubtful affection of a guy who doesn’t sound even close to meriting hers? Wake up, lady! If your man can be whisked away by Jolene, there may be yet another woman, who in a few more months (weeks, days, hours, or minutes?) will steal him from Jolene too. In fact, you should probably send Jolene flowers to thank her for revealing what a weak-willed bastard your man really is. You would otherwise (assuming Jolene is actually willing to give him up) be on edge every time the guy left the house to buy cigarettes or go to work.

No, just do yourself a favor, and let Jolene have his sorry ass, so SHE can worry about his lack of faithfulness every time he leaves the house for a gallon of milk. The problem, honey, isn’t Jolene. It’s the jerk you trusted would be faithful. Subscribe to HBO or the movie channel, buy a bottle of wine, and forget Jolene and Mr. Wanderlust.  JB

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A New Line Drawn in the Sand

Yet another disturbing sign of our increasingly polarized culture in America is the recent schism in the Methodist Church over same sex marriage and acceptance of the LGBT community.

I generally accept and even applaud people who stand up for what they believe. My acceptance and respect falter, though, if they believe (however passionately) that the moon is made of cream cheese, that there is no such thing as global warming, that people should be stoned to death for working on the Sabbath, or that eating shellfish is an abomination (see Leviticus in the Old Testament). Those folks love the Bible most when they can use it as a weapon to interpret their own fears and prejudices, seeing in it what they want or need to see. Think also of the Pharisees in the New Testament and how they twisted the message of Jesus to suit their own selfish purposes.

For centuries, people who called themselves Christians have cherry-picked their ways through the Bible to assuage their personal “feelings” (aka “convictions” for many). Too often, however, “faith” becomes a kind of cover for views that all but erase compassion and even common sense. Walls and other barriers seem now to be quite in fashion for those who feel that their power and control are somehow being shared a bit too generously with “others,” (those nameless but vast hordes of invaders).

No one has been able to provide a rational explanation as to why sharing the rite of marriage with the LGBT community alters in any way the sacred quality of that tradition. Why is its expansion so terrifying? I suppose anything that appears radically new (Love is not new, folks.) can seem strange and threatening. During the previous century, there were many in fundamentalist churches, who believed pianos, organs, radio, and finally television were sinful and ought to be banned. But those fears didn’t bar human beings from loving whom they wished. That terror came later when love between gays (which had always existed, mostly in secret) approached the idea of legitimizing it through marriage. That is when tradition in all its smug, self-righteous, and pontificating power reared its ugly head. It had, perhaps, always existed among worshippers in the Methodist and other churches, but battle lines have now been drawn. Accommodating change (even through compassion) is simply not possible for those who cling to a past that is just too cozy and safe to relinquish.

Exclusion of loving, honest, devoted Christians because of sexual orientation is the last thing I would have expected in the 21st Century, even though Methodism’s roots certainly go back to the early 18th Century with John Wesley. The appalling truth is that many think the world is already changing too fast, and that they have a sacred duty to boycott and eliminate the possibility of having to share God with those who are different, not in terms of evil but in terms of whom they love.

It seems to be almost a replay of the nonsense from past centuries regarding Blacks, excluding and belittling them, even with church doctrine, as though straight people were being forced to wed gay and lesbian folks, which would, of course, be untenable. Hypocrisy is still hypocrisy, no matter how one tries to gild it. Equivocation can be the ugliest form of evil. Eventually, people will look back in horror and disgust at the unnecessary snubbing and abominable treatment of the LGBT community across the nation, treatment now being condoned by some religious leaders and congregations. It’s almost unfathomable.

I do understand the unsettling and ridiculous stereotypes that come from some trucker dykes, and men dressed in ballet tutus on glittering parade floats down avenues and other thoroughfares of cities across the nation. They make sensational news stories that rivet readers’ attention in cheap tabloid, Jerry Springer ways that make exclusion and persecution seem so much easier and deserved by the public at large. Gay doctors, teachers, humanitarians make such judgments and bad treatment so much uglier and more unmerited, even though the extreme folks on those floats make more interesting copy and foster more effective targets for exclusion and with much greater ease.

Future generations will, I believe, look back at our current prejudices and cruelty about religion’s rejection of gay marriage the way we now look back at the inhuman and savage treatment of so many innocent, civilized and productive lives of past centuries. It’s almost as though a big time machine has sent us back to a comfortable (for some) ignorance that was for so long accepted as correct and justified. For some people, social change has come too swiftly for them to accept it or keep up. This terrifies them. That leap of imagination required to see and understand that love between a man and a woman in marriage is still sacred and cannot be relinquished or altered by the addition of gay marriage, is still beyond many, because they remain in a terrible quagmire of fear, ignorance and hatred of what they cannot or refuse to understand.

The world is indeed changing too fast for them, but this should not mean that so many need be deprived of having the sacredness of their own marriage commitments eschewed by reactionaries whose compassionless stands will be viewed in the future the way most of us now look back upon human beings sold as property or people being burned at the stake, because they believed in the “wrong” God. We now have such a grand opportunity to get it right and to bring people together as a human family, instead of further fragmenting them. Understanding requires work and knowledge, which are at hand, if we wish to put forth the effort to bring about change in uniting instead of separating our brothers and sisters, all of the same species.  JB

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The Poison of Current Politics

I’ve never been particularly political, though in high school I did campaign for Louise Bryk with posters that beamed, “Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise… for president of the senior class.” She lost the election.

I have found people to be generally more emotional than rational regarding sports and politics. There is something purely tribal about exclusive devotion to one team for baseball, basketball, football, soccer, or ice hockey or to someone as a candidate for President of the United States. I have friends whose loyalty to a particular team is so rabid that it becomes almost comic, at least to me, who doesn’t know one player from another as they compete for points in activities that are so remote and impersonal that it is like watching predatory behavior in some documentary about life at the bottom of the sea. I realize too that this makes me very abnormal, but I don’t know any of their names, and they don’t know or care about mine either. The phenomenon remains a mystery to me, but as I am entering the 73rd year of my life, it seems highly unlikely that any revelation is imminent.

I do experience increased levels of adrenalin from time to time over politics, mainly because there seems to be almost nothing rational about the political arena these days. Personal attacks and skewed information exchanged between candidates and political parties often have nothing to do with social issues that govern my own life. Listening to insults about a hairstyle or who stayed in the restroom too long serve only to distance me still further from the backbiting tactics of those vying for public office. I’ve discovered that as someone born and perpetually residing in the middle of our nation’s social fabric and despite my having voted in national and municipal elections since 1968, my individual life has not been much changed by any election in memory.

It has been said that it is our civic duty as citizens to vote in order to maintain a satisfactory status quo or to modify it. If an idiot is elected (and I can think of several state governors in this category), he or she will be ousted when a conscientious public bands together with enough common sense and outrage. Otherwise (and I know this is a jaded question), how much difference does it make nowadays who is elected to any office? The answer is that the more we become collectively complacent, the more ground will be gained, inch by inch, by the already enormously wealthy puppeteers, who pull many strings in government and in society at large and for whom greed for its own sake seems to be a sport in itself. Bernie Sanders, a man for whom issues are paramount, has helped me to realize this truth, despite the fact that I consider Sanders a bit too extreme to merit my vote even sometimes against the wrangling by other candidates who have turned politics into a puerile shooting range of insults unworthy even of seventh graders. Those insults and personal attacks are meant to distract voters with the absurd, partly subliminal machismo with which Americans have been enamored in both sports and politics for generations.

We need to think carefully about the differences (if any) between our favorite teams winning football games and our political favorites winning  elections. Neither win is really personal for me, but the latter may have consequences well beyond a scoreboard, trophies on someone else’s mantel, or the rhetoric and other verbal shenanigans that are such annoying adjuncts of elections, especially on the national level.

Many voters have become enraged by the duplicity and sloth of Congress to the extent that those voters want nothing more than to distance themselves from anything even suggesting traditional politics and are more in favor of apolitical figures, who gain notice and popularity by thumbing their noses at the Washington establishment and anything related to our all too familiar political landscape of the past fifty years. My concern on that subject is that whoever becomes our next president will need to have a strong grasp of national politics and government with all the complexities of the Washington scene, for better or worse. That grasp can be accomplished mostly by experience and razor-sharp intelligence, but the logic of electing someone who eschews political experience and knows little or nothing about the extremely complex machinations of government is flawed at best. The same “logic” might suggest that someone who has had a bad experience with a plumber, electrician, or carpenter should hire someone disconnected from such backgrounds and skills. Frankly, if my kitchen sink is leaking into the basement, I want someone who has specific experience to make repairs. In Washington I want a President who knows the ins and outs, along with the trickery and lies of politics in all its subtle chicanery, to lead my country, someone who will bring together a country that has fragmented into too many personal agendas.

Several kinds of specific expertise and experience are necessary for this most difficult and thankless job on the planet. Avoiding those attributes in favor of a sentimental but honest greenhorn is the same level of thinking that would vote in someone who simply has an honest face and isn’t cagey enough to pull anything over on the nation. In that case why not elect Homer Simpson as President of the United States? His being a cartoon doesn’t seem to make him less qualified or more unreal than several of the current candidates.

I don’t want a puppet. I want a president. There must be a middle ground, where we find some level of cold, hard sanity instead of the flood of political snippets, half-information, innuendos, and ridiculous posturing that have become the shaky bulwark of this carnival of a presidential campaign. I suspect that my Republican and Democrat friends would all interpret in their favor what I’ve written here. That’s fine, as long as each follows his or her conscience and bases votes upon truth, not innuendo, tunnel vision, and playground insults.     JB

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Matters of Faith

One of the most challenging subjects for me to discuss is the concept of faith. Where does one begin to tackle a topic that is perhaps the ultimate matter of disagreement (mostly from religious labels) and debate meandering its way back as far as the discovery (invention?) of deities themselves?

Faith and confidence can sometimes be used to mean the same thing. If I’m walking down the street, I have confidence (faith) that the sidewalk will not open up to swallow me into the bowels of the earth. My steps continue without fear or doubt, based partly upon the fact that I’ve done the same thing over the same sidewalk so many times before, without incident. If it were a gang-infested neighborhood, filled with frequent gunfire, my confidence (if I had any at all) would have to be more conscious and deliberate.

I wouldn’t even attempt to make a list of possible reasons why some people find it so easy to believe in a deity, while others seem barred by their own skepticism and need of irrefutable and material or scientific proof. I suppose I’ve always been something of a doubting Thomas regarding my own Christianity, envying that disciple’s chance to observe a risen Christ by placing his hand in the wound of Jesus’s side and using the senses to observe a reality denied the rest of us, who struggle (if we’re being honest) with such a science-defying “reality.”

Religion is based upon faith and hope. Though love is an intangible reality, I do believe in it. We live in a time when physical manifestation is perhaps the largest part of our collective reality. Of course, denial seems to keep some people at a safe distance from some kinds of reality. For example, even the hard truth of science isn’t enough for some folks to accept the factual phenomenon of global warming. The other “reality” is that some who deny the truth of global warming do so dishonestly, based upon the desire for immediate and material profit, which they deem more urgent than concern for a planet that could eventually incinerate itself. Blithe disregard is so much more comfortable and profitable (for the few).

In the end, I think that people generally believe what they want or need to believe. That awareness has slammed its way into my consciousness, especially because of American politics, which has become, not a yin/yang working together for the common good, but rather a self-generating struggle against compromise, each side seeing only evil in the other.

Our faith in one another and in the foundation of our democratic republic seems to have weakened more than at any other time I can recall during my seventy-three years in this world.

Finally, I think that our beliefs are based upon our individual experiences. The most powerful of those beliefs are coupled with hopes shared by others around us in collective ways through groups that are religious, social, and political. We sometimes huddle together in the face of uncertainty, because we need faith in someone or something besides ourselves, something to reach for and share. Faith need not necessarily be religious (aligned with a deity or other supernatural force).

Though I attend church every Sunday, hoping for ways to help create a better and more just world for everyone, I continue to struggle with my belief (hope) for things like everlasting life, because I simply don’t know. Does anyone else, really? The here and now are real to me, for better or worse, but maybe I don’t have to “know” anything beyond that. Perhaps creating a better world for us all can be based upon faith in our collective ability to find a way, even with doubts along that shared path. Our models for better behavior can be supernatural and eternal, but the work is still up to us, if we can accept that, together, we are capable of making the planet a better place for all God’s creatures.     JB

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Too Vast to Comprehend or Imagine

Many readers will use the word, “effrontery’ to describe my approach to the subject of “God,” a topic that hardly anyone can escape, considering at one time or another, one way or another, we all encounter the subject.

I suspect that most people, during at least one period of their lives, believe that some intelligent, creative force is in charge of everything. When we’re children, parents, grandparents, and school teachers provide parameters for our behavior in a world filled with surprises and limits. Authority and expertise are then transferred, at least in part, to employers, political figures, and perhaps gurus of one kind or another (like a movie star endorsing a certain shampoo). We want and need to believe that in the vast cosmos, there is a purpose and design with cause and effect laws that provide a sense of purpose upon which we can depend. In those terms, science itself serves a purpose in providing us with concrete facts that are more or less universal. All of us at one time or another have experienced that feeling of “Why me?” Randomness can disorient and frighten us. It helps us to depend upon a sense of purpose through cause and effect, because though we are creatures of strong emotion, we are also essentially rational.

As far as I can tell, concepts of God are based upon creation of all things, everything from tadpoles to stars. Our brains can deal with such generalities but have little power to imagine anything with no beginning and no end. We have an alpha and omega, but God does not.

As far back as we can go in the history of our species, there has been worship of ethereal beings, some male, some female, some androgynous. Such veneration was also a way to explain the origins of things. “From where does this come? Who are we and why are we here?” are fundamental questions in both science and religion.

Shared belief in something helps hold a culture together. Something immaterial can also be personalized by each individual but reinforced by various images in stone, wood, painting, and stained glass. As a church goer myself, I know that though we, as a congregation, worship together, each of us has his or her own concept of the vast and varied views of deity, each of us making his or her own “designer” version. I doubt that any two could be exactly alike. This is inevitable, considering the ethereal nature of God.

The world contains an endless number of interpretations on the nature of God, everything from a loving and merciful healer to a cruel, cosmic disciplinarian. Even the Christian God changed drastically from the Old Testament to the New. Human culture (or lack of it) determines the concept and doctrine of any religion, mystery certainly being an important component, liberated in part by the absence or need of proof in any scientific sense. But that’s really what faith is.

There is something innate in all of us that responds in some way to the wonders around us. The birth of a healthy child, a blazing sunset over an ocean or snow-covered mountain. Even the healing of a small cut on a finger, can stop us dead in our tracks with awe and some level of gratitude. Science can do this for me too, but reducing beauty to mathematical formulas and physics can also remove mystery the way analyzing the geometric arcs in Mona Lisa’s smile can diminish (or increase, for some) the mystique of the painting.

In the most general terms, belief in God is something that can be shared, though it is something also deeply personal. It can relieve countless needs. It can also divide people and nations, creating as it has for many centuries, self-righteous and unfair judgments based upon fear and intolerance. Even vast genocide has been the result of such misplaced and extreme ardor, based upon religious fervor gone mad, even though, in the end, there is absolutely no “proof” one way or the other that God even exists. I suppose that’s why we call our belief “faith.” No parson, priest, preacher or even pope knows more about the hereafter (if there is one) than anyone else. No one has really been there and come back to share facts and photos.

The rest of us are content to understand the consequences of things through science. Either way, our paths should be able to cross peacefully, moving together toward safety, healing and contentment for all people.

JB

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Fanning the Flames

On my next birthday I will turn 73, though I prefer to think of that age as 65 plus shipping and handling. Harry Truman was president until I was six years old, and a dozen others have held that office since. I began voting in the 1968 election and have observed, with almost clinical interest, the triumphs and shenanigans of our leaders since then, including Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. For the first time since that debacle, I feel as though our nation is resting uneasily on a vast but thin sheet of ice above a wide and bottomless abyss.

There seems to be no such thing now as compromise or any middle ground that might suggest a balanced view of what we as a nation need. I mean it’s nothing new that the scales are tipped in favor of the rich and powerful, but vast numbers of voters seem to have been beguiled into believing that this is perfectly all right. The division is so devastatingly complete, that the words Democrat and Republican don’t even come close to meaning what they once represented. Rather, the words have become insults for one group to another, far worse than any other vocabulary we can summon.

I would love to blame this terrible separation and divisiveness on the Russians, the extreme stubbornness of both political parties, the death of Mr. Rogers, toxins in our drinking water, climate change, or the hard-edged humor of our current family sit-coms, but I’m convinced that our political climate is based, more than ever before, on a mentality that fears losing ground as in a soccer game or some other sport, only with actual death, and obliteration being the consequence of not “winning.” Our political landscape has become rather like a huge sports arena, with rabid fans screaming from both sides, as though everyone on one side will perish if the other side wins in any way at all.

Insults abound, not as simple badinage, but rather as weapons in a life-death struggle for power on the world stage, one result being that politics has become snide and back-biting, with each insult and innuendo wearing down a little further that protective shield we used to honor in the shared quest to do what was right for the entire nation, not just one group or party.

I don’t blame the President alone for this erosion of trust, dignity and decency. It began, really, in the 1980’s with ravenous fear-mongers like Newt Gingrich, who didn’t know the meaning of the word compromise. It was a true introduction to political tribalism. The hole in the dyke since then has become too large to be plugged by an index finger from either party, the middle finger usually having replaced the other three (physically as well as figuratively) as the prime symbol of “winning.”

At the risk of switching metaphors yet again, I have to say that remembering the theatrics of the Tea Party, I hardly think that the label of “mob mentality” describes only the Democrats, any more than the mob actions last year of the White Supremacists should describe Republicans. Name-calling solves nothing and serves only as a distraction from facts and genuine needs. Both parties are expert at trimming facts to suit their individual desires, regardless of what the nation needs.

I remember the Hale-Bopp Comet incident of 1997, when thirty-nine otherwise “sane” people were convinced to commit suicide at the time when the comet would be closest to earth, so it could be the “vehicle” (Heaven’s Gate) to paradise. Each of those gullible people also paid $10,000 abduction insurance. It was perhaps a kind of group hypnosis, but what I recall most clearly is a group photo of the believers listening raptly to their leader, Marshall Applewhite. Their smiles suggested to me that the group was in some kind of shared euphoria, where such facial expressions suggested anything but what was actually going on. That recollection haunts me even now when I see television coverage of some political rallies across the country, and all those faces in the background smiling thoughtlessly as though from some comfortable coma.  JB

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Remembering Bedford Falls and George Bailey

      

During every Christmas holiday I can remember, Frank Capra’s film, It’s a Wonderful Life has been a part of the season for me. The movie is filled with the wonderfully gooey sentiments that many of us eschew during the rest of the year, but the fundamental values it espouses – family, friends, loyalty, generosity, fair play, honesty, inclusion and charity are ideals that for the first time, at least in my memory, seem to be dividing rather than uniting us as a nation.

I’m going to assume here that anyone reading my little essay has seen the 1946 film at least once and will recall George’s enlightenment about the value of his own life, even with all its annoyances and setbacks. That epiphany helps him to stand back enough to see and appreciate his own existence for the transcendent gift it really is, right down to the petty aggravations with which life is also dappled (for all of us).

For reasons that remain a mystery to me, America has, over the past couple of years, changed so dramatically that I feel like a dazed tourist, a stranger in a strange land. Perhaps the angst I observe has always been there, bubbling under the placid surface of our fictional world from TV of the 1950’s, but it has, in any case, come into the open to divide almost as intensely as it did during the American Civil War, which ended supposedly in 1865.

It’s a Wonderful Life shows us two different worlds, one inside the other. Mr. Potter (the “richest” man in town) is almost Dickensian in his “Bah, humbug” view of the world through his utter contempt for a humanity he has cheated mercilessly to achieve his extraordinary wealth. His sneering view of other people is based upon his conviction that anyone who is not financially “rich” must be a “sucker” and stupid into the bargain. George Bailey, however, is Potter’s antithesis in every way.

Recently when I quoted words from the Emma Lazarus poem on The Statue of Liberty, an acquaintance of mine immediately bristled with a contempt for anyone coming into our country “to steal what is ours.” It was a blanket statement on his part, not one that distinguished between legal or illegal entry. I reminded him that few among us were Native American Indians, and that we were immigrants too. That made him even more hostile, as though America were something locked in some kind of vault, and that immigrants were simply breaking into it for selfish gain.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

If you, dear reader, have seen It’s a Wonderful Life, you may recall that hypothetical future of Bedford Falls, that had George Bailey never been born, would become Pottersville, a grubby, vulgar place of shabby crime and suspicion. Now, as I look back at that scenario, I’m struck again by the image of the two, opposing Americas the film represents, the latter a place that somehow we seem to be embracing as our new identity. Political wrangling (from both parties) has embraced a new level of being snide, mean-spirited, and greedy that neither the fiction of Charles Dickens nor Frank Capra could probably imagine.

America has always been “great.” That word “again” on the red ball cap adds nothing but discord and the malevolent, divisive fiction that somehow we had lost our way. The result is that now we are living in two essentially separate nations, one a kind of Bedford Falls…and the other an ever-growing Pottersville.

The next national election may determine which will become our prevailing identity for the next few years, whether we will barricade “the golden door” or lift a lamp beside it, whether we rescue public education (including science) or allow it to crumble into profit-mongering charter schools, whether we ramp up care for the elderly and afflicted or encourage tent cities for the poor while the gluttonous One-Percent drains the last drop of the nation’s blood through misinformation paid for by the unlimited and now private (secret) money through Citizens United.

But despite such scenarios, I still believe we have a chance to survive in an America that belongs to us all and that something from that old spirit of togetherness and national pride can yet unite us so that not even Russia can hinder our continued progress and spirit.   JB

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Being a Teenager

Though now in my seventies, I remember what it was like to be a teenager. Also, I taught high school students for thirty-five years and was able to observe all over again, on a daily basis, that glorious and degrading period of being in one’s teens. They still have my sympathy and admiration for their living in a world that is changing even faster than it did when I was an adolescent.

  

Teenagers, as they stumble through the vast maze of learning the social graces, can be, in turn, both infuriating and hyper-sensitive.  They don’t always learn good behavior at home, so we have to remember that they remain sometimes for long periods in a state of trying to imitate what they think is currently “cool” and that a confident and comfortable individuality, coupled with a true social conscience can take many years.  What we like to call “grown up” behavior can often go on hiatus during parts of adolescence. A teenager’s world is often a fragile place with erratic extremes of inappropriate boldness from a fearless belief that there are no consequences worth noting, to feelings of terror at doing the wrong thing, taking the wrong step. 

Our egos as teens are as delicate as they will ever be, assaulted on all fronts to grow up, be responsible, do homework, keep up grades, respect elders, choose better role models, wear the right clothes, fit in with peers, be more independent, and to address romantic yearnings without going too far.  Boys are taught to take chances and then criticized if they fail.  Girls are encouraged to play it safe by not taking risks.  As teens we always like to believe that we know more about ourselves and the world than we actually know. Our confidence can shrink and immobilize us at parties or in classes where we are terrified of blundering and being overwhelmed by our greatest fear of all, not fitting in with our classmates.  Or, we can delete common sense at times to soar in a dizzying but very temporary, wild abandon before being hurt or humiliated in our early encounters with cars, alcohol, or the opposite sex.

As teens we often feel the world’s critical and suspicious eye and the likelihood that we will not be respected or even tolerated for what we think.  Not being taken seriously is the worst curse of being a teen.  Adults often see us merely as hormones with shoes.  Maybe that’s why finding a personal talent for doing something well means so much to us at that time of life.  Sports, music (even our personal choices of music), clothes, are all elements of a teenager’s quest for personal identity, that terrible need to fit in while holding tightly to whatever turns out to be what makes us unique individuals, even if it turns out to be tattoos, spiked blue hair, nose rings, or other piercings or body modifications that at age forty will look absurd and regrettable.  It is that ephemeral little world that teens inhabit, rejoice and suffer in, and spend all their adolescent energies trying to escape.    JB

 

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