Friday, November 28, 2008

Post-Thanksgiving Muse

“Just about everyone who calls himself a conservative…is more grateful for what works in our world than angry about what doesn’t.”

—Yuval Levin,

“Back to Basics, Ahead to Particulars,”

in National Review, 1 December, 2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

When It’s Time to Go Home

Last night, our county’s Hospice program lit up the “Tree of Life” to start its annual fund raising season. Though we always enjoy seeing the lights when we drive by the tree at night, we don’t usually attend the ceremony.

This year was different. One of Claire’s best friends and also her former debate partner were chosen, along with their family, to light up the tree in honor of their mother, Susannah Kelley. Moms can die young, and Susannah, mother of four, did so this summer at age 48.

It seems she was not alone. This summer brought a series of losses to those we know. Barely a year or two ago, one of my husband’s mentors at work was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was one of those men who was an exhorter—someone who supported novices with promise and pointed them toward reachable goals, and then followed through when times required diligence in the hard work of details and persistence. Though beaming encouragement to others until the very last days, he too was one we bid goodbye only a few months ago.

And there are more to come. Another work friend—someone who partnered with Chris through thick and thin of difficult assignments, someone we knew had an inoperable tumor that just seemed to hang fire in his brain—suddenly got the verdict: go home and rest. The tumor had resumed growing. He has anywhere from a month to a year remaining. And that’s it.

How do you handle news like that? It certainly was hard for his coworkers to hear about it. But what about being that person? How do you handle the news when it is about you?

Fortunately, for each of those we lost this year, faith played a strong part in their lives and in their passing. I have no clue how people could handle it otherwise. But even with faith, the passage is not effortless. With cancer, for instance, there is the drawn-out agony of pain and waiting, perhaps a sense of being deserted or of wondering, “Why?” There is also that languishing yet dogged hope of being rescued: that this will be the one time that the Lord chooses to perform that miracle healing.

It seems so hard, being on the healthy side of an encounter with someone in this position. What can be said? Do we speak of healing to be an encouragement? To avoid dragging the poor soul’s spirits down? Or does that cancer-ridden friend ache for the pretenses to be dropped and just allow freedom to say, “This is it,” without fear of being branded as faithless? What does a person who is slowly dying need to say?

I remember being party to the other side of the equation when my first husband was dying of complications from heart surgery. He was young; no one believed he was seriously in risk of dying until the moment was nearly upon him. Not a word was exchanged about that possibility. Once he slipped into a coma, though, I became his proxy, his mouthpiece. People were so kind, so nice…but it was such a comfort to be free to jump the track from scripted orthodoxy to plaintive stream of consciousness. The jibberish of feelings may seem useless, but without saying something, how are the others to know how to break the silence, cross beyond the fear of stigma or taboo, and speak the words of life to the desperate dying?

I have never known the nearness of death (although I have thought I did at times), but somehow I wonder what would be the best ministry to those in whose place I’ve never been, when that place is near death. I’ll never be able to know without asking—and how do you ask someone in that place, when that person may not be able to face up to that reality themselves, right now?

Susannah was one who was in that place, and I never took the time to ask, to learn from her what she saw as the biggest need. I did observe one thing: she seemed to have died with a smile on her face. If that was what God had required of her life, that was what she was willing to do in her service to Him. Many do handle this turning point with philosophical reflections of returning to one’s maker, or of going to a better place—but rarely does one express the willingness to go through the process that brings us to that other place. It takes a servant’s spirit, a yieldedness, to submit to the risks of that ordeal. When Susannah realized it was time for her to “go home,” she took hold of the grace given to see us through whatever turmoil we face, and discipled herself to her spiritual mentors.

When I was a child, summertime twilight calls from my mother, “Time to come home,” were both times of protest and times of realizing good possibilities. Playtime couldn’t possibly last as well after dark—besides, there would be another day—and once home, a comforting bath and story time awaited me. Realizing the fleeting playtime I was leaving behind was insignificant in the face of the cozy comforts yet to come, it wasn’t all that hard to go home when the time came.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Price of Nice

“‘The true aristocracy and the true proletariat of the world are both in understanding with tragedy. To them it is a fundamental principle of God and the key—the minor key—to existence. They differ in this way from the bourgeoisie of all classes, who deny tragedy, who will not tolerate it, and to whom the world of tragedy means itself unpleasantness.’

“Perhaps this is just the key we have lost. Suffering, even in its mildest forms—inconvenience, delay, disappointment, discomfort, or anything that is not in harmony with our whims and preferences—we will not tolerate. We even reject and deny it….

“Have we missed a fundamental principle of God? Is not suffering, loss, even death itself the minor key to existence? Do we not lose our very lives by trying so hard to save them?

“The words which have illuminated for me the deepest understanding of suffering are Jesus’ own, ‘In truth, in very truth I tell you, a grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground and dies; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest.’ This, He told His disciples, was the key. There is a necessary link between suffering and glory.

—Elisabeth Elliot, in A Path Through Suffering, commenting on a quote from Isak Dinesen

Monday, November 24, 2008

Who speaks for We?

“We the People,” begins the United States Constitution, establish the document that organized political concepts powerful enough to fuel the world’s longest-standing republic.

But just who are “We”?

The general consensus of 1776 was radically different than, say, the 1900s—a given, nowadays—but the viewpoint held by the citizen of just two or even one decade ago was strikingly different than what is currently being touted as constitutional. Answering the call of “We” was a totally different electorate in 1800 than 1900 than 2000—and than 2008. And “We the People” see our constitutional burden vastly different in our times than theirs.

However, it is not just the substance of what is considered standard American operating procedure that is of concern. The number of people willing to share in that viewpoint is key. Does any one philosophy of government in this country have, indeed, a mandate?

There is no end of mouthpieces willing to claim the “mandate” signified by this “landslide” election. While the electoral-college system apparently does yield a landslide in that one aspect, I was surprised to see the slim margin of victory, percentage-wise, in the popular vote. Comparing “yes” votes for Mr. Obama versus “no” votes in the aggregate, the 52% garnered by the Democrats presents a spread of four percent. Listening to reports of other such election issues with the same point spread—the California Proposition 8 issue, for example—I hear no such victorious spin.

Whether an election’s results are awarded a “mandate” handling depends mostly on who is speaking for “We.” It is the wattage of the Air Time that creates that illusion of difference.

I suspect that, taking the closer look, “We” may be dismantled and studied for the pluralistic potpourri that it really is. We are not a bi-polar society anymore. Those self-appointed spokespersons for the legendary and oft-patriotic-sounding “We” know that. A body politic that has espoused the mantra of multiplicities (“diversity”) cannot use that splinterhood of existence to its advantage when numbers count. Suddenly, the “We” coalesces when votes are needed.

Beware the sales pitch. The salesman needs your money more than you need the salesman’s product.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Who Pays for Nice?

Driving time seems to be a time for my mind to wander. When my mind does wander, its unleashed proclivity is to latch onto random thoughts and build. I’m not sure that when I drive, I do my best thinking, but at least I do some thinking. Good: The machine is still in running order.

On the road the other day, I stopped at a light, awaiting my chance to make a left turn. It so happened that this was a day shortly after the election (OK, at least two weeks after the election), well after the time when all campaign litter was required to be cleared from the landscape. Looking around, I noticed a car with a prominent round window decal for the victorious presidential candidate. Sore loser, I looked away—and what should catch my eye on the other side of the road but a bumper sticker hawking the same gentleman’s surname?!

“What is going on here?” I griped to myself; am I sentenced to have my nose rubbed into the election results for the next four—or eight—years?

I searched for some different bumper-décor. Thankfully, I found something oblong-shaped in my flight from the round emblem. Not thankfully: just as the light changed, I realized it was another left-turn insigne. Hardly able to commit the pithy jingle to memory, suffice it to say it basically implied that the “billions” spent on the war in Iraq would better be committed to instituting nationalized health care coverage here at home. Aside from the fact that “If This” does not necessarily force “Not That,” that bumper sticker stole my afternoon’s thought process.

Who pays for our food? Who pays for our cars? Who pays for our home loans, for that matter? Or, more to the point, who should be responsible for providing those things? Lately, it seems we have been hit, in this country, with a tsunami of opinion that those things are solely within the purview of government to provide.

But how does government provide, when government is supposed to grow out of “We The People”? We seem to have become a people that sees reason in compelling Peter to pay Paul to pay Peter.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Trouble with “Nice”

There is a word in the English language which often evokes in me a response not generally expected among members of the general population: Nice.

“Have a nice day,” people say, as if warning each other of dire consequences if the advice is not heeded.

Nice girls, our parents always lectured us young daughters, were the preferred role models.

The Nice Life, lauded as if it were the true intention of the philosopher’s “Good Life,” has become the icon of the Western middle class (and all those who would enter therein), courtesy of pervasive television programming and other all-encompassing communications media.

Sometimes Nice has just gotten too nice to be. It has morphed into life in a vacuum, where nothing happens—well, at least nothing that isn’t Nice—where everyone lives happily ever after, with no worries. For those with the last word, that translates into no hospital bills, no pension shortfalls, no lack of money for food, clothing, housing, or any other conceivable human need. Even no need to work to supply those needs. And while we are adding to this Nice dream list, why not insert no illness and no death? After all, it is within the human potential to attain anything for which we dream, isn’t it?

What happens to people when they have too Nice a life? Is it possible that such an ideal could exist?

“That would be Nice,” I keep waiting to hear someone quip.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Out of the only sea without shores…

Young people’s reaction to the recent US presidential election has for some reason caught my attention. Not every under-30 (or even under-20) has had the same reaction, though the dominant media implies otherwise. Some young people, especially those who worked endless hours for select other campaigns, were well beyond disheartened. Their comments bordered on fatalistic. Though they wished it otherwise of course, for some, the end of the world couldn’t come sooner.

Reading such comments as those on loops my daughter frequents online, I’ve wanted to break into the dialog with a Mom Moment and nurse these plebes back to hope.

I want to tell them: The war is not over—why, it’s barely begun. Rather than tuck tail and run, whining about the life they now would never get to have, they need to see they have a life, and this is it! Let it be added that it will not be a boring life.

Boring: isn’t that the number-one complaint of the young life? Challenge and difficulty definitely alleviate boredom, though that is seldom the requested substitute for ennui. The uneventful day has never been one to write home about (well, not until our current culture, the Now Generation Pluperfect, the one “All About Me”). News has always been about battles, conquests, victories—not how nice one’s humdrum existence might be.

Accomplishments have never been achieved lying on the proverbial bed of roses. Struggle means exertion, the chance to fail—but it also means the entrée to fuller, richer life: real life. Crisis takes from what little we do possess and shapes it into something worth having. Crisis molds the tools to succeed.

Crisis calls us to get with it and develop our basic aptitudes—not as in schooling, where the main thing was to resist learning—but with alacrity: hurry up, or else! Without crisis calling them out, latent qualities remain invisible. Rather than respond now with despondence, turbulent skirmishes of our 50-50 culture clash should call out those gifts. So my Mom Moment for the young says: be encouraged, don’t give up, engage in the battle. Do conquests.

Hearing this come out of my own mouth, I’m embarrassed to think of how I see my own gaps right now. Sometimes I feel like I’m adrift in my own personal Sargasso Sea, all awash with binding, slimy seaweed. I see no defining shores. I feel no call to action. I feel like Life Wasting Away. I can’t believe advice out of my own mouth for others could be just the prescription for my own life!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sea Change

Emptying from one Gap into another. Still no defining points of reference. Only a cipher.

And yet we worked so hard…

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