Friday, September 28, 2012

Our Hearts of Darkness

There are moments in life when the darker side of human nature makes itself known in the everyday and the commonplace. At these times, long held assumptions about human decency can vanish in an instant and leave us with a clear-eyed, but disturbed sense of reality. It is the moment when, with the sharpest vision and presence of mind, there is no doubt that what we have just witnessed is ugly and true at the same time.

While waiting for my delayed flight from Tampa to New York, sitting in the boarding area in my usual heads-down reading posture, I was briefly interrupted as I saw a wheelchair come into my peripheral field of vision. Some rapid-fire, automated memory mechanism wordlessly communicated to me that it was the usual and often-seen senior citizen being helped along to our gate. The mechanism was wrong. As I raised my head I could see that this was a young Marine, sitting ramrod straight in his military-issued wheelchair, legless from the hips and showing the remnants of third degree burns on his deeply scarred arms, the right one badly disfigured. Prominently centered on the back of the chair was the Marine Corps insignia and around it the words “Purple Heart Veteran.”

I had just had a long discussion the night before with a business colleague from California about war and US foreign policy and was in a circumspect mood. I had expressed my deep frustration with the lack of awareness of most citizens of the depth of trouble that war brings. We discussed the chronic under reporting of civilian casualties, the rampant illegality excused in the name of “protecting our freedom,” the monstrously large defense budget, the devastating costs to our veterans and their families, the continuing escalation of international conflict and the recent NYU-Stanford Law School collaborative study on the devastating human toll of the current Drone War in Waziristan, Pakistan.

Overcome with emotion, it took me several minutes to compose myself enough to approach and offer this young man a smile and a “thank you.” It was obvious that he was avoiding eye contact with people, including the flight attendant who was speaking to him with kind, gentle words and gestures of assurance. I thought she was an angel.

As we boarded the plane, the first class section was full and all were seated, many gazing at me, the 6-foot tall man standing before the galley. The young Marine was already seated in the coach section. I looked at the Angel and she looked at me. Our eyes locked. In a strong voice I said, “That kid belongs in first class, someone should give up their seat.”

I turned and looked at my fellow citizens seated in front of me and heard the flight attendant second my motion and also state that the young man was only 23 years old. She said, “I know you’d give up yours.”

“Of course.”

I thought, that’ll do it and stood for a moment longer. Everyone either looked away or looked down. I gazed ahead and at the young Marine and could see that he must have heard me. He looked down as well. With everyone in my view looking down, warrior and civilians, I felt my heart begin to race with waves of injustice rising in my gut. Before I could utter a second louder protestation I thought of the young man. This was about him. It was also about respect. Creating a scene would embarrass him I thought and would be an affront to his dignity.

He had not asked for a better seat and had lived, seen and experienced things that none of us could even imagine. No burden lay with him. It lay only with my fellow citizens and me. I moved on slowly to my seat. I could feel the massive weight of what just happened hanging in the air. Was I the only one feeling it? Could others escape away into their iPhones and newspapers? Did they not at least momentarily reflect? Did no one at all feel compelled enough, even after some moments of uncomfortable soul searching, to simply get up out of his or her seat? Such a simple and utterly modest sacrifice….

As we flew to New York, the flight activities proceeded as typical flights do with safety announcements and basic drink service. The young soldier and his circumstances occupied my mind the entire time. I began to weep. I could think of nothing else. I peered forward looking for the top of his bright blond crew cut. Did someone finally give up their seat? Yes, perhaps I missed it. Someone did the right thing.

As the flight attendants serving the Coach section made their way back to me, I ordered club soda and peanuts. I had been wiping tears away from my eyes and trying not to allow my emotions to overtake me. As my flight attendant, a man of military bearing himself, poured my drink I asked, “did someone finally give their seat to that young man?”

“No, no one.”

“He’s only 23-years old. He was a Minesweeper. Lost part of his arm too.”

I looked up at him and he could see that I had been crying. ‘What the fuck is wrong with people?,” I asked. I hadn’t expected to blurt out vulgarity and for a moment, felt a little embarrassed.

Slowly, he shook his head.

The angel flight attendant who was now serving first class moved back down the aisle toward us. She hurriedly asked the man serving my drink, “Do you have any vodka? I need five. They’re all drinking it and I’m out.” He reached below his cart and pulled out five bottles and she took them away.

I do not know what the conscience of another is. I can only speculate. I see so many bumper stickers reading “Support our Troops,” that I have been led to believe, perhaps naively, that most people really care about them and understand the meaning of their sacrifice.

Faced with a choice, I opt for the notion that at least some of the folks ordering drinks, were doing so to quell an uneasy feeling that had overcome them.

Perhaps they weren’t aware of what was making them uncomfortable and sometime later, it would become apparent. And then, with the full measure of time and distance between themselves and the young Marine they would come to realize that they had made a terrible mistake. That something which seemed trivial was actually profound; that the silent young man with the Purple Heart lives a life that is defined by sacrifice. That when given the wonderful opportunity to make the most meager sacrifice for him, to offer him their gratitude, their love, the simple recognition that they were grateful for his service and their own lives of luxury, they did nothing.

And that in this awareness, they will grieve for this soldier’s physical loss and emotional suffering and the many more like him and those who have died. And perhaps they will grieve as I am for a country that has lost its way in a culture of self-centeredness and willful ignorance of its own heart and soul.

It is in our best interest to hope for the emergence of the non-selfish parts of our character, in others and in ourselves. At times like this, it is difficult to make such a leap of optimism, but I have to believe that what is good in all of us only needs to be touched by awareness to make it operative in our lives, that our hearts of darkness can become hearts of light.

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Why Americans should be hopeful, and what you can do if you’re not.

I am hopeful. But should I be? Am I stupid, not watching what’s going on? How can I maintain such a posture in our present circumstances?

Aside from the obvious blessing of life itself and the dearness of my loved ones, I obtain perspective from two places: history and my local community.

One of the most enjoyable and useful aspects of studying historical scholarship is the experience, unique to humans, of mentally imaging the time, place and personal circumstances of a subject and persons we cannot see or touch. It seems far away, but still familiar because persons are there. But as one of my college history professors, Gerald Leonard once said, “The difficulty with History is that we are studying something that does not exist.” This simple, but profound observation leads us to the awareness that our grasp of what we understand as “history” is a combination of raw recorded data, the backward observation of postulated causes and effects and more importantly, our reaction to it all, both intellectually and emotionally. While emotion seems an errant factor that needs to be controlled for, in reality, it is ever-present and forces us to make value judgments and to appreciate what humans-past have experienced and what life might have really been like in another time. And we cannot escape our own emotions.

How can history make us hopeful, given our present economic and political circumstances? With a little attention, we can clearly chart progress. One simple exercise I use is imagining what it would be like to have been born at the turn of the last century and mustered into one of those WWI regiments serving in the trenches of Verdun or the Battle of the Somme, most likely facing grim extinction or at best, surviving while witnessing hideous death and suffering in every direction. Or what it must have been like to have lived as a young Ashkenazi boy in the Warsaw Ghetto of the 1930’s and what came later, or more remotely, what it might have been like to be a citizen of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War, where devastation wrought by the Romans was utter and complete, thereby ending a civilization.

OK, not enough? We can also take measure of our own nation and its history, to see that despite the dark pallor of our economic system and the sometimes-wicked polarization of our politics, we have made incredible, measurable progress. Since my birth alone we have witnessed the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the ending of Jim Crow, the transformation of music worldwide by Rock and Roll, the complete mapping of the Human Genome and the development of Super Conducting Magnetic Technology, which confirmed the existence of quarks, verifying the theoretical physics models and allowing scientists to peer into the origins of physical nature. This same technology later made its way into use in the Magnetic Resonance Imager. Many of us know loved ones whose lives were saved because of this technology, all right here, in the US of A. Examples abound.

Still not enough?

One of the outstanding but obvious characteristics of the Television and Internet age is that we have access to more information than ever dreamed possible coming at us at overwhelming speed. The prerequisite for corporate profits and market share (or mind-share as some call it) means that the pace will quicken, not slow down. The viewing of this article takes time as does surfing the Net, using Social Media and scouring news and cultural sites to “keep up.” For many of us, that time has become inordinate in comparison to time spent with others, engaged in real, sensory human experience. For most, when working long days or looking for work, supporting self and perhaps family, paying bills, trying to stay informed, we can become a slave to this easy outlet that doesn’t require additional expense, travel or inconvenience. It also doesn’t require direct, human engagement.

A part of my own experience that has taught me how to grin at life optimistically and to live, work and productively engage with others who do not share my political or religious views, my taste in music or art, sports teams, food - you name it – has been doing community-based work on a local level. The postmodern injunction “think globally, act locally” is so pure and true that we can easily dismiss it as a foggy tree-hugger vagary. In reality, in your community right now, there are underfed children and homeless people. Even if you live in the suburbs, homeless people are there in the uncounted legions of “couch surfers” as the outreach organizations often call them. Food pantries often struggle for food supplies, but more often for good, reliable, volunteer help. Art and cultural organizations, local theater, small museums, often rely on volunteer help to make them work. These organizations allow community to live – really live.

One of the most life affirming experiences for me has been volunteering as a board member, but also a volunteer for homeless services and food programs in the poorer parts of my community. This is one area of need, but there are many others in most communities. In doing this work, I have collaborated with Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists, Unitarians, rock-rib, conservative Republicans, Libertarians, Green Party members, Left Radicals, traditional Democrats, Dissenters and others to work toward a common goal in the service of a common good. One of my collaborators and close friends, Frank, is very politically conservative and never votes for the same folks I do. In a political discussion, we would disagree on most topics. However, this is NEVER an issue and I love him dearly and I know the feeling is mutual. He himself has a son with Downs Syndrome to whom he is devoted and is one of the most charitable, compassionate individuals walking the planet. Our relationship is enhanced and deeply humanized by our collaborative, passionate service and our deeper understanding of each others personal lives and struggles.

Another friend, Jim, working in the same trenches, could be categorized as so far radical left as to be “out there” by conventional standards. He is anything, but out there. A father of three, he has allowed himself, despite a superior intellectual capacity and advanced education, to work for low wages as he and his spiritual partner and wife, Cathy, raise a bright and happy family, while continuing to serve the poor and homeless. He is fully engaged and maintains a clear-eyed view of a reality that most of us don’t know exists in the poorest communities of our nation. His work often occurs with people from faith communities, but also with those not so inclined, both “liberal” and “conservative.” The work is carried on and the community served is better as a result.
Many of our problems are intractable, but human compassion and dedication can be a death-defying force when people actively engage in common cause that crosses mythical, establishment boundaries. We see past what is superficial and find that diversity of experience and worldviews are not barriers, but rather opportunities to apprehend each others humanity. Push your self beyond your mythical boundaries and I promise, you will find hope.

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh