Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ginger or Mary Ann?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, June 5, 2005

It was Memorial Day, and we had a little family cookout at our home. As the day drew to a close, we were all there, just sitting around. Elizabeth and I were in the family room, reading; the kids were in the dining room, playing gin rummy, I believe. I was sort of one-third reading, one-third dozing, and one-third listening in on their conversation (the kind of multi-tasking you develop after years as a parent). Then, as their conversation developed and took a different turn, my interest got piqued:
They had started playing a game within their game, and were asking each other questions. I think it started with the inevitable “Coke or Pepsi?”, as someone made a trip to the refrigerator. Or maybe it was “Diet or Regular?”
Then it became:
Hot dogs or hamburgers?
White meat or dark?
Chocolate or vanilla?
French or blue cheese?
McDonald’s or Burger King?
Fried or scrambled?
Mashed or baked?
And things took off from there…
I left my chair (and my newspaper) and got drawn into their conversation—their questioning—their choosing. Then, for the better part of half an hour, the dichotomies flew fast and furious, one after another, another on the heels of the one before:
Ginger or Mary Ann?
Star Trek or Star Wars?
South Park or The Simpsons?
Mozart or Beethoven?
Rembrandt or Picasso? (Hmmm, I thought, those college tuition bills had produced something, at least…)
Paris or Prague?
Boston or New York?
Red Sox or Yankees? (Guess who won that? A daughter-in-law from New Jersey kept it from being unanimous.)
And, a little deeper:
Jesus or Buddha?
Benedict XVI or John Paul?
John Paul I or John Paul II? (We were, I think, the only house in America, perhaps in the world, where the former won. We are a strange group.)
Clinton or Carter? (St. Jimmy—easy.)
Clinton or Bush? (Unanimous—and loudly.)
Bush I or Bush II? (Unanimous again—but with no great joy.)
Things went downhill from there:
Henry VIII or Charlemagne? (“Who cares?” was the most common response.)
Sharon or Arafat? (A very interesting split decision.)
Nixon or Reagan?
Hitler or Stalin? (Yuk!)
When it finally reached the heights of esoterica (or the depths of silliness) with “Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il?”, we knew that we had “better things” to do than compare the nuances of North Korean dictators; we decided to play “Cranium” instead.
But it was a teachable moment (or, at least, a learnable moment, for me). I began to ponder the significance of all the choices we make in life, and how complicated the particular patterns of each of our own preferences are. Can it be that the mystery of our lives really does come down to “Ginger or Mary Ann?”
Ginger or Mary Ann, for those of you who have not made the connection from the picture on the cover of this morning’s order or service, refers to two of the supporting characters in the cast of the cult television favorite, Gilligan’s Island. You remember: seven people set sale that day for a “three hour tour”, and when “the weather started getting rough and the tiny ship was tossed”, the Minnow goes aground, and they end up stranded on a desert island.
I read somewhere recently that, interestingly, the idea for Gilligan’s Island came, originally, from a sermon, of all places. One of the writers was in church, and the minister preached on “Who would you want to be stranded on a desert island with?” (His answer was Jesus, of course), and that got this writer to thinking about desert islands, and the humorous situations that could arise from different people being stranded on one, and—voila!—the rest is television history, and (for better or worse) Gilligan’s Island was born.
Which brings us to Ginger and Mary Ann: Which one, we are asked, would we prefer to be stranded on a desert island with. For you see, each one becomes an archetype (as all the characters in Gilligan’s Islanddo). Would you incline toward the movie star, Ginger—with her poise and charm and refinement and exotic good looks (and somewhat limited intellectual capacity)? Or toward the homespun, wholesome, down to earth, sharp as nails (and not unattractive) Mary Ann?
Well, frankly, sometimes the answers to these dichotomies is “neither” (just as, sometimes, “None of the above” is the best candidate).
I know who I would want to be stranded on a desert island with, and that dear soul is both Ginger and Mary Ann to me: that in her complex mixture of strengths and weaknesses, passion and friendship, challenge and agreement, she is the person (to me) most familiar and most mysterious, most like me, and most different.
But that is something that has taken something over a quarter of a century for me to know. “Old friends cannot be created out of hand,” St. Exupery reminds us, and, as Theodore Parker once said, “It takes a lifetime to marry two individuals”, and that any truly significant relationship ought to be a lifelong falling into love.
Our snap judgments are notoriously inaccurate (or, at least, I know mine are), and I could name (at least) a half dozen people whom I especially didn’t care for at first, who, in time, became dear friends. I hated Bruce Springsteen’s music the first time I heard it. I don’t any more.
There is such a thing as “love at first sight”, I suppose. But I would tend to put my money on the second, or third sighting instead.
I feel bad for those who might rush off and choose Ginger or Mary Ann, only to discover that they did not choose correctly. The choices we make in life are important, and we should take our time in making them.
As much as I enjoyed our little game on Memorial Day—and as much as I’m always willing to add my two cents to the conversation at hand, and express my opinion on something (even when it hasn’t necessarily been asked for)—I really do have trouble with the kind of categorical thinking which this line of questioning represents. Because, you see, such “either/or” thinking runs the danger of taking our own little prejudices and preferences and elevating them to the rank of dogma.
I mean, when we assert each of our particular choices in these dichotomies before us (or even in any of the dichotomies which life presents to us) as “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”—as the be all and end all of the matter at hand—then we are doing violence to the otherness of those around us, and we are, in fact, doing violence to the truth.
I’m not just talking about those who really think there is a “correct” answer to the question: “Coke or Pepsi?”, or whether the answer to “Red Sox or Yankees?” really has some kind of cosmic significance. It goes deeper for any of us…
Whenever we assert the objective superiority of our nation-state, or our race, or our set of religious beliefs, or our particular lifestyle over those of others, we are truncating the full blossoming of the flower of life. Whenever we place our particular preferences or prejudices at the center of the universe, we are creating a very fragile universe, indeed. Whenever we worship at the altar of our own beliefs or opinions or perspectives, then we worship a very small god, indeed.
We may all yearn for a world of peace and justice (and only someone who is mad or completely misanthropic would not yearn for those things). But we also need the humility to know that our particular road toward those goals may not be the only road. This doesn’t stop us from believing in what we’re doing, or in seeking to implement our ideas in the life of society and the world. But it does remind us that choosing sides isn’t why we’re here; and that being part of this or that party or faction does not define our humanity.
W. H. Auden once said that, in the long course of history, it has been the “pleasure haters who have tended to be unjust”. Likewise, it has been those partisans, of the left and of the right, who have attempted to impose uniformity (of thought, of temperament, of character, of action) who have done the most damage to the true human spirit. It is they who have most undermined our magnificent humanity (a humanity that is most clearly exhibited in its unmistakable and glorious diversity).
Some of this diversity is biological—variations in color and race and appearance and sexual orientation. Other aspects of it arise through choice, and preference. Even though certain cultural forces may weigh heavily, there is no biological inclination toward (say) Catholicism, or toward Buddhism, or Islam. Truly to become, in one’s heart and soul, a believer in a particular religious tradition, one chooses.
But even individual believers in the same faith can differ widely in how they activate and bring to life their faiths. As I look out at the history of various religious traditions, it amazes me how even saints within the same tradition can differ so widely (in temperament, in attitude, in lifestyle) from one another. The light of God is refracted and reflected differently through the prisms of each of our souls—even when those prisms are calibrated in the same general tradition. There are infinite ways for us to respond to the infinite call of the holy.
There is, then, something very precious in the choices we make; in our ability to make choices, we affirm our humanity, and celebrate our humanness. It’s easy to trivialize this ability to choose—as in the “Ginger or Mary Ann?” game. But even in these petty preferences we express, we say something important about our precious humanity.
The gospel our church preaches is that of our radical interdependence. All life is unitary—one—we proclaim; all life is inseparable, indivisible. We say, too, that life’s meaning is universal; it is available to all people, accessible to all; there is a universe full of meaning, and a universal urge to reflect this meaning.
We know of this radical interdependence on a biological and molecular level. All life is interconnected. “You can’t touch a leaf without troubling a star,” one poet has put it.
Each atom proves our common journey,
Born as we were of dust and stars…
We know, too, from molecular biology that every square meter of oxygen contains air molecules from every other square meter. We know from geology that every square mile of soil on the face of the earth contains molecules from every other square mile.
The earth (indeed, the universe) is a huge, interdependent energy event—and so is our human living and be-ing upon this Earth. We are connected in deeper and even more amazing ways that we can even imagine possible.
On a social level, we glimpse our interconnectedness, as well. People who study such things tells us that most of us are linked to millions of people the world over (maybe billions) through only five or six degrees of separation; that is, through tracing our relationships through five or six intermediaries, we can find our relationship to just about everyone in the world.
We really all are one family. And we are all more human than we are anything else.
In that game we played on Memorial Day, one of the more provocative questions that got hurled forward was: “Ten Commandments or Beatitudes?” Almost all of us (myself included) quickly responded” “Beatitudes,” of course.
By my dear Elizabeth, dedicated Catholic and woman of deep and discerning faith that she is, simply refused to answer the question. “You can’t have one without the other,” she said. Of course, she was right.
But in reality, that’s the correct answer to so many of these questions, to so many of the dichotomies we face in life: More and more, in this postmodern world, we are coming to see that it’s not a matter of “either/or”, but of “both/and”. If we come to grips with that truth, it will save us; if we do not, it may well spell our downfall.
If we take the time to look closely at any aspect of life, we can discern this interdependence and this inter-reliance. There are very few of us who are pure Gingers or pure Mary Anns. There was, no doubt, much of Mary Ann in Ginger, deep down inside; and vice versa. Life is seldom as simple as it appears at first glance. Life is often a very complicated thing.
We don’t want life always to be complicated, of course. We want it, sometimes at least, to be simple. We want to like what we like, and not like what we don’t like. That, too, is how we’re wired biologically.
There’s nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong, at all, with having different preferences. It is a good thing that some of us like Coke, and some like Pepsi; that some like dark meat, and some like white. These little choices are part of the great proclamation that:
I am
I am
I may be poor,
But I am
I may be young,
But I am
I may be on welfare,
But I am
I may be small,
But I am
I may have made mistakes,
But I am
My clothes are different,
My face is different,
My hair is different,
But I am
I am black,
Brown ,or white.
I speak a different language
But I must be respected,
Never rejected.
I am
I am
God's child!
The problem lies when we won’t move beyond that “I am” to the ever-broadening circle of “We are”. Our problem lies in our clinging to our little selves, comfortable as they are—and in refusing to sacrifice that little self in order to be joined with all the living in this great energy event which is humankind. In so doing, we cling to our small and arrogant view of reality, and judge others solely on the basis of our own prejudices and pre-conceptions. We devalue the gift of life when we do that.
In recognizing the worth of others and affirming the validity of their perspectives and their choices, we sacrifice a little bit of ourselves. That may not be an easy thing to do. It may well make us uncomfortable and resentful and confused. We may at times mourn the passing of that world of easy answers and simple choices.
But when we sacrifice that little bit of who we are we choose a world which is being born, and not one that is already dying. Then, we will come to learn that life does not have to be struggle against, but a great dance with. We need not conquer one another. We need not destroy that which is not us. When we dance, we give up nothing of who we truly are; nor does the one with whom we dance. Rather, we maintain our beings— our full integrity—our complete wholeness; yet we merge our beings, too, and become something greater and larger than we are. At last, we will find peace, enveloped in the mystery of one another. At last, all of the little answers we give will blend and merge in one great answer—one great “Yes!” to life—one great cosmic and eternal proclamation—which is both a glorious “Allelulia!” as grand as the universe—and our most profound and intim

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