Wednesday, January 28, 2015

On Second Thought...

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 14, 2008

            It was a feeling I can remember having only a few times before—in situations usually related to baseball, interestingly enough. It was sort of the way I felt when Bucky Dent of the Yankees (who would hit a grand total of 40 home runs in 12 years in the majors) connected with that hanging breaking ball from Mike Torrez and put it just over the left field wall at Fenway in the 1978 division playoff game, which the Red Sox went on to lose. It’s how I felt when Aaron Boone hit that walk off home run for the Yankees to beat the Red Sox in the last game of the 2003 American League Championship Series. Of course, it’s how I felt when that puny little grounder from Mookie Wilson made its way through Bill Buckner’s legs and just onto the right field grass at Shea Stadium that night in October of ’86.

            A few days before, Noah and I had been exchanging high fives in the living room in front of the television as the new Republican Vice-presidential candidate was announced. “Sarah Who?” we joined the world in asking. “John McCain really is senile!” we shrieked. “What was he thinking?” we gloated. “He’s lost it!” we declared. This was not as awful a choice as Joe Lieberman would have been—but close enough. That’s it! The election’s over! Our team’s gonna win!”

            We were not alone in our prognostication. Caught before an open mic (which she didn’t know was open) shortly after Palin’s choice was announced, none other than former presidential speech writer (and Republican shining star) Peggy Noonan likened the choice of the unknown Alaska governor to cow droppings (she used a somewhat different term) and of the upcoming election, Peggy Noonan opined: “It’s over.”

            Commentator and pundit Bill Maher said Palin reminded him of a stewardess. Democrats from coast to coast began salivating over how Joe Biden would make mincemeat of her, and how (my prediction) her candidacy wouldn’t even make it to the convention.

            Then, last Wednesday evening, September 3, 2008, a day which (for some of us, at least) will live in infamy, Sarah Palin delivered her acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention in St. Paul . And (for some of us, at least) it was Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone and that night at Shea Stadium in 1986 all over again. Politically speaking, Sarah Palin hit one out of the park.

            (To some of us at least) she wasn’t supposed to. She was supposed to shrivel before our eyes, and stammer, and all but have to be helped from the stage. But that didn’t happen. So it was I had this feeling (this sinking feeling) that this election wasn’t over (even though it was supposed to be), and that there was going to be an unpredictable, unforgiving, now somewhat ominous Seventh Game.

            In his poem, “Forgiving Buckner”, the poet John Hodgen writes:

The world is always rolling between our legs.
It comes for us, dribbler, slow roller,
humming its goat song, easy as pie.

We spit in our gloves, bend our stiff knees,
keep it in front of us, our fathers' advice,
but we miss it every time, its physic, its science,
and it bleeds on through, blue streak, heart sore,
to the four-leaf clovers deep in right field.

            Sometimes (oftentimes) the world doesn’t conform to the script we’ve written for it. We assume that thus-and-such is the way things should be, that our way is the way to see the world—and when other people don’t see it that way, and things don’t turn out the way we planned, it is as though the very reason for existence has been taken from us.

            At other times, we look out at the world, and weigh and measure the data before us, and know—we just know—that we’re right. But then, a year, or a month, or a week or so later, we wonder how we ever could have been so blind? How could we have gotten it so wrong? And so, we change our minds about something.

            I would bet that most Americans today don’t think that it was a good idea for the United States unilaterally to invade Iraq in March of 2003—though, at time the war began, polls showed that somewhere around 60% of Americans were in favor of such military action.

            As you may know, or remember, or suppose, I opposed the Iraq war from day one (as did many, though not most, Americans). But I’m not saying that to gloat. In the area of politics, I may have been right about that one. But I’ve been wrong many times, too (and I bet, if you’re honest, most of you would admit that you have been, too).

            I’ve already bared my soul about my initial (giddy and sophomoric and downright wrong) reaction to the choice of Governor Palin. A few other examples of my own personal myopia and shortsightedness come to mind:

            I didn’t only oppose this Gulf War; I opposed the first one, too—the one in 1991, when President George H. W. Bush (“Daddy Bush” as my dear mother refers to him) assembled a coalition of 34 countries, and got authorization from the United Nations, to free Kuwait from the control of Iraq, which had invaded and annexed its neighbor a few months before.

            I now think that history will show that the elder President Bush was quite justified in taking the action he did, and that military force was necessary to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait . But at the time, some of thought that if we just negotiated a little longer with Saddam, if we put more stringent sanctions on Iraq, that would be enough. It probably wouldn’t have been, I now believe.

            I’ve been wrong other times, too.

            Many people (maybe some of you) tried to tell me that it wasn’t a good idea for Ralph Nader to run for President in the year 2000, that he was going to cost the Democrats the election, and that then we’d be in a heap of trouble.

            No, I said. There was no major difference between Gore and Bush, I declared self-righteously, and that those imperfect, all-too-prone to compromise Democrats didn’t “deserve” my vote. So, on “principle” (I said) I was going to vote for Nader—and I hoped millions of other Americans did, too. (Plus, I added, soto voce, the Democrats were going to win anyway.)


            It’s not just in politics that this happens, that the world fails to conform to our point of view.
            “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” the old saying goes. I’m not sure that’s always true.

            I made a random list the other day of some of the people whom I have considered real friends during the course of my life. You know what? In more than half the cases, I didn’t much care for them the first time I met them. We didn’t especially hit if off; we didn’t vibe. I found them too loquacious, or too sullen; too pushy or too reticent; too intellectual, too emotional, too this or too that—in a word, I probably found them too much not enough like me.

            If I had clung to my pre-conceptions, to my little picture of what a friend should be—of what an interesting person should be—or what a caring person should be—I would, time and again, have been denied precious gifts of friendship. All because I didn’t suspend judgment in that instant, and let the moment I had before me demonstrate its truth to me.

            Of course, it is also true that sometimes the blade has two edges, and someone with whom you seem to have an immediate rapport—who seems so charming, so considerate, so simpatico, turns out to be toxic. (I’ve had that experience in my life, too; though I must say, many fewer times than the happier one; others, I fear, have not been so fortunate).

Then, at other times, first impressions are confirmed by second impressions, and by third, and fourth… Sometimes, you know there’s something special, something intended just for you, in the twinkle of the eye of that person you see before you, and you may, truly, be able to say, “This the person with whom I am destined to spend the rest of my life.” (I’ve had than experience, too, and it is a sublime blessing indeed.)

So, what does this all mean? Can we ever judge, or affirm, or commit to anything, then? Or are we destined merely to strike a constant “wait and see” attitude toward every aspect of life? But what kind of life would that be, if we could never choose. Each of us would then go through life as a constantly equivocating Hamlet, constantly weighing and measuring our every move, constantly saying “Well, on the one hand… and on the other hand…” Our lives would then grow not full of sound and fury perhaps, but they would be empty of all belief and all passion, so they would still signify nothing—and we would emerge from it all more dazed and confused than ever, paralyzed by spines that had turned to jell-o. \

So-- how do we decide? How do we choose? How do we live lives open to the living, breathing, sacred moment, rich in the ability to grow with change, yet affirming something deeper than the transitory and fleeting flash of an instant that’s already gone?

The first thing we need to do is really decide to live.

In his poem “Invictus” (which means “Unconquered”) William Ernest Henley wrote:

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”

            Such an attitude can smack of hubris, of course, if we actually think that we’re in control of everything in life that befalls us; if we worship at the altar of our own little, prone-to-error, infallible selves.

            But I don’t think that’s what Henley is really getting at here. I think what he is telling us is to turn off the autopilot, and grab hold of the steering wheel ourselves—and make our own way through the seas we sail—which are sometimes calm, and sometimes choppy; sometimes clear sailing, and sometimes laden with rocks and icebergs and the ships of others that seem hell-bent on getting in our way.

            Grab hold of the wheel and sail your craft. Don’t rely on the autopilot of ideology, or the tenets of a faith received second-hand, or old, outworn ideas (of the left or the right), or long-discredited prejudices and stereotypes to sail your boat for you, while you amuse yourself to death in the lounge downstairs. Or grow too lazy to think for yourself.

            “Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind,” wrote Helen Keller. “Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again.”

            That is the kind of urgency we need to bring to life if we are to confront life openly and honestly, every day we are alive. For the bottom line, of course, is that we do not know how long that will be, for any of us.

            Secondly, we need to be willing to change.

            It’s not easy (most of the time) to change. It can physically hurt to give up old habits—even those which are harming us, even killing us slowly but surely. We might suffer withdrawal—emotional, psychological, even physical withdrawal in extreme cases. But there often comes a point where the pain of holding on becomes greater than the pain of letting go. Sometimes, there comes a point where we decided that we can no longer continue to make those old assumptions, that we can no longer continue down that same well-trodden, death-sodden road we’ve walked before. So, we find the courage somehow, somewhere (within, beyond, who knows) to break away from the old patterns and find a new way—a new paradigm—by which to pattern our lives.

            And if that pattern eventually seems as limited and temporary and full of holes as the one that came before, what of it? We may not know for sure where our road is headed, but at least we have been true to what life demanded of us and at least we’re moving on to the next stage. The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth, someone once said.  When we dare to change, at least we’re still on the on the road of life, and not stuck back in its ruts.  

            Third, we need to be willing to doubt—a topic hauntingly explored in John Patrick Shanley’s recent play by that same name, Doubt.

            Shanley’s drama tells of a small Catholic boarding school in New York in 1964. The charming and brilliant Father Flynn has recently come to the school to serve as its pastor. In the spirit of the recently concluded Second Vatican Council, Father Flynn believes that the clergy should be more open and accessible to their people, that religion and education should show more of a human face and be more tolerant. His colleague, the headmistress Sister Aloysius, the epitome of an old school nun, is not so sure. She insists that her students not be coddled, that teachers and priests and nuns are supposed to be gatekeepers, not chums. “Every easy choice today will have its consequence tomorrow,” Sister Aloysius intones. “Mark my words.”

            At the beginning of the play, Father Flynn preaches on the topic of doubt. He directly addresses the audience, and asks “What do you do when you’re not sure?” Several characters in the play must then grapple with that very question when Sister Aloysius later accuses Father Flynn of having an inappropriate relationship with a young boy at the school.

            When the play ends, we still don’t know who is right, and who is wrong. The characters in the play—including the Sister—still have their suspicions, and their doubts; so do we, the audience.

            In his preface to Doubt, John Patrick Shanley writes: “There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip, but hypocrisy has yet to take hold, when the consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered. It is the most dangerous, important, and ongoing experience of life. The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie.”

            Let’s listen again to John Hodgen, in the final verse of his poem, “Forgiving Buckner”:

The runner scores, knight in white armor,
the others out leaping, bumptious, gladhanding,
your net come up empty, Jonah again.
Even the dance of the dead won't come near you,
heart in your throat, holy of holies,
the oh of your mouth as the stone rolls away,
as if it had come from before you were born
to roll past your life to the end of the world,
till the world comes around again, gathering steam,
heading right for us again and again,
faith of our fathers, world without end.

            John Patrick Shanley continues:

            “Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place, and doubt is infinite—it is a passionate exercise.”

            It is a “passionate exercise”, like life itself is, when it is fully and genuinely lived. Life is exhausting sometimes, and it is never easy to admit that we need to change—our minds, our lives, our selves. But change is our calling as living, breathing, growing creatures. Change is our calling as thinking men and women. Change is our calling as children of this ever-evolving universe.

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