Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Gift of Insignificance

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 19, 2006

In 1787, the tsarina of all Russia, Catherine II (later to be known as Catherine the Great), decided to visit some of the farther-flung lands under her rule. She had heard of great progress being made in the hinterland provinces of the Ukraine and the Crimea, so she wanted to go and see for herself.
According to tradition (often doubted now by more modern historians), Catherine’s chief lieutenant in the provinces, General Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, felt that things in the hinterland needed a bit of gussying up if they were going to impress the great tsarina sufficiently. So, conventional wisdom has it, Potemkin had hallow facades of colorful, lovely, modern, well-scrubbed villages constructed along the desolate banks of the Dnieper River where the empress was to pass. Then Catherine and her party could admire these “Potemkin villages” gratefully as they passed by in the royal flotilla.
Whether or not the story of Catherine’s journey is true—or whether Potemkin’s fabrications were greatly exaggerated (or even entirely made up) by his political enemies—is a matter for historians of Russian history to debate and discuss. Nevertheless, the term “Potemkin village” has come down in history to mean a false façade hiding a far inferior reality; it has come to mean false imagery or artificial scenery being erected to cover up the fact that there’s no there there.
A Potemkin village of a more recent sort (this one entirely verifiable; it was documented and filmed even) was recently erected by two imaginative young Czech filmmakers named Vip Klusak and Filip Remunda.
In 2003, Klusak and Remunda managed to create a mega-store (or a “hyper-market” as they call them in Europe) out of thin air. For months they advertised the opening of a huge department store called “Czech Dream” on the outskirts of Prague. The store had a great theme song; a stunning and imaginative logo; great advertisements, and a professionally focused ad campaign. There was a lot of buzz going ‘round Prague about “Czech Dream”. The only problem was that the store didn’t have walls, a roof, or merchandise. After a year of advertising “Don’t come, don’t rush, don’t push, don’t buy”—people can anyway; thousands of them came to the opening day of “Czech Dream”. They had been promised “a big surprise” if they showed up. Surprised they were: when the large plastic façade bearing the “Czech Dream” logo was taken down, there was nothing there but barren, empty Bohemian wasteland: no store, no hyper-market, nothing, nada, nic (as they would say in Czech). There was no “Czech Dream”; there was no there there.
Could never happen here, right? Don’t be so sure. What do you make of a culture where the most popular television programs are so-called “reality” shows which, really, aren’t very real at all. What’s so real about lying in a plexiglass box full of roaches, or getting stranded on a desert island (while the cameras churn away)? What’s so real about spoiled socialites working on a cattle farm, or about getting fired by Donald Trump (getting fired may be real, but by Donald Trump?)? What’s “real” about a fictional millionaire dating thirty women in a week so he can choose one of them to marry?
Why are we, like our Czech counterparts, so shocked when we find out that there’s nothing behind the façade—that so much of what passes for “reality” (on television and elsewhere) is, in fact, staged, scripted, and carefully edited?
We say we value honesty, that we want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Among young people, especially, the virtue that seems to matter most is something called “keeping it real”—genuineness, sincerity, honesty, telling it like it is. These are all most worthwhile virtues, of course, that none of us should disparage. They are things we all yearn for, in ourselves and in others. They are things we can discern, more often than not I think, in our daily lives. We have a sense, usually, which lets us know when people are on the “up and up”—when they’re leveling with us—when they’re “keeping it real”.
It’s when, in our public lives, we give us this “reality radar” that we run into trouble. For some reason, even those of us who are so savvy about smoking out a phony can fall prey to the “image is everything” ethos of this culture of ours.
In our public lives, we let so much fake stuff pass for real.
We have fake reality TV.
We have political campaigns where we expect our politicians to lie to us about what they will do.
We have campaign commercials that exaggerate or completely forsake the truth.
We have celebrities whose “image” often has little to do with their real beings: who, in their public personae are so air-brushed and retouched that we probably wouldn’t even recognize them if they ran into Shaw’s one day to pick up a box of Twinkies.
In his speech at Harvard in 1995, Vaclav Havel, first President of the Czech Republic, spoke of some of the challenges faced by a “public personality”:
“I never fail to be astonished,” Havel said, “at how much I am at the mercy of television directors and editors, at how my public image depends far more on them than it does on myself, at how important it is to smile appropriately on television, or choose the right tie; at how television forces me to express my thoughts as sparely as possible, in witticisms, slogans or sound bites; at how easily my television image can be made to seem different from the real me. I am astonished by this and at the same time, I fear it serves no good purpose. I know politicians who have learned to see themselves only as the television camera does. Television has thus expropriated their personalities, and made them into something like television shadows of their former selves. I sometimes wonder whether they even sleep in a way that will look good on television.”
Havel went from being a maligned dissident—a non-person in the eyes of the state—to public figure, president even, world celebrity, seemingly overnight. Certainly, we can see that as a positive development, both as far as history, and Havel’s own life, are both concerned. Yet, you can almost hear a bit of lamentation in his words as he speaks of having his personality “expropriated” by the demands of fame.
Sometimes, fame and notoriety erect a wall between us and being who we truly are.
Now, that is not a problem that most of us will ever have. Most of us do not have to give too much time to worrying about our “public image” and how what we say will “play in Peoria”. I suppose that those of us with semi-public positions (like ministers or teachers or maybe even store managers) have to pay some attention to how we present ourselves in public. More than we might realize, we are ambassadors of the institutions that pay our salaries. All of us have to pay attention to (say) how we dress at the particular place we work. There are always dress codes (written or spoken or not) for a particular job.
We all also have to learn to “read our audience” to one degree or another; we try to converse with the group we’re in, in language with which others are comfortable and with which others can connect. I know I use a somewhat different language at church, than I do (say) at home, or at a sports event (not that I go to many of those), or at a family celebration. There are social norms which we accept, whenever we choose to be part of a particular group. Perhaps there’s a little hypocrisy in that, and we can’t be 100% genuine, 100% real, 100% of the time. But part of the price we pay for sharing this space with others is that we will make little compromises so as not to offend others or make them uncomfortable. If you don’t like it, then I guess you have to go live on a desert island somewhere, or go become a hermit.

There are people in this world of ours who do precisely that, most of the time at least. One of them, I was surprised to learn, was the famous BBC (and PBS) art commentator, Sister Wendy Beckett. I know very little about art really, but I do enjoy reading and listening to Sister Wendy. She has this way of making the rather heady and intimidating world of art appreciation and history so accessible. Recently, I read an article by Sister Wendy, and when the biographical snippet at the end said, “Sister Wendy Beckett lives as a hermit in Quiddenham, England”, I had find out more. Sister Wendy seemed like such a nice person, and the idea of a “celebrity hermit” was intriguing, I thought. Was such a thing possible?
Turns out it is, and Sister Wendy does, indeed, live as hermit—all except three to six weeks a year, when she’s off visiting art museums, and filming documentaries, and giving interviews. The rest of the year, she lives a rigorously ascetic life; she is, in fact, a hermit twenty-three hours of each day. She lives adjacent to the Carmelite community at Quidenham, but is not actually a part of it. Rather, she lives in a trailer on the outskirts of the community, completely separate from it, a “stranger on their doorstep,” as she says. She joins the sisters of the community every day for Mass in the morning, but that is the extent of her human contact. "I spend seven hours a day in prayer,” she says, getting up at two o'clock in the morning, and “The only time I leave the caravan is to go to Mass. I get up to the monastery just after six o'clock, go to the kitchen where I fill my basket with the food for the day - milk and the vegetables that the sisters had the day before. I get my post, look at yesterday's newspaper to see the sports news and the obituaries and then I go to Mass. After Mass I go home."
Now, Sister Wendy’s way of life might seem quite tempting, perhaps, when the ways of the world are too much with us, and there are children (or other responsibilities) tugging at our legs, and every minute of the day for the next week seems spoken for by at least one demand. Too often, it seems as though the metaphor for modern life could be a long runway at Logan or some other busy airport, with one thing-to-do after another landing, continuously, all the day. A little sleep, seven hours a day in prayer, morning Mass, three simple meals, a quick look at yesterday’s newspaper, leafing through the mail for royalty checks, the rest of the time spent bent over ancient manuscripts or beautiful works of art—that’s not so bad, is it?
But in addition to her isolation, Sister Wendy has notoriety (even fame), as well, of course. So even though she is a hermit (46 weeks of the year, at least) she is not obscure. There is something about obscurity that worries us, as well. We don’t want to be completely forgotten, ignored, or invisible. We all want to be noticed, at least a little, and total obscurity worries out. We don’t want to be like the poor cuckolded husband, Amos, in the musical, Chicago, who sings:
If someone stood up in a crowd
And raised his voice up way out loud
And waved his arm
And shook his leg
You'd notice him
If someone in a movie show
Yelled "fired in the second row,
This whole place is a powder keg!"
You'd notice him
And even without clucking like a hen
Everyone gets noticed, now and then,
Unless, of course, that personage should be
Invisible, inconsequential me!
Mister cellophane
Should have been my name !
Mister cellophane
'cause you can look right through me
Walk right by me
And never know I'm there!
Amos is like the character in the Bruce Springsteen song, “Stolen Car”, who steals a car so someone will notice him, but, still, no one does:

And I'm driving a stolen car
On a pitch black night
And I'm telling myself I'm gonna be alright
But I ride by night and I travel in fear
That in this darkness I might disappear…
We may not want be “bothered” with fame. But we don’t want to pass away unmourned and unremembered, either. We want our lives to mean something. We all get our fifteen minutes of fame sooner or later, Andy Warhol once said. Well, some of us are still waiting for our fifteen minutes to begin, and we’re getting a little impatient for that call from Oprah to come!
“How we yearn for significance,” Mike Daley has written. “It seems to be both in our genetic makeup as individuals and national identity as Americans. Our voice and country need, deserve, to be heard. We have to finish first. Get the choice seat at the table. Live in the biggest home. Fly first class. Drive the most impressive car. Everything else is considered a failure.” But, as Daley points out—and this is really the crux of the matter-- “The desire for significance can be rather deceptive and illusory.”
For all the things of this world pass away. The fancy cars; the big houses; the impressive titles and positions—they’re all nice while we’re here, I suppose, if they don’t get in the way of really living-- which, all too often, of course, they do.
But when we’re gone (and we will all be gone one day, soon or very soon) we know that it isn’t for the trappings of our lives that we will be remembered. None of these things will abide when we are gone. What we did on our resumes will, in all probability, matter a great deal less than what we did silently, quietly, privately in our “hidden lives”: the lives we spent in our families, or with friends, or even among strangers for whom we were, in ways unknown perhaps even to ourselves, angels.
There are words that I repeat as part of nearly every funeral service I perform. However great or obscure the life of the person we are remembering that day has been—whether there are 200 people there, or two, these words seem to sum up, I think, why it is that we are here with one another:
There is an energy in us
which makes things happen
when the paths of other persons
touch ours.
And we have to be there to bet it happen.
When the time
of our particular sunset comes,
our fame, our accomplishment,
won’t really matter a great deal.
But the clarity and care
with which we have touched others
will speak with vitality
the great gift of life
we have been for each other.
This is why we are here.
May we be true, for there are those who trust us.
May we be pure, for there are those who care.
May we be strong, for there is always much to suffer.
May we be brave, for there is so much to dare, when we live our lives out to their full.
And may we give to life generously, with full heart and open arms, the simple gifts that are ours to give—gifts of insignificance perhaps, yet gifts of infinite power-- for there is always so much, so much to share—in these precious days which are our lives.

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