I laughed and said, No.
He then claimed family ties with all the white men on the train, and proceeded to grind on one of the subway poles in honor of his white niece. “I’m working the pole for you!” he said, and she blushed and laughed.
He continued his act all the way to Grand Central. He preached tolerance for gays, even though he doesn’t “eat what they eat.” He said he loves dating elderly women, because they get five checks a month, and you never know when that sixth – life insurance – might kick in. He made us all laugh, and I wish I’d had money to give him. But he didn’t take plastic. Once again, I cursed myself for not being like my friend’s dad, who carried rolls of quarters in his pockets so he always had something to give away.
I had been composing this entry in my head as I walked to the train station. And as I descended the stairs I had been reminded of a quote from Our Town. Now, I have a textbook love/hate relationship with this play, but a few days ago I watched OT, a documentary about a bunch of high school students in Compton who put on a production of the play. It’s on Netflix, and it’s worth seeing. And the filmmakers did a great job of highlighting the great parts of the play, including a quote I had completely forgotten about:
“Every child born into this world is nature’s attempt to make a perfect human being.”
This stuck out because it’s the kind of thing I recoil from when I see it on pro-life advertising, but when I sit with it and let it stew in my head, I find it cannot be so easily dismissed.
And if you walk around thinking this, rather than thinking nasty thoughts about eugenics and birth control (you know who you are), then you will be a happier person. And that is what this blog entry is about.
Jesus means “salvation.” And the fuzziness of Jesus’s definition has not to do, for me, with whether he existed, or whether he was the son of God, or whether Western artists over-Anglicize his features. Although as for the latter, they certainly do, and I certainly do think that’s an error, and an irresponsibility. I think depicting Jesus as the Mid-Eastern Jew he was would be a great blow for empathy, but that’s another story.
For me the issue is who gets to be called Jesus. Or who we see as Jesus.
I am not a Christian. But Jesus was beyond doubt a hell of a teacher. He was beyond doubt an example worth striving for. He was also beyond doubt a socialist, and he would beyond doubt be Occupying Wall Street, but then he’d also be with the cops, with the bankers.
Okay, let’s not get silly. Reminder: I love Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. It’s a weirdly secular religious book, or religious secular book, and without revealing too much, the climax of the book comes when one character tells another that EVERYONE, even the most grotesque person we can think of, even the person who drives up the wall with arrogance and ignorance, EVERYONE is Jesus.
So imagine me, please, in my bedroom, a high school senior, reading this, and having my little mind blown. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but you can be blown without having all the details worked out. Trust me. Yes I see the naughtiness there. Still applies.
We see this idea over and over. Really, it’s the same thing that draws me to that David Foster Wallace commencement address. The one where he says that we can choose how we live our lives. We can choose how we see the woman who yells at her kid in the grocery store checkout line. We can choose to create a story for her in which we can sympathize, empathize (and also help the kid out, presumably). We can choose, in short, to have mercy and love in our hearts for the people around us.
And just this morning I was reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness. Day was a Catholic, and a mighty activist for the poor. The book was sent to me by my good friend, who is waiting for me to become a Franciscan friar. In the book, Day recounts the philosophy of Peter Maurin, her friend and colleague:
“…it was seeing Christ in others, loving the Christ you saw in others. Greater than this, it was having faith in the Christ in others without being able to see Him. Blessed is he that believes without seeing.”
Now, for a while I thought that these people had it all wrong. I mean, why should we see everyone as Christ? He had his shit together. Shouldn’t we see them as one of the lepers he cured, or the blind he made see – I mean shouldn’t we see “the least of these” that he identified with, rather than this man who was brilliant and wise and always in control, even in the sacrifice of his own life?
But recently I’ve realized I was wrong. Everyone is Jesus, because everyone is the teacher. Everyone has wisdom. And Jesus is not just a charity case. He is a man that you have to drop your fishing nets for and stick with. Seeing him in others is a full-time job. It demands action.
Okay, so why does this speak to the atheist in me? After all, let me tell you, what these people are talking about – Salinger, Day, Wallace – is very hard work, with or without religion. People annoy me and disgust me and bore me so easily. No question. I mean, I’m in grad school. For theater. You want to talk to me about egoists and assholes and BORES? It can be a long hard climb sometimes to see out of the eyes of the people around me, to see the beautiful in them, to see how they are nature’s attempt at perfection.
And I was chatting with a very intelligent young lady the other night, and she is a big DFWallace fan, but she told me her criticism of his speech. She felt that he puts too much pressure on us. By implying that we have the power to see the world in the way we want to see it, by telling us that it’s on us to turn every person we brush elbows with into a potential saint, we can be set up to fall, and fall hard.
I think she has a point. I mean, Wallace killed himself. It’s not like his speech at Kenyon gave him some permanent get out of jail free card.
But I also see how good and healthy this kind of thinking can be. It used to be every month I’d get a call or an email from a different friend saying how I’d hurt his feelings, or that she didn’t know why I hated her (when in fact I was quite fond of her). One day a guy told me that someday I was gonna get punched for the shit I said, and a few short months later, I almost did. So I’m working. Humility. Interest in people. Happiness in the accomplishments of others. I’m working. I only get a call about hurt feelings every few months now.
Being a teacher has helped. I may have written this before, but it’s worth repeating. Before I graduated, I was talking to a professor of mine, and I asked her how she dealt with the idiots in class. I mean we had some USDA prime idiots in that class. And she said, when you’re a teacher, it’s different. You love them all.
I found out that that is true. And I found out that my NYU education, as much as I love the critical thinking and the curiosity and the resources it gave me, also poisoned me. NYU taught me to be a good liberal, a good atheist, but – and they’ll take away my lib card for this – while the Left operates under the guise of tolerance, many of its people love to feel superior to Republicans and to Christians. And many of its people are often just as guilty as anyone else for shutting down honest discourse in this world.
Tonight I went to see a brilliant company, The Civilians, present interviews and songs from Occupy Wall Street. They went down and spoke to the people, and represented them – warts and all – beautifully onstage. I just wish they’d interviewed the cops. Maybe the cops wouldn’t let them. They did mention one thing, that there is no more money to pay cops for overtime in New York, so they are working overtime for regular wages, but that was it, really. And that crowd was just licking their chops to hate on the cops, I think. And I have such a distaste for that kind of art now. I still believe in right and wrong, but I no longer endorse art or journalism that takes cheap shots, that alienates the unbaptized by preaching to the converted.
But rant aside, The Civilians are about giving voice to well, civilians, and since theater is an elitist form that too often creates gods and monsters for us to easily digest, it is refreshing to be given glimpses of the Christ in all of us, the wisdom of the stranger. It is a blessing to be made to sit still and listen and learn from someone completely new, completely different, completely perfect, so much as any of us is.
It’s hard work, but you don’t have to believe in Hell to find it a salvation from darkness.