Jesus

Tonight on the subway I was barely in the car when a man pointed to me and said, “This here is my nephew. You didn’t know you had a black uncle, did you?”

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.

Person

Obviously there is a long and sometimes bloody history involving personhood. We do not need to be reminded of the 3/5ths compromise, or of the general truth that American History is a long seesaw session between white men and everyone else. But I recently had some thoughts on this subject which were new for me and I thought I would share.

Currently I am working on Soulographie, a play cycle by Erik Ehn examining America through its genocides. Erik came to talk to our cast and recommended we read Simone Weil’s essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” So I did.

Weil wrote the essay in 1940, just after France fell to the Nazis. To her, The Iliad is one long meditation on how force turns people into objects. If I have power over you, I am able to see you as only a thing; I do not have to consider you as a person, let alone an equal.

Troy Davis and all other death row inmates sprang to mind; when we lock up men and women with the intention of putting them to death, or of having them die in prison, we are revoking their humanity; we turn them into so many garbage bags that need to be tossed, so many lights that can easily be switched off.

Not only does this use of force blind us to what these de-peoples were, are, and could still be, and not only does it become internalized in the minds of many the powerless, turning them into puppets, but it will eventually destroy us as well.

“Such is the nature of force,” writes Weil. “To the same degree, though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone.”

You don’t have to look hard to find testimonials from former prison employees who say they carried out executions and are still haunted by them. You don’t have to know much about the Zimbardo experiment to be aware that the experience was traumatic for the “prisoners” and “guards” alike.

And it isn’t just prison, of course. Weil argues that force allows one to “walk through a non-resistant element,” believing that the world is his oyster and nothing can stop him (sounds like the quintessential American). And this lack of resistance means we do not pause between impulse and action; we do not allow a moment of reflection. But we need that moment. In “that halt, that interval of hesitation…lies all our consideration for our brothers in humanity,” all our sense of justice and prudence. Without it, we rely too much on force, overextend ourselves (think land wars in Asia), and end up destroyed.

Granted, Weil’s interval of hesitation can be a real pain in the ass. We see the starving Somalians and think, “Now why is that life not as valuable as mine, exactly? Why are these people pebbles, while I am flesh and blood?” But if we press this issue too far we stay in bed and see no point in doing our homework, so we reserve it for special occasions.

After decades of discussion of the objectification of women, and of desensitization to violence, this idea of force being the Medusa head to turn us all into stone is no longer a novel one. But if you walk around with it for a while, you may find interesting results.

For instance, I was walking around Bronxville the other day and I started noticing who I was noticing. There was an old woman waiting for the bus; I looked at her and instantly forgot her. Is it because she had no potential force over me? I can tell you that three minutes later, when I had to walk past her going the other way, I noticed her more, because she had the power then to notice I had gone the wrong way, and so she had the power to make me embarrassed.

These days especially I am very sensitive to all men of color who are on the street with me. I pay them much attention. I fear their force.

I notice attractive women much more than plain ones. I think it has as much to do with me wanting to make a thing of them as it does with me knowing they could likely make a thing of me; hot women have power. This made me think of Dustin Hoffman, who said Tootsie wasn’t a comedy for him because, by playing an unattractive woman, he was made aware of how many women he had never taken the time to notice, to know, to see at all, really.

The list goes on and on. The bankers looking out of their windows onto Liberty Plaza do not see a force powerful enough to grab them by the throat, and so I think they probably do not really see these people. Well, most of us don’t – we see them as puny, inconsequential, a little foolish. The cops see them as obstacles.

I don’t know much else to tell you about this. I think justice-thinking is better than force-thinking, even though it can turn you into a bit of a killjoy. I think awareness helps, and I think it’s a good thing that many of us resist the Texas cowboy attitude to the rest of the world, and I think trying to find out if the ugly girl in your Monday morning class has anything interesting to say will make you a better person, but I also think that this affliction of force, this paralysis of violence, which has been clearly recorded for us throughout the entirety of the Western canon, and which has only rarely ever been successfully resisted throughout that same period of time, points to a fundamental rottenness underlying the human condition.

If a bunch of smelly post-grad would-be Bolsheviks and their friends think they can wash that away in a park in downtown Manhattan, or even if they are only able to carve a space away from it for a brief time, for a small population, then I say more power to them.

Jokes, Socialism, Silence

No, I have not succumbed to PTSD from my random act of violence this summer. Part of me resisted writing again because I felt this blog had unexpectedly become some sort of humanist meditation, which I did not originally intend it to be. Touchy feely would be a more unflattering description.

So I wanted to come back on a funny note, but that wasn’t easy. I thought I’d do an entry on the word Joke itself. I saw a documentary over the summer which dealt with the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit of the 90s. Easy target, right? Lady burns self with coffee – what did you expect it to be? Cold? Seinfeld made fun of it, everybody made fun of it. Well the documentary tells a different story, and for one thing shows you some really nasty photos of the burns this woman suffered – I mean really really gross – and so that case ceases to be a joke, right?

The more and more we experience, it sometimes seems, the fewer things are funny. True, sometimes the stuff is still funny, we just don’t let ourselves laugh. But I also know there are plenty of things, many involving violence or race, which I would have laughed at as a kid and now just don’t find amusing at all.

Also, the more we experience the same kind of joke, the less funny that type becomes. Knock knock jokes, for sure, but also look at the recent trends in sitcoms: you’ve got lots of cutaway gags (Family Guy and 30 Rock are tireless in beating this setup to death), and lots of clocking to the camera (The Office, Parks and Rec, Modern Family) and so while I used to think all of those shows were hilarious, they’ve all petered out for me. I can’t stand them anymore. That’s sad. The form has swallowed the content. The zenith of this has to be The New Girl, which was so conscious of its hilarity that it turned my stomach. They actually repeat their punchlines – “Did you just say (insert ridiculous thing here)?”

Bloggers are not immune to falling into their own funny traps, and so all of this unfunniness (not the least of which is most of the news, which I find distinctly depressing) contributed to me not writing.

My other idea was to write an entry on Socialism, because that word is being tossed around enough to make your head spin these days. I used to think I knew what it meant, but after seeing it used in a NYT article about why it doesn’t matter if we recycle (depressing), I am no longer sure. Defining Socialism would be in line with the original intent of this blog – to try and highlight the abuses of language by media folks and deluded Tea Partyers (or deluded Occupy Wall Streeters, as the case may be), but I just couldn’t bring myself to care enough to do the research and figure it out and compress it and digest it and find funny pictures for it. Should any of you want to write that entry, or any other entry, I will gladly post it. If it doesn’t suck.

But otherwise, I think the void has won for a while. Except I’m not completely silent. I am helping some friends of mine with a project of theirs. If you’d like to check it out: www.johnandgladys.com.

Right now I just think they make more sense out of the world than I do.