Catholic priests are not known for preaching profound sermons, so it’s a blessing that most conform to the idea of making homilies short. Custom has it that ten minutes is the ideal length. But every now and then, congregants are surprised, as I was a few Sundays ago when our visiting celebrant began to speak to the Gospel about Jesus’ caring for the afflicted. He began telling us about something he’d read recently. It seems that late in life, Margaret Mead, the famous cultural anthropologist, was asked what she considered the earliest sign or marker of civilized life on earth. The questioner expected her to talk about a beautiful pottery shard or some vessel used by early humans to cook food, or perhaps one of the first discovered cave paintings carved by humanoid artists at the dawn of life as we know it. After musing over the question for some time, Mead said that she believed the first sign of civilization was a healed human femur bone she had come across on one of her digs. Her reasoning is profound. She told the person asking the question that she chose this relic because it told her that someone had had a badly hurt leg but that someone else had tried to help relieve the pain. Someone had cared about a fellow creature and had extended themself to help that afflicted individual.
I was sufficiently moved by this story that I made a note about it that I took away with me. Of course the priest used this story as a springboard for talking about Jesus as a major example of someone who helped heal so many hurting parts of human beings who came to him for assistance. Toward the end of his homily, he challenged us all to go out of ort way to make a hurt “femur” less painful. Saint Teresa came to mind because of her simple tenet that these days we are the hands of Jesus, called to do unto the “least of these” that we meet along our journeys. Then I began thinking that Mead’s idea of being “civilized” dovetails with current discussions about empathy as a fundamental sign of being human. Similarly, then, being incapable of empathy is a sign that I am unable to break free of my own limited ego with its needs and comfort zones, that I am unable to imagine what a given event or object or set of words might feel like to someone different from me. SO many examples exist in our current society of people who would walk past the person with the hurt femur, or who would read life from a purely autobiographical perspective, or who let personal discomfort override any more generous emotion.
If I think in political terms, I know that someone who cannot or will not help me if my femur is damaged should not be given power, since s/he will only use that power for personal gain. Such a person can inflict grave physical or emotional or economic or spiritual harm on other human beings. Such a person has little or no concept of the common good, and will most likely feel antagonistic because of being afraid of anyone who looks or behaves differently from them. Diversity is seen as a threat rather than an asset by such individuals. Advice is less likely to be taken seriously since it may come from someone who may on occasion disagree with or challenge the non-empathetic person.
In my own life, I work hard to remain open to differences of all kinds since I recognize just how limited my own little personal sphere is in relation to the larger world. And as many voices around me seem just now to speak with such fear and anger about those who do not mirror their own values, I strive to find overt behaviors that resist such approaches. Most of what I come up with couldn’t qualify as impressive or even consequential, e.g., I now say “hello” to strangers I pass on the sidewalk who are not white like me or who wear clothes that identify their religious beliefs or who are struggling with some kind of handicap or incapacity. While this simple and tiny gesture won’t change the circumstances of those people’s daily life, it will let them know that I mean them no harm, that I see them if only for the second our paths intersect, perhaps even that I offer the smallest assistance to their vulnerable femur.
In a recent interview, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery, Alabama, was asked what Dr. King would think if he were alive to witness our political world today. He said he’d be heart-broken but also excited to know that if he called a meeting, tens of thousands of people would show up. So it’s Monday, January 21st, and the country will observe in official ways Martin Luther King Day. Banks will be closed, mail will not be delivered, children will not attend school, cities will hold breakfasts or panel discussions, organized religions will conduct special services or bring in members of their local black communities to speak or sing. My question to Dr. King would be “How do you feel about these expressions of respect for you and the work you accomplished?” And I imagine he’d ask me what would be happening on Tuesday, January 22nd, to come to grips with the virulent and persistent racism alive in this country, based on white supremacy not skin color?
I often flash to my initial encounter with King. I was a sophomore in college at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. That was the place where Governor George Wallace had stood in front of one of the Greek revival structures in which classes were taught on that campus. Wallace had uttered his infamous promise: “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” I was taking an English course in romantic poetry and we’re were studying the poetry of Alfred, Lord Byron. Our professor, the only woman I had as a teacher while in college, had sent us home for the weekend with this homework assignment: “Is there someone alive today who meets Bryon’s criteria for the title of ‘hero.'” That Sunday morning, I happened to watch one of the Sunday news shows on national television. The person being interviewed was an impressive “Negro” man (My mother had taught me to call the black people in my world by that name so as to avoid using the derogatory “N” word.) named Martin Luther King. Listening with half an ear to his polished tonalities, I began to pay real attention to what he was saying about how unjustly he and people like him were being treated by white people like me. As I listened more closely to what he was saying, an idea began to dawn on me: This person surely fit all Lord Byron’s stipulations for being a hero. So I went to my English class on Monday feeling certain I’d get my professor’s approval for my answer to her question. When it was my turn to respond, I remember deciding to use his full name/title. So I said “My present day hero is Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior.” There was a long silence before the teacher thanked me curtly and moved to the next student who volunteered a football quarterback enjoying a successful season.
What usually happened when that class ended was two of the male students and one other female student and I went to the Student Union for a cup of coffee/tea and talk of what we’d just been learning about the likes of Wordsworth, Shelley, or Keats. When I got my beverage and walked to the table where my friends were already assembled, I was shocked by what happened next. All three of them rose from their chairs and walked to another table far away from what I assumed was to be “our” table. Too stunned to speak, I sat for a little while and drank my tea. Next class period, I stopped one of the group and asked what had their strange behavior meant? What had I done to so offend them? The person just shrugged and walked away, and that group never met again to hash over what we’d heard in class. Eventually, as I began to comprehend just how strong people’s feelings were against blacks, I understood that I had betrayed my race by saying one of “them” could possibly be our living hero.
As I came to know more about Dr. King and to read his words, I was surer than ever that I was right about naming him as heroic. And, as long as he confined his rhetoric and organizing to black and poor people of all kinds, the dominant culture tolerated him. It was when he spoke against the war in Vietnam, drawing parallels between racism in this country and what our government was doing in that other country that he became dangerous. Not long after his speech against that war, he was shot at his motel and we lost whatever other words/actions he might have graced us with. So today, I’ve read for the umpteenth time his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and let myself feel his clarity and his humility and his unflinching desire to speak truth to white power.
Recently, a good friend and I attended an unusual dance performance entitled “WEAVE.” The choreographer, Rosy Simas, Native American of the Seneca, Heron Clan, worked with a handful of mostly Native dancers to give us an intense exploration of movement drawn from some depths inside the dancers. In the program notes, composed by the poet Heid Erdrich, we were told about how Ms. Simas had asked her performers to “dig within themselves” as they listened to the music provided rather than having her prescribe what they were to execute on stage. So, instead of providing them with the template for the performance, she drew them into the creation as well as the enactment of that performance. Similarly, the “music” they danced to was not what we usually think of when we hear that word. What provided the frame for the dancers were sounds–waves breaking against rocks, crickets chirping in a woods, water lapping on some imagined lake short, the primordial beats I imagined accompanied the creation of the world. Erdrich invited the audience to LISTEN, just as Simas had instructed her performers.
The result was extraordinary. The dancers moved so slowly as to make me wonder if we’d simply come to the end of something. Finally, I relaxed and stopped waiting for “something to happen.” I sank into the moment and began really to listen to the sound effects, to let them penetrate past my cortex and move toward my heart. Then I began watching expressions on the faces of the dancers. Our seats were second row center, so at times we could almost touch a dancer. But they were on a different plane; we didn’t exist as they moved fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, torsos, legs, feet . Their faces became at times luminescent, as if they were channeling something much older and more significant that they or we could ever hope to be. And, though there were pairings and threesomes, there was only one moment when two dancers actually touched. Yet I felt they were entirely connected with each other. We are learning these days from serious arborists that trees actually can communicate through root systems. As I watched intently as the dancers “spoke” to each other without physical contact, I thought about those old trees.
As we talked about what we’d just witnessed, my friend pointed out that all that repetition had taken us to a meditative place rather than to a cognitive one. And that place demanded something other than concentration or created something other than drama. We wondered it not having any plot line had erased or at least muted the audience’s more familiar intellectual concentration on what we were watching. Meditation depends on internal focus, erasing ideas that can clutter our brain and keep us “busy.” I thought of an ancient form of prayer my church often has the congregation do–taize prayer where we just chant the same few words or phrases over and over. As this happens, I am able to give myself to the practice so that a remarkable thing occurs. I feel like the words actually enter my body or that I meld with them in the sound space we all make as we chant. Then I pictured Allen Ginsberg, cross-legged and eyes closed, intoning sounds, sometimes under the influence of various drugs but still connecting with something that wasn’t logic or ratiocination.
Before the formal part of the performance began, as we were milling about in the lobby, my friend directed my attention to hands we saw being raised a ways off from where we stood. Eventually, the owner of those hands came into view, and we watched as several performers moved slowly and sinuously to the sound of those crickets who would reappear once we were all seated and the lights had been dimmed. Very slowly the dancers moved among us toward the admittance doors. Once they entered, we were allowed to follow and take our seats. At the end of the program, those same dancers left the stage as slowly as they had gone to it and danced upon it. We all sat, craning our necks to watch as they measured their exit. Only then did we know to applaud as the exhausted dancers dashed onto the stage to receive our standing ovation. My friend remarked later that having them in the lobby before suggested another way in which the choreographer was expanding our definition of what makes up a performance. So having them exit formally once again stretched the confines of the evening beyond the familiarly designated “space” of the proscenium stage.
I am deeply grateful to Rosy Simas and her powerful group of dancers. They have opened new doors in my thinking about dance as a cultural expression. And they have given me a glimpse into a space not governed by formal rules, a space shaped simply but profoundly by asking all of us–dancers, choreographer, and audience members–to slow way down, go way inside, listen carefully, and see what we find.
One of the best-known Greek stories is of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus was a master carpenter who had made a great labyrinth under the court of King Minos of Crete where the dread Minotaur lived. Taking issue with Daedalus, Minos had imprisoned him and his son, Icarus, in that very maze. Surely they would be attacked by the Minotaur (half human and half bull) if they couldn’t devise some means of escape. Daedalus constructed two pairs of great wings made of feathers and wax, and they were able to fly away to safety. Before taking off, the caring father admonished his son not to fly either too low or too high, but to take the “middle path.” Flying too low would mean seawater would clog the wings; flying too high would mean the sun’s extreme heat would melt the wings. Daedalus followed his own advice and reached safety, but Icarus became giddy about being a bird and so he went too close to the sun. The delicate wings melted fast and Icarus plunged to his death by drowning in a body of water now known as the Icarian Sea which surrounds the Island of Icari, southwest of Samos. Clearly this is a story about impatience and hubris .
As I try to manage the almost daily evidence of politicians and cabinet members in Washington, D.C. and many state governments who refuse to stand by their own values when doing so might jeopardize their own advancement in the halls of power, I find myself thinking of a more modern system of belief in which a powerful force called Fortuna or Dame Fortune explained the rise and fall of politicians in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe and England. This theory held that once a person put his or her foot on the Wheel of Fortune, s/he might have a glorious rise to the top of the wheel or circle. They might even pause a while at the zenith and wield major power for a little while. But wheels don’t stay stationary, so that same person would soon find themself tumbling head first towards some hard landing, ending up exactly where they had started. In a lively conversation recently with an old friend, we lapsed into the inevitable lament over words and actions of the occupants of the White House and the U.S. Congress. At one point, as we were discussing our feelings about Elizabeth Warren, my friend commented that Warren had been “born to form and head up that agency to protect us from big banks,” but she couldn’t celebrate that because she was like Icarus and was probably “flying too close to the sun.”
In the days since our talk, I’ve decided the Icarus myth applies better to today’s political aspirants than does the theory in which Fortuna reigns. So, since our conversation, I’ve carried that image of the young and beautiful aspirant catapulting arms akimbo and face terrified. I find a growing list of women and men I can name off easily, all of whom qualify for that hubristic giddiness that beset the young Icarus. So I went back to W. H. Auden’s powerful poem, “Le Musee des Beaux Artes” in which he describes the actual fall, based on his having seen the painting by Bruegel that hangs in the title museum in Brussels, Belgium. Bruegel’s visual point, echoed by Auden’s verbal recital, is that no one is even looking as the dead body plunges into the sea. Instead a farmer continues plowing his field, a shepherd herbs his little white sheep away from the cliff overlooking the water, and a couple of full-masted ships continue on their route to wherever they are going. In Auden’s own words, “the dogs go on with their doggy life.” I wonder if we don’t treat some of our present-day political Icaruses the same way, i.e., when their flying too high ruins their beautiful wings and they crash, do we even stop to mark what is being lost, had they been able to occupy the space they best occupy instead of soaring to some next level?
Now I find myself thinking hard and sadly about this possibility: What if there are Icaruses who fly too close to the melting heat of the sun and crash, but do not die. Somehow they are able to swim to some shore and be expected to get on with their lives, to move on, to “find closure,” that ridiculous present day outcome sought by so many. Not surprisingly in my case, the first face that flashed into my mind’s eye was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s. After being a fine First Lady and a superb Senator from New York, Hillary ran for the presidency. Her wings were not made of feathers and wax; they were constructed of decades of public service at virtually every level of American social and political life. They were burnished by an intellect of considerable range and depth. And they were finished off by a very large heart that could feel empathy with those having less privilege than she enjoys. No wonder many of us believed she’d remain aloft and even wind up occupying the highest political “nest” America has to offer. That didn’t happen, of course. And Hillary Rodham Clinton today, two years after the wings melted in the course of a few hours, seems unable to recover firm footing after her meteoric rise and meteoric fall. Having flown so very close to that political “sun,” she seems unable to let go of the flight plan; she seems off kilter and hanging on to a dream that those considerable wings were supposed to make come true.
If I ponder about present day politicians who don’t follow Daedalus’ advice to his son about not flying too low where seawater and high humidity would clog his feathers, the list is too long even to consider listing. It’s virtually every Republican in office who knows they do not agree policies tweeted by the person serving as president, or sanction much of his rhetoric and behavior, but who is too afraid of losing the high office currently occupied should he (or she, though these days there are a only handful of women serving in positions worth protecting) speak truth to power or even carry out the duties to which elected or appointed. These people are simple moral cowards. And for Democrats, the powerful temptation is to try and maintain the high ground, to “hover” while beating current wings to exhaustion, to refuse any humble compromises that might slow down their perceived chance to soar to the upper ethers.
So, the old Greek story obtains all too clearly in my world today, and I can only hope that some of the fresh new faces in government might listen to their political “fathers” and “mothers” and try for a flight pattern that can last and that can carry them safely from port to port. Maybe somebody could show them the Breugel painting or read them the Auden poem or just argue for modesty and moderation, those old and steady emotional states.