Turning the other cheek

When you come up against a vividly described ethical rule like this, you really need to decide what to do with it. This famous dictum is part of the famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.

“…but I say this to you: offer no resistance to the wicked. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well” [1]

The first part of deciding what to do with it is deciding what it “means.” For me, the first part of deciding what it means is trying to figure out what it meant to Matthew because this is Matthew’s own version of the Jesus tradition. The closer I can get to attaching this text to the shape of the narrative as Matthew has constructed it and to the needs of the church for whom Matthew intended this account, the better off I will be when I get to the issue of applying it to myself.

frances 3So the first thing to know is that the Sermon on the Mount is a device that Matthew uses to contrast Jesus to Moses. Moses goes up on the mount and brings down the Law; Jesus goes up on the mount (different mountain, of course) and refines the Law’s demands. That is why v. 39 (above) is preceded by v. 38, which cites “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as if it were clearly the Mosaic standard. And that is the point Matthew is trying to make: the “old law,” what Moses brought to Israel, is no longer enough and we must now open ourselves to “the new law,” that is, to Jesus.

So the meaning of the new demand, not to resist the wicked, is played off of the inadequacy of the old demand, which is tit for tat retaliation. That’s what it means to Matthew. [2] And if it means that to Matthew, what does it mean to us?

I have a story to tell you that sheds some very interesting light on this question. It is Russell Hoban’s Bargain for Frances. At the core of this story, Frances’s friend Thelma cheats Frances out of her tea set. When Frances finds out what Thelma has done, she returns the favor and cheats Thelma out of the same set. It sounds very “eye for an eye;” it’s a tea set for a tea set. And we need to ask whether that is what Jesus had in mind. Should 5:38, 39 be read to say that Frances ought not to have done what she did?

The Case for Narrow Interpretation

In the case of a Bargain for Frances, it depends on whether the injunction not to resist evil is to be understood specifically and tactically or broadly and strategically. In the tactical understanding, Jesus says that turning the other cheek is the right thing to do no matter what the result is. It is the behavior that is specified. And Frances is clearly wrong by this understanding. She should have given Thelma her sizable collection of teas as well as the tea set.

It is hard, though, to specify behavior NO MATTER WHAT. It is tempting, always, to say that the results of that behavior will be good. Proverbs 25:21,22 does that

21If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink. 22 By this you will be heaping red-hot coals on his head, and Yahweh will reward you.

The good results include shaming the enemy—I think that is what the hot coals are supposed to represent—and also the reward God give you. I think that is also the sequence Paul had in mind when he quotes and expands on the Proverbs text in Romans 12:

19 Never try to get revenge: leave that, my dear friends, to the Retribution. As scripture says: Vengeance is mine—I will pay them back, the Lord promises. 20And more: If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink. By this, you will be heaping red-hot coals on his head. 21Do not be mastered by evil, but master evil with good.

There are the red hot coals again, the shaming of the enemy.

But what if it doesn’t happen that way. What if the results are routinely bad. Or they are not all that bad in general, but are routinely bad in your interactions with a specific person? You are still bound, by the tactical understanding of the text to say what God requires and allows and Frances is required to continue being preyed upon by Thelma.

The Case for a Broader Interpretation

I suggested above that a command like “turn the other cheek” may be understood broadly and strategically as well as narrowly and tactically and it is time to look at that now. So Frances cheats Thelma and gets her tea set back. And Thelma says, “Well, from now on I will have to be careful when I play with you.”  And Frances responds, “Being careful is not as much fun as being friends.  Do you want to be careful or do you want to be friends?”

“Being friends” is not an outcome contemplated by Matthew’s Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.  In fact, just the phrasing of that outcome sounds out of place in a First Century collective society.   Tit for tat retaliation is rejected. Accepting any manner of abuse is proposed instead, the goal being to give the enemy a chance to be ashamed of himself. Neither of these is the course Frances takes.

frances 2Frances understands eventually what her mother understood right from page 1: Thelma is a predator and Frances is her prey. That is the nature of the relationship—mother gives several examples—and will continue to be the nature of the relationship unless some kind of fundamental change is made.  You could argue, I suppose, that Frances might suggest that they both become prey; that no one take advantage of anyone else. But the only action that is entirely within Frances’s power is to become a predator just like Thelma and that is what she does when she cheats Thelma out of the tea set. And Thelma recognizes it right away. “I see that you, too, are now capable of predation.” That’s what “I am going to have to be careful “means.

But Frances, having brought about parity, offers friendship. That may have been a generous impulse, but it also might have been what Frances had in mind from the beginning. Predator and prey cannot be friends. [3] In making herself a fellow predator, friendship becomes possible. Also perpetual antagonism. Frances offers friendship?

Is that action ruled out by our understanding of Jesus’s teachings in Matthew 5? I think I would say that it is ruled out by the narrow understanding. By that understanding, Jesus specifies a means, not an end and that is not the means Frances chose. But I think it is not ruled out by the broad understanding, in which it is an end that is to be sought and some means is chosen that is likely to attain that end. This understanding imagines that on beyond the shame, the “heaping coals of fire” on the head of the transgressor, there is the hope of friendship. The text certainly doesn’t say that and doesn’t clearly imply it, but why not? After the violator has had a chance to think about what he has done (in the narrow interpretation) or has had it done to him (in the broader interpretation) some new kind of relationship might very well be available. Why not friendship?

I am a fan of the broader interpretation, as you no doubt have noticed, but I am beginning to be willing to say that the strategy I have found to be workable is in fact, available in Jesus’s teaching and, in fact, may be just the kind of faithful adaption to modern society that a modern Christian might favor.

Finally, I am not really surprised to find that there is a very common reading of that text that requires me to hold myself in tension between the text and the practical choices I am required to make. That tension is not the new thing for me. The new thing for me is finding support for that new interpretation in the context of Matthew’s framing of the teaching.

[1] This is the New Jerusalem Bible translation.
[2] It means much more than that, but the fundamental dynamic is set in place with “not that, but this.”
[3] Woody Allen jokes that in our time, when the lion lies down with the lamb (as in Isaiah’s prophecy), only the lion gets back up.

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Politics is the least of our worries

I argued two years ago this month, that as scary as the Trump candidacy was, the conditions that made it possible for such a candidate to be successful were much scarier.  I still think that’s true and since then, Trump, now President Trump, has done some really scary things.

The Brooks Triad

So what “conditions” are we talking about? David Brooks, in a recent column, named three.

First, says Brooks, is the erasure of the informal norms of behavior. He cites a recent book that argues that democracy relies not only on formal constitutions but also on informal codes.

Second, is the loss of faith in the democratic system. Brooks gives the example of an Italian voter who said “Salvini is a good man. I like him because he puts Italians first. And I guess he’s a fascist, too. What can you do?”

The third, element is the deterioration of debate caused by social media.

Triad Infrastructure

I don’t disagree with any of those,[1] but my interest goes a little deeper. What are the causes of these three phenomena that David Brooks rightly laments?

Let’s begin with the “informal codes.” Imagine a group of friends hanging out together. Rival gang leaders show up and begin to call one and then another of the members of this group to join them to prepare for war against the others.

democracy 5There isn’t a war, but the gang leaders—these gangs may be ethnic enclaves or nation-states with elected leaders—say that there is going to be a war and furthermore that there should be a war. It is a moral necessity. “Yo, Sam,” calls one of the aspiring leaders, “You have no business hanging around with people like George there. He’s one of THEM. Come over here and we’ll take the war to him.” There’s nothing remarkable about that sentiment—the awful tone deaf language I used to convey it is bad, sure, but you get the idea—and it is, in fact, the basis of shock jock radio.

But what does Sam say? This brings us to the “informal codes” David Brooks is talking about. Does he say he’s perfectly happy and there’s no reason for war? Does he say there are grievances, sure, but warfare isn’t the way to right them? Does he say that he is not under any circumstances going to turn against George, who is a member of his bowling team [2] and a fellow Eagles fan and a fellow member of the City Club and the parent of one of his son’s best friends?

He could say that. And if he were one of the first ones the gang leader called to man the barricades, he probably would say that. But if he is the fifth or sixth one to leave the group of friends, he is going to have to make a choice of communities. The gang community is a community of tight bonds and obvious purpose and is given a very satisfying cohesiveness by being “against” something. The group of friends, by contrast, is a community of weak bonds—the Bowling Alone kind of bonds—and an array of private purposes, and no obvious enemy. We are asking Sam to make a very difficult choice. David Brooks is asking Sam to make a very difficult choice.

What conditions will help Sam make that choice? Well, having some hope for his own or for his children’s economic future would help him. That doesn’t look like it is going to happen, at least not for hourly workers. Things are not getting better and they are not going to. That is not going to make Sam abandon George UNLESS some case can be made that George’s fortunes are better than Sam’s and/or that George can be, in any way at all, blamed for Sam’s dismal prospects.

The best solution to this problem—the problem we are dealing with is maintaining  the crucially important weak social bonds among diverse populations—is for incomes to increase. Failing that, some reason to hope that they will increase would help. And failing that, placing the blame where it will do the most good would help a great deal. [4]

Needless to say, none of these is a solution to the taste of the gang members. What would best serve them is despair about the current group of friends, anger about the prospects of continuing to hang out with them, and hope that something radical like joining a gang and going to war against your former “friends.” will do some good.

Loss of faith in democracy as a system

This is the second of Brooks’ three points and while I agree with it, I would put is somewhat differently. The Framers had very little trust of “the people” and counted on the elites—people like themselves—to steer the ship of state. Early in the history of the republic, we turned to mass-based political parties of which Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party was the first. The theory was that, while ordinary citizens could not run the government, they should be able to choose between two proposed directions and that is what the parties would give them.

This presupposes party voting. So…you might ask…what else is there? Well, there is “issue voting” but that requires a great deal of information about your issue and a focused effort to advance it. But mostly, there is “candidate voting.” Notice the Italian voter Brooks quotes.

“Salvini is a good man. I like him because he puts Italians first. And I guess he’s a fascist, too. What can you do?”

democracy 7The Fascist Party of Italy, about which I have headline knowledge only, is presumably anti-immigrant. They promise to take Italy back to some largely mythical “golden era” when things were as they should be. The party proposes programs about how to accomplish that. Let’s imagine, just to have something to refer to, that everyone who can’t prove he or she was born to an Italian father and mother, has to leave the country. What that means, for our example, is that Signor Salvini has to look at the proposals of the Fascist Party and say, “I don’t care about those.” You can hear that in “I guess he’s a fascist, too,” as if he were saying, “And I hear he also collects stamps.”

That focus on “the candidate,” or more precisely, the image of the candidate that has been marketed to you, simply precludes party platforms. And if you don’t think that we choose among market images of “presidents,” let me pass on to you this comment about President Bartlet and some other candidates.. [5]

A Detroit voter said, in 2003 that she would vote for Bartlet for president because, “I really know him better than Bush or Gore.”   And this is one small clip from the substantial research mixing factual and fictional “leaders.”  See Melissa Crawley’s superb Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington for the whole argument.

Social media as a killer of reasoned debate

I see this as less serious and more serious than Brooks offers it in this column. Reasoned debate has never been our strong suite. It has never been anyone’s strong suite. When the Enlightenment first offered reason and evidence as the solution to our problems, it proposed a program that most people simply cannot or will not follow. We don’t make up our minds rationally about things we care deeply about and trying to arrive at a decision that way is probably folly anyway. Furthermore, when the urban machines of the late 1800s were overturned by the Progressive movement, the idea was that paying voters (jobs, favors, amenities) to vote for the party machine was clunky and corrupt. People freed from the daily bribery of machine politics would be free to make up their own minds and to vote their own interests. That was the point at which rates of voting plummeted to levels that are now among the lowest in the industrial world.

Those two watershed moments—the Enlightenment embrace of rationalism and the Progressive affirmation of individually determined self-interest—are the perfect setup for party politics. You don’t have to reason; there are talking points available if you really have to talk to anyone. You don’t have to know your own interest; the party will find and press your hot button issues so that you “feel represented,” whether you are or not. None of those requires “rational debate,” and both, in fact, are alternatives to it. So the structural problem was with us long before social media.

On the other hand, social media did exacerbate the problem. The problem of social media is often said to be that it locks us into monolithic ghettoes of value and fact. Everyone in “my group,” —and that term can now be extended to refer to people who watch the same news stations, who read the same blogs, and who share their opinions online with remarkably similar groups,—feels the same way. [6]. That is a severe difficulty, I grant. It is hard to “debate” anyone when everyone’s views are the same.

But I think there is a worse problem and the social media are not adjunct to this one. They are at the very heart of it. And that is the erosion of the distinction between gossip and truth. Big words, I know. But not too big.

I am not a big fan of “the truth.” My notion of what “a truth” is is just a proposition which can be richly supported by evidence. Needless to say, conflicting propositions can be supported by evidence—really good evidence, not just academic experts for hire by Big Pharma—and we turn then to which propositions really matter. This is the battle among “truths” that Thomas Kuhn popularized in the 1960s and ‘70s and that has left a lasting mark on scientific debate. [7]

democracy 6But if, in the present context, the alternative to truth is gossip, then I vote for truth—even for “truthiness.” [8] When you live in a small village, you know you can pass along “information” you got from one person, because it is likely to be true, but not “information” from another person because he or she–not just “she” as in the picture– is a notorious gossip and just passes along what he or she has heard, without assessing the likelihood of it. Life is the same is small organizations. You get a sense of who screens his remarks for the likelihood that some piece of information is true and who just pass anything on.

But life among the social media is not like that. That’s what makes the Russian meddling in what were once “American debates” so perilous. Anyone can set up a platform called Americans for Truth and Justice and disseminate the most frightful tales. This is the real “fake news” because it is valued  only for the effect it has, not for any data being shared or any real opinions expressed. It is the likely effect alone that matters and no one knows who you are.

What the social media have done is to make is possible to “pass along to friends” allegations about which you know nothing. You become, by consenting to that process, a “platform,” rather than a person. No one says of a platform, “it provides information you can count on.” A platform is just an electronic bulletin board; it cannot conceivably have any integrity. And when millions of Americans, accepting the presuppositions of the social media, disseminate to their friends allegations about which they know nothing, they are just gossiping. [9]


So I agree with David Brooks that it is not so much Trump himself, but the conditions that promote “Trump-ism” that are our real concern. Of the three such concerns Brooks named, I think the most dangerous is probably the effect of social media. If our reliance on social media has finally eradicated the difference between truth (what can be shown to be true) and mere allegation, then we have finally crossed a bridge we will not be able to re-cross.

Ignorance can be combatted by information. Prejudice can be combatted by experience. Even mistrust can be combatted, under some circumstances, by repeated trustworthy words and actions. But is nothing can be established as true—nothing at all—unless we like it, then we have gone too far and will not be able to come back.

That’s the threat. It isn’t just Trump.

[1]This may be the place to say that since the rise of President Trump to power, I have come to value Brooks’s good sense and conservative decency more than I ever did during the Obama administration.
[2] This kind of relationship is the source of Robert Putnam’s article, and later book, “Bowling Alone.” We used to have lots of casual acquaintances who re not like us. It turns out that those mattered more than anyone but Putnam thought.
[3] One of my favorite lines from South Pacific is De Becque’s retort to Capt. Brackett. Capt. Brackett: “We’re asking you to help us lick the Japanese. It’s as simple as that. We’re against the Japanese.”
De Becque: “I know what you are against. What are you for?”
[4] Which brings me to my own favorite field of study. Placing the credit or the blame for some event is one of the most politically fraught decisions citizens can make.
[5] The TV show, The West Wing, hasn’t been broadcast for more than a decade now, but a lot of people know that President Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, was a very appealing president. His only real liability was being entirely fictional.
[6] The word “feel” has been transformed into a much more general word, now meaning “what I think.” Tom Lehrer once introduced his satirical song, Vatican Rag, by saying that the Catholic church’s new use of secular music has “inspired me with the thought that…” The copy I have renders that transition as “…but I feel…” That’s the transformation I’m talking about.
[7] Briefly, Kuhn argued that one set of presuppositions for research (a paradigm) cannot be shown to be better than another apart from the comparative utility of one paradigm or the other. Ultimately, it is not the truth, but the utility, of research designs that causes some to live and others to die.
[8]Truthiness, according to Stephen Colbert, is “the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.”
[9] Some have complained that this standard would require them to “fact check” everything, but, of course, that is not true. You would only have to check what you were going to disseminate. You are perfectly free to put it in your trash and/or send a snarky note to the person who sent it to you.

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Being “snakebit”

I gave a small lecture recently to a Lenten class at our church. It was more a rant, really, but they seemed to be a tolerant mood. I called some scripture texts “flat” in the way a Pepsi might get “flat” if you opened it and left it out for a few hours.

But that’s not the only way to discover flat texts. There are some texts that, if you see snakebit 6what is being said, simply bristle with aggression or twist with implication and you never really noticed. That’s why it was flat to you. And when you notice what is being said, you wonder how you ever managed to pass it by as if it were not remarkable.

The class I taught fell between a church service—just before my class—and a Vespers’s service late in the afternoon. John 3:16 and a few surrounding verses were read at both services, [1] but the Numbers passage (Chapter 21) was read only at Vespers and Numbers shines a very bright light on John 3. And I read John 3 as if I had just been awakened—which is unkind, but just about accurate.

Having been raised in the church, I am familiar with John 3:14. It is a kind of taxiing passage to prepare you to take off at John 3:16. And I think that rhetorically, that is just the way John uses it. But today I want to look at what it actually says and play a little with the implications.

Jesus says [2]

14 as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up 15so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.[3]

The Fiery Snakes

Presumably, the reference to the snake directed the attention of all his hearers back to the incident in the desert, when God sent poisonous snakes among the Israelites to call them to repentance. I know that sounds odd, but that is the perspective of the authors of that story in Numbers. Here is that passage from Numbers 21.

4They left Mount Hor by the road to the Sea of Suph, to skirt round Edom. On the way the people lost patience. 5They spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert? For there is neither food nor water here; we are sick of this meagre diet.’ 6 At this, God sent fiery serpents among the people; their bite brought death to many in Israel. 7The people came and said to Moses, ‘We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh and against you. Intercede for us with Yahweh to save us from these serpents.’ Moses interceded for the people, 8 and Yahweh replied, ‘Make a fiery serpent and raise it as a standard. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will survive.’ 9Moses then made a serpent out of bronze and raised it as a standard, and anyone who was bitten by a serpent and looked at the bronze serpent survived.

Let’s look at the pattern first. My reason for doing that is that I believe John is reminding his readers of the whole sequence of events, not just the climax. So the people lost patience (v. 4) and spoke against God (v.5). So God sent fiery serpents (v.6) and a lot of people died. Then they repented (v. 7) and God provided a solution of sorts (v. 8,9 more on that later) and those who accepted the solution God offered, survived. Presumably, the others did not. It is that sequence I am referring to as “the pattern.”

Clearly, Jesus says he is like the snake who was lifted up. [4] And he says that salvation is available to those who “believe on” him. “Believing on” is the analog to “looking at” in Numbers.

snakebit 1But what is John saying about everyone else? That takes us back to the wilderness. The snakes were a punishment from God and they afflicted Israelites generally. They did not seek out the ones who had been complaining and bite them and leave the rest alone. Furthermore, God did not withdraw the snakes when the people repented; God just provided a remedy for some of the Israelites. And to be saved from death, the Israelites had to “look at” the bronze snake on the pole.

There are some oddities in this account when you look at it carefully, but the essential transaction is very clear. If you believe what Moses says—and he did, after all, do that thing at the Red Sea—and you are bitten by a snake, all you have to do is go to the pole and look at the bronze snake and you will be healed. In cause and effect terms, this is like taking an aspirin when you have a headache.

There were some people, surely, who didn’t believe Moses and refused to do somethingsnakebit 2 as nonsensical as “looking at a snake on a pole.” [5] Believing Moses wasn’t always the obvious thing to do. He had had his good moments and his bad moments. And they had just had their hands collectively slapped about the golden calf and here is this “brazen image” thing again. But there is something very persuasive about feeling that you are dying from a poisonous bite and looking at the snake on the pole as you were told to do and recovering from the poison. People who had seen that done might very plausibly exhort others to “take the treatment” and be saved.

The Cursed Condition

John draws on all of that, but the analogy is stark. Jesus says that he, himself is the snake, and that he is going to be “lifted up,” which is the term John uses for crucifixion. So where does that leave the people he is speaking to? If Jesus is the remedy, in the same sense that the snake was the remedy, then the people he is talking to are snakebit. [6]

Several substantial problems flow from this. First, John’s use of this analogy comes at a time of substantial conflict. Quite a few of John’s slurs against “the Jews” have the rhetorical flavor of “Yeah, and your mother wears army boots!” Second, this relates to a condition, not to an event. A guy who has been bitten by a snake knows when and where. There is no “event” of “not believing in Jesus.” That is a condition. Furthermore, it is a condition fully sanctioned by the traditions of your people.

Third, while “looking at a snake” is an action clearly understood and immediately taken, “believing in” Jesus is neither. It is not “an action”—thousands of Billy Graham appeals to the contrary notwithstanding—and it is not clearly understood. What on earth does “believing” mean in this context? And what does “eternal life” mean? [7] The hearers didn’t seem to know.

And finally, there is a much different role for evangelists in John’s setting. “Evangelists” snakebit 3are people who tell the good news. In the desert, the good news is that you really don’t have to die because you were bitten by this snake. You can go to the pole and look at the snake and you will live. Not “eternally,” but you will not die today. People who carried that message to their friends and neighbors who would otherwise by dead by tomorrow, were carrying “good news” indeed.

The role of the evangelist—the bringer of good news—in John’s account is that however you might feel about your life, you are, in fact, cursed. You are “snakebit.” And for this implausible diagnosis, we offer an equally implausible treatment. “Believe in” Jesus. That is like “looking at the snake” and it will have the same effects. It will keep you from dying. That is the role of the evangelist in John.

So the premise of the “if I be lifted up” passage is that you are all snakebit and I am the way God has provided for you not to die. That’s the premise. That’s what makes everything else in John 3 understandable. This isn’t at all like Matthew’s scribe (Chapter 13) who brings treasures, both old and new, out of the treasury. It isn’t like Luke’s (Chapter 5) wonderful old wine in comfortable old wineskins. This is a blanket diagnosis of the condition of life the hearers are experiencing but not understanding.

And I thought that text was flat? What on earth was I thinking? [8]

[1] The lectionary readings for the fourth week in Lent in Year B include readings from Numbers 21, John 3, Psalm 107, and Ephesians 2
[2] This is the Johannine Jesus speaking and as I read it, he is directly addressing the issues contemporary with the writing of John’s gospel. The church and the synagogue were, by the end of the First Century, in full contact battle with each other.
[3] All scripture quotations are from the New Jerusalem Bible.
[4] If you like doubling back on the metaphor and you are drawn to the role of the “serpent” in the Garden of Eden, please don’t let me stand in your way.
[5] Naaman couldn’t understand why he had to bathe in the waters of the Jordan when there were so many better rivers back home in Aram. It took world class staff work to get him to do it.
[6] It’s a recent word, first recorded in 1957, but it was so apt that I decided to use it anyway. Merriam-Webster says it means “having or experiencing a period of bad luck” but the Urban Dictionary comes closer to the uses I have heard when it identifies it as “cursed.”
[7] The Greek is zoē aiōnion, which can legitimately be translated “eternal life,” but which can just as legitimately be translated “life of the ages” or “life for the ages.” That expression refers much more clearly to a kind of life, not to an extent of time, which is why I prefer it.
[8] Heartfelt thanks to Caroline Litzenberger, who spoke briefly at Vespers and laid these two texts down side by side for us and who, in doing that, knew full well what she was doing.


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Nationalism for Progressives

The title points to a connection I am not comfortable with. I am going to try to get over that today. This essay rests on two pieces from the New York Times. On March 4 by Yasha Mounk; the other by David Brooks just a few days earlier.

Everyone who has not been living in a cave for the last 20 years knows David Brooks. [1] Yasha Mounk is new to me and if he is new to you, too, it might help you see his argument in a more meaningful context if I share a little of what I have learned about him. He is German, born in Munich in 1982. A big part of his political identity is his Jewish background.  He is currently a lecturer at Harvard and he appears to have an instinct for looking at the other side of the picture. I like that.

In The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State (2017) he shows, according to a reviewer, “why the Age of Responsibility is pernicious—and how it might be overcome.” He argues, according to other reviewers, that it is also pervasive and powerful. “Pernicious, Pervasive, and Powerful.  That doesn’t sound like a promising start to me.

nationalism 1How a movement like that could be “overcome,” I have no idea and, in fact, it makes me think that someone in the marketing department at Harvard University Press added that last little bit to sell more books.

The current hot book of Mounk’s is The People v. Democracy: Why our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (2018). If my guess about his 2017 book title was correct, then I am guessing that the same guy in marketing added the last five words of this title. And, in fact, my introduction to Mounk’s work—which was yesterday—supports my guess about the marketing department. Let me tell you why.

Nationalism is like a half-wild beast. As long as it remains under our control, it can be of tremendous use. But if we abandon it, others are sure to step in, prodding and baiting the beast to bring out its most ferocious side. For all the well-founded misgivings about it, we have little choice but to domesticate it as best we can.

That is the last paragraph, the conclusion, of his piece, “How Liberals Can Reclaim Nationalism.” When you look at the conclusion (above) and then at the title, you know something odd is going on. The hypothetical guy in the marketing department at Harvard University Press may have a brother who writes headlines for the New York Times. You can’t get from the headline to the conclusion. So which is the real Yasha Mounk?

Here is what he says in the New York Times piece.

“…nationalism began to enjoy an astonishing resurgence. President Trump casts himself as a nationalist doing battle with globalists. He’s not alone. From Poland to Venezuela, authoritarian populists have exploited nationalism to disable democracy. In China, Turkey and Russia, dictators have played on nationalist sentiments to concentrate power in their own hands. Institutions like the European Union are on the back foot.”

And he concludes:

For the foreseeable future, nationalism is likely to remain a defining political force.

You would think that if things are as dismal as that, he might just stop writing at that point. But he doesn’t. He proposes that, while “nationalism” has always been one kind of thing, we—the good guys—can take it and make it another kind of thing.

On the other hand:

Its [nationalism’s] modern form took shape as a result of deliberate political choices and the construction of elaborate myths.

Now Mounk intends that observation to be encouraging. Nationalism was “constructed,” he says, meaning that it is not “natural” in the sense that gravity is natural. And as part of this construction, it was supported and protected by “elaborate myths.” I think that by “myths,” he means something like “spin,” as if shining the light of truth on it is going to destroy it. But Mounk is Jewish and he ought to have more respect for ‘myths.” Myths aren’t spin; they go down into your soul; they become the cement that holds societies together. Shining the light of truth on it mobilizes people with rifles who want to shoot the light out while there is still time.

In short, he is trying to build toward the project he has in mind, which is, please recall, “domesticating nationalism.” But the more he does that, the more he puts me in mind of his forebears, who scouted out the promised land (Numbers 13) and reported that it was full of giants and could not be conquered.

So if “nationalism” is the promised land, what will we (progressives) have to do to conquer (domesticate) it. Well…different things than we have been doing, for sure. Consider this.

One common reaction to the dangerous excesses of nationalism has been to forgo the need for any form of collective identity, exhorting people to transcend tribal allegiances completely. But for better or probably worse, it’s easier to be moved by the suffering of people with whom we have some form of kinship. That is why nationalism remains one of the most powerful vehicles for expanding our circle of sympathy.

So first we urged people to forego—we probably said “transcend”—nationalism entirely and in the process, we said some nasty things about the people who wouldn’t do that. Some of those things are going to have to be retracted. That isn’t going to be easy. We can only hope that Mounk is wrong in thinking that we will have to do it.

Then we have to move away from the victim orientation to the extent that it is something we do rather than forging a new, more inclusive national identity. It is relatively easy, psychologically speaking, to anguish over the sufferings of people like ourselves or the groups who need the protections of groups like ourselves. Those are good things to do, but they won’t rebuild a better nationalism.

Another thing progressives have done is to “celebrate more narrow forms of collective identity, such as race or religion.” (We will get a good example of that from David Brooks in a few paragraphs.)  If we expand on the two examples he gave, it takes us right to the powerful tribalization the U. S. is experiencing now. Being “educated” or “enlightened” or “tolerant” or “wealthy” can name tribes just as well as “race or religion can.” And sinking back into those identities, rather than pushing on to a more expansive and engaging nationalism, is not going to get the job done.

And finally:

Convinced that they would be unable to redirect nationalism toward their own ends, many of the most open-minded segments of society long ago gave up on the fight to determine its meaning….Instead of exhorting their fellow citizens to live up to their nations’ highest ideals, many activists seem content with denouncing past and present injustices.

Progressives, according to this charge, have given up on nationalism as such. If “nationalism” is something to be abandoned in the progressive march toward “true humanity,” then there is no point in rescuing it by redefining it. And that is particularly true if you want to say that true nationalism—we are going to have to say “true patriotism” eventually—means living up to our nation’s highest ideals.

nationalism 6Does that mean giving up “denouncing past and present injustices?” It might. A steady diet of such denunciations is like a steady diet of salt. Salt has its uses as a condiment, but treating it as an aliment—as the entrée—is not going to work. We still get to do all the denunciation that doesn’t get in the road of the job. So we won’t have to give it up completely. The job, as Mounk gives it to us, is redefining “patriotism” as a new more inclusive, more inspiring form of our common quest.

I hope Mounk understands—I don’t think he does, but it’s too early to make a final judgment—that this new quest is going to have to be supported and protected by a robust infrastructure of myth. The tasks we undertake that are held together by the stories and symbols of mythology will succeed. Those who are not similarly protected and inspired will fail.

So just as he has undervalued, as I see it, the power of the old nationalist mythology, so he under-appreciates the need for a new nationalist mythology; for a mythology of “patriotism.” And when we move to take that seriously, we lose not only the people who like narrow exclusive nationalism better, but also people who think we can do without mythology at all.  I’m not sure we can do without both groups at the same time.

At this point I would like to turn briefly to David Brooks’s piece. Brooks’ goals are fully compatible, I think, with Mounk’s, but Brooks has been out on the street [2]talking to people and he has some idea where they are at the moment.

Brooks asked them a probing question about “the American Story” and gave a little prompt of his own to guide the answers.

We were the lucky inheritors of Jefferson and Madison, Whitman and Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy and King. Our ancestors left oppression, crossed a wilderness and are trying to build a promised land.

It didn’t work very well

They looked at me like I was from Mars. “That’s the way powerful white males talk about America,” one student said.

I have a lot of trouble with an answer like that. It identifies the social location of the speaker and accepts or dismisses the message on that basis. If there is to be “a story,” –a common story, not all our stories together–who is going to tell it?

As to what they, themselves have been taught about the history of our country.

Others made it clear that the American story is mostly a story of oppression and guilt. “You come to realize the U.S. is this incredibly imperfect place.” “I don’t have a sense of being proud to be an American.” Others didn’t recognize an American identity at all: “The U.S. doesn’t have a unified culture the way other places do,” one said.

I think the information Brooks brings us about “the word on the street”—especially that street—is profoundly disturbing. It dismisses makers of the story on the basis of race, gender, and social position. The instruction they have had about the history of their country is “mostly a story of oppression and guilt.” That doesn’t sound like the kind of story anyone is going to rally around.

So I would be discouraged just by the information Brooks brings us; just the information. But when you look at the information in the light of the project Mounk is talking about, it is worse. It is much worse.

Mounk said, remember: “.…Instead of exhorting their fellow citizens to live up to theirnationalism 2 nations’ highest ideals, many activists seem content with denouncing past and present injustices.” That is what he said is going to have to be overcome if we are to see clearly how to re-orient nationalism toward the most crucial of the progressive’s goals.

So I admit the project—the goal defined by Mounk, the starting point by Brooks—is discouraging, but I don’t see that we have an alternative. If “nationalism” is the wave of the future, then we need to make it a wave worth riding.

[1] I have had my troubles with David Brooks, but his early, consistent, and principled opposition to the Trump phenomenon and everything associated with it has made me feel as he and I are fellow soldiers, at least for the moment.
[2] It’s a very well appointed street— Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago and Davidson .

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How to thrive while living

In May of last year, Carol Marat wrote a piece called “How to Thrive While Living Alone.” Nearly everything in my response to this lovely piece could be construed as criticism of it, so I want to take the time necessary at the beginning to say that I have no criticisms to make of it. At all.

On the other hand, Ms. Marat pushed my thinking in some directions it would not otherwise have gone and I appreciate the help. Two of those directions are these.

  • How is “living alone” different from living with a mate? Answer” not as much as you might think.
  • And, is there a general model for meeting your own needs—not those of “elderly people living alone” but your needs in particular. Answer: Yes there is. Surprisingly, I have one in mind.

Living “with”

Bette and I had been married for a long time before we began to be married to each alone 6other. We were glad to have found each other and we have enjoyed the marriage fully, but both of us know that marrying each other was not going to be “the answer.” Neither of us, in Shel Silverstein’s well-known parody, was “missing a piece.”

Neither of us, in other words, was going to be “the answer,” the crucial resource to whatever problems each of us had been carrying for years. I think that only very young people imagine that marriage will do that for them. Another way to say that is that each of us is “alone” a good deal of the time and whether we feel lonely or not is really up to each of us. It is, in that respect, just like not having a mate.

That is what brought me to my first reflection about Carol Marat’s piece. If these are the things one ought to do to “thrive while living alone,” how does she imagine “living with a mate?” Let’s deal with the “what to do” part first.

How to live alone and thrive

  • The first is to be clear about how you want to live.
  • The second is that understanding what your needs are enables you to live authentically.
  • The third is that it is crucially important to forgive yourself.
  • The fourth is that honoring the special traits that make you who you are in crucially important.

Well…I like the idea of doing all the things she says are important if you are going to live alone. Those four ideas—some of them go too far for my own personal taste—are good guidance.

But when I try to think how she must construct the situation of living with a mate, it all begins to seem odd to me. So, let’s just negate each of those—not implying that this represents Ms. Marat’s views—and see where that takes us.

  • The first is that if you live with a mate, it is not necessary to be clear about how you want to live.

I can see why that would be true if you planned to be completely subordinate to your mate. “I don’t need to be clear; she will be clear and I will comply.” Or maybe she imagines the opposite to be the union of the two persons in something like a Vulcan mind meld. [2]

If, on the other hand, you think of yourself as an active presence in the life of your mate, alone 4.jpgit is vital that you get some clarity about how you want to live. For one thing, he will want to know that because he will want to take it into account in his own choices. I would think that being clear about how you want to live is fundamental to living in love and harmony with your mate.

  • The second is that if you live with a mate, it is not necessary to live authentically, therefore it is not necessary to have the understanding of yourself that would allow it. I think that saying that out loud is close enough to refutation that I can just let it go.
  • The third is that is that if you live with a mate it is not necessary to forgive yourself. I guess the idea is that the mate will do the forgiving. If you have ever had the experience of having your mate forgive you for some transgression for which you have been unable to forgive yourself, you know that doesn’t work at all. Forgiving yourself is the foundation of your forgiveness or your mate on anyone else; it is foundation of your accepting and benefiting from forgiveness that is offered to you. [3]
  • The fourth is that if you live with a mate, you don’t need to honor the special traits that make you who you are. This is the most difficult one, I think, because it is problematic even in Ms. Marat’s formulation of it. Just to finish off the exercise, I will say that she may be thinking that the mate will understand and honor those traits—I would call them constitutive traits—so that you don’t have to.

First, not all the traits that make up who I am—my constitutive traits—are good. I am defined by my sloth and my greed and my cowardice as much as I am by my energy and my satiety [4]and my courage. So that relates to me as a person. If I go further that think of myself as one member of a partnership,  some of my traits that are constitutive also for the partnership. They are important for me and important also for my contribution to the relationship.

Is there another way to approach this question?

Of course. Not that there is anything wrong with this one. It’s just not the one I use. Because I have a notion of what kind of life I am capable of living, I have a notion also of what kind of fuel I will require and how much of it, in order to live that life. I call those “psycho-social resources,” but that’s because I went to grad school late in life (I was in my mid-30s) and mined the literature for the language I needed. You can call it something else if you like.

alone 5

This turns out to be a very complicated arrangement, so I am going to cut it back to the basics for today. [5] That little formulation requires that I know what I need and that I take responsibility for acquiring it. It would be easy to argue that I could be a better person if everyone were nicer to me, but that way of putting it doesn’t begin where I need to begin, which is: what choices do I have before me? [6]

It also requires that I exercise some discretion about the quality of the resources I am using—“empty calories” is a convenient analogy—and the quantity. I need “enough” of the right kind of resources if I am to be who I want to be and do what I want to do (or am called to do, as in Footnote 5).

alone 3If I know that about my own needs—not what I need to keep trudging on, but what I need to truly thrive—and if I take responsibility for acquiring those, then the distinction between “alone” and “with a partner” simply melts away. “Doing what I need to live the life I am trying to live” is, to say it this way, a more general formulation. It is more fundamental.

It doesn’t point to some different set of requirements of the single and the bound. It points to the common requirements of the two conditions, allowing that precisely how one goes about it will vary as one’s circumstances vary.

That seems like something worth knowing.

[1] I might be missing a few now, but that’s the matter of another post entirely.
[2] Just a note for non-Trekkies. “The Vulcan mind meld or mind probe was a telepathic link between two individuals. It allowed for an intimate exchange of thoughts, thus in essence enabling the participants to become one mind, sharing consciousness in a kind of gestalt.”
[3] If anyone imagines that “forgiveness” is the quick and easy way to restore equilibrium, he is in for a shock. That are many transgressions that require truly understanding what you have done and truly seeking the pardon of those you have harmed and even, in some circumstances, doing what is necessary to heal the harm you have done. All those re compatible with “forgiving yourself” and may sometimes be prerequisite to it.
[4] Just a plea for tolerance from the reader. If English has another word for “enough-ness,” I don’t know what it is. I know “satiety” is unfamiliar, but I’m going with it as the best word I know for that condition.
[5] And these basics will need to skip over the resources I need to live a life of Christian discipleship. That commitment changes both the resource base and the kinds of things for which I will need resources. No chance to deal with either here.
[6] It is also true that “making do with less” is a choice I might make. It isn’t only being responsible to acquire “enough” resources, it is also recognizing that there are not always going to be enough resources and that I need to deal with that situation, too.


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Goodbye, Billy

When Robert Dahl died some years ago, I wrote an essay I called “Robert Dahl, R.I.P” That seemed about right, but today, as I am saying goodbye to Billy Graham, it occurs to me that a big part of Robert Dahl was Yale and a big part of Billy Graham was rural North Carolina. I think I might have managed “Requiescat in pace, William Franklin Graham.” but nobody called him William Franklin Graham. [1] so I have settled for “Goodbye, Billy.”

According to the New York Times, Billy died early in the morning of February 21. Now the wars will begin. Billy’s own goals were narrowly focused. He was an evangelist. He held mass rallies all over the world. [2] It is what he was good at.

billy 3Unfortunately, he was a very popular man and everyone wanted a piece of him, including every president of the U. S. since Truman. Psalm 18 refers to God as our “shield and buckler” and that is a good thing, but President Nixon used Billy Graham as his shield and buckler and that was a bad thing. Billy hoped to be spiritually helpful to the presidents he counseled, and he may have been. He was, without question, politically helpful.

Billy was the cleanest of the clean in the sometimes sordid field of American evangelists. He didn’t get rich. He didn’t have affairs. The books of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association were open to scrutiny. He doesn’t ever seem to have really desired fame except as a tool to use in his work.

He was a social conservative. It’s hard to see how he could have been anything else, given his background. That made him an easy target for feminists and gay rights activists. He was likely to apologize to the people whom he had offended—real apologies, not the current “non-apology apologies we hear today [3]. He considered himself bound by the same standard of conduct he preached, and I think that’s admirable.

I don’t have any trouble admiring Billy Graham, but his view of what Christianity was all about has been has been one of the major entrapments of my life. I have spent all of the fifty years since my late 20s trying to get out of the box that Billy lived  in preached from and believed in. That’s really what I want to talk about today.
I have been thinking about Billy anyway because last week, Bette and I watched an episode of The Crown in which he played a role. [4] Here is the beginning of his sermon.

As I considered what to preach about today, I considered various topics which speak to me personally. but I thought that i would start with a simple question. What is a Christian?

The Bible tells us. Colossians 1:27 says that a Christian is a person in whom Christ dwells. It’s Christ in you. The hope of glory. It means that you have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. That encounter has taken place. You have received Christ as savior. And that is what a Christian is.

That seems quite straightforward, but, of course, it isn’t. It is hard to say just what “a person in whom Christ dwells” means. It is hard to say clearly what “personal relationship with Christ” means. It is hard to say what “encounter” must mean, even though it is easy to say what Billy means by it. Similarly with “received” Christ, rather than “recognized” or “admitted” or even “acknowledged.” All that language is familiar and meaningful in the rural south and in evangelical circles everywhere. When I say that it isn’t straightforward, I mean it is hard to explain to people from other Christian traditions and that (now) includes me.  It is completely straightforward in Billy’s home culture.

billy 1The matter gets further complicated in The Crown in the next scene where Queen Elizabeth has a private audience with Billy, after the chapel service. She compliments Billy on his clear exposition of the demands of Christian faith.

Elizabeth: In an increasingly complex world we all need certainty and you provide it.

Billy; Oh that’s not me. The scriptures provide it.

“Certainty” Billy says, is what the scriptures provide, but I don’t think so. One of the things I did at Wheaton that has served me well over the years is study Greek. Without any Greek, you are pretty much stuck with “the English translation,” which in my youth was the King James Bible.

The King James Bible does indeed say what Billy says it says. “ to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” But the Greek makes it clear that “you” is a plural preposition, so Billy could have said “Christ in y’all” and been truer to the text.

Screen Shot 2018-02-22 at 6.04.10 AM.png
The ‘umín in line three (fifth word from the left) is “you plural,” not, as Billy uses it, “you singular.” So a better way to translate it would be “Christ among you,” or “Christ in your presence.” which is certainly what Paul or a disciple of his (however you judge the authorship of Colossians) meant. The New Jerusalem Bible catches that nicely as “ It was God’s purpose to reveal to them how rich is the glory of this mystery among the gentiles; it is Christ among you, your hope of glory.”

So the relentless individualism which is so characteristic of Billy’s slice of conservative Protestantism is not at all well served by the text he chose for Queen Elizabeth in this episode.

According to all the Bible study I have been doing for the last few decades, the first job of studying scripture is to find out what the author meant in addressing the text to some particular body of Christians. And when I have a chance to teach at our church in Portland, I rail against the common practice of taking the text as it appears and applying it immediately to our own situation and language context. What I would say to my class is that when we understand what Paul (or whoever) meant is saying that to the church at Colossae, then we have a better chance of understanding what that same text—in its context, of course—can mean to us.

And if one of my students said that scripture provides certainty, meaning thatbilly 2 we make safely snatch those words out of context and apply them to ourselves, I would say, “Actually, we can’t. They don’t apply directly to us. They apply indirectly to us. They matter enormously, but you have to deal with the thought, not just the words.”

So I have been battling “Graham-ism” all my adult life. It has been costly. When so much of your work is showing that the passage does’t really mean that, it is hard to turn the corner and commit yourself to an openminded and open-hearted consideration of what the passage does mean and what effect it would have on your own life if you took it seriously. Turning that corner has been the work of decades now and I still lapse back into criticism when I am off my game.

But I don’t think I would have battled Billy. People who knew him said he didn’t spend all of his time being “the big deal evangelist.” He was just a thoughtful and kindhearted Christian man and I think I would have liked him.

[1] When I was at Wheaton. Billy’s alma mater and mine, the President, V. Raymond Edman, had that same difficulty. He was bestowing an honorary doctorate on Dr. Graham in 1956. As he was putting the hood over Billy’s neck, he said, “William Franklin Graham…” and then he stopped as if that was inappropriate, and revised it to “…Billy.” I think if President Edman had had his way, Wheaton’s most famous alum would have been known as Dr. Billy.
[2] Including racially integrated rallies in Mississippi. He wouldn’t do it any other way. This North Carolina son said, “I will not preach Jim Crow.”
[3] He once ran afoul of the Nixon secret taping machine in the Oval Office where he was recorded saying some scurrilous things about Jews and their effect on American society. He didn’t remember saying it, but when the tape showed he had, he went to his Jewish friends and apologized.
[4] This is Season 2, Episode 6, “Vergangenheit.” Queen Elizabeth asks Billy to preach in the chapel in Buckingham Palace and the section of the script I will be using here is from that episode. It is a fact, however, that Billy and Queen Elizabeth were friends and she knighted him in 2001.


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What to do while you are dying

It’s a little more complicated than that title suggests. Not a great deal, but a little. [1]

It will simplify things a great deal to make the distinction between “it,” the body that serves us well or ill by turns, and “I,” meaning the sense of myself I have. This is a crude distinction, of course, but I am relying on your own knowledge of your life in which on some days “you” are just fine, while “it” is acting up; then there are other days when “it” is entirely free of any symptoms at all and “you” are miserable.

I live in a Continuing Care Retirement Center (CCRC) and when I moved here a year and a half ago, I told friends I trusted that I was coming here to die. It was only the phrasing, not the idea, that was open to misunderstanding. That phrasing could be understood “coming here for the purpose of dying” as if it were a hospice. The friends to whom I trusted that phrasing knew I didn’t mean that. What I meant is that I wouldn’t have to move—or be moved—to any other place when either “it” or “I” neared the end. [2] It was a very comforting thought to me and still is.

Death as a commonplace

So…where I live, a lot of people die. That means that I get to see all the paraphernalia that goes with all those deaths. A lot of ambulances pull up to this address. There are lots of notices on the front desk that someone died yesterday. There are lots of memorial services, some of them here in the Penthouse. [3] The families of the recently deceased residents show up, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren having no clear idea what is going on.

death 1The same thing happens on the social side. A resident I have gotten to know in my brief time here shows up in the little coffee nook where world problems are hashed out every afternoon [4] and today, he has a cane. Tomorrow—or some tomorrow or other—it is a walker. Then a wheelchair; then a wheelchair with oxygen. Then he doesn’t come all the time; then he doesn’t come at all. These are perfectly ordinary signs that “it” is failing.

And that brings us to the meaning of “you” in the title. Nothing I have said bears at all on the “you” of that resident and friend who kept coming to Drasko’s Seminar. He may very well continue to be as cantankerous or irenic or liberal or conservative or as disciplined or dilatory as ever. It’s harder to be cantankerous when you’re on oxygen, but aside from that, everything is the same.

This person is the best answer I know to the question of what to do while you are dying. Living. That is the best thing to do while you are dying. You keep going to the places you can go; you keep hanging out with the people you used to hang out with. You keep on pointing out to them that they missed the whole point of movie by failing to appreciate the fundamental contradiction in the character of the eldest son. You keep hoping the Steelers can figure out a way to beat Jacksonville.

It should be pretty easy to nod your head affirmatively as you read through that paragraph. Maybe not the part about the Steelers. But because of where I live, I see it every day. There is nothing subjunctive about it for me, as if I were trying to imagine what it would feel like to be running with the bulls in Pamplona. It is subjective for me; it is experiential. I get to see these amazing people living fully—to the full extent of their capacity—even as “it” declines. It is a powerful experience for anyone with the eyes to see it and I count myself as one of the fortunate ones in that I have learned to see it for myself.

I had no idea when I moved here that you could continue to express all of who you are, subject only to the limitations of what “it” will allow. It sets a standard I can aspire to.

death 3The other side of that dichotomy is harder. The other side is when “you” begin to suffer losses so that you are “no longer yourself.” That’s the way they say it, but, of course, you are “yourself;” you are precisely the self you now are. You are not the self you used to be, of course, which is what everyone who uses that phrase is understood to mean. [5]

I have declined a good deal, myself, in what I would call “peripheral” functions. I don’t remember names and faces as well as I once did; I forget authors I have cited effortlessly for decades, and so on. These are “peripheral” not only because they allow more important functions to continue unimpeded, but also because quite a few of the people I live with are experiencing the same decrements of functioning. These deficits are something we share and that makes it easier to treat them as a standing joke at no one’s expense.

There are more fundamental losses, however. I don’t know what those are like. You can’t tell by looking and you can’t find out by asking. I am hoping that I could feel that I was doing my best under difficult circumstances, but I don’t know if dementia really allows you to feel that way. When the “you,” not the “it” declines, your standards for understanding what is going on decline as well.

Maybe it’s like this. When my father was well into his Alzheimer’s phase, he was visited by my brother Mark, a physician, and his wife, Carol. When they came into the room, Carol went over to him and kissed him on the cheek and said, “Hi, Dad.” Mark and Dad made conversation of some sort. I am sure it was generous and situationally appropriate because that is the way Mark would do it. When the visit was over, Mother asked Dad if he knew who that was who had visited. The question presumed the answer, “My son, Mark.”  The answer was, “His wife kissed me.”

I think the gift Mark gave was every bit as good as the gift Carol gave. For many years, Dad had been appreciative of the gifts Mark had to give, in part because they were so much like Dad’s gifts. But he wasn’t able to appreciate that kind of gift any more; he was still able to “understand” the kiss of an attractive and warm-hearted woman. Maybe that’s what it’s like.

Death as a brief interruption in the community’s life

The other thing I have noticed here, being a participant in a community that sees so many deaths, is how brief the period of public reflection is. I take great comfort in that.

There is always grieving when there is death, but grieving isn’t always the most death 4prominent response. When a person has lived a long and successful life, it is perfectly appropriate to celebrate that life as a whole and at the same time to mourn the loss the the person.

Then there is the question of the setting in which those emotions are noted. I, myself, have lost a wife I adored and I now believe that you never really get done grieving. It just comes and goes and you call it for what it is when it comes and you say a gentle goodbye when it goes. That personal level is one where grief doesn’t “go away;” it just comes and goes.

But there are smaller communities of friends—people you always went to the movies with or played bridge with or served on committees with—some of which should really have come with combat pay. The occasional return of the conversation to the member of our group who is no longer with us may continue for quite a while. But if the other members of the group keep on living—actively investing themselves in their lives—the death of that one member begins to recede. Other complicated events take up part of the space it once took. Also, the group that was once the “community that knew him” is itself reduced in number over time.

The public grieving is remarkably short. There is an equanimity that characterizes community life here. The death of one of us causes a ripple on the surface of the pond which we all notice. Some are able to comment more than others, but I have never seen the topic linger at this level—at the most general level—for more than a day or so.

We appear, as a community, to have made our peace with the loss of a friend. The death is most often not a surprise. It is on some occasions a relief for everyone—the person, his family, and all of us who knew them. If the effect of the death of a member were given in points of a Richter scale, I would say most deaths here are well below 3.0. That is what I hope for my own death. I would want to say, after the formal notice has been paid, “Go on with what you were doing;” meaning, “I know you were all busy living and I know that is what you should be doing. Please continue.”

There are people who have known me well and loved me dearly. I think I would hope for them the kind of grieving I have had for Marilyn. It comes and brings with it most often some really sweet memory, and then it goes and you smile with the memory. And then you go on living.

[1] Throughout, I will be distinguishing between things that are complicated, i.e. hard to understand, and things that are grievous. I am going to be thinking in this essay about how to understand things, not about what it might cost to endure them..
[2] “Nearing the end” gets more complicated when some parts of you are mechanical. I could hardly stop laughing when they told me last year that the battery in my pacemaker was guaranteed for ten years. It was hard to avoid the sense that I had just been given a warranty.
[3] I would like mine to be at our church because I understand my own life in fundamentally Christian terms, but if the setting were all that mattered to me, the Penthouse is a lovely place for a memorial service.
[4] For the sake of convenience, I will all it Drasko’s Seminar. That is what everyone else calls it, in honor of Drasko Jovanovic who, just by his presence, convenes the daily mix of attendees, of whom I am sometimes one.
[5] Just when “once” was is a little more complicated. It might mean “what I was like at the height of my powers.” More often, it seems to mean, “what I have been like in recent years.” But you still see once-beautiful women yearning for the effect on men they used to have and the same thing goes for once-authoritative men. That seems unnecessary and sad to me.

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