Sunday, August 31, 2008

perfect systems

“ . . . systems so perfect that no one will have to be good.”
-- T. S. Eliot, The Rock

Rev. Rick Warren asked both presidential candidates whether evil exists in the world. Both said that evil does exist. By answering this way, McCain showed that he is a conservative. By answering in the same way, Obama showed that he is not exactly a liberal.

When I went to church in St. Louis in the eighties, my minister several times read from the pulpit Eliot’s prophecy against modernism – what nowadays goes as liberalism. Because I was born, grew up, now live and will die a liberal, I cannot shake Eliot’s criticism. True conservatism – as opposed to the temper-tantrum that usurps the name – reminds us that it is hard to be good, and if we are not good not much good can come of us. True liberalism – as opposed to the appeasement that usurps the name – reminds us that few will be good where good is punished, and a world that persecutes virtue cannot expect to encounter much of it.

Pronouns are crucial. The conservative is on solid ground when he speaks in the first person: my conservative self knows that “we” – in fact “I” – must be good, particularly when it’s inconvenient. When conservatives migrate to the second person, when they proclaim that “you” must be good – you who are so obviously different from “me” – they become something else. My liberal self doesn’t like the second person, doesn’t want to be caught telling “you” what to do. The liberal has seen too many surgeons who would extract a splinter from your eye without removing timbers from their own. So the liberal elides the second person into a plural and anonymous third: my liberal self hopes that if “they” will only be just, there will be no awkward evil in the world.

In the liberal kingdom no one is accountable; those who do monstrous things prove themselves to be victims. A criminal is not a sinner but a symptom of societal disease. If only the “system” were not so bad, none of this would have happened. The liberal imperative is to change “the system” so that bad things will no longer be done and, in the words of that other King, we will all “just get along.”

When Nancy Reagan said “Just Say No,” she made liberals very angry. We were angry because she was so wrong; and we were angry because she was so right. She was wrong because you can’t demand that people say no in a world that provides no alternative yeses. She was right because even where there are good yeses some of us reject them. Virtue is not always its own reward, at least not right away. A good person remembers where home is. Like Odysseus, one must strap oneself to the mast and sail past immediate sirens of real pleasure. Otherwise, no matter how well made the boat, it ends on the rocks.

The more fun we have in judging, the more corrupt our judgment. Judgment itself becomes a siren. Yeshua said, “The judgment you hand out will be the judgment you get back. And the standard you apply will be the standard applied to you” (Annotated Scholars' Version). Not an analgesic or an aphrodisiac, judgment is a bitter pill we must take ourselves as we dish it to others. For conservatives, judgment is too much fun; for liberals, judgment is so awful that we put it off until a better tomorrow that never comes.

I think these thoughts because in Knoxville five weeks ago we Unitarians were assaulted by an evil. By medical or forensic technicalities of assessment that do not always follow common sense, the assailant may be insane: I await the judgment of experts. But to the essential question of whether he is an agent or a victim, the most likely answer is yes – the man is agent and victim. The victim has a claim on our solidarity. The agent will be judged for his abominable act. The victim and the agent are the same person. It’s enough to make your brain explode. But we’re liberals; we’re the ones who promised to live with ambiguity. As Captains Aubrey and Picard would say, “Make it so.”

I encourage readers to leave comments by clicking on the word "comment{s)" below.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

subway vision

We few, we happy few.
-- Henry V

I’m still a hospice chaplain. Our small circle hasn’t gotten any smaller. We’ve gone two weeks without more layoffs. How, one grieves, can a couple of hundred people who meant to do good, working under a revered brand name, have come to this? Our ministry flickers like a candle in a drafty hallway.

It is, after all, a ministry.

One morning on the way to work, I sat in the subway, angry at my bosses. Angry at the meeting that would start my day. Angry that, instead of telling the stories of the people who depended on us, we would speak obligatory words of jargon. We would throw across the table at each other for signature stacks of paper forms, documents bloated in idiocy, whose options and categories ruled out the truth. Documents that in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land prove we are doing what we have little time to do because we spend so much time creating documents that prove we do it. It was my job to open the meeting with a “meditation.” In my spiritual function I would invite my fellow clinicians to three hours of brain damage.

Unitarian Universalists are good at this kind of thing. We open meetings well. We always have a great quotation at hand, some pretty poem just metaphorical enough to be “inspiring” without sounding too pious for the resident atheist. I can do this. I have a thick file stuffed with pretty poems and thoughtful quotations.

A woman was standing in the subway car. As she talked with a girl who sat before her, she bent down to kiss her, consoling about a thing known only to themselves. I saw this mother comfort her daughter, and reach for her face with the right hand. As she stroked the girl’s cheek, her thumb went to the corner of the eye, doing that thing that mothers do when they wipe away a child’s tear. Then the train stopped, the door opened and the mother left the train.

Spirit, I said, leave me alone. Don’t talk to me now, I’m working on my meditation. I’m figuring out what to say to my Inter-Disciplinary Team. It’s hard enough without you breaking in on my process, you with your tricks and misdirections and surprises. Don’t mess with me. I’m not in the mood for it.

That was it. I had been given a vision. That’s what we are here for – to wipe away tears.

And that’s what I said at the Inter-Disciplinary Team meeting. No pretty poem. I said that I had met God that morning. I told them about the mother and how she wiped away tears. I said we had come here to wipe away tears, not to sign documents. No one will award us a grant so that we can sign documents. No one will put their mother in our care so that we can sign documents. No good clinician – no nurse, no doctor, no social worker, no chaplain – will come to work here so that they can sign documents. And yet we must sign documents, knowing all the while that this is not what we came here for. That is our pain. That is what we shed tears about. And anyone who doesn’t feel that pain probably shouldn’t be working here. This is a ministry. It’s not just chaplains who minister here; every one of us wipes away tears. Our work together is not a corporation but a ministry.

That inspiration was almost two years ago. There has been much, as they say, water under the bridge. The meetings are better now. We don’t throw stacks of documents at each other, because the documents are electronic and we can see them on the screen. We don’t speak in jargon any more: the ones who pounced on us if we spoke plain truth have left, and others who are more sensible have taken their place. We get to tell the stories. Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes we care for each other. And we don’t know whether the doors will be open tomorrow. Our ministry flickers like a candle in a drafty hallway. How can we, so few, be so happy in our work that might end tomorrow?

I encourage readers to make comments by clicking on the word "comment(s)" below.

Monday, August 4, 2008

different waters

Upon those who step into the same river different and different waters flow. They scatter and gather, come together and flow away, approach and depart.

-- Heraclitus of Ephesus

Already the water has changed. I said I am a hospice chaplain. My byline still says that I am a hospice chaplain. But the time I do this again, I may not be a hospice chaplain.

Our numbers – our “census” – keeps plunging. We can’t find new patients to replace the ones who die. But it’s not our fault; it’s not the fault of chaplains and other clinicians. Our bosses tell us that we are doing great work and are fully “compliant.” (Translate that into English and it means that we are not only spreading the love but also meeting the demands of bureaucracies.) The approval of our bosses is cold comfort, because it means there’s nothing we can do. We’re doing everything we can and the ship is sinking.

Some of us were laid off last week. Some will be laid off this week. But even before these amputations the numbers have plunged again. It’s not easy to spread the love from a lifeboat. But – say I, in writerly consolation – who isn’t in a lifeboat? The world is always breaking up and bound for the deep, and if we’re lucky we drift in a shell on the boundless main. Each clinging to his own flotsam, we call each other’s names. With ropes and hooks we grapple our wreckage together and make a greater vessel of it. I learned this from my hospice clients. For a few more days at least, I am a hospice chaplain.

Enough self-pity. Let us draw a larger circle, a circle wide enough to include deaths that are violent rather than inevitable. Two of my siblings in faith were martyred in Knoxville last week. Two Unitarian Universalists died at the hands of a man who undertook to extinguish us. His plan was foiled in part. He wanted to shoot people until he was shot – suicide by cop. Parishioners wrestled him to the floor and preserved his life until police and ambulance got there. This man will now face the judgment he most feared.

Now doesn’t that say something about us? Not every bloodied group would deliver their assailant so tenderly into the hands of the law. We now turn our eyes away from him. We focus on healing. The space that was so violated has already been resanctified.

And yet I hear around me an argument about this man, whose name I will not honor by repetition. 

One voice from the assaulted church says “I can assure you this person is not mentally ill. . . . This was a hate crime, carefully planned.” A wise man in the suburban congregation where I worship, in courteous disagreement, says “The gunman was mentally ill. . . . Had he not been ‘rescued’ . . . [he] was on his way to self destruction, suicide.”

Don’t liberals always assume that a person who commits violence is sick? But neither the psychological nor the forensic distinction between sanity and insanity is within my competence. I’ll listen to what the experts say. This debate, meanwhile, shows something about us. It speaks about who liberals are and what they value in the face of death.

One voice warns that there are people who want to kill us, and it’s na├»ve to think that we can “all just get along.” Another voice warns that, if we don’t try to love our enemies as Yeshua taught, we will become their mirror image.

This is our smaller 9/11. Once again something stares us in the face, something liberals don’t talk easily about. Evil. A prayer is posted in the social hall where our children worship: “Help us to know how other people think and feel.” But sometimes other people feel a desire to kill us, and there are people who grow wealthy by inciting them to do so. One of Murphy’s Laws is that if you try to please everybody, someone won’t like it. Yeshua’s life teaches that, if you love righteousness and do justice and walk humbly with your God, someone will hate you for it.

I encourage readers to make comments by clicking on the word "comment(s)" below.