As my friend Betty Ann unpacked her young family in my Deep South hometown, it didn’t take long for the neighbors to arrive with a strangulating dose of hospitality. Their silver hairdos teased to perfection, and smelling of powder and lilac, they arrived on Betty Ann’s front porch with peach cobbler and smiling faces.
Of course, they came with their questions: “Who’s your folks?” and “Where do you go to church?” were the first two, followed by the usual Bible Belt inquisition that has all the trappings of geniality, but is plain nosiness masquerading as friendship. Betty Ann faced their inquiry with grace, but her answers to their questions all but knocked the wheels right off the welcome wagon.
First, she and her family were not from here, “here” being the confines of the local county. Anyone outside those hallowed boundaries was a foreigner. And for Betty Ann’s part, dear Lord, it only got worse. She wasn’t even from the South – she was a Yankee! This was a challenge exceeded only by the fact that she didn’t have a “normal” last name (as the ladies welcoming her pointed out). She was Polish.
As the trio of neighbors headed for the door after that first visit, they were in deep contemplation about this new woman in town. One turned, just before crossing the threshold, and asked a final question: “Ma’am, are you…Catholic?” Betty Ann smiled and answered, “Yes, I am.” As they scuttled out the door, one of the ladies could be heard whispering to the others, “Strike three…strike three.”
Betty Ann was undaunted. In all her New England, Polish, Catholic glory she sank her roots into the Southern soul. She went to work for the local Chamber of Commerce and became the director of tourism of the town; a town whose premier annual event is a Civil War reenactment. In time, she made that town her home, and upon her retirement – many decades later – she remained there, living on that same street where she was once perceived as such an anomalous stranger.
Betty Ann’s story is one I love to tell, as folksy as it may be, because it tells us two basic things about community. First, for community to “work,” it takes work. Someone has to “stay at it,” refusing to be shut out because of gender, religion, ethnicity, or culture.
Of course, I’m speaking of broad, diverse, healthy neighborliness – not insular, sectarian, “only-people-like-me” enclosures. And that is the second lesson in Betty Ann’s story: Some “communities” aren’t communal at all. They are segregated societies that fortify narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and intolerance.
The basic ethic of Christianity is simple: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” You can begin doing this by getting to know your diverse neighbors. You will learn that it becomes increasingly difficult to hold to false stereotypes in the face of an actual human being. And you might discover the most wonderful friendship – a real community – in those so different from yourself.
Photo by Benny Jackson
Seventy years ago, cartoonist Chuck Jones created two epic characters who would go on to star in 48 short-run animated films (though there seemed like there were thousands of them): Wile E. Coyote and his arch-rival, the Roadrunner. Those of the Saturday morning cartoon generation, like myself, knew these characters intimately, and each episode by heart.
Granted, what wasn’t to know? The Roadrunner would “beep, beep” (or “meep, meep” as held in some internet strongholds) and escape, while Wile E. would go cascading off a cliff for the umpteenth time. What you may not know, is Chuck Jones intended it to be this way with a set of extremely narrow rules.
In his autobiography, Jones revealed a set of Coyote Commandments, we might call them, that strictly dictated the relationship between his two characters. Of most interest to me is rule #3: “The Coyote could stop anytime – if he were not a fanatic.” By design, Wile E. Coyote was fashioned to be obsessive, what we might call an addict.
Thus, all of Wile E.’s ACME contraptions, his outlandish schemes, and his relentless maneuvers to obtain what he could never possess (Jones’ 11th Commandment reads: “The Coyote is not allowed to catch the Road Runner”) are futility. He is powerless – on his own – to modify his behavior, to do anything differently.
What Wile E. needs is treatment for his disease. Such wholeness requires a real, spiritual awakening; it demands recognition of the problem, surrender to a Higher Power, and the courage to fearlessly stare one’s moral failings squarely in the face. That’s what makes recovery so damned difficult: The individual has to change.
The temptation for the one who suffers is to change jobs, trade relationships, or rearrange the external circumstances of life. Such coping efforts might bring temporary relief, but the real solution lies within. Transformation is a personal choice, not perfect circumstantial alignment.
Meister Eckhart said, “Truly, if you do not get away from yourself, then wherever you seek refuge, you will only find unrest.” If Eckhart sounds too sanctimonious for you, then I refer you back to Chuck Jones and Rule #2 of the Coyote/Roadrunner franchise: “No outside force can harm the Coyote. He can only hurt himself.”
We each have a little Wile E. Coyote in us, as we all want to blame the Roadrunner for our troubles. Or, it’s the fault of those many gadgets and people that failed us; or it’s the unseen cliff’s edge that caused our fall; or it was the bus we never saw coming. It’s just not that simple.
The short of it is, you aren’t impervious to pain, and you don’t easily recover from your self-inflicted wounds like a fictional cartoon character. But there is good news: You are not trapped living a life for which someone else wrote the rules. When you are ready – and willing – you can start living a life of recovery, wholeness, and restored sanity. Such a life begins with you.
As I stood around an impossibly small television set, watching the events of September 11, 2001, unfold, one of my colleagues burst into the room. His face reddened, trembling with rage, he shouted, “We are going to kill every one of those bastards!” At the time, I agreed, and wanted a righteous reckoning for this heinous crime.
Less than a month later, as U.S. bombs began dropping on Al-Qaida and Taliban controlled Afghanistan, there was a collective sigh of satisfaction: Now, the score would be settled. These two decades later, I realize how mistaken this thinking was.
The opaque “War On Terror” remains America’s longest fought conflict. Thousands of servicemen and servicewomen have been killed or wounded, and of the three million veterans of this war, upwards of 25% come home suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Simultaneously, the death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq has been nothing short of apocalyptic. By conservative estimates, some 400,000 people have been killed in this region, and half of these people were civilians. There have been twice that many “indirect” deaths, and the war has displaced 10 million individuals.
Back here at home, the impact on our society is almost incalculable. The erosion of personal liberties and freedoms, the caustic rise of racism and Islamophobia, the tension of living among a population increasingly manipulated by fear and suspicion: September 11th “changed this country forever,” but our unmitigated response to these attacks has drastically – irretrievably -changed the world too.
I’m not a “pacifist” as the word is often used. Being “passive” in the face of evil and simply lying down to die with my virtuous principles intact, is not the right understanding of the word or the approach. But, I am all-in when it comes to actively living out and advocating for a life of non-violence.
Living non-violently is an effort to avoid war, for war is the worst of cruelties. Quoting President Jimmy Carter, “War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil.” Thus, we seek other solutions; we champion prudence, education, understanding, and aid; and we resort to legitimate defense, only after all other avenues have been thoroughly exhausted.
This is an ethic consistent with the perennial, Judeo-Christian tradition. It was Moses who said, “An eye for an eye,” not as a way of sanctioning revenge (the usual interpretation), but to limit retaliation: “Don’t inflict more suffering than you received!” Jesus went even further, instructing his followers to forgive, to turn the other cheek, halting completely the quid pro quo of violence.
When I speak of this, I’m often asked, “What do I do when I run out of cheeks to turn?” That’s a valid ethical question, but usually a frivolous one, for we have been conditioned to “shoot first and ask questions later.” And when those questions finally arise, say after two decades and following horrendous repercussions, well, then the answers are even harder to come by.
Photo by Marten Bjork