THE CENTER FOR THIRD AGE LEADERSHIP NEWSLETTER – SEPTEMBER 2015
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
2. IN YOUR OWN IMAGE
3. WHAT BERNIE SANDERS BROUGHT TO LIBERTY UNIVERSITY
4. THE POPE AND CLARK GABLE
6. THIS MONTH’S LINKS
QUOTE OF THE MONTH – AN FW INSIGHT FROM 1964
again this year I got all the questions right
but one –the one about whose image
I’m to be created in?I forgot and wrote My Own
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
September Greetings, Dear Friends…
In Second Age I was addicted to the excitement of drama, and my changes were regularly accompanied by the agony and ecstasy of personal theatre. What drama really creates is intensity, and my 2A experience found that intensity much more likely to bring stress than excitement. Thank the stars I didn’t go through those years with Facebook, iPhones, Twitter, etc.!
My movement through Third Age is showing me that maturity is about peace, not excitement, intensity and stress. Earlier I remember thinking how boring older people were – how could they not want to be ‘in the action’ I so sought? Now I love being in solitude most of the day, flowing peacefully from meditation to tidying up to writing to hanging laundry…
Time has brought me to understanding what my 97 year old friend, Elder Ed, calls “Relaxing Into Participation” and has been talking to me about for a decade. It is very easy for me to grasp concepts and articulate them for myself and others. But I’ve learned that being able to explain something is not at all the same as being able to actually do it. Finally I am actually doing RIP a good part of the time, and my life is delightfully peaceful and complete.
I hope to share more of this Third Age evolution next month by adding another episode to “In Your Own Image” which began in 1964. The last change was in 2003 when good friends David Swords and James Krefft helped me update.
The other pieces this month are part of my evolving as well. In the last weeks Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis and Howard Hanger have affected me powerfully; their calm commitments to peace, tolerance and compassion are part of what’s opening in me now. I hope their words lift you as they do me…
2. IN YOUR OWN IMAGE
BY FATHER WILLIAM, DAVID SWORDS &amp; JAMES KREFFT 1964-2003
FW has been trying to make sense of his Selves for as long as he can remember. ‘In Your Own Image’ was an 1964 attempt to capture a learning, and the poem still makes sense to him – as does this piece which keeps evolving. We both hope it offers something to you, too…
PS: It can help to listen to this Linda Ronstadt song before the long read…
Imagine you are a young oak tree in a park. It is one of those first warm days after the long months of winter, and you’re enjoying the sun, glad the cold seems to be behind. Being an oak, you still hold most of last year’s leaves, waiting, as is your way, for the new buds to push them off. Growing near you are several kinds of trees, among them some tall elms and white birches.
You have always gotten on well with the other trees, or so you thought. But today something happens to make you wonder. As you doze lazily you are suddenly startled by a sharp voice.
“Oak Tree, I’ve been meaning to speak to you for quite some time now. You have some serious problems, and you’ve got to do something about them.”
The words snap you awake. You look down to see a sour-faced man staring up at you. He’s all wrapped up in black overcoat, scarf, gloves and cap as though it’s still, or always, the middle of winter. Before you can say anything, he starts in again.
“First, your shape is ugly. See that elm tree over there? Notice how tall, stately, and graceful it is? That’s how trees should be shaped. Now take a good, long look at yourself. You’re gnarly . . . and squatty . . . and twisted. Your branches look like tangled turkey legs. The first thing you’ve got to do is stand up straighter!
“Next, there’s your bark. It’s dark, thick, and rough to touch. See that white birch over there? Now that’s what bark should be like. It’s delicate and shimmering. People pay for photos of that bark. They put birch logs in their fireplaces all summer. How many photographs of oak bark have you ever seen? So get to work on that skin of yours.
“Finally, and worst, you’re still holding on to your ugly, dead leaves. Trees just don’t do that. they drop their leaves in the fall – that’s why it’s called foliage season. So don’t you ever hold your leaves past Halloween again, is that clear?”
As he stomps off, you feel deeply hurt and confused. You are ashamed of yourself as you look up enviously at the elms and birches, and you wish you could hide. You never realized before that it was wrong to be the way you are . . .
Talking to Oaks, Talking to Ourselves
Of course an oak can’t change its shape, smooth its bark, or drop its leaves in the fall. An oak cannot have the shape of an elm, or the bark of a birch; if it could, it would not be an oak.
But consider just how much like an oak you are and how ashamed you can feel. When we stop and count, we are amazed at the number of times our own sour voices have made us feel unattractive, stupid, bad, and wrong.
Dark voices come to live inside us, insisting. . . insisting. . . insisting. . .
“You’re too tall.” “You’re too short.” “You talk too much.” “You don’t talk enough.” “You should be tougher.” “You should be easier.” “You work too hard.” “You don’t work hard enough.”
And on and on and on. Most of the time the things they say are crazier than what the old man said to the oak; yet we listen and too often try to obey. Where do we get these voices?
The voices come from how we have been conditioned. They have been imprinted (literally engraved) in us by all the things we have experienced, beginning in infancy. Sights, sounds, and smells; people, places, and events; dreams, images, and ideas have stamped themselves on us over and over. These voices speak to us constantly, just like the imaginary voice scolding the oak tree. Some of these “shoulds” are useful: “You should be honest.” “You should relax.” “You should laugh more.” More often, they demand we be something we are not. And trying to be what we are not makes us ineffective both as people and leaders.
Mis-made in Another’s Image: The John Wayne Archetype
Kermit the Frog says, “It’s not easy being green.”
It’s not easy being yourself; if it were, we would all be doing it. Our conditioning growing up makes it hard to be ourselves. As I share the process of my own conditioning, think about the people, events, and images that conditioned you during your childhood.
I was seven years old when World War II ended. My hero (the oak tree I thought I was supposed to be) was John Wayne. I tried my best to be like him. It never occurred to me that there was any other acceptable way to be.
On the silver screen John Wayne had admirable characteristics. From the first instant we saw him emerge as an American hero in Stagecoach, a saddle slung over his shoulder, wielding a carbine in one hand, he was strong, honest, and did not waste, or mince, words. A man of action, he was decisive, never confused about what to do, no matter what the situation. He knew immediately who the good guys and bad guys were. In the end he always beat the bad guys, usually with his fists and at long odds against him.
As I tried to be “The Duke,” my life kept getting harder. But I was not able, or ready, to give up my “Wayne Tree” until my thirties. Researchers into adult development explain this reluctance: once we take on a model for how to be (and we all do in one way or another), we do not give it up until we experience some major pain trying to force fit ourselves into it.
John Wayne, by the way, was not just my hero and no one else’s. He was a presence that became part of American culture. His characteristics summed up those embodied by practically all post-war heroes, fictional and real: Superman and Mickey Mantle, Wonder Woman and Wilma Rudolph, Davy Crockett and Dwight Eisenhower. For a child growing up today, television and videos, as well as movies, make the possibilities for such heroic images much more varied: Rambo, Luke Skywalker, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Madonna, Jesse Jackson, Mother Theresa, Florence Griffith-Joyner, or Mikhail Gorbachev.
As do most of us, I used up my twenties trying to be what I thought I was supposed to be. It was hard for me to act like John Wayne. His natural abilities were a mismatch for mine. He was strong and silent; I talk a lot. He always knew who the good and bad guys were; I see many shades of gray in a situation. The Duke settled disagreements with his fists; I went 0 for 4 in fights as a kid. He was self-sufficient, the kind of cowboy hero who rode off into the sunset, alone. I need lots of attention and am sensitive to not being appreciated. John Wayne took rejection in stride.
Probably my worst John Wayne mistake, one that shows how crazy you can become when you struggle to be someone else, was trying to be a marine. (John Wayne would have been a great marine, was a great marine in Guadalcanal Diary and The Sands of Iwo Jima.) I was in Naval ROTC. As a junior I had to choose to go into the Navy or the Marines. The Navy would have suited me perfectly: as an ensign or lieutenant JG, I could have cruised the world with a sense of humor about it.
What did I do? Jumped at the Marine option. Went to Quantico for six weeks. Had one of the worst times of my life . . . and pretended to love it.
I recall being on a field exercise with a couple hundred other cadets, rifles with fixed bayonets, lunging, yelling, and growling, relishing the thought that we might some day be disemboweling godless commies. Ripping an enemy’s guts out face-to-face may be a necessity of war, and it is totally not me. But my John Wayne imprinting drove me to be there.
Another Image: “The Graduate” Archetype of Sensitivity
At 31, at a time of immense confusion in my life, a new image presented itself. This image was from The Graduate. Dustin Hoffman in the role of Ben, the graduate, seemed to be me. Ben was intellectual and had succeeded in school. The world into which he graduated made no sense at all to him. Ben was confused about everything, utterly lost. I especially remember a line from the scene by the pool during Ben’s graduation party. A friend of Ben’s father takes the graduate outside, wraps an arm around Ben’s shoulder, looks him deeply in the eye, and says:
Ben looks at the older man as though he were an alien.
Ben’s image of his father’s friend was my image of my father’s generation. My father and his friends had made a lot of money, but their lives appeared empty and made no sense to me. Granted, the 50’s were a meaningless time, but once John Kennedy was assassinated and civil rights and Vietnam came along, I couldn’t continue a panty-raid mentality. The middle class people I’d grown up with seemed like throwbacks to some primitive era. Like Ben, I felt I was dealing with aliens. To give his life meaning, Ben had a sick but liberating affair with Mrs. Robinson. Even Ben’s clumsy sexuality was an element of my new identification: John Wayne was never sexual, and I was.
Just as Ben uprooted, shook, and tore his life apart to move toward meaning, it was easy for me to join him. John Wayne’s search was never for meaning because meaning for him was a given. Ben’s search was for meaning, and that has always been my search.
At 31, I was finally released from the John Wayne image. By the next year I had blown my life apart, was divorced, wearing bell bottoms, and had hair longer than the Beatles. I moved to California and enjoyed six years of personal growth. It was liberating.
Six years later I awoke to recognize that only the superficial about me had changed. What had felt like liberation was only repetition of the same old pattern imitation. I was still looking outside by trying to be Dustin Hoffman, the graduate. I had not changed anything but the model. It felt liberating because the new model was closer to me than the old, giving me more permission to be who I was. But it still was not me.
In choosing Ben, I had changed the model, but not changed the game. Finally I glimpsed the real journey and began to look inside, not outside, for my true identity.
Going Inside: The Oldest and Truest Journey
To change, each of us needs to be himself or herself rather than someone else. For us to do so, it must be okay to be who we find, whether it is an oak, an elm, or a birch, or a green frog. You will not try (for long) to find who you are if you think what you find inside is unacceptable. So, how do you give yourself permission, genuine freedom, to accept whatever you find?
A way to start is to understand that every one of your personality traits is both a strength and a weakness. Characteristics you prize have ignoble sides. Features you despise have precious facets. Every personality trait has an upside and a downside.
The clarity of meaning that enabled John Wayne’s characters to act immediately also oversimplifies the world. Such simple perceptions enable you to act quickly; but often the action is inappropriate. My strength, seeing many sides of a situation, enables me to help people to communicate, empathize, and understand. My corresponding weakness is that it is hard for me to act decisively. Like every other element in this universe, we are each useful in some ways and not in others.
If we are to become effective leaders in our organizations, we must find ways to compensate for our weaknesses by co-operating with others who have complementary strengths and weaknesses. In the Navy, for example, the team of the captain and the executive officer designs itself to achieve this complementary wholeness. If the captain is a tough, demanding rumpkicker, he or she looks for an executive officer who excels at caring for people. If the captain is gentle and parental, he or she needs a hard exec. For me to be successful in business, I need someone like John Wayne as part of my team, someone able to act decisively, to complement me.
Some books on leadership promote a common misconception about selecting models for success. These experts on how to thrive in organizations often say that you must have mentors, gurus, champions or other various kinds of role models. Following this advice causes people to look for mentors who have succeeded in the organization. People will emulate their mentors even though they may be no more alike than John Wayne and me. The results are often a disaster because the style that works for one person may be preposterous for the other. On the other hand, seeking out a variety of successful organizational leaders, both those like you and those different from you, can help you learn which of your strengths will most likely bring you success and which of your weaknesses might derail you.
The First Principle of Leadership: Honor Yourself
The first principle of leadership is this: You must learn to know yourself and then have the courage to be yourself. When you can live this principle, you are able to have another kind of conversation with the oak tree and with yourself:
“Yes, Oak Tree, you have weaknesses, but you also have great strengths. No, you’re not tall like elms, but you don’t get Dutch Elm disease either. No, your bark is not as smooth as a birch’s, but you are not a soft wood that rots easily. And what does it matter when you drop your leaves? You also drop acorns that feed small animals. And people have long sought your beautiful, strong wood to build great ships and to make fine furniture. Never forget who you are – you have your own majesty and magic.”
To become a successful leader you must honor yourself. To do so, you must look inward. This is not easy. Remember Kermit, “It’s not easy being green.” Our culture discourages self-analysis, making us afraid to look inward, afraid we will find an image that we hate.
Our most influential medium for conveying images is television. When was the last time you saw a television advertisement that made you feel good about yourself? The primary purpose of television advertising of any advertising is to tell us that we lack essential things. We lack cars that would make us sexy. We lack makeup that would make us beautiful. We lack insurance that would make us secure. Perhaps, we lack the caring to make telephone calls that show people we love that we love them. We lack things, beauty, attitudes, and on and on and on. A buck here, a buck there, and we will be fixed.
Television images of beautiful people and wondrous things and acceptable attitudes are miniature John Waynes. Advertisers bank on our adopting these images long enough to spend money trying to become like them. The more we believe something will make us like a model we have already chosen, the more we will want to have it. We consume a great deal trying to become the images advertising dangles in front of us. Rarely do we look inside to see who we are and what we truly want. Indeed, by television standards we lack so much that inside becomes the last place we would look.
We have been conditioned all our lives to believe there is something wrong with us. A parade of images and ideals blessed by our families, churches, schools, and work organizations says, “Be like me.” But as long as your identity comes from outside, without reference to natural qualities, abilities, and ingredients, you stand little chance of achieving the fulfillment that most people call happiness.
For me, when I looked inside, I found it hard to accept that I like to be the center of attention. People usually see that desire as a trait of spoiled children. Neither John Wayne nor Ben sought attention. When I realized that it’s okay to love attention, my life took an important turn for the better. Loving attention makes me want to present myself well in front of people, an important aspect of my professional success. The downside is that I can be too self-centered, leaving little space for others to grow, develop, and have their share of attention. My awareness of this tendency to be self-centered has led me to set up systems to counterbalance the tendency. Structure can help us keep the downside of our personality traits in check.
If you must look inward, if you must know and be yourself, if you must honor yourself and build upon who you are, then you must also anticipate how difficult it is going to be. Our culture makes you feel selfish if you are self-concerned, conceited if you treasure and celebrate your accomplishments, foolish or unworthy if you admit to the shameful facets of your personality. Once you begin to look at yourself, you are likely to find out things about yourself that you have not acknowledged. Some discoveries will be upsetting. But once you identify these things, it becomes easier, not harder, to succeed because you can then know what you truly want.
After you begin to accept what you find about yourself, you can develop strategies for how to use what you learn. For example, after I accepted my need for attention and my ability to see different sides of an issue, those traits became elements of my leadership style. I learned to avoid situations where I am the decision-maker, preferring the role of counselor and commentator.
You Can Succeed: The Majesty and Magic Are Within You
The main block to self-acceptance is that we are convinced that if we actually went ahead and tried our best to be who we find, disaster would result. But consider this image.
Imagine John Wayne: strong, silent, a man of impeccable integrity, the Duke towering before you at six feet four inches. He was an undisputed success as a male movie actor. Put right beside him another first-rate success in the same field. Woody Allen. You must see them in your mind standing side by side.
Ask yourself, What would have happened to Woody Allen if he had tried to imitate John Wayne? In practically every film he has made, Woody Allen comes to terms with being a neurotic wimp who fails miserably with women. He studies himself over and over again, understanding (often making fun of) the notion that, driven by internal “shoulds,” success lies in being cool. In Play it Again Sam, in which he attempts to be Humphrey Bogart, he continually, and deliberately, shows us what a fool this “should” makes him. By going to extremes in playing the role, he liberates himself from the culturally imposed idea that “real men” are supposed to be like Bogie: suave, witty under fire, resourceful, selfless, and cool.
You might try such an extreme experiment yourself. If you are a man, adopt your best “John Wayne” or “Tom Cruise” or other personality of your choice for a day. Take it as far as you can. Try to be cool, but do it so hard that you are ridiculous and can laugh at yourself. If you are a woman, adopt your best Doris Day, Madonna or other female personality. If you hold that image of yourself trying to be cool and remember talking to the oak tree, you will grasp in your heart the message of this chapter: the majesty and the magic are within you.
How Do I Start?
At this point, you might be asking yourself, “But how do I start looking inward?” Self-analysis for all of us is hard, even painful. Not looking is a whole lot easier, and safer. Because we naturally resist looking inward, using a structured approach can be of great value.
What helped me along my way?
One of the ways that I learn best is through music. Songs add an emotional dimension of experiencing and understanding that cannot be accomplished with words alone. On the cassette furnished with this book is a song by Linda Ronstadt: You Tell Me That I’m Falling Down. Ronstadt is an example of someone who has cut her own path. Her music has included folk, rock, country, torch songs, opera, Spanish songs, and New Orleans jazz-rock-rhythm-and-blues. She has refused to be packaged under a marketing formula, preferring instead to experiment where her interests led. This song captures for me and, I hope, for you the spirit and feeling of “In Your Own Image.” Listen to it when you feel you need to remember that honoring yourself is basic to leading.
You Tell Me That I’m Falling Down
To help me take control
Or what or who to be
Then I close my eyes and watch my world unfold before me
I’ll manage with a loan
And what you say’s a lie
Then I close my eyes and watch my world unfold before me
To help me take control
Or what or who to be
Repeating Patterns: Catching Myself Conditioning Others
In the 60’s I taught high school. Somehow through my ego I was able to see clearly that I was doing to my kids what had been done to me: if I approved of them, they succeeded. If they were like me, if they remade themselves in the image I insisted on, they did well. That requirement, though unconscious, was extremely powerful. The insight led me to write a poem I’d like to share with you…
again this year.
when we went over it last night.
I really did!
I’m to be created in?
I forgot and wrote
3. WHAT BERNIE SANDERS BROUGHT TO LIBERTY UNIVERSITY
BY ERIN KOTLAN, WWW.ALTERNET.COM, SEPTEMBER 13, 2015
FW NOTE: Erin’s piece was published the day before Bernie spoke at Liberty, so it’s written in the future rather than past tense. But now his visit is past. I think Bernie took an important risk and brought a great deal, as Erin suggested he would, and that her thoughts are a perfect way to encourage you to view the full video in this month’s links…
When the presidential hopeful visits Liberty University, he’ll expose students to a party otherwise cloaked by the many Republican presidential candidates that have come before him—can his visit influence a conservative audience?
It’s not unusual for Liberty University to host politicians. In the spring of this year, it gained national attention when Ted Cruz announced his presidential bid on campus. Liberty has hosted speakers such as Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Sean Hannity. But when Liberty University announced its convocation speakers for the fall of 2015, including Scott Walker and Ben Carson, it included an unexpected name: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
As a student at Liberty University, I have learned from my professors how to apply my conservative theology to all areas of my life. And that’s why I’m drawn to support Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.
Jerry Falwell, the founder of the university, strongly believed that teaching students how to integrate their Christian worldview into all sectors of their lives, especially politics, is an essential part of providing a Christian education. I agree with the Liberty University Doctrinal Statement, which says that the Bible is “true revelation” that is “inspired by God” to create a standard of truth, there is one God “who exists eternally in three persons,” and Jesus Christ “offered himself as a sacrifice” for humanity’s sin. However, I find myself in the minority on campus politically.
Two years ago, I started my college journey at a similar point to most college freshmen, politically ignorant. Many of my southern friends and relatives hoped that I would develop a firm foundation of conservative Christianity, politically and theologically. However, after joining the debate team my freshman year, I realized that I was much more politically liberal. On the debate team, I was able to research and explore political ideas that I never would have discovered on my own. At first this led to a massive amount of tension with the rest of my studies. I struggled to reconcile the secular politics I learned in debate, and the Christian principles leaders in my faith were teaching. With help from my coaches, teammates, and even some of my professors I began to learn to craft my own means of integrating what I believe about politics and what I believe about God.
I struggled to reconcile the secular politics I learned in debate, and the Christian principles leaders in my faith were teaching.
Many of my conservative Christian peers are baffled by the idea that my political beliefs could be grounded in my faith in Jesus Christ; but I believe the best way to find any sort of concrete truth among the shifting cultures of Christianity is to go directly to the Bible. From my studies, I have concluded that the Bible clearly indicates all life is valuable. Jesus calls his followers to care for those on the fringes of society: the poor, orphans, immigrants, and other disenfranchised groups. His calling leads me to a strong passion for social justice and an interest in hearing Senator Sanders speak.
Some readers may question what a conservative Christian would define as social justice. The National Association of Social Workers defines social justice as “the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.” The policies that the government creates shape people’s access to these rights and shape the way that citizens, under the power of the government, view each other’s legitimacy. For example, when the government gave women the right to vote, it led the rest of the nation to acknowledge the personhood of women outside of their relationships to men. This gave women more power politically but also began a movement towards an increased acceptance of women in the workforce. If it is true that the Bible states that all life is valuable, than these types of policies should be important to Christians.
Jesus spent the majority of his time on earth ministering to people seen as outcasts or invaluable to his community. He healed people with diseases and disabilities, reached out to those facing judgment from religious and political authority, and continually gave of himself to those in need. A favorite biblical story of mine is commonly referred to as “The Woman at the Well.” While traveling throughout Israel, Jesus met a woman at a well in Samaria. At this time in history, Jews disliked Samaritans and would go completely out of their way to avoid the area. If they happened to come across a Samaritan woman, most Jewish men at this time would have refused to interact with her because of her faith and gender. Jesus crosses these cultural barriers to reach out and share his love with this woman. Jesus’s conversation with the woman indicates that she felt ashamed of her life and disconnected from her community. Jesus makes it clear that he knows the woman completely. He knows the worst parts of her life and the reasons that her community has rejected her; but regardless of these facts he cares for her. The woman was overwhelmed by this encounter. She immediately went back to everyone she knew and encouraged many of her friends to follow Jesus. Because of her peculiar story many Samaritans were drawn to Jesus’s radical ministry.
Jesus chose to continually take people situated on the outside of society and bring them into community with him. Christians are directed to do the same. The Gospel of Matthew states that what we do for “the least of these” we are doing for Jesus. It even says that Jesus will not recognize those who refuse to care for the impoverished people in their communities.
For me, applying these truths to my political life puts me somewhere in between the two political parties. There is not a candidate for the upcoming election with whom I fully agree; but the majority of Sanders’s political ideas seem to fit well with my faith. According to his campaign site, Sanders’s political focus is on issues such as strengthening the middle class, racial justice, women’s rights, and a better immigration policy. These types of policies help more people gain equal access to political, economic, and social rights. Sander’s economic policies have the potential to shift our countries’ mindset from profit motive to a focus on communal well-being and equality. A governmental focus on these policies could help America to create a more inclusive community; a community that would allow us to decrease the number of people left on the margins of society.
September 14th will be a big day for Liberty University. Hosting Sanders at convocation is a big step towards becoming more accepting of the variety of political beliefs that each student may support. Sanders’s visit will give the students of Liberty the opportunity to learn what motivates his various political stances. Hopefully this will lead more students to begin to contemplate how different political ideas can fit within the Christian worldview.
You can see the videos here:
4. THE POPE AND CLARK GABLE
BY GAIL COLLINS, WWW.NYTIMES.COM, SEPTEMBER 24, 2015
FW NOTE: I am also one of many, many lapsed Catholics who have found my spirituality beyond institutionalized religions – and I am deeply grateful to those who, like Francis, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Mandela, et. al., inspire me to live a better life. Religions that have used sexual repression to control have inculcated guilt and deceit, not goodness in me. Francis and Gail inspire goodness, and I am grateful…
Watching the nation come to a screeching halt over Pope Francis’ visit, I had a flashback to my childhood in Cincinnati. One day I saw a picture of then-Pope Pius XII on the front page of the evening paper and I was shocked — Shocked! I had no idea that anybody in Ohio outside my immediate neighborhood knew who he was.
In our Catholic school, the nuns stressed our isolation, and they kept prepping us to be ready to die for our faith at any moment. Like St. Ursula, who was on a pilgrimage with 11,000 virgins, all of whom instantly chose martyrdom rather than surrender their purity to infidel Huns. (At the time, I just knew virgins were women who hadn’t married, and I had a vision of throngs of young ladies being pursued by barbarians waving engagement rings.)
Or St. Tarcisius, a Roman boy who was carrying holy communion to imprisoned Christians. There are many versions of this story, but in the one my teachers told, the job was supposed to be performed in total silence. When his pagan playmates asked him to join their game, Tarcisius clasped his sacred package to his heart and shook his head. Then the pagan boys guessed what was up and beat him to death.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how Tarcisius might have gotten away unscathed. Maybe by pretending to have a sore throat? It seemed important to identify the best strategy, because some modern-day version of the Huns or pagan Romans could arrive at any minute.
Catholicism was, as I learned after the Pius XII incident, the largest faith in my city. Many of our teachers were probably only a generation away from being picked-on immigrants, and maybe they brought their sense of paranoia with them to the classrooms. That’s understandable, but being both the powerful majority and the persecuted minority is like having your cake and eating it, and then taking over the bakery and bolting the front door.
This brings us back to Pope Francis, a humble man who accepts that he’s very powerful. He may have a little car and a modest home, but when he looks out at the world, his gaze isn’t defensive. He wants Catholicism to thrive — on a planet without global warming. He knows there are places where Catholics are suffering terribly for their faith, but when he looks at an embattled flock, he also sees Muslim immigrants who need Christian countries to open their borders.
Almost everybody appreciates this is a terrific gift to the world. Many people were hoping for a second one: some change in the church’s dogma on sex. This seems highly unlikely. But if Francis can at least change the context, that would be terrific.
Catholic schools don’t focus on sex now the way they did when I was a student. But the current crop of bishops was probably educated in schools like mine, where the subject came up 24/7. When Clark Gable died, one of my teachers explained that since the actor had had several wives, God knew he was going to hell and had probably given him earthly success to make up for any good deeds he performed in this world.
This was not official Catholic doctrine. The reform-minded John XXIII was pope by then and he would have fainted if confronted by the Clark Gable theory. But it was an excellent example of how loopy things can get if a religion obsesses on consensual private behavior.
I remember one priest who told us that when Christ was dying on the cross, he sadly envisioned us Catholic girls sinning in the back seat of a car.
“Aren’t there any other sins?” I asked one day. I’d be sort of proud of having come up with the question if the follow-up hadn’t been such a failure. I couldn’t think of any other immediate possibilities. Nobody in my school even swore.
“Like …” I groped. “…Greed?” All I knew about greed was cartoons of Scrooge McDuck sitting on a pile of money.
There were obviously a lot of character failings we could have discussed. My friends and I were capable of floating for weeks without seriously directing attention at anything that didn’t involve ourselves. But as long as we kept away from boys’ wandering hands, we felt spiritually A-O.K.
This pope is highly unlikely to accept gay marriage, and he’ll never give abortion a pass. But in Washington he grouped abortion in a long catalog of wrongs that need to be righted: hungry children, bombing, “immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow,” old or sick people who are treated as a burden, terrorism, war, drug trafficking and environmental devastation.
It’s a long, long way from believing that God looked at Clark Gable’s soul and saw nothing but a guy who got divorced.
© 2015 The New York Times Company.
BY HOWARD HANGER, “A MENTAL BREATHER,” SEPTEMBER 29, 2015
FW NOTE: As Howard, Bernie and Francis suggest, “Maybe it really is more blessed to give than receive”…
A poor widow put in two small copper coins worth a penny. – Jesus
You can give a flip or give a damn. Give your word or give an opinion. You can give up, give back, give in, give way or give over. You can give a recital, give a cold, give offense, give approval, give an excuse, give a spanking, give and take or give up the ghost. You can give your time, give your money, give your thoughts, give your strength or give your attention. You can even give your life. Or, you can sit back and say, “What gives?”
Giving – especially giving of the heart – has a way of turning things around. For the giver and the receiver, something magical happens when a gift is given. Maybe it’s an exchange of energy, maybe it’s a refocusing from the self to the gift. Or maybe, it’s simply an unspoken way of reminding ourselves that giving and receiving is the way life works. A reminder that we are each and all – plants, animals, humans, oceans, air and rivers – utterly interdependent.
There’s something about giving that disperses anxiety, breaks up clots of fretfulness and crumbles walls of despair or loneliness. Giving might well be the antidote to many of the struggles that send us to therapists or to our knees in prayer. Maybe it’s not just something they say in church. Maybe it really is more blessed to give than receive.
Howard loves officiating weddings. And October is high season for weddings in the mountains. In the month of October, Howard has 13 weddings scheduled, including a wedding on Halloween night and a hot-air balloon ceremony the day before. Howard says, “It’s always fun getting high with a couple in love.” Check out the wedding section at howardhanger.com and you’ll see lots of giggles and grins.
6. THIS MONTH’S LINKS:
VIDEO OF BERNIE SANDERS AT LIBERTY INCLUDING Q&amp;A
AMY STEINBERG: A EVOLUTION OF LINDA RONSTADT?
I LIKE BEING 98!
STEVE MARTIN &amp; ROBIN WILLIAM ON PHYSICS, EINSTEIN &amp; PICASSO
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