Saturday, October 16, 2010

Living with One Another

A friend's father died this week after a long, but still tragically shortened life. He was Roman Catholic which meant, as so often seems to be the case, the Jewish guy writing to you was in attendance to watch what, to these eyes and ears, continues to be a quite strange ritual. Since I do not share the faith that makes those rituals meaningful, they still seem, even after seeing them so many times, quite odd in so many ways.

The point, though, is that the ritual was not meant for me. It was to comfort those who lost a loved one. And it had meaning for them; in some cases deep meaning, I am certain. And so, by definition, it was a moving event, even if beyond my comprehension.

At our best, this country is made up of all sorts of pockets such as that. People who pray a certain way, whose lives are dominated or at least influenced by factors which do not mean much, if anything, to the rest of us. Some of those things we can come to appreciate even if they will never apply to us directly: I will never be a mother, but I have one, and I am a father as well, and I think I understand what a mother's love for her child is like, but whether I do or not, I certainly can appreciate it.

Other things take longer to understand of they are not part of one's own experience. It took me longer than it should have to have understood what being "gay" meant to a person's life. Reading Ellison's Invisible Man as a high school student there could be little mistaking that the book involved more than what a black man had to endure, but homosexuality seems almost scary to a heterosexual male teenager and the defenses one builds to protect against these phantom threats can be difficult to pull down.

Yet throughout adulthood, as more people were able to identify themselves openly as gay, those fictions from the past had to be addressed and ultimately abandoned. It became necessary to stop believing that people were making a "lifestyle" choice which they could walk way from if it became too difficult to maintain.

To be sure, the daily lessons in recent years from Rachel Maddow, from the days she first appeared on my radio as I drove to work, to these days when the podcast of the best hour in information television still serves that purpose, have helped. So have the many people with whom I have worked who turned out to be gay.

But it is less the shame that Don't Ask Don't Tell still brings upon my country, or even the continuing physical attacks on gays that has opened the same eyes which smirked on a teenager, long ago. It is, more than anything else, these stories of suicide, even of the contemplation of suicide as an alternative to what faces a gay teenager, or young adult.

I saw the painful monologue of the Fort Worth city councilman on Lawrence O'Donnell's program the other night and it was quite moving. Even more so, perhaps since I have met her briefly, perhaps because her talents as a musician are so apparent (at least to me, a child of the sixties) was this from a young recent college graduate named Allison Weiss, someone whose sexual preference had never seemed significant to me:

But now I know that it is. Children are dying over it. And, stepping back from that horror, it becomes easier to understand what it means to to hear that all terrorists are Muslims or to hear a United States Senator pose a question to you, as you seek confirmation as a Justice of the Supreme Court, that suggests you are nothing more than your heritage as reflected in a 1950s television comedy about someone from Cuba.

Tolerance, in this respect, is not simply polite, or a recognition of what this country is all about: it is critical to the literal survival of many of our fellow citizens, and very important to millions of others.

This is easy to say from one point of view. It becomes harder when you consider the need to accept, understand, and possibly talk to people who believe the president illegally assumed office or is attempting a radical transformation of our country. When some of us could not even consider that someone other than the candidate we favored might win the party's nomination for president two years ago, and felt the need to call the other candidate every repulsive name we could dredge up, tolerance seemed in rather short supply.

We are at a very difficult point in our history. The moment we are in always seems more significant than those of the past, and I suspect this election, or this crossroads may not be as much a moment of decision as it seems today, but, as Rachel explained perfectly the other day, we almost seem to have lost the will to do anything but hunker down, tell each other why we don't trust one another and whimper about our broken political system.

This is not the time to put one's head in the sand, or to complain about things we wish the President had done, but did not. Dreaming about third parties, or making ours more liberal, has no place as we approach this election.

Rachel had the absolute right portion of President Kennedy's exhortation about the need to explore the heavens, to further the quest of humanity to learn more, or do more with that knowledge, but there is one other paragraph about roughly the same subject, but to a slightly different audience, that describes our mission, and that president said it on his first day in office in the most memorable speech any of us alive then have ever heard. We who grew up with these words in our head have accepted this as our mission not just to those who live outside our country but to our fellow Americans as well, and it remains so to this day:

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required -- not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

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