Friday, August 31, 2012

"You’re not special. Because everyone is.", David McCullough

Back in June, I read an essay in the Los Angeles Times commenting on a graduation speech at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, given by faculty member David McCullough, Jr. The speech was "a gospel that bluntly reminded us how unspecial we are" and the speaker was "branded a hero by Rush Limbaugh." I was curious, but as the speech seemed like an extended scolding, I put the topic on the back burner.

For whatever reason, I recently got around to watching McCullough's speech and, not surprisingly, realized that the extensive media commentary had grossly misinterpreted it. What was almost universally labeled as the "You are not special" speech was really about something much deeper and more profound. It was not an adult ranting at self-absorbed teenagers and the culture that coddled them, it was a teacher's final plea to his students to embrace a life of goodness, selflessness, and love.
Do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer.
... Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.
McCullough himself reinforced this last line as his primary message in an article he wrote for Newsweek Magazine on the reaction to his speech: "None of them, I said, matters more than anyone else, because everyone is special, everyone matters - all 6.8 billion of us. Simple logic, really."

It is the simple recognition of our fellow human beings as our brothers and sisters, our family, and allowing that knowledge to guide our lives. Simple indeed.

Check out this speech on YouTube or at The Swellesley Report.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mystery & Mysticism

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery - even if mixed with fear - that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.
Albert Einstein, "The World as I See It"
I was reminded of this quote by a recent opinion article in the Los Angeles Times on the "sweet mystery" of science. The author, university professor David Barash, writes that "It's not what science knows, but what it doesn't, that really matters," for "it's only by pursuing the unknown that we obtain knowledge." Unfortunately, his understanding of mystery is not quite as grand as Einstein's.
We are surrounded by mysteries, far more than are dreamt of in anyone's philosophy. But don't get the wrong idea, Horatio: Mystery is not the same as mysticism, and I'm not referring to some sort of ineffable, spiritualistic claptrap beyond the reach of natural law and human understanding. Just as "weeds" are plants that haven't yet been assigned a value, scientific mysteries are simply good questions waiting for answers.
... "Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious," writes Richard Dawkins. "Scientists exult in mystery for a different reason: It gives them something to do."
There is something sad and utilitarian about Barash's description of mystery. And his dismissal of mysticism seems rather petty. I doubt Einstein saw himself as a mystic, but I cannot think of a better term for someone with his religious sensibility. He exulted in mystery, not because it gave him "something to do," but because he recognized a sacred beauty within it. And clearly he was not someone who wanted the mysterious to stay that way, yet he was also willing to acknowledge "the existence of something we cannot penetrate." Are Einstein's words just "ineffable, spiritualistic claptrap," or was he identifying the true "sweet mystery" of life?

Friday, August 24, 2012

"Appalachian Spring", Aaron Copland

Obviously, I failed to publish a post on Wednesday. I've been having difficulty getting my words to feel right for the last couple of weeks. But why should they, given that most of my life doesn't feel right at the moment. As I wrote last Friday, classes have resumed at my old school, and I cannot help but question my decision to leave and go public with "my" revelation. Yes, I "know" that I did the right thing, but that doesn't make me feel any better. Yes, I "knew" how challenging this task would be, but that doesn't make me feel better either. To be bluntly honest, there have been a lot of days lately where I wanted to kick God in the balls for giving me this job, not that she has balls, but you know what I mean. I don't plan on quitting, I just want to share the pain; then I think about the cross and my "suffering" seems rather petty.

So where does that leave me? It leaves me to muddle on through as best as I can. Which, when you think about it, is really what life is all about. We can pretend that humanity knows what it's doing, but that's just wishful thinking. All of creation is just muddling on through, and maybe that's the point. Maybe that's the only thing that truly makes sense. We can plan, orchestrate, and choreograph all we want, but sometimes we just have to let the music and dance of life take over.

And so for today I offer to you "Appalachian Spring" by Aaron Copland. If there was ever a soundtrack for Creation, this is it. You can feel the noise and bustle of life in its notes. It takes you to grand places, but it starts and finishes with peace. That is what I feel most when I listen to it: peace. And that is what I desire most right now: peace.

Check out this music on Wikipedia, YouTube, or Amazon.

Friday, August 17, 2012

"Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)", Amy Grant

Yesterday was the first day of classes at the school where I used to teach. I know that I made the right decision to leave, but I still miss it, especially the students. So a bit of nostalgia feels entirely in order right about now.

Being a Catholic school, we were expected to begin each class with a prayer. Rather than having the students mindlessly recite an "Our Father", I liked to use a song as a reflection on that day's lesson topic. In the last few years, the very first song I played was "Breath of Heaven" by Amy Grant, from her 1992 Christmas album. It imagines Mary's thoughts and emotions as the birth of Jesus draws near.
I have traveled many moonless nights, cold and weary with a babe inside, and I wonder what I’ve done. Holy Father you have come and chosen me now to carry your son.
I am waiting in a silent prayer. I am frightened by the load I bear. In a world as cold as stone, must I walk this path alone. Be with me now; be with me now.
Breath of Heaven, hold me together, be forever near me, Breath of Heaven. Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness, pour over me your holiness for you are holy, Breath of Heaven.
Do you wonder as you watch my face, if a wiser one should have had my place? But I offer all I am for the mercy of your plan. Help me be strong; help me be; help me.
I used these words in the past to begin a very long conversation with my students on the meaning and practice of faith. I use them today to remind myself about the kind of faith I aspire to live. As I wrote on Wednesday's "Good News" post for the Solemnity of the Assumption, Sister Mary is the ultimate model of fidelity to God's love.

Check out this song on YouTube or Amazon.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Violence Neverending

In the two weeks since I wrote about the Colorado massacre, several more shootings have taken place. I wasn't planning to write about this subject again so soon, but then I saw a segment on the local news about my suburban hometown police department conducting a training exercise for responding to these types of situations. It feels like madness is in the air, and I cannot ignore it.

As I said two weeks ago, this violence is not incomprehensible. We like to pretend that it is, because such a fiction allows us to avoid uncomfortable truths. The perpetrators of these acts are doing the same thing most Americans endorse: using death to solve a problem. We are "shocked" when they do so out of personal frustration, yet we find warfare or abortion perfectly legitimate. Just which one of us is truly insane?

We have a choice. We can put away the guns and bombs, all of them, or we can keep pretending to be shocked when the chickens come home to roost. Which will it be?

Friday, August 10, 2012

"Miracle" (2004)

With the London Games coming to a close on Sunday, an Olympics movie seemed appropriate for today's post. "Miracle" is a dramatization of the 1980 U.S. ice hockey team, from their initial formation to their victory at the Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York. While it obviously focuses on the "Miracle on Ice" win over the Soviets, the heart of the film is its depiction of head coach Herb Brooks, played by Kurt Russell, and the lessons he imparts to his athletes. The final scene is of the medal ceremony, where Russell, as Brooks, does a voiceover that sums it up beautifully:
I've often been asked in the years since Lake Placid, what was the best moment for me? Well it was here: the sight of twenty young men of such differing backgrounds, now standing as one. Young men willing to sacrifice so much of themselves, all for an unknown. A few years later the U.S. began using professional athletes at the Games: Dream Teams. I always found that term ironic, because now that we have Dream Teams, we seldom ever get to dream. But on one weekend, as America and the world watched, a group of remarkable young men gave the nation what it needed most: a chance for one night not only to dream, but a chance once again to believe.
This is America at its best. Check out this movie on IMDb, Wikipedia, or YouTube.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Ugly American Royalty

The London Olympics is just the latest event where we Americans have been treated to the curiosity that is the British Royal Family. They are like the cheerleaders-in-chief, and not just for their national teams, but for their entire people. But should Americans admire them, or do they represent something anathema to who we are as a people? Dan Turner of the Los Angeles Times answered this question in an editorial on the 4th of July, as well as in a follow-up piece a few days later, both of which celebrated the Founding Fathers' rejection of monarchy, and the subjugation that goes with it.
I cannot imagine a more anti-monarchist document than the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." To believe these words is to define oneself as an enemy of kings because the most fundamental aspect of kingship is inequality: The king is more equal than you are.
But do we really believe in this radical equality? We sure don't seem to live that way, as a Times reader pointed out in a letter to the editor: "We bow and curtsy far lower than the Brits. Here, cash is king and money rules."

A local example of this was highlighted by another Times editorial this May. Dozens of Newport Beach residents have illegally added landscaping to public beaches adjacent to their property, thereby discouraging the average person from using land belonging to the people of California, because the residents would prefer that space to be their own private backyard. Judging by the periodic news reports, this practice seems to be widespread in the wealthier beach communities of Southern California. I guess some of us are more equal than the rest. In fact, some of the residents plan to hire lawyers to prevent the landscaping's removal. As the Times incredulously remarked: "Really? On what grounds?" Apparently, royalty need never be ashamed of itself.

And so it seems that we did not banish royalty from our shores as much as we like to think. In many ways, the major populist movements of today are still fighting this battle. Occupy Wall Street tells us that the robber barons of history are alive and well in the present. The Tea Party rails against a snobbish elite that looks down its noses at the common people as if they were country bumpkins. Both claim that we are still being subjugated by a handful of lords and ladies who possess undeserved power.

If monarchy is inevitable, then perhaps our cousins were on to something when they retained their version. After all, how many modern American princes have served their country by putting their own lives on the line, as William, Harry, and many of their kin have done? You can almost hear the wayward residents of Newport Beach chant "let them eat cake," as they lounge on their lawns as squatters on our land.

Friday, August 3, 2012

"Finding Neverland" (2004)

After writing about violence the last few posts, something a bit more cheery seems to be in order for today. "Finding Neverland" is a dramatization of the friendship between playwright J.M. Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family, who provided the inspiration for "Peter Pan". It is a real life story of the power of the human mind.

My favorite part of the movie takes place on opening night. Barrie has had twenty-five seats, scattered throughout the theater, held aside for a group of special guests, who turn out to be children from a local orphanage. He knows that "Peter Pan" depends on the kind of imagination that adults are conditioned to see as silliness, but that children find magical. As the children watch the play with eyes full of wonder and delight, the adults are happily swept along to Neverland with them.

This is what Jesus had in mind when he urged us to "accept the kingdom of God like a child." He was not telling us to embrace a childish, immature faith, but a childlike one full of wonder and delight at the beauty and adventure of life.

"Look out your window. It doesn’t matter which one. They all will do. What do you see? Trees, hills, grass, concrete, metal bars, trash, crap, and all the other debris of modern life? No, you see something wonderful, something magical and wondrous ... What you see is a gift. A gift more precious than anything, ANYTHING that has or ever will be imagined by human intelligence."

Check out this movie on IMDb, Wikipedia, or YouTube.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Our Love of Violence

"Americans of faith today need to be challenged by a very direct question: do you trust God or guns more?" This was the response of Susan Thistlethwaite to the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. The people's answer to her query seems to be clear.

Mass shootings are not incomprehensible, despite what we tell ourselves. They are a natural by-product of our belief that war, abortion, capital punishment, and other forms of violence can successfully resolve our societal and individual problems. As long as such attitudes are the norm, some people will turn to violence as an outlet for their own frustrations. They will spew it like vomit, and no one will be left untouched.

This chaotic violence is not a modern phenomenon. Technology may have increased the destructiveness of the acts and our awareness of them, but this sort of violence has been with us since we first chose to use death to "fix things." Which, according to the Bible, was right from the beginning. And in spite of all that humanity has learned in the centuries since then, we cling stubbornly and insanely to that attitude. As much as I abhor the "culture of death" label, perhaps John Paul was on to something.

So how do we begin to trust God more than guns? We could start by actually listening to Jesus when he tells us to love our enemies. He is not being naive and impractical. He is telling us that violence is a weed that flourishes easily and chokes even those who think they can use it righteously. Only love can truly fix anything.

"Our brother calls us to love, love God, love your neighbor, love. How hard is that? What are you afraid of? If he was willing to die to love you, what’s your excuse for not loving those you fail to understand, those you despise, those you hate?"

We cannot embrace both God and violence. So which will you choose to trust?