Sometimes You Just Have to Pick at It

Yellow Flower with Bee 2
Beauty and the Bee

Straight from a dog-eared paperback perched on the corner of my coffee table for years came this kernel of wisdom—sometimes you just have to pick at it—one of many from the mouths of babes, a single one on every page. Clear-headed advice from a child seems appropriate just now, as there are a few grown-up scabs I can’t seem to leave alone. But humankind collectively can’t either, as anybody with a pulse knows too well. I have no idea what happened to that little book, but this is the one piece of insight from it that stuck with me; everybody in the world needs a copy.

Archie Bunker’s theme song is a comically tragic scab I’ve been picking at for a while, playing it in my head on continuous loop for several days. Archie and Edith Bunker—America’s perfectly flawed couple, with their perfectly flawed family. A lot of it was lost on me when the show was new, more meaningful as I aged a little and understood the upshot of it all. Everybody knows Archie and Edith, and we’re probably related to them—every single one of us. (Hat tip to the late Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton for their spot-on portrayals.) We need to be honest about that.

Here’s another one I can’t seem to leave alone lately: messages of divisiveness coming from every angle, sometimes buried in language that masquerades as unifying, and even in the words of people who are supposed to lead us. Shame on anybody who knowingly fans the awful flames of what’s happening on our streets right now.

I submit we’re in big trouble if we can’t figure out how to celebrate our differences and rejoice in the things (far more of them) that unite us, and soon. We’re still light-years away from colorblindness, with dystopic rancor looming on the horizon, it seems, as far as the eye can see. At least, this is what the media would have us believe. The whole truth is anybody’s guess, I don’t care where you turn for news.

I have no answers, but a backward-looking approach seems destined to fail—the good old days never existed, as surely as there is no paradise now. My simple (and maybe simplistic) hope for everybody in the world continues to be this: to surround yourself with as much beauty as you can, while you can; to find somebody who needs a friend and be a friend; to treat everybody you meet the way you want to be treated; and to use common sense. I’m still picking at it.

Poor Archie and Edith—you can never go home.

But why on earth would you want to?

Those Were the Days (abridged), by Lee Adams

Boy the way Glenn Miller played
Songs that made the Hit Parade
Guys like us we had it made
Those were the days.
And you knew who you were then
Girls were girl and men were men
Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again
Didn’t need no welfare state
Everybody pulled his weight
Gee our old LaSalle ran great
Those were the days!

Heavy Burdens

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That’s my son in the photo at age five, in his school uniform, a kindergartener, a blank canvas, full of curiosity, and loads of energy, trusting of the people around him.

Something awful happened to him a few years later when he was a fourth-grader. The fallout from that incident was bigger than his dad and I could have anticipated and made a lasting impression on him from which it was impossible to recover in earnest for a long, long time.

It’s all water under the bridge now, kind of, as the saying goes, and he owned at least some responsibility for the consequences of his fourth-grader actions at the time. But even as a young man he still bears its thumbprint, faded though it is, evidence of profound losses that exceeded his capacity to fully comprehend at the time.

Neither did many of our friends understand; the ones who were true didn’t abandon us, as others did. And in all fairness to those who no longer wanted to be around us, I think they didn’t know what to do, or to say, or how to react, and  they finally found the burden of our friendship too great.

A short time later, when we were still fighting our way out of the morrass, struggling to pick up some big pieces and put them together as best we could, we found ourselves at a neighborhood cocktail party among close friends. I recall a dialog with one of them, a classics professor, who was listening to my still-fresh rancor about all that had transpired. I was angry, hurt, (mainly angry), and in true maternal fashion, über protective of the boy. I said I could never forgive the people I held responsible for the damage to him and to us as a family.

Really? he asked with incredulity. Never ever?

Never ever, I insisted.

Wow, he said—you are a much better person than I.

How? I wanted to know.

It’s a huge burden to hang on to for the rest of your life, he said, to never forgive them, even if they don’t deserve your forgiveness. I’d relent, he went on; I am way too selfish to want to bear that the rest of my life.

That sentiment gave me pause to reflect, long and hard, about my view of things. And honestly, I’d have dismissed it from anybody else, probably. But this notion of forgiveness came from the thoughtful mind of a scholar, a person I trusted, a compassionate friend. There was no aha! moment, no epiphany the next day, but a gradual, discernible melting of ice, an emotional thawing towards people I genuinely hated at the time. (I still don’t like them; it’s not requisite for forgiveness.) My friend was correct: the unwillingness to forgive is indeed a heavy burden to bear.

This Sunday evening I stand in profound awe of the people in Charleston, South Carolina, who have galvanized with a message of unity and civility in the wake of the church shootings, when their reaction could have been volatile and divisive. But I stand in the greatest awe of the families of the dead, who addressed the shooter directly with messages not of rancor, nor hate, but of forgiveness.

It’s still a struggle for me—I have to work at it, searching for the freedom forgiveness brings with it. Content as I am to leave the big questions to true philosophers, I still wonder how the world’s landscape would change were it dotted with that one thing, the possibility of forgiveness.