Call me crazy, or addled, or pixilated, or whatever you like, but it seems to me that the American express has veered off course; the roaring of our engines is still robust, and the speed of our progress continues apace, but somewhere back there, somebody seems to have thrown the switch, moved the points, and sent our train barreling toward some dark and murky abyss where the Golden Rule has been melted down and Jesus’s only two commandments have been thrown in the trash. It is a place where “self” takes the ascendant and no “others” need apply. It is a place where previous charlatans have gone from time to time, but always, always to their doom. And my fear is that, by the time we finally open our eyes to just where the dangerous complacency into which we’ve been lulled has taken us, the train may already have gone too far. [Matthew 22: 36-40: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”]
When I was ten, we lived in a place that abounded in railroad tracks. Some of them actually went places – to Pensacola or Mobile or north to Montgomery – but most of them were connected to the sawmill operation and only ever used by the little yellow diesel engine with “Alger-Sullivan” painted on the side. On any given work day, that little engine could be seen moving lumber cars into place for hitching to the L&N line, but on weekends and holidays it was a great place to play. You could explore empty box cars and find trash the hobos had left behind, and one of our favorite things to do was play with the switches. The railyard was littered with switches: places where one track would merge with another and, by moving a weighted handle from one side of its toggle to the other, you could direct the train to go whichever way you wanted.
It wasn’t really hard to do, move those handles. We could do it as children, and we often did, but were quick to move them back the way we found them since we knew what the consequences would be if we left them going the wrong direction. In the lumberyard it would have only been an inconvenience, since the engineer would have had to get out of the switch engine to move it back the way he wanted it, but even as a kid, I used to ponder how easy it would be to move such a switch on the main line and send a 100-car freight train barreling down some siding or connecting track in the wrong direction. That’s a lot of power and potential disaster to just be lying around on the railroad bed. Anybody could have done it, but nobody did because we actually cared about what might happen, who might be hurt if such a prank might result in catastrophe. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
When the apostles went further, and asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor,” he answered with the story of the Good Samaritan. Now, in those days, if you were a Judean, you crossed the street to avoid Samaritans, your “unclean” fellow Palestinians from the adjoining province who were unworthy of your greeting, much less your love, because their rituals were different. But Jesus said “no” to such behavior. Jesus said it’s not enough to love yourself, your friends, your “kind.” Jesus said we are all children of the same Father – “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight” – and that our Father loves each and every one of us just as much as the next – loves each of us to the fullest possible extent of love – and weeps every time that we, His beloved children, disappoint Him by loving our fellows any less than He does, by doing anything that is disrespectful of another, of our neighbor, of our cousin, even of our enemy.
The first major blog post I ever wrote and posted – and the most important, to my mind – was entitled “Uncle Jesus” and set out my contention that – given the geometric progression required when accounting for both forebears and offspring – it is a near mathematical certainty that you, and I, and pretty much every person alive today from Timbuktu to Tiananmen Square, is an actual blood relative – a niece or nephew – of Jesus of Nazareth, Himself, and furthermore, that we are all – except for maybe some still-secluded Amazonian tribes – blood cousins. All of us. [Here’s the link, if you want more details: Uncle Jesus]. And, whether you buy that assertion, or not, it really makes no difference if you are intent upon following Jesus’s teachings.
I was born five years after the conclusion of WWII, and thus have no real appreciation of what it must have been like to live through those demanding times, but looking back over a lifetime of discernment, I have realized something about the people who did live through the war years. They came out of it with a solidarity and devotion to each other that could only have arisen in the wake of some truly trying time – and they had not only the Second World War to teach them, but the Great Depression, as well. My mother loved coffee, and had a very good sense of taste, but only ever used instant coffee powder without even sugar or cream to dull the bitterness, something that seemed absurd to me in my youth, but I finally realized in adulthood that she was expressing solidarity learned during rationing days of the war; keeping faith with the fiancé who died in an Okinawa foxhole by suffering the bitterness of her brew.
Similarly, it was far too important to my father that I always have a crewcut. When the Beatles first broke through and flaunted that rule on Ed Sullivan in 1964, our neighbors came over to watch the show with us, and with obvious disgust and anger, Mr. Briggs – an ex-West Point English professor – growled, “they look like monkeys!” Again, it wasn’t until I was grown that I realized that the crewcut was, to my father, a badge of honor, a mark of patriotism in the best sense of the word, a way that he could keep that camaraderie alive through another generation if he could just keep me from growing my hair.
In other words, while they may not, in fact, have been the greatest generation in all of human history, they were most assuredly the most solidly aligned in experience, trial and trauma, and so by the time we “boomers” arrived on the scene, they were well and truly hardened, for good or ill, into behavioral norms that almost always put the other person first. There were exceptions, of course, but they understood in a visceral way that through common courtesy and deference to others, they could continue to serve the lessons they had learned together at such a great, great price over many hard years.
And, this attitude lasted for a very long time, until, really, we boomers began to express our own individualities and find fault with some of the more egregious of the cemented behaviors of our parents. Jim Crow was alive and well in the South; the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower had so presciently warned us about was gaining more steam every year; and on top of all that, the Viet Nam war came long which never made sense to me – though I hasten here to honor the service and sacrifices of quite a few with whom I share high school memories who went on to serve during that war.
And, even as these real concerns began to be addressed by the better angels of our nature: as Jim Crow was whittled down, bit by bit, over the years and many of the vestigial trailings of slavery were overturned; as the Viet Nam War came to an end; and as Watergate exposed the underbelly of corrupt politics to the light of day, there was still a sense of outreach in the air. The prevailing attitude of Americans still put the other person first; the common sacrifices lived in earlier times still held sway in the hearts and minds of most of us. In those days, not so very long ago, it was never, ever appropriate to be selfish. It was never, ever right to put yourself first. That, after all, was exactly what Hitler had done to cause so much suffering. That was what Wall Street had done to throw the whole country into despair for a decade of misery. No. Selfishness was the root of all that suffering. Selfishness was never okay.
Until, somehow, it was. I personally have for years said it all began with Seinfeld. That probably sounds very harsh, but think about it. Up until that show premiered, no TV show that I know of (or radio show, for that matter), had ever found humor in selfishness. Up until then, Lucy Ricardo always got her comeuppance; Pa Cartwright always made everything work out for good; for Superman, truth and justice for the powerless was the “American way,” and Edith Bunker always had the last word over Archie’s xenophobic, fear-driven put-downs of “the other.”
But for good or ill, the worm turned completely when Seinfeld appeared, since it was getting your own and putting it over on the other that was the very premise of Seinfeld humor. I’m not really sure if the show arose out of, or gave rise to, the “Me Generation,” but it was certainly in sync with that idea. The Golden Rule, which for so long had been the “key” in which our entertainments were played, no longer seemed relevant. And the world that had, for decades, either put the other person first or at least gave the appearance of doing so – ideally making for a society in which everyone wins – became a world of winners and losers where he who takes the most is the winner, and he who sacrifices his own share for his fellows is the clear loser. When the train first crosses the switch points, the veer in direction is subtle, but the destination is utterly changed.
And so, here we are, in a place where common courtesy – behaving as the Golden Rule and Christ, for that matter, both dictate – has been turned on its head! With help from the brassy-haired He Who Must Not Be Named currently monopolizing our headlines, the idea of “political correctness” is the enemy. It is political correctness that is ruining our country. But, my beloved friends, that phrase really means “common courtesy” or, perhaps, not being rude to another person, or disrespecting her or him. Political correctness IS the Golden Rule. Political correctness IS loving your neighbor as yourself. Political correctness IS the mandate of Christ.
There is a part of my daily prayer during which I pray for my neighbors. In this sense, “neighbor” has a larger than usual meaning since I start by praying for Richard’s family, then my family, then all our friends and loved ones around the globe wherever they may be, and then I begin praying for our actual neighbors, beginning with Sal and Liz and the boys next door, then the buildings on either side, and reaching out until our nearest ten thousand neighbors are included (since that’s about as many as I can visualize at one time).
I think of the shoppers and shopkeepers, students and teachers, preachers and parishioners, shut-ins and their caregivers, sidewalkers, talkers, eaters, workers in their offices, mothers with babies in their cribs, and I ask Jesus, specifically, to help the neighborhood angels use every asset at their command to ignite the “joy profound” – that is, the realization of the love of our Heavenly Father – within the hearts of His nearest ten thousand nieces and nephews, our mutual cousins, before moving from the neighborhood to the city – from ten thousand to ten million neighbor/cousins – and finally from the city of ten million to seven billion, “the entire human family of the Creator Son of the Universe” which just happens to be right here on this tiny rock spinning on the edge of space.
In other words, to me, there is no “other,” so there is no need for political correctness, which assumes a separation between the speaker and subject.
I have said for some years that the Golden Rule is really not enough in a world full of masochists; in a world where some people find blowing themselves up to be an attractive option. Rather than “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” it seems to me it would be better to say “Do unto others as you would have them do unto your children.” Perhaps, then, people would think twice before spitting in the faces of those they don’t know, those they fear. Perhaps, then, the cult of selfishness we have now nurtured to the point of saturation can begin to wither and die. Perhaps, then, the American express might reclaim its track along the highroad that has so sadly fallen into disrepair in these latter days. And perhaps, then, we might return to the Golden Rule and, at least, try to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.
That is my hope on this day, and also my prayer. It includes you, too, of course. It even includes the Donald.
© 2015 George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.