If you live in or around the Charlotte, NC area, please consider attending the following event:
We would like to invite you to a city-wide prayer vigil for Darfur, a region in Sudan where systematic ethnic cleansing has been occurring for the past three years. On top of the ethnic/political conflict, many are dying each day of hunger and thirst.
The Prayer Vigil will be held from 7-9 on Sunday, May 21 at the Neighborhood Theater. We will present a slide show and video clips as we discuss the history of the crisis, describe the current situation, and talk about what can be done. This will be followed by a time of prayer for the people of Darfur. The genocide cries out for our attention and concern, and we would like for people in Charlotte to get involved.
Please join us to find out more and to pray for political and ethnic healing and for the basic needs of the displaced people.
Feel free to email with any questions. Feel free to pass this message around.
DARFUR PRAYER VIGIL
Sunday, May 21, 2006
(The Neighborhood Theater is located on the corner of E. 36th St and North Davidson St
I was driving past one that offers little thought-provoking messages like "Eternity: Smoking or non-smoking?" or "CH - RCH: the only thing that’s missing is U". Then I saw for the first time one of the most ignorant – not to mention dangerous – ideas anyone could suggest: "We’re Too Blessed To Be Depressed". Since then I’ve seen that same slogan on T-shirts and heard about it being on posters hung in churches.
The thinking and the implications seem to go something like this: If you’re depressed it means there’s something especially wrong with your relationship with the Lord; if you had a proper understanding of God’s love and blessings you wouldn’t be in that emotional state; the problem is strictly spiritual in nature, not physiological; therefore its remedy is adequate prayer, proper thinking, meditation on Scripture and obedience. Medication is not needed and need not be considered; if considered, it should be rejected. One of the dangers of medication is that it will alleviate the symptoms, make you feel better, and thus remove your motivation for dealing with the issues that brought you to such a place.
Those who offer such counsel err in a number of ways. First, for Christians, it’s bad theology which deviates from the historical understanding that we live in an afflicted universe and loses sight of the fact that just as our fallen universe has given rise to cancer cells requiring chemotherapy, endocrine disorders requiring insulin, and near-sightedness requiring glasses, so too has it given us disruptive levels of neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin and dopamine), requiring anti-depressants.
Second, they have a limited view of God’s grace. Just as He has provided through technology chemotherapy, insulin and bi-focals, He has also provided Welbutrin, Zoloft, Paxil and other valuable medications.
Third, they provide dangerous counsel. Simply put, often those who need medication and don’t take it, find their condition getting worse. They suffer at an unnecessary level causing them to, potentially, grow more incapacitated, unable to properly care for themselves much less respond to the needs of those around them, whether family or friends. When at work, job performance suffers, the threat of unemployment looms, stress increases, chemical levels are impacted, depression and/or anxiety increases. Self-destructive behavior may then follow.
I myself have experienced two stretches of severe depression/anxiety – the first in 1999, the second in 2003. Maintaining emotional stability is an ongoing project for me, involving a strategy that includes adequate sleep, exercise, diet, solitude, community, worship – and Welbutrin.
In recent years I have spent many hours with others who have dealt with and are dealing with a variety of emotional setbacks, some of whom have been ill-served by church leaders who see long-term emotional struggles and spiritual maturity as mutually exclusive. Many of these friends have been horribly lonely, convinced that no one else has such struggles – at least not Christians. Or at least not the good ones.
One Christian friend described his experience to me this way: "The family of faith prays and brings flowers and food when one of their own has a heart attack, stroke, cancer, etc. (one of the so-called physical illnesses). But when someone is hospitalized for a mental health issue, no one comes." (Of course, if the visitor is one of those "too-blessed-to-be-depressed" types, maybe it’s better to be left alone.)
With this as a backdrop, comes an unfolding scenario: A congregation is taught an inaccurate understanding of depression and anxiety. A church member suffering from one of these is seen as obviously lacking spiritual maturity. He or she may begin to see their affliction as an indication of that as well. Then, eventually, in their own minds and the minds of some others, they begin wearing "The Scarlet D". Should they give in (that is, give up) and begin taking medication, they are ashamed to admit it – even as they begin to feel better – out of fear of "The Scarlet D".
But our scenario doesn’t necessarily stop there: Because the maintenance of emotional stability is for them a long-term – if not life-long – major undertaking, and the people with whom they worship do not understand, appreciate or support them in their struggle due, in part, to well-meaning but misguided pastors and teachers, they leave their church. As well they should.
Misconceptions concerning mental health are not unique to the church. The general public, despite educational strides, still has its share of people who regard mental illness as indicative of personal weakness or as a character flaw. Stigma is still attached to those afflicted, often resulting in withdrawal on the part of the sufferer, reinforcing in their thinking the notion that "they are the only ones".
But, au contraire, my fellow pilgrims! We are not alone. And there is ironic consolation in some of the statistics provided by The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the US Surgeon General:
Now take any combination of three of the above. Let’s say you have someone who is genetically predisposed with three children under the age of twelve whose spouse has suddenly died: this person is going to be reeling emotionally. Plus, it will take a huge toll on them physiologically. Understandably so. And they don’t need someone telling them to simply "Trust Jesus more."
Certainly, obviously, clearly, counseling is needed. No question. Because it’s not the event alone but it’s how we understand the meaning of the event that contributes to the depression. There is grief. And then there is grief and depression.
For example, with the loss of a job you may begin to think, "I’m completely worthless." If you have a family to support you may begin to think, "We’re going to lose our house." There is then the onslaught of the anticipation of all sorts of horrible things. You become paralyzed and can’t do what needs to be done. Again, what you believe the meaning of the event to be is crucial, and counseling should help you sort through it all.
But the role medication can play is that of bringing back into balance the chemicals that control synapses in the brain, thus alleviating depressive or anxious symptoms so that a person is better equipped mentally to cognitively understand their circumstances and have clearer motivation to deal with the issues that brought them to that place.
I am well aware that there are those within our community from a variety of faith traditions who disagree with the position I’ve taken. They mean well and I don’t want to seem ungracious. But I cannot stress too emphatically or urgently how wrong they are. Congregations should consider ways to further explore and discuss this issue. It is as important as any other theological or ecclesiastical concern that might be addressed.
John Lennon’s Imagination
Next month will mark the 25th anniversary of the death at the hands of a gunman of musician and former Beatle, John Lennon. If past anniversaries are any indication, this one will be marked with media retrospectives, candlelight vigils, and the repeated airing and reference to what has become an anthem for Lennon fans, his song “Imagine”.
A number of years ago the South Carolina Educational Radio Network ran a weekly series where community leaders were asked, "If you were stranded on a desert island what one book (besides the Bible and Shakespeare) and what piece of music would you like to have with you?" I was surprised and disappointed how many had as their musical selection – you guessed it – John Lennon's "Imagine."
As is the case with so many utopian visions, the heart of song demonstrates beautifully the capacity we all have to envision how things ought to be ("Imagine all the people living life in peace"). And yet we're encouraged to pursue this vision while thinking our world in completely naturalistic terms ("Imagine there's no Heaven; it's easy if you try. No Hell below us; above us only sky").
With a worldview that Carl Sagan would applaud ("The Cosmos is all there is; all there ever has been; and all there ever will be"), the picture Lennon leaves us turns out to be like a "cloud without water." From a distance it looks attractive, but closer scrutiny reveals it has no substance. It offers the promise of refreshment and relief, but can't deliver.
There is no suggestion in all of history that the human race has much inclination, much less capacity, for living life in peace with each other. Nor – if we are truly, cosmically on our own – is there any ultimate compelling reason why we ought to pursue living life in peace with our neighbor, especially if she has something that we want.
John Lennon was a dreamer. And he's not the only one. Unfortunately, those who dream as he did, dream with their eyes shut.
This essay was first published in Greenville (SC) Magazine, November, 2005
Used by permission.
Swelling.... in a private area of my body.... where swelling’s never been (at least not this kind of swelling).... where swelling’s not supposed to be.
It was on a Friday in mid-June of this year when I noticed it. By Saturday it had moved. On Sunday: some change, more movement, still there. Probably nothing to be concerned about, but it was something – and I wanted to know what. In the meantime, however, I was not alarmed; somber, but not afraid.
I found myself revisiting reality: Life is short, fragile, unpredictable. It has been described as a breath, a vapor. This is not a dress rehearsal. I’ll either do it right this time or I won’t do it right.
But what is the right way to live life? The pursuits of wealth, power and/or prestige?
It can’t be wealth. A wise man once wrote, “We brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it... People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.... Some people, eager for money, have ... pierced themselves with many griefs.”
I know of an individual here in Greenville who’s achieved great financial success and is known for his wealth. However he’s also known, by both acquaintances and friends, as evil – all because of the ruthlessness he’s employed in gaining that wealth. (If, while reading this, you think I might be writing about you, contact me and I’ll let you know.)
Power – the ability to coerce people into doing your bidding. I think I’d rather strive to be a person of influence. The impact of a Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Boy Scout leader or volunteer in a homeless shelter – none of whom possess power – goes deeper, lasts longer and means more than that of any power broker.
Prestige: it’s too hard to maintain. You have to learn to play the games to satisfy the people who supply the attention that keeps you in the spotlight.
Wealth, power, and prestige. All are self-oriented and self-serving. And when the self is gone, the money will pass to someone else; your accomplishments will be undone by the next person in power; and in a short time few people will even think of you.
No wonder it’s been stated: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”
However, if there is an eternity and what is done here matters there... well, more to think about.
Incidentally, my health is fine.
This essay was first published in Greenville (SC) Magazine, September, 2005
Used by permission.
Bloodsucking Trima and Me
There’s a syringe in my left arm as I write the first draft of this month’s column. For approximately an hour and a half, “Trima” is going to remove all the blood from my body and then send it back.
“Trima” is a machine. She’s actually “an essence-of-life component separator.” (I made that up). Her given name is Trima Accel. I call her “Trima” for short. We’ve become very close. She lives at Greenville’s Blood Connection.
The process Trima utilizes is called Pheresis where, utilizing centrifugal force, she separates from my blood a volume of platelets, which will subsequently be carried to local hospitals and provide replacement for perhaps as many as three different cancer and leukemia patients who, due to their type of cancer and the treatment they’ve received, have had their own platelets burn up.
Every month when I do this, I immediately become an essential part of someone’s life support system, for platelets are good for only five days.
Fortunately my system can supply both platelets and red blood cells at the same time. So Trima will also separate out plasma essential for burn victims. I can make this donation every 28 days and these red blood cells are good for 42 days.
Of course The Blood Connection won’t accept just anyone’s blood: along with checking my hemoglobin and temperature, each visit they first run me through a battery of questions that range from my recent travels to my medical history to whether I have ever given or taken money for sex.
Having said that, however, being a blood donor does not make me unique. Generous Greenville donors range in age from 17 to 80. Yet, still, The Blood Connection’s average daily goal of retrieving blood and blood products is extremely hard to meet. Imagine: 4 plasma donors, 25 platelet donors, and 301 plain blood donors. Daily. And these are on the uneventful days.
Then there are days of crises: ranging from ice storms which keep people away, to natural disasters – both locally and beyond – which require a greater outpouring of generosity than usual. Perhaps the most dramatic example of Greenville’s sacrificial spirit was the response The Blood Connection received immediately after the events of September 11, 2001: over the next two days more than 2000 people donated. If there had been room for everyone who showed up, the number would have swelled to nearly 2500.
Other experiences are less publicized but just as dramatic, such as when a young pregnant lady’s baby was not producing platelets. The gentle professionals at The Blood Connection were able to harvest platelets from the mother and then provide them to her child – in utero.
But they struggle to meet those daily goals. Unfortunately, during the months of June, July and August donors are scarce – especially July!
This is a great thing to be a part of! Minimum time, minimum effort, maximum – life and death – benefits!!
If you need a selfish reason to give blood, here’s a surprise: it’ll boost your energy. And the folks at The Blood Connection don’t care why you give.
This essay was first published in Greenville (SC) Magazine, July, 2005
Used by permission.
Archibald Rutledge and Life’s Extras
I have a new treasure. It arrived as a surprise package from my sister: a first-edition of Archibald Rutledge’s classic, Life’s Extras, published in 1928 by Fleming H. Revell, now published by South Carolina’s own Sandlapper Publishing.
In this small, but deeply personal book, our state’s first poet laureate posits the following observation and subsequent questions:
“The more I thought... the more it appeared that Creation supplies us with two kinds of things: necessities and extras. Sunlight, air, water, food, shelter – these are among the bare necessities. With them we can exist. But moonlight and starlight are distinctly extras; so are music, the perfumes, flowers. The wind is perhaps a necessity; but the song that it croons through the morning pines is a different thing.
“The fascinating part about all this is not the tabulating of life’s necessities and life’s extras; it is rather the question, Who put them here, and for what purpose?”
Rutledge then recalls various encounters he’s had with those who received comfort and encouragement through nature:
The friend who, as he lay deathly ill, felt the night breeze through his window, accompanied by its sounds and smells.
“On the table by the bed were all the necessities for a sick man; but he had small comfort in them. But the moonlight, and the hale fragrances, and the wild song of the bird – these brought peace to his heart.”
He tells of visiting a poverty stricken elderly lady in the mountains of North Carolina. Her husband recently arrested for murder, a sprig of rhododendron stood in a bottle on her mantel.
“‘I don’t know why,’ my hostess said, ‘but to have it there helps me. It ‘minds me of God.’”
There’s a showdown between two armed men, averted by the sight and aroma of a sweet bay flower; Rutledge’s own encounter with a sunset; also with a deadly thunderstorm one night that threw him off his horse and left him “defenseless, in profound darkness” until....
In a culture that encourages us to buy more and more in order to be satisfied and then when we not tells us it’s because we didn’t buy enough, Archibald Rutledge gently brings us back to reality.
“Whatever my religion may be worth, I feel deeply that life’s extras have given it to me; and time shall not take it from me. Meditating on what we have, not merely to sustain us but to make us joyous and serene in life, I have come to so clear a consciousness of God that of all men the atheist appears to me the most pitiable and foolish. Nor have I come to this faith by roseate paths alone. I know well the Valley of the Shadow; I know the aspect of that Veil which mortal sight cannot pierce. But I know, also, that the spiritual luxuries that we so freely enjoy vindicate the faith that behind the Veil is the God of mercy and of tenderest love.”
Life’s Extras is available at The Open Book. The current edition includes additional prose and poetry by Rutledge. If you’d like to hear a reading of Life’s Extras, go to www.CalebGroup.org.
This essay was first published in Greenville (SC) Magazine, May, 2005
Used by permission.
Spreading Angel Dust
Ok, it’s a really hokey title; but if it creates a helpful image, that’s a good thing. Unless you’re a drug dealer, then it’s a bad thing.
Anyway, below are twelve suggestions for how you could add a bit of brightness here and there. They are all simple; some may seem trivial. But, as has been noted before, it’s the accumulation of minor things that makes a major difference.
Do these and you benefit too. It’s good therapy.
This essay was first published in Greenville (SC) Magazine, March 2005
Used by permission.
A Night in the Pokey
Well, it was certainly a first for me: getting pulled over, arrested, cuffed and spending the night in the Spartanburg County Jail for DUI. It was unexpected too, as I was stone cold sober.
I was returning home after spending the weekend in Charlotte with some friends. About 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, I was driving through Duncan. I was really tired and fighting sleep, which caused me to drive a bit erratically. That’s when I was pulled over.
"Have you been drinking, sir?" asked the officer.
"Not since a glass of wine around 6:00 at dinner," I replied. "I’m just really tired"
At this point, the officer asked me to step out of the car and perform a number of calisthenics to demonstrate my sobriety. I followed the silver ballpoint pen back and forth with my eyes with no problem. However, when I was asked to walk several steps in a straight line, heel to toe, turn around in small steps and walk back the same way while maintaining my balance, well, as I said, I was really tired. After failing a few more balancing acts, I was cuffed and arrested.
At the station, my pockets were emptied, my tie and belt removed, and I was taken to a holding cell while they prepared the Breathalyzer test. A few minutes later I was blowing into a tube.
The arresting officer, monitoring the results, looked taken aback. "This reads 0.00," he said.
"Yes sir. That’s because I’m sober," I replied.
"Are you taking any drugs? Have you had any medications?"
"I did take some medication at dinner around 6:00."
"Well then, we have to go to the hospital for a urine sample."
I was relaxed, although curious about how I was going to get back to Greenville by 9:45a.m. to teach a Sunday School class at First Presbyterian Church.
In the hospital, we located a nurse with a small bottle and entered a small room with a small stall. The officer asked me, "Can you do this wearing cuffs, or should we remove them?" (Like I would know the answer to that, having had other occasions to pee in a cup while hand-cuffed.) He removed the cuffs.
Of course, they’re not allowed to shut the stall door. So, the nurse is standing just on the other side of the door, and the officer sat in a chair next to her.
Every now and then, men experience a phenomenon known as "reluctant bladder." It’s also referred to as shy bladder, embarrassed bladder or stage fright. It usually happens when you’re trying to go to the bathroom in the presence of another person. After a couple of minutes, the officer turned on the water faucet.
Now it’s about 4:30a.m. The next step in the process was to appear before a judge, who was expected to arrive at 6:00a.m.. I’m was fingerprinted, photographed, and returned to my holding cell.
A little after 6:00 I appeared before a magistrate judge who looked surprised at the results of the Breathalyzer test but proceeded anyway. She confirmed my trial date and set my bond. (Did you realize that the only requirement to be a magistrate judge in South Carolina is to have a high school diploma?) Afterwards she’s released me on my own personal recognizance. No bail.
Now it was after 7:00a.m. and I had no car. Who could I call, I wondered, to get me back to Greenville in time to teach that Sunday School class? God bless you, Pam Scurry. She pulled up at 8:45 and we had just enough time to get back to Greenville, where stopped at The 8 O’Clock to buy a toothbrush and toothpaste. With the passenger door open I sat in Pam’s Volvo and brushed my teeth, spitting in the parking lot. I walked into "The Flock" Sunday School class about five minutes before my introduction.
But, the drama continues. At this writing, it’s been seven weeks. Two hearings have been postponed and my case is still pending because they’ve been unable to secure the results of my urinalysis. That’s ok. It’ll all work out eventually.
The most important consideration is my stupidity. The condition I was in that night, I was just as much a danger driving down I-85 as if I had been drunk. I could have run off the road and crashed into someone, injuring or killing them, or myself.
For those of you who think in terms of providence, as I do, I’m convinced the Lord was saying, "I’m going to get you off this road. In fact, I’m going to get you so far off this road you’ll never do such an senseless, selfish, asinine thing again."
The lesson has been learned.
This essay was first published in Greenville (SC) Magazine, January 2005
Used by permission.
To Live and Die With PAs
November, 1994. Ten years ago this month the citizens of Oregon voted to physician assisted suicide (PAS). Known as the Death with Dignity Act the voters approved it again in 1997. Since 1978, at least 170 people have used Oregon’s law to take their own lives. And earlier this year a US appeals court blocked attempts by the Bush administration to stop the practice.
I’m sure a large number of people support this legislation out of a genuine sense of concern and compassion for people suffering. I’m convinced others’ motives were far less honorable. In either case I’m convinced they are both wrong.
Usually the debate concerning physician-assisted suicide centers around the question of a patient’s "quality of life". Will they have a life worth living? To those of you who are theologically astute (and to the rest of you as well, come to think of it) I would insist that the heart of the question is instead the "sanctity of life." Our lives are not our own; we do not have the prerogative to decide when to throw away this sacred gift.
For those of you who are not theologically inclined, there are still good reasons for opposition:
For example, an elderly person may decide he wants to die. Perhaps he is terminally ill. He may be in great pain, or lonely, or believe he has nothing more to contribute. He may be afraid he’s become a personal and financial burden on his family – so he’s decided it’s not worth keeping on.
Informed and caring family members will understand that there are many ways to comfort and provide relief from all those concerns, and then insist such care be given.
But there’s also the scenario where family members and medical personnel are brought in for consultation, who may not have the best interests of the patient in mind. Family members because he is becoming a drain (or there’s an anticipated inheritance). Doctors and hospital administrators because the patient is cutting into their profits.
Or let’s say that you’re a "patient", cognitively active but non-communicative, with high-level physical disabilities; or you have a mental disorder which only allows you to operate on the level of a three year old. Your parents are becoming elderly (or not). What’s to be done with you? When the answer is reached, it will be reached by a second or third party who are deciding if the value and worth of your life meets their standards.
All of this has lead us to disposable people. The most disposable people in our society are the elderly, the disabled and the unborn.
According to Wesley Smith, as recently as 1993 "Ann Landers [endorsed] the establishment of death clinics where the elderly could go to be put to death rather than receive long-term care, calling the notion ‘a sane, civilized alternative to existing in a nursing home, draining family resources, and hoping the end will come soon. Too bad it’s against the law...’"
Dr. Peter Singer, professor of Bio-Ethics at Princeton advocates, among other atrocities, the killing of certain newborn infants with disabilities up to 28 days after birth. He also defines certain disabled persons as individuals who are living "a life not worth living.
Finally, there is a legitimate concern for the proverbial "slippery slope". Since 1973 the Dutch courts have turned a blind eye to physician assisted suicide and euthanasia. Since 1973 over 8,110 have died with the "assistance" of medical personnel. In Holland there are now well over 10,000 citizens who carry "Do Not Euthanize Me" cards in case they are admitted to the hospital unexpectedly.
Our nation is not immune.
These thoughts were first published in Greenville (SC) Magazine, November, 2004.
Used by permission
Reflections by Auden
"Faces along the bar
Cling to their average a day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the convensions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good."
W.H. Auden, one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, wrote this
poem in response to the German invasion of Poland on the first day of
Not a religious man, Auden was convinced that "people only love God when no
one else will love them."
According to Os Guinness, "At the time [Auden] had developed a broad blend of
liberal-socialist-democratic opinions following an earlier intellectual
odyssey through the dogmas of Freud and Marx. One thread had linked his convictions
-- a belief in the natural goodness of humankind. Whether the solutions to
the world's problems lay in politics, education or psychology, once these
problems were addressed, humanity would be happy because humanity was good."
Such a worldview was beginning to be challenged. And he knew he had to take
some sort of stand in the face of the war's outbreak. But what could he do?
Maybe not much, but as much as he could. He writes in the eighth stanza:
"All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose building grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
to the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die."
Two months later, he went to see a movie in Yorkville, a district of
Manhatten where he had lived for a few weeks in the spring. The neighborhood was
predominantly German-speaking, and the film he saw was "Sieg im Poland," an account
by the Nazis themselves of their conquest of Poland. When Poles appeared on
the screen a large number of people in the audience screamed "Kill them! Kill
Auden was horrified. Over the next several days, as he recalled the incident,
he realized there was nothing in his own belief system that gave him any
moral foundation upon which to stand in opposition to Hitler and such atrocities.
After all, there were no "absolutes" in his universe.
Thus his astute observation: "The English intellectuals who now cry to Heaven
against the evil incarnated in Hitler have no Heaven to cry to."
W. H. Auden had begun another odyssey, but that's a story to tell another
time. But he did pose a challenge in another poem written soon after his Yorkville
"Either we serve the Unconditional,
Or some Hitlerian monster will supply
An iron convention to do evil by."
This essay was first published in Greenville (SC) Magazine, September, 2004
Used by permission.
Sweet and Sour
First of all, a disclaimer: I consider myself of only average intelligence and have (perhaps) close to an average education.
There is, of course, a difference between the two – intelligence and education – and neither necessarily requires the other.
We are a highly educated nation, which makes it fascinating to speculate on our collective intelligence. On the simple day-to-day landscape the two play out in a rather happy/sad sort of way. I offer three examples:
I’m happy "Friends" finally went off the air in May. The show that brought to television its first premature-ejaculation joke seems to have realized it has run its course. The sad thing is that so many people cared.
I’m happy that William Shakespeare wrote so many outstanding plays that have stood the test of time. The sad thing is that one of his most famous lines, found in Hamlet, "To thine own self be true", is considered by many today as deep wisdom. It is, in fact, utter nonsense and was spoken by a character who was a buffoon. And, surely, it was understood by the audience at the time not to be taken out of context, engraved in a locket and given as a graduation gift.
In Walt Stillman’s excellent film "The Last Days of Disco," one of the characters, Des, raises this point: "You know that Shakespearean admonition ‘To thine own self be true’? It’s premised on the idea that ‘thine own self’ is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if ‘thine own self’ is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Wouldn’t it be better in that case not to be true to thine own self? That’s my situation."
And finally, my third example: I get excited when I go into The Open Book, Barnes and Noble, or Bentley’s Used Books and see so many people browsing, perusing and buying books. The sad thing is that on USA Today’s top 25 bestsellers in April were two cookbooks (numbers 1 and 2, incidentally), "The DaVinci Code" and another one of the "Left Behind" series.
These thoughts were first published in the Greenville (SC) Magazine, July, 2004
Used by permission
Public Persona; Private Mess
Precious few people know first hand what I’m about to tell all of you (although I doubt any of you will be surprised): I have a public persona and a private mess.
Much of my time is spent in front of people speaking, teaching, leading discussions. And I’m good at it. "It’s what I do." With a certain charm, wit, repartee, finesse and casualness about me I often receive compliments about my "up-front" skills.
In fact, just a few days ago after leading a discussion with a group of 70 – 80 young people and adults, one gentleman came up to me and said, very kindly, "I am never surprised but always amazed at the job you do." Little did he know how stressed and distressed I’d been all evening.
The part of me that most people see is often very different from much of the rest of me.
But I’m not unique. The same is true of everyone. I suspect that most of your time is spent in front of people delivering some type of performance. And the part that most people see of you is often very different from much of the rest of you.
I remember the first time this fact occurred to me with great clarity. I was standing in front of The Peace Center, completely stressed out, waiting to meet someone for lunch. As I watched people passing by, I began wondering, "What’s bothering him?" "What’s worrying her?" "What pressures, if any, are building up behind facades of well-being?"
That was when I came to a decision: I need to assume that whoever I come in contact with is in some way, perhaps, either stretched out, stressed out, worn out, burned-out, and they don’t need me adding to their pile. My job should be that of an encourager.
When a waitress doesn’t keep my coffee hot, I wonder what’s she dealing with at home? Bills to pay? A sick child? Her own health concerns? A crumbling marriage?
Perhaps a smile, a kind word and an extra tip would provide the boost she needs to make it through the morning.
These thoughts were first published in Greenville (SC) Magazine, May 2004
Used by permission
The Wasted Brilliance of Tarantino
The most influential film of the 90s was Pulp Fiction, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and released in 1994. Amazingly it was only his second film, his first being Reservoir Dogs. Then came Jackie Brown, and six years later the recently released Kill Bill - Vol. I. (Vol. II is due out in February.)
Close attention to three of his four films provides important insight into the relationship between a filmmaker, his films and the audience. Jackie Brown is a pretty straightforward story of lowlifes, drug money and murder. It’s the other three that warrant special scrutiny.
Reservoir Dogs, with virtually no plot, serves up a wide variety of quiet obscenities, loud obscenities, murder, slow and painful death, pools of blood, torture, and severed body parts. All of this is masterfully choreographed and often accompanied by the upbeat music of the 70s.
Pulp Fiction is a cinematic masterpiece; it is also a complex story brilliantly told, as the director plays with our sense of time and sequence. It has spawned numerable imitations. To date, at least 114 subsequent films have in some way made reference to Pulp Fiction or paid homage to it. (Even Mickey Mouse in Space Jam imitated one of the gangsters in the story.) Domino’s Pizza uses its theme music to sell their pies.
Once again Tarantino was typically violent and profane (Pulp Fiction probably holds the record for the number of times the F-word is used: 271), but this time he crossed over into the inexcusable. Every film director attempts to manipulate his audience; that’s his job: But, Tarantino’s manipulation was different. Taking the most horrific of events – sadomasochistic male rape, the accidental blowing off of a young man’s head in the back seat of a car, a drug overdose requiring the plunging of a syringe into a woman’s heart – he played them for laughs. He draws the audience into these experiences and then encourages us to enjoy and be amused by them.
In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Tarantino was asked if he considered anything off limits to exploit for laughter. His answer was no, calling into question his morality.
His newest film, Kill Bill - Vol. I is a feast of violence. Once again, it is cinematically brilliant. Once again, there is virtually no plot. Reminiscent of the most violent of video games it is, from start to finish, a piling up of carcasses, severed heads, lopped off arms and blood that spurts and sprays like water sprinklers. Using beautiful music and elegant images, Tarantino again draws us in and invites us to enjoy the carnage as we might a ballet.
What does Quentin Tarantino care about? As far as I can tell from what he says, movies. That’s it: movies. Watching them and making them.
What does he think of his audience? In an interview in the October 20, 2003 issue of The New Yorker he said, "I like f---ing with your emotions, and I like it when it’s done to me. That’s my thing. You’re gonna laugh, you’re gonna laugh, you’re gonna laugh, until you’re gonna stop laughing. You’re gonna stop laughing you’re gonna stop laughing you’re gonna stop laughing until boom you’re gonna laugh again. The audience and the director, it’s an S&M relationship, and the audience is the M. It’s exciting! When you go out and have pie afterward, you’ve got some s--- to talk about. You went to the movies that night!"
Two observations: First, the sadness of wasted brilliance. Second, the perversity of an industry that would consider him a golden boy.
I may go to see Kill Bill - Vol. II; I may not. But if I do, I’ll watch with an awareness that will not allow me to be played, and with a prayer for Quentin.
These thoughts were first published in Greenville (SC) Magazine, January 2004.
Used by permission
Albee’s Diagnostic Demons
Recently I found myself assuming roles in two plays by Edward Albee: A Delicate Balance and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I was Harry in Balance and Nick in Virginia Woolf.
Never mind how it all came about, but suffice it to say I was in the home of Mimi Wyche, a local actor who has performed on stages across the United States, including Broadway and Off-Broadway. There was John Woodson, Artistic Director of The Warehouse Theatre, who is also an accomplished actor with quite a resume. Pam Scurry, a highly regarded local painter and Eva Van Dok, a Greenville native who is establishing herself as a talent to be reckoned with in the theatre community, completed this gathering.
Initially, our purpose was to do a "read through" with Mimi of A Delicate Balance, the play that won Albee a Pulitzer Prize in 1966. Mimi was scheduled to play the character of Claire at the Jungle Theatre in Minneapolis. By reading through the script with her we were helping her prepare.
However, we had so much fun that night we decided we’d come back two nights later and read through Albee’s next play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, just for the heck of it.
It was all quite a trip for me, for there I was in the middle of some extraordinarily gifted people, seeing – up close – and participating with them in the unfolding of two of the finest pieces of drama ever written by an American playwright.
But it was also a disturbing trip for me. For if you’re familiar with the works of Albee, particularly these two and especially Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, you know they are not lighthearted dramas full of happy and inspirational characters. Instead they are plays filled with miserable, angry, disturbed, selfish people bent on self-destruction, but not satisfied unless they can take others down with them.
Yet if you look and listen closely, you’ll find that Albee can be keenly diagnostic. I don’t know if he’s aware of his diagnostic talents, but in each play there’s at least one place where you can say "There’s the problem! All the rest is symptomatic."
For example, in A Delicate Balance Claire is a long term alcoholic who refuses to see herself as one, preferring the status of simply being a drunk. In conversation with her brother-in-law she confirms the fact that she likes to drink:
"Just think, Tobias, what would happen if the patterns changed: you wouldn’t know where you stood, and the world would be full of strangers; that would never do."
Albee seems to be suggesting – with just a hint – that people will often prefer the security of maintaining the familiar and the expected, even if such status-quo became consistently destructive, rather than accept the challenge and risk and insecurity that comes with attempting to make things right.
In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? George, the husband of Martha, sits down ostensibly to read a book; this in the middle of a long night of emotional and psychological savagery toward each other and another, younger couple visiting their home.
He reads aloud a portion that has seriously grabbed his attention:
"And the west, encumbered by crippling alliances, and burdened with a morality too rigid to accommodate itself to the swing of events, must… eventually… fall."
(He laughs, briefly, ruefully … rises, with the book in his hand. He stands still … then, quickly, he gathers all the fury he has been containing within himself … he shakes … he looks at the book in his hand and with a cry that is part growl, part howl, he hurls it at the chimes. They crash against each other, ringing wildly.)
The diagnosis: morality is fixed. When we attempt to live lives with the expectation that the universe and truth will tailor themselves to accommodate us, we eventually discover that we are the ones who, if unwilling to accommodate to them, will be shattered.
These thoughts were first published in Greenville (SC) Magazine, November 2003.
Used by permission
Celebrities and Heroes
(The following is dedicated with gratitude to the staff of St. Francis Hospice.)
For a number of years – years ago – I produced a weekly half-hour radio show and distributed it to be aired on Sundays to what were then known as Top 40 stations in North and South Carolina. During this same time period I also hosted a weekly public affairs television program for Channel 7. This too ran for a half hour on Sundays. Before long, strangers recognized me. I loved it.
For me, a dream come true would have been to wake up one morning and discover my picture on the front of People magazine. Oh, to be a celebrity! To be someone whose mere presence is celebrated.
Then I began to meet and interview celebrities for the radio show, a lot of them as a matter of fact. And I discovered that a few were also heroes. Charles Colson and the late Harry Chapin, for example, may not have seen themselves as heroes, but I certainly did.
Permit a definition: a hero is someone who invests his life beyond himself in order to make a difference for the good of someone else. The more celebrities I met the more I realized the clear distinction between the two.
In some cases it’s relatively easy to be a celebrity. All you have to do is be born or show up in the right place at the right time. Just ask Prince Charles or Monica Lewinsky. However, it’s never easy being a hero.
Just as you can be a celebrity without being a hero, you can be a hero without being a celebrity. And there’s the rub. Many of us would be willing to do what is necessary, make the sacrifices and pay the price, in order to be a hero – if we would be guaranteed the accompanying fame and adoration.
We dream the heroic. But we dream with our eyes closed. Once our eyes are open and in focus, we become frightened.
In "The Brothers Karamazov," Feodor Dostoyevsky tells of a woman’s confession to her priest: "I so love humanity that… I often dream of forsaking all that I have… and becoming a sister of mercy… But could I endure such a life for long? I shut my eyes and ask myself, ‘Would you persevere long on that path? And if the patient whose wounds you are washing did not meet you with gratitude, but… began abusing you… and complaining… what then? Would you persevere in your love or not?’"
A lack of gratitude for our real-life heroes is a tragic reality. Our society as a whole certainly doesn’t value them very much. Who gets paid the most, or has the most requests for autographs: a man on the screen with a toy gun playing a hero or a member of the local police force or the American Armed Forces?
And heroes are much easier to meet than celebrities. Generally, celebrities will meet you only if it will enhance their "celebrity-ness." But if you would like to meet a hero, I can tell you where to find some in the Greenville area.
Go down to the Southernside Community Center and meet Johnny Flemmings. Or seek out Neal Vaughn of Project Greenville. Beth Templeton heads up United Ministries. Shake hands with Dorothy Brockman at the Senior Action Center, Vardry Fleming at Bethel Bible Missionary Church or any of the 500 volunteers with Meals on Wheels led by Dennis Brown. Go to a local hospital and speak to a nurse. Take your pastor out to lunch.
These people, and many more like them, have chosen to strive for the heroic, but will never make the star system, They will never make People magazine, will never make big bucks.
What they will make is a difference.
These thoughts were first published in Greenville (SC) Magazine, September 2003.
Used by permission.