Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Dead Do Vote and Not Just in Chicago

As the United States prepares for midterm elections (a phrase that recalls midterm exams and evokes much of the same anxiety) some of us are also preparing for Hallowe’en, the Eve of All Saints Day for Christians and for pagans, Samhain, a word that translates from Gaelic as Summer’s End. Many Mexican-Americans will celebrate Día de los Muertos. Though these holidays are culturally and historically distinct, they share the same time of year and many of the same customs, particularly the honoring of the dead, the acknowledgment of worlds and realities beyond our immediate ken.

However long term their effects, elections happen in the frenzy of a particular moment and climate, currently a desperate and divisive one. The holy days which precede this sacred, secular rite—the casting of the ballot—can offer a longer view, both comforting and profound in its perspective.

We are not just republicans or democrats, liberals or conservatives, moderates or extremists who have trouble finding or defining community. We are part of the great communion that embraces the living, the dead, and all who will come after us. Our ancestors—we share them if we go back far enough—have been rogues and heroes, courageous and cowardly, sung and unsung, hardworking and indolent, cruel and kind, mistaken and visionary. Ancestors are not just our blood kin, but the people whose beliefs, ideas, and creations have shaped us. Whether we know their names or not, they live in us as we will live in those who come after us, whether or not we have biological children. 

As part of the preparation for voting—and as incentive to vote—we might do well to contemplate this communion, invoke the wisdom of the ancestors to help us keep faith with the descendants.

The season itself reminds us of we are part of the cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, rebirth. The leaves fall and turn back into earth. The campaign signs (less attractive and harder to recycle) will blow away, too. The traditions of Hallowe’en give us a chance to play with our fears of death through costumes, games, and parades. And in our culture, which has been based on constant growth and productivity, we are especially frightened of decline and death. We do not want chickens to sleep at night or fields to lie fallow or oil and gas to stay underground. We are afraid of the dark.

Every year, just before another election, we have a chance to make to make friends with our fears, to know that we are and will be both dust and truth, that the mystery that gave rise to our little lives will receive us again with an embrace beyond our imagining.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fairytales: One Antidote to Bullying

“Life is no fairytale,” people say, meaning there is a dearth of happy endings. But that last traditional line “and then they lived happily ever after” is not what the story is about. In most fairytales there are terrible perils and ordeals. The hero is often the victim of bullying and malevolence and must discover both internal and external resources in order to survive and ultimately triumph.

In many stories there are three sons or three daughters who in turn set off into the world to seek their fortune. Before any one of them has gone far, they encounter someone in need, an animal, a beggar, or an old man or woman. The hero is the one who stops to show kindness or to share whatever meager store of food he or she has. Later, in the time of trial, the act of kindness becomes a saving grace, and the animal or old beggar becomes a powerful ally. The bullies, or the ungenerous, generally come to a bad end, though sometimes the former victim chooses to help them and restore them to the human family. 

I grew up reading fairytales and then novels that were inspired by fairytales. I just missed the chance to read Harry Potter to my then teenaged children who read the book themselves and now and then read bits out loud to me. Unlike many adults, I never became a Potter aficionado, but it always makes me happy to see children lugging around huge books and losing themselves in long, imaginative stories of children who have to face danger and cruelty with bravery and wit.

I can’t help but wonder if lives have actually been saved because of stories, the lasting solace and courage people find in them. And I can’t help wondering if lives are being lost because people have no stories or are in the wrong story. Is the despair of victims and misfits more abject because they can’t foresee a reversal of fortune, feel bereft of allies, can’t conceive of themselves as heroes in disguise? Are the bullies more vicious for having no mirror held up to them, no warning of the consequences of cruelty to character and fate?

We are living in harsh times where fear and insecurity are increasing our human tendency to scapegoat and bully. The internet which, like any tool can be used for good or evil, has made it easier for people to be cruel anonymously and for the acts of cruelty to be more indelible. It’s bad enough to be taunted on the playground or in the cafeteria, but when cruelty can go viral, the victim must feel even more helpless, even more without a refuge. It should be noted that while anyone can be a victim for any reason, hatred of gay men and boys seems to be particularly virulent of late.

There is no one antidote to bullying. Schools are definitely on the frontline of response and my heart goes out to parents who must navigate the complex and treacherous worlds of social media. One of the most moving responses to the targeting of gay teens is Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project  where older gay and lesbian people tell their own stories of trial and ultimate triumph. Critics say the project does not go to the root of the problem or address some of the prejudices within the GLBTQ community. But I can imagine these stories acting as life lines to someone in the midst of what seems like hopeless, endless suffering.

We need to foster a culture of storytelling in schools, in community and religious centers: People of all ages telling stories, of all sexual orientations and ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds. We also need to foster the art of listening to a story, for in hearing another’s story we suspend fear and judgment and come to identify with the teller, no matter how different he or she appears to be. We need a curriculum in all schools that approaches literature as the healing art it can be. We need to rediscover stories as a source of courage, resourcefulness, and compassion.