"I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Thomas Jefferson
Sept. 23, 1800

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

S Is For......Schadenfreude

I'm a huge fan of the German language. Not so much so that I ever bothered (despite three years of classes in high school), or will likely ever bother, to learn it, but I enjoy knowing about it. I like the language's tendency to introduce new words for new things by simply stringing together old words. Flugzueg is the German word for airplane, made from "fly" and "train." The German language has always struck me as very logical in an engineered, mechanical sort of way. There are also words in German that don't translate so well, and in my mind don't need to. I love them the way they are. Gem├╝tlichkeit was described to me by my first German teacher as a word meaning roughly "hospitality." I've found since that it is more. It means the feeling of coziness and comfort and belonging one gets from being welcomed and accepted by others, especially into their home and their life. I am incredibly blessed to know in my bones the meaning of this word with respect to my closest friends. English has no single word for that. I was recently introduced to the word Zaftig. It describes a woman who has curves, who is pleasantly, attractively and even alluringly full-figured. It has roots in an older Middle High German dialect word for "juicy," so there ya go. I love this word and wish it was embraced more often in our society. Doesn't it even sound awesome? Zaftig doesn't sound cutesie or even worse condescending. It is the kind of word that when applied to another sounds respectful and admiring. But even better, when applied to oneself it sounds proud and self-assured, even powerful. Our language has nothing like this and that says something not very good about us as a culture. Weltschmerz goes a long way toward describing exactly what had me feeling down last month. It means in short "world-weariness." It is the feeling that the world is full of meanness and cruelty and that the the bad guys win and the innocent suffer and there's nothing we can do to stop it. I felt that.

Far and away, my favorite German word is Schadenfreude. It means, put very simply, happiness at another's misfortune. Sure, that could be a bad thing carried to extremes. It could even be kind of psychotic if you were happy every time someone else was in pain or had troubles. But that's not how I interpret the word. In my world, Schadenfreude is tied to Karma. I got damned tired of seeing bad things happen to good people. I got tired of seeing people act horribly, even hurt my friends, and suffer no consequences. I started to wonder if Karma was broken. This year I found out it is not. Once again a friend was attacked, rather personally, while trying to do something good. But this time it turned out differently. This time people recognized the good and supported it, and by extension supported my friend. No one would begrudge me or anyone else being happy about that. But that isn't Schadenfreude. I'm also happy that the people acting maliciously, that attacked my friend's competence and tried to prevent something good happening in our community lost. I'm happy they got frustrated and angry. I'm happy they found little or no support. That IS Schadenfreude and I make no apologies for feeling it and even reveling in it.

One thing our participation trophy society has forgotten is that winning means nothing without losing. We want to believe that everyone is good-hearted and kind, that conflicts are the result of misunderstandings and we can solve them by coming together and working out our differences. Sorry, but that just isn't the case. We humans have real negative emotions and tendencies. We feel hate and jealousy and greed and envy and we sometimes act on these feelings. We purposefully tell lies to hurt others, we insult and degrade, we condescend and tease. This isn't misunderstanding. This is behaving badly. All too often the failure of our society to accept that we are capable of such behavior leads us to make excuses for those engaging in it. We blame it on a personality disorder or assume we misunderstood what surely were fine intentions or worst of all we blame ourselves for somehow bringing this behavior on. Sometimes, though, perfectly healthy people do mean things on purpose that we did nothing to deserve. It isn't a happy thought, but pretending it isn't true does us all a disservice. We owe it to ourselves and to our society in general to recognize bad behavior and call it out or at least beat it back. It's the right thing to do. And when we do it, we shouldn't feel the least bit bad about being happy we did and that those responsible for the misdeeds paid some price.

Schadenfreude. Embrace it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

R Is For......Rattled To The Core

I lifted that phrase straight from the sermon Pastor Fred delivered yesterday. He chose Three Kings Day to talk about the Slaughter of the Innocents. Every boy child under three in the city, killed. When it's words on a page, it is one thing, he said, but when we see horror with our own eyes, we are Rattled To The Core. He went on to discuss Newtown and parenting and mental health and desensitizing our children to violence.

I'm not desensitized. After years of violent movies and TV shows and video games, I still flinch. My wife laughs at me a little, says it's cute, but when there is pain or blood or something awful on the TV or movie screen, I react physically and noticeably and don't even know I do it most of the time until Lisa points it out.  This weekend we went to see Les Miserbles. This is a musical, if you've not heard, that takes place during some early 19th century political upheaval in France. It's not a happy film. It was a good film, and I quite enjoyed it, but one part got to me, one scene really did Rattle Me To The Core. There are young revolutionaries in this story, and one of them is very young. Gavroche is his name and I judged him to be about 6 or 7 years old. The thing is, he is the spitting image of my best friend's son, Milo. He has the same longish dirty blonde hair, the same slim build and almost the same little face. He has maybe 10 or 15 minutes of screen time, but during that time I totally fell for him, and for the same reasons I have the softest of soft spots in my heart for Milo. He is totally himself, he laughs often (and laughter is not a big part of this movie), he has a look in his eye that says "I might do anything at any time, you better watch!" He is fearless in the way only a child can be. He does the right things at the right time despite being an "outlaw." He is an impish little guy. I'm so stupid, so naive sometimes. I'm just happily watching as the kid crawls out through the barricade to fetch dry powder. I smile as he taunts the Royal French troops pointing rifles at him as he scampers around. So when what should have been the obvious happens and the boy is shot, twice, and killed, I actually cried out/sobbed/yelped loud enough that the people in front of me turned around and looked. Then they did a close-up on his little face and I lost it. I  missed the next few minutes of the movie because I couldn't see through the tears.Yeah, I know it was a movie, it was acting and special effects and camera work. Still, it put it right in my face and I let go.

It wasn't just the movie, I'm sure of that. After Newtown a lot of things have been swirling around my brain and they used that image, the image of a kid who looked so much like a child I treasure, I really do love in a real and personal way, to emerge into the light of day. Or at least into the dark of the Shallotte movie theater.

I cried out for all those kids in Newtown, gunned down while at school. They were in the safe place and it didn't help. They were surrounded by adults who they trusted and who cared for them abundantly and it didn't help.

I cried out for the parents of those kids who will likely ask "Why?" for the rest of their lives. They will wonder what if they kept them home that day? What if they hadn't taken that job and  moved into that school district?I can't imagine the Hell.

I cried out for my friend who needed to see light in her life and instead, right before Christmas, was shown this darkness. My friend who couldn't bear the thought of leaving her children that night and so gave me the gift, totally unintentionally, of giving me a way to help someone in a small way when she asked me to "smooth things over" for her at the theatre show we were both supposed to help out with that night. My son was with me, helping to make theatrical magic, and that helped, too.

I cried out for my wife who was away for the day and couldn't hug her son until late that night.

I cried out for Angel, my almost nephew, who never got to see this world, neither its joys nor its horrors.

I cried out for Heather, my sister, who had to give birth to her first son as a corpse. I cried out for the pain and scars that has left on her and our whole family. Why does it have to be kids? Why?

I cried out for the Helbigs, a couple we are just getting to really know, who lost a son of their own as a toddler. Kelly was a light in the darkness, a beacon of sanity and hope and compassion in a sea of confusion. She kept putting things up on Facebook, things based in the lessons of her own tragic pain, that made such perfect sense, that brought hope. With everyone else going to pieces, she held it together. I tried to thank her for that last time I saw her in person and utterly failed to find the words. I'll try again, this is important.

I cried out for Jenny Cairns. I hadn't thought of Jenny Cairns in years. She was one of my best friends as a little guy. She was blonde and smiley and full of energy and ideas and spirit. She played cars and rode bikes like any boy would. She made me very happy. She was run down and killed while riding her bike in the street just in front of her house in the middle of the day by a drunk driver. She was 8. I had been thinking of her because it had occurred to me that we, as parents, can't keep our kids safe. Short of locking them up, and even then they could find a way to hurt themselves. We can do everything right, just as the Helbigs did, just as the Cairns did and just as the parents of the children at Sandy Hook did, and still the unthinkable can happen.

There was a lot wrapped up in that sob, no wonder it attracted attention. I'm not ashamed or embarrassed by either my reaction or the fact that it got noticed. I feel things and that makes me who I am and that's all I can be.

Fred ended up his sermon by trying to answer the question every preacher has certainly gotten since the Sandy Hook shootings. It's asked in hearts everywhere who don't have a preacher to ask it of as well, I imagine. Where was God? His answer fit in with what passes for my own theology. God is us. God was there first and foremost to take all those children away from pain and suffering and into his embrace. But he was also there in the teachers who tried to save the kids. In the firemen and police and rescue crews who responded. In the clergy and mental health professionals who came to console and listen and comfort. In the outpouring of sympathy from all corners. God won't save us from ourselves, from stupidity and evil and sickness and pain and suffering, not until it's our time. But he lives in us and through us. We need to be God's hands in tough times, we need to be a friend to friends in need, we need to love strangers and family alike. And just as importantly, we need to see that sometimes, while we are asking "Where is God?" He is right there in that friend asking if you're ok, offering a dinner or a hand to hold, even forwarding a stupid joke. God is us and we are God. And somehow, we'll all get through together.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Q Is For.......Quit It

Someone recently told me I was making a situation worse by trying to help. Even though this is patently untrue, my response was to apologize. It doesn't matter who it was or what it was concerning because it wasn't the least bit unusual, I do this all the time in work, home, friendships, everywhere. My New Year's resolution is to Quit It.

My knee jerk reaction in lots of situations is to say "I'm sorry." And what's bad is not that I don't mean it, but that I do. I actually accept blame for things I haven't done, that aren't at all my fault or aren't even bad in the first place. Everyone screws up and I do as well, but not nearly as much as I tend to think. I just have a hard time accepting that. I lay too much guilt on myself, accept too much responsibility. I try to fix things, it's in my nature and not something I'll ever stop. I need to realize that that's a good thing, whether it's welcome at the time or not, and that just because everything doesn't immediately turn to unicorns and rainbows it doesn't mean I'm a failure.

It's largely my own fault. It isn't often someone makes me feel bad about something I've said or done or not said or done. I tend mostly to do it to myself for some reason. A friend actually praised me last year for being the "son, husband, brother, father and friend" that I am. I am going to enter this year taking that to heart and consciously reminding myself that I really am exceptionally good at all those things. I'm done apologizing for being kind, for trying to help and for doing my job.

This all sounds very Stuart Smalley as I read over it, but whatever. I needed to say it. I know I'll make mistakes and when I do I will make amends.  But as far as apologizing (or holding it in and feeling bad) when I haven't done anything wrong or especially when I've done good, this year I'm going to Quit It.

Friday, January 4, 2013

P Is For....Political Correctness

I know, it's low hanging fruit, everyone says they hate the PC Police and the stupidity of political correctness has been pointed out ad naseum. I want to try to take a bit of a different tack and talk about the horrible effects it's had on our sense of humor and why that is important.

I take the whole Sandra Fluke thing as my example. Here we have a 30-something woman talking about bankrupting herself trying to afford birth control. In a sane world, as soon as the country heard this, it would start looking forward to the Saturday Night Live skit the next weekend. In past years, she'd have been a long running burlesque or vaudeville show joke. Whether or not you agree with her contention that it is not only Constitutional but morally imperative for the federal government to force Party A to pay for the birth control of Party B, you should be able to see the humor potential in the way she went about making her case. Sex has been a basic building block of humor for 1000's of years, and there are important anthropological reasons for that. Those reasons themselves would take a long time to explain, and like most of anthropology they are about as un-PC as you can get, so I'll leave them alone for now.  Suffice to say laughter is one of the things that makes us human and if you can't laugh at your own politics, you aren't very secure in them.

That's what I think is the unseen damage of the tendency to shun ever saying or doing anything to make others feel uncomfortable. It leads people to be intellectually lazy, to hold onto their own ideas without ever considering what they look like to people informed by a different experience. Understanding that what you think or believe may actually be funny to someone else, and accepting that without getting into a tizzy of offense, doesn't mean you don't really believe what you believe. It actually means that you have thought through your own positions enough that you are secure in them and can step back and laugh. We are losing that in this culture. We are becoming a bunch of thin-skinned, humorless drones, and that's no laughing matter.