Finding balance in the second half of life

Posts Tagged ‘values’

Secular Saints

In Community, Fulfillment on May 4, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Together, my good friend Louellyn and I make up the Smith College class of ‘76 Alain de Botton fan club. She started the group, but I, the more materialistic of the two, am the one who now owns a copy of everything our idol has published (in hard cover whenever possible: de Botton’s books are always exquisitely designed). This month I ignored her request to wait to read his latest until she could finish and send me the copy I Amazoned over for her birthday. I ordered one for myself so we could read it simultaneously (she lives in Massachusetts, I’m in Michigan).

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, employs a strategy the author readily admits will “annoy” both religious and atheistic readers. In chapters stuffed with illustrations and photographs, he looks at the trappings of faith (“music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals, and illuminated manuscripts,”) for insights that might be useful in secular life.

In a Q & A on Amazon.com, de Botton outlines his thesis:

In the 20th century, capitalism has really solved (in the rich West) the material problems of a significant portion of mankind. But the spiritual needs are still in chaos, with religion ceasing to answer the need. This is why I wrote my book, to show that there remains a new way: a way of filling the modern world with so many important lessons from religion, and yet not needing to return to any kind of occult spirituality.

For example, in a section titled “Role Models,”  de Botton notes that the characters we encounter in sitcoms, video games, tabloids, and the daily news tend to include what he politely (and poetically!) refers to as a “paucity of paragons.” He admires the Catholic Church for offering believers “some two and a half thousand of the greatest, most virtuous human beings who, it feels, have ever lived,” and wonders if the rest of us might not be able to compile a similar list of secular paragons taken from our cultural history and literature.

Here’s Louellyn’s response (in an email she is letting me reproduce here):

The deeper I get into it, the more I love the book. My Catholic friends from childhood had saints they relied on. In the Greek Orthodox church, we had saints, but I knew nothing about them. They didn’t have the same importance, I guess. The only saint I had some affection for (and I never heard about him in my church) was the Italian from Assisi, Francisco, with his love of birds, animals, nature. My kind of guy!

But I did and still do have a patron saint from our culture, our literature, someone whose life was so exemplary that he has always shown me the way. Atticus Finch. You think of Atticus and immediately the thought of justice comes to mind, but he embodied so many virtues. Charity (toward the mentally limited neighbor), prudence, temperance, patience, courage, hope…  What virtue did he not embody?  If there were any doubt that this was a man worth emulating, that he was a saint on par with those whose statues are carried through the North End on a summer day, that doubt was dispelled when he walks out of the court room and every single person in the balcony rises to his feet, a scene that not only causes me to cry when I watch it, but a scene that causes me to cry when I think of it … like now.

And then who could forget the scene where Atticus is at Tom’s family’s home, and the father of women who said she was raped confronts Atticus and spits on him?  Atticus could have said, “Jeb, Scout, we are putting Alabama in the rear view mirror and heading for NY.” But did he? No. He takes out his handkerchief and wipes the spit off his face, and holds his ground and keeps working.  Which gave me the courage to wipe the spit off my face and hold my ground and keep working.

Chris Hedges, paraphrasing Aristotle, said that courage is the most important of the virtues, because without it, one is unlikely to practice any of the others. My patron saint is the embodiment of courage. He guides my daily life.

Beautiful, no? I doubt M. du Botton could have said it better.

Who is your personal patron saint?

I’ll tell you about mine in another post. For now, I leave you with a prayer written to be prayed to one of the two and a half thousand, St Expeditus, patron saint to procrastinators and “everyone who needs a quick solution for their problems”:

St. Expedite, witness of Faith to the point of martyrdom, in exercise of Good, you make tomorrow today.

You live in the fast time of the last minute, always projecting yourself toward the future.

Expedite and give strength to the heart of the man who doesn’t look back and who doesn’t postpone.

Amen

St Expeditus

–Debra Wierenga

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No Story Here

In Community, Fulfillment on April 22, 2011 at 3:01 pm

 Photos courtesy of Mary Hilldore Photography

I bought fresh tulips ($7.99) at the grocery store the other day. They weren’t bad, but they are nothing like the 300,000 that will bloom in a few days here—20,000 in my neighborhood alone—courtesy of the City of Holland, Michigan. They’ll line my Historic District walking route, braving gale-force winds, withering heat, or snow, and sometimes all three in their short lives.

Together, the tulips create a riot of color. Individually, each is a floral temptress dressed to kill and experienced in the art of the come-on. “Pick me.  No one will see,” whispers the Ollioules. “There are so very many of us! A few won’t be missed,” wheedles the Double Orange Emperor. “Go ahead and pick one,” coaxes the Black Parrot. “You know you want to.”

I do want to. I picture them in vases, gracing rooms throughout my house: on my back porch, on my nightstand and, most decadent of all, in my bathroom. But day after day I resist.

And so does everyone else.

In my town, with temptation at every turn, no one picks the city’s tulips—not the descendants of the Dutch who settled here, and not anyone who is a member of one of several ethnic groups that make up almost 30% of the population today.

Why?

You might think it’s because of the “per stem” fine imposed by the city, which, when I first moved here 20 years ago, I heard was $50/stem and recently heard was $150/stem. Except that the “per stem” fine is Holland’s own little urban legend, apparently. I checked the city ordinances and I didn’t see one that was tulip-specific. (The city can fine a tulip picker for violating Sec. 22-5: Mutilating, etc., public property; molesting etc., birds, animals, fish, etc.; all those etceteras offer quite a range of applicability.)

“It’s not that they are worried about the fine, anyway,” says my friend Debra, who lives near downtown. “It’s that they worry about what the neighbors will think.” It’s true.  My walking partner and I sometimes see a tulip that’s been downed by natural causes. Neither of us dares carry it home (although it must be a crime of a different sort to abandon beauty where it’s sure to be trampled). For better or for worse, the community’s norms are strong.

“A person would have to be a real low-life to pick someone else’s tulips,” says my neighbor David Myers, author of a bajillion psychology books, including the one you probably had to read in college. “And, although there are such low-lifes,” he adds, “they are usually not the ones doing flower-arranging in their homes. My additional conjecture is that flower-lovers are at low risk for misdemeanor criminality.”

Residents who don’t love flowers have to at least tolerate them. In Holland, tulips literally come with the territory. If you live on any of several designated “Tulip Lane”s, curb-side tulips are not optional. The city plants them as a matter of course.

Figuratively speaking, respect for them also comes with the territory. “When you grow up in Holland, you just know that you don’t pick the tulips,” says my teenage son. “You’re socialized that way.”

The annual Tulip Time Festival plays a key role in that, and the festival’s Kinder Parade—a seemingly endless stream of costumed elementary students from the area schools—is a good example. Students are expected to march with their schools in the parade, regardless of ethnicity (or enthusiasm, for that matter). Schools typically make sure the children have costumes and provide busing to the staging area where the parade begins. The students smile and wave through the first mile, but visibly start to wilt during the second, especially when it’s hot.

The students’ extended families, who get up at 5:30 a.m. to get a prime spot on the parade route (but dutifully wait until 6:00 a.m., at the request of the city, to actually spread out their blankets and set up their chairs) watch them with adoring eyes. But the children must feel eyes of the broader community are upon them, too, sending the message “This is an important part of who we—and you—are.”

Finally, most people understand the tulips’ importance to the local economy. Tulip Time brings about $10 million in business to the area every year and without tulips, there is no Tulip Time. “The fact that there’s considerable public funding going into the tulip planting and maintaining means that there are many folks who watch out for the well-being of the tulips,” says Don Luidens, professor of sociology at Hope College in Holland.

I spoke to the city’s former police captain, in case I was just not hearing about crimes against tulips. He easily recalled the times the tulips had been truly vandalized—all three of them. In 20 years. “There’s no story here,” he told me. “There’s nothing here to write about.”

It’s hard to find examples of integrity these days. Daily we read about CEOs and elected officials lying with abandon and athletes cheating on and off the field. It happens here, too, occasionally. But when it comes to tulips, we stay on the straight and narrow. The Dutch Calvinist settlers here believed in total depravity, which includes the idea that, because of original sin, “all are inclined by nature to serve their own will and desires.” But I think we also have an innate longing for beauty and  connection to nature, and to do the right thing. Maybe the real reason we don’t pick the tulips is that, for three weeks every spring, they satisfying those longings.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that we don’t, and that’s remarkable to me. It doesn’t, however, seem to occur to residents that it could be any different.  Or maybe it occurs to them but, like the police captain, they think there’s no story here. And that may be the most remarkable thing of all. –Christine MacLean

Groping Our Way Toward Green

In Community, Survival on March 4, 2011 at 2:19 am

While I was brushing my teeth the other day (with the water off), I heard that  Republicans have switched back to using Styrofoam in the Capitol instead of compostable food containers. They say that the money saved by making the switch can be used to reduce the deficit and that the “Green the Capitol” program didn’t help the environment much, anyway. Democrats disagree. Vehmently, of course.

I don’t know whom to believe. Like healthcare and education, being green is complex.  Something that seems like it’s best for the environment might not be. Our dishwasher has been underperforming for a while (due to either its 17 years or companies changing their detergent formula in an effort to be more environmentally correct themselves), so I’ve been washing dishes by hand. I’d forgotten how much time washing all the day’s dishes by hand takes.

I was okay with it because I thought I was helping out the environment. I’m woefully late to the green scene—we don’t compost and I still use baggies and Saran Wrap, albeit guiltily. Washing dishes by hand made me feel environmentally virtuous. But whether or not hand-washing dishes actually is virtuous depends on what kind of dishwasher you have, which cycle you use, how you heat your water, and the process you use. Can you wash and rinse a dinner plate in about one cup of water? I can’t.  According to treehugger.com, it’s almost impossible to be more efficient than a good automatic dishwasher, as long as you’re using good automatic dishwasher practices.

After that I decided to circumvent green complexity entirely by using less. When cooking, I estimate instead of using a measuring spoon. It’s one less thing to wash. Estimating amounts puts the meal at risk, especially those that call for cayenne pepper, but so far no one has noticed. My son did, however, notice when I went a step too far with my philosophy and drank grapefruit juice out of the container. He’s a teenager who has done that himself. Still, he didn’t approve. (In my defense, it was a moment of weakness, and I’m the only one who ever drinks grapefruit juice in our house.) 

I also buy less at the grocery store. All the packaging makes me queasy, but I’m equally motivated by the work involved. The more I buy, the more work I create all the way around—bagging it, lugging it home, putting it away, not to mention the work involved in making money to pay for it. I’ve gotten a lot better at distinguishing want from need.

The same goes for clothes. I just don’t buy many anymore. I’ve had my red winter duffle coat for at least 18 years; when the lining wore out, a friend made a new lining for it that was nicer than the original.  When the straps of my purse wore out, I started using an old purse that’s dated, but well made—so well made that it will last for another 10 years, by which time it will qualify as retro.

Perhaps because I buy so few new clothes, I resist parting with old ones, even when I’ve stopped wearing them. I made half-hearted attempts at cleaning out my closet several times last year, but it was still full of things I didn’t wear. When the Salvation Army offered to pick up donations at the curb a few weeks ago, I took another run at it.

We live downtown, a few blocks from a shelter for the homeless. At this time of year, I see a lot of people walk by without real winter coats. When, on the day I tackled my closet, I saw yet another woman in a sweatshirt, it occurred to me that it is morally and ethically wrong to hang onto clothing I don’t wear.  If I have it, then someone who needs it doesn’t. For the first time it struck me as hoarding, and it trumped all my old excuses. There were still some things I clung to, but this time my closet is visibly emptier.

I’m not setting myself up as an example. Rather, admitting to all this is embarrassing. These are basic things, all of which I once knew and practiced but, I’m ashamed to say, set aside during the fat and stupid years.  I’m now having to re-learn them.

“Reduce” is the first commandment of environmentalism and where I should have started.  It was our way of life growing up on the farm. My father, a Christian and a Republican, taught us that God expects us to be stewards of the land. Even as little kids we knew what that meant—in all things, take what you need and no more. Whenever possible, reuse. He made it clear that God didn’t care if you were a kid, adult, or a Martian, for crying out loud—we are all stewards. Even Republicans and Democrats.

Which brings me back to those Stryfoam cups at the Capitol. Since the most environmentally friendly option—drinking straight from the container—truly is unacceptable (even if you are the only one who drinks that particular beverage), maybe the folks at the Capitol could do what I’m asking my family to do at home: use the same glass, water bottle, or travel mug all day.

That would give me lots of company where I am on this journey–at the beginning. And I’m not picky about the company. Bring on the Martians.–Christine MacLean