Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Official life and real life - discrepancy - that's a fact
"People in a family need to be so careful. My family are. Everything - our whole life up till now - has been possible because we're careful. We keep it all inside our house. Whenever we go outside in the street, we take our different selves, and leave real life at home. Until tonight." p. 5
The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is to covenant to affirm and promote the inherent dignity and worth of every person, and in reading this passage with which I can strongly identify I am reminded of what us psychotherapists call "boundary issues" and wonder who are the "persons" who have inherent worth and dignity? Is it the "different selves" that they take to the street, or the "real life" they leave at home?
The narrator's working class family is visiting a German immigrant middle class professional family at Christmas time and the narrator describes her frustrated, discouraged, severely financially stressed father who finally let's the cat out of the bag about how difficult things are within the family.
"But still I know this is no sudden thing: my father spilling his guts to these German strangers. He has dragged himself, inches at a time, over to the cliff's edge and, head heavy, tumbled over. That's how it's done. A person doesn't run a mile to reach the edge and hurl himself into the void that ends in jagged rock below, for the simple reason that by the time you've reached the edge, you're winded, and you stop just shy to catch your breath and reconsider. The ones who take the plunge make camp just crawling distance form the edge and every day inch closer, living in a place where tumbling over - be it suicide or saying all - is not a great departure from routine." pp.5-6
Dad breaks the boundary. He let's it rip. Has he had too much to drink or is the discrepancy between a working class guy without even a high school degree and a German immigrant engineer rocket scientist just too great to make the game of pretend and keep up with the Joneses overwhelmingly impossible? There are times when the facade crumbles. It is no longer worth keeping up the pretense. The counterfeit dignity isn't working any more. And such a moment is either an excursion to hell or a crack in the shell where the light can come in leading to transcendence. Which will it be?
The narrator tells us:
"The husband reaches out and pulls the water bucket closer to the chair. The wife points to the cake. In accusation? Some desperate hostess offer of distraction?
But no, oh no, we will not be diverted, not from our lives. We'll take them home with us and sleep with them tonight. We children will grow up and carry them away and keep them with us everywhere we go." p.6
Oh yes we are like turtles. We take the shells of our lives wherever we go. We not only tell ourselves these stories of our lives constantly, often unconsciously, but they become the lens, the filter through which we perceive the world. If we were told we were good as children and the world was a good place, we wake up in the morning and expect good things to happen to us. But if we were told we were bad as children, and the world is a bad and dangerous and hurtful place we wake up and expect bad things to happen to us. And depending on our stories about our lives we either live relatively happy or on the edge of the abyss.
Religion, of course, is itself a story, a meta -story within which we understand our lived experience and come to believe what to expect. In this story, the 10 year old girl's religion is the Weekly Reader which she gets in school which reports "the facts". It is the Weekly Reader, the secular version of the world to which she compares her personal life, her lived experience, and she, as only a 10 year old, has picked up on the irony, the incongruity, the absurdities of our lives, the idea that there is an official version of how life should be lived which often is quite discrepant from one's actual experience.
It's shame that the Weekly Reader has become the purveyor of the official story of what life is like in the American dream. Too often in our media dominated culture the religious stories of uplift, inspiration, guidance on the living of the Good Life have been drowned out. Mammon has taken the place of the holy, the sacred. And so the narrator's family lives a life of quiet desperation as compared to the immigrant German professional family. They live in the same neighborhood, apparently, otherwise they would not be sharing a Christmas party together because they have little else in common. The narrator, a child, does the comparison through the eyes of her father and comes up short handed maybe not because of a lack of real needs being met, but because in comparison, based on material values, the working class family comes up deficient.
What is screwed up here is not the discrepancy in class but the values which determine desirability. In the 50s in the United States the whole culture was overtaken by a materialistic ethic which was called "progress" which has taken us down a path of degradation of our planetary environment which is contributing to the death of many species and possibly in a century a drastic threat to our own. While the Weekly Reader was held up as the repository of the societal facts, the 10 year old narrator senses that there is something not quite right, not authentic, pernicious driving people to the brink of suicide or a crisis in meaning contributing to a "letting it all out."
Perhaps it is not the facts that are as important as the meanings we make from them. Keeping up with the Joneses in the American competitive spirit is not the way to the Good Life and our failure to recognize this has contributed to our despair. And that's not a fact, but an opinion which are two different things.