On My Mind (Vol. 6)

—1—
Like many Americans, perhaps, I’m not very good at honoring the causes for which our federal holidays were established. Sure, we have Christmas and Thanksgiving (and usually the 4th of July) down. But the rest end up being primarily a day off from the daily grind and only secondarily a day for honoring veterans or our war dead or the civil rights movement or… presidents? (Is that what we’re supposed to do with that one?)
Other than Presidents’ Day, the holiday that seems least emotionally significant to me is Labor Day. I mean, Labor Day is the official end of summer, a day for barbecues and last dips in the pool, right?
Of course I know that it has something to do with the Labor movement. But since I have virtually no family heritage of organized labor (and indeed, my political heritage has been skeptical of that movement) the day has just never seemed significant to me.
But it’s good to be reminded of the ‘reason for the season,’ if you will. These pictures do that. They are mostly of children, working at jobs we can hardly imagine today, in conditions we wouldn’t dream of exposing our own children to. It is sobering to see photos of boys my own boys’ ages and to think of how alone and tired and scared they might have felt.
Next Labor Day I plan to stop to remember those children and the countless others (children and adults alike) who labored under circumstances that I – thank goodness – have hardly had cause to think about, let alone experience.
—2—
I heard a radio segment the other day that really caught my attention. It was about a new novel from Jonathan Safran Foer called Here I Am. (Later The Diane Rehm Show hosted a fuller discussion of the book.) It’s about a Jewish family going through a domestic crisis while a geopolitical crisis unfolds elsewhere. The novel “asks a question that many people wrestle with – how do we put our daily problems in perspective when real problems all over the world cause death, starvation and destruction?”
Come on. That question is just about my bread and butter. I ask it of myself almost every day. (Yet I have no good answer.) So the following line from the book, regarding a doorknob at an upscale hardware store, stuck out to me: “[I]t was elegant, and it was obnoxious. And in a world where the bodies of Syrian children washed up on beaches, it was unethical, or at least vulgar.”
I wrestle with this problem all the time. Here I am in my nice house, washing my nice dishes after preparing our nice meals and washing our nice clothes – all in our nice neighborhood, while the world seems to be burning around us. How can I just go on living my life like people all over the world aren’t suffering while I handle my own elegant, vulgar doorknobs?
Foer seems to wrestle with how to weigh the good of how he spends his time (writing) against the good he could be doing in the world if he spent his time engaged in some other activity:
[W]hy am I doing what I’m doing when I’m a fairly able person? I was fairly well-educated. If I devoted my life to the problem of hunger in my neighborhood I would not solve it, but I would make some kind of dent. It would make – my life would make an impression on that problem. You know, no obstetrician comes home at the end of a week and says, oh, I delivered 13 babies this week. What’s the point? The point is so plainly obvious. The point of telling stories is not obvious.
But the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert once said that imagination is the instrument of compassion. That, you know, we can learn all kinds of facts about another person, but when we are able to share our imagination with another it evokes compassion in a way that nothing else really does. And a lot of the – what we would call big problems in the world are problems of logistics, they’re problems of politics and they’re problems of compassion. It’s not to say that, you know, sharing stories is going to help, you know, the poor Syrian immigrant. But it’s got to be an important part of any kind of society that’s going to be wrestling with the big problems.
This is pretty much why I write, and why I talk about the heavy stuff – politics, society, current events, even death – in my home. “[I]t’s got to be an important part of any kind of society that’s going to be wrestling with the big problems.”
—3—
The Paulist Fathers have issued a beautiful Statement on Moral Issues in the 2016 Presidential Election. It begins:
It is hard to imagine a more challenging period in recent American politics than the 2016 presidential election cycle.  It has been a year dominated by shocking headlines that have left us disturbed and often disoriented.
Language and methods once considered out-of-bounds for political candidates have been found acceptable by a not-insignificant number of our fellow citizens.
Prejudices that we hoped dead were merely sleeping.  These prejudices have been awakened and given new voice.
As a community of Catholic priests, we do not endorse political candidates or political parties.  But, the issues of 2016 are not just political.  More than ever, the themes of this presidential campaign are moral ones that we, and all people of good will, are compelled to face and address.
Read the rest of the statement and its accompanying commentary. They are well done.
—4—
In this mixed-up, upside-down campaign year, I almost feel like I don’t know myself. I grew up in a stalwart Republican family, yet I find myself writing more passionately on left-leaning issues than those on the right. And while I disapprove of both major party nominees, I’m genuinely more dissatisfied with the Republican than the Democrat. It’s crazy. I hardly know how to describe myself anymore.
The best I can come up with is “bleeding-heart conservative.” I prefer a smaller, more streamlined government. I place high values on personal responsibility and the primacy of the family. Yet I think that we as a society and a government have important roles to play in the world and at home: I prefer a more robust foreign policy and more generous immigration and welfare policies. I place the safety and wholeness of the individual human person (especially the unborn, the poor, the stranger, and others who are vulnerable) higher than any other public good.
Just watch me gush. In pretty much every post I write.
—5—
I’ve been watching the breakdown of productivity in Congress over the past decade or so with a sort of detached disappointment. I mean, it was kind of depressing that those people couldn’t work together, but at least they couldn’t do much harm either – right?
Recently my disappointment has turned to disgust. It’s gone on too long. Too much has been made to wait, and too many inappropriate solutions have been sought because appropriate ones weren’t forthcoming.
Take President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, for instance. I agree with the meat of most of those actions, but I think it was a mistake for him to issue them. That sort of thing must come from Congress. Likewise with our military activities in the Middle East. Here is an interesting reminder that the “authority” (if it is a proper authority) for today’s actions in the Middle East stem from the Use of Force Agreement that Congress passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Fifteen years ago.
We get it, Congress. Your Republicans don’t like Democrats, your Democrats don’t like Republicans, your newbies don’t like the establishment, and your members seem to disdain themselves generally. But it’s been long enough. Let this election – this election of surprises and upsets and angst and sky-high unfavorables – let this be the end of your collective temper tantrum. It has become dangerous to our democracy and to the world.
—6—
Have you been reading about the possibility that Russians are trying to interfere in our election? How scary is that?
—7—
The time has come – as it does every year – for our minds and airwaves and newsfeeds to return to the September 11 attacks. As I write this segment of my post (on Tuesday), I’ve just heard my first commemoration of anniversary week.  And I’m kind of a mess.
Every year, I think enough time has passed since that day for me to surely be able to handle all the fuss, and every year I’m wrong. I was at work in Crystal City, Virginia the day of the attacks – near enough to the Pentagon to be physically disrupted from my intended activities, to be legitimately fearful for my safety, to see and smell and taste the smoke – and yet far enough to not really, actually be in danger. (I was about a mile away.)
Yet here I sit in a cold sweat, my heart pounding, my breathing deep and deliberate – just because I heard someone tell a September 11 story. I think that whatever I’m (still, all these years later) experiencing is probably kind of PTSD-ish. It gives me great sympathy for those who really, truly, fully struggle under that burden.
I once wrote about it – that horrible day and the effect it continues to have on me – on my personal blog: 
I know that my experience is nothing compared to that of those who escaped the Twin Towers, or who were injured in the Pentagon, or who searched frantically for information about their loved ones on that awful day and the ones that followed it. I don’t forget that thousands of people were lost and that thousands more continue to feel those losses acutely. I know that countless people feel like their lives were ripped apart that day.
Mine was not. I lost nothing more than some peace of mind.                                                                     
And yet, to this day the sight of a clear, cloudless sky just about sends me into a panic attack. I don’t dwell on the yearly memorials, because I can hardly handle them. Re-reading my journal entry from that day, hearing a mention on the radio, seeing a “never forget” bumper sticker or Facebook meme – even just thinking about September 11th – it causes the anxiety to mount. I have to switch gears before it overwhelms me.
So, I don’t know – I guess I just felt like I needed to mention it here. As I said elsewhere in that post, this is “my way of saying ‘never forget’ without relying on the memes that sucker-punch me. Never forget: that day was real; its impact lives on; those lives were valuable . . . God bless those who were lost that day. God bless those they left behind. God have mercy on those responsible. And please? Don’t forget the Pentagon.”
 
(I’m linking up with Kelly of This Ain’t The Lyceum for this week’s 7 Quick Takes. Come Friday, be sure to stop by her place to see what she and the other 7-Quick-Taking crowd have been up to.)
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Interested in coming along with me as I chew on politics, current events, and faithful citizenship? Like The Space Between’s Facebook page. You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram and you can find me at my personal blog, These Walls

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.