Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Nurtured into violence

It is now a few weeks after the mass shooting in a Colorado theater, and as many have predicted, the furor has already calmed down.  People are going about their business. They have other things to do than obsess about this aberration by one man who didn’t know what he was doing.

I don’t know much how the human mind works, but I have wondered whether he would have attempted such a crazy exploit, even if mentally unbalanced, if he hadn’t been nurtured into violence all his life.

Decades ago, I recall two boys about my age tearing into one another behind the old skating rink.  Of course, we children all gathered to watch.  As did some parents.
The father of one of the boys, a prominent businessman in town, instead of pulling the boys apart, acted as his son’s second, and stalked around the squirming knot of boys, urging his son to really give it to the other boy.  Even when grown men in a drunken brawl on a Saturday night staggered around, jabbing one another, a crowd always gathered.  It gave them a charge and encouraged the fighters.   

Such incidents puzzled me then as does the present increasing trend to violence to settle disagreements.  That father believed his son’s smashing the other boy in the nose was the way to stay on top. 

In sports violence is increasing.  Consider games like football and wrestling.  Recent news reports mentioned one football coach promising bonuses to players who seriously sidelined opposing players.  A athletic director shoved reports of sexual abuse aside to keep the university on the winning side.

We are culturally committed to violence and  nurturing ourselves into accepting it as normal.  I sometimes do an unscientific experiment using my TV remote.  I flip slowly from channel to channel, spending no more than one or two minutes on each.  If I see a gun, a dead body, fighting, or people blasting one another with words, I move on.  Sometimes that leaves me few channels to watch.

 More and more shows use the  word “war” in them:  Storage Wars, Parking Wars, Man Versus Food, and now the new  Market Warriors, etc. Even a cooking contest is staged to look like a war:  The contestants line up solemnly before the judges  looking like condemned  criminals, and when declared losers, slink away through a back door as if to a dungeon.   

Movies and television and video games are a particularly violent form of entertainment in this age of violence. All these forms of media have a special affinity for violent behavior because they deal mainly with action, and the extreme form of action is violence of any kind. 

How much excitement and suspense, the main attraction of movies, can you pack into a film about peace and harmony?  Life that is decent, orderly, and peaceful does not attract viewers or readers.  Even in some so-called religious films,  directors find it hard to stay away from portraying violent incidents to keep the interest up. 

TV and videos have a particularly strong effect on the viewer because where they are watched there are no back pews. Everyone has a ringside seat, upfront and central. The bad guys and the insignificant good buys are killed with less compunction than most people squash a mosquito.  Motor accidents, war casualties, police beatings, theater mass shooting are all tossed into the same category – and dismissed by the viewer: Now I see it; now I don’t.

This unintended nurturing into violence makes viewers callous to other’s hurts and more ready to inflict injury on others when upset.  I find TV characters are always shouting at one another,  being less than civil. And no one dies in great agony.  Violence on TV is painless. 

Can this overload of violence do anything but shape attitudes toward the role violence plays?   How can we live watching people shouting at one another on the screen  without eventually seeing it as normal? And natural. I see our culture  caught in a riptide like a weak swimmer and not struggling to get free.  Violence whether in its mild forms or violent ones like the Colorado shooting is becoming acceptable.

Jacques Ellul in Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective sets forth rules that to govern violence:
1.    Once a person starts using violence, he or she will never stop using it, for it is easier, more practical  than other methods of solving problems. Violence is a primitive shortcut to one’s goals. It is simple and effective.

2.    There is no distinction between a good and bad use of the sword. “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).

3.    All violence is identical whether physical, economic, or psychological. Jesus declares there is no difference between murdering a fellow human being or being angry with him or her through insults (Matt. 5:21-22).  Another writer adds that to condone violence of one kind, even psychological manipulation of an evangelist, to persuade people to come to the altar, is to consent to the adversary to use it too, whether a propagandist, advertiser, or murdered.

4.    Violence begets violence –nothing else. Not freedom, not liberty, not equality.

5.    Persons who use violence always try to justify both it and themselves. Violence is so unappealing, writes Ellul, that every user of it has produced lengthy apologies to demonstrate it is just and morally warranted.

The question is how to persuade this  huge elephant cavorting up and down our main streets to leave. It is  destroying our structures yet we enjoy watching its antics.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The day I (almost) shook hands with the King of England

The British are celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, a momentous occasion.  Sixty years on the throne.  She is the reigning monarch of 16 sovereign nations. And they still like her.

In 1939 I (almost) shook hands with King George VI.  Kings and queens were mysterious,  distant figures in my young mind.  I had played with paper dolls resembling their two young daughters Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, but it was hard to imagine what they were like in real flesh.

Then, in the year I began high school,   George and Elizabeth visited Canada.  A few years earlier he had ascended to the throne following the abdication of his brother Edward,  who declined the position in favor of “the woman I love,” Wally Simpson.  That  created quite a furor in the commonwealth. 

We children were quite excited to hear that the king and queen were coming to Saskatoon, and that we would be trucked (literally) into the city from our little village of Blaine Lake if our parents weren’t able to drive us there.  Each town had been given its allotted spot along the parade route to watch the king and queen in their open vehicle smile and do the royal wave.  It was a quick drive-by.  Now what?

Someone shouted that the royal pair would be leaving from the Canadian National Railways train station shortly.  We young teenagers rushed there, and sure enough, the king and queen showed up in the open rear platform and waved once again.  And I, having squeezed myself in front of some adults,  stood as close as six feet from them.   
That fall, as Hitler’s armies invaded Europe, including England,  King George VI spoke to his people scattered over the world by means of radio, quoting Minnie Louise Haskins: “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.”

The English people walked in darkness that fall as the bombs fell on London  and their king gave them hope and courage.

I recall his death due to lung cancer and the ascension of the present Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, a very charming young woman.   But then our family moved to the United States and keeping track of British royalty was a little more difficult. Americans put their energy into politicians, not a royal family.

I returned to Canada regularly to visit parents and siblings.  In 1994 as my mother lay dying in the hospital, each evening my sister Anne and I returned home to watch Anne of Green Gables videos together and retrieve memories of these wonderful novels about a vivacious but courageous  young girl. 

One evening we came home to find out that Princess Diana, the people’s princess, had been killed in a tragic car accident.  Her marriage  to the Queen’s son had become unraveled earlier.For the next weeks back home I watched the people grieve for this young woman and the tragedy of her life.  Queen Elizabeth found it hard to accept this and her son’s affair with Camilla. But in the extended royal family, something was always happening.

I watched the wedding of her grandson William’s marriage to Kate from my easy chair and scanned all photos to catch glimpses of familiar faces and how they had changed.  I couldn’t get over my need to keep  track of British royalty.

Now it is sixty years since Elizabeth II took over the throne,  making hundreds of trips to all the  countries we children studied in geography classes.   The  sun never sets on on the British Commonwealth, we were told.  The map of the world showed a lot of “pink,” the color of British-controlled territory.  Much of that has changed, but the tradition of British royalty goes on.

The queen is the titular head of these 16 sovereign nations.  As such she is the symbol of tradition and  stability,  accompanied with a lot of pomp and splendor. And lots of money. The upkeep of royalty  is expensive. 

Prime ministers come and prime ministers go, but kings and queens go on for forever, unhampered by political bickering and jostling, as was the custom several centuries ago.  She binds the people together. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Love, marriage and baby carriages

The other day I received another “Save the date” announcement about an upcoming family wedding.  This fall my extended family is looking forward to celebrating two weddings (so far) and three babies. Such news is heart-warming. It tells me that the next generation is willing to try again where I of my generation may possibly have missed the mark.

Each wedding, each baby, is a symbol of hope that something good is going to happen  in each of these five families.

These kindergartners at marriage and family begin with tons more information than I and my generation had when we started out. We had little more than a bed, a stove, a few dishes, and some odds and ends of knowledge about  what it took to make a marriage work. We thought love alone would be enough. Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. 

After the marriage vows, which today are quite different than what we promised in our day, two very different people agree to love and cherish forever and forever.  Today forever is not forever for many reasons:  death, divorce, separation, desertion and much more. Incompatibility often rises to the top of the list.

Thinking about these upcoming family weddings, I  reflect. I agree with Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life that commitment always costs. “There is a particular burden in loving another person....This is the love demanded of any husband, wife, or parent.”  Marriage keeps testing the vow to stay married. She dealt with her husband’s physical and emotional illnesses, as well as alcoholism and early death.

It is easy to fall in love, in fact, stay in love, when someone else does the cooking and cleaning after a night of dining and  you only have to clean up  after yourself. As Norris writes, it is hard to tolerate, much less love, the person who shares kitchen, bath, and bed.  And maybe hogs more than half it when, as in my case, your spouse is a good foot taller and the bed a good foot shorter than today.

I don’t think marriages are made in heaven.  They’re chiseled out here on earth, day after day, meal by meal, baby by baby,  laundry hamper by laundry hamper.
There will be days when you are taken to the depths of despair and wonder why you ever agreed to this strange arrangement. But also moments when you wish you could do this forever, and forever. As Norris writes, “As love takes us on a harrowing journey, even to hell and back, we may find the path arduous but remain convinced that it is the only one worth taking.”

A newly-wed doesn’t fully grasp that marriage means a brand-new identity as now one of two rather than two separate beings.  You remain  yourself and yet somehow you become part of another while remaining yourself.  Strange. 

Today not all women change their surnames as expected in my day, which added to a bewildering change in identity, both welcomed and confusing.  I ended up at the end of the alphabet in any listing as a Wiebe, rather than near the beginning with my maiden name Funk. But that was a small part of the whole identity thing.

A young person in the heady moments of passion doesn’t reckon on the fact that married life  will become a series of repetitive activities with occasional high moments.  What I remember most about my 15-year marriage are not the times of great physical intimacy but the tender moments together at the end of the day drinking a cup of tea and sharing what life had been.

Norris cites a study that showed that good and stable marriages were produced by embracing one’s spouse at the beginning and end of each day. Even a little peck on the cheek was enough. That small action was the only one that made a consistent difference. 

I also think that is important. My husband always kissed me before he left for the day. We also found that praying together each evening  helped. It is hard to pray when you are angry.  Prayer then becomes a sham. 
Norris’s book is not primarily about marriage. It includes much about her lifelong struggle with acedia (or sloth, the lack of ability to care for life). She found strength  in the monastic tradition and in praying the psalms.  She became an oblate in Minnesota monastery while living in a small community in South Dakota.

One reviewer writes that  Norris, gently, with no fanfare, “preaches the practicality of love—healing, empowering, sustaining. What demon, however insidious, can compete with that?”  None, I say. 

Two weddings, three babies.  I rejoice with each couple.  These are important new beginnings.  Go for it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

How many times have you been properly in love?

Piers Morgan of CNN often asks the persons  he interviews how often they have been properly in love.  Properly?   What does he mean?  Completely? Intensely?  Thoroughly?  As a Britisher does he mean nicely? Correctly? 

Why does he ask this question?  Is this a significant memory to hang on to? 

Being in love is always pleasurable, if sometimes maddening, irrational, and heart-rending.  Everyone should have the experience of falling in love at least once in their lives. Twice is better.

I can remember a few summer romances of long ago.  I remember the rush of emotion, the longing, the feeling that without being close to this young man my world would fall apart in a second.

I remember falling in love with the man who became my husband.  I fell properly in love and then learned to love him over the brief 15 years of our marriage.

I would like to tell Piers Morgan that it is probably more important to remember memorable moments, life-changing moments, when the world turned as if on a pivot, than being properly  in love.

One year after my husband’s death in 1962 I and my family of four young children were landed immigrants in the great country of the United States of America and I was the family’s sole supporter – at a low monthly salary. We had only been in Kansas for seven weeks before Walter’s death.

 I didn’t fear being deported for I faithfully carried my new green card in my wallet.  For me to work outside the home full-time was a new venture.  To manage the family finances was a new challenge.  To be the sole parent of four lively children was equivalent to climbing Mount Everest.

Christmas, one year later,  was one of those unforgettable moments. Nothing momentous happened. We weren’t starving, but we were eating a lot of bologna and macaroni and cheese.  It was a fearful time. As I wrote in my book Alone: A Widow’s Search for Joy, in those months after Walter’s death “Fear grabbed me in the pit of my stomach and hung on .... I became obsessed with the fear that I might die suddenly and leave the children orphans. I could see them – four waifs, sitting at the curb begging .... I drove the car as little as possible, fearing a car accident. I feared illness. Every small symptom of ill health, whether constipation or loss of appetite or a twinge of gas, I interpreted as serious illness .....”

I remember clearly that first Christmas after  Walter’s death and the tremendous feeling of exultation I had that we had crossed the first mountain, difficult as it had been. God had been gracious; we were thankful. ... We hadn’t flunked the course.

Now that was a memorable moment.

I remember also when I was in Rosenthal/Chortitza in the Ukraine in 1989 with a select group of people looking for their Mennonite roots.  The night before we left I had phoned Mother to ask her once again to give me some directions with regard to where she and my father had lived decades ago.  She remembered the landmarks clearly, excited for me that I would visit her old home.

 I found the street, the storefront,  the ravine, the hill. I walked the streets of this now Russian town hardly able to grasp that this was where my parents had once walked, lived, did business transactions.  On the high hill outside the city had stood my grandfather’s windmill,  blades turning vigorously in the wind.  In the village cemetery of Kronsthal, in the overgrown area among the trees and high grass where broken gravestones littered the underbrush, my father had buried four adult members of his family  in 1920 during the typhus epidemic and the famine that followed.

 I will always remember that moment standing on that hill, now a wheat field. I find it hard to express what I felt – but it was a connection to my family’s heritage. It helped me understand who I was.

I remember also learning to forgive.  Yes, learning to forgive.  It doesn’t come easily or quickly when  someone has hurt you.  It wasn’t a skill taught at school or Sunday school.  Maybe Catholics have an easier time with forgiveness going to confession regularly.  But it is like deciding to lose weight. First, it has to be a head decision, then become a habit. That  decision to lose weight or to forgive has to be made each morning on arising and dozens of times during the day until it takes firm hold and becomes the natural thing to do. 

I believe such events are more important than having been “properly” in love.