All posts by Dena Hunt

“Free at last.”

On this Martin Luther King holiday, I find myself thinking more about Jimmy Carter than about King. These two fellow Georgians wouldn’t seem related in the sense that thoughts of one should evoke thoughts of the other, but they do. Why? I think the cause of their seeming to be connected lies more in my memory than in any similarity they may or may not share with each other. That is to say, they evoke very different responses within me, a native Georgian old enough to have lived through the rise to notoriety of both of these men. I have known the times before them, during them, and after them.

A while back, I saw Jimmy Carter at a press conference announcing his cancer. He was planning to undergo treatment at Emory. He said, with his customary graciousness and his famous smile, that he was “at peace,” and that he planned to continue teaching his Baptist Sunday school class. He’s well into his nineties now, I think. One still sees the charm, the idealism, and the niceness. Jimmy Carter is the embodiment of post-civil war gentility, the kind that was modified from its original antebellum cavalier character to that which was created by the great fundamentalist revival that swept the South during the crushing poverty of Reconstruction, creating the cultural result known today as the “Bible belt.”

I don’t intend here to delve into a civil war discussion of any kind. That’s been done to death. But no one can understand the South, represented by the faces of both Carter and King, without recognizing a single fundamental truth of the war: it wasn’t about slavery, but about freedom. I believe that Martin Luther King would acknowledge that; I don’t know that Carter would. And that accounts for the different responses within me that each man evokes.

The war was a success insofar as it is quite possible to beat a free people into total submission; it was a failure in that it’s impossible to free anybody. Subsequent wars in other countries, like Viet Nam for example, have proved that truth repeatedly, though neither war-makers nor law-makers seem able to accept it. An entire U.S. (white) army could not free slaves in the South. But a people, nation, or race, can be led into freedom by someone like Moses, Ghandi, Mandela—or Martin Luther King, who understood this fundamental truth about freedom in the light of Christianity rather than political philosophy. For whatever else he was, he was also theReverend Martin Luther King, and a Reverend who, despite his personal flaws, did not leave his faith behind in pursuit of political and social aims. Thus he did not “confront” white America with violence, or even the threat of violence—he was not concerned with white people. Instead, he helped black America recognize their freedom as children of God, to accept it, the burden of it, and the dignity of it. Such acceptance is by its very character and nature, non-hostile. It commands respect; it does not demand it. True freedom is always characterized by the absence of anger and blame.

I heard a story once—I don’t know if it’s true—of two southern men who had lived in the same houses all their lives. The white man owned the property on which the black man lived. The latter came, once a month, to the back door of the white man’s house to pay his rent. They were always very polite to each other. (This ubiquitous politeness rings true to my memory, truer than trashy films and novels.) There came a day after de-segregation when the black man arrived to pay his rent, and the white man told him to come to the front door. The black man walked around the house and the front door stood open, waiting for him. The white man apologized for the years the black man came to the back door, but the black man said, “Never mind. The truth is that neither one of us knew any better.”

I don’t know if the story is true, but I’d like to believe it is. Neither of them knew any better. I’d like to believe they sat down on the front porch and shared a little bourbon. I do know that some of the black students and colleagues, friends and lovers I’ve known since those early days had some forgiving to do. And I understand that they couldn’t even begin to do that until they were free—free from blaming, and from self-blame. Because the truth is you didn’t know any better. And as long as blame rules, there will be enslavement. Martin Luther King was a free man.

A recent news story reported that Carter’s cancer had been cured by specialized treatment at Emory, a series of injections that cost more than 150,000 dollars each. He is said to be totally cancer-free now. That’s wonderful—if wonderfully expensive. I saw him elected, defeated, and then rise again like a phoenix of righteousness in his pursuit of good and noble deeds, like Habitat for Humanity and other endeavors for which he continues working, just as he continues to teach his Sunday school class in his nineties. That’s admirable. Indeed, Carter is above criticism; he is, like all Southern gentlemen, worthy of admiration, respect, and emulation. I’ve never met him personally, yet I feel that I know him very well. But I don’t know if he’s free. I hope so.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

An acquaintance accused me of stereotyping “gay” people as fastidious. I hadn’t. What I’d actually said was that I thought a man I once knew might have had repressed same-sex attraction. “Why?” she asked. Several reasons: for one, he worshiped from afar (i.e., without physical affection) his unhappy wife, though he had ardently pursued before marriage. For another, he lived in a strict fastidiousness. In my distant memory of Intro Psych, excessive fastidiousness generally signifies anxiety, a need for self-control that becomes focused on one’s person or environment. But before I could make the connection, my acquaintance asserted, “Not all fastidious people are gay,” completing skipping over my association of the characteristic with denial (not with homosexuality). “You are stereotyping.” Well, no, actually I was analyzing. “That,” said my acquaintance, “is what stereotyping people always say.”

 

Admittedly, this is just an anecdote, an example of a certain kind of humor, the name of which escapes me now, but the projection it exemplifies is seldom funny.

 

Long, long ago, back when I lived and worked in New Orleans, I dated—very briefly—an African-American poet. We had a mutual acquaintance and colleague, who was, as it happens, a white woman from Atlanta named Carol. She was raped and stabbed by a man who broke into her apartment and attacked her. She barely survived two punctures in her lungs, broken ribs and other serious injuries. Her description of the man, given to the police from her hospital bed, was that he was black, about six feet tall, and heavy. The man I was dating visited her in the hospital and demanded to know how she could call her attacker “black.” He said she was assuming that all rapists of white women are black. My friend Carol was no racist, but my poet friend certainly was.

 

This would be just an ironic story, as the first story was humorous. But Carol was deeply hurt by his accusation. She called it another assault, as indeed it was. It exposed the poet’s own racism, which, as far as I know, he continued to conceal from himself by seeing it in others.

 

Projection may be the most common psychological problem of our time—perhaps it’s symptomatic of culture wars and competing ideologies—I don’t know. How is it that people can look at another person and see not who is there, but that part of themselves they deny exists. They don’t see the other person at all. They don’t see events as they actually happen, either; rather, as they “need” to believe the events happen.

 

It could also be a cause of the scourge of “political correctness” which may destroy us by making us deny reality. It becomes truly dangerous when we take such correctness so seriously that we become unable to think for ourselves, fearing our un-policed thought. Distrusting our own judgment, we rely on those we think are superior to us, creating a peculiarly unearned elitism in secular culture. E.g., there are no radical Islamic terrorists killing innocent people in Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East. But there were awful Christian crusades to re-take the Holy Land many centuries ago (as our president informed us at a prayer breakfast).

 

The potential is there for serious consequences. The condemnation of an innocent brutalized victim as a racist is an example. Or, on a more historic scale, Hitler justified his attack on England by saying that Churchill was an “insane incendiary” who wanted to set Europe ablaze. He also said that the Jews, who’d been living in Germany quietly and unassumingly for 900 years, were bent on a lust for power over the Aryan race.

 

In extreme forms, projection is a form of insanity that can have dire consequences for whole nations, cultures, and peoples. On a lesser scale, it destroys our ability to deal fairly, openly, and honestly with each other by providing an excuse for a refusal to listen, erecting barriers to discourse. Then, because we need to excuse our behavior toward each other, we produce these reflexive projections. Thus it’s the intolerant person who sees intolerance in others; the racist who sees racism in others, etc. This may sound like a mere psycho-social dysfunction, but it’s far more important and more dangerous than that—not only in the harm we do to others but in the harm we do to ourselves.

 

Here’s an exercise. Whatever unkind, or just unflattering, thing you might think about someone, accuse the person in the mirror of exactly that. It’s really true that “it takes one to know one.” Re-cognition has the prerequisite of cognition. How can you recognize what you do not already know? It is self-honesty that protects us from self-deception, just as it is the Truth that protects us from the “father of all lies.” But no sort of truth can save us if we refuse to acknowledge it.

 

It’s an exercise at least as worthwhile as sit-ups.

Justice and Mercy

Surprisingly—or maybe not, when you think about it—we’ve heard or read very little about justice lately, not since the beginning of our Jubilee Year of Mercy. On the face of it, that shouldn’t be any surprise. After all, this isn’t the Jubilee Year of Justice.  But the absence of the word has already become noticeable. That may be because justice is perceived as antithetical to mercy.

That’s not only incorrect, but also a little unfortunate. It would be a shame to go through an entire year dedicated to mercy while understanding its meaning only partially; for however inspirational that “partial” meaning may be, without pairing it with the meaning of justice, we risk its rendering as a mere transient sentiment, bound to pass more quickly than the year itself.

When we’ve been profoundly wronged, or when an innocent creature is unjustly hurt, we crave justice. We want, we even demand, justice, which has to be inferred as punishment for the wrongdoer. We want it to be fair and equitable (“just”), of course, but we demand the condemnation of the evil deed and the evildoer.

When we are the wrongdoers, we plea for mercy. What we mean by that is forgiveness. We can’t ask forgiveness, however, if we don’t perceive our wrongdoing, a perception utterly dependent on conscience—dependent, in fact, on our sense of justice. Without that perception, there can be no mercy.

It’s the simple things that are always the most difficult to grasp. There’s a problem with an attempt to focus entirely on mercy to the exclusion of justice. Without justice, mercy has no meaning. We can go further: Without justice, there is no mercy. Justice can exist with or without mercy, but mercy cannot exist without justice, its origin and source.

It’s no good just referring to Portia and intoning Shakespearean lines about the un[re]strained quality of mercy. Yes, it’s a fathomless ocean as St. Faustina tells us, but that observation is unintelligible without a sense of justice. How do we comprehend “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” unless we dare to look upon him whom we have pierced?

When Christ pronounced, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone,” he did not deny justice; on the contrary, the law is his very means of granting forgiveness. Without justice, the woman caught in adultery would have gone away unforgiven. St. Paul rattled this around in his mind until at last he understood the contingency of mercy on the absoluteness of the law.

As we contemplate mercy this jubilee year, unless we first acknowledge the primacy of justice, it will be meaningless, at best.

Somebody Has Finally Said It

Msgr. Charles Pope has said it out loud here:

http://www.ncregister.com/blog/msgr-pope/a-dangerous-post-on-the-recent-terrorist-attacks

He calls it a “dangerous post” and I’m sure it is, not so much because I’d expect an assassin to show up with a high-powered rifle—though that’s a possibility, I guess—but because I expect him to be shouted down by people accusing him of intellectual, theological, and/or moral wrong-headedness.

I’ve thought of it. I’m sure others have thought of it. No one would say it. The plague of jihadist terrorism may have been permitted by God as a punishment for our depraved apostasy. The face wrapped in black cloth and belonging to a man (or woman or even a child) wielding a machete or an automatic weapon or a suicide vest—those images we’ve seen too many times now to continue to ignore—may be the face of an avenging angel.

What makes this enemy different is its religious origin. It’s not a political or economic ideology, it’s not nationalism (on the contrary, it’s stateless). It’s willing to die for its god, and moreover, it’s not a god unknown to Christianity or to Judaism. We know this god well. It’s an ancient acquaintance. There’s nothing new here except one thing: its uprising, its manifestation into modern history, into our time. Indeed, those secular/agnostic/atheistic politicians who set policy might do well to read a little history, rather than study the economics of oil-driven modern industrialism, or the socialist theories which undergird their immigration laws, etc.  Even better, they might read the book of Genesis and note that Abraham had two sons, not one.

I would have expected this to come from a fundamentalist evangelical pulpit, not a Catholic priest. But here it is. It may be that it is in fact being preached here and there by fundamentalist Protestants—I don’t know—but I would hazard a guess it’s something many people have thought, if not spoken aloud, until now.

 

Happy birthday.

She would have been 94 today. Here is what she was like in one word: vulnerable. She was very beautiful when she was young, and because she was always seeking acceptance and love, the wrong sorts of men were attracted to her. She was hurt repeatedly. Her mother never loved her. I think that her mother hadn’t wanted another child so soon after the birth of her first, and so she was not welcome. Her mother always felt guilty about that, and people don’t like innocent people who make them feel guilty. Many people hated Christ for the same reason.

Assigned by the matriarchal arbiter the “unfavored” status in the family from the beginning, she lived a life deprived of acceptance and love forever after—but she never stopped trying to gain their acceptance, and the more she tried, the more she was rejected. (People don’t like feeling guilty.) Like the child she was, she never stopped trying to understand what she’d done wrong. She also never stopped forgiving.

At some middle point in her life, she did stop trying, having internalized her unworthiness, and accepted the status she’d been assigned, and thereafter she accepted with gratitude the crumbs of acknowledgement her siblings gave her out of a sense of filial duty. She didn’t fight the situation any more but submitted to it—and she continued loving them. Not being loved does not keep some people from loving—people like her (and like Christ). She did this, she lived her life like this, because she was favored—though I think neither she nor her family would ever understand that.

As for me, I am not at all like her. Unlike her, I grew up very beloved by my mother. And thanks to her, I learned how—without knowing what I’d learned. I used to be surprised to discover that so many people didn’t know how—and didn’t know why they didn’t know how. (They didn’t have an example like her.) They engage instead in some variation of emotional bartering, the purpose of which is to find a kind of security niche, and they seldom encounter the real thing, unconditional, sacrificial—and fraught with vulnerability. I think that’s why they’re always drawn to great tragic romances like Romeo and Juliet. They experience what they think is love vicariously and purge themselves of pity and fear—of love.

But if you want to know what wealth is, don’t ask the rich man. Ask the beggar.

I believe the saints would agree that the greatest saints are those whose names we’ll never know, people who lived and loved and died unknown, unrecognized, invisible among us. One of them is Lois Inez Nelson.

Happy birthday, Mother.

Moments We Remember for No Good Reason

There are moments each of us remembers for decades. I don’t mean moments like September 11, or the day JFK was assassinated, but personal, inconsequential, ordinary moments that impress us in ways it may take years to understand. One such moment for me happened at a gathering of some kind of my mother’s family. An aunt was present with one of her two daughters, the one who was a wife and a mother of numerous children, all of whom she home-schooled. She was a professional wife and mother, and a devout fundamentalist who stayed close to home and church. The only thing that ever bothered me about this first daughter was her propensity for criticism of others. I later came to recognize this hyper-critical tendency as characteristic of women who role-play their femininity. In other words, her devotion was not authentic at its core; rather, it was a staunch fidelity to a role she had chosen to play. That fidelity made her reject (i.e., criticize) other women who did not also choose to play the same role. It was a way of rejecting any temptation in herself to deviate from the role. She found it necessary.

Her sister, my aunt’s other daughter, was one whom some people might call “troubled.” She’d had some acquaintance with drugs, I think, and with sex. She didn’t stay close to home but traveled a great deal.

On the afternoon this memorable moment occurred, someone asked where the second daughter was. The first daughter made a kind of mocking half-shrug and said, “Well, you know, she’s what you might call a free spirit.” She tittered, inviting the others to titter along with her, and they obliged. Her mother (my aunt), however, just asked quietly, “What’s wrong with that?” Silence. I always liked my aunt.

What made the moment so memorable? If you know a family, a staff or faculty, a club or church, team or class, any tribal group where role-assignment is the functional adhesive, you know why it was memorable. My aunt’s question was a statement: “We will not play this soul-destroying game.”  As much for the sake of the assigner as for the assignee, the scapegoat, who, conveniently absent, was to be assigned to carry the sins of those present. Moments of divine intervention often leave silence in their wake, much like the occasion when Christ wrote in the dust at the stoning of the woman caught in adultery, just before he also asked a momentous question. The numinous moments are always the most memorable, however ordinary they may seem.

The news today of René Girard’s death brought this incident to mind.

The Good Samaritan

I just returned from the bi-annual retreat of the Catholic Writers Guild at the beautiful St. Francis Retreat Center in DeWitt, Michigan. It was wonderful—on so many different levels that it deserves to be the center of attention in this post, but it isn’t. Something happened before I arrived, 30,000 feet or so above some state or other between Atlanta and Detroit.

First (and this is not irrelevant), I’m not one of those people who go jetting around the country and beyond all the time. They’re more organized for travel and not likely to have anxiety fits about every detail as I do. I try to get everything just right, leave the petsitter exact instructions, confirm for myself repeatedly that I’ve done everything Delta says I should do—and even then I worry. So, unable to use a cellphone to check—again—that my darlings are all right (my petsitter is amazingly tolerant), I decided to use the in-flight wi-fi service and send an email. That meant I had to use a credit card. To my utter horror, I discovered that my wallet was missing from my handbag!

I sat writhing in an agony of helplessness, fear, and silent prayer: Please help me to trust in you. The wallet had been lost, stolen, or left behind. I suspected the latter because in my cleverness to pack so as to check through TSA quickly, I’d decided to use my passport rather than have to remove my driver’s license from my wallet—which stays parked on the shelf above the holy water font by the garage door. But I wasn’t sure. It could have fallen from my bag while I rummaged around in search of something; far less likely, it could have been stolen. (If I have trouble finding it via rummaging, why should a thief find it any easier?) I had nothing to identify myself except my passport. I had no license, no credit or debit cards, no insurance card, and not one penny.

There was nothing to do but wait to be able to use the cellphone and call my petsitter to find out if the wallet was there. I had one more flight to catch and it would be a tight connection. The moment I could use my phone, I called her—she wasn’t there!—and I left a pitiful message: “Please call me the moment you get this so I’ll at least know if my wallet is safe at home—though I don’t know what I’ll do if it is or isn’t.”

A couple sat next to me. After a moment, the woman said to me, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t help overhearing your message. Don’t worry. Your wallet can be overnighted to you.” But what about the meantime, I said, what will I do? Someone is supposed to meet me in Lansing to shuttle to the retreat center, but I don’t even know them. She assured me it would be all right. And then I worried about the tight connection due to the delayed departure from Atlanta. “I don’t know if I’ll have time to make the connection, much less call the person who’s shuttling.” And no wallet. No credit card. No cash.

The lady opened her bag and handed me a $50 bill. And then she said, “We’re very familiar with the Detroit airport and we’ll find out which gate has your Lansing flight and guide you there.” She refused to tell me her name or give me her address so that I could send her a check. But finally, as they left me at the gate for my Lansing flight, she handed me a card with her email address asking me to let her know that I got where I needed to go. It has her address on it, and I’ve just sent her a check. I’ll also send her a link to this post when it goes up.

Thank you, Stephanie!