Friday, June 23, 2006

I want to live in Who-ville

One scene made the greatest impression on me from the original cartoon version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, from 1966, the one narrated by Boris Karloff. It’s near the end, after the Grinch has stolen everything from the town. He turns his ear toward town, expecting to hear wailing over what he’s done. Instead he hears singing. The loss of all their material things did nothing to dissuade the townspeople from their custom of holding hands in a circle and singing this cheerful song to welcome Christmas. The song was crucial. Holding hands and smiling is nice, but the song brings out so much more that the cheer is heartfelt, not just for show.

A strange thing about this is that I don’t like people who are constantly happy. I don’t hate them. I just find it creepy if people can’t find other emotions within them to express as well. In my volunteer work with needy people, there’s plenty to be angry about, from how people are neglected by the system to individual evils that have hurt people. Some of the volunteers can talk about such things as I do, but a few aren’t like that, being perpetually cheerful instead, as certain church people can be. I don’t know if that’s because they were taught never to be negative or if it’s in their nature. The Whos may be like that, but that sort of weird happiness is not what attracts me to Who-ville. It’s the resilience and the priorities expressed in Ted Geisel’s story that I embrace, the singing, too. I feel my clients’ pain, but there’s no point in wallowing in it. We have things to do, to do the best we can to cope with what the cold, cruel world has dealt out.

Spending time successfully coping with that world, without a lot of money to buy shortcuts, does teach that material things don’t matter that much. It’s a tricky lesson. So many material things make life easier. They’re worth something, but not that much. Yet some attachments matter a great deal. I wish Buddhists understood the last part, since they do so well with the first part. Happiness that goes deep instead of just being painted on isn’t based in nothingness or some denial of self, but in connecting to that which supports my happiness, like a group that could stand around and sing a cheerful song to welcome Christmas after having been robbed blind by someone who wanted to make them cry. First things first. We’ll do the paperwork for the police and the insurance in the morning. Oh, you didn’t know the Whos were insured? What, you thought they were superhuman in their faith? That’s the benefit of living in Ted Geisel’s hometown. You can get the whole story here.

I don’t suppose a cheerful song of renewal would go over well with my clients. They’re too focused on just getting through the next threat to their survival, but if they were somewhat farther along with beating back the world and somewhat more attached to God than most people, I could see it, a song of solidarity, just as I feel solidarity with God.

I never have found a church where I felt this way. There have always been ideology problems. My mother used to tell the story that when I was very young, we attended an Episcopal church where the minister was previously a Catholic priest and maintained some of those ways, such as swinging incense and dressing up more than the average Protestant clergy. He made such an impression on me that I cried out, “Is that God?” Unfortunately it was an imposter, just a minister, not the real God. I’ve had problems ever since with the appearances of churches not matching reality, from ideas to actions.

Yet some things about Christianity connected with me in a way that holds me tight. Crosses comfort me in a powerful way. On the worst days of my life, I found crosses in all sorts of walls and other structures where no one intended there to be a cross. In the shower, the tile walls are full of crosses. I can touch them, and God is there. One can become so intimate with God if one works at it. Maybe God has to want that, too. I’m not sure why it’s not a common experience, but it’s not. Nothing in church has ever connected with me the same way, not even Communion.

Near my home are two crosses on hills. One is private land. The owner had to switch from a wooden cross to a metal one due to vandals cutting down the wooden one, but now it’s reasonably stable. A larger cross is on land the city owns. There’s been a court case over it for years. The city has lost again and again. Yes, before 1960 courts never bothered over crosses on public land, but now the first amendment is enforced and no court can ignore that. Still a majority of voters want the city to fight on. Polls show they back off only if fighting on means new taxes to pay for it. As long as it’s existing money diverted from better things to fuel this fight, it’s fight, fight, fight. “We’re right, and those liberal courts are wrong.” One Christian leader talked about taking the issue to the streets, I suppose for demonstrations, not violence, but the rhetoric does get pretty hot.

Strangely I don’t think of the fighting when I see the crosses. I think of God in various ways. Other things will trigger that for me, even when the public cross is finally taken down. I know I wouldn’t react the same to a Star of David or a crescent put up instead, even alongside the cross. For me that would be pointless. I suppose multiple symbols would then make me think of all this fighting people do over religion. I definitely don’t think of God when I pass the Mormon temple near the cross. I wonder what these people were thinking with such a garish display. Did Joseph Smith see this coming? It’s all pretty worldly thoughts. That changes when I see something that connects me to God.

I wish that involved other people for me more than it does. Maybe the Whos would be just as bad in their theology as anyone else. I wouldn’t mind looking like a Who. Appearance is not a big deal for me. I already like the singing, but they’re said to be noisy as well. Well, there are earplugs. It’s a rather secluded, provincial setting. Well, maybe one doesn’t have to stay there year round. But if they demand beliefs in oversimplified and overgeneralized views of the physical world and ancient fantasies of the unknowable, spiritual world, then I wouldn’t want to live in Who-ville. It would be just like here, where the biggest Christian cause is to keep a cross on a hill, in rebellion against the courts. We want what we want. That’s human nature proclaiming itself in people who wear a Christian veneer. That’s not unique to where I live.

Watching the spectacle of September 11, I thought about things ranging from genocide to pacifism. How many Muslims would be willing to commit genocide and against whom? How many types of non-Muslims would like to kill all Muslims? One way to end a conflict is to kill everyone on one side. It’s not the best way, but it works, and it’s one that doesn’t defy human nature.

Meanwhile there is the other extreme. Can you imagine an American President getting up and saying, “We mourn our 3000 dead, but we are 300,000,000 more and are willing to end this conflict rather than expand it through vengeance.” It’s unthinkable, isn’t it? I suppose genocide is, too, but our thoughts as a people can get much closer to genocide than to peace. It’s just a matter of defining the group narrowly enough to get a consensus to wipe them out. Call it War on Terror, Terror including whatever people you want to kill. Have you noticed that “captured on the battlefield” seems to mean about anywhere on the planet?

Maybe the Whos are just are bad. Do they live to end poverty? Do they live to end conflict? Even with Ted Geisel’s papers, who can say? One song doesn’t tell me everything, but it’s a start. Of course the Whos are fictional. God is not. The basis of my attraction to Him cannot be shared the way a cartoon on TV is shared. Yet it’s similar. I don’t know that much about God, but I know enough to be devoted to Him. I also know people where I live are not like Him, even the ones who claim to be. That won’t change quickly. I don’t know if it will change at all. Maybe God just wants a small number of people to be like Him. That would be enough to change the world, maybe. Maybe that’s not God’s goal. There is happiness living with God, the same that attracts me to Who-ville, a happiness that knows suffering, that can even punch suffering in the nose, but then move on. I trust Him regarding the details. I already know that it is not constant, painted-on happiness. I don’t suppose even Dr. Seuss wanted that.

The closest I can get to Who-ville is to live with God, here and now, despite the world being just as it is. There are many differences between the fantasy of the former and the reality of the latter, but I think the essence of both is the same. I surrender to a group that is worth surrendering to, not just to anyone.

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