Fall 2020: Crises are the Making of Us
Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
As with the previous three seasons, I enjoyed the fourth season of the Netflix series, The Crown. My viewing companion, however, did not enjoy the season as much as previous seasons because “it was all about the family and not as much about historic events.” While I agree with that assessment, it did not diminish my enjoyment of the show at all. In fact, one of things I love most about good stories - on the page or screen - is that they invite us to imagine ourselves in different situations and wonder how we would respond to various crises without actually having to live them, be they familial or societal.
The quote above is rephrased Shakespeare that has been used in The Crown. Of course “crown” in the quote is a stand-in for “responsibilities.” As a Christian and as a humanist, I believe my primary responsibility is to do my best to love my neighbors as myself. During a pandemic and season of political division and strife, this makes my head - and heart - heavy indeed. And after a summer of keeping my reading fast and light, my reading life took a heavy and slower turn this fall as the books I read explored the ways in which crises make us and re-make us.
The Golden Rule
Loving (or treating) my neighbors as myself, of course, is also known as the “golden rule.” This concept stretches back to at least the time of Confucius and it is a core tenant of all of the world’s major religions. It is such a simple concept, but to do it well and to live into it as a major life orientation is a challenge for a lifetime.
Love or loving treatment is a concept that changes as we age and changes from situation to situation. Loving or treating others as we would like (or need) to be treated sometimes means we will cause another person pain. It takes discernment to understand this and courage to offer it. “Neighbor” is also a concept people try to put boundaries around, but I believe it means anyone other than me. And then there’s the whole idea about how we should love and treat ourselves. Some of us are too indulgent with ourselves and some of us are too hard on ourselves both create opportunities for painful reckonings. So again, lots of discernment and courage involved in accepting this.
Complicating the above is that we continue to learn and grow all of the time so that the thing I might have done five years ago to love my neighbor might not be what I would do today. And I’ll be honest, sometimes I learn better how to treat others but lack the courage to actually do it. I am conflict-averse and grew up believing that it was not okay to be angry. So when honest conversation is the most loving thing for me and the other person, I will almost always try to avoid it.
We all fall short of the golden rule, but I hope we keep trying. I certainly hope that I will keep trying and I pray that my courage will catch up with my desires to do so.
All of this brings me back to crises and our reading lives and the ways books offer us measuring sticks about who we are and who we want to be. A crisis has the possibility of inviting us to make a sacrifice for the good of another or to realize that care needs to be aimed at ourselves.
Crises - be they big or small - also reveal where our true commitments lie as they force us to either double-down on a stance or to make a new one, thus, showing who we are and/or building who we are. (For a very interesting essay on the power of our commitments to give our lives purpose, check out Jennifer Senior’s New York Times piece, Happiness Won’t Save You, from the November 29th issue of the Sunday Review.)
Many novels present personal crises of some sort and show how various protagonists navigate such crises. I read some good examples this fall including the relatively light and fun I Was Told it Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman and The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow; as well as several darker and more intense novels such as My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante.
Although the stakes and the subject matter in these novels varies widely, each is a good example of how a crisis (a secret revealed, a truth told, a betrayal, a manipulation) forces a personal healing of some sort (acceptance, forgiveness, trust) in order to make things right again.
A special mention for the television show, Schitt’s Creek, belongs here. Schitt’s Creek is the story of the Rose family - Johnny, Moira, David, and Alexis. They are unimaginably wealthy when a business associate misappropriates their funds leaving them destitute. One of their few remaining possessions is the town of Schitt’s Creek, small and unglamorous, which had been purchased years before as a joke birthday gift for David and then forgotten. Now, though, needing a place to live, this fish-out-of-water story brings the Roses to Schitt’s Creek. When they arrive, the Roses are terribly out of touch with each other and unable to relate to the people in Schitt’s Creek. But over a three year odyssey, told in six seasons of the show, the family cements its love for one another. They also experience transformative healing individually. Once they are again “whole,” they are able to start loving and appreciating others too. There’s so much redemption, beauty, and humor in this series, surely enough for a robust study group that I would love to join!
While stories are great at showing us the struggles of personal crises, they can also bring us into bigger societal crises as well, asking us to re-think how we see certain situations and maybe even asking us to act in some new way. For some reason, stories that do this seem to appeal to me in the autumn months and this year was no exception.
In early October, I attended the Evolving Faith Conference virtually with a small but thoughtful group from my church. Over two days, we heard an excellent line-up of speakers and preachers, many of whom are involved in the work of deconstructing and reconstructing Christian theology for people who struggle with their beliefs or who have been hurt by the church.
I was fortunate to hear Kate Bowler speak and to later pick up her memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. This is a short and compelling personal story of Bowler’s happy and successful life interrupted when she is diagnosed with stage four cancer at the age of 35. In gentle ways and through many examples, Bowler asks us to start taking apart and dismantling the ideology many of us have that says “everything happens for a reason.” All such reasoning is part of what she and others have called the “prosperity gospel.”
Honestly, before I read this book I did not believe that I believed in the prosperity gospel at all. But Bowler shows how the prosperity gospel is so woven into our culture that it’s almost impossible to get away from it. Anytime we think to ourselves “I deserve” or “I don’t deserve” we are buying into the idea that we have more control than we do and that we can play by a certain set of rules and come out winners or at least unscathed. Our rational selves know this isn’t true, but many of us still live like it is. I’m not sure her challenge has changed me yet, but I will be thinking about this book for a long time and now that I’m more attuned to it, I do hear echoes of the prosperity gospel everywhere. We all will face crises. This book tells us that the least loving thing we can do for others or ourselves is to try to figure out the “why” crises happen.
#MeToo and Generational Change
I watched the series, The Morning Show this fall and was surprised at how well-written, how compelling, and how thought-provoking it was. This show stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Alex (Aniston) and her on-air partner Mitch (Steve Carell) have been successful and well-loved network morning show hosts for years. But as the series opens, sexual misconduct allegations against Mitch have become too much for the network to ignore and he is fired. To replace him, the network hires Bradley (Witherspoon) who is younger than Alex and has made a name for herself as a scrappy reporter. The two have good on-air chemistry but things are far from okay in Morning Show land.
What I found so compelling was the portrayal of the generational differences in how women respond to the #MeToo movement. Alex is a stand-in for Generation X and Bradley for the Millennials. Also interesting are the responses by various men in the story. The show does an excellent job of showing how Mitch’s actions impact everyone involved with the show. No one escapes the need to respond to this crisis and everyone struggles in unique and interesting ways to meet it, making it very compelling television drama.
Just as I was finishing this show, I happened to pick up Meghan Daum’s The Problem With Everything, which is her latest collection of essays. Although I didn’t find this collection to be as satisfying as a couple of her previous books, it was also an interesting exploration of the differences between Generation X and the Millennials in confronting #MeToo as well as other cultural touchstones.
As I write this, I am halfway through Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest Cli-Fi (Climate Fiction) book, The Ministry for the Future. I am reading this at the recommendation of Ezra Klein who had Robinson as a guest on his podcast that aired on November 30th, calling it the “most important book of the year.” This interview was fascinating and head-twisting. If you enjoy wrestling with challenging ideas, you will enjoy the interview and you might enjoy the book.
This novel is set in the very near future, beginning in 2025. It’s short chapters are a mix of narrative, fictional first person accounts, and mini-lectures. The novel tells the story of the first truly cataclysmic climate disasters and how various actors around the world - individuals, nations, banks, the science community, climate action groups - react. Sadly, it shows significant levels of destructive and violent crises that need to occur before people act. So, yes, it’s challenging, but it is also hopeful or I don’t think I could read it right now in the middle of a global pandemic.
Real Crisis and Hope
It’s wonderful to have a reading life that challenges me. But nothing has been more challenging this year than living through the COVID-19 pandemic. I lost my grandmother to COVID on her 98th birthday this past April and like many of you my day to day life and many plans for gathering with my loved ones these months have been curtailed. With a vaccine in the works, I can start to imagine a new normal and I hope my new normal makes me better at loving myself and neighbor in big and small ways.
In his November 29, 2020, essay in The New York Times, Pope Francis reminds us that the responsibility for creating a just and life-giving world is up to all of us. He tells us that our salvation depends on each other and that building this world - here and now - upon those bonds with each other is our calling.
To come out of this crisis better, we have to recover the knowledge that as a people we have a shared destination. The pandemic has reminded us that no one is saved alone. What ties us to one another is what we commonly call solidarity. Solidarity is more than acts of generosity, important as they are; it is the call to embrace the reality that we are bound by bonds of reciprocity. On this solid foundation we can build a better, different, human future.
We are living through a huge “Golden Rule” moment. Let us be re-made for the better!