Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
December 2013 - Volume 13, No. 12
Kennedy Time - and a world at odds with itself
I should have seen it coming. All week the media covered it - the Kennedy Assassination, 50 years ago. I had been keeping busy - apparently on purpose not paying attention. Then I happened to read just one published personal account, and I was thrown to the ground with grief.Till that moment I hadn’t fully realized what I’d been carrying hidden for fifty years.
Yes, I was there - as was everyone my age. I was in New Jersey, just a few months into graduate school, studying in my seminary apartment. The radio was on that afternoon - probably a New York classical music station. My wife away at work.
From that moment on, nothing was usual. Nothing was regular. Evening Prayer that night was led by an elderly German theology professor who twenty-some years earlier had escaped Nazi Germany for the war terrors of England, then eventually here. Somehow his words were wise. Then it was the constant vigil of television events, our black and white screen connecting us with the world like never before through the haze of that weekend and beyond.
Something left me - a part of my soul went away, far away. I hadn’t considered ever recollecting it until now - a half a century later.
For years now, I’ve endorsed the prevailing myth that the 50’s, my years, were wonderful and easy times. The television view of that world was of tranquility and order. It was a good time in many ways, and I had been born into a good and functional family.
I was born of Methodist pacifist parents. Those were the days when Methodism had a strong “World Peace” energy (as differentiated from its current pan-Protestant “family values” dynamic.) So I grew up in a world at odds with itself. Immediately after WWII came the “Cold War” - with “the Bomb” and the evils of Communism. My entire childhood, from age four or five on was spent under the threat of imminent annihilation by nuclear war. From the beginning through the middle of the 1950’s, Senator Joe McCarthy held his own reign of terror over the country with his the constant witch hunt for anything “communist” between our shores. From the late 1940’s till the late 1950’s, there was the Hollywood “blacklist,” as well as House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) scouring the landscape for anything ‘irregular.’Yes, things were regular in those years, but under a terrifyingly irregular umbrella of paranoia. I well remember every large plane in the sky above us being a potential enemy bomber. Soon everywhere emerged those unmistakable black and yellow iconic signs identifying “bomb shelters.” Overseas, we were “The Ugly American.” (I was an AFS exchange student to Germany in 1958.)
By the beginning of the 60’s the air began to freshen. The music had begun its change. Something new was emerging. Yes, nuclear annihilation was still ever-present, but so was something called “Vietnam” - which to many was already viewed as a mistake manufactured by an “older generation” of generals and politicians. The words “young” and “radical” were again melding.
Sometime in 1964 or 65, a group of us drove down to Washington DC to protest our country’s presence in Vietnam, at the Pentagon. Many of those present that day were from the traditional “peace” churches around the country. Many were Quakers. The Pentagon folks, being then unfamiliar with such a demonstration as ours, actually invited us to lunch in their cafeteria!
Then along came Jack Kennedy.
1960 was my first presidential election, having turned 18 the previous year. That’s when I first became political, and I became a Democrat, and I proudly voted for him. He wasn’t perfect, but he was finally one of “us.” We loved that man! In 1962 my wife and I signed up for the Peace Corps when we were still at the University of Iowa. But for some reason, we never heard back, and the decision was made (Plan B) to head for seminary instead. It was a couple years later they called us, having lost our paperwork. But it was too late to shift gears.
Jack Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963. Malcolm X was assassinated in February, 1965. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, 1968. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June, 1968. We learned quickly that to be on the right side of things was very dangerous. Especially in politics.
It was on Earth Day 1970 when Walt Kelley’s Pogo uttered the words "We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us” - words resonating among us on multiple levels.
Any idealism we had left went underground, and we encountered a whole bunch of strange and very interesting folks down there.In 1975, a few years after having moved to Fenton, I met a man at a private party, who, upon introducing myself responded: “Oh, I know who you are.” He went on to tell me “I’m the FBI agent who handled your file when you moved here.” We both hit it off quite well that evening - our host being a mutual good friend.
The Kennedy “Camelot” had been brief, and it had been destroyed from within the borders of our land. The time of our own people destroying our own people may have begun in 1945 - but never like this!And it continues rampant to this day.
I’m not sure whether I’m now an old man, or an elder. Probably both. But I have a lot of life in me, and I still fight the old fight - but more as a conservative than a radical (or perhaps as a very quiet radical). I work with folks pretty much one-on-one. Each have in common that they’relooking for a Life. I have always believed that Life is a powerful force, and that life lived to the fullest is the birthright of every human born on this planet.
And the fire still burns. I arise every morning and go to work because I’m alive and I want to share it. When it’s right, I’ll challenge or ‘trouble’ people to become what they they may not have thought themselves capable of becoming. When they’re beaten down, I’ll give a hand to rise again. Every once in awhile a kick in the rear as well.
As I mentioned earlier, I was born into a world at odds with itself. I was born a peaceful man in a world of turmoil.
Perhaps when I look back, when Jack Kennedy was assassinated, I came of age, I became a man. One mentor noted that until the late twentieth century, whenever a man was portrayed in art, be itsculpture, or in portraits, or early even in photographs, in his face there’s always an inherent sadness. That doesn’t mean morose or melancholy, it can even accompany joy and hilarity. But it always seems to be looking into the face of a world at odds with itself. Perhaps that’s what it always means to be a man.
The larger perspective
History has long known that when a truly good person arises, to be also afraid for him or her. Many feel it now when the peaceable Pope Francis boldly speaks his own simple truth to power. It was true with Gandhi, who reminded his people, and now us, that in despair are also the ever prevailing ways of truth and love.
And there’s another common thread. The mythologist and storyteller Michael Meade reminds us that Jack Kennedy, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King all were assassinated when traveling to help improve the lives of the the poor. Because that was an important part of who they were and what they did. And so with Mother Theresa, with Mahatma Gandhi, with Francis. The poor, traditionally always God’s chosen people. And it is wise in so many ways for the powerful of our world to never forget them.
What the death of Jack Kennedy meant for me is not unusual in history. There seems to be an ebb and flow between oppression and heroism and despair, between suffering and glory and grounded purpose. Within these rhythms we grow in our humanity and our own sense of personal integrity and human worthiness.
I consider the grief-stricken poetry of Walt Whitman such asin “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” and "O Captain! My Captain!" at the assassination ofAbraham Lincoln.
And the poor - upon whom we too often project the worst of ourselves, still cry out with the voice of need, with the cry for life, with the voice of God. And when we attend to them, when we truly pay attention, blessing happens. Life happens.
The old deep grief that began in Dallas 50 years ago, woke me up. I see now how it helped make me the man that I am. Time again to…
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