Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
July 2017 - Volume 17, No. 7
Another Pattern of Hope
As you’ve perhaps noticed, in the past months of this Newsletter, I’ve been searching for a way of maintaining hope in a world where so much seems to be deteriorating. Civil discourse is collapsing. When the worst is called forth, the worst emerges often in ways we can no longer contain it. Our halls and houses of government spew forth invective, everybody talks but nobody communicates. The only ones who seem to prosper are those who have learned to both sow the wind and reap the whirlwind - as if this is the way it’s supposed to be.
But in the quiet of my work, people are asking for help. Scratch the surface and my folks are afraid.
I search for patterns of hope. You’ve heard me do that. And I’ve read some wonderful and insightful commentaries, so I know there are thinkers out there who understand what is going on. But there are also ways of men to render intelligent words invisible and mute. Is the Enola Gay already airborne? Did anybody even pay attention?
Many will say we’ve been here before. Yes, and massive was the destruction before it could be reigned in.
To Reign It In…
It seems the evil needs to rage for a time before it can be abated. It now feels we’re in this together for the long haul. The big dams upstream are already collapsing. And downstream it’s just like global warming - no longer just a threat but a fearsome reality.
The Heart of Stephen King
Yes, we know this pattern. In Stephen King’s novels, there seems to be a similar format. At first someone does something stupid. Some basic law is violated, even innocently - and soon the doors of Hell are cast open and the demons emerge to dance all over the place. This is what King is known for, his graphic ability to portray what deep-deep within we all know to fear.
But then what happens? We suffer it. Many suffer it, both characters and readers. But does the suffering redeem the damage? We feel the tension that tells us the answer may seem to be a ‘no.’ That’s why he’s known among the “masters of suspense.”
But there’s something else here. There’s a quiet almost drama-less drama taking place in the quiet work of some single individual of good heart. It may be a father who never gives up hope for his son, it may be a deputy sheriff, it may be a housewife, it may be an old lady living in the middle of a cornfield. A person without guile. A person who’s basic goodness cannot be corrupted. It’s around just such a person that the evil can finally, almost imperceptibly, be reigned in.
King is often criticized that his endings don’t stand up. They’re not exciting - because that which can contain what the Gates of Hell have loosed isn’t exciting. It has no high drama. It’s so plain and ordinary as to be almost unnoticed, and if noticed probably misunderstood. Even my hometown newspaper, with its hunger for human interest stories probably wouldn’t notice.
Stephen King likes people. And in his heart he trusts them, at least a few of them, enough of them, to overpower even the denizens of Hell.
For me that’s where hope can emerge, and even (quietly) triumph.
What does this mean for the rest of us?
Here’s where it’s easy to go astray.
One meaning is that it’s not up to us to save the world.
There is an old Jewish legend that every generation has 36 saints (lamedvavnikim) on whose piety the fate of the world depends. They live in obscurity, not revealing themselves. But when one dies, the Almighty immediately provides a replacement. I first found this many years ago through an obscure TV movie called “The Twelve Just Men.”
There’s a Native American tribe in Southern California that believes as long as it performs the Mid-Winter ritual of bringing the sun back, the world will survive for another year. And of course they will stay true to that purpose. The rest of us can do the ceremonies as well, just because they are so wonderful to be a part of.
There’s a lot of Christian theology that understands the world has already been saved, all of it. And our part is only to share in joy the good work already accomplished. We don’t go to church to be saved, but to enjoy the ritual and fellowship that reminds us and represents it, and sends us forth because it’s true.
Or maybe it’s true that all the world needs is for one faithful priest to do the mass, the ritual of salvation. And the world will continue to be saved. I don’t know, but there’s a deep mystery here somewhere.
Most of us remember when10 Amish schoolgirls in Lancaster County, PA, were shot in their one-room school on October 2, 2006. Five of them died. But the second story that emerged from the tragedy was the Amish grace and forgiveness that emerged. In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family.
Where do people like this come from? How do they become like this? What is the secret of those who even in the midst of great tragedy and grief, can respond with love, compassion and forgiveness, without guile? How can we become like this? (In honesty, most of us wouldn’t even want to.)
Stephen King has somewhere remarked that no good book gives up all its secrets in one reading. Somehow I feel if I could reread some of his works again, this secret would begin to emerge more fully.
The Passivity of Giving Up Hope
Another meaning is that it is up to us to save the world.
We know the words of the 18th century Irishman, Edmund Burke, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
It’s a lot of hard work to learn to face evil with love, and compassion. My parents saw and honored this in the hard work Quakers underwent to learn and remain in their peaceful ways. And I have from my father, and now hanging in my own home, a rare but delightful photograph of a young Iowa Amish girl, something rarely allowed. It’s now so much more than just a photograph.
It’s a ‘quiet luxury’ to know these people exist in my world. Perhaps I’ve brushed elbows with one of the 36 Jewish saints - I’d never have known. But I do know that my world is rich with the hidden good ones. We know of Gandhi, of Martin Luther King, of Mother Theresa, of the grieving Amish parents. We know of Mary, the mother of Jesus. They emerge every once in awhile from the shadows where the kind of goodness dwells that in the end will save us.
Because of such goodness, evil cannot long prevail, the quiet caring world cannot end. It cannot be “trumped.”
Pay attention.(And perhaps ‘go and do likewise’.)
1) I have been reading Stephen King for many years, and it was only a few years ago I began to notice this pattern. In more recent years I’ve not found the leisure to read and reread his work to further validate my thesis. So I hope what I write here is at least a somewhat adequate analysis of the “heart” of his work.
2)There is a second author in whose novels I’ve found the same quiet pattern. He is the Englishman, Charles Williams - one of the Inklings of Oxford, the famous writing discussion group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Williams died in 1945.