CHOOSING YOUR BATTLES
April 19, 2010 § 2 Comments
My father is coming into town in a couple of weeks. I booked three tickets for the Angels-Yankees game in the wastelands of Anaheim. But something strange is occurring inside me: I’m feeling fear.
Let me take you back to where the motivation for this essay begins. My brother and I went to see the great film score composer John Williams conduct an orchestra that promised to play all of our favorite old time classics: Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET…you get the idea. I love those old blockbusters. Unfortunately it seems the folks who made Harry Potter got to John before I could, because none of the aforementioned movies were played until the very end; in the meantime we had to sit through a whole sackload of pieces from all 22 Potter films plus a few others about which nobody cares. I’m sure the trumpet players were of the highest quality, but spare me another tune from Catch Me If You Can.
But I digress. It may not have mattered what Mr.Williams chose to play that night. By the time the actual music began to play my brother and I were not in a mood to listen.
Picture this: we’re sitting there in the Hollywood Bowl with eighteen thousand other enthusiastic movie geeks, under the stars on a balmy evening, waiting to be swept back to our childhoods by the genius of John Williams, when we’re asked to rise for the national anthem.
Something important to understand here is that even when I’m in my home country of Australia I rarely rise for the national anthem. While I’m certainly capable of feeling pride in my country (mostly for reasons that have nothing to do with me: the beaches, the food, our cricket team) I am not a believer in any kind of ‘patriotism’. Whether or not most citizens of affluent nations are ready to admit it, we are living in a truly global community- unfortunately we’re not yet at the point where we’re prepared to actually take care of eachother as a global community. But that’s a post for another day. To return to the issue at hand, I have little time for standing up to pay respect to a song that glorifies the theft of land and the genocide of entire cultures.
As a result, while not begrudging others’ desire to stand for an anthem and putting their hands on their heart, I have sometimes decided to stay put in my seat. Not always; on some days I don’t feel like offending people, which invariably happens, especially in the US, where ideas of patriotism and its more insidious stablemate, nationalism, are more prevalent. On that evening in the Hollywood Bowl, as repugnant as I found the notion of playing the anthem at an artistic and cultural event, I chose to stand. One would assume that would be enough.
It wasn’t. I was wearing a cap and a gentleman, separated from me and my brother by his partner, told me to take my cap off. I gave my slightly ironic stock response: “it’s a free country”. I turned back to the orchestra and suddenly was stunned to feel a hand grab at my head and rip my cap off. I turned to see the gentleman staring forward, singing along to the anthem, my cap scrunched in his hand, out of my reach.
My response to this act of aggression and my feelings about that response are irrelevant. The important act, for the purposes of the theme of this post today, had occurred- I had practiced my right to respond to the playing of the national anthem in my own fashion and someone else had decided I should not be free to do so. By forcibly removing my cap from my head, this fellow had demonstrated a failure to see the latent irony and hypocrisy involved in behaving like someone from nazi Germany or communist China while singing a song about ‘freedom’. I, on the other hand, had felt that hypocrisy acutely; it began an inner dialogue and internal conflict that continues to this day and is especially triggered by an impending visit to a sporting event and the inevitable question that will arise when the stadium announcer will once again make this dreaded announcement:
“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the singing of our national anthem.”
The question is this: to rise or not to rise?
There are two easy answers, depending upon your point of view. The first will come from all those who may believe to be themselves patriotic citizens and who therefore will almost certainly demand that anyone present at the singing of the anthem must rise (and take off their cap). Lumped into that first group will also be the people who simply follow the rules and norms of the society in which they were raised, not challenging any of that society’s rituals or behaviours. Those people will probably fall into two sub-categories: those that simply lack any awareness that they are being conditioned to behave in a certain way. Then there is what I suspect to be the larger subset: those who may have certain disagreements with some of the decora and edicts that surround them yet are too afraid of the consequences that may result if they were to practice non-cooperation.
The second answer will be just as clear for the opposing side who, like our patriotic first group, hold a passionate belief which might be articulated similarly to what I initially expressed in this post. These people have decided that their protesting opinion will find expression at every opportunity; they will never rise for the anthem under any circumstances. They will make their voice heard in every conversation, believing that any idea of “appropriateness” is simply an excuse to avoid conflict and ramification; they will meet the myopia and jingoism of our society with a matching passion and vigilance that will not rest.
Those are the easy answers.
Then there is the answer that is harder to find… that of the middle.
I know an extremely intelligent woman who lives her life by the rule of always thinking for herself, of never embracing an idea without first challenging it and deciding whether or not she agrees with it. One could never accuse this woman or being afraid to speak her mind or not acting independently. Yet this same woman, who happens to be vegetarian, will eat meat if she finds herself offered it at a dinner party. Her reasoning is simple: she has been invited to the event, has agreed to come and therefore will accept what comes with that experience.
This is not to advocate blind acceptance or the consumption of food that one may find offensive, for whatever reason. It is simply to raise awareness of the possibility of choice.
Are there times when those of us who protest everything to the point of obsession could abstain? Almost certainly. Is it also true that the rituals, norms and behaviours that come with a given society or group should always be open to challenge and protest? Absolutely.
The pendulum at this point in time has swung wildly too far in favour of slavish adherence. It is only with this thoughtless compliance that governments are able to pursue violent and selfish policies which destroy the lives and cultures of others who do not share the same values and beliefs. In those circumstances we find must voice and challenge the status quo. It is our duty not only as citizens but as compassionate human beings.
Having said that, the colours in other less urgent circumstances will have greyer shades. While practicing compassion can be a wonderful reason to protest, challenge and not cooperate, that same compassion can be accessed and expressed when we find ourselves with another awareness: that sometimes our protest is for us and us alone, done for an inner satisfaction with ourselves, and sometimes at the expense of others’ joy or comfort.
It is at these crossroads where I have often found myself. We need not always scream from the rooftops; we also need not always follow custom. Maybe the only true independence that we will find for ourselves is an embracing of the capriciousness of swimming in the middle, of being truly in the moment when it comes to making those decisions. Sometimes we will stand and never surrender in our expression of our beliefs; sometimes we will gracefully allow ourselves to move with the current in order to preserve harmony, either on compassionate grounds or even for self-interest or preservation. The person who ends up being in a position to influence millions would be short changing the world if they had given up that opportunity due to an egoistic need to be heard by whoever happened to be present in a given moment. A broader perpective is sometimes necessary.
All of those among us, whether they be Gandhi, Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela, or you and I, have felt and expressed every aspect of our humanity in different contexts, from acts of cowering fear and hopeless timidity to moments, however lasting they may be, of surging empowerment and enormous courage. Anyone who says they haven’t been cowardly or brave in their lives is either being fraudulent or self-oblivious.
But a greater internal and external harmony may be achieved by understanding that the expression of opinion does not always equate to bravery- sometimes it equates to egoism and self-indulgence. Additionally, our decision to keep our feelings to ourselves does not always equate to cowardice: sometimes it may equate to a compassionate choice to preserve the contentment of others about who we care and the overall peace and tranquility of the immediate environment that surrounds us.
It is a dance, involving all issues around integrity, care for others and our sense of justice and what is or isn’t a force for good.
A dance that I hope will be performed by more and more of us with each passing moment.