Observer

I don’t know this handsome young man’s name—I spotted him watching the local high school football team practicing when I was shooting a story for the paper I work for a week or two ago (See “Nation of Warriors” post).

I would guess him to be about 10 or 12—that was a significant age for me—a period I came under the influence of my grandmother. I’ll come back to that in a minute—first I want to tell a little story (it’ll make sense shortly—at least as much sense as my posts usually do.)

In 14th century feudal Japan in a Zen monetary high in the mountains of Hokkaido there lived an old, very learned and much revered monk—a Zen Master who had instructed and inspired many students over the decades.

One day one of his students heard the old master’s only son had met a tragic death and went to pay his condolences.

Upon entering the old master’s humble quarters the student was astonished to find the old man weeping inconsolably.

“Master,” the young man cried. “I do not understand. You have taught us this world—this life—is nothing more than illusion.”

“Yes,” the old man sobbed, “but this is heavy illusion.”

My grandmother has been dead probably 40 years. But during those years she lived with us she taught me to fear God—quite literally. She drummed it into my young mind that God was an angry, demanding, wrathful entity whose primary function was to punish the wicked (which was just about everybody—including me). We were all “sinners in the hands of an angry God—dangling by a thread above the fires of hell.”

And she made it quite clear if I were to have “impure” thoughts about the girls in my classroom he wouldn’t even bother with the thread.

My grandmother was a product of grinding, unrelenting poverty—growing up on the Oklahoma prairies at the turn of the 20th century—quite literally living hand to mouth. If you had one potato to eat in a day—that was a very good day and you’d damn well better get down on your knees and thank God for all that he had done for you in your undeserving, moral squalor.

There are probably some words to describe my grandmother stronger than brittle, rigid, inflexible, unreasonable and unyielding but I can’t think of them. She was right and the whole of humanity could perish in screaming agony before she’d even begin to consider any other opinion than her own. She was way beyond being right—she knew exactly what God wanted and actually—knew what he wanted better than he did. There was no such thing as compromise—no such thing as meeting half-way. You either saw it entirely her way or your next stop is hell.

As I said—she’s been dead 40 years. But I spoke with her again earlier today.

I was waiting in my doctor’s office this morning and an elderly gentleman walked in. I’ll call him Mr. Brooks (not his real name).

I was talking with someone else about crime and punishment (not the Dostoyevsky novel—the real world social agendas) when Mr. Brooks entered the exchange.

Here’s some dialog–I’ll just cut to the good part:

“I read this judge gave this guy life because he had 9 DUIs,” Mr. Brooks related, “well that’s just wrong—he shouldn’t have done that.”

“So—we need to wait until he kills somebody,” I said, “then nail him? He should be allowed to drive drunk until he takes lives?” (the offender in question had long ago lost his license but kept driving.)

“Yes,” he responded.“

“So if there’s a poisonous snake in your house you should wait until it strikes someone before you get rid of it?”

“Well, I just think if somebody commits a serious crime you should just take him out side and hang him in public—let everybody see.”

“”How can you be sure he’s guilty,” I said, “don’t you need a trial?—what about due process? What about sentencing guidelines? Don’t you remember all those men on death row some years ago that turned out to be innocent after DNA testing was done? Are you saying we just string everybody up that appears to be guilty?”

“Yeah—string’em up—that’ed show everybody,” he went on.

“And if one of those people is your son or father—just string him up too?”

“Well my son would never…” (I cut him off…)

“Hey—every guy that ever got locked up was somebody’s son—what makes you so special?” By now I was almost yelling I was so frustrated.

“Hang’em—hang’em right out there in the middle of town—that’d stop people from doing…” (cut him off again)

“It’s not gonna do squat—not gonna change a thing,” I said shouting. “When people are enraged or not in a normal frame of mind they don’t care what the law says is gonna happen to them. The kind of so-called law you’re talking about is Taliban, Iranian.”

By this point the receptionist had stepped around her desk and was separating us—steering me into another room outside the waiting room.

Later in the morning I was having lunch with a good friend—telling him about it.

“He (Mr. Brooks) thinks all that stuff in his head is true—uncontestable,“ I said. “What makes me mad about people like him is not that he has an opposing opinion—but someone trying to meet him half way isn’t good enough—you see it his way completely or you’re an idiot.”

“He’s the kind of guy,” I said to my patient friend, “ who would watch “All in the Family” back in the 70s and think that Archie won those arguments with Michael when he (Archie) just stuck his tongue out and made a Bronx raspberry sound.”

(End of dialog)

I started this piece railing about my rigid grandmother and how enraging she was. But when I actually had a chance to (figuratively speaking) debate with her (in the form of Mr. Brooks) I got sucked into the same mindset. I was believing all that stuff in my head was true—uncontestable.

Why?

I offer only one excuse. This was heavy illusion.

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