Those Words of Wisdom

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That’s Mr. Fraser in the middle

The future does not seem as inviting as it once was. It’s not that I see the glass is half empty so much as I fear it is being inexorably pushed to the edge of the counter, not by a playful cat, but rather by a spiteful man with a heart that cannot humanize his experience of being human.

Fifty years ago, I read William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech. What we should write about, he said is the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself. That alone is what is worth writing about, he says, worth the agony and the sweat.

I return to that speech at least once a year. The memory of it comes to me rather randomly. In a strange way, in much the same way that grief decides to pay a visit. But, unlike grief, Faulkner’s speech is welcome.

I read it in my senior year of high school, in my English Honors class, taught by the lovely-hearted Mr. Fraser. I had also been in his freshman English class where he read us passages from the Shakespeare plays we studied—read them with the voice of an actor who understood that Shakespeare wrote about the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.

I was in his freshman English class the day JFK was killed. Mr. Snodgrass had rushed into our classroom to retrieve a radio just before the bell rang. As we pulled out our books, the news that President Kennedy had been shot floated across the hallway.

For the next twenty minutes, Mr. Fraser held that class of 14-year olds in his steady heart as we waited, not knowing what we were waiting for. First we heard he had been shot. Then we learned he had been shot in the head. Twenty minutes into the class, the news that he had died floated across the hallway.

The president has died, the announcement came over the school’s public address system. School is dismissed.

A few of the 14-year old boys sprang to their feet and cheered that school had been dismissed. I suspect their reaction didn’t come from malice, but rather a 14-year old boy’s confusion about how to react to his emotions.

Mr. Fraser, who had been so calm and comforting, pulled off his glasses and glared at them. He was barely 5’4’’ tall, but he loomed over the classroom at that moment. “A man has died.” He said it with his Shakespeare voice. “Respect that.”

Mr. Fraser was the adult in the room that day, though he was probably no more than twenty-four. What he spoke were words of wisdom.

I cherish my education at Granada High School in Livermore, California. It comprised literature, history, science, and civics. It gave me no absolutes. It gave me a foundation to think, and taught me how to learn. It gave me a way to be in the world, to navigate what was to come.

That is why I fear the glass is about to be pushed off the edge.

dad with still

My dad in his khakis — he wore them everyday when he went to work in Saudi Arabia. Here he is with his still—homemade hooch because alcohol was illegal in Arabia.

I come from a working class background. My dad was an electrician, a proud member of the IBEW. Whenever I hear that the working class white man is angry and feels forgotten I understand what that means. My father did get left behind. And it was Ronald Reagan who left him behind by weakening his union, breaking its ability to negotiate the value of his labor. He spent the last five years of his life without getting a cost-of-living raise. That ate into his pension and left him feeling that his labor was not valued and so he was not valued.

What I don’t understand is how that justifies the trope, “the heartland doesn’t care about whether Russia interfered with our election — all they care about is not being left behind economically.”

If that indeed is true, that those in the heartland feel that way, I say shame on them. My father never would have bought the bullshit that is being spewed by our current president. He never would have believed that this man-boy born into financial privilege was anything like the men who toiled as my father did, counting on their paycheck to care for their families. He understood that we are a self-governing nation. And he was proud of that and understood that meant vigilance.

The easiest way to gain control over a nation is to divide it. To convince those who have been left behind that that “other” over there is the one who took from them their God-given right to whatever was taken. God chose them, not the other.

What I learned in high school has never been more clear to me than it is now because I have never felt that what I cherish about my country is in danger of being overtaken by men and women whose conflicted hearts have been turned to stone—who have spurned the better angels of their nature.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”~Abraham Lincoln

Whether that glass is half full or half empty, once it is pushed off the edge, there is no more glass, nor what was in it.

I don’t know how to protect that glass or how to catch it if it is pushed over the edge. I have never felt so hopeless and helpless as I do now.

And then I re-read this by Joseph Campbell in “Thou Art That”:

We can no longer speak of “outsiders.” It was once possible for the ancients to say, “We are the chosen of God!” and to save all love and respect for themselves, projecting their malice “out there.” That today is suicide. We have now to learn somehow to quench our hate and disdain through the operation of an actual love, not a mere verbalization, but an actual experience of compassionate love, and with that fructify, simultaneously, both our neighbor’s life and our own.

So there they are—the words of wisdom I was seeking. And these:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which (sic) have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail. ~William Faulkner from his Nobel Prize speech

Write about the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself. Recognize the darkness that lurks in the heart, but glorify the better angels of our nature. To write is to hope. And so I will.

Post Script: Tom and I saw Mr. Fraser, by then we called him Bert, in 1995 while visiting New York City. Sadly, that was the last time we saw him. He passed away shortly thereafter, leaving the world a little poorer.

5 thoughts on “Those Words of Wisdom

  1. I like the thought that we have always been carrying with us the things we need, like Faulkner’s speech. I am forever grateful for an education that gave me the tools of critical thinking. And every day, in some context or other, I am thinking about what it means to be the adult in the room (how did that happen?). Thanks for this evocative writing.

    Like

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