Face the music ... and dance

Posted by Rick Chrisman

A student leaving a lecture last week was heard to say, "Well, that was sure depressing." Another student who came to my office said about the same lecture, "Well, that was sure depressing." A staff member down the hall from me said, "That talk was sure depressing."

They were reacting to a speaker who basically told us that Americans consume so much cotton candy from our culture and cram our heads every day with so much of it that we are not exactly in the best position to cope with today's monster challenges. As a result, ecological destruction, rampant poverty and corporate plunder prevail.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent and now senior fellow at the Nation Institute, did not molly-coddle the audience last Thursday evening in Gannett: we've been snookered, he argued, and, what's worse, we let ourselves in for it — financial interests define our politics and that's that.

I agree, you could sure say that was depressing. Now, Hedges never presents himself as a cheerleader for political activism. Rather, he is a message-bearer and he does not, will not, varnish his message. But he never said there was nothing we could do about it.

For instance, he offered his list of recent presidents, both Republican and Democratic, who have led us down corporate America's garden path — Reagan, Clinton (big-time), Bush II (of course), and, yes, Barack Obama (way big-time). At the very same time, Americans have indulged in so many distractions that "We, the People" have not been tending to our civic business. Now we are really up against it. Hedges did what he came to do — puncture our illusions. Ouch!

Without our illusions, we feel vulnerable, even overwhelmed. It is the main price of admission to adulthood: being deprived of our illusions necessarily costs some temporary distress. Seeing things for what they really are sets us back a little at first. We may feel low, until we finally reach way inside ourselves and make the necessary adjustment to circumstances beyond our control. Learning this is a spiritual adjustment — but then just see what happens.

Thomas Hardy, the 19th century English poet and novelist (my senior project in college, which I have never forgotten) wrote: "If a way to the better there be, it requires a full look at the worst." I often think of other people who have been confronted by circumstances beyond their control.

For example, think about prisoners wrongfully convicted who, like you, face conditions not of their own creation. Do you know about Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, the boxer who was convicted of a triple murder in Patterson, NJ, in 1967? He was given three consecutive life sentences. He maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration in the New Jersey State Prison until he was acquitted on appeals nearly 20 years later. But during this time, he insisted on behaving like an innocent man while in prison — he wouldn't wear the prison uniform (despite periods in solitary confinement to make him conform), he slept when others were awake, he stayed up all night when others were asleep, he didn't partake in pornography, he refused contraband comforts.

Carter radically re-arranged his immediate environment so that he could take the necessary action for the acquittal he deserved and possibly might never get. He had no illusions about what he was up against. He committed himself to an uniquely courageous way of coping with, and finally triumphing over, the evil circumstances put uninvited on his back. This is what I mean by a spiritual adjustment.

What a remarkable model for us who are facing up to some pretty sobering facts but which are not nearly as confining or hopeless as Carter's who was a black man facing white justice. Knowing from this story what we can do spiritually, we can more than afford to give up our illusions and fashion new dreams of our future.

While you are in college, you are not expected to lay hands directly on any of the problems Chris Hedges described. But neither will anyone want you to insulate yourselves from the knowledge of them. Your role for now is a good one: as students you are acquiring indispensible knowledge. Just be advised that all this knowledge is for action one day, and all action is for the sake of people.

Once you see yourself as "We the People," you will be of service and of good use, believe me.

Rick Christman is director of Religious and Spiritual Life, teaches occasionally in the Religion and Philosophy departments and suspects art is the one true religion.

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