Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Pride and Prejudice - and a Convertible VW Bug

He came toward the table I was sharing with a friend at our neighborhood diner, his Irish eyes still smiling brightly with mischief despite his advanced years. “Excuse me, but I have to tell you something,” he said after introducing himself.

He nervously shifted his weight from foot to foot, like a sixth grade student talking to the Vice Principle of his Roman Catholic school. “I was walking on Main Street with my wife and saw you in your Volkswagen Bug. You had the convertible top down and,” he started to blush, a look of incredulity making its way across his face, “there you were,” pointing at the white band of plastic on my neck, “WITH YOUR COLLAR ON!”

He shook his head, laughing and said, “I turned to my wife and said, ‘Now you would never see one of OUR priests doing that!’ No way!” He lowered his voice and hushed, “They’d be in a Mercedes or Volvo or Cadillac – and they wouldn’t be having half as much fun.” He smiled broadly, extended his hand to me and said, “I just wanted to say, from everything I hear, I think you are doing a terrific job.”

I got back to the office and shared the story with two members of my staff, one of whom said, “You know, I saw you the other day, driving with the top down, singing away, and I thought to myself, I know why we ‘hate’ you. Not because you have a VW Bug, because we could get a Bug if we wanted one. Not because it’s a convertible, but we could get a convertible if we wanted one. No, it’s because you look so happy when you’re driving your damned VW convertible Bug.” She laughed and said, “We ‘hate’ you because you can be so happy.”

It was the word ‘hate’ that caught my attention. My staff – especially this particular woman – doesn’t ‘hate’ me. She was using the word ‘hate’ coupled with the editorial ‘we’ to talk about the larger issue and problems of leadership, specifically the leadership of an ordained woman – okay, a rather unconventional woman ordained in the very conventional Episcopal Church who lives and pastors in the serious and affluent suburbs of Chatham, NJ.

I think there’s something to be said for the envy we feel when someone is living the life they are clearly meant to live – and they are so happy it shows. Every now and again I feel that way when I see a young mom who really, really loves being a ‘homemaker.’ I am aware that, in those moments, envy washes over me in strong waves with whitecaps of guilt and swirls of regret.

Why couldn’t I have been satisfied with taking care of a home and my children? I mean, women have been doing this since the beginning of time! Is something wrong with me – wrong with my genetic makeup – that while I love my children and I loved making a home for them when they were small, I wanted more? Needed more? Needed both?

It’s amazing how easily “What’s wrong with me?” can turn into “What’s wrong with them?” From there, it’s a slippery slope to, “Something must be wrong with them.” Soon, resentment can boil into open animosity, “Something IS wrong with them.” From there, it’s a free fall to creating evil intention where once there was innocent joy.

I think this is how some prejudice begins – with envy. Certainly, we fear what we do not know, and fear, combined with ignorance, continues to be the operating dynamic of much prejudice and oppression. We also know that the dynamic of fear combined with the distortion of power is the root cause of racism, sexism and homophobia.

It seems to me, however, that other, more complicated and complex strands of bias can become entwined with envy which can lead to the same end result – perhaps may even be the prelude to prejudice and oppression.

It has ever been thus, from the Eden to Gethsemane. We want most what we think we can not have, be it intelligence, power, status, influence, or affluence, to name just a few.

Conversely, we may not want others to have what we have. We hold onto our power or influence or status or things because we derive a sense of superiority from them, which is really our most prized possession. As long as we “have” and others “have not,” we derive even more pleasure from the envy we perceive from others than even the object of their envy.

I suppose, on one level, that’s part of the human condition. It becomes wrong when we begin to work to insure that no one gets what we have. My friend and fellow priest, Dana Rose, calls this “foot on neck disease.” As we climb the ladder of success, it’s important to some to keep one foot on the rung above and one foot on the neck of the person coming up from behind.

I’m not certain what it took for my old, Irish Roman Catholic visitor to come up to me, share a laugh, and extend his hand in friendship. I only know that as I myself grow older each day, I am beginning to see a different order of the priorities of life.

Perhaps my new old friend and I find it easier to take the risk to seek another out and share a story and a laugh because we are finally beginning to realize that love and laughter, graciousness and generosity, kindness and compassion are the rare, and therefore most precious of life’s gifts to the enterprise we call being human.

If driving around in my old blue convertible VW Bug with the top down and my collar on can inspire that, well then, everybody off the sidewalks! Let the never ending summer begin!

No comments: