It’s sometimes said that social media – like blogs, Facebook and the like – is a good way to share your thoughts, perspectives, feelings, shortcomings, hopes and aspirations with others, in the hopes – I suppose – that such sharing might lift your own mood. I have honestly never been one for wearing my heart on my sleeve, or broadcasting my particular moods, whatever they may be, to others… whether they be in the same room or a virtual room 6,000 miles away in cyber-space. Perhaps thats a product of my “Lace-curtain” Bronx Irish Catholic upbringing which taught me those feelings are best that are kept to oneself. Although that is still the case – and despite an almost genetic predilection to privacy – these days, I am really feeling the need to share in the hopes that my current funk will lift, so I ask that you please indulge me. Although I have always been “the glass is half full” kinda guy, at this time of year I seem always to get a little down, and I think it’s because I I suffer from a kind of condition – not diagnosed officially, but I feel it its symptoms right down to my bones just the same. Clinically, the term for this self-diagnosed malady is know in medical circles as “Seasonal Affective Disorder” – SAD for short – and it’s mostly brought on in sufferers by decreasing exposure to natural sunlight as we move from the summer into the winter months – resulting often times in depression. Many years ago, I attributed an onset of this autumnal melancholy to the long, bright days of Summer giving way to the dwindling twilight of Fall (especially when I was working in a windowless human resources office in the basement of a newly opened nursing home in the South Bronx sponsored by Catholic Charities!) Today however, I am quite certain that the blues I’m currently experiencing are almost certainly not caused by too little exposure to the electromagnetic spectrum: can’t possibly be…firstly: because the Office I currently work from here at the Archdiocesan Catholic Center has two big beautiful windows that face southward into the sunlight, with wonderful views of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, and second: I always keep my blinds pulled full up. No, in recent years my “sad” state has been brought on by a gloom with a much different origin altogether – and although the cause is still very much seasonal, it is not at all natural; completely manmade its effects are evident in every corner of our country, and the cure for this depression is unfortunately not as simple or plentiful as a good dose of God’s gift of sunshine.
No, the culprit that holds me hostage in my present state is the tenor of conversation – public and private – in our country, and not on any singular issue in particular, but on almost every subject. Whether religion, or politics, or government, or business, or family, or community, justice or peace, it seems to me that in recent years it has become nearly impossible for we Americans – a people who so cherish the ability to speak to (and presumptively be heard by) one another that we placed this prerogative first in the list of enumerated rights deemed essential for a free people to govern themselves, second only to the ability to worship our Creator in the manner that our conscience dictates – to have a civil conversation on just about any issue at all. I think that much of the cause can be attributed to the noise pollution that are the cable television political talk channels and the phenomenon of shock radio, but regardless of where you want to stick the blame, the damage has already been done. Once the calendar turns and we enter the electoral season, the arrow on the “conceivability meter” on the possibility of holding civil conversations’ on civic matters switches from borderline difficult to the “red zone” of downright impossible – bringing on much frustration; and in my case with a side order of depression to boot. Things have gotten so bad that I have really begun to dread the advent of Labor Day – not so much because its arrival signals the un-official end of Summer – although there is that aspect too – but mostly for the conversational toxicity that its passing has come to presage.
This wasn’t always the case – with me at least. Funny enough, as a much younger man I used to relish the coming of the campaign season, even with all of the tumble and tussle of policy, personality, principle and pragmatism that our democratic electoral process guarantees. Growing up in the Northwest Bronx and later South Westchester in the 1970s and 80s,I was – like all children – influenced by my environment potlical and otherwise, and two of the political figures that were greatly admired in my household growing up were – paradoxically – Robert F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. From the first of these great men I grew up understanding that part of our collective responsibility is to try and “…make gentle the life of this world” – especially those who are less fortunate then ourselves, and from the other, coming of age as I did when it was “morning in America”, I grew up with the optimistic belief that not only were such endeavors as making life “more gentle “possible, but that such noble deeds were part and parcel of what made us a great nation. This belief was further re-enforced when as a college and law student in the late 1980s I saw how concentrated long term, social, artistic, religious and political efforts on behalf of human rights and human dignity could – for the most part non-violently – dismantle unjust, entrenched and repressive political systems from the Philippines, to South Africa, to the entire Soviet Block.
These earth-shattering and nearly miraculous changes edified my belief in the real possibility of non-violent political change, and animated my career choices for years to come. Certainly, my career here at the Archdiocese of New York was motivated by and benefited from such hopeful belief: having coordinated what is now going on 16 annual Public Policy Forums up in Albany – not to mention countless Faithful Citizenship presentations in parishes, schools and other forums – the belief in the possibility of change in support of human life and human dignity is almost a bone-fide occupational qualification for my job!
And while I still believe in the possibility of political change supportive of the vulnerable and suffering and remain overall a hopeful person by nature, I have to admit that my confidence that we are on the right path in support of such an agenda has wavered as of late. Perhaps the bloom is off the rose…as you can read, I have admittedly been at this a long time – and the recent years have harsh ones, with domestic terror attacks, two of the longest wars this country has ever fought and is still fighting, and the worst economy we have had in decades. I am afraid that there may be something more amiss then just these things though, things which I made a brief mention of earlier. Sadly, today it has to my estimation, become significantly harder to speak of ourselves – in any meaningful sense – as a “we” – an essential requirement for a self-governing people as the first three words of our country’s foundational document indicates. Instead we are broken up into sub-groups whose zero-sum competitions are never ending: whether we are one of the so-called 99%, or the 1%, or the 47%, the 15% or the 8%…it seems to matter less where you fall in one or several of these sub-groups (many of us – or our family members – fall into several) as much as that your inclusion in that sub-group puts you on one-side of an insurmountable chasm between you and your opposite. In recent years, these political divisions have begun to infiltrate the body of the Church itself – as is evidenced this year by the unending sound byte competition between motor-coach riding Religious and members of the Ayn Rand Society at prayer – and the results of all this separating of people has been, in my view, tragic.
Election Day is just under two weeks away. On that day, votes will be cast and we Americans will decide on the leadership of our nation for next four years – and at the end of that day (unless the Electoral College goes all loopy on us….) the winners of the contests for the Presidency and Congress will become the leaders of not just 1% of us, nor 8% of us, not 15%, nor 47%, not just bus riding nuns, nor libertarian lay people – not even just 99% of us alone, but they will instead need to lead and govern 100% of “We the People”- all of us….Tough job…..it always has been, but I’m afraid it is only getting tougher. All the division that we are creating is turning us not surprisingly into a very fragmented nation. To move forward on a path together will take smarts and skill – which I know both Presidential candidates have – but it will also take a plan. I would never be so presumptuous to say that I know the best path out of this mess that we have gotten ourselves into, but there is a plan that I recently heard of that I think could be helpful to this task. Its an older plan – eighty plus years at least – but its inspiration goes back millennia. I first heard of this plan last Friday when I was reading Cardinal Dolan’s remarks at this past Thursday’s Al Smith Dinner held here in Manhattan at the Waldof-Astoria is support of various charitable efforts of the Church here in New York. In his remarks, the Cardinal spoke of some of the public policy concerns of the man for whom the prestigious charity function is named: Alfred E. Smith, the 42nd Governor of New York State and first Roman Catholic nominated for the Presidency in 1928; Smith – the Cardinal went on to explain – was a man who believed that government had a responsibility to be on the side of the “un’s” : “the unemployed, the uninsured, the unwanted, the unwed mother, the unborn, the undocumented, the un-housed, the un-healthy, the unfed and the undereducated”. This is in a sense less a “plan” as much as it is an approach to governing – a posture to be taken which recognizes all of the “un-planned” for calamities that can befall individuals, families and entire communities. Some may say that this approach is too simplistic and lacks policy detail, but to me if put into practice it would quite literally lift all boats.
And speaking of postures, there is to my thinking another posture that we all – the Presidential Candidates, other candidates, our leaders, “We the People”…all of us – need to adopt to move forward together: not a posture of dominance or one of submissiveness, of subservience or superiority, but instead a posture of reverence – the bowed head and open hands of prayer – because it is only from that posture, and that posture alone, that we can ever hope to open one another’s hearts.