Tales of the Times

When I settled down this morning with the Sunday New York Times, I couldn’t help but be struck by two totally unrelated stories that seemed–at least to me–to summarize the choice we face as a nation. These stories weren’t momentous public events by any means; they were more like indicator lights on your car’s dashboard.

The first was the front-page coverage of the (non-binding) Iowa straw vote. Michelle Bachmann (anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-choice, anti-evolution, anti-environment) came in first, with Ron Paul (“we don’t need no stinkin’ government”) a close second.

The second story was from “Vows,” the Times’ weekly wedding feature. It focused upon a wedding conducted just a few days after same-sex unions became legal in New York. In the large photo accompanying the story, two elderly men in wheelchairs are holding hands; the accompanying text explains that the two had been admitted to the hospital together–one with leukemia and the other with advanced Parkinson’s. “Faced with the prospect of their own mortality and separation after 39 years together, they asked the doctors to postpone Mr. Beaumont’s chemotherapy until–in a last grand gesture–they could get married.” The hospital staff provided white smocks, an Episcopal Priest performed the ceremony, the hospital’s chef baked a cake. Friends sang love songs.  I’ll admit it–the story brought tears to my eyes.

So–here are two vignettes of our  possible futures. We can express our fears and frustrations by flocking to the banner of people who deny complexity, reality and humanity, or we can act on our better natures, recognizing that the human family–just like our own families–is composed of many different kinds of people, all of whom are entitled to respect and affection.

We can live by slogans and ideologies, or we can try to understand the world we occupy. We can reject reality, wrap ourselves in self-righteousness and insist that others live by the rules of our particular gods, or we can admit (to ourselves as well as others) that we don’t have all the answers, that our common life is messy and times are tough, and that the only certainty is that human compassion and kindness will serve us better than denial and intolerance.

Yesterday, in Indianapolis, there was a terrible accident at a State Fair concert. A stage collapsed, pinning the front rows of the crowd under massive girders and equipment. Out of all the coverage, perhaps the most poignant picture was one showing how many of the other people in attendance rushed to help–a picture of dozens of hands trying to lift the debris so that the injured could be rescued. No one stopped to ask the politics, religion, race or sexual orientation of those who were pinned beneath the rubble. No one stopped to ask whether they “deserved” assistance. They were fellow humans who needed help.

What I want is a future and a country that nurtures that instinct.

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