Friday, February 22, 2013

The King Under the Car Park!

Some British scholars have long suspicioned that one of their former kings was buried beneath a modern parking lot. After much research by the University of Leicester, it was recently confirmed that, indeed, the remains unearthed there were those of Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England. About 100 miles north of London, a group known as the Richard III Society recently and proudly proclaimed that DNA records from a distant relative now confirm that an excavated skeleton once held the body and bluster of the former king from the fifteenth century.

Richard Three was mortally wounded in the Battle of Bosworth, the last great skirmish over the crown in the War of the Roses. The dead or dying Richard was flung naked across a horse and carried back to Leicester. Sometime after his death, his remains ended up buried in the local church. Not long thereafter, Henry the Eighth trashed the church and, in current time, that very sacred space has become a profane parking lot.

Modern-day archaeologists unearthed the skeleton in an earlier dig. Since Richard III had scoliosis and since the skeleton evidences a curved spine, secondary proof provides additional confirmation to the DNA verification. Apparently, poor Richard had his buttocks punctured and his head decapitated, likely due to the nasty and symbolic acts of his enemies in the immediate post-battle celebrations surrounding the death of the monarch. There is now a plan afoot to reinter the royal remains within the currently sacred space of Leicester Cathedral, an American football field’s length from the current car park.

This scenario got me to thinking about the fickleness of human fate, the transient nature of social geography and the limited potency of once-powerful earthly institutions. Kings and potentates, especially in conflict-ridden lands and times often conclude their lives in very un-royal circumstances. Remember the once imperial, egregiously powerful and fabulously wealthy Saddam Hussein, who ended up hiding, like a rat, in an underground Iraqi hole in the ground, with some unused jockey shorts as his only treasure? But, I have also seen similar things happen among the un-royal. As the one-time Pastor of a church located in the wealthiest zip-code in Houston, Texas, where dirt still sells for at least a $1 million an acre, I witnessed, up-close, the final state of some very rich and powerful people. I can attest to the reality that times change, power is fleeting, even lots of money is no guarantee of long-term dignity and, of course, death comes to all of us. A once-proud and powerful king buried beneath a common, utilitarian slab of asphalt or a once-sacred space that now is striped so that people can park their motorcars and “pay & display” – these are but parables of what happens to every one of us and much of the terra-firma that is hardly as firm as we would like to believe.
All of this got me to thinking, not so much about real estate gentrification or decline, but about what “permanent footprint” I and my cherished institutions should aim to leave on this planet. If the ecological people have alerted us, and rightly so, to the effects of our individual and corporate “carbon footprints” which we leave on the earth’s surface, I am wondering, today about the emotional, ethical, moral or historical “footprint” I and my family, my church, business or school should aim to leave behind. Knowing that, someday, like old Richard Three, most of what I have worked hard to build, as well as my time-worn and battle-scarred bones will be erased or entombed somewhere in a humble, dark and unrecognizable place, what evidence that I once lived do I want to remain?  What, indeed, do I wish to leave behind as a legacy?
As I reflect seriously on these existential and indeed extraterrestrial questions, I am convinced that most people actually care little about a fancy gravesite or an elaborate marker representing their lives or institutional efforts. Despite messianic visions and selfish needs to make an impact or to leave a “mark” on this old world, our powers are actually quite limited and our time is always shorter and less than we want to admit. How about you? What are you up to in the “here and now” that has a “snowball’s chance” of being significant, beyond the ravages of time? What message would you aspire to “shout out” from beneath the car park?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Lucy, Hizzonor and Me!

“Back in the day,” when Lucy got into trouble, as she nearly always did, Desi would eventually come home from work, enter the apartment and you knew exactly just what he was going to say when he discovered one of his wife’s misadventures. With that heavy, Cuban-accented English, the handsome band-leader would look directly into the frightened eyes of his zany, red-headed, madcap wife and say: “Lucy! You’ve got some splainin’ to do!”

I thought about that classic, memorable phrase from fifties sit-com television recently. It popped into my head in the middle of a report on the death of controversial and outspoken former Mayor of New York City, Ed Koch. In the retrospective on Koch’s political career and the review of some of his notable, acerbic, public comments, one of his infamous Koch-isms jumped out at me. The Mayor is reported to have often said to those opposed to one of his positions: “I can explain it to you, but I can’t comprehend it for you!”

While I’m not ready to endorse all of the colorful lines of the former mayor, who often yelled out his limousine window to New Yorkers on the street the question, “How am I doing?”’ he actually was quite close to saying something absolutely profound about interpersonal communication. He almost artfully articulated two essential and practical components of healthy interpersonal interaction. With what some may perceive as na├»ve impertinence, I herein dare to tweak or redact hizzonor, guided by a sincere respect for the recently-deceased elected official, but also by a desire to advance the dialogue.
Yes, Mr. Mayor, it is indispensable for one to splain oneself. Desi and I would agree. And, you are also correct that, no matter how well-done the explanation, genuine and effective communication between persons doesn’t happen until or unless the other chooses to work hard to comprehend the message that is being sent. We should always ask those with whom we disagree “How am I doing?” on that. And (here I try to enhance the mayor’s line), healthy comprehension of another’s position must be done from the point of view of the message-sender. You are correct, Mr. Koch, that no one can comprehend for another. But genuine hearing of the message, especially on difficult subjects, only happens when both sides strive to comprehend, not only from their own point of view, but from the perspective of the other.

This is what I hear, these days, when folks refer to someone who may disagree with them as just not getting it. Perhaps that is what many moderns mean when they say, about a particular point of view, “I get that!” By the way; I am not focusing here on any one particular subject about which we might tend to disagree. Choose any of the many issues that increasingly have come to divide our world and have resulted in so much rancorous polarization in fields such as economics, politics, religion, child-rearing, the shape of the family, law-enforcement, fracking, climate-change or even the entertainment industry.
Run a little experiment. Check it out for yourself. Are those with whom you are in disagreement capable of splainin’ themselves? On the other hand, are you competent to splain your own contrarian views? Do you seek first to understand, then to be understood? And, most importantly, are you willing to crawl into the perspective of the other and comprehend it from behind the eyes, from his or her point of view?

I often see this process unsuccessfully struggling to work itself out in the ceaseless ranting that now routinely passes for communication on Face Book and other ostensibly high-tech methods of personal or political advocacy. Sadly, there is precious little splainin’ by those who vociferously promote a cherished position and seek to convert others to their personal side. Because so much vitriolic advocacy these days appeals subtly to our fears, I suspect that many are unable to explain their positions because they have been swept along by an emotional torrent that allows for little introspection and rational analysis. What results is a kind of knee-jerk reaction which further eschews serious consideration and drives directly to ever-more-simplistic conclusions, where the issue easily gets personalized and a spokesperson for the opposite view is depicted as evil incarnate. Likewise, anyone else who disagrees is also demonized. Because it is so easy to hit the “Like” button or to share someone else’s language, swept away in our Irrational fears, we are often enticed simply to borrow someone else’s rhetoric or to be carried along by the emotional undercurrent of a frightening but persuasive presentation.
In the end, like Lucy, I must take responsibility for splainin’ myself; and, with the Mayor, I must do the hard work of comprehending. But, also, in the audacity of this (humble-but-accurate) blog-writer, I must also take on the perspective of the other guy to the extent that, whether or not in the end, I agree, I get it. Sadly, too often I am afraid to risk examining my own hidden fears and unexamined motives for accepting or rejecting a particular position, I can neither splain my own stance well or get what the other person is advocating.

I’m trying hard to splain myself. Do you get it? How am I doing?