“Let the Captains of Industry retire into their own hearts, and ask solemnly, If there is nothing but vulturous hunger for fine wines, valet reputation and gilt carriages, discoverable there? Of hearts made by the Almighty God I will not believe such a thing. . . . Arise, save thyself, be one of those that save thy country.” – Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (1843)
This past Thursday night, I traveled with eighteen students to a reading by the great Allan Gurganus at the Iowa Writers Workshop, three hours south of our small college. Returning to his novels and stories as spring trudges north, I’m learning again the power of bringing your whole heart into your work, extending an exuberant mercy to your characters, and thus to your readers. Funny, thoughtful, deeply read, sensual, and wise, Gurganus writes his full self onto every page. In the amplitude of his sentences, in the freewheeling exactness of his language – which ranges and soars and always lands exactly where it intends – and his heat-seeking approach to risk and vulnerability, this writer (another Southerner, of course) teaches me word by word about art: how it is written, how it is lived, with generosity.
In her introduction, the director of the Workshop, Lan Samantha Chang, praised Gurganus’s work in these terms, and more. “In a time where the dominant impulse is on getting as much as you can for as little as you can give,” she observed, “we need work like his more than ever.” A wry acknowledging nod rippled around the room, packed to capacity with writers. We’d come through a late-February snow to hear a man read words on a page, because it matters. We know, bone- and heart-deep, that trying to get as much as you can for as little as you can give makes bad art, bad life, and a rueful and guilty death when your name is called. And we’ve been watching as – one state over, in Wisconsin – Gov. Scott Walker shows us what miserliness looks like.
A definition of terms is in order, especially from the self-described (if ironic) cheapskate. We all know that a lack of money is serious, to say the least. We know it breeds a clutching, hunkering-down fear deep in the reptile-brain that still lives in every one of us: I will starve! I won’t have enough! I’ll be on the streets! What if – What if – What if – I’ve known this too. Ten dollars for food that has to last another week and a half (I recommend beans, rice, and peanut butter.) Turning the thermostat way down, or off. Letting the car repair go, and go, and go, and getting creative with prayer in the meantime: please don’t let me stall at the light, just let me get there, one more day…. We know that struggling to haul a private or public budget into shape when there is little or no more money is hard as hell.
But we learn, too, that letting a lack of money eat into our souls makes our souls – those generous, immortal things – creatures of want and lack as well, pinioning their wings, crippling the hand that would reach out, strangling the voice that would say tell me what’s going on with you, and I will listen, even if there’s nothing I can do. Being broke feels worst when it shrinks the whole scope of our selves to calculation: how can I get more? How long till payday? She better not take mine. I got it and I’m gonna keep it. We snarl and fight and scrap over a single bone. Or, like the yard dogs in an old Jerry Clower story, a bowl of slick boiled okra tossed out the back door: “the big dog run up there and ate that okra,” booms Clower in his Mississippi drawl, “and that okra was so slick and it went down so fast, he thought the other dog got it and jumped on him!” That’s the miser spirit in a nutshell. Your own mind makes lack the lever to turn you in on yourself, to make you selfish, hunkered on a mound of hoarded good that’s never going to be enough. Mean, in its old definition, signifies small, pinched, stingy, insufficient, not only, as it does to us, cruel – a cruelty born of the selfishness that insufficiency can breed, when other people are always and only foes.
Look at the meanness – in every sense – on display this month alone. Begin with the, um, individual who poisoned two 130-year-old oak trees because a vicarious SEC “loyalty” lives where his heart should be. Yes, I am an Auburn graduate. I walked under those trees just about every day. My brain swims with grief at the loss of these noble giants, as it does at the thought of all the noble creatures destroyed, in and out of our sight, every day by our wasteful habits in this world. I remember when my father planted live oak trees along our driveway, how he told us kids we’d never see them reach their full height but maybe our grandchildren would, how carefully we watered them from 50-gallon drums hauled on a flatbed behind our old gray truck. And the anger and sadness — and, frankly, the incredulity — I feel at this news isn’t really mitigated by remembering how pitiful a soul who does this thing must be. The poisoner — a ‘Bama fan who named his children “Bear” and “Crimson” and called in to the Paul Finebaum show to crow about his crime, apparently forgetting that calls can be traced — seems to have thought he’d be self-martyringly heroic, standing up for something important. But even other ‘Bama fans know this: no matter how mad y’all are about how you lost, it’s still just a game. Another season will come around. Perhaps y’all can raise up a Cam Newton of your own. But no one can ever, ever, ever replace what took more than a hundred years to grow and shade this very spot we love.
Continue with Scott Walker’s chummy phone call with what he thought was one of his billionaire friends, plotting like a Snidely Whiplash villain – see how ridiculous miserliness makes its creatures? See his pride at being “uncompromising,” as if the office to which he was elected were only a function of his own personal self. Jim Wallis has some good words on this, so I won’t rehash it all here. But it’s becoming obvious to everyone that “balancing the budget” is not what’s really at stake for Scott Walker.
Similarly, there’s something else at stake for Tea Party acolytes like Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, whose response to a questioner at his town-hall meeting this week – “Who’s going to shoot Obama?” – was…. Nothing. Or depending on who you ask, silence, or an explanation of “why frustration with Obama is logical.” The local paper reports that there was “a big laugh from the crowd.”
Three days later, a belated statement condemning the rhetoric appeared from Broun’s office, amid some active backpedaling that recordings of the event just don’t corroborate. As one commentor on Salon.com pointed out, how hard would it have been for Broun — at that moment — to turn to that questioner, ask for his name and address, point him to the Secret Service people, and explain to the crowd that in the wake of the Tucscon shootings, we have to take stuff like this seriously? Can’t we expect more presence of mind – and moral responsibility – from an elected official? We’ve all been caught off guard – but I’ve taken questions from students every day for more than 10 years, and I know you can think on the fly if you are intellectually alert, experienced as a speaker, and in touch with what you really believe. (And if you are a doctor, as Broun is, you have to be particularly quick to evaluate, decide, and react.) Broun’s statement says he was “stunned by the question and chose not to dignify it with a response” before rattling off a string of Tea Party talking points (for Hannah Arendt readers, this retreat to cliché is significant.) I remembered John McCain being similarly startled by racist comments shouted from the crowd during his 2008 campaign appearances. But why are they “surprised” by the meanness that feeds and grows on the climate their inflammatory distortions – “Obamacare,” the birth certificate “controversy,” “death panels,” “tree-huggers” – help to create? How hard would it be for them to say “look, y’all, we don’t agree with this policy and here’s why – but we, as a people, can do better than this?”
Meanness is so insidious, papering itself over our hearts like lichen over a rotting tree. It is loose in our society now, dark and gleeful and intent, feeding on the miserly fear that sets in when everyone feels pressed, harried, broke, and short of money. And it breeds a disengenuousness as we try to to backpedal, distancing ourselves from the consequences of what we do, erupting into a cackling vicarious laughter at our “enemies,” letting our silences speak of what we really feel. But it can be countered by reality.
Yes, these are hard times. But they don’t have to make us hard people, flint-shelled, squinty, and mean. I think of people I know – including a former student – who live in Christian intentional communities, deliberately living and working with few material possessions. They grow food and teach others how to do the same. They orient their lives toward a purpose all of us, no matter what our circumstances, can reach: being a conduit through which love and goodness, not meanness, may flow, touching others through us, and leaving more than a trace of itself behind in our own hearts. Teaching and writing is this practice, this blessing, in my own life. Everyone can find a way to stay open, even loving, in times of danger. We have to. Or the danger only grows worse. For, as William Stafford wrote, the darkness around us is deep.