Dealing with Fat Mouths in the Thin Time
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
– William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Certain things go too well together in my mind. U.S. elections and Halloween/All Saints Day are two of these.
The ancient Celtic “thin time” of Samhain that corresponds with October 31/November 1 was when the lord of death – whose name, I have learned from a piece by Father William Saunders, meant “summer’s end” – allowed the souls of the dead to return to earth, along with a host of evil spirits attempting to harm the living. Despite the Christian church’s best efforts since the popes Gregory III and IV plunked down All Saints’ Day in this grimly festive season, elements of that sense of being plagued by the malicious dead carry on into the present. (I note that Mexicans have made it much more pleasant by picnicking with the deceased on El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This may reflect a cultural difference from the northern European trait of wanting to keep the family at bay in life as in death. Mexicans seem to get along better with their relatives.)
At U.S. election time, it is the malicious living who are the problem – media as well as candidates and their supporters. Which seems perfectly in line with reality to me as a Lutheran, thin time or not; for we commemorate the dead who “now rest from their labors” and don’t assume their interest in poking about in earthly things anymore. Au contraire.
Curious though I am at why humans have assumed the dead want to chat with/torment the living (I am frequently not eager to chat with the living; perhaps Princess Märtha Louise of Norway can explain the logic to me), even as a partially Irish American Lutheran – a strange species, to be sure – I have long associated the so-called thin time less with the actual departed than with the childhood joys of getting costumed, trick-or-treating, bobbing for apples, and starting the weight gain that will continue through New Year’s Eve and culminate in the seemingly impossible task of losing 10+ pounds in the next calendar year.
In this line-up I see (in middle age) the paradoxical nature of this time of year. The “thin” time is when we start getting fat. Happy childhood activities are based in the suggestion of coercion (“if you don’t give me a treat, I’ll trick you”) and, in this era, overshadowed with warnings and micromanagement. (My recent suggestion that a church party have bobbing for apples drew the immediate objections that it was unsanitary and someone might drown.)
And it is in the contradictory thin time that America holds its federal elections – a timing left over from agrarian days when most of the nation lived on farms, instead of today’s 84 percent in metropolitan areas that combine city, suburb, and once-isolated small towns. (Rural dwellers haven’t made up the majority of our population for a hundred years.) The harvest being largely in, people could now vote before hunkering down for the winter months.
That it would become a time so thin on content and so fat in rhetoric was probably not something then envisioned by the idealists; though I dare say the realists and the pessimists already found it such.
In today’s thin time, our political landscape is certainly scary. It has become interwoven with apocalyptic, violent, and actually delusional pronouncements from media figures embraced as “commentators” and even “historians” by uncritical minds. Because of their volume and their access to new and immediate technologies, it can feel like they are in the majority. Those trying to discern an issue and embark on a path of reasoned discussion find themselves the target of shouts, Internet postings written in capital letters with myriad exclamation points, and strange assertions that they are victimizing people by having an opinion contrary to their debate partners’ (“I’m a good person, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re oppressing me” – which seems to combine traits from narcissistic personality disorder with paranoid personality disorder rather effectively).
It is understandable why some Americans consider relinquishing their right to participate in democracy this circus-like atmosphere. But it is not a good idea to do so. And we seem to have retained our grasp on that, at least. When the idea was suggested, by certain Republican elements, that Latinos should sit out the vote in the Nevada elections, there was little or no positive response, and a lot of negative feedback.
There are other signs of hope. Some liberals/progressives will not agree with me that Jimmy McMillan of New York’s “The Rent Is Too Damn High” Party is one of them, but I’d argue that they are losing perspective – like their right-wing counterparts, some of whom have gone where angels fear to tread. (When people with names like O’Reilly and Kilmeade start asserting that “all terrorists are Muslims,” I have to wonder whether Great Britain is laughing or planning to reclaim their errant batch of colonies for educational correction.)
Jimmy McMillan has an issue, and he runs on it. He gathered the signatures to run on it. He respects the system enough to participate in it actively – and so he should: he fought for it in Vietnam. He doesn’t insult his competitors. And he has an eye to the general welfare, not simply running on assertions that he’s a good person.
Besides, he provided me with much-needed relief as I was being told by right-wing elements that firefighters had to let houses burn down, or the nation would end up “socialist.”
I am not endorsing McMillan, but I am making a point: this is what politics should be. True issues. Active participation. Consideration of the general well-being of society. Not individual suggestions that financiers are out to get shock jocks, or that a person with a veil is going to blow your airplane up.
Those are “thin time” stories – like the tale of the Jersey Devil.
The fat mouths of the thin time are certainly offensive. But to check your rights at the door because of their ghost stories-cum-insults is to allow “the passionate worst” free rein with the authority of law. The best hope of curbing them lies in taking on the unpleasant, but decidedly American, responsibility of representative government: vote, communicate with your “employee” (representative), offer positive suggestion and helpful correction. Be interactive. And keep an eye on the whole system … because sometimes, systems do need revision.
The pursuit of your happiness is partly your own (within the consensual laws of society), but it is also “corporate” in the sense of relying on the goodwill of the whole society. This is the challenging tension of life. We do not really “get there” on our own. We have the personal obligation to examine continually what happiness is for us, but we are dependent on a host of the living to assist us there. We are dependent on doctors to provide us with treatments. We are dependent on educators to train us. We are dependent on transportation workers to drive or fly us where we need to go. We are dependent on shopkeepers to offer the goods we need, farmers to grow the crops and slaughter the livestock, safety officers to assure that the best conditions were followed for us to breathe easily when we eat. We are dependent on energy workers to provide us with the means to heat, air-condition, and light our homes and refrigerate our foods. And on and on.
And each of these people is a person, with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their own happiness. The corporate responsibility of government is to assure the conditions in which these can prevail: the common defense, the general welfare.
We are not truly self-sufficient. And when we enter into a public practice of “tricking” others into believing that our childlike feelings of being ignored, hurt, or afraid are a reality affecting the general welfare, we abandon responsibility and weaken the network for what we need.
The rant is too damn high. But keep your perspective, do your research, and get yourself true with your values. And then, vote. The harvest may not have been great this year – but we go ahead anyway, seeking conditions for spring planting of a better crop.
And summer will come again.
I see too many proofs of the imperfection of human reason, to entertain wonder at any difference of opinion on any subject; and acquiesce in that difference as easily as on a difference of feature or form; experience having long taught me the reasonableness of mutual sacrifices of opinion among those who are to act together for any common object, and the expediency of doing what good we can, when we cannot do all we would wish.
– Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Randolph, December 1, 1803