Finding beauty and joy on the planet of the apes

This morning I was greeted with a story that broke yesterday about the mentally disabled man who was kidnapped, tied up and tortured while his ordeal was broadcast on Facebook Live. I have not watched it. After reading initial reports last night I chose not to watch before bed. I chose to not watch again today after receiving a few emails from friends about it as well as seeing it on social media.

Social media. Satan’s greatest invention, don’t you think? I do. Social media itself is a tool and therefore neutral in its nature. But man, being a fallen creature, tends to corrupt the neutral. This is why after a two year experiment with Twitter I had enough. I still have an account but haven’t logged on in a month. I’ve removed Facebook from my phone and allow myself 20 minutes a day at work to glance at it. Like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks I believe we need to get beyond the politics of anger.

At the end of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow the title character says:

This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I must say too that it has been a close call. For I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell – where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another for reasons abundantly provided or for righteousness’ sake or for pleasure, where we destroy the things we need the most, where we see no hope and have no faith, where we are needy and alone, where things that ought to stay together fall apart, where there is such a groaning travail of selfishness in all its forms, where we love one another and die, where we must lose everything to know what we have had.

Increasingly social media, or our media in general, seems to be to be a book about Hell.

During those brief daily interludes on Facebook I began to notice that a friend of mine from Mississippi was daily posting the blog entries for a blog called Sean of the South. After a week I read one entry. Then two. After the third I signed up to have his posts delivered to my inbox each day. I recommend it to you as well. His writing reminds me a little of Jean Shepherd, the man who wrote the stories that the popular movie A Christmas Story is based upon. Shepherd is also the voice that narrates the movie. I’ve read three of his books and often laugh along to his stories. Sean Dietrich can do the same, though he is also a bit more somber at times. This morning’s offering, a story he called simply “Good”, was an excellent antidote to what happened in Chicago. I’ll let you read it for yourself, but I will include a small portion of it here.

Anyway, I feel I owe it to you to admit: I don’t know much about life—I have the lack of training to prove it.

Even so, I’m a person who believes in something. In miracles. Small ones I’ve seen with my own eyes. In people. In things that terrify the sapsuckers who write the nightly news—folks who earn livings reporting on the worst mankind has to offer.

Well, I think life is a lot more than a string of bad headlines.

Me too brother.

As if to punctuate this point I saw this story about three little girls and their garbagemen posted to Facebook this morning. Read the story (or watch the ABC News video).

But Jeff, that young man today is hurting. He’s been traumatized. Aren’t you angry?

Of course I am, but what good does that do other than increase my blood pressure and make my day more difficult than it is? One of my friends that mentioned that the story out of Chicago likened it to “life on the Planet of the Apes”. I can’t disagree with him and have the same thought when I spend too much time looking at nothing but social media and the news. We are approaching a tipping point of a dark nature. I’ve seen several pundits and cultural observers agree with that assessment. It may indeed get very much worse before it gets better.

(Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.)

On Facebook sometime in late 2015 having had enough of all the political shouting and anger I wrote “I choose Joy.” I wrote those three words as an affirmation and reminder to myself to avoid falling into the pit of despair that can result from immersing oneself in the cesspool. I will also add that I’ve further chosen to focus on the beauty that surrounds us all. Because if we but open our eyes it is there, present in our fellow human beings, our families, our pets, music, scenery. It’s there.

On January 1 we said goodbye once again to our son as he left our driveway and headed back to his base in California. Later that day my wife and I decided to go to a movie for my birthday and saw Collateral Beauty. After seeing a trailer for the film I suggested to her that we go. There’s no CGI. No superheroes. I liked the cast. It looked like a simple, but interesting, story. While critics savaged the film on my Flixter app I read five times as many viewer reviews that were positive. I’m glad we went.

I’m not going to write about the film’s plot. From IMDB:

Retreating from life after a tragedy, a man questions the universe by writing to Love, Time and Death. Receiving unexpected answers, he begins to see how these things interlock and how even loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.

During the film a character recalls the words a stranger said to her when facing a tragedy in her own life: “Don’t forget to notice the collateral beauty.”

So looking back at the last few weeks I’ve noticed it:

In my household while my oldest son was home during his two week holiday leave from his Marine base.

In my wife’s hands as she repaired the small holes in Nolan’s camos just as she had sewn the holes in his baseball uniforms throughout his youth.
sewing

In the madness and activity surrounding our daughter’s Christmas Concert.

In my daughter’s face while she sat next to me and her two brothers watching Rogue One in 3D. I glanced over in time to watch her mouth open wide and her small hands reach out in front of her.

In our beagle Buster as he was once more reunited with his master and was virtually inseparable from Nolan’s lap for two weeks.

In the batting cage where Jonah has spent the last three weeks working on his swing because in his words he “wants to continue to improve”. He hopes to play college baseball one day. His words. Not mine.

swing

In the home of our longtime friends who invited my wife and I over one night to enjoy the wet bar they’d built in their basement after years of discussions. It was present in the laughter, conversation and glow of our cheeks after several recipes involving scotch and bourbon served in a glass.

In the liturgy, music and faces of our fellow parishioners at Mass on Christmas Eve.

In the soft glow of the Christmas candle burning in the center of our Advent wreath after I prayed Matins after midnight on Christmas Eve.

christmas_eve

In our visits with each side of our families to gather for food and presents. In particular I saw it in the face of my two-year old nephew as he climbed on my lap and allowed me to take a 60 second video of himself laughing at his image on my phone’s screen. For the next hour he took my phone away and watched again and again and again the image of himself laughing at himself. And he laughed a beautiful laugh and smiled a beautiful smile.

In the impromptu game of darts that broke out New Year’s Eve on our back patio in 20 degree weather between my three children. Nolan had purchased a dartboard to take back to his barracks. He leaned it against the brick wall and from 8-10pm he played with his younger siblings. My daughter was in her robe and slippers, but her face was warm with laughter and competition. I joined in a game of 301 with them before we went inside to warm up.

In the game of Nerts that my wife and I played with our two youngest afterwards. It has become a bit of a family tradition to play this frantic card game since 2014 when our oldest was at boot camp. This year after one hand he offered to sit in for me as his brother’s partner. For the first time in three years the boys beat the girls at Nerts. Next December 31 when he’s not with us while he’s on deployment I’ll once again partner with Jonah and hopefully do well or else ring in 2018 by hearing how awful a partner I am.

In my daughter wishing me a Happy Birthday after counting down to midnight on New Year’s Eve “Happy 50th birthday, Dad!” After explaining to her that I was now 49 she replied “Really? You look older…like you’re 50.” She’s grounded until I turn 50 next year.

In reviewing my daughter’s homework from school, and laughing at her clever creativity in which she turned a spelling test into a cartoon project of sorts.

spellingbee

In the many birthday wishes graciously sent by friends and family. 

I saw beauty in the blanket of softly falling snow outside my window just last night.

On January 1st after Nolan left our driveway we were too late to attend 10:30am Mass at our home parish so we journeyed a few minutes south to attend the 11am Mass at a neighboring church. And there, once more, I saw beauty. It came to me in these words from Holy Scripture during the Old Testament reading from Numbers, Chapter 6:

The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!

And I thought to myself “What a wonderful blessing to use to greet others in 2017.”

I guess where I’m going is this:

The Beauty is always there, if you but look long enough while standing still.

The Joy is there too. It is our reaction to encountering the Beauty.

Both are present. We just need to stand still long enough to notice.

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