26 November 2015

The World is Big Enough

Recently I've been listening to the soundtrack for "Hamliton", the musical that opened on Broadway in September of this year. The musical covers the life and death of Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton and was heavily influenced by the book: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chrenow.

The show has been in development for years, but the first I ever heard of it was when my son plugged his phone into the stereo system and blasted the first lines of the opening song.

My first thought was that this wasn't my type of music-- it is heavily rap and hip-hop influenced and just about the only rap I've listened to was Queen Latifa. That said, by the second song I was hooked and wanted to hear more.

I've since purchased the album and listened to it several times-- usually in the background while I was doing something else. This week I was visiting my parents and just hanging out and took some time to listen to the entire recording while reading the annotated lyrics at genius.com. When I got to the penultimate song in the show where Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton duel, and Hamilton is fatally wounded, I was struck by the last line-- in Burr's words: "The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me." Curious, I went and looked up his wikipedia entry and found that he was quoted later in life as saying: "Towards the end of his life, Burr remarked: "Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me."

All of this struck me because I have been thinking about two related ideas this week.
One is compassion fatigue. The idea that there are only so many things that I can care about before I begin to care about nothing.

The other is the disaster shell game where I see people saying 'but what about our veterans' when we are talking about refugees, when they never seemed to care about veterans before this. (See this for a more detailed overview.)

I realized a long time ago that I cannot care about everything that is important and I can't donate to every organization that is doing good work. There is only one of me and the world and it's miseries are so much bigger than I am.

This has not stopped me from giving my time and money to some of the organizations that I see doing good in the world. Instead I find that I am one among many and that while my little drop cannot fill a bucket on it's own, my drop adds to everyone else's drop to make a respectable dent in the bucket.

So when I see people saying that one cause is more important than another, or that we should solve X's problem before we tackle Y's issues, I find myself raising an eyebrow in disbelief. The thing with human beings is that we can't put one group on hold while we deal with another group's issues. We are temporal beings, bound in time, aging and dying from the moment of our birth. I can't say to children under 5, 'you must wait for safe daycare until we have homes for all of our homeless', because they might be 55 by the time we solve that problem. And that is assuming we actually put the resources we promised into ending homelessness and don't use the money to build ourselves a new stadium instead.

We have to work to solve the worlds problems concurrently, we have to say yes to 'both / and' instead of believing that we are stuck with 'either / or'.

There are enough of us that care.

The world is wide enough for not only our sins but for our redemption.

'Either / or' is the world of Aaron Burr, a man who had many fears and who seemed to live his life for the main chance, changing sides as needed to get ahead. 'Either / or' is the life of people who think there is only one right way (theirs) to solve problems.

'Both / and' makes room for many ideas and says that there is no one right way to get things done-- the only wrong choice is to do nothing.

I wonder if that is a the heart of one of the parables I have always found most difficult to get my head around: the parable of talents. A naturally conservative person, my sympathies were always with the servant who buried his talent in the ground. But now I see that that servant, in his own words, confesses to letting fear drive his actions: "Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours." (Matthew 25:24-25, NRSV)

It had never occurred to me that the third servant's true failing was not the lack of ability to make money for his master, but letting his fear drive his decisions. Unfortunately the parable lacks a counter example of someone who tried to do the right thing but lost all the money, so we don't know how the man going on a journey would have reacted to the loss of all of the money. But for the first time I can see this parable in a different light.

This leads me back to media and one of my favorite movies, "Strictly Ballroom." "Strictly Ballroom" is a romantic comedy about the amateur ballroom dancing circuit in Australia. It's heart, however, is the idea that a life lived in fear is a life half-lived. It also plays with the 'fear of the other' motif as the protagonist gets to know his dancing partner's family who are Spanish speaking immigrants. Suffice to say that it has a lot of layers for a frothy dancing comedy.

When I live my life in fear, I lose sight of how the small contributions of my life, when added to the contributions of others, can have a big impact. I forget that while my cause may not be your cause, they likely intersect in a way that makes each of our work more powerful. I forget that the world is wide enough for many roads to lead to the same goal.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

I will, with God's help.


This essay was orgininally published at The Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 25 November 2015.

Bible Gateway is an excellent web resource for reading the bible in a myriad of translations. I used the New Revised Standard Version in this post.

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