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Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Courage of Speaker Reed, And You

I would like to highlight something about Thomas B. Reed, Speaker of the House in the late nineteenth century, brought to you (and me) by Arthur Silber (emphasis Arthur's):

...The angrier the Democrats became, the cooler Reed remained, bulking hugely in the chair, "serene as a summer morning." Although his secretary saw him in his private room, during an interval, gripping the desk and shaking with suppressed rage, he never gave a sign in the hall to show that the vicious abuse touched him. He maintained an iron control, "cool and determined as a highwayman," said the New York Times.

The secret of his self-possession as he told a friend long afterward, was that he had his mind absolutely made up as to what he would do if the House did not sustain him. "I would simply have left the Chair and resigned the Speakership and my seat in Congress." He had a place waiting for him for the private practice of law in Elihu Root's New York firm, and "I had made up my mind that if political life consisted in sitting helplessly in the Speaker's Chair and seeing the majority helpless to pass legislation, I had had enough of it and was ready to step down and out." Coming to such a decision, he said, "you have made yourself equal to the worst" and are ready for it. This has a very "soothing" effect on the spirit.

It did more than soothe: it gave him an embedded strength which men who fear the worst, or will yield principles to avoid the worst, can never possess. It endowed him with a moral superiority over the House which members without knowing why could sense in the atmosphere.

What is the worse thing that can happen to you? What, if anything, are you holding back from doing, or standing up for, in order to avoid this possible eventuality? Is there a consequence you avoid at all costs, a terror which keeps you from being a meaningful member of the human community?

There are, sadly, far too many people in this country (and elsewhere) who do just that. One is tempted to remind them that the actuality of a feared consequence is far less uncomfortable than one imagined afore. While this is a stone cold fact, it nevertheless will have no purchase on those who are in the grips of their own imaginations.

Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in the prime of his life in prison, was not an extraordinary man - he was simply one who saw that the truth was more important than the welfare of one person. This brings its own grace, and that is why he was able to not only endure his persecution, but history shows that he was able to enjoy it. He made friends with his captors, and in all likelihood improved the quality of their lives and the lives of their families through his example. That is real work, the kind of work that I am struggling to articulate with my "Living Religion" series.

I am fortunate to have experienced much of what "the bottom" is like, and I am here to tell you that true joy has absolutely nothing to do with security, unless of course one is in the grips of an envy of others who are "doing better." When I was panhandling for quarters and suffering the indignities of classist snobs who looked down their noses at the healthy teenager who should "get a job," or the clerks and shopowners who didn't want their storefronts besmirched by bums, my day was peppered by meeting truly compassionate people who gave their change with a smile. These are truly the salt of the earth, and it is a privilege to encounter them in the midst of their little mercies.

There is a homeless man in my neighborhood who zips around in his electric wheelchair (he filches power from wherever he can), merrily panhandling as it is merely his daily work. Joe is his name, and he is one of the happiest people I know. He gushes over children and dogs, and never fails to have an optimistic word - be it the about weather or the generosity of the people he has met throughout the day thus far. (By the way - I live in Phoenix, Arizona, and being homeless in 115 degree heat is about as "bottom" as you can get in America.)

There is restaurant in my neighbourhood that has outdoor tables, and one afternoon I was fortunate enough to corral Joe to share a proper meal. Oh, he knows his "place" - he insisted on ordering "to go" so that he wouldn't "bother" me and my ladyfriend as we had lunch. I was able to persuade him to stay for the meal, and he ate his fish and chips out of the styrofoam container while we had our proper settings, but not until after the waitress asked me, right in front of Joe, if he was "bothering me." These, my friends, are the kinds of indignities that many of our fellow citizens endure on a daily basis, and yet they still have a smile to spare for the rest of us.

Try a thought experiment - who, really, is a happier person? On the one hand, we have a career police officer, who draws a fair salary and supports a family, generally able to live the "American Dream" (oh, how I loathe that cliche). On the other hand, we have the likes of Joe. The kind of people, or people in unfortunate circumstances, which the police officer is required to interact with in the course of his duties requires a monumental effort to avoid the poisons of cynicism, and it is an extraordinary man who can shake that off over and over again. Joe, on the other hand, is more likely to meet compassionate and very human folks, on their best behaviour, from sunup to sundown. Really - who has a better shot at a good night's sleep (temperature notwithstanding)?

The next time you look the other way when you could make a positive difference, because you are being a very sensible person and not jeopardizing yourself in your comforts, remember Joe. While it is highly unlikely that your "worst" is to become disabled homeless person, remember that your little contribution to the human community is far more important than the welfare of one person.

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