Language, Please

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In these dishearteningly contentious times, nothing discourages me quite like people using vulgarity, especially the F Bomb’s distressingly and progressively commonplace use. When strangers use it, however, you can block their posts, or pass by them when they curse on their cell phones.

But it particularly deflates me when people I know, like, respect, and admire use the F bomb or other profanity in public spaces.

Of course, the large majority of us are profane when we suffer an accident or injury, or someone else’s fecklessness or thoughtlessness aggravates us or our own stupidity or foolishness hurts or offends others.

We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t profane. As a Catholic, however, I believe all should aspire toward holiness. But we won’t progress up Jacob’s Ladder by eschewing or repressing the vulgar. To be fully human and become holy, we must reconcile the sacred and the banal in our hearts and the world.

We shouldn’t, however, abandon our mutual understanding of what language is acceptable in civil society, but an unfortunate cultural shift has eroded our sense of what’s acceptable.

When you go to the movies, or turn on HBO, it feels as if they pay screenwriters by the F bomb.

While employing profanity is sometimes the only way a writer can portray how their characters authentically speak and think, in my humble estimation, writers should use this language only when it’s precisely the right word to use, and other choices have been exhausted.

Too many screenwriters depend upon foul language because they’re too lazy to find the right word to amplify their characters’ emotions. A facile way to grab viewers’ attention, this language, however, is so prosaic listeners are inured to its coarsening.

Instead, audiences expect and welcome the harsh vernacular because it provides them a cheap, vicarious thrill. This cultural osmosis encourages many to speak publicly as though they were characters in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

The reality of everyone having a platform to broadcast our views amplifies people’s use of coarse language. Many clamor to be heard, and trying to be outlandish and provocative, they drop the F bomb.

Emboldened, they employ it deliberately and indiscriminately, without any regret or shame, which erases our mutual sense: this kind of speech should be expressed spontaneously, inadvertently, and to our regret, and occasional shame.

People consequently use that word cavalierly. It can mean: anger, desire, contempt, and astonishment, among other emotions. Absent reflection, many don’t fully appreciate the F Bomb’s harsh intent: reducing romantic love’s most profoundly, intimate expression to a violent, unfeeling, immediately, selfishly gratifying transaction.

The F Bomb’s application then is emotional violence, which assaults and degrades the people who hear it and degrades the people who speak it. That word’s use also erodes our society’s rapidly deteriorating comity.

Foul language also inflames the hostility, which prompts many to take cheap shots at others, whose behavior they don’t like.

This kind of language also stokes and exacerbates other kinds of violence: domestic, road rage, and workplace. And the F Bomb’s liberal employment helps create a mindset, which emboldens some to harass and assault others sexually.

It’s simplistic to suggest eliminating the F Bomb’s use will, by itself, reverse our society’s pervasive and distressingly increasing violence. But we can, at least, become more mindful about how our speech impacts others. Instead of dehumanizing them, before we speak we should contemplate our common humanity.

As God’s children, all possess indispensable dignity yet as humble sinners, all need God’s love, grace, mercy, and help to sustain them. To lead meaningful lives, all want: good health, jobs, homes, schools, families, and to live peacefully with their neighbors.

Our awareness of what unites us will sharpen our empathy, and spur us to speak more carefully and thoughtfully.

This behavior should discourage our society’s mean-spiritedness, which sees people who disagree with us as our enemies. And reducing this hostility should, I hope, increase dialogue, which encourages us to find common ground on the issues that divide us and solutions to our most pressing problems.

More committed to mutual respect and the common good, not only will we strengthen our society’s civility, we will move toward the solidarity, which recognizes, as Dr. King wrote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a seamless garment of destiny.”

Amid the great fractiousness, which sadly marks our days, to heal the chasms, which unfortunately separate us, nothing is more than important than to reclaim the sense: we are brothers and sisters in the same human family.

Instead of tearing each other down, by elevating our language, we can lift each other up. In that way, we can bless others instead of cursing them.

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My Fairfield Years

In the fall of 1978, when I arrived at Fairfield University – a small Jesuit school in Connecticut – wanting to learn how to write I joined the staff of the school newspaper “The Fairfield Mirror.”

Interviewing Head Baseball Coach and Athletic Director C. Donald Cook about the upcoming baseball season was my first assignment.

Unproven and unqualified, having been on campus two weeks, I went to meet one of the more influential persons there. But, in Cook’s modest office in the Fairfield gym, an obscure freshman and the Athletic Director were on equal footing.

After years of playing their “home” games off campus, Cook’s enthusiasm furthermore for the baseball team’s new on campus home field taught me the first Ignatian lesson I learned at Fairfield: always cultivate gratitude.

Confident yet grateful after my experience with Cook, I covered the baseball, soccer, and rugby teams, and after a month, Sports Editor Steve Motta ‘79 gave me my own column, “Athlete of the Week.”

While writing for “The Mirror” was an education, I also appreciated the formal education I received.

Walter Petry’s Western Civilization classes my freshman year were my most memorable academic experiences at Fairfield.

His legendary quizzes were learning crucibles, unlike anything we had ever experienced. My heart sank when I received a 63 on the first quiz, but my mark was stellar compared to another classmate’s 29.

Mr. Petry paced the floor, pleading with us for a good answer, with his left hand scrunched up as if to snatch up the first decent one, which came his way.

His ardor for knowledge impressed my increasingly restless soul. One spring night freshman year, unable to concentrate on the books assigned to me, I walked to Nyselius Library and took out Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

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Thomas Wolfe.

Wolfe’s writing about a young writer establishing himself in Manhattan fueled my desire to take advantage of Fairfield’s proximity to the city. I visited my brother Jim and sister-in-law Susan there a couple times a year.

Accompanying them to art galleries, museums, movie theaters, bars, and restaurants dramatically enlarged my world. I wanted to absorb the visual, gustatory, and auditory sensations I experienced even if they almost overwhelmed me.

I studied Jim’s practical lessons. When you hail a cab, step off the curb and shoot your arm straight in the air. And he taught me how to handle cabbies to get where I was going without being taken for a ride. Jim finally taught me one last memorable lesson: never eat at a Needick’s.

Better equipped to live in the “real” world, I didn’t feel like an adult until I was the “Mirror” Sports Editor my senior year.

Striving to achieve the high standards “Mirror” Editor-in-Chief, the estimable Michael “Doc” Dougherty ‘79 established our freshman year, my good friend Carl Gustafson ’82 nonetheless carved his own trail as Editor-in-Chief.

Brimming over with enthusiasm, always running at full speed and volume, challenging us to reach higher, Carl brought out the best in us.

Encouraging us to play softball, go to dinner, support fundraising efforts, enter group academic and athletic contests together, Carl fostered a camaraderie, which brought us closer to each other than we had been to any other group of people.

That camaraderie informing us, and doughnuts, pizza, and Coke fueling us, each Sunday we worked into Monday morning and put out one of the best college papers nationally.

My time as a “Mirror” Editor finally prepared me to live in the world, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Although journalism seemed a natural progression, I sensed I wanted to do something else with my life.

What that could be began to emerge during my senior year when I rediscovered my profound appreciation for what I took for granted; Fairfield is a Jesuit school. Its Jesuitness drew this Georgetown Prep graduate to it.

And the Jesuit Volunteer Corps’ (JVC) Jesuitness encouraged me to apply to the JVC: to do a year of service living and working alongside poor people.

But I believed going into the JVC was buying me time until I figured out what I wanted to do.

However, after a year working at a Latino parish in San Antonio and second year working at a homeless shelter in New Orleans, I was on a journey I couldn’t have anticipated taking as a white male, who grew up in relatively affluent circumstances.

This journey has taken me from the St. Thomas Housing Projects in New Orleans to lean-to shacks in Pickens County, AL, from marching from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to protest the death penalty alongside Sister Helen Prejean to working to overcome racism in Birmingham, AL with people, who marched with Dr. King, from working with undocumented immigrants in Houston to working with African Americans in Washington, DC’s storefront churches.

If Campus Minister, the late Kim McElaney, herself a JVC alumna, hadn’t invited a JVC recruiter to campus in the fall of 1981, none of this would have happened.

But when you promote justice in the service of faith, you encounter more opposition than support, more defeats than victories, and you rely upon your steadfast friends’ unconditional love to remain faithful.

In my case, I rely upon my “Mirror” family. We’ve celebrated weddings and births. We’re happy when our friends’ children do well, but listen compassionately when our friends’ children struggle. We comfort each other as our parents’ health declines, and consoled each other when these parents finally gave up the ghost.

Numerous reunions have strengthened our bonds, and our Fairfield experience just gets better. At our most recent reunion in October 2015, something magical happened when I re-connected with Mary- Margaret Walsh ’84. A past Alumni Association President, she was a “Mirror” Arts and Entertainment and Executive Editor.

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Mary- Margaret and I in a Cleveland Hotel, en route to Chicago for Jim and Susan’s oldest son Ian’s July 2016 wedding.

We took a chance. And traveling between Connecticut and Washington, DC, 35 years after we met, we fell in love, and are engaged to marry.

In the end then, after all these years, Fairfield gave me love and companionship. Who could ask for more?

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Creative Maladjustment Will Help End Poverty

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The site of a proposed shelter for homeless families. Why can’t we eliminate the need for these kinds of shelters?

In my Washington, DC neighborhood – the most affluent in the city – people are upset about a homeless shelter proposed to be built in the neighborhood.

Some of my neighbors’ NIMBY attitudes aren’t unexpected, but our neighborhood hasn’t been singled out. Part of a city wide plan, which attempts to re-structure the way the city houses persons who are homeless, the proposed shelter is one of five designated to support homeless families throughout the city.

Instead of housing 270 families in one central shelter, which, all agree, is dangerous and overcrowded, these new shelters would house 50 families in each shelter, offering them more privacy and dignity.

With fewer families to help, the new shelter system’s proponents believe case managers won’t lose track of families or neglect their needs, and receiving more individualized attention, families will more readily escape homelessness.

Because these shelters promise a better future to these families than our current broken system, in one way, I hope the city overcomes my neighbors’ objections and builds the shelter. But, in another sense, if for the wrong reasons, my neighbors are right: no one should want a homeless shelter built in their community.

Each new one our society builds signals a collective failure of will and imagination to think more ambitiously about eradicating homelessness.

We shouldn’t debate where to put shelters and how many persons to house. We should work instead to eliminate the need for shelters. Because, however, it feels as if there are homeless persons on each corner asking us for spare change we can’t conceive of ending homelessness.

We’ve become too well acquainted with the wide range of reactions we experience when we encounter homeless people. We think nothing of walking past someone sleeping on a subway grate. Or we avert our eyes or walk to the other side of the street. Their begging exasperates us or we’re ashamed of our failure to act.

Unable to sort through these conflicting emotions, and overwhelmed by a problem that feels too enormous, we feel powerless to act, and have become too accepting of the status quo.

We need a revival of what Dr. King called, “creative maladjustment,” which refuses to adjust to the scandalous outrage of more than 560,000 persons nationally living without homes. Our maladjustment, I hope, will disquiet us enough to engender the creative solutions necessary to end homelessness.

Bringing together people irrespective of their ideologies, we should create greater solidarity among poor and non-poor persons that encourages them to work to end homelessness. Fully aware it’ a symptom, we’ll understand poverty is the disease we must overcome.

To convince others to end poverty, we should help them understand current government programs and private charitable efforts haven’t lifted 43 million of our brothers and sisters out of poverty.

Programs such as SNAP and Medicaid generate $2 for each dollar spent, and create jobs, and it’s estimated SNAP kept 4.7 million Americans out of poverty in 2014, and Medicaid kept 2.7 million people out of poverty in 2010. These effective programs shouldn’t be cut.

However, the reality of 43 million persons reliant upon SNAP, and 69 million persons reliant upon Medicaid starkly remind us of the great need that stubbornly persists, despite our best efforts and intentions.

In similar ways, programs that help feed families, and help them meet their rent and keep their utilities connected are admirable, but only help so many. Requiring furthermore people go one place for food and another for clothing and three more to pay their bills diminishes their dignity.

And when you spend most of your time and energy scrambling to gather resources to survive, you can’t think about how to create a better future for your family.

Poor persons are best qualified to articulate they deserve much better. And their non-poor allies should empower them to advocate for solutions for their problems: greater societal investment in a stronger safety net, preparing and training people for jobs that pay living wages, affordable housing, food security, affordable and outstanding education, universal health coverage, and safe and peaceful neighborhoods.

Better advocacy by itself won’t overcome poverty, however. Poor persons won’t escape poverty until they can determine, as all people desire, their own futures. With others’ support and that of a better safety net, poor persons will need to avoid the destructive behavior that traps them in poverty and take advantage of the educational, training, and economic opportunities, which present themselves.

But those who don’t believe poor persons can rise or change haven’t paid attention. They’re among the more creative and resourceful people in our society. If we channeled the effort poor persons make gathering resources into creating good jobs or helping poor people own their own businesses, that could mean homelessness and poverty’s demise.

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