I went to the gym late Monday, all the while thinking about the unGodly lack of wisdom displayed by the Supreme Court ruling on the Hobby Lobby case. In less than a few hours, I’d already gotten into two “fights,” one each with people about different facets of the argument and the tactics used in “debating” the issue.
Notably, the focus of the two arguments was not the same. So it is with virtually everything discussed in the political realm these days. “Pro-lifers” argue over the definition of when life begins; “Pro-choicers” argue over where the boundary that defines where the authority of one person or group ends with respect to another in a “free” society. “Liberals” argue for the precedence of that which has impact on the inalienable rights of human beings; “Conservatives” argue for the precedence of limited government over “big” government, irrespective of its impact on human beings. Both argue into an empty space where no one is listening. No discussion on either side considers and addresses the legitimate concerns of both. Instead, finding out who can shout the loudest about how evil or ignorant those on one side or the other are or who’s most to blame for what ails us is the strategy of the day. No resolution—just polarization—can come about. And here we are.
I can’t say how many times in the past decade or more that I’ve thought of the fable of the six blind men asked to describe an elephant. One said the elephant was like a wall, another a spear, still another a fan. They had each, of course, encountered a different part of the elephant, but were blind, both literally and figuratively, to the discoveries of the other five. The argument that ensued was vicious. One thing was clear — the original goal of accurately describing the elephant had been left in the dust.
A poem, based on the old Hindu story and written by John Godfrey Saxe in the mid-1800s, ends thus:
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
In the aftermath not described in the story or the poem, chances are that each became increasingly recalcitrant in defending their individual positions, perhaps calling each other, in modern-day parlance, dastardly epithets that elicit the beating of chests and the bravado of rulings on “our side,” whatever that side happens to be—raising the opinions of their blind observations to the level of God’s authority while loudly likening those of other groups to Satanic utterings.
In the midst of all of the chaos in my brain, I stepped onto a treadmill and reached into my bag to get my earbuds and iPod. I listen to a playlist of music I like when I walk, varying the speed of my steps with the beat of the music. I do this for two reasons, one because I have never enjoyed walking for walking’s sake. It quickly becomes too monotonous to me and I need a distraction. It’s the “spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.” The other reason is that I avoid watching any of the array of televisions the Y has made available—democratically tuned in to CNN, Fox News, ESPN, a local channel, and HGTV—unless the U.S. Open or Wimbledon or the World Cup or some other sporting event I care about is on ESPN. I generally hang on to one set of the bars to keep my balance, and close my eyes.
But this time, when I pulled out my earbuds, they were snarled. I’d been in a hurry to get somewhere the last time I’d gone to the gym and stuffed them into a pocket. I stood there on an unmoving treadmill for several minutes, undoing the knots, unthreading this strand of cable from that tangle. Sometimes, I’d pull one of the buds through a hole I’d created only to discover that I’d made another knot somewhere else. I got more and more frustrated, until it occurred to me that I was dealing with a tangible example of exactly where we are with respect to the issues we face, except that the “American way” is for one group to untie its knot, with no concern whatsoever for the knots created somewhere else—largely because we seem at best, like the men of Indostan, oblivious to the very existence of other views, based on other experiences, or at worst, have become narcissistic caricatures, who are not only oblivious, but wouldn’t give a damn if a bomb went off in front of them as long as none of the shrapnel touched them. What WE see and what WE believe is all there is, and if you describe something else that stirs the possibility of some negative impact or egocentric leanings of our views, you are the scum of the earth. “You’ll rue the day you changed that filibuster rule,” said the Republican senators. What hangs in the air is the unspoken end of that sentence—“because if we can regain the advantage, we’re gonna stick it to you, just as you stuck it to us.” Never mind what the issue is – we’re gonna get even. It is both the figurative and literal blind leading the blind, adolescents playing football with the lives of the millions outside the fence. And now the Supreme Court has joined the game.
I considered leaving some of the knots and just going ahead with plugging in my earbuds. But I discovered quickly that, in order to fulfill the greater purpose—that of my recent decision to improve my health—I would have to do the work to untangle all the knots and not just some. Unless I did, the cords weren’t long enough to reach the iPod in its cubbyhole…and my ears at the same time. Yes, I could’ve walked without the music, but I live in America, where I’d always been free to choose the path I took as long as it didn’t affect anyone else in a material way. Or so I thought.
So, I took a deep breath and spent the time necessary to investigate all the knots and their interrelationships and untangle each of them while examining how different approaches would affect the tangles in other places. In every instance, the best approach turned out to be tracing the cords to their original tangles. And to my pleasure, what I discovered was that when I did that, most of the other knots disappeared as a matter of course.
The moral of the story, of course, is that I had to remember the reason I’d gone to the gym in the first place. And only then could I begin to determine how to smooth the path to fulfilling that purpose by sucking it up and carefully, cautiously examining the mess, taking time to sort out the knots, trace them to their origins, and also devise a plan to increase the likelihood that the mess I’d created this time wouldn’t happen again.
Or, as we seem so prone to do these days, I could’ve just thrown the earbuds across the room, stomped out of the gym, and sued the manufacturer of the mess, neglecting the reason I was there in the first place. Which was not a good idea, if I was honest with myself, because the manufacturer of the mess, whether I’d done it blindly or with intent, was me.
P.S. Two days later, I went to the gym, pulled out the earbuds, plugged them into my iPod, and no sound came out of one. Somewhere in the fray, I’d broken the delicate wires inside the sheathing on that side. I stuffed the broken earbud in my ear anyway, and proceeded to walk, now not just “blind” but effectively deaf in one ear too. I noticed that the music wasn’t nearly as beautiful in mono, so on the way home, I stopped by Walgreen’s and picked up a new set of earbuds.
Unfortunately, America is not, despite the apparent belief of some, unbreakable. Repairing the mess we’ve made won’t be as easy as buying a new set of earbuds, no matter how much money a few of us have. And if we are so blind and deaf that we forget the primary mission of our government—that of forming a more perfect UNION, of promoting the general welfare of ALL citizens and preserving the blessings of liberty for ALL the selves who reside under the protection of the UNITED States of America, it will be impossible.