Critic’s Choice

I have a writer friend from my days in Albany named Kate Cohen. If you enjoy my blogs, you will love hers. They are clearly better than mine because she has scored a monthly column with the Washington Post. (Curse you, Kate Cohen!)

Actually, someone recently did curse my buddy, Kate. Kate had written a piece about how disappointing it was when she and her family realized they had to cancel their annual family Thanksgiving gathering at her parents’ Shenandoah Valley home. But we “always” go there for Thanksgiving, she lamented. I can understand her dismay. Not only do five families appear to be able to get along for more than a week together, but they look forward to it year after year. ( One suspects copious quantities of alcohol are involved.)

Let’s see now. Siblings and their offspring travel many miles to converge on the little piece of heaven called Staunton, Virginia where they dine out, cook communally and feast continuously on the most sumptuous of fare, all the while engaged in a bit of bickering and a lot of good natured ribbing, resurrecting old rivalries and reinforcing eternal bonds of love. What’s there to criticize?

Plenty, according to one person who posted a reply to Kate’s essay. In their divine wisdom and obvious ability to extract everything there is to know about the Cohen family from the ether, they skewered Kate with the allegation that she is a selfish person indeed to insist on spending every Thanksgiving with her family, thereby shunning her husband’s family.

I need not list the obvious reasons why this criticism is absurd, but apparently they are far too obvious for this critical savant to consider.

The gay abandon with which so many people these days share their negative view of others, people about whom they know nothing and with whom they have never conducted a reasonable exchange of ideas, has become a shameful norm. Let’s put aside the enlightened example of our (God grant us) soon to be ex-president. There’s an even stronger cause of this non-discourse. The internet.

At one and the same time, it puts us in proximity to people we’d otherwise never encounter while it provides a secure anonymous perch from which we can become snipers. It introduces an “enemy” we never even knew we had, who we perceive as an impersonal entity rather than a flesh and blood person. Should we feel so inclined, we can slay them without any messy hand to hand combat. This surely facilitates the great cultural divide that is as much a plague on our nation as any virus.

Yet, unfortunate as it is, this person’s uncalled for and unfounded criticism misses the real issue. Just as Kate’s disappointment about the holiday, real as it is, is but a paradigm for a larger one.

As a nation, too many of us are deprived of the sort of education that trains minds to perceive what lies beneath the literal. We have not been taught how to comprehend the full meanings of words, to appreciate concepts in their multidimensionality. Likewise, we are not able appreciate the multidimensionality of each other. Too much time is spent in homogeneous physical and virtual communities where pre-conceived notions and beliefs are re-enforced in a continuous feedback loop. Imprisoned in our separate universes we fail to appreciate the big picture.

In reading Kate’s lament the critic seems to have missed a critical word. “Always.” Kate is mourning not only the disappointment inherent in her personal misfortune. She is giving voice, beautifully, artfully, metaphorically, perhaps even unconsciously to our shared misfortune.

The pandemic, the first truly universal tragedy to have touched most of us alive today, pushes in our faces and will not let us turn them away from the fact that there is no such thing as “always.” We come and we go from this world. We cannot assume we will be here tomorrow or even a few moments from now. Especially now.

From this we may draw whatever lessons we permit ourselves to or are intellectually capable of perceiving. It may make us feel hopeless, angry, helpless, trapped in a life that suddenly seems to have lost its purpose. It may induce delusional denial. Rage and self-pity can cause us to lash out at the world and at our fellow human beings.

Or it may lift us to a higher plane. One from which we can view the preciousness of our impermanent existence, our shared humanity and vulnerability. It can jolt us into awareness of what really matters and help us separate true from false, substance from form. It can lead us to appreciate, as real, concepts that are usually perceived, if at all, as mere abstractions. To understand, at a gut level, oft mouthed phrases such as, “life is short,” “every life is equal in value to our own.” To understand we really are more alike than different. To realize that to embrace compassion and sometimes forego our own pleasures for the common good is a debt we owe to our fellow Man. And to ourselves.

In this season of bitterness, what we all share is the human condition, our fundamental humanity and an unavoidable reminder of the impermanence of our existence. These fragile threads of commonality can bind us together and give us a sense of shared purpose. We can choose to look into the lives of strangers and recognize what we value in ourselves. Or as was the case with at least one reader, we can seek to place ourselves above others and give ourselves the right to judge, to denigrate and to discount them.

These are the choices we now face. Which will we choose?

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