Good Works and Repair of the World- by Marc Brenman

A couple of mornings before Thanksgiving (or Indigenous Heritage Day, depending on how politically correct or “woke” you are) I got a call from a Native American friend who has run into a patch of bad luck. He initiated a conversation on the political situation in the United States, and how he was glad that he could go to sleep and not be afraid of waking up to more craziness by President Trump. My first thought was “It’s a new morning in America.” Only later did I remember that this was a slogan used by Ronald Reagan in his 1984 Presidential campaign.

“Prouder, Stronger, Better”, commonly referred to as “Morning in America,” is a 1984 political campaign television commercial, known for its opening line, “It’s morning again in America.” The ad was part of that year’s presidential campaign by Republican Party candidate Ronald Reagan.

Imagine (you don’t need to imagine; you lived through it! Good for you!) what it takes to make Reagan look so good. Trump has lowered the bar and “Good Works” now means just being a decent, civil human being instead of a Malignant Narcissist. The French have a saying, nostalgie de la boue, nostalgia for the mud. Trump’s standards were subterranean, below the mud.

Many of us seek a return to normalcy. While some of our Leftist and very progressive friends seek revolution and some of our extreme rightwing neighbors seek racial civil war, most of us are in the position of a person who owns an old car, who puts enough money into it to keep it running. A car like that is called a beater. Our aspirations are not high. I owned a car like this many years ago in Vermont, a Rambler station wagon with a pancake six engine that leaked oil through a crack in the block and a heater that didn’t work. It was my first car and I drove all over Vermont in it, writing articles for a statewide journal, the Vermont Freeman. Bernie Sanders wrote for it also. I don’t remember him because Vermont had plenty of us nice Jewish boys hiding out from the Viet Nam War.

In the winter, I dressed up like the Michelin Man and kept going. The Rambler was a great snow car. I kept a big light bulb burning all night on the engine block to keep the oil from congealing. In the morning, the bulb was cold to the touch. I had a rich beautiful girlfriend, and life was good. Why do I tell you this story? Because it shows that where you stand depends on where you sit; I was sitting on top of the world, and I was happy, without money, power, a house, or fresh fruit in the winter.

I was the youngest correctional counselor in a minimum security progressive prison, the St. Albans Correctional Facility, and almost all of the prisoners were rural white young men. I was less afraid of them than I was of patrolling outside the fence when I worked the graveyard shift. A wolf or a bear could have attacked me or I could have fallen in the snow, froze, and no one would have found my body until morning. We had no radios or guns. In the 1980’s, I visited the “correctional facility” (we play with words: were we “correcting” or “repairing” injured young men?) and it had become a large medium security prison with high walls. The era of mass incarceration had begun, and it was not Black. This was Vermont, and 98% white.

Did my world of the early 1970’s need repairing? Well yes, eventually, when my girlfriend betrayed me and it was time to move across the US. Today, that beautiful country I drove through has been betrayed. We repair it just by being ordinary people. As a Jew-Boo, I’m unqualified to give advice to my Christian sisters and brothers, but I will anyway—be Christlike and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and welcome the stranger. As Calvin Coolidge, a Vermonter, said, “We cannot do everything at once but we can do something at once.” And while I’m slinging around quotes, every good strategic plan requires assignment of tasks and timing. As Rabbi Hillel said, “If not me, then who? If not now, when?”

For now, I vote for exorcism, purifying our own minds, or, as my Native American friends might say and do, burning sage, or smudging. There’s magic in a name, and we need more sage, more wisdom. In Buddhism we have a duty to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings. The 14th Dalai Lama said “It’s very dangerous to ignore the suffering” of any of them. A famous Zen koan asks, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Must I try to relieve Trump’s suffering?

In Judaism there is a distinction between forgiveness and consequences. The essence of forgiveness is that the forgiver allows her relationship with the forgiven to be healed. According to Jewish law, a person may not expect forgiveness unless she makes a sincere effort to perform “teshuvah,” meaning “repentance” or “return.” The elements of teshuvah include rigorous self-examination and requiring the perpetrator to engage with the victim, by confessing, expressing regret and making every effort to right the wrong. If the perpetrator fails to perform the requirements of teshuvah, forgiveness has not been earned and cannot be granted. To grant unearned forgiveness is not kind but callous, and disgraces the honor and memory of the victims.

As I write this, the victims are still piling up. Vaccines are being developed and are on the verge of being administered. But there is no vaccine against the yetzer hara, the inclination toward evil. The word in Hebrew for sin (het) means something that goes astray, like an arrow that misses the mark. When an archer misses the bullseye, it’s not a permanent failure. Rather, the archer can keep trying to shoot the arrows closer to it. My Army officer father used to say that as long as there was a group of arrows, the group could be moved. The group is cohesive, and must be moved together. There’s no guarantee of immediate success, nor does success ensure that the goal, repair of the world, will be reached. But that should not stop us from trying.

Marc Brenman

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