Poetic Justice

Open Mic

Dear Will:

When my son Luke entered the seventh grade, he chose to attend what was then called the Orange County High School of the Arts, where he remained until his graduation from high school six years later. He loved that school, in no small part because of the extraordinary friends he made there. Luke was part of the creative writing program at OCHSA (now simply OCSA), which required that he participate in 10-12 hours of after-school instruction each week. Those supplementary classes covered playwriting, short stories, essays, poetry, and other writing disciplines. It was marvelous training, both enriching and enlightening. And Luke really enjoyed it. (Well, most of it anyway. Screenwriting was awesome. Modernism? Not so much.)

Every couple of months or so, the school hosted a poetry reading for its students, events which Dana and I attended faithfully. The readings offered a mixed bag to be sure. Several of the students were exceptionally talented, and we always looked forward to hearing their latest writings. But as you might expect, much of what we heard those nights was incomprehensible gobbledygook, filled with rushed expressions of teenaged angst and mystifying allusions to who-knows-what. The first time I attended one of the readings, so much of the work was so poorly written and so poorly read that I maintained a running internal commentary, chuckling to myself, criticizing their turns of phrase, and mentally demeaning them for being so “pretentious.”

Of course, I was the pretentious one. With time and perspective (and no small amount of coaching from my wiser, more understanding son), I came to appreciate just how hard it was for each of those kids to put themselves out there in that way—to experiment with new ideas, painstakingly craft a poem, and then risk derision by sharing it openly with a room full peers and ignorant strangers. In fact, what I came to appreciate most about those readings fills me with wonder even to this day: Those OCHSA kids were unwaveringly supportive of one another—not prone to the cruelty and sarcasm you might otherwise expect of a group of high-schoolers.

Not surprisingly, the lingering consequence of that unwavering support is a web of lifelong friendships—deep, meaningful associations which continue more than a decade since those aspiring writers first started practicing their iambic pentameter on one another. I was reminded of this just a couple of weeks ago when Luke got married and his best of friends were there to support him, many of them “kids” he has known since those earliest days at OCHSA. His “best man”? Paris, a girl he met in seventh grade who remains to this day the best friend he’s ever had.

It’s remarkable to witness such a tangible byproduct of mutual love and acceptance, to see what can be achieved when people are more eager to praise than to criticize. What would happen if we all—consistently—offered one another that same level of support and allowance when we might otherwise be tempted to judge and belittle? How might it change our worship services, for example, if we maintained that attitude during a dull talk or a poorly-prepared lesson? What if we made a habit of mentally applauding those doing a bad job at something we know we could do better? What might become of us as a people if we went out of our way to give one another the benefit of the doubt, to assume that most everyone is doing the best they can? Talk about poetic justice!

I think it would be transformative—an experiment worth trying. Let’s start Sunday.

PW

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Hold Up Your Light

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Dear Will:

On Saturday night, my wife and I served as chaperones at a monthly dance for the youth of our church. Kids came from a surprisingly wide radius, so there was a pretty good crowd. Although dances these days are very different than when I was a teenager, they all seemed to be having a really good time. It seemed to be good clean fun.

At one point the kids formed a tight circle in the middle of the gym, preventing us chaperones from observing what was going on within. To make matters worse, the DJ pretty much killed the lights, leaving it to the kids to illuminate the dance floor with their cell phones. Trying my best to be vigilant without being Captain Buzzkill, I wandered closer to see what kind of mischief they might be making.

The kids were pumped. As I approached this scrum, virtually every phone in the place was held aloft, creating a spotlight effect at the center of the bouncing circle of teens. And at the center of the circle? A boy with Down syndrome, doing his best John Travolta while the rest of the kids cheered him on.

He was loving it. And so was I.

In a different place with a different set of kids, you might imagine something far less virtuous when you see a group of rowdy youths gathered around a kid who is “different.” So it was heartening to see these young followers of Christ doing their best to emulate their Role Model. He showed the way and then challenged each of us to go and do likewise (Luke 10:37).  And they did.

Their timing could not have been better. As December is now upon us, the Church has embarked on an initiative to encourage all people everywhere to make an effort to “Light the World” through simple acts of service. Here’s a video that introduces the idea.

Dana and I have determined to accept the invitation, and I hope you will too. You should download this advent calendar that the Church put together with a different world-lighting idea for every day of the month leading up to Christmas. What a great way to embrace the spirit of the holidays.

Jesus said: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). I hope that this Christmas season we will all hold our lights high and bring happiness to whoever comes within our circle.

PW

#LightTheWorld

Hope Without Optimism

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Dear Will:

One of my many (and most glaring) character flaws is that I care way too much whether or not my team wins. That hyper-competitiveness has served me well only to the degree that it has driven me to strive for excellence in most of my endeavors (home repair being a conspicuous contrapositive). And while I have been somewhat successful over the years at suppressing those emotional urges, they still manifest themselves from time to time in awkward circumstances: during the scramble for the final wedge in Trivial Pursuit, for example, or in a three-legged race at the company picnic. It’s embarrassing.

Where that desire to win manifests itself most darkly is in the world of competitive team sports. If my Bruins lose a close one, it can send me into a funk that lasts for days, especially (as it so often seems) when they should have won. If I had the misfortune of being from, say, Cleveland, this competitive spirit might not have such a firm hold on me. But I grew up cheering for the Dodgers and Lakers and UCLA, teams with enough history of success that victory and even championships are often a distinct possibility, resulting in expectations in profound disproportion to objective reality.

So you can imagine, without any creative effort, how I was feeling last night when my Dodgers, who haven’t won a championship since before my children were born, blew multiple leads and lost 13-12 to the Astros in Game 5 of the World Series. Now, if you are a well-adjusted human, you might reasonably think: I didn’t even realize the Dodgers were in the World Series; or, What’s the World Series? But if you’re me, and the Dodgers end up losing the Series, you can expect to relive the agony of last night’s debacle for years to come. I still get aggravated by how the USA got swindled out of an Olympic gold medal in basketball by the USSR. In 1972. When I was 12.

Unlike the stock market, which provides a buyer for every seller, the sports world is completely imbalanced, with devastated losers far outnumbering euphoric winners in any given season. In a playoff, in fact, every team but one ends its year with a disappointing loss. And if we shrink that world down to mine (the only one that TRULY matters in this context) the moments of euphoria are infrequent and precious. For even though my teams have a history of occasional excellence, history fades even as the possibility of a letdown casts a heavy, constant shadow over whatever is happening right now.

As a remedy to all of this, years ago I committed myself to the following rooting philosophy: Hope without optimism. I believe in it so firmly that I have taught it like a catechism to my children. For I believe that that philosophy carries with it both the fervent possibility of victory and the realistic expectation that we’ll miss the winning field goal in the final seconds. It’s my attempt to maximize the prospective euphoria while mitigating the nearly-inevitable devastation. It’s not a perfect remedy, but it helps.

All of this runs counter to what Jesus taught, of course. “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” He said, “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Other scripture encourages us to have “a perfect brightness of hope,” knowing that, if we endure well the trials that may lie ahead, in the end we shall have eternal life (see 2 Nephi 31:20). That is the promise of Christ’s resurrection and Atonement: the promise of victory for everyone, a championship even for the most beleaguered among us. His message was all about both hope AND optimism.

Which is a very good thing—especially if the Dodgers blow this Series, which they should have won. Because if that happens, I could just die.

PW