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.


Bailing Water Together

Dear Will:

The other day I had lunch with a friend of mine. She is a wonderful woman who once went to church on a regular basis but somewhere along the way got out of the habit. Not at all unusual, in other words. When I invited her to come to our meetings one of these Sundays, she told me that she couldn’t. Wouldn’t feel right, she said. I’d feel like a hypocrite, she said.

That feeling—that somehow she would be out of place—is, I’m sure a common one. We Mormons, for good and bad, have very public standards to which we claim to adhere. Of course, we all—and I mean all—have a tendency to wander from those standards in not-so-public ways. It’s called being human. And it’s that very recognition of our humanity that gave substance and purpose to the ministry of Jesus Christ. His Atonement provided the means for us humans to rise above our shortcomings. It’s why he died.

And it’s also why we go to church. We need to be reminded of Him and strengthened by Him, and as a general rule it’s best to do that with others who need Him as much as we do.

Still there is a certain self-consciousness that comes when we think that those around us are somehow “aware” of our foibles and bad habits. I am reminded of a piece written by Robert Kirby, a Mormon humorist and newspaper columnist. He was talking about smoking, but he could have been talking about any of the other things that might make us feel somehow out of place:

It’s too bad that other “sins” don’t smell as strongly as tobacco. Christians probably wouldn’t be so smug if they did. Smoking might even become the relatively minor problem that it is if intolerance and arrogance simply smelled like a dead cat.

How about being selfish? What if being stingy and mean smelled like, oh, say, the dump? Or, better yet, raw sewage? How’d you like to sit next to someone in Church with a chain-stingy habit?

What if impure thoughts smelled like you had a three-week-old carp hanging around your neck? You could, I suppose, tell your wife that the smell came from being with your friends instead of your own impure thoughts. And if gullibility smelled like garlic or a wet dog, you’d know immediately if she believed you.

Even sniffing these smells could get you in trouble. It could lead to passing judgment on others. Things could get really confusing if being judgmental smelled like spoiled milk. The smokers would be laughing at us.

The best we can hope for is that God has a better nose than we do.

Lest we forget, Jesus himself said that we should only criticize others when we ourselves are beyond reproach. Otherwise, we should keep in mind that we’re all pretty much in the same boat, awkwardly pulling at the oars and pausing from time to time to bail water. I guess in that sense, Sundays are a good time to help one another bail.