Tag Archives: It’s a Wonderful Life

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cause and Effect

A beautiful poem of Jorge Luís Borges entitled “Las Causas” speaks of the rich tapestry that one life weaves with another, the way our individual stories, the words of our own personal narratives touch upon one another. It is a lovely, stirring poem that delineates the cause and effect that produces relationships, or really a particular relationship, and gives it substance and meaning. Indeed, Borges’ tone, at times even somewhat erotic (and certainly one version on the internet interprets it that way), nevertheless strives to contextualize the poem’s inherent eroticism within the wider context of significance and meaning, the deeper love that beyond all temporary pleasure and distractions, if I may be so bold, that we human beings are all looking for. In other words, Borges’ poem is both synchronic and diachronic at once.

Dido and Aeneas by Rutilio Manetti (Italy, Siena, 1571-1639). Oil on canvas.

An old and not-as-widely-read poem as it once was, Virgil’s Aeneid, is perhaps most famous for its fourth book in which the contrast between the desires of two characters, Aeneas and Dido, comes into sharp focus. My friend, the philologist has been reading that book lately in Latin and we have recently discussed the book’s contents. After several glasses of wine and a bit of squabbling over details, we came to a similar conclusion: Dido is a character who has difficulty understanding the diachronic consequences to her actions. She is stuck, to a large extent, in the present. Her desire for Aeneas burns within her deeply, almost consuming her. Aeneas, who enters into a synchronous relationship with her recalls himself from that, at the gods’ command, reorienting his mind about the diachronic nature of his unique responsibility.

Dido and Aeneas. 4th c. AD mosaic. Low Ham Roman villa, Somerset

Although neither Dido nor Aeneas would seem to have “read” or innately understood Borges, they certainly do understand the erotic bits all too well, as any reader of the symbolism of the “cave scene” would acknowledge. For while the amatory, even erotic side of Borges’ beautiful poem celebrates all the things that had to happen for two people to come together—not unlike, on a more pedestrian but no less beautiful level, the way the George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) meets and loves Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) in It’s a Wonderful Life—it also hints, on the diachronic side, that things don’t ever happen unless other things happen to make them happen. That is certainly true of the tale of Dido and Aeneas in the Aeneid. And that, too, is one of the central themes of Frank Capra’s film that I just mentioned. Both suggest that life has profound meaning, and both show, beautifully in their own ways, that we are in this thing called life together.

While Borges’ poem is besprinkled with allusions to the teachings of the words greatest teachers, the simplicity of the message of the film is a point of contrast. That simplicity is heightened by the goofiness of the angel who is sent from Heaven to George Bailey, beginning with his old-fashioned sounding name, Clarence, no doubt archaic even in 1946 when the film was released to less than stellar reviews. Now, however, it is, of course, a classic film, perhaps more beloved than any other motion picture featuring either Jimmy Stewart or Donna Reed. So, there is a distinction, then, that I would like to emphasize: the film’s simple message is actually slightly more complex that it seems. Whereas Borges’ fantastic poem would emphasize human cause and effect—something entirely true, by the way—Capra’s film introduces one more element: that God cares and intervenes in the chaos of our lives, and by so doing he reminds us of the power of our own actions for good or ill—for all our actions, moral or immoral, do have consequences. Aeneas’ indulgence in a synchronic relationship with Dido resulted in her death, and there was no angel to rescue her. But Capra, by God’s grace, gracefully reminds us that miracles do happen. And inasmuch as they do, perhaps we shouldn’t be entirely surprised to find an angel showing up in our lives—maybe a capital-A, invisible Angel or maybe a just small-a angel like a friend who is sent to help us understand, maybe even for the first time, a deeper understanding of that simple spiritual truth.

I myself first heard about such truth a long time ago from my grandmother, told to me in the simplest of manners—a song, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” she would sing, “for the Bible tells me so.” Yes, that’s a quite simple teaching, but it is also one that can produce in our lives a wide swath of cause and effect well beyond what we can see or even imagine. It can shape our ethical choices, can give us remarkable strength in the midst of stress, trial or temptation. “You see, George,” Clarence says, as he is granting George’s unsavory wish never to have been born, “you really had a wonderful life.” Indeed, we do, for our lives produce “las causes” as much as they are produced by them. The causas that we effect can touch like an angel even as they themselves are touched, too, by the breeze of Angels’ wings.  And so, you see, your life and my own do indeed have real meaning, and our actions can produce the finest of “las causes.” To paraphrase Clarence, and bring film and poem together, “You really do, Jorge, have a wonderful life.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Faces

Without words, faces can tell you a lot. This week I was struck by the faces of a few individuals. The recent photograph of the young man who entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and viciously shot innocent worshippers, is frankly frightening. Someone might say he is emotionally disturbed—that seems obvious enough—but what he himself is now saying in court is that he very much chose to undertake the actions that he did. He is unrepentant, unashamed of his actions. And his face tells if not quite the whole story, certainly a large part of it. When interviewed by the police, he was unrepentant, casually describing his horrific act and explaining the bizarre motive, borne out of racial hatred, for it.

The Charleston shooter, whose name is not worth mentioning. Mugshot taken by the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, June 18, 2015

And that might have been enough sadness for one blog and a sufficiently egregious example of racism for an entire a decade, even if it is admittedly simply emblematic of a wider societal characteristic, but I saw what nearly everyone else saw this week, the sad story of four young people in Chicago, two male, two female, who held a mentally handicapped person hostage, posting images of the ordeal on social media even as they tortured him, also motivated by hatred sprung from racial prejudice. The faces seen in their mug shots told a similar story: defiance.

We cannot see the face of the disabled teenager, who fortunately escaped when the torturers went down a flight of stairs allegedly to kick in the door of a neighbor who complained about the noise that they were making as they brutalized the young man. It is hard to fathom this, hard to make any sense of the degrading of humanity caused by such hatred. Again, it is defiance. Add to that shamelessness. The complete obviation of right and wrong. Going beyond good and evil in a most Nietzschean sense, with emphasis on going beyond evil. Diabolical in the truest sense of that word. Not simply übermenschlich (but still, if in a diluted sense, menschlich). Rather, lacking any sense of humanity. Inhumane. Inhuman.

The names of these folks from Chicago do not merit mentioning. Their faces speak volumes (photo of screenshot).

Both of these terrible events are simply emblematic of the worst that we can find in our ranks. The fact that their faces reflect not simply soulless people but people whose soul is dedicated to evil might leave us with a sense of hopelessness. President Obama assessed the state of affairs nowadays, brush stroking the situation in Chicago itself:

“’In part because we see visuals of racial tensions, violence, and so forth; because of smart phones and the Internet. … What we have seen as surfacing, I think, are a lot of problems that have been there a long time. ‘Whether it’s tensions between police and communities, hate crimes of the despicable sort that has just now recently surfaced on Facebook, … I take these things very seriously. The good news is that the next generation that’s coming behind us … have smarter, better, more thoughtful attitudes about race. I think the overall trajectory of race relations in this country is actually very positive. It doesn’t mean that all racial problems have gone away. It means that we have the capacity to get better.’”[1]

Mr. Obama sounds to me a bit detached, as he seems to view the particular example that he cites, the very one we are considering here, at only a great distance. His assessment of the event in Chicago comes across a bit glib, a bit Pollyanna, with a kind of rosy-cheeked optimism that might be a bit more difficult to muster should one have one’s boots firmly planted on the ground, should one have been able to stand next to the police officer who discovered the young man just after he escaped. And if he should look hard into the faces of the perpetrators, if he and we all could have seen the face of the victim as he was being tortured, perhaps our own view of the situation would be more engaged, as well.

But even if Mr. Obama’s evaluation of the state of race relations in our country does not quite inspire you with an abundance of hope, it is surely more hopeful than the stark faces of the alleged perpetrators of the Charleston shooter. In any case, sometimes you don’t need to see a face to envision hope. A picture sums up the opposite attitude, not man’s inhumanity but one person’s humane care for a fellow human being.

A soldier carrying a fallen comrade. Sometimes it is the face you cannot see that tells the story. Photo credit: amnondafni

The photograph above shows no face—it needs none. You can’t tell if the person being rescued is black or white or any other color; you can’t discern the race, religion, even gender of the rescuer. But you can discern that hero’s personal philosophy: it is to go back for the lost and fallen, to rescue, deliver, bring hope in the face of hopelessness; it is, simply put, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Perhaps that’s all you need to know.

Sometimes seeing the face of the hero is helpful, too. Sargent Jerrod Fields is a world-class sprinter, despite losing a limb in the service of his country. His face is that of a hero both in battle and in competition.

Sgt. Fields’ face tells the story: he was a hero and role model serving America abroad and remains one at home. Photo by Tim Hipps, FMWRC Public Affairs

Joseph Tomasella, a specialist from the New Jersey Air National Guard, serves at the Coast Guard Air Station, here pictured as he participates in an exercise. His face tells the story: he is unafraid, he is a hero.

Joseph Tomasella, of the New Jersey Air National Guard 177th Fighter Wing. Photo of the United States Air National Guard taken by Sgt. Matt Hecht.

And the list could go on. One such firefighter, Mike Hughes of Wenatchee, Washington, recently returned to see the graduation of a young woman whom he rescued when she was but an infant.

tomasella-with-infant“It’s a miracle that I did come out of that,” the young woman who was saved as an infant said. “I feel like I owe him so much. It’s just amazing that I have got to meet the guy who saved my life. I just can’t thank him enough. There are way too many words to describe how much I could thank him.”[2]

When, in the classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, the angel Clarence speaks to the patriarch Joseph, of George Bailey, “He has a good face. I like that face!” maybe he has a point. One might debate about whether there are angels like Clarence moving amongst us unseen. But one would be silly to debate whether there are heroes doing so, albeit for the most part they are as unseen as angels.[3] Perhaps you know one. Perhaps you are one and don’t yet know it. Look in the mirror: your face may tell the whole story.

[1] Quotes of President Obama taken from http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2017/01/05/obama-calls-facebook-torture-video-despicable-but-optimistic-about-race-relations-in-u-s/.

[2] http://www.today.com/news/firefighter-who-saves-baby-attends-her-graduation-17-years-later-t25586

[3] Take Smoky, for example, who is said to have been the first known therapy dog: http://www.greatbigstory.com/stories/this-tiny-yorkie-is-a-world-war-two-hero/?xrs=CNNHP


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Angelification

David Crowder is a musician whom one of my dearest friends really doesn’t like but of whom I happen to have firsthand knowledge. Having met him in a grocery store, I came away with a thoroughly positive impression; he even told me to call him “Dave.” His music is remarkable. Dave sings songs that sometimes involve angels or are suggestive of the beating of angels’ wings. When he mentions “the rush of angels,” compositionally Crowder does something interesting in his musical arrangement: he introduces a change in tempo. For example, he might adjust a time signature, just for a measure, and then quickly return to the previous signature (e.g., in his song “Shine,” which is a particularly powerful and emotional song on a variety of levels). As I am fortunate to be able to perform Dave’s music fairly frequently, I’m especially sensitive to rhythmic changes; I can say, from the vantage point of a drummer’s stool, at least, it seems to me that it is owing to angels that David Crowder’s music can be more difficult to play than that of other musicians.

Though angels are, of course, known in the Old Testament, the English word “angel” is derived from the Greek angelos. Both it and the Hebrew (malak) have approximately the same connotation, “messenger.” While many of us (i.e. Americans, and perhaps Westerners in general) may think of angels as oversized cupids (or worse, cupids to scale), the ancient descriptions of them do not bear this out. The mistaken, erotic image  seems rather to have been the product of a strange form of syncretism.

Clarence Another fictionalized portrayal of an angel, in this case one that I rather like within its storytelling (i.e. mythical) context, is that of Clarence in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Bungling, charming, human, Clarence defies any angelic stereotype. He is not the bold image of St. Michael expelling the fallen parents of humankind from the garden.

Tile flooor of Chiesa Monumentale, Anacapri
St. Michael Expels Adam and Eve, Handpainted Tile Floor of Chiesa Monumentale, Anacapri

Nor is he Gabriel, charged with the impossible task (but pulling it off brilliantly) of having to announce to Mary her soon-to-be, quite-difficult-to-explain-to fiancé/parents/friends new situation.


Leonardo's annunciation
Leonardo di Vinci, Annunciation

However much one may adore the early work of Leonardo, one nevertheless might say or at least think, “Come on, nobody seriously believes in angels today.” Well, about that one might be both wrong and right at once. It is right in the sense that, if one says “nobody” in such a sentence, one does not intend to be taken literally.  Rather, the speaker’s purpose with such a statement to be perceived as fan of folk wisdom, a purveyor of practical advice, an unsolicited but hopefully helpful social commentator. Yet this overarching truism is obviously wrong, as David Crowder has such high regard for angels that not infrequently he even changes time signatures for them.

But this blog is not meant to engage in a debate about the existence of these heavenly beings. Rather, it is meant to analyze them, ever so briefly, so as to suggest that they can help explain, on the one hand, the strange behavior of some of your friends who might bring to you strange-sounding “religious” information and, on the other, to suggest that we can all, religious and non-religious alike, take a page out of the angelic playbook. Let me start with the latter of these two ideas.

One role of angels that I have alluded to in a previous blog seems to be protective; hence the idea of a “guardian” angel. For this reason the notion of a fallen angel seems particularly evil: the guardian has turned into the predator—how perfectly Satanic. One thinks of the abuse of power in the hands of any person given charge over a dependent. Few would disagree that such abuse of a guardian’s role is evil, even if fewer yet would admit that it is Satanic. Yet it is, as I said above, not merely Satanic, it is perfectly so, precisely because it is the abuse of one’s authority. Would that our elected officials or any overpaid overlord bear that in mind.

Battista Hagar
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Hagar Assisted by an Angel

St. Peter and Angel
Bartelomé Esteban Murillo, Liberation of St. Peter

The concept of a “guardian” angel no doubt derives from the notion that angels appear in the Old and New Testaments fairly frequently in this role. I need not burden this piece with examples, as one or two will do. An angel appears to Hagar, the maidservant of Sarah and helps her in her time of need.[1] Peter’s escape from prison is another example.[2] In both cases angels show up unexpectedly and deliver someone from distress. And in our lives, there may be times—hopefully there will be—when we can show up to help someone in distress. One need not be a true believer to conclude that one should help a person in distress. The degree to which one engages in such help may correlate to the depth of one’s faith (or may even provide a path to faith), for such a merciful act is fundamentally God-like. Yet it is also fundamentally human. But I posit that as a challenge to believers, not as a rebuke of those who reject the faith. Suffice it to say that anyone can “angelify” in this sense of helping another human being in need.

I now turn to the second aspect of angelification which must begin with a kind of apologia. I use the Greek term here, borrowed of course from Socrates’ famous defense speech in which he explains the sum of his life’s work successfully to generation upon generation of readers but unsuccessfully to the jury at the time. Thus I use that term to explain how the Greek term differs from its English cognate (the English word “apology” obviously derives from the ancient Greek). The ancient kind of apology is not meant to express regret or remorse but rather merely to offer an explanation, an “after word,” which is what apologia means in Greek. And that explanation is simply this: those Christian folk—for I offer this apologia only for that group—who are eager to bring others with them to church or a group meeting or the like, are acting as messengers in the truest sense, for what they try to explain to their fellow human beings is a message.

A touch more explanation here may be required, as it is not just any message that that person is trying to share: it is the good message (Greek, euangelion), sometimes translated as “good news.” My apologia, then, is not for that news, which, since it is good, needs no apology. Rather, it is for us messengers who, not being angels and thus imperfect creatures, might sometimes come across poorly, misspeak, or even jumble up the message—not explaining that good message in every instance as well as it deserves, for it is a message of hope and forgiveness, a good message indeed in a world full of grief and sorrow.

In trying to bless in either of these ways, whether by offering a helping hand or acting as a messenger, one is playing the part of an angel. One thus “angelifies”; one metaphorically becomes an angel, like Clarence trying “to win his wings,” which, if not the best theology,[3] is nevertheless the narratival catalyst for that old, quite wonderful movie. And in the process, one is blessed—one does get one’s wings, so to speak, though not the kind that Clarence seeks. Rather, by blessing, one becomes blessed, by understanding others and meeting them where they are, perhaps one can, oneself, be better understood.

Thus, figuratively speaking, one can angelify and be blessed by so doing, helping another, speaking the blessing of good news to a desperate world. If one does, one must be careful of the rush of angels’ wings roundabout, for those wings will be beating close by, as a being from outside our own time bumps up against our mortality. That will effect a change of time signature, a new beat, and it can affect the way we think about life and even how we might live our lives, now and forever. There are indeed, at least in that sense, angels among us. And I myself have heard of others, too—a chapter in the Curious Autobiography (pp. 225ff.)perhaps, in the distant future, of yet another blog on angels.

 [1] Genesis 16.

[2] Acts 12.

[3] Milton says it quite pithily: “God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts” (“On His Blindness”).