Last week I went to see the movie "The Walk" the story of Phillipe Petit's high wire walk between the World Trade Center. It was an edge of my seat two hours I was happy to spend. What I have thought about since seeing the movie is Petit's obsession with walking between the Twin Towers. I had become intrigued by him after I saw the movie "Man on Wire" which was a documentary of his walk. What has captivated me about his story was his belief in himself that he would fulfill his dream. He also was able to find others who were willing to have his dream become theirs and together they devised a plan.
It is not too big a stretch in my thought process to think about how Jesus was able to encourage twelve men to leave home, job and families to follow him. They were willing to work to have Jesus' dream fulfilled on earth of our reconciliation with God. While I am not saying Petit is Jesus, there is a certain aura about him which invites others to participate in his dream. Jesus had that same spirit, that inviting nature which proclaims nothing is impossible. While I do not know if Petit is a man of faith, it is ironic he is the artist in residence at St. John the Divine in New York City. He also speaks extensively about creativity and fulfilling our dreams. Perhaps on reflection he is divinely inspired to do the impossible-just like Jesus.
Were you watching Jeopardy! these past few weeks? If so, you would have become acquainted with Matt Jackson, a 23 year old paralegal from Washington, DC. Matt's breadth of knowledge was awe-inspiring. He won thirteen games and a total of $411,612 and will return to play in the Tournament of Champions. I became obsessed watching this intelligent young man and would tune in each night wondering how well he would do.
What really has captured my attention though was the night Matt lost to another contestant on the program. It was his honesty and integrity which caused this young man to stand out in my mind. During the game, one of the categories was two-letter French words and Matt was asked for the two-letter French word for ‘with the’. Host Alex Trebek heard his response – al – and thought it was a mispronunciation of the correct answer so awarded him the cash. During the ad break, Matt informed the judges his answer was wrong and the money was subtracted from his total. He then went on to lose the game. But I think we all gained from his grace under pressure.
It would have been easy for Matt to let the wrong answer stand but he chose to do the right thing. We often talk about young people wanting to be famous for the wrong reasons and here is a young man who is known for being honest. A character trait which will stand him in good stead all of his life. With all of the bad news about our world, I was so happy to know more about Matt and wish him only success for what I am sure will be a fantastic future. I also read he is donating 10% of his winnings to charity, something else to admire.
The Feast of St. Francis is tomorrow and for us, his life and legacy are still relevant today. I write this as I reflect on the past week's events with the shooting in Oregon. It is my opinion that to blame this massacre on guns or mentally ill is too easy. These ideas do not even begin to scratch the surface of what is a deeper problem in our society. Not all people who own guns are mass killers and neither are people who are mentally ill. We insult both groups of people when we agree with comments such as these. We in essence let ourselves off the hook, because it is their problem not ours. We are in a crisis in this country and it is not guns or mental illness, it is the way we think about what is a meaningful life.
We have a problem with our insatiable need to have our fifteen minutes of fame. How many "likes" we get on our Facebook page makes for a quality existence. The shooter wanted to be famous and felt that his life was a failure because he was lonely and couldn't get a date. Somehow he would make his mark on the world, and killing innocent people, who were working on creating a better life, was his sick, twisted answer. He felt he was a failure-at 26! There is something inherently wrong with us as a culture when we work so hard to create for the world a false image of ourselves. Where nothing is ever wrong and life seems to be some giant party. I know people who are going through terrible personal problems posting on Facebook how great their life is, when in reality it's falling apart. We have set up a false sense of reality for ourselves and others when we fail to be honest with ourselves and one another. Even I get depressed reading how fabulous someone else's life is, and mine is pretty fantastic.
This summer I read the book "Ghettoside," the author explores the culture of violence in our inner cities and the toll it takes on us all. She writes that appearing vulnerable is akin to a death sentence in some neighborhoods. The idea of being tough and cruel is one that permeates the neighborhoods in so many cities and towns across our country. It is a necessary but heart-breaking read and to say I was depressed thinking about the lives wasted because of machismo is an understatement. The book has deeply affected my thinking on this issue. This is why I believe people resort to violence as a way of life: it is easier to be cruel and unfeeling than it is to be kind and caring. Kind and caring means I have to constantly be thinking of others instead of myself. How do my actions impact those around me? That is the question to be constantly asked. Something, that is not always easy to do.
What our country needs to do instead of focusing on the symptoms of these mass killings-guns and mental health-is to spend time thinking how we arrived at this place. One of the reasons I believe, is the culture we have created for ourselves and our young people, everyone is a winner. A few months ago I read an article in which the author stated what a great disservice has been done to our young people by telling them they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up. "Not so", wrote the author, "a person who is 5"3" is not going to be a basketball player no matter how hard they try or how much they want it." When we consistently tell young people everyone is a winner, we set up a false illusion of what the world is going to be like. As we know, not everyone is a winner, and what counts is recovering from loss to try again or to set a different goal. Everyone has the ability to contribute something to our world, no matter how seemingly small it may be.
St. Francis is someone who gave up riotous living to beg with the poor at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Francis' father, a successful silk merchant, demanded he return home through threats and even beatings. But, Francis renounced his father by removing all of his fine clothing and taking up the simple garments of a beggar. Francis' work was to restore churches that had fallen into ruin as a penance for the life he had once lead. He went on to form the Order of St. Francis and whose rule of life was, "to follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps." We too wish to follow our Lord's example of compassion for others and care for the poor and lonely. In the Gospel of Mark, when the crowd wants to make Jesus their king, he escapes. Kingship was not what he was here for but rather to show us to the way of the Father.
As we reflect on the life of St. Francis may he continue to be an example of putting the needs of others first and realizing we can contribute more to the life of others when we worry less about ourselves. I do believe this is the first step to overcoming this horrific epidemic which continues to sweep our country. Instead of creating a life that is fiction, we would do well to create a life that has meaning and purpose.