Tuesday, June 28, 2011
June 28, 2011 [Tribute post 17]: Only Connect!
One of my favorite bumper stickers is the one that reads “God Bless the Whole World, No Exceptions.” As I made explicit in my April 23-24th post on atheism, I don’t believe in God, but to my mind the point of that bumper sticker is something other than a spiritual one (although I take the spiritual point for sure). Partly it’s a refusal to endorse a knee-jerk and parochial form of American exceptionalism, the God Bless America kind that blindly defines our nation as the best in the world; I’ve said more than enough in my toward-book-three posts about my preferred form of patriotism, one which I believe can still emphasize what is truly exceptional about our nation but can do so in necessary light of what has often been so far from ideal. But the bumper sticker says more than that—it also expresses a vision of the world in which all people are equal in the most profound sense, all posses the same human soul (which again goes beyond spirituality to me), and thus all are worthy of and in fact require the same respect and acceptance from their fellow men and women. (At least until they prove that they don’t—I don’t think this perspective makes it impossible to see certain people as ultimately evil and unworthy of our respect and acceptance, but it does make clear that such people can come from anywhere, including right here.)
The British novelist E.M. Forster perhaps expressed this sentiment most succinctly and powerfully in Howard’s End (1910), when describing the “sermon” that his heroine Margaret Schlegel hopes to impart to her fiancé Henry Wilcox. “She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man,” Forster writes, and then, with even more concision and clarity: “Only connect!” Forster and Margaret mean here and throughout the novel partly the need for connection between two people, for romantic and physical love and passion, which is a separate (if no less significant and ultimately interconnected) topic to be sure. But as the “in the soul of every man” line indicates, and as the novel’s social plots and themes certainly exemplify, Forster without question likewise argues for those broader and more communal kinds of connection, for the ties that bind all people to one another. And Forster’s next novel, A Passage to India (1924), could be said to focus ultimately on both the great challenges to such connection and yet the continued necessity of striving for it as an ideal. In that book’s final chapter, its British hero Cyril Fielding expresses his most earnest wish, to “be friends” with its Indian hero Dr. Aziz, recognizing that “It’s what I want. It’s what you want”; Forster follows these lines by noting that the whole historical and cultural world around the two men seems to rebel against the idea, responding, “No, not yet” and “No, not there,” but I would argue that the novel as a whole has constituted an eloquent argument in favor of such cross-cultural friendship, or at least in dire warning about the consequences if (to put it too simply) the two men and nations can’t learn to be friends.
It’s easier in many ways to go with the pessimism of those rejections instead, perhaps especially in a 21st century American world where we often can’t even quite imagine connecting to those of different political perspectives (and I’ll freely admit to being guilty as charged too much of the time these days), much less to (for example) citizens of Iran or Afghanistan. But I’m willing to bet that each of us has inspiring people in our lives to whom we can look for examples of precisely such connections, not theorized or philosophized but lived and embodied on a daily basis. My Mom spent a couple hours today in a pediatric intensive care unit, sitting with the mother of one of her school’s Bright Stars kids, a woman whose two year-old daughter is in critical condition. The woman is actually assigned to another counselor, not my Mom; she speaks mostly Spanish, and my Mom mostly English (although her self-taught Spanish is impressive and improving!); to say that my Mom has plenty of other, often similarly exhausting and emergent and always present, work that could occupy those couple of hours would be an understatement. But there she sat, and if I had to boil down the many worthy reasons why she did so (including some key practical ones, such as asking the hospital chaplain to find someone to pray with the mom), I would say it’s because she has and is connected to this woman. She connects to each of the program’s families, of course to their cute and awesome kids but also to the parents and other relatives, to the many complicated and challenging and profoundly human lives and identities she encounters, and because of that connection impacts and strengthens, every day.
To say that my Mom didn’t tell me about those couple hours expecting that I would turn them into a blog post is yet another understatement. But they and she deserve this tribute post, not because she’s my Mom (I mean, that too, but not specifically), but because they and she exemplify so fully the best of both what can be truly exceptional about our American community and what human connection truly means and entails. If we can all connect to, and then emulate, such an example, we’ll be a long way toward where we so desperately need to go. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) A great essay on similar themes (and with the same title) by the also very inspiring Dr. William Cronon, he of the recent right-wing attacks at the U of Wisconsin: http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Cronon_Only_Connect.pdf
2) The whole of Howard’s End; the “Only connect!” quote is in Chapter 22: http://www.online-literature.com/forster/howards_end/
3) OPEN: What do you think?