The Non-Intervening God 

My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?
–Psalms 22, quoted by Jesus on the cross.

Many years ago, I turned away from organized religion. It was not an easy decision on my part, and learning to live with that decision has been an ongoing process in my life ever since. When people speak of religion, they often speak of the people who provided examples of how to lead their lives, and the people I knew who taught me their faith were among some of the finest people I’ve ever known. I’ve often wondered what they’d say about how I turned out. I can’t imagine they would be happy about it.

For anyone who thinks it’s easy to turn away from the religious faith one was raised in, it’s not, particularly in a society which actively vilifies and dehumanizes those who do not adhere to the dominant faith, be they Muslims, Scientologists, Atheists or Agnostics. It would be much simpler for me to attend a church and continue exhibiting the trappings of a religion I no longer accept, except that one of the lessons I was taught was to be honest, and I refuse to misrepresent that aspect of my life. The process has included learning about other sets of beliefs as well as reading other people’s opinions on the religion I was raised in.

One of the works I found most helpful in formulating my way of thinking was Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine, in which he argues in favor of a non-interventionist creator-god, and against the excesses of the organized religion of his day. Paine’s technique in Age of Reason was to use the bible to refute the bible, pointing out contradictions and inconsistencies throughout the work. Members of the modern, right-wing Tea Party, who claim Paine as a kindred spirit, have obviously never read the full canon of his work. Another influential work was The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julien Jaynes. Jaynes puts forth the premise that early humans experienced auditory hallucinations as the prefrontal cortex was developing, which they misinterpreted as the “voice(s) of god” and that schizophrenia is a modern day relict of that. While these works were helpful in finding my footing after I turned away from the religious beliefs was raised in, it was inconsistencies in those beliefs which first set me on the path of searching for alternatives in the first place.

The problem is that when one becomes invested in a system governed by an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful and all-loving entity, then one is at a loss to explain why tragedy happens to otherwise undeserving people. Two devout Christians contract the same illness; one dies, the other recovers. Why? A child is hit by a car, or falls out a window, or meets some other unexpected fate and while the first instinct is to wonder why, we’re told we cannot question the will of God, but if not, then anything that happens, good, bad, or indifferent can be attributed to God’s will. I found such an uncertain state of being unacceptable.

If someone has a benefactor whose assistance is random, arbitrary and unreliable what’s the point of having a benefactor? If one calls upon God and the options are yes, no, or maybe later, what’s the point of calling upon God in the first place? Random chance yields the exact same outcome. I’ve found that, frequently, saying one is turning things over to God is the same as saying, “Let’s just wait and see what happens.” If that’s the most we can expect from an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving entity, why even bring God into it. The next time a situation arises, try not calling on God and see what happens. Things will most likely be resolved for better or for worse just as they would if God was part of it.

There is no way to reconcile the notion of a loving and caring God who only helps certain people at certain times or under certain conditions. A Christian is just as likely as a Muslim to be struck by lightning or drown. A Jew is as likely to get cancer as is an Atheist or a Mormon and any of them are as likely to be saved from tragedy by seemingly miraculous means as any of the others. The arbitrary nature of tragedy is the single most persuasive argument against a loving and caring God. If we accept the notion of God as creator, we must accept that God created all individuals equally, and exhibits no preferential treatment toward one or another.

The argument that we’re given the freedom to make our own choices is invalid because the concept of free will is irrelevant to an entity that already knows the outcome of a person’s actions and decisions. Since no mortal being can know the mind of such an entity, one individual’s opinion on what this entity expects of us is as valid as any other individual. Ron Hubbard’s ideas carry equal weight to those of Joseph Smith, the Prophet Mohammad, or the Apostle Paul. Since this entity takes no apparent action to correct any inconsistencies or misconceptions, one must assume this entity is satisfied with this state of affairs, or cannot act upon it, or simply does not care. To put it plainly, an all-knowing and all-powerful God capable of intervening in the universe but which takes no action when its followers are suffering cannot also be regarded as all-loving, unless non-intervention is built into the system, that is, God can’t intervene by design.

Just as parents sometimes realize it’s best to let their children mediate disputes or navigate difficulties on their own, such a God might remove itself from the equation so its creations can learn to take care of themselves. I believe that’s how the system we live in works. The entity which brought about the conditions under which the universe developed does not take part in what happens in that universe. In essence, we’re on our own and it’s up to us to figure out how to correct the mess we’re making of the world. Waiting for some divine being to “save” us only pushes us closer to the brink of disaster. We need to learn to trust our own insights and observations and pay attention to the warning signs the world is giving us, because the sad truth is, if we succeed in destroying this world, we won’t get a second chance.

Not a Love Song: The Tragedy of Juliet

Shakespeare’s best known tragedy is the story of two star-crossed lovers, who, in death, end their families’ conflict. Despite being hailed as a great romance, Romeo and Juliet is, in no way, a love story, but very much about individual responsibility and the consequences of making decisions in the heat of passion. Romeo is very impulsive in his actions, never thinking about the harm he may be causing and bringing about much needless strife for himself and those around him. Juliet emerges as a tragic figure, unwittingly caught up in the increasingly violent tensions between the families which leads to her demise.

I have taken to referring to the play as the comedy of Romeo and the tragedy of Juliet. Most who’ve studied the play will note the humorous tone of the first half of the play, with the forlorn Romeo first pining away for Rosaline, then quickly forgetting her when he spies Juliet at the Capulets’ party. The play initially has the wistful feel of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, all of which is cast aside with the death of Mercutio at Tybalt’s hands, which leads Romeo to avenge Mercutio’s death by taking Tybalt’s life. From that point on, the play becomes darkly tragic as the focus shifts from Romeo to Juliet.

The play is laced with violence, both actual and implied. The fight between Mercutio and Tybalt which leads to first Mercutio’s then Tybalt’s death is an example of the overt violence in the play, but there’s also a lot of subtle violence, in how the characters interact with one another. In the scene where Juliet balks at marrying Paris, Lord Capulet’s reaction shows exactly how daughters were regarded in Shakespeare’s time. Capulet implies that she’s his property, and he may dispose of her as he chooses, a sentiment echoed in other works by Shakespeare, including the beginning of the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

We’ve already seen a demonstration of Capulet’s temper early in the play, when ordering Tybalt not to take action after finding Romeo has crashed the Capulets’ party. At first, Capulet seems reasonable, lauding the favorable reports he’s heard of Romeo’s behavior, but as Tybalt presses the issue, he provokes the anger of Lord Capulet, who quickly abandons his festive appearance to let his kinsman know who’s in charge. The hot-headed Tybalt can’t let the issue drop, though, leading to his confrontation with Romeo, which Mercutio takes up on Romeo’s behalf when Romeo tries to walk away.

Pretty much every bad thing that happens in the play happens as a consequence of something Romeo does and at each turn, he has alternatives he never takes the time to consider. He pines over Rosaline, so his friends take him to the Capulets’ feast, where he meets Juliet, then immediately forgets Rosaline. He woos Juliet, and hastily marries her, without considering the consequences of secretly marrying into the family of his family’s sworn enemy. When confronted by Tybalt, he chooses to say nothing of his union to Juliet, first allowing the situation to escalate between Tybalt and Mercutio, then coming between them, which allows Tybalt to deliver the fatal wound. Up to this point in the play, Romeo hasn’t done anything, other than hastily marry Juliet, to cause him any lasting problems. He soon changes all that, setting in motion the series of events which leads the play to its devastating finale.

After killing Tybalt, Romeo runs away, declaring, “I am fortune’s fool” but in reality, fortune had nothing to do with it, as Romeo had many options which did not include fighting Tybalt. When Romeo is first provoked and chooses to walk away, and Mercutio takes up the fight on Romeo’s behalf, Romeo’s best option was to do nothing, and just let Mercutio handle it, since, as a kinsman of the Duke, Mercutio is in a better position to deal with the fall out. Once Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo again needs to do nothing. Following the Duke’s decree, anyone guilty of dueling in the streets is automatically sentenced to death, and Tybalt has not only violated this decree, but he’s killed a relative of the Duke in the process. From the moment Mercutio falls, Tybalt has signed his own death warrant. Romeo would best be served to walk away and let Tybalt face his punishment. Even if his family connections are enough to save him from death, Tybalt would, at the very least, be banished, which would also solve Romeo’s problems without getting his hands dirty. Once again Romeo acts impulsively, this time costing Tybalt his life, and Romeo his freedom of movement within Verona and his actions have devastating consequences for the woman Romeo claims to love.

Romeo’s irresponsible actions leave Juliet in a terrible position, first having to reconcile her love for Romeo against her devotion to her cousin Tybalt, then, finding herself offered as a bride to Paris, which puts her at odds with her short tempered father. Her nurse counsels Juliet to simply yield to the will of her father and marry Paris, but Juliet knows that it’s not that simple. While it’s not explicitly spelled out in the context of the play, the reality is that once Juliet has spent the night with Romeo, she’s no longer a virgin. Capulet has been promising Paris the hand of his virginal daughter and once Paris has sex with her, he’ll know she’s not and will undoubtedly raise the issue with Capulet. Judging by his response to her reluctance to marry Paris, there is little doubt how Capulet would respond to the embarrassment such a revelation would cause him, and Juliet is well aware of this. Her only real hope is for Romeo to return and claim her hand, and given his situation, that’s not likely to happen. Under these circumstances, suicide or cloister are her only viable options and she has Romeo to thank for that.

Technically, under Shakespeare’s definition of the term, Romeo has committed rape. In Elizabethan England, rape was not defined as a sexual offense against a woman, but as a legal offense against her father or family. While Juliet may have consented to having sex with Romeo, who she viewed as her husband, in Shakespeare’s time, young, unmarried women did not have the legal capacity to consent to marriage, which was the only pretense under which sexual activity was considered acceptable, particularly for a woman. In order for the union to be legal in the eyes of their society, Juliet’s father or family would have had to consent to the marriage, and that was never going to happen. From the way the word is used in other plays by Shakespeare, one of the definitions of rape was that of a man who marries a woman simply to have sex with her, which, one could argue, Romeo has done. While he does claim to love Juliet, he also claimed to love Rosaline before meeting Juliet, and hardly a day has passed in between. When he speaks to the friar about performing the marriage, Friar Laurence is skeptical about how much Romeo truly cares for Juliet, but foolishly agrees to perform the union, hoping to end the conflict between the families.

There is a definite pattern to Romeo’s behavior which calls into question how much he truly cares for Juliet. This is evident from the beginning of the play, when it’s revealed that the Rosaline Romeo claims to love is Capulet’s niece. This suggests that Romeo’s trouble with Rosaline isn’t that she’s rejected him but that she is off-limits to him because of her family connections. He’s pining for her because the situation between their families makes it impossible for him to pursue her. In this context, his motives must come under scrutiny, since all accounts are that he’s as much an active participant in his family’s feud with the Capulets as the rest of his kinsmen. Lady Montague expresses relief that Romeo was not party to the fight which starts off the play. Why then would Romeo choose a relative of the Capulets as the object of his affection, knowing full well that it would only lead to more conflict? Meeting Juliet at the party and learning of her parentage presents Romeo with a new opportunity to needle his family’s sworn enemy, and he immediately puts his life at risk to pursue it by sneaking back onto the grounds of the Capulets’ home that night to see Juliet. Romeo shows his true colors when he allows Tybalt to goad him into a fight once Mercutio is dead. Not even his professed love for Juliet, Tybalt’s cousin, is enough to prevent him from striking out at his sworn enemy when provoked.

Every production I’ve seen has cast actresses playing Juliet who are in their late-teens to mid-twenties. However, the text makes it fairly clear that Juliet is thirteen. Lord Capulet, questions whether Juliet is old enough to marry when the subject of her betrothal to Paris comes up. We’re not specifically told Romeo’s age, but given his companions, it’s safe to assume that he, Benvolio, Mercutio, and Tybalt are close in age, probably early- to mid-twenties at the oldest. Paris is a count, that is, landed gentry, meaning he was “of age” or no younger than twenty-one to twenty-five. The life expectancy of people in this era was early- to mid-forties, and under English common law, boys of fourteen and girls as young as twelve could act as witnesses to wills and executors of estates. While men tended to forestall marriage until they had some means of subsistence, usually a plot of land on their families’ property or the guarantee of a substantial inheritance, women could be betrothed as soon as they reached sexual maturity so long as their families were in agreement, and given the hazards of childbirth, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for men to marry several times, leading to very young women being wedded to much older men, particularly if there were young children who needed care. While we may find it scandalous that a man in his twenties is pressing for a marriage to a thirteen year old girl, as Paris does in the play, in that day and age, it was fairly commonplace. For one thing, it got the woman out of her father’s house and made her the responsibility of someone else. Daughters in this era weren’t held in very high esteem, and were generally prized more for the powerful men they could attract than for their own personal attributes.

Juliet is the only character in the play who does not have an overt agenda. The Capulets and Montagues are consumed with their feud, which may or may not influence Romeo’s decision to pursue women related to his family’s sworn enemy. Paris wants Juliet as his wife and Capulet wants the prestige that comes with joining his daughter to a kinsman of the Duke. Friar Laurence is largely motivated by his desire to end the bloodshed caused by the feud, agreeing to sanction a union which he should know neither side will accept. Juliet’s nurse at first helps Juliet in her pursuit of Romeo, but shows her reliance on the established order when she counsels Juliet to marry Paris when Romeo is sent away. Juliet finds herself caught between her obedience to her father and her love for her father’s enemy, yet remains focused on what she believes to be the right course of action, remaining faithful to the vow she made to Romeo. In doing so, she becomes the only character who consistently grows throughout the play.

Romeo’s behavior does not change significantly, and in fact he becomes more reckless and impulsive as the action progresses, whereas Juliet becomes more mature and assured of her actions. Romeo’s decision to kill himself after hearing erroneous reports of Juliet’s death is yet another rash and foolish act which could have been avoided if only he had checked in with Friar Laurence when he arrived back in Verona. Juliet, on the other hand, looks for any opportunity to rectify the situation without further bloodshed. When she realizes her family views her as little more than a token to be offered to the influential Paris, she resolves to chart her own course, even if it means ending her life, and while she is fully prepared to die rather than violate her vow to Romeo, she allows Friar Laurence to counsel her and gratefully accepts his remedy for her situation. Once again, she falls victim to Romeo’s impulsiveness, and seeing her last chance at happiness on her own terms taken from her, she exercises the only option she feels she has left and ends her life.

The Carvings on Stone Mountain, #5

This time, I’m highlighting a couple of individuals who came all the way from Indiana to carve their names on the mountain, Clida A. Reed, and Isaac Hawkins, who list their hometown as Bedford, Indiana.

These carvings can be found near the top of the mountain. To find them, veer to the left at the top of the handrails, and take the alternate route to the top, following the white painted line. Approaching the top, start scanning to the right. Clida A. Reed’s carving is further to the right than Isaac Hawkins’ carving, but both are within a few feet of one another. They’re somewhat worn, being more than a century old, but the word “Bedford” is clear in both. They appear to have been carved 15 May 1912, which raises the question of why these men were on the mountain the same day. I couldn’t find any familial connection or shared employer between them, though they were in the same profession.

Clida A. Reed, Bedford, Ind, 5-15-1912

carvings_stone_mountain_05-08-15_01a

Clida Archester Reed was born in Brown County, Indiana on 24 August 1887, the son of David S. Reed and Polly Reyburn Reed, according to the record of his first marriage to Silva Carpenter on 9 September 1908. On the 1910 census, the closest to the date of the carving he lists his profession as a carpenter in the housing industry. In addition to his wife, Silva, one daughter, Neva, is listed on the census with him. Neva does not appear on the following census in Clida’s household and he has a different wife than in 1910. His name is frequently listed as “Clyde” which gives us an idea how he pronounced it. It’s not known what happened to his wife, Sylva Carpenter Reed, but Clida married Pearlie Elma Manus on 7 December 1912, though she is not listed as his spouse in 1920.

On 5 June 1917, at age 29, he registered for the draft, and his card provides a physical description of him, tall, medium build, blue eyes, dark hair and slightly balding. He states he has a wife and two children under twelve and he’s living in Indianapolis. At the time, he was employed by Gaylord Engineering Construction Company, at Fort Benjamin Harrison. Wikipedia states Fort Benjamin Harrison closed in 1991 and is now the site of a state park.

"Fort Benjamin Harrison, Lawrence, Indiana (circa 1910)" by Charles Bretzman - http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/dc013/id/435/rec/93. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org

“Fort Benjamin Harrison, Lawrence, Indiana (circa 1910)” by Charles Bretzman – http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/dc013/id/435/rec/93. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org

By 1920, he’s listed with a new wife, Georgia A., and one son, Cletis, who’s six years old. It’s not known what happened to his wife Pearlie, or whether his wife in 1920 is the mother of his son although she is listed as such on the census. This marriage apparently didn’t last long either, as he’s recorded as marrying Florence E. Stinebuch on 4 August 1923. She’s listed as his wife on all subsequent records.

Other than the draft registrations, I couldn’t find any military service records for him at Ancestry, but on the 1930 and 1940 census he’s listed as a World War I veteran. He does appear to have been a civilian employee working for the military at the time of the war. In 1930, the census recorded families who owned radios, and Clida is listed as owning one. He registered for the draft 27 April 1942 at the age of 54. On his registration card, his height is given as 5′ 10″, weight 165 pounds, with a ruddy complexion, dark hair that was going grey and he was balding. His wife is identifed as Florence and he’s working for the Allison Engineering Company.

The 1940 census is the last one to be released, and I could find no further records at Ancestry on Clida after 1942, other than a Social Security Death notice which lists that he died in December 1968, and a burial record at Find A Grave which lists only the year of death and states he’s buried at Washington Park East Cemetery in Indianapolis. His son, Cletis Reed, died in San Diego, California in 1973.

Clida Reed shows up in only one publicly posted genealogy at Ancestry, as Clyde A. Reed, and his listings on the census from 1900 and 1930 are the only records cited as references.

Isaac Hawkins, Bedford, Indiana, 5-15-1912

carving_stone_mountain_05-08-15_02aIsaac Joseph Hawkins was born in Monroe County, Indiana on 8 February 1875 according to the Social Security Department. He was the son of Andrew J. Hawkins and Nancy Jane Sowder Hawkins, and appears in Nancy’s household, age 5 on the 1880 census. In 1900, he’s listed as head of his own household, with wife Myrtle and son Arthur. Also in his household is brother-in-law Osker Browning, which gives us Myrtle’s maiden name. Find A Grave lists his date of marriage to Mary Myrtle Browning as 4 July 1897.

Isaac Joseph Hawkins, far left, from a photo posted to Ancestry entitled, Nancy Jane Sowder Hawkins b 1843 TN and Children 1899 Lawrence or Monroe County IN Dawn Warner Perry 2010 (user gmahug). Used with permission.

Isaac Joseph Hawkins, far left, from a photo posted to Ancestry entitled, Nancy Jane Sowder Hawkins b 1843 TN and Children 1899 Lawrence or Monroe County IN Dawn Warner Perry 2010 (user gmahug). Used with permission.

In 1910, the date closest to the carving, Isaac’s family has grown to include five sons and one daughter. His occupation is listed as a carpenter who builds houses, which is similar to Clida Reed, though there’s no indication they worked together. He registered for the draft on 12 September 1918 at age 43, in Lawrence County, IN. He’s described as medium height and build, with blue eyes and light colored hair. It’s difficult to read who his employer is, plus there’s other writing over top of the employer’s name, which looks like “US Ry Adm.” At any rate, he’s still listed in Bedford, Lawrence County, IN.

In 1930, his occupation is listed as “car blocker” in a stone mill. According to Wikipedia, the main industry in Bedford, IN, was quarrying limestone. Much of the limestone used for monuments in Washington, DC came from Bedford. Along with his wife, his household includes two sons, two daughters, one daughter-in-law, and one granddaughter.  He last appears on the census in 1940 with just his wife Myrtle. Find A Grave has a listing for him in Beech Grove Cemetery in Bedford. A social security claim lists his date of death as 30 July 1943.

It’s not clear why two carpenters from Bedford, Indiana were at the top of Stone Mountain on the same day in 1912, but the proximity of their carvings on the mountain suggest some familiarity between them. In May of 1912, Isaac Hawkins would have been 37 and Clida A. Reed would have been 24. I searched online indices for the Atlanta Constitution to see if any sort of large construction project was underway, but couldn’t find any info. The mountain was still owned by the Venables at that point, though apparently, 1912 was the year when the idea first originated to put a carving on the mountain honoring Confederate soldiers, and the face of the mountain was deeded to the United Daughters of the Confederacy for that purpose, though work would not start on it for several years. Since Bedford is known for limestone quarries, perhaps Hawkins and Reed also had experience in stonework that brought them to Stone Mountain. The carvings show a reasonable degree of skill, suggesting that either they had proficiency in this area or they had assistance from someone in the granite works for the task.

Whatever is was that brought them there, Clida Reed doesn’t appear to have stayed long, as he married in Indiana in December of 1912. Perhaps the death of his wife, Sylva required him to return home. There’s no indication how long Isaac Hawkins stayed, though if he and Reed were there together, they probably left together as well. In any event, they made the journey and like many before and since, they left their mark on the mountain.

References:

United States of America, Bureau of the Census.

Tenth Census of the United States, 1880. (NARA microfilm publication T9, 1,454 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1900. T623, 1854 rolls.

Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910 (NARA microfilm publication T624, 1,178 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. (NARA microfilm publication T625, 2076 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls.

Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1940. T627, 4,643 rolls.

Familysearch.org

“Indiana Marriages, 1811-2007,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VKJ4-V8L : accessed 16 August 2015), Clida A Reed and Sylva Carpenter, ; citing , county clerk offices, Indiana; FHL microfilm 1,317,738.

“Indiana Marriages, 1811-2007,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VKJC-4HB : accessed 16 August 2015), Clida A Reed and Pearlie Elma Manus, 07 Dec 1912; citing , Lawrence, Indiana, county clerk offices, Indiana; FHL microfilm 1,317,735.

“Indiana Marriages, 1780-1992,” , FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XFXN-CYV : accessed 16 August 2015), Clida A. Reed and Florence E. Stinebuch, 04 Aug 1923; citing reference 491; FHL microfilm 2,108,463.

Failing, to Succeed 

I have a saying, “Hank Aaron didn’t hit a home run every time.” It’s my way of reminding myself that for every success, there are a thousand less than perfect outcomes. In fact, failure is much more common than success. The term “trial and error” best sums up the practice of implementing a strategy, observing the positive and negative effects, and modifying procedures until the desired results are achieved. The founders of the United States didn’t get things right the first time with the Articles of Confederation, and it took a Civil War to work out issues left over from ratifying the Constitution.

The old saying goes that one learns more from failure than success, but this is mainly because one learns from failure, versus getting something right the first time. Failure causes one to evaluate what went wrong, to examine the process and make improvements, and to “try harder” on the next attempt. In the process the brain gets rewired, and changes in attitude and behavior happen that can’t be reversed. One who succeeds without much effort or “coasts” on talent alone is no better or worse for the experience, whereas the person who fails a time or two (or more) and works on improving himself or herself changes with each attempt, becoming more knowledgeable and better skilled as he or she masters the endeavor. Orson Welles, in his Hollywood debut, produced what has been heralded as the greatest movie ever filmed, and never fully lived up to his potential again, ending his career shilling wine on television. Lasting success often comes to those not immediately appreciated for their talents.

George Washington wasn’t highly regarded by his superiors as a young officer in the Colonial militia, and as a general, his favorite tactic was strategic retreat. Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime, but, fortunately, didn’t let that stifle his creativity. Penicillin came about because Alexander Fleming used a petri dish contaminated with mold spores. Joanne Rowling was a recently divorced single mother with serious financial problems, who spent her free time in a coffee shop working on the draft of what would become the first Harry Potter novel. Failure and the disappointment that comes with it often makes eventual success all the more rewarding.

The book Rejection by John White chronicles numerous instances where authors, filmmakers, and other public figures have endured times when their work was not recognized by critics, publishers, or the public at large. In one instance, a poet, Lee Pennington, submitted a work to a magazine and received the response, “This is the worst poem in the English language. You are the worst poet in the English language.” Undaunted, he submitted it to another magazine, which published it and named it best poem of the year. Learning to deal with disappointment is the most important lesson one can learn, because we’re more likely to be disappointed than satisfied. Accepting that failure is not the end of the world is often the first step in becoming a success.

That being said, it is, by no means easy to deal with failure, and the grander the scale, the more difficult it becomes to overcome the feelings that go with it. There is a tendency among people to personalize every interaction. Often times, when something negative happens to someone, the first instinct is for the person to wonder what he or she did to cause it. Usually, such feelings have little basis in reality. I was once run off the road by another driver who pulled out in front of me unexpectedly. In the immediate aftermath, I questioned why I had been in the lane I’d been in. After a moment, though, I realized I hadn’t done anything wrong. Still, my first instinct had been to blame myself for what had happened. When we fail, it’s always a challenge to keep believing we’re capable of accomplishing the task at hand, but those who best overcome failure are those best positioned to succeed.

Sometimes, failure does result from individual limitations. A person with no athletic ability is not very likely to become a world-class tennis or soccer star, regardless of how much effort goes into the pursuit. Everyone has talent in some form or another, however, and sometimes it’s just a matter of recognizing and nurturing that talent. James Boswell, biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson, had a talent for bringing interesting people together and chronicling what happened afterward. Learning to be resourceful in the face of defeat gives one the potential to eventually succeed. We’re always going to have difficulties. It’s how we face them that makes all the difference.

Birds! Various Dates

Re-posting a couple of my favorite bird videos, plus one I don’t think I’ve posted in this blog before. Enjoy!

Pigeon, Brookhaven MARTA Station, Brookhaven, GA, 27 September 2012

Egret, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, 11 October 2014

Geese, Stone Mountain, GA, 23 April 2011

 

A Streetcar Named Delusion 

Note: This article has been updated and expanded in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project, available in print from online bookstores, and in print and Kindle at Amazon.

A Streetcar Named Desire is heralded as one of the greatest theatrical works of the twentieth century and is one of the best known and most performed works by Tennessee Williams. It sets up a classic confrontation, the flamboyant yet fragile Blanche DuBois versus the menacing and unpredictable Stanley Kowalski. The tension begins the moment Blanche enters the household and builds to it’s shattering climax with Blanche and Stanley’s final confrontation. The moment Blanche meets her brother-in-law, his fuse is lit, and the question becomes how long it will be before Stanley explodes. Caught between them is the hapless Stella, who tries her best to mediate between two very demanding antagonists without much success. The play also features a decisive shift in power as the first half largely belongs to Blanche, while the second part is clearly dominated by Stanley. While I have seen this play performed recently, this article is not intended as a review of a specific performance, rather an analysis of the play as a whole.

At its heart, Streetcar is a thinly veiled metaphor for the Civil War and Reconstruction. The generation of Southern writers who included Tennessee Williams, Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner were the children and grandchildren of Confederate veterans, and no doubt grew up hearing horror stories of Northern aggression and the noble Southern gentry who made a valiant but ultimately doomed stand in the face of it. Stanley is the perfect stand-in for the unrefined, egalitarian North with its melting pot willing to assimilate just about anyone, while Blanche represents the genteel and pure-bred South, which existed more in myth than actuality. Everything about Blanche is phony, as was the myth of noble Southern gentry whose fortunes were built on the backs of the slaves and poor whites they exploited. It speaks to Williams’ skill as a playwright that neither character emerges as the hero of the piece. Blanche is portrayed as delusional and elitist, while Stanley is brutish and violent. Stella comes across as the tortured heroine, caught between the empty myth of the “old South” and the harsh reality of the modern industrial North now in control of the South’s destiny. That the play takes place in New Orleans, perhaps the most eclectic of old Southern cities, merely enhances the dichotomy of the two extremes.

In many respects, Stella and Blanche are two sides of the same coin, the only difference being that Stella has made compromises Blanche is unwilling or incapable of making. Stella seems the more realistic of the two sisters, seeing the future as grim but manageable with the right attitude, whereas Blanche is unwilling to accept anything but her version of reality. Ironically, it’s Blanche who has been treated to the harshest dose of reality, early on losing her husband to suicide, then having to care for the aging members of her family while watching the family’s fortunes evaporate due to mismanagement. Blanche’s delusions are rooted in the naive hope that a protector will arise to return her to the gentility she remembers from her youth, whereas Stella’s delusions are rooted in her acceptance of the notion that her fortunes are bound to those of her husband. Everything will be fine as long as she does what Stanley tells her. Until Blanche shows up calling into question the relationship Stella has with Stanley, it never occurs to Stella that anything’s wrong with her marriage. Blanche is the one to see how controlling Stanley can be and perhaps Blanche’s greatest frustration comes from being unable to convince Stella how oppressive this relationship may become.

The challenge of Streetcar is that there’s no one within the context of the story that the audience can champion. Blanche is self-centered and delusional, while Stanley is a narcissist, already showing signs of becoming an abusive spouse. Stella simply floats between the two, not knowing for certain which of the powerful presences she should placate. With the exception of Mitch, none of Stanley’s friends rise above the level of caricature, and the women surrounding Stella do little more than encourage her to stick by her violent and aggressive spouse. For her part, Stella transforms Stanley into her rugged protector, just as Blanche attempts to transform Mitch into the type of gallant Southern gentleman she thinks will save her. Neither is successful, but at least Stella is able to convince herself that Stanley’s failings are more a result of his situation rather than genuine character flaws. The reality is, Stanley needs Stella, and Stella needs Stanley, regardless of how unhealthy their symbiotic relationship may be in the long-run. Stella realizes, though, that as long as she remains within the boundaries set for her by her husband, things will work out for her, while Blanche is determined to push those boundaries, much to her detriment.

In all the productions I’ve seen, Stanley rarely comes across as likable. While he does have humorous moments, there’s a strong sense that the audience is laughing at his oafish ways rather than with him. The turning point comes when he strikes Stella. This is both the point at which Blanche is shown the dark side of Stella’s relationship with Stanley, and when the audience realizes how out of control Stanley can become when his authority is challenged. Obviously, we’re not seeing Stanley at his best, and Blanche certainly brings out the worst in him, but the violence is there to be mined. He didn’t suddenly turn into an arrogant jerk just because his sister-in-law paid a visit. Stella mentions that Stanley does not give her a regular allowance and generally handles all the bills, both classic traits of a spouse who contrives to make his partner totally dependent upon him. It’s clear from his first appearance in the play that he’s firmly in charge in his household. Somehow, though, Stella does not seem to mind, instead relinquishing all her autonomy. Like Blanche, she wants someone strong on whom she can depend to support her and make all the decisions, and Stanley is all too willing to fulfill this role. It’s entirely likely that their life together has been reasonably pleasant before Blanche shows up with the first real challenge to Stanley, and he doesn’t handle it well. Whether or not Blanche’s reemergence in Stella’s life will have any long-term impact is unknown, but given how she reacts to having Blanche around, it’s likely that Stella is ultimately glad her sister leaves at the end, regardless of how that comes about.

Much discussion has centered around Stanley and Blanche’s final showdown near the end of the play, and in many of the productions I’ve seen, it’s strongly implied, if not outright depicted that he rapes her. This seems largely dependent upon how the director and cast choose to interpret the scene, though whether or not Stanley actually forces himself on Blanche, it’s fairly clear that she does not submit to him out of a sense of mutual desire. By this point in the play, most of Blanche’s delusions have been shattered, and one could argue that Mitch’s rejection of her has as much, if not more impact on her mental state than anything Stanley does. The balance of power has shifted, and the last safe harbor Blanche was counting on, being with her sister, has not provided her with the solace she needed. Surrendering to Stanley is the final indignity, and a case could be made that Blanche has already gone off the deep end by this point, so nothing Stanley does can have much more of a detrimental effect on her. Stanley has stripped Blanche of all her pretensions, and thus destroyed the illusion which was the basis of her self image. She submits because she has nothing left to lose.

It is important to note, however, that even though Blanche seems defeated at the end, she does not appear to have completely abandoned the delusions she’s used to bolster her self-esteem throughout. Her final line, “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers” sounds suspiciously like she believes the person to whom it’s said is genuinely doing her a favor. One can imagine Blanche convincing herself that the convalescent home where she’s being taken is some elegant chalet arranged for her by a mysterious benefactor, and once she’s had time to rest and recuperate, she may well be able to fool the staff into thinking she’s safe to release, allowing her to once again return to the belief that she’s in control. I strongly suspect the Kowalskis haven’t heard the last of Blanche DuBois.

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Note: This promotion has ended, but if people still would like to purchase the Kindle version of Freedom and Consequence, follow the link.Freedom and Consequence Front CoverFifteen stories about people facing difficult choices, or dealing with the consequences of choices made. Just as every action has a reaction, every decision comes with a consequence. How will these people learn to deal with those consequences?