Yesterday morning I had this weird stereophonic experience -- reading Eric Nicholson's piece on Unfair Park about the orthodox synagogue versus the homeowners group in Far North Dallas, while also watching and listening to President Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on TV.
In the war for my groggy attention, Nicholson was winning at first. Always good with illustrative detail, Nicholson recounted court testimony in which the head of the homeowners group complained that he had been attempting to return to his home after a hunting trip when he was forced to stop his car at the entrance to his cul de sac -- to bring the vehicle to a full stop, then wait at a dead standstill before re-accelerating into a forward homeward-bound velocity --- just because some Orthodox Jewish woman with a baby in a carriage was attempting to cross the street in front of him.
I was imagining how furious he must have been -- forced to use his brakes for a mother and baby -- when at that very moment I heard the words of the president of the United States:
"And, first," he was saying, "we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt -- not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn't speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn't care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth."
That word -- humility -- had been so much on my mind lately, long before I thought about the man having to stop for the baby, that I felt as if the president might be speaking directly to me. Lately the public space feels almost as if it has been entirely expropriated by people braying about their own certainty, competing to see which one of them can out-shout, out-bluster, out-lie and out-humiliate all the others, as if absolutely crushing all the others is the only socially acceptable goal.
What about humility? What about conceding that you're not sure you're totally in the right about everything? What about admitting that other people might have a point, too, and that the women among them who are mothers might have a right to cross the street with their babies without being run over and crushed by people returning from hunting trips?
David Schneider, head of the Highlands of McKamy Homeowners Association, is a frequent litigant who had devised an argument why a judge should forbid a small group of Orthodox Jews from worshiping in the living room of the house across the street from him: single family residential neighborhood, blah blah blah, synagogue not a single family, blah blah, had to stop my car once for a baby, blah, Orthodox Jews reducing my property values. Blah. It took a judge 15 minutes to blow him right out of the courtroom.
But I think if we're going to be totally fair about it, we might have to concede a few points in Schneider's behalf. Zoning is zoning. A church doesn't feel like a single-family residence. In his piece, Nicholson conveyed that the legal considerations are more complex than that. The law has carved out a special space in it for places of religious worship, so that zoning ordinances may apply to places of worship differently than to secular property. But let's just say Schneider was not without a legal basis for asking the judge to make the people stop worshiping God in the house across the street from him.
What about humility? What about looking at people engaged in worship and wondering if maybe you shouldn't barge in? It's a close thing, people worshiping. It's not easy to make it out as a threat or a danger. What about not saying anything?
I'm thinking of those bastards who shot up Charlie Hebdo in Paris, but I'm also thinking of that woman who grabbed the microphone at the Muslim tolerance rally in Austin last week and started spewing anti-Muslim hate speech. How can people who are past the age of 7 not understand that respect is always a two-way street? How can adults lack that all-important grain of self-doubt that stops them from riding roughshod over the other man's worship, his pursuit of truth?
I don't think I'm prescribing total relativism. I don't have any objection if somebody thinks he's closer to the truth than the next guy. I just wonder why he lacks that all important quality of humility that would allow him to accept the other guy's legitimacy.
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Once a person has some decent humility going for him, then the quality of mutual respect might come along easily behind it, and after that who knows? A person might even advance to the level of good manners. Once armed with good manners, a person could achieve that highest and most difficult of all social and moral attainments -- the ability to keep his damn mouth shut once in a while.
You know, you look across the street and you see a bunch of people who don't look like you, and they are gathered in families to worship God in a way you don't believe is in full concordance with the bylaws of your homeowners group. You're about to say something about it to them.
All of a sudden, the clouds part and a single ray of sunshine comes down and bathes you in lustrous embrace. A glorious energy fills you, and you think, "Even though I was sorely tempted to do otherwise, I have been filled with the power to keep my damn mouth shut." And back inside you go to watch the damn game.
What ever happened to that as a virtue?