The Rev. Dr. Neil O’Farrell’s reverie on seeing and not-seeing.
Typically, if I’m officiating at a funeral as the minister, I hitch a ride in the hearse to the cemetery with the funeral director. It’s a chance to catch up on the news of someone with whom I work, if only intermittently, and I’d rather be driven than to drive.
The most recent time I did this, when I got into the hearse while awaiting the funeral director to join me in a few moments, Rush Limbaugh was on the radio. The hearse was new. I tried to turn the radio off, but the controls were so complicated, all I succeeded in doing was to turn the blower up. Once we were on our way, the three of us were travel companions: Limbaugh, the director, and me.
We rode in a different vehicle on the way back to the church after the funeral. Once again, Limbaugh was on the radio. Now, I realized this was not an accidental coincidence, but the conscious choice of the funeral director.
As we drove back, he started talking along with Limbaugh, as if in conversation. I don’t know who was egging each other on. Limbaugh was being himself, but the director was cheering him on out loud, telling him to go further, to become more pointed, strident, and over-the-top. It was like a sports cheer for the home team.
I found this choice of radio programming to be highly unprofessional. A funeral is not the place for your political leanings. But, I’ve grown accustomed to those who think ministers have to be right-leaning politically, particularly in my neck of the woods.
The director leaned over and said something, assuming that I certainly agreed with what was being broadcast. I told him that no, I found Limbaugh’s views and his pugilistic language insulting and untrue.
The director was floored. I explained that my very liberal values were scripturally based and flowed from Jesus’ teachings about justice and shared responsibility. I knew that bringing up the Bible was a clear invitation for a conversation that would go something like this:
Him: “Doesn’t the Bible say …?”
Me: “No,” or “Yes, but so what?”
He said that he thought in America, everyone who worked hard, etc., etc., could climb up the ladder of success. I told him that plainly wasn’t true, and the line of humanity that I see personally in my office demonstrated it wasn’t true on a daily basis.
His funeral home is a walk from my office. He works with the population of those living in my church neighborhood. He plans their funerals, encountering countless families at their most vulnerable. He knows many funerals that can only be financed by passing the hat around, and hoping there is enough money to suffice.
Once again, I wondered how two persons—me and him—can deal with the same beleaguered persons, with the same broken family structures, the same stories, the same struggles, the same poverty, the same lack of prospects, the same straitened circumstances—how two persons like us could come up with such diametric understandings of the people and the world that geographically and socially surrounds us.
On a theological level, I wondered how we could read the same scripture, and come to such different conclusions. It’s hard to find simpler language than the beatitudes and the Golden Rule. The funeral director could quote those Bible verses as proficiently as I can. But to what end?
No, the reality is that the difference isn’t in the words themselves. Biblical interpretation aside, I asked him what he thinks of the poor persons he sees in his funeral showroom. What does he see?
Largely, he didn’t answer. I don’t think he was merely being evasive. I know him and like him. We’ve worked together over a period of years. We have much in common. He’s a decent man, and I wouldn’t be shy about sharing my PIN number with him because he wouldn’t take advantage of anyone. (PIN number: my yardstick of trusting/not-trusting.)
Truly, he doesn’t seem to see the people in front of him. What he sees is pain alright, yet the pain of someone affluent is not much different to him than the pain of the impoverished.
He doesn’t see the individual behind the pain. He doesn’t see the nuance—the difference in the pain of someone for whom the cost of a funeral doesn’t take much heavy lifting, as opposed to the pain of someone who has to leave their loved one in a morgue until money enough can be begged in order to take the next step in honoring their dead.
I’ve studied evolutionary psychology and social psychology. I know there is a hard-wired difference between what we know of the liberal and the conservative mind.
He and I see people across a frequency spectrum. He may encounter a family only once. I often interact with them every week in our soup kitchen. I know them by name. They call out to me by name when they see me on the street or ask for quarters while standing in the highway median.
I, personally, simply can’t not see them. “Blessed are the poor for they will inherit the earth.”
Right now, I’m in the possession of the ashes of a homeless woman who was murdered one night while sleeping in a park near the church. Her long-time male companion and I have planned a memorial service for her birthday next month. I pleaded for her ashes from the crematorium at no charge because I simply could not afford the $900 that would be charged normally.
I recall that woman, and also a black plastic box, about the size of a shoe box, of her ashes. The funeral director handles boxes like those every day. He evidently doesn’t see all the persons whose ashes are in the box. What their individual lives were like. Why seeing clearly matters.
Photo: andreweick / flickr