Pitching Out Sales Pitches

Yesterday two men knocked at our door.  They represented an auto glass replacement company.  I pointed to the car in our driveway and said, “See the windshield.  There’s nothing wrong with it.”  One of the salesmen opened a binder and showed me pictures of chipped car windows.  He explained that my car might have micro fractures and chips that would gradually expand until the windshield collapsed.  I found the magic words to make him leave.  I said, “I just bought that car in November.  It’s new.”  My wife Judy asked me what I was doing as I stood by the door and watched the men cross our lawn and head down the street.  I turned away after they walked out of sight and told her, “They want to sell me a new windshield.  I watched them leave to make sure we won’t need one.”

Years ago a man surprised me as I swept leaves off the driveway.  He told me that he represented a pest control company and asked me if I had any problems.  I told him that carpenter ants invaded from time to time.  They congregated on the kitchen ceiling.  He offered to treat my house, but I told him that my wife didn’t want poisons sprayed inside.  We had small children.  The man paused for a moment to size me up, and then faked hysteria.  He cried, “But what are you going to do if you find ants in your house??!!”   “Squish ’em,”  I deadpanned.  He laughed, gave me his card and walked away.

Another man strode up to my porch–big gait, expansive gestures, everyone’s buddy.  I saw a pick up idling at the curb behind him.  A large cooler rested on the truck bed.  I knew this bit:  guys drove around town with steaks, lobsters, and shrimp on ice and sold them cheap door to door.  I never bought anything off a truck, so I tried to cut to the chase.  I met him before he could pound on my door and said, “We don’t want any.”  “But sir!” he cried.   “You don’t even know what I’m selling.  I’ve got the finest steaks, filet mignon and–”  “I don’t care what you’re selling.  I’m not buying.”  I  said.  “Hey, buddy.  That’s just rude,” he sputtered.  I could see him building up self-righteous rage–it was bad form to not let him deliver his spiel.  “Okay, I’m rude,” I conceded.  “But I’m not buying anything and it’s time for you to get off my property.”  “Mister, that’s just–that’s just—” he stammered.  “Go,” I said.  He balled up his fists and took a step toward me.  Then he thought better of it and stalked off across the yard.  He yelled to his friend in the truck, “Go to the next one.  This jerk ran me off!”

A teenage girl rang our doorbell one night right after we cleared the dinner table.  She belonged to an organization that helped disadvantaged youths better themselves.  She tried to sell us magazines and told us that the kid with the best sales record won a prize (cash, a scholarship?). When she saw that we had lost interest and sympathy she threw back her shoulders and declared, “Someday I’m going to be somebody.  I’m going to succeed!”  She studied us as she waited for a reaction.  She hoped, apparently, that we would feel pressured into helping her achieve her ambitions.  We didn’t.  I walked outside a few minutes after she left and saw teenage boys and girls canvassing homes along the street.  A school bus parked down the road had a sign on it that read, “American Dreamers”.  A man with a money bag and clip board stood by the front bumper.  He collected checks and cash from his crew, clipped order forms to the board, and directed out going kids to new targets.

I got a call several months after we moved into our home from a woman offering a free water quality test.  A middle aged salesman with a frizzy brown mustache came the next evening.  He set up a display case of powdered chemicals, beakers and test tubes in our living room.  He poured tap water and orange crystals into a test tube, and the mixture turned yellow.  A white precipitate fell to the bottom.  He held up the “test results” and said, “See?”  We didn’t.  My wife Judy and I had taken chemistry in college and could recognize a Mr. Wizard flim-flam routine.  The salesman saw that he hadn’t impressed us and said, “You know that there’s an EPA Superfund site just up the road on Forsyth.”  I knew that our water company pumped out of the Florida Aquifer, not out of a shallow well nearby.  The salesman shifted gears and told us that the expensive water filtration system his company sold would save us money because…BECAUSE his company threw in jugs of super efficient laundry detergent as a bonus.  We didn’t bite.  Then he held up the test tube with the white precipitate again and glared at my wife as she held our son in her lap.  “What about the kids?” he seethed.  “Don’t you care about your kids?”  Judy started to cry.  I squared up to him and told him to leave.  He packed his case in a hurry.  But before he left he said, “You’ve got a gift coming for letting me test your water.”  I said, “We don’t want anything from you, ” and shut the door behind him.  The next day we got a call from his company.  A manager asked, “Why didn’t you accept your gift?  Was there a problem with the salesman?”

Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and assorted evangelicals frequently make the rounds in our neighborhood.  They want to know if I am saved, believe in the Bible, know what will happen to me after I die, and whether I’d like to join their happy fellowship.  The brightly colored illustrations in their pamphlets show Jesus curing the sick, happy clusters of believers breaking into song, and throngs of ecstatic souls gathered on flowered meadows in heaven.  I sometimes tell missionaries that I have a faith of my own and am satisfied with it.  If they follow up and ask, “What faith is that?” I say, “Religion is a private matter.”

But sometimes I don’t answer the door and let them mill around on my front porch.  They peer into my picture window and spot me going about my business.  They knock again determined to save me regardless of my indifference.  (How far would they go if I did open the door?)  They eventually leave with defeated looks on their faces, but their visit has not been fruitless.  They’ve inspired me to reach out and communicate with the Beyond:  as I watch them retreat I offer a prayer of thanksgiving.  I pray, “Thank you Jesus for the steel bars on my front door.”

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The Sanctity of Guilt

Religions elevate different emotional states or personality traits to the highest standard of moral behavior.  Christians praise self-sacrificing love.  Readers of the Bhagavad Gita learn that they should not be concerned by the results of their actions, but that they should make sure that every step taken is one of devotion to God.  Quakers believe that an Inner Light is available for guidance, and if it is consistently followed the believer will live a life in harmony with the whole of humankind and nature.  All of these core beliefs are powerful tools for setting social mores, to leading people toward happier and more productive lives as well as to spiritual peace.

The interesting but sad history of nearly every faith is the perversion of their core beliefs into repressive, rigid codes that are used by a hierarchical structure to garner and maintain power and wealth.  Secondary tenets are usually added onto the original inspirational teachings of the founders of a religion, ones that aid and abet the franchise building of current spiritual leaders.

I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith.  The power structure of the church, at times, was emphasized from the pulpit more strongly than the Sermon on the Mount.  We weren’t encouraged to read the Bible in our spare time as we might get ideas that ran contrary to the teaching of our parish priests.  Certain passages of the New Testament were ignored (Jesus had brothers and sisters and a mother who was worried that He would embarrass the family in front of the neighbors.), while others were heavily underlined (Mary’s miraculous state of virginity when she became pregnant and gave birth to Jesus).  Loving sacrifice, when it was taught, was usually tied to giving generously to charities sponsored by the church and to the church itself.

Secondary tenets were added on to ensure our docile acceptance of church doctrine and its hierarchy.  Obedience was emphasized, as was humility in the face of God’s amazing power.  God’s representatives on earth were the priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope, so kneeling before them and accepting their direction without question was an act of piety.

Guilt was a big thing too.  We were taught to feel guilty for merely existing.  Baptism released us from an original sin passed down to us from Adam and Eve that we had acquired simply by being born.  Jesus died for our sins, even the ones we had only imagined.  We were told that we constantly sinned in thought, word and deed, and by acts of commission and omission.  From one sunrise to the next we were actively engaged in fouling our souls, and only by rushing to confession to seek out church sponsored forgiveness could we expunge a few stains.  The agonies of our Savior on the cross were described in detail to reinforce the idea that we, the faithful, were a bunch of miserable shits requiring an extreme sacrifice to square our debts with God.  And, of course, if we were ingrates and failed to toe the (church) line, then Jesus would act as our judge and condemn us to eternal hell….So much fun.

Guilt became an act of piety.  If folks had moments when they felt a little too good about themselves they would be reminded of their faults.  A “big head” meant that one had forgotten about his or her innate fallibility.  It was better to counter any moment of satisfaction with a self reminder that one had screwed up in the past and would do so again.  If persons felt that they had made some strides in conquering a bad habit they kept it to themselves, or even suppressed any thoughts of accomplishment.  She had been taught not to trust in herself–only God (and a priest) could really recognize the true state of her soul–and God might be tempted to throw harder challenges at him if he got cocky.

In recent years the child abuse scandal has finally exposed the depths of corruption in the church.  The revelation that the organization was designed mostly to promote and protect its own, namely the clerics  and not the lay people, was a heartbreaking surprise to those who had spent their lives revering the official caretakers of the church.  The faithful parishioners had hoped that there really leaders more chaste and holy than themselves, that all those years of guilt-tripping had been a meaningful exercise in becoming more like the clergy if not like Jesus Himself (the unattainable goal).

The truth has come out, but the question is, “Will it set us free?”  Can we go back to the original teachings of an avatar, saint, or savior and discern their core message?  Can we put divine inspiration into effect in our own lives without guidance from a teacher who may or may not be corrupt?  Is there a church that hasn’t debased the revelations of its founding prophet?  And if we rely solely on ourselves will be fall prey to self-delusion?

I’ve been left to wander after leaving behind the Catholic church.   The faith into which I was indoctrinated still has a lingering influence, and my fall back stance whenever I am praised or criticized is an uneasy mix of humility and guilt.    I meditate and have dabbled in studying Buddhism and Hindu belief systems, but have never found a true spiritual home.  As far as I know there have been no organizations created by human beings that can ever establish a heavenly space here on earth.

Perhaps the most that we can hope for is to see occasional glimpses of a better way of existence.

 

The Crowd at Golgotha

The responses of the Jews and Romans to Jesus’ suffering have always fascinated me.  Pilate found a mob’s blood lust distasteful, but wasn’t moved enough by Jesus’ innocence and acceptance of His fate to give Him a reprieve.  Another man’s life wasn’t all that important to Pontius.  The Roman soldiers delighted in Jesus’ fall from power and mocked Him as they crowned Him with thorns.  His pain was their sport.  Veronica saw His suffering and tried to ease it, and His mother bore witness to her son’s death without turning away.  Others ran away and hid.

I could have been any one in the crowd of onlookers at Golgotha.  I have a similar range of responses to weakness, suffering and tragedy.  When I see someone in distress I sometimes feel an urge to rush in and fix things.  At other times I’m repelled by the ugliness of the moment, or am afraid that a particular form of human frailty might be catching.  At certain unfortunate moments I take delight that someone else is suffering too, or what’s worse, I feel glad that it’s them and not me.

I became more aware of my wavering response to misfortune when my sister was diagnosed with ALS.  She saw my hesitancy to enter her new existence and share in her suffering, and she eased me through the transition.  She wanted me to know that she was all right, that she hadn’t really changed inside.  (She was blessed with strength and grace and did her best to help others even as she was losing her life in slow increments.)

I also watched how strangers reacted to her as she went about her business in public in a motorized wheel chair.  Some became anxious, some pretended she wasn’t there, and others smiled too broadly and made a big fuss when they approached her.  They  patronized her by talking too loudly and in simple sentences.  It appeared that they thought that her impairment was mental as well as physical.  My sister ignored the awkwardness and just went about getting what she wanted.  If onlookers had a problem with her condition it had nothing to do with her.

I’ve become more aware of the cruelty that sometimes seems to surround us.  I’ve recently heard children mocking an elderly couple for their frailty, and saw adults smiling contemptuously at a person in a wheelchair struggling to thread his way through a crowd on a sidewalk.  Their lack of empathy astounded me, and I wondered how they managed to avoid realizing that they too could end up in a similar state one day.  But weakness provides a tempting target, and some can’t resist taking advantage of another person’s misfortune.  I believe that the perpetrators feel empowered when they add to the suffering.  I despise this behavior, but am not immune from this form of malevolence.  Some of my worst moments of self loathing follow such lapses.

My wife has helped me leave some of this darkness behind.  My upbringing wasn’t always sweet and kind, and I learned to defend myself with harsh words and anger when challenged.  A few months after I got married I noticed something unexpected:  when my wife and I argued I always seemed to lose.  When I vented my frustrations and hurt her feelings I had the sensation that I was hurt too.  Even when I defeated her in an argument there was no real satisfaction.  There was no such thing as winning if it came at her expense–it was like trying to arm wrestle with my right arm pitted against my left.

I’m beginning to understand that I have similar interconnections with those outside my family circle. I occasionally get a glimpse that all my actions and decisions have a ripple effect on the people around me.  The ties extend everywhere and all through time.

The witnesses and participants in Jesus’ trial and execution were in different states of awareness.  Some saw a man’s suffering as something separate from themselves, while others were aware that Jesus’ agony was theirs too.  My intention is to have more moments of wakefulness, more glimpses of the reality that we are all one human mass of suffering, joy, fear, hope, love, hate and desire.  Humanity is a continuum and none are above, below or separate.  We all hurt or help our brothers and sisters by everything we do say.

Peace.