In his 1999 essay, “The Hermit and the Activist,” poet David Budbill wrote about a “religious urge” that incites “on the one hand withdrawal from the world for prayer, and hopefully enlightenment, and on the other hand engagement with the world in order to join in the battle for truth and justice and so forth.” This inexplicable yet always nagging “religious urge” involves our basic human desire for peace, wellness, and cohesion, which means two things: sometimes we have to keep quiet and believe in God’s plan, and other times we must actively work to make good things happen. While this need for harmony can lead to many approaches, from a knowing acceptance of social and political realities to a torrential resistance against certain ideas, the goal is ultimately the same: freeing the goodness in a world where it is often obscured from view or wearing strange disguises.
Since I converted to Catholicism, I have regularly gained new perspectives on the disharmony in the world around me; among those perspectives was the need for prayer. Prayer is not just “talking to God,” and it is not inaction. Prayer requires an attitude of selflessness, whereby a person must relinquish the need for control, then seek answers and solutions in humble silence. Action without that unselfish contemplation can be needlessly preemptive, completely pointless, or worst of all, based on assumptions that are wrong.
For much of my life, I have taken bitter pride in being an atypical Alabamian, and that pride has led me to harry the proponents of the status quo, mainly because us atypical Alabamians have our fortunes linked to our more typical fellow citizens. Yet, when I was baptized and took on the Catholic faith in my 30s, the teachings of Jesus, as they appear in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles, soon revealed to me that my penchant for derision and my newfound faith are largely irreconcilable. Put simply, I found that being a snarky, self-righteous naysayer not only isn’t productive, it isn’t compatible with being a kind, charitable Christian. (I still think I might be one among a minority of Alabamians who sees it that way, even though I’m a long way from living up to that high standard.)
Yet, relinquishing my snark won’t be that easy. While I consider David Budbill’s noble and thoughtful sentiment about prayer and enlightenment, I’m also reminded of a crass but meaningful scene in the 1980s movie Risky Business, when Joel (Tom Cruise) is admonished by his friend Miles that sometimes “you gotta say, ‘What the fuck,’ and make your move.” That’s the second part of Budbill’s assertion: the “religious urge” compels us not only to prayer, but to action, even against insurmountable odds, because . . . David and Goliath, that’s why. Despite the dim scene here in Alabama, it is still possible to transcend our last-place status through action. Last December, a whole bunch of voters did just that by casting a ballot for Doug Jones over Roy Moore— and the two-time supreme court chief justice, assumed to be a shoo-in winner, fell to the newcomer. Last month, Jones was sworn in to the US Senate – a win in itself – and he immediately co-sponsored a bill that Alabama needs badly to keep a vital children’s healthcare program alive. I’m not sure how many of us who cast those votes actually believed that Jones would win— but we made our move.
It’s hard, in Alabama, not to lose faith in goodness, in part because it’s so easy either to relegate “mostpeople” to the Thoreauvian slush pile of those who “live their lives in quiet desperation” or to cast the Other into a murky backwater among the Grendels who oppose justice and happiness. The truth is, no matter one’s social and political ideals, all of us here live with the severe poverty, the efforts to address it, and the counter-efforts that perpetuate it. Poverty, material and spiritual, has and still does cost us dearly. We spend many hours doing the proverbial gnashing of teeth and tearing of clothes over matters national, local, and personal, and I now see an Alabama that is exhausted with trying to make sense of subterfuge, manipulation, excuses, and blame. My prayerful side tells me that goodness is here; it’s just not being relied-upon heavily enough. And the side of me that knows action is needed— it says that “many hands make light work,” and Alabama has enough good people with strong hands to make some real progress.
First, we have to step away from the world, from our minor myths, and from “alternative facts,” to gain some perspective before acting. The buzz-words and stereotypes cloud the air, and we’re too busy swatting at the smoky dissonance. We spend a great deal of energy bumping into each other blindly and asking, “Friend or foe?” But our quandary is not one of dichotomies: Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, black or white, immigrant or native, LGBTQ or straight— our one unified truth centers on the real need for peace, wellness, and cohesion in Alabama, where we all live together.