Monday, November 14, 2011

The Young Veteran: a poem

After class, one of my students,
a 35-year-old vet,
tells me:

"We need to get rid of the Federal Trade Reserve.
Did you know that it's an independent corporation,
not a government agency? They've been
screwing us since the 1930s."

Truth be told,
I did not know that.
Like most of my countrymen,
I have prefereed to remain
blissfully ignorant
of such things.

I am not surprised, though.
As a teacher,
I have a love/hate relationship
with money and my government.

In my adult life,
I have tried to navigate
between the perilous poles
of self-interest and altruism.
It is a never-ending struggle.

I have tried,
in my life,
to look into the heart of things,
to see things as they are.
In modern American society,
to do this,
you must become an archeologist,
a lonely digger,
reading alone by lamplight
books that have been
largely ignored
to find, hopefully,
glimpses of the truth.

The young veteran tells me,
after every class,
things that create, in my head,
what psychologists call
"cognitive dissonance"
He tells me how,
in myriad ways,
America is a contradiction.
As a veteran who has clearly
seen some shit
that would break my psyche,
he speaks, and I listen,
even if my gut reaction,
at times, is to disagree
or cut him off.

In my view,
there are at least three groups of people
who can speak from experience
about this contradiction
at the broken heart of America:
veretans,
minorities,
and the poor.

If we listen,
these people can tell us things
we had not even thought to ask.
But we must listen,
and be okay with
"cognitive dissonance"
to be able to hear
the largely unspoken message
of a riot,
a war,
a foreclosure,
a dead homeless man,
a barrio.

The answers may be
more complex than the questions.
But they must be asked.

Or maybe the answers
are not so complex.
Maybe the answer lies
in collapsing the contradiction
and asking,
from the broken heart of America:

Are we treating others
as we would have them
treat us?

A cliche, yes.
But some cliches become cliches
because they are true.
Others are hogwash.

And I am not talking
about politeness,
about courtesy.
I'm talking about goodness.
As Americans, we tend to conflate the two.
Most politicians are polite
(hence the origin of the word),
that's how they get elected,
but are they good?

For me, the only
quantifiable way to measure goodness
is action.
Boo Radley was not polite.
But he was good.

The young veteran's tone changes
when he talks about good.
You can hear it in the
shortness of breath,
a certain vulnerability about the eyes,
a softer tone.

"The only answer
I can see...
is spiritual,"
he says
with equal parts
comfort
and
discomfort.

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