A Poem as Much as a Story

I have to travel semi-frequently, so I’m supposed to complain. It’s more or less expected. Particularly when you do it by air.

So I suppose I should gripe that there are a lot more Catholics out east than there are out west–at least, English-speaking Catholics. Consequently, one of the disadvantages of being a Catholic living way up in the left-hand corner of the map of the United States is that most of the Catholics who ask me to come speak for them live Way Far Away. Therefore, virtually every time I have a speaking engagement, it means a three-day trip (unless it’s one of those rare trips to California). And this means, of course, a 45 minute haj to Seattle-Tacoma Airport (usually at a ridiculously early hour), a traipse through the silliness of security (“Any Islamic terrorist bombs in that suitcase full of Catholic literature, sir? Plan on meeting any members of Al-Qaeda at the Eucharistic Convention where you’ll be speaking?”) and then an awkward posture sideways in a coach seat (like I’m doing now) so I can rattle away with my laptop perched precariously on the tray table of the seat next to mine (since the guy in front of me leaned his seat back and now my tray table won’t go down far enough for me to see my screen or type comfortably).

I suppose I should gripe about that. What kind of traveler would I be if I didn’t gripe?

And yet, and yet…. in a few hours, I’ll be in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, where I will blast through, salute the wonderful Brachiosaurus skeleton they display there, and find my next gate, which will take me to Charleston, South Carolina and a fun series of talks I’ll be doing. The weekend will be splendid. I’ll meet interesting folk, share interesting info, go to Mass with wonderful brothers and sisters on an island off the coast. I’ll wake up in a beautiful house tomorrow morning which looks out over beachfront property and has a perfect view of historic Fort Sumter, where the opening shots of the Civil War were fired. I’ll get a tour around Charleston, one of the loveliest cities in the US, and have a scrumptious meal of pan-fried oysters while I visit with a holy and intelligent priest with my good friend William. I’ll get to go to a party on Saturday night with lively and enjoyable people. I’ll get to walk on the beach and watch brown pelicans ride the updrafts.

All of which adds up to saying, “God is good and I’m content and I don’t really feel like complaining about anything.” What do I have to complain about? I live in the richest country in the world. I have a family who loves me and whom I love, friends who care about me and for whom I care, and a job that interests me and profits others. What makes much more sense than complaining is praising God and thanking him for his many kindnesses to me.

Now the interesting thing about that is that many readers may, if they pause and pay attention, find something… well, disappointing about this. I don’t mean they’ll find they are disappointed that God is good, but rather that there’s disappointment in discovering this buildup about the horrors of air travel did not lead to a rattling good tale of a conflict some imbecile in airport security or something. Why? Because every good story requires conflict, as your high school English teacher told you. No conflict, no story. For a story is a war.

We live in a time which increasingly has tended to favor story over poetry. In poetry, there is not necessarily a need for conflict. You don’t, for instance, need conflict to say, “My love is like a red, red rose.” Poems can be contemplative and simply say, “Look! Attend! Water is wet! Grass is green! The sky is blue! God is good! Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that amazing?” Such an approach to life can afford to stop and smell the red, red roses for it is in no hurry to get to a battle.

Why does this matter? Because our media culture–the one that so often defines what is “normal” for us–is always looking for a “story” rather than a poem: that is, for conflict and not praise or contemplation. Therefore, when the “story” is about travel, you hear about how awful it is to go through airport security, not about how cool it is to wake up in Charleston. Similarly, when the media does the “story” on the family, odds are you’ll hear about how much husbands, wives, parents and kids conflict with each other. And this is so pervasive that happy, healthy families can actually get the message that there’s something wrong with them for being happy and healthy. They can actually experience shame, rather than what is truly normal–gratitude–for that.

To be sure, the family faces many challenges today. Virtually every other article in the magazine you are now reading will be addressing that fact and it is important to do so. But it is also important for us not to get so caught up in the “story” approach to life that we forget the “poem” approach and simply savor the wonder of the family God has given us. For the family, being a divine creation, is intended by God to be as much a poem as a story. For the divine norm for the family is not the Bickersons, but the Blessed Trinity.

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