The first time I heard Lucinda Williams sing “Blue,” emotion kept me from getting the lyrics right. Instead of hearing, “We don’t talk about heaven, we don’t talk about hell,” I heard: “We don’t talk about heaven, we talk about hell.” Even now, whenever I listen to "Blue" that’s how I hear it. I remembered the wrong words and made them fit my meaning.
Now I feel my incorrect meaning has some truth in it. More and more, people seem to be thinking and talking about some kind of hell. As if in response, hell breaks out all over the place like scattered wildfires. Could it be that Flip Wilson’s drag-queen alter-ego, Geraldine Jones, got it right? What you see is what you get? Or more to the point: What you think about is what you get?
Instead of talking about hell so much, what would happen if we talked about heaven? Or at least thought about it more. I don’t mean the afterlife existence most religions refer to. But Joseph Campbell’s idea of eternity, which I’ve also heard echoed by Stephen Colbert. “The experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life. Heaven is not the place to have the experience; here is the place to have the experience.” That's how Campbell put it.
Call it blasphemy if you must, but please humor me for the time it takes to share the following two scenarios.
1. JOE BIDEN IN NORTH CAROLINA
When a different Joseph, Vice President Joe Biden, spoke at the Guilford College Bryan Lecture Series on September 17, 2017, he and his wife Jill said many memorable things. This one stuck with me, and I hope I paraphrase it correctly. Biden said when he first became a member of the US Senate in 1972, all the senators ate lunch together in the same room. Somewhere along the way, the tables were removed. Now the denizens of this exclusive 100-member club take their meals separately, away from peers they disagree with politically but with whom they might find common ground in everyday things—weddings, births, graduations—events we all share as human beings. Biden told the Greensboro audience something was lost when those tables were removed. It seemed to represent the malignancy that plagues Congress and the entire country these days.
At one point, some in the audience began to chant, “Biden in 2020,” but he did not respond. Jill looked at him in a particularly wifely way, which at least one person in the audience described as a “Don’t even think about it” look. Though who knows what secret meanings are held in the unspoken exchange between spouses? Maybe Joe Biden isn't even interested in becoming president at this stage in his long political career. But wouldn't it be nice if those lunch tables were brought back to the United States Senate?
2. JERRY SEINFELD DISCUSSING BILL COSBY WITH STEPHEN COLBERT
Before the commercial break, Colbert asked Seinfeld to name the comedians whose work influenced him when he was young. Seinfeld said one of them was Bill Cosby. Colbert then asked if Cosby’s alleged criminality ruined those early jokes for him. Seinfeld didn’t think so and asked whether it’s possible to separate the art from the man. Shouldn’t the art be allowed to stand on its own? The following two clips show what happened better than any words from me, so here they are:
Wouldn’t it be nice if our congressional representatives could do what Seinfeld and Colbert accomplished in this clip? Instead of barricading themselves behind “talking points” out of fear that open-mindedness might be judged as flip-flopping, wouldn't it be nice if they could just break bread together, get to know each other as human beings, and sometimes find a way to reach consensus on a few things?
That’s what conversation leads to. I listen with an open mind to what you have to say. Then you listen with an equally open mind to what I have to say. Why does that seem so difficult? Avoiding it only gives us the sarcastic lie we remember too well from the 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke. “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
When communication fails, we walk away with the wrong idea, The result is a kind of hell built on misconception, misunderstanding, and missed opportunity.
When Steve Scalise returned to Congress on September 28th, I was reduced to tears, deeply moved by the bipartisan reception he received when he showed up on crutches, fifteen weeks after the senseless shooting that nearly took his life on June 14. Then it hit me. We should not weep for this. We should weep because our leaders don't treat each other like that every day.
We should also weep because we don't treat each other that way either. We do not want heaven. We want hell. Otherwise we wouldn't love it so much in our movies, books, video games, and binge-watched television shows. We wouldn't make people rich by consuming media that feeds base instinct. We wouldn't nurture violence in our thoughts and in our discourse.
Smart people say there is no connection between the violence of our movies and horrible events like the Las Vegas Massacre that killed and wounded so many innocents on the day I am writing this. The critics say there is no scientific proof that the two are related. But I'm not so sure. If you look no further than Bane's unthinkably horrible stadium attack in The Dark Knight Rises, you will see its reverberation in Stephen Paddock's callous attack on a Las Vegas concert filled with innocents.
So even though I remembered the lyrics to "Blue" incorrectly, I may be right after all. We don't think about heaven. We think about hell. And yet it doesn't have to be that way. The alternative to that hell might not be achievable. But it sure would be nice if we wanted it enough to give it a try.
I'm a storyteller whose background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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