Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Going it Alone: Trump, Brexit and the Dangers of Nationalism

The policies pursued by the West have sometimes been flawed and sometimes failed, but the system that linked America and Europe in a common defense and common political cause ended the Cold War, reunited Germany, built a new Europe and sought in one way or another to address every other major threat. A crucial brick in that system is now in danger of being removed. – New York Times editorial, June 25, 2016
Admittedly, when I first heard the term “Brexit” a few weeks ago, I thought it was the name of a new breakfast cereal. Not for a moment did I believe that Britain would actually vote to leave the European Union. By a vote of 52 to 48 percent, after a contentious campaign that exposed the divisions in British society based on age, education, class levels, and geography, Britain has sought to go it alone. The world today is less secure; shaken is the foundation of our postwar alliance.

The concept of European unity arose from the ashes of World War II with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars that had plagued the continent. Anyone with a respect for history understands that to support European unity is to support peace and cooperation among neighbors. Inspired by visionary leaders like Konrad Adenauer and Winston Churchill, what would become the European Union underpins the postwar global order and is an anchor of global democracy. Consisting of 28 (soon to be 27) member states and “founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights” (Article 2, Treaty on European Union), its policies aim to ensure the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital.

It should come as no surprise that Donald Trump, having arrived in Scotland to inspect his golf course, quickly declared that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union was a “great thing”. Like his supporters in the United States, Trump said, the voters in Britain were exercising their “sacred right” to take back their country and their borders and choosing “to reject today’s rule by the global elite.” Indeed, the impulses behind the vote for Brexit share many parallels to Trump’s appeal with certain elements of American society.

The “Leave” campaign exploited deep-seated resentment of the European “elite” and made emotional appeals to British nationalism and a sense of lost independence. But like much of Trump’s appeal in the United States, the Brexit vote at its heart was about immigration and xenophobia. The Brexit vote was a referendum not so much on Europe as on migration and fear of the Other. As Jonathan Freedland has written in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books:
The argument was seductively simple. Membership of the EU requires each state to accept the free movement of people between EU countries. Therefore the only way to halt hundreds of thousands of EU citizens coming into the UK was to get out of the EU. Only that way, in the words of Leave’s powerful and defining slogan, could we “take back control.” There are differences of course: the Leavers did not voice overtly a desire to keep out Muslims, as Donald Trump does. But “take back control” was for Brexit what “build a wall” is for Trump: a three-word promise that taps into a seething geyser of anti-immigrant sentiment.
Proponents of the Leave campaign ignored appeals to facts and evidence, including data showing that migrants positively contribute to the British economy, adding far more in tax revenues than they receive in welfare payments. Dismissed outright were rational, policy-based arguments for why Brexit would result in economic instability and increased social and political division. Indeed, when the International Monetary Fund, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, and Britain’s independent Institute of Fiscal Studies each offered objective analyses of the likely economic and political consequences of Brexit, they were ridiculed and accused of elitism. “The people of this country have had enough of experts,” declared Michael Gove, a leader of the Leave movement. As with journalists and the “establishment” at a Trump rally, to be considered an “expert” became the ultimate insult. The Leave movement was marked by lies and half-truths, including a campaign ad falsely claiming that Britain sends £350 million a week to the European Union. “As with Trump,” noted Freedland, “this disdain for the elite and for authority rode in harness with a slippery approach to the truth.”


We are living in interesting, if perilous times. I worry for the future of the United Kingdom, for European unity, and for the United States. An anti-intellectualism fed by a disdain for experts, facts, knowledge, history, and established institutions of government has been fueled by the simmering anger of a mostly uneducated, bitter, and resentful strain of citizens who feel that the forces of progress are stacked against them. This is something we have seen before: Ideologically and politically motivated forces exploiting the fears of less educated, less skilled workers who have been displaced by globalism and technology and fomenting resentment against immigrants, foreigners, the global elite, and those unseen power brokers conspiring to make their lives miserable. What worries me, though, is the potential for a strong-willed narcissist to stir and manipulate popular resentment, for this is how demagogues rise to power and fascism rears its ugly head. As conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin (with whom I rarely agree) noted in Sunday’s Washington Post, “Coupled with a sense that their country – much like themselves – has been disrespected and buffeted by ominous forces, the temptation is to indulge in conspiracy theories, blame outsiders, and resort to political nihilism.”

Britain’s shocking referendum proves that such feelings and trends are not unique to the United States. Right-wing populist movements exist throughout Europe – in France, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland – each seeking to “take their country back” and restore order in a chaotic world. The same wave of fear and resentment that Trump is riding in the United States – promising to ban Muslims, to build a great wall and get Mexico to pay for it, to deport 11 million illegal aliens, to “make America great again” – correlates closely to the Leave movement’s appeals to fear of war-torn refugees and open borders, and to xenophobia and racism. As foreign correspondent Trudy Rubin noted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “nearly every Leave voter I met believed that Brexit would effectively wall off Britain from foreigners and would somehow permit the country to renew its historic standing in the world.” Unfortunately, this is precisely the opposite of what will happen.

The Brexit vote immediately plunged the United Kingdom into uncertain economic terrain. The value of the pound plummeted and Britain’s international standing and body politic were shaken. Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union, already has pledged another independence referendum and placed the future of the UK itself up in the air. I don’t see how any of this is good for Britain, for Europe, or the world economy.

Trump, of course, thinks all of this is fine. As does Vladimir Putin, who has hoped for years that something would come along to divide and destabilize Europe. Brexit is a gift to Putin, who is giddy over the thought of European unity dissolving over national rivalries, infighting, and a weakened international governing structure. As an article in the Sunday Times noted, Britain’s decision to leave the EU threatens to undermine “the postwar consensus that alliances among nations are essential in maintaining stability and in diluting the nationalism that once plunged Europe into bloody conflict – even as nationalism is surging again.”

The 20th Century has seen what happens when a strong leader takes advantage of popular fear and resentment and promises to “take back control” from perceived enemies and outside forces. No one knows this better than German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who commented after the Brexit vote: “The idea of European unity is the idea of European peace . . . after centuries of terrible bloodshed [this] is not to be taken for granted. In Europe we still feel the effect of wars.”

Since World War II, the United States and Britain have led the way in reducing the potential for international conflict. By promoting free markets, supporting international governing structures, bolstering military alliances, strengthening NATO, and funding international development and financial organizations, we have together overseen seventy years of European peace and prosperity. All of that is weakened by Britain’s exit from the European Union and stands as a stark warning of the dark forces brooding in America.

“There are lessons here aplenty for Americans contemplating their own appointment with nationalist, nativist populism in November,” writes Freedland. Complacent Democrats, cynical Bernie supporters contemplating sitting this election out, and establishment Republicans still bruising from the shock of Trump’s rise may believe there are not enough angry white voters who feel left-behind to win an election. “But Brexit suggests that when that constituency can be allied to a conservative cause that has millions of other, more ideologically-motivated devotees, victory is possible. It suggests that hostility to migrants, a cynical trampling on the truth, and a cavalier disdain for expertise can work wonders, such is the loathing of anything that can be associated with the ‘elite.’ And it suggests that even great nations, those whose democratic arrangements were once regarded as a beacon to the world, are capable of acts of grievous, enduring self-harm.”

The right to vote is sacred and must be nourished and respected. Once votes are cast and the results are tallied, you cannot later claim that you did not truly understand the consequences. “It was already clear before the Brexit vote that modern populist movements could take control of political parties,” wrote former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the New York Times. “What wasn’t clear was whether they could take over a country like Britain. Now we know they can.” The challenges of globalization cannot be met by building walls and closing off borders. With Donald Trump and the November election on the horizon, let Brexit be a wake-up call to the United States.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Live Life with Joy and Passion: Some Graduation Advice for My Youngest Daughter

Hannah at Senior Awards Ceremony, American University Honors Program
This is the hard work of life in the world, to acknowledge within yourself the introvert, the clown, the artist, the homebody, the goofball, the thinker. Look inside. That way lies dancing to the melodies spun out by your own heart. – Anna Quindlen
Dear Hannah:

Four years come and go, swiftly, like the changing seasons. When college ends, there is the sense that something significant is over, a phase of life, something safe and protected. Graduation ceremonies help us declare that another milestone has passed and something new is about to happen. A life remains to be lived and experienced.

Earlier this month, you graduated from college, joining older sister Jen among the ranks of American University alumni. On a cool Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C., I sat in the bleachers of Bender Arena and proudly watched you in a sea of blue cap-and-gowns as you received your degree. Your smile that day warmed my heart. As your father, I know first-hand just how hard you worked to get where you are today. And I could not help but admire the beautiful and diverse collection of young men and women who graduated alongside you.

By traditional measurements, you (like your sister before you) are on a path to a successful life. You did well in all of the areas needed to build a good resume. You earned high grades and academic honors, gained valuable internship experience, published a number of essays and poems, and held student leadership positions. All of your hard work, the long hours in the library and the late night study sessions were rewarded with distinctions of high praise, with summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. For these honors, you should be immensely proud, for you earned them through individual effort and achievement. But unfortunately, while these distinctions signify academic success in college, they will not guarantee a life filled with joy and passion. Now you must engage the world outside of academia and begin to develop a life of your own.

On the morning of your graduation, I gave you two small books by Anna Quindlen, a writer and former columnist for The New York Times whom I admire for her wit and wisdom about everyday life. Both books originated from commencement addresses Quindlen has given over the years, and each contains a wealth of good advice that I hope you take to heart and occasionally come back to when you feel adrift.

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself,” suggests Quindlen in Being Perfect. Like many young women in today’s world, you tend to internalize the many and varied societal pressures to perform at levels of perfection that are not sustainable or possible. Trying always to be perfect is counter-productive. We learn from our mistakes, not our successes. Besides, as Quindlen notes in A Short Guide to a Happy Life, “It’s so much easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit.”

When I graduated college in 1981, I also claimed good grades and academic honors (which you easily exceeded). But as I quickly discovered, once I landed my first job, no one really cared how well I did in school. Later in law school and in every job since then, I learned that there will always be people who are smarter, more talented, and more driven than me.  As Quindlen notes:
When you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life.
American society has a remarkable ability to resist change. Since the Industrial Revolution, many Americans have preached the Gospel of Success and bought into the belief that success equals money, wealth, fame, power, and prestige. Our educational system does little to resist these conventional parameters. Colleges and universities market success by touting their famous alumni and most generous donors. Donald Trump has built his entire presidential campaign on a series of inflated half-truths, boasting of how “successful” he is and defining success by how much money he has made and how famous he has become. And yet, if the Donald drops dead tomorrow, the world will remember him only for his boastfulness, not for any meaningful achievements.

But Donald Trump’s version of success – the egotistical, narcissistic version that our celebrity and sports-obsessed culture embraces – is morally and spiritually bankrupt. Americans love successful people, as long as they are winning (in sports), young and good looking (in television and entertainment), and ostentatiously wealthy (in business). We know that not everyone can be a super-rich celebrity, but we nevertheless connect success to having a high-paying job, knowing the “right” people, living in the “best” neighborhoods, meeting and marrying a “successful” life partner, raising smart and “successful” children, and advancing the legacy of one’s good family name.

Except for a rare few, real life does not actually work this way. If you dig beneath the surface of most lives – even conventionally successful ones – you will find deep-seated insecurities, personal failings, rejected job offers, family struggles. Life is messy and complicated. Most of us are learning as we go. Everyone, even those who appear on the outside as if they have “made it,” stumble and fall many times. Whatever success they have achieved has been due to their willingness to pick themselves up and try again. Luck plays a much greater role in our lives than many of us care to acknowledge.


As young women, you and Jen will continue to face challenges and obstacles with which I never had to contend. The world is a far different place than when I graduated from college 35 years ago. Women then were only beginning to make strides for equality in law, medicine, business, and academia. Today, there are many women doctors and lawyers, CEOs, television anchors, clergy, Senators and presidential candidates. Due to the pioneering spirit of earlier generations of women, Jen and you can advance further and pursue your interests and dreams in ways almost unheard of a half-century ago. At the same time, you should not underestimate how much antagonism there remains against women and how many people would like to “make America great again” by returning to the “good old days” when women (and African Americans) were second class citizens. Our advertisements, our movies, our television shows, even a certain presidential candidate, continue to objectify women and value them only by how they look in a bathing suit.

As your father, I want you and Jen to be happy, healthy, and engaged with the world. I want you both to be comfortable with who you are. Understand that you are loved by many people and admired by those who count. You are smart, generous, and kind. Don’t ever diminish those qualities. Always work to improve yourself and enlarge your capacity for compassion. Develop dreams, but don’t be trapped by them. Life is not something that starts when you are older, after you have achieved more milestones. This is life. Embrace it, welcome it, accept it, and build on it.

Remember that success in life is not tied to how much money you make or your status in the social hierarchy. True success is how much love and compassion you are able to spread in this world, whether you have transformed the lives of the people around you and the community in which you live and work. As Anna Quindlen suggests, “If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all.”

As much as we try, it is not easy to find one’s direction in life; a sense of purpose that gives meaning and fulfillment to our everyday existence. But as the writer Omid Safi recently told the graduating class of Colgate University:
Know your heart well enough to know what recharges you. It is going to be different for every single one of us, and it is going to be different for each of us at each point in our lives. For some of us it may be prayer, meditation, music, yoga, a really good book, walking in the woods, a wonderful conversation with a beloved friend, sitting down with your family, silence, a great poem . . . if that is what nurtures your soul, learn it. Make it a habit. Make time for it. And if you find that you are running on fumes, recharge yourself.
“Your education is a dress rehearsal for the life you choose to lead,” said the late Nora Ephron at a Wellesley College commencement address several years ago. “Be the heroine of your own life, not the victim.” Life is messy, but you should embrace the mess. The future will be complicated and unpredictable. But you always have the power to move your life in another direction. The things that are most important to you today may be less important in ten or twenty years. Don’t be afraid to shift course. As Anna Quindlen advises, “Think of life as a terminal illness, because, if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.”

Most of all, be true to yourself. The best years of your life are ahead of you.

Love,
Dad

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Growing, Learning, Thinking: The Value of Religious Pluralism

I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility, of contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind’s reaching out for God . . . – Abraham Joshua Heschel
In The Book of Lights, Chaim Potok writes about a Jewish army chaplain in Korea and Japan in the 1950s who confronts challenging questions about the meaning of his faith. In one scene, the chaplain and a Jewish soldier watch an old Japanese man praying at a Shinto shrine. “Do you think our God is listening to him?” the rabbi asks his companion.

“I don’t know . . . I never thought of it,” replies the soldier.

“Neither did I until now,” says the rabbi. “If [God]’s not listening, why not? If [God] is listening, then-well, what are we all about?”

The rabbi’s questions are profoundly important ones for people of every faith. Does God listen only to the prayers of one particular faith? Do we all worship different Gods or the same God in different ways? What kind of God would refuse to listen to the prayers of this Buddhist man?

“If prayer is a human response to God,” asks Lutheran theologian J. Paul Rajashekar in Engaging Others Knowing Ourselves: A Lutheran Calling in a Multi-Religious World (Lutheran University Press, 2016), “then aren’t all prayers offered by people irrespective of their faith convictions legitimate responses to God? Are their responses to God whether in prayer or in their articulation of religious beliefs any less legitimate than our own?”

Despite two centuries of Christian mission and evangelization, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population continues to adhere to other beliefs or no belief. Christians are taught to believe that Christ died for all people, and yet, some Christians continue to struggle with whether God is accessible to those who choose a different path. Does God hear only the prayers of those who accept Jesus as savior? Christians often talk of reaching the unreached. But unreached by whom? Do we assume God is absent in the lives of others?

In December 2015, Lacrycia Hawkins, a political science professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, posted a photo of herself on Facebook wearing a hijab, or traditional Muslim head scarf. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims,” she wrote, “because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Although a seemingly innocuous statement – after all, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each espouse monotheism and trace their common lineage to Abraham – Hawkins was immediately suspended from her tenured professorship and later terminated by confidential agreement. According to a Wheaton College press release on December 16, 2015, the professor’s “expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” conflicted with the college’s Statement of Faith because Muslims do not accept God’s revelation in Christ.

The Wheaton College controversy reflects a long history of Christian hostility toward other religions. That there exist competing belief systems is disturbing to some. But the more we learn of other religions, and the more we engage with and understand people of other faith traditions, the harder it becomes to justify claims of absolute truth. Pluralism implicitly questions the legitimacy of religious claims that there exists only one true way to achieve salvation or enlightenment.

Many religious people are threatened by theological and doctrinal differences and view other faith traditions as in opposition to one’s own faith. This insecurity results in an inward focus that shies away from difficult questions and ambiguous answers. However well we think we know our own religious traditions, we are often wrong in what we assume about others. Religious illiteracy breeds misunderstanding and a tendency to notice only the bad traits of other religions – acts of religiously-inspired terrorism, for example – and the good points of one’s own faith.

Contrary to what the administrators of Wheaton College may think, it violates our monotheistic concept to think there is a Muslim God, a Jewish God, and a Christian God. As Professor Hawkins understood, to accept that God hears the prayers of all people regardless of one’s religious tradition is not to suggest that theological differences are meaningless or insignificant. But differences do not necessarily imply right or wrong. The goal of religious pluralism is mutual understanding, not conversion.

I have suggested in past writings that one’s religious affiliation is mostly determined in the first instance by the happenstance of birth. We typically adopt the religion of our parents. In light of this, how do some confidently claim exclusive possession of God’s truth? Most often, claims of exclusivity are based on Scripture, such as the Christian Gospel John at 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”). Theologians have long debated the contextual meaning of this and similar passages and there is good reason to think the text is less clear than most Bible-quoting Christians acknowledge. Of course, other faiths make their own claims of absolute truth based on their holy books. Because we live not only in a multi-religious society, we also live in a multi-scriptural society. There is not one scripture, but many. How does one properly navigate conflicting claims of scripture? Is one Holy Book necessarily more authoritative than another?

I recently attended a course on religious pluralism at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. During one class, we watched a film entitled, The Asian and Abrahamic Religions: A Divine Encounter in America, which explores the surprising similarities among the Asian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) and the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The film contains scenes of prayer, of worship, of wedding celebrations and funerals in places of worship across the country – in churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras, and many others. In watching the film, it occurred to me that the various religions are simply different human interpretations and manifestations of the divine. Although each faith has adopted different symbols and styles of worship, different words to describe God or the search for enlightenment, all provide a communal experience, a sense of order, an attempt to more deeply understand the world and find meaning in life.

As noted by our professor, J. Paul Rajashekar, a Lutheran theologian originally from India, the specific faith claims of different religions are often based on cultural, linguistic, and social distinctions. Christians often speak in terms of salvation, but this is specifically a Christian term and there is no singular understanding of what salvation means in the Bible. Other faiths use terms such as enlightenment, atonement, harmony and rebirth. Hindus seek spiritual oneness. Sikhs speak of moving from darkness to light. Buddhists strive for wholeness and nirvana. Each religion offers a view of life and a guide to living. In reality, it matters less what one believes, than how one’s faith is practiced in relation to others.

If we allow ourselves to grow and be challenged, there is much to learn from persons of other faiths. To engage in dialogue, to listen and understand what others believe, is to acknowledge our shared humanity. Pluralism invites dialogue and engagement with others. To take seriously the faith of others allows us to explore the richness of our own faith. To ignore or refuse to learn about other faiths is to deprive us of the opportunity to grow, think, and learn. Is this what God desires?

Sometimes we confuse faith with ideology. Pluralism challenges all claims to absoluteness and exclusive truth. It is perhaps why exposure to pluralism, to multi-religious societies, breeds fundamentalism – particularly Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, Christian fundamentalism is a 20th Century American phenomenon that coincided with increasing religious diversity in American society.

Christian fundamentalists and some conservative evangelical Christians love to cite the Bible in support of their beliefs. But what many refuse to acknowledge is that our understanding of scripture is influenced by 2,000 years of history and how it has been interpreted. The Bible has been translated in nearly 2,500 languages and there are over 900 different English translations of the Bible. Each version contains linguistic differences that deviate further from the original sources. Similarly, religious creeds and doctrines are merely human attempts to comprehend a mystery that transcends human understanding. In the words of Professor Rajashekar, “Some theological questions will always remain unanswered on this side of humanity.”

Perhaps all we can do is search for God’s presence, in whatever form, whatever language, in light of our human predicament. To engage in inter-religious dialogue requires courage and a commitment to more deeply understand our own faith. It requires a willingness to listen to what others believe and profess. Doing so may allow us to better understand who we are and what we believe. As the late Rabbi Heschel advised, “The world is too small for anything but mutual care and deep respect; the world is too great for anything but responsibility for one another.”


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Why Time Begins on Opening Day

Born to an age where horror has become commonplace . . . we need to fence off a few parks where humans try to be fair, when skill has some hope of reward, where absurdity has a harder time than usual getting a ticket. – Thomas Boswell, Why Time Begins on Opening Day (Penguin Books, 1984)
The annual rite of spring has arrived, winter’s frost having given way to the April sun. After four months of darkness, a new baseball season is upon us, marked these first two weeks with opening day ceremonies in big league parks across North America. All 30 major league teams have ascended from Florida and Arizona after preparing for another long season. Six weeks of wind sprints and fielding drills, of shagging flies and picking grounders, of hitters dropping down bunts and slicing balls to the opposite field. Baseball players at work, perfecting their trade; hitters working on timing, outfielders on hitting the cut-off man, pitchers on commanding their fastballs; middle infielders perfecting their footwork, pivoting and slide-stepping the bag to turn a double play, catchers blocking pitches in the dirt, first basemen scooping errant throws. The field work of spring ball finally completed, it is time for the season to start.

Although the Cardinals won a major-league-leading 100 games last season, I feel uneasy about this team. It could be me, but they look flat and uninspired as season play begins (losing the first three games to the Pirates did nothing to alleviate my concerns). Injuries have already claimed their starting shortstop and an assortment of other players.

And yet . . . I hope. It is why the start of a new season is like opening a new book, the pages promising an intriguing story with a happy ending. On good days, I see what could be the best starting rotation in baseball, anchored by the crafty veterans Wainwright and Leake, the hard-throwing youngsters Wacha and Martinez, and the soft-tossing southpaw Garcia. And I see a lineup filled with the bright lights of Piscotty and Grichuk in the outfield, Wong and Carpenter in the infield, and I hope some more.

Most fans at this time of year are filled with hope, ignoring the gloomy predictions of the baseball prognosticators on ESPN and MLB TV. Like shifting trade winds on the high seas, much can happen over the marathon of a baseball season that alters the course of a pennant race. Injuries and luck – bad and good (though mostly bad) – are part of the game. How a team resolves adversity is the best predictor of how well its season ends.

In Why Time Begins on Opening Day, Thomas Boswell writes that baseball is “merely one of our many refuges within the real where we try to create a sense of order on our own terms.” Baseball offers us continuity and new beginnings, symmetry and timelessness. The ballpark itself is “living theater and physical poetry.” It possesses a pastoral beauty rooted in American history, memory, grass and dirt, wind and sun.

For the baseball fan, opening day is the start of a new year. Our calendar begins in April and ends in October. For me personally, the next seven months demands that all social plans be cleared through the Cardinals’ schedule. Tickets to the play on Sunday afternoon? Uh, I’m afraid not, the Cards have a day game against the Cubs. Saturday night at the movies? I don’t think so – but if we see an afternoon show, we can have dinner and make it back for the 8:15 start. I know, don’t say it. But that’s how it would go in a perfect world.

Whenever Andrea complains about my obsessive baseball watching, I remind her of when I binge-watched re-runs of The Sopranos through the winter of 2015. More recently, it was five full seasons of Breaking Bad. She quickly relents. When confronted with the alternative of murder, blood, vile crime, and petty corruption, the sweet innocence of our national pastime looks pretty good. Andrea now sighs in relief when the Cardinals come on the tube. She freely acknowledges the subtle beauty and elegance of the sport. And she appreciates, though she remains somewhat perplexed, by my life-long loyalty to the Cardinals. It is a loyalty grounded in childhood, in years of box scores and baseball cards, Strat-O-Matic games and the imagination of a ten-year-old boy throwing a ball against a pitching net in his back yard. It is why, as Boswell suggests, my “affection for the game has held steady for decades, maybe even grown with age.”

“The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again,” wrote the late A. Bartlett Giamatti before he became Commissioner of Major League Baseball, when he was still President of Yale University. It is a common theme in baseball literature, this linking of baseball to time, to history, to seasons past and present. The game “blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

Like Giamatti, I rely on the games “to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive,” and through its transparent simplicity, “to set the order of the day and to organize the daylight.” In quiet moments of reflection, I understand it is possible that I put too much emphasis on baseball’s importance in my life. To this day, when the Cardinals lose, I sometimes enter the darker, brooding, depressed impulses of my soul. But I understand how difficult the game is, and I feel for players in a slump. Although I often dreamed of playing professional baseball, deep down I always knew I lacked the mental toughness and skill required to succeed at higher levels.

When I attend games in person, whether at the grand cathedrals of major league baseball or at the local high school fields and parks near my home, I love to watch the action between innings, when the pitcher takes his warm-up throws, the first baseman lofts ground balls to the infielders, and the outfielders play a relaxed game of catch from 200 feet apart. The graceful rhythms of the ballplayers create a symphony of movement, baseballs flowing in multiple directions, all with a sense of linear purpose. At these moments, the game encompasses my imagination, allows me to remember the feelings and love I had for the game as a player, and reminds me of the dreams I held onto until reality and life set me straight. It is then I realize, as did Giamatti in his brilliant essay on baseball, that some
. . . were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

Amen. Opening day has arrived. Let the season begin.