The other day I was sitting with a friend who talked about her experiences working as an operating room nurse. Her job was intense since worked in neurology--brain surgery! She told a story about a time when a patient died even though all of the medical taff did everything in their power to save the patient. After the surgery, she sat down and cried, sobbing. The surgeon came up to her and tried to comfort her saying that she did everything she could, that the patient had far too many complications to be able to survive the surgery, and that she was a good nurse. She told him that he didn’t understand; she cried because she hadn’t been able to hold the patient’s hand before the surgery started.
That story illustrates one challenge that ours, and probably every culture ever has faced: the desire to keep things at a clinical, academic level on the one hand, balanced against the knowledge that life is messier than that. So much of the time we have to fight the urge to make our stories, our language, even our feelings antiseptic in public conversation. Public relations offices know how to stress appearances, advertising firms know how to help us see only the prettiest and best, and even churches often succumb to presenting the image of a church where everybody smiles and has the sun in their face.
I got to thinking about NASCAR (that’s car racin’ to those of you who aren’t sure) and how it has changed over the years. The first NASCAR race I really watched was teh 1979 Daytona 500. I was nine years old at the time and had just been given a toy race car set for Christmas. At the end of that race, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough got into a fight, an iconic fight, in the infield. I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen on t.v. Sure, I’d seen boxing on t.v., but that was professional fighting, the kind that was supposed to happen. This was totally different--spontaneous, out of real anger, which meant that it was not staged. It wasn’t cleaned up for television (though, as I listen to it now it’s comical how the CBS announcers that day tried to explain away the fight). Nowadays, NASCAR has become so corporate that they fine drivers for swearing, fighting, offending sponsors, or, in general, saying what they really think. The head honchos want things to stay antiseptic and clean, but what I think was awesome about Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison fighting was that it was real and not staged, certainly not clean and neat.
If you think about real life, there is a lot that happens beyond our best desires to be perfectly “coiffed.” I want to be a part of groups of people who are real and unrehearsed because that’s really the way life is--not camera-ready. Our global mass media world tends to gloss over real pain, anger, hurt, loss, and grief, minimizing not only these emotions, but the joy and celebration that can be just as real and unrehearsed. They believe that they do this because we all want to feel better about ourselves, even if it’s fake. The truth is that the false visions are highly seductive.
But I can’t help but wonder if we couldn’t find a better way to be, one that embraces the unstaged parts of life, the things that happen spontaneously, naturally, and often messily. Life is just messy. That’s why I love that Jimmy Page (you know, Led Zeppelin) describes the sound he generated through his amplifier as “rude.” Yeah! Rude and not yielding to convention, but to the truth and something that resonated in his musician soul. Reality doesn’t usually care about social convention, so why should our communities of faith? That’s a big question for me, lately: why do we dress up our speech, dumb down our conversation, and pretty up our hair to listen to the words of one of the least pretentious people ever to live, Jesus of Nazareth? I think any worthwhile conversation about what we believe has to start at agreeing to speak only truth as we know it. A line at the end of Shakespeare’s King Lear truly says it the best: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”