Standing on the (in)side…

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October 26, 2012 by rebelwithalabelmaker

One of my best friends in high school, not named Karen, was my source of information about everything that ever existed.  For four full years, she could answer any question I had about history, science, art …  you name it.  This was before Google, but if the Internet guys had been friends with Karen, they never would have needed to invent it.

I was kind of extroverted and bossy in high school (go figure) and Karen was all introverted and knowledgeable.  We were a great team because she was in charge of knowing things, and I was in charge of making decisions.

So one day, Karen is telling me about some war or other in Europe, and she says that all the bombing ruined these great works of architecture, and started listing them off.

“What about the people!” I said, in horror at her callousness, “Who cares about buildings when there were people who died?”

Karen waved a hand dismissively, and said “People reproduce.”

So does junk, my dad later shot back, when I told him the story.

It was a strange feeling to realize that Karen loved the architecture for its own sake, not for the happiness of those observing it.  Her approach to knowledge was different from mine, too — I only like to learn what will be useful to know.  She just loves learning, for the joy of understanding things.  I doubt she would ever use this particular phrase, but I would say that for her, learning was a sacred act.

I don’t mean sacred as in “to do with God”, I mean sacred as in “inherently important, in a way we can’t exactly justify”.  I think we all have things that are sacred to us.

When Anthony’s favourite stuffed toy, an Orca whale named Killer Cute Spots, got lost in the move, it tugged at my heart because I know that a deeply loved stuffed toy is a sacred object.  I’ve already told the story of how he showed up with hard earned savings at Brunskill Pharmacy the day after the stuffed toy sale ended.  The woman at the till looked at him and the stuffies lovingly cradled in his arms and recognized that this was the moment to go above and beyond.  In a way that she wouldn’t have done if I’d showed up with my arms full of cat food, the day after the cat food sale had ended.  Cat food is not sacred.  It does not transcend the ordinary in the way that a lovingly cradled stuffed toy in the arms of a child does.

Like many people, I’ve been horrified by the violent reaction to the YouTube video “The Innocence of Muslims”.  I’ve also been saddened, though, by the film itself.  I understand that in the course of living our lives we say and do things that are offensive to Muslims.  But something about doing it on purpose feels like if someone had walked up to Anthony and started slowly and violently dissecting a stuffed animal in front of him.

“What do you think the law should be?” one friend keeps asking me about issues of religious freedom and free speech.  It’s a hard question to answer.  It seems inhuman not to give some legal value and protection to peoples’ religious practices.  Yet it is so easy for laws that protect the sacred to become laws that oppress.

I show Anthony’s beloved stuffed creatures respect — but they don’t have “legal rights” in the rules of our house.  I went out of my way to let him carry them to the new house so they wouldn’t be stuffed indignantly a box for the move, but that doesn’t mean they get to sit at the dinner table.  And we do not postpone bedtime so that each one can change into its “nightclothes” made of construction paper and egg cartons.  Limits are set — but gently.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has a campaign called “Standing on the Side of Love”.  I spoke once at Church about how this phrase has been used to unite people on all kinds of issues from immigration policy to gay rights.

“What if you’re standing on the side of love,” someone asked me, “and I want to stand on the other side of the issue.  I’m standing on the side of what, then?”

“Love,” I answered immediately.  Two people can stand on the side of love and be across from one another.

It’s easier to see into someone’s eyes that way.

A few years ago, some faith groups in our city held a rally to support traditional marriage.  The battle for equal marriage in my province was pretty civilized, but occasionally people threw the kind of tantrums that really require a time out.  This wasn’t one of those events.  It was gentle and respectful.  It may have been an “anti-gay” rally in the minds of some of the attendees, but the organizers were very clear in setting a positive tone.  They kept the focus on what they valued in traditional marriage.

I was there as part of a counter protest.  Our “side” was protesting their “side”‘s rally.  We held signs in front of their speakers when they tried to talk, and yelled overtop of them so they couldn’t be heard.  We were engaged in a fight.  They were engaged in an open conversation about what they felt they were losing.  Or maybe it was a smug conversation about how much more dignified their behaviour was than ours because they all came from traditional families — I couldn’t tell, over all of our screaming.

You are not standing on the side of love if you are afraid to look into the eyes of the people you are standing across from, or if you cannot allow them to speak.  To me, standing on the side of love means understanding that to extend human rights as they must be extended brings with it a loss of something sacred for some people — and that loss needs to be treated with compassion and respect. It means damaging no more than you need to –avoiding spiritual vandalism wherever possible.

I don’t mean to devalue religious belief by suggesting that it’s nothing more than an adult acting like a child with a stuffed toy.  You can find a child in almost all the behaviours that make us human.  Karen is now an anthropologist, and I see her in Eric as he races inside, declaring  “You will never guess, Mom, but we have LARVAE IN THE YARD!!!!!”

I have trouble understanding why learning about larvae is important.  Sure, the knowledge might come in handy, but that’s kind of a cop out.  Eric isn’t learning because it might come in handy, he’s learning because the very process of it has inherent value.

Imagine if instead of “What do you do?” as a getting-to-know-you question, we asked “What is sacred to you?”  It would make it easier, wouldn’t it, to interpret people’s actions.  There would be fewer misunderstandings.

I still remember a friend of mine sighing, as the last of her dinner guests (except me) left.

“He’s not trying to impress people with how smart he is, you know,” she said, gesturing to her husband.  “He really thinks everyone wants to learn that much about penguins.”

As someone who doesn’t have an inherent scientist’s spirit, I resisted the urge to wave a hand dismissively and say “Knowledge reproduces.”

Everything important does.

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