Crackpot by George Merrill


There’s a story about a small boy. He asks his mother to take him to the park. She says yes. Hand in hand they walk around the lake until the boy stops, excitedly telling his mother to look out on the lake. “See mommy, see all the gooses.” Mom looks at her son fondly and says, “Oh, they are not gooses, they’re geese.” The boy looks bewildered. He replies, “They sure look like gooses to me.”

This is one of those ‘twinkle in the eye’ tales so characteristic of the ebullient Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He has seen so much suffering, remains irrepressibly optimistic, and has facilitated so much healing in the world. Spirituality and humor make inspired companions.

His stories have a light touch. They speak to the depths of the human experience – in this case, how easy it is to miss the point by being too literal. The joy the boy felt in the discovery of the ‘gooses’ was what his exclamation was about, not the name they were called. I assume the mother never found out just what it was about the “gooses” that excited her son.

He received a grammar lesson instead. A missed opportunity

I hold the Archbishop in the same high esteem as I do Pope Francis. In a world where good men are becoming harder to find, these two remain a blessing to the world. I’d include the Dalai Lama among them and I know there are scores of others whose goodness I believe is keeping the world from destroying itself. There are many such good men and women out there, sowing hope and possibility. They are like flowers that bloom and cover the desert in fragrance. Few people even know how radiant they are.

Religion has been stuck in literalism for centuries, where doctrinal purity and correctness has been substituted for cultivating and searching matters of the spirit and of the heart. Religious pretensions to possessing the truth have not served well. The truth cannot be possessed; it can only be discovered and lived. Slavish devotion to orthodoxies of one kind or another trivialize the hope that lies inherent in an inspirational religious experience. We still have the parables. I can always depend on them. Parables have helped me get past the mediocre and mundane when I need inspiration and hope.

I’m thinking of the parables that have sustained our spirits throughout history. In one sense, the parable keeps us from getting lost in peripheral matters while it speaks to the heart of our human condition. As the old adage for writers goes; parables don’t tell, they show.

Parables offer hope. Hope is the mother of all possibilities and seems in short supply particularly among the young. Self- hatred is frequently manifest in drug usage and teen suicide. Psychologist Jennifer Powell-Lunder believes low self-esteem among teens is epidemic and viral; it seems to be spreading.

Teens are exquisitely sensitive to body image, how they look, or how they think they look. It’s often the place where despair takes root. Some of this is encouraged by the antiseptic and cosmetic images society promotes of its pretty people, the glamor of celebrity stars, and winners of one kind or another. In short, the social images defining men and women are pure fabrications. There’s nothing solid on which to build a hope. And, when a young person knows he or she has limitations, that they are not unblemished, they feel isolated and deformed. Our young people are so vulnerable trying to live the lies promoted by a flawed model of our humanity. To attempt to live it always leads to heart ache and a dead end. Tragically, it may lead to a literal dead end.

Of all Christianity’s best kept secrets, (well not a secret, exactly, we just keep forgetting it) is that we are all flawed, I mean, like, everyone. If we can fully embrace this as a fact, I am convinced we will be much kinder to our flawed brothers and sisters and to the flaws in ourselves.

The Buddhists have a grand parable about this very thing and it doesn’t feel preachy or patronizing, but liberating and hopeful. There’s something about it that takes me to a better place.

An old Chinese woman goes down to the river every day for water. She carries two pots, each one on the ends of a bamboo pole she straddles across her shoulders. The one pot is cracked, the other perfect so that when she returns from the river, she has one full pot and the other half filled with water. The perfect pot was proud all the time while the cracked pot felt inferior and broken. After many days of retrieving water the cracked pot finally said to the old woman: “I am so ashamed of myself because my side causes water to leak on the way back to your house.”

The old woman replies, “Didn’t you notice there are flowers on your side of the path. That’s because I’ve always known about your flaw so I planted seeds on your side of the path so that every day while we walk back, you will water them. If you were not the way you are there would not be these beautiful flowers that grace our path as we make our daily trek down and back from the river.”

In her youth, teacher/writer Alama Palm, was in a desperate place. She felt hopeless and began considering suicide. Finally, after struggling for several years, with help she worked her way out of the abyss. She says of her story: “Life is not an easy journey for many of us, however one thing I know with all my heart and mind, if we continue to hope there is always a way through.” Then she says this: “And when you get though you will be in a perfect place to help someone else. You will also get the opportunity to see your life play out the way it’s meant to.” I understood her to mean that as she grew in hope, she found herself sharing hope with others. Even more than that, she discovered meaning for her life.

I believe that God, painfully aware of our flaws, works around them as much as we’ll allow. If we own our faults, half of God’s struggle to put us back on the path is accomplished. Our humility makes his job much easier.

Hope is the key; hope is reciprocal. When you have it, you give it to others. When you need it, you get it back?

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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