Bill Long 2/2/08
Tragedy comes in all shapes and sizes, but its common feature is that it puts its stamp on life to such an extent that nothing really can eradicate it. Parents who have lost children through violence, people who have faced debilitating injury and illness, those who have experienced abuse, humiliation or loss in family, work, relationships or personal ambitions--all of these, all of us are branded with the mark of tragedy. We will know joy again, to be sure; we will have pleasant times and experience refreshment and even deep human connection, but we never will be able to shake the fact that tragedy has sunk its merciless stingers into us.
The tragedy [defined by the OED as "that branch of dramatic art which treats of sorrowful or terrible events, in a serious and dignified style.."] that most fills my mind now is that of Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Because of her beauty, the God Apollo granted her the gift of prophecy, but when she rejected his advances he cursed her so that she would continue to see the future, and speak of it, but would not be believed. In other words, her gift would become a source of endless frustration, rather than blessing, for her.
Thinking About Cassandra's Story
As I think about the gifts I bring to the world, two of the most significant are my memory and my ability to assimilate and present material very quickly in a quite compelling fashion. These gifts won't help you make it across Death Valley in July or, as my father used to say, "that and $.25 will get you a cup of coffee," but they are useful and even a source of blessing and wonder in a number of situations. Whereas people occasionally express their amazement and even astonishment at the gifts, in most instances these have led more to embarrassment or confusion than blessing. I, like Cassandra, have been frustrated by the gifts--especially when I try to use them--which is the point of gifts, I suppose. Let me tell you a few stories that illustrate what I mean.
Story # 1--Memorization
My imagination was fired to memorize the Bible when I was 19 years-old. During my sophomore year at Brown Univ., I mentioned this interest to the senior staff member of the Evangelical group on campus, and he told me that their organization had a memorization program. You started with the Epistle of James. I was told to take a few months to memorize it, maybe working on a verse a day or about six a week. There was some legendary figure in their organization, however, who had memorized the letter in three weeks. Well, it took me five days to memorize James. I was not only driven by the internal compulsion to master a text deeply but by the (unspoken) competition I would have against this "super Crusader." I abandoned my schoolwork for the week and simply read, re-read, mastered, internalized, and recited. I walked around campus talking to myself, mumbling delicious phrases that I felt had more relevance to myself in 1971 than any news from Viet Nam or any other place on earth. But then, after I told everyone I had memorized James in five days, and gave suitable proof of the fact that I had done so, it was as if nothing happened. People didn't acknowledge my effort; they didn't applaud it. I felt that if a guy who did it in three weeks had national recognition, at least I, who did it in five days ought to get some kudos. But I didn't. I never understood that. And it hurt.
Story # 2-- Fast Forward to Law School
I went to law school at age 44, after a career of teaching at the college level and pastoring a church. I also was an editorial writer for a major American paper and had been elected twice to public office. I had six or seven books under my belt at the time. Law school was fairly easy for me. In fact, by the time of my last semester (Fall 1999), I was so bored that I knew I had to write a book during that last semester or go crazy. A law firm colleague a few years later told me he would have played golf every day; I, because of my inner compulsions, needed to research and write. So, I researched and wrote a 280-page history of the Oregon death penalty, the first ever written, during my last semester of law school. It not only was a pretty large effort, but it required original research for nearly every chapter. I was taking a full load of courses, though I didn't put much effort into them. To put the accomplishment in perspective, most students were struggling with their "3rd year paper" at the time--a 20-25 page paper they needed to write in order to graduate. So, I did a project that was 10-12X as long as what was required in one semester. I told a few faculty members and fellow students I was working on a book and would finish it. I did finish it by Dec. 1, 1999, and the book eventually won an award when I was in legal practice a few years later.
But the response of the faculty and students was stunning to me. When I mentioned I was writing a book and then showed them the fruit of the labor (I got it bound afterwards), it was as if I was showing them nothing. No response. I was hurt again, and I wondered why it was that the law school, the faculty and even fellow students would not even comment on the fact that one of their students had written a book during his last semester. That kind of thing just doesn't happen. It was a rare occurrence; it almost never happens. Again, I felt as if my special gifts were not only not appreciated but not understood at all. It frustrated and hurt me.
Stories # 3 and # 4--Brief Vignettes
# 3. While I was teaching at the law school as visiting professor, I happened to eat lunch with three or so of the law faculty. We were discussing the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. One of the guys asked, "Does anyone know exactly when he lived?" I calmly said, "Yes, 1588-1679." One of the other guys looked at me as if I was weird, and the other faculty member ignored what I said, as if my ability to place him precisely in his time was a matter so trivial and insignificant that it didn't require notice. He just plowed on as if I had said nothing.
# 4. After I left law school teaching, I was visited in my old office by a former law school colleague. She maintained her law teaching while she began as a student in another graduate program of which I knew something. She stopped by to tell me that she was now published on the Net--with one of her essays being easily available. She gave me the web address, I duly looked it up while she was there, and oohed and aahed over it as if it was a newborn baby. She was very proud of it. I didn't have the heart to mention that I had, at the time, 2500 of my own essays on line. Indeed, I built this web site while I was teaching at the law school and rarely, if ever, did anyone acknowledge its existence. No one, certainly, suggested that it had value. And, no one ever asked me about what I thought I was doing through all of this. It did me absolutely no good for purposes of possible promotion or contract extension.
All of these events are ever-present in my mind. Of course I have received lots of praise for my memory and my ability to assimilate and present large amounts of helpful material (even though I haven't been able to turn these gifts into money-makers), but somehow these incidents just recorded stick in my mind. The common denominator is that I express what I think is a most precious, powerful and really stupefying gift, and the reaction is a collective cultural shrug of the shoulders and a "Huh?" It mystifes me and hurts me. It is my own tragedy, a sort of Cassandra-type experience where the very gifts that are supposed to bless me and the world serve primarily to frustrate me. It is why I have tried to derive most of my satisfaction from internal pursuits and from the act of research and production itself. I will survive, and I will and do flourish. But I also am stamped by this tragedy, which usually is manageable but sometimes just won't let me go.