The image of fine lines occupies my thoughts these days. I’m not thinking of geometry problems or lead sizes in pencils. Rather, it is the ever so slight boundaries in life that mark the separation of one perspective from another. They often seem harmless enough, but drift across one and you may be surprised at the reaction it creates. Like being a computer geek in a biker bar or wearing shorts and a tank top to a black tie affair, it quickly becomes clear that one of these is not like the others!
The topic of fine lines resurfaced a memory of working toward merit badges during my short-lived participation in the Boy Scouts. The badge being sought was for physical fitness or something similar, and one of the necessary activities focused on balance. A required task to earn the badge was to walk a certain distance balanced across a beam-like surface. As it so happened, the attic space in our house was unfinished so I spent a few hours attempting to walk across the exposed rafters in that space. In retrospect that wasn’t very smart. One misstep could have meant a foot crashing through the ceiling of the room beneath me. Thankfully such an outcome was avoided. The balancing act was easy enough while wearing shoes. Walking barefooted, on the other hand, was more of a challenge. Feet are uneven surfaces, of sorts, with arches, contours, and toes that squeeze or twitch. Shoes have the advantage of a firm sole that doesn’t react to a pinch or tickle. I don’t remember too much more about that merit badge experience or any other for that matter, but from time to time I remember the lessons learned about balance. It comes naturally, but can be tricky. It is easier in some contexts than it is in others. To some degree, practice makes a difference. Master the act of balance and you can navigate uncertain situations, walk upright in the best and worst of times, and avoid face plants in the most embarrassing of circumstances. I’m not a prime candidate for tightrope walking but most days I can at least put one foot in front of the other without falling!
The lesson about the importance of balance has been a good one, but more for life than merit badges. I recently viewed a documentary on Prohibition by Ken Burns. Talk about an era with an absence of balance! It made the case that advocates of prohibition attempted to dictate behavior and a particular brand of morality, and this in itself was out of character for a country that by that stage prided itself on freedom. From outspoken personalities like Carrie Nation to organized movements, this was an impressive accomplishment. Of course, there was pushback! Even with the passage of the 18th amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol, a stiff drink could be found if a person knew where to look. It is never easy to dictate or legislate morality. From stills to the speakeasy to alcohol by prescription to legal loopholes to protests by workers whose culture had long included alcohol, there was resistance to the imposition of temperance throughout the land. The documentary provided another reminder that there is a fine line between freedom and regulation. Most of us would acknowledge that abuse of alcohol contributes to things like addiction, poverty, and domestic violence, but would stop short of supporting the practice of prohibition. We could likely agree that an “anything goes” society is a hotbed for chaos, but would probably have different opinions about what should be regulated or where the lines in the sand should be drawn. Depending on how we handle those moments, we may find ourselves balancing fine lines that separate collaborative action, spirited debate, protests, or more violent confrontations.
Thinking about this topic had already been brewing over the past four years, ever since the presidential election of 2016. Judi and I were traveling with a small group in Australia and New Zealand while votes were cast and counted that year. As results became known, the shock and despair that rippled through the group of travelers was noticeable, to say the least. We returned home to find many in our country were dismayed with a low morale and a doomsday perspective, while others were already mobilized to work for change. But that was only one side of the fine line. On the other side, some were quite pleased to have an outsider in the Oval office who promised to drain the swamps of D.C. The rancor between the two sides is what caught my attention. In a way I had not experienced before, I was astounded that we Americans could be such poor losers. After all, someone loses every election. That wasn’t a new outcome. And, it wasn’t our first rodeo. Democracy gives us a voice and a vote. While campaigns are rarely 100% honest and forthright and messages are spun to attract the widest swath of voters, most of us don’t bother to learn enough about the candidates to make an informed decision. Whoever bothers to register gets to participate in the selection of public officials. But recently, it appears the majority rules mentality is only palatable when the results suit us.
I remember newsfeeds of those who protested in 2016, not all of which were peaceful. Again in 2020 protests occurred, this time from the other end of the spectrum. I support the right to peaceful protests, but never had I imagined we would witness fellow Americans storming our own Capitol. Apparently ours is a great system only so long as our side wins. It is that latter realization that saddens me and threatens my sense of balance.
Being a Quaker, I recognize that the majority isn’t always correct simply because they outnumber their opposition. When that is the case, it is helpful when a minority prophetic witness can help us see new Light. That is different than choosing an oligarchy or minoritarianism to govern the land. Crucial to navigating those moments is the freedom to express a differing point of view with the expectation that it will be heard with respect, even if disagreed with. Respectful disagreement and agreed upon means to work through the differences – those are things that seem to be lacking at many points across the continuum of American perspectives, leaving us with widely divergent ideals that seem to have little common ground and no means of reconciliation.
One solace during these trying times is a look back over history to see that the U.S. has embraced, promoted, and survived despite such fractious behavior among our ancestors. I’m currently reading a book passed along by a niece called Andrew Jackson and the Constitution. Part of the author’s point seems to be that U.S. history is a history of generational regimes. The more successful one administration is, the more it guarantees a robust opposition by those left out of the power structure and who embody different ideals. That may not be a perfect description of what is facing our country at the moment, but it captures much of the cause of the underlying tensions. Those who feel they are being overlooked and ignored are taking the fight to those who wish to avoid trading places with them. Which group is which will to some degree depend on your vantage point when you survey the situation and make your assessment. We can expect that to continue until the day we create a system that leaves no one out – of course the chances of that happening to everyone’s satisfaction are slim to none!
I recall a college class called “Dante and the 20th Century” in which students chose theologians to read alongside the Divine Comedy. During my presentation of Paul Tillich’s views of sin, grace, and perfection, the professor asked a question about freedom. I still remember my response: “We are free to live as we choose, but a person’s freedom is curtailed when their decisions impinge on the freedom of another.” I would still put that forth as a foundational presupposition in my thinking, but with a few more years of experience under my belt, I recognize how idealistic that statement is! As an example, a neighbor owns two dogs. He has the right to own dogs. They spend much of their time indoors. While outside, it is perfectly acceptable for them to run loose in the yard. He is a good neighbor, and has even gone the extra step of installing invisible fences so that the animals remain in the yard. Still, it is irritating to have the dogs stand at the fine line marked by the invisible fence and bark continuously at me when I walk down my own driveway to the mailbox. Two people exercising freedom within the boundaries of the life they’ve created for themselves. Each is well within their rights and the expectations of the law, but with just a little friction on one side of the line nonetheless. Imagine that situation on steroids, where parties involved aren’t acquainted or certain rights are being violated or participants are simply tired of whatever it is that irks them. Balance and a healthy life together require a commitment to a few key ideals by both sides of the issue, recognizing value and worth in the other in spite of significant, even heated, differences. It requires some skill at maintaining balance – walking those fine lines that separate us from one another on key points even as we still have more in common than not.
Perhaps qualifying for a merit badge that demonstrates our ability to maintain balance as we navigate these fine lines would be a helpful part of preparation for adulthood! It might save us from crashing through the ceiling later in life.