THIS I BELIEVE: hope
Karl Marx’s famous quote, “religion is the opiate of the masses,” first made sense to me in a Brazilian cohab. An enormous truck would stop in the center of the neighborhood each morning and board a crowd of men with lunch coolers and machetes. The truck returned them near sundown, blackened and bloodied from twelve hours of cane cutting. They spilled out of the truck and into their homes to clean up, dress up and go to church. The neighborhood evangelicals met nightly in a painted cinder block hall with rudimentary benches, a stage, a band and a charismatic who preached so loud and fast that his voice distorted in the PA. The congregation sang along and moved and shouted and prayed and healed together…and then went home, packed a lunch for tomorrow, and went to sleep.
I will never compare the inconveniences of my life to the misery of cutting sugar cane, but there are circumstances I experience from time to time that are best expressed as “suffering.” For example, I teach high school English. Daily, I am assaulted with grammatical offenses committed by children who each year, counting only clothing, electronic media and travel, consume more than I earn. Over the last twelve months, my wife and I built a modest house with our very own four hands, we watched our three-year-old son breathe via ventilator for five days, we conceived and birthed our third son, and we repeatedly made the terrible decision to continue repairing cars we already own instead of replacing them with automobiles that have such desirable qualities as ‘starting upon ignition’ and ‘stopping upon braking.’
Meanwhile, my father was having a difficult year professionally. Just as I once met a Brazilian who opened his wallet to show me a half-inch stack of I-O-U’s, my father worked all year for two different companies but was never compensated. The coincidence of our ‘suffering’ is only noteworthy at best; but I am completely fascinated by the shift in our conversations this year: from the routine details of family, career, books and politics, to nothing but the utterly banal minutia of professional sports, otherwise known as “soap operas for boys.”
It makes me wonder what Karl Marx might have said about the World Cup, the Olympics, or the now-defunct one-class Indiana High School State Basketball Tournament. Spectator sports are, at their most elemental level, a brief respite from real life, from suffering. We may, by following a team through a single match or an entire season, exult in victory – a rare opportunity for too many of us; or we can endure defeat in a context that is meaningless and temporary – also a rare chance. There is no real or lasting catharsis, but the distraction, like narcotics, is pleasant while it lasts.
My drug of choice is the New Orleans Saints, which is remarkable first of all because this opiate I have chosen to dull my suffering may best be described as longsuffering. I am so sick of Red Sox fans whining about their history as the Yankees’ bridesmaids. They don’t know suffering. The Saints have never even been good enough to let us down! They have only won a single playoff game in their entire history. Their futility rivals the French military. Their management is more inept than a three-legged beetle, and they have always been a team where talent gets injured, promise gets traded, and heroes dress for the other team. Why, then, would I follow the New Orleans Saints?
Hope. They drafted Reggie Bush this year, they have a new coach and they signed a former pro-bowl quarterback. Maybe – maybe – this is the year. Hope, you know, is why people are moving back and rebuilding New Orleans. Hope is what keeps young schoolteachers from going to law school. Hope keeps you building in winter; hope sustains you when your sedated toddler is breathing through a tube; hope is the essence of car-repair; hope is literally embodied in childbirth. Oh, Karl Marx, if only you could see my baby in Black and Gold.
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