Monthly Archives: April 2016

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Suicide

In a recent article about the terribly difficult subject of suicide, Gretchen Winter and Gillian Mohney write, “the suicide rate went up 24 percent between 1999 and 2014 … according to the CDC.” [1] The article notes that one particular group, middle-aged women, saw a huge uptick in suicides: 63%. Among males, the middle-aged also saw a large increase, some 43%. The authors go on to quote Jane Pearson, chair of the Suicide Research Consortium at the National Institute of Mental Health: “We don’t know why. We would like to know why. Knowing it’s going up, we are concerned, but we are not surprised because we have seen this trend happening.” Pearson, who in the article suggests stress is a root cause, added that more research is needed, especially because suicide is currently the tenth leading reason for death in the United States.

Another person consulted in the article, Dr. Russell Rothman, who serves as Assistant Vice Chancellor for health research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, noted that this particular increase comes even after numerous public health initiatives targeting suicide in particular. He, too, is quoted: “The fact that we’re seeing increasing rates particularly among women—it’s probably multifactorially related to economic pressure, social pressure, our culture around acceptance of suicide.”

I can brook the facile and probably only partially accurate assumptions about economic pressures and social pressures (whatever those might be), I can even pass over Jane Pearson’s surprising lack of surprise at the rise in rates, but this last bit, the “acceptance of suicide” is what jumped out at me. It must have jumped out, too, at the authors of the article, for they took the liberty of adding in square brackets [and stigma] before “of suicide.” Yet that is apparently not what Assistant Vice Chancellor Rothman said.

G. K. Chesterton

It struck me precisely because I found myself wondering how it is that suicide has become acceptable. It hasn’t always been so. For the great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton, suicide is “the sin … the ultimate and absolute evil.”[2] He expands on this somewhat unsympathetically, viewing it as “the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men.”[3]

By citing Chesterton’s indictment of the overarching notion of suicide, I do not wish to suggest that we, who in terms of greater knowledge of mental health issues have the advantage of living several generations after Chesterton, should fail to acknowledge the complexity of the issue or in any way lack sympathy for someone who struggles with depression or other manifestations of mental illness that sadly can lead to suicide. What, a la seventeenth-century scholar Robert Burton,[4] might have been deemed by Chesterton merely a bout of melancholy is now correctly recognized as depression, bipolar disorder, or some other serious struggle with mental illness or even a physical illness that may cause mental problems. As a tragic and famous example of the latter, one may take the case of Robin Williams, whose death was the result of his struggle with Lewy-Body Syndrome. It is very likely the case not merely that he was depressed because of his illness and thus decided to end it all but rather that a manifestation of one of the frightening hallucinations associated with the disease compelled him to take his own life.[5] This example and others like it reveal that what we call suicide is not a monolithic black-and-white issue but, like many things, once studied closely proves to be highly complicated.

Martin Luther
Statue of Martin Luther, Cathedral of Gotha

Martin Luther understood as much. Luther’s view, recorded in 1532 in his Tischreden, was no doubt regarded at that time by the Church and the non-church alike as one more heterodox link in a long chain of heresies: “I am not of the opinion that those who kill themselves must be in our minds considered ‘damned.’ My reasoning is based on the idea that they do not kill themselves of their own volition but are simply overcome by the power of the Devil.”[6] Luther’s view perhaps summarizes best in theological terms what I am trying to convey here in human terms. Indeed, as portrayed in perhaps the most poignant moment in the film Luther, Luther’s assessment, put into practice, is decidedly humane. If you haven’t seen the movie and this topic is one close to your heart, I would urge you to click on this link.

Yet even though Luther’s interpretation of suicide is gentle and reveals how complicated the issue is, that does not mean the concept or idea of suicide—Plato’s word for “form” is idea—can be viewed merely as an alternative or a choice. And thus, what Dr. Rothman seems to regard as modern society’s de-stigmatization of suicide, might be an aspect or result of the way that suicide has been promoted as an alternative to pain. One thinks of the late Dr. Jack Kervorkian who even though he helped end human life—or rather precisely because he did so—is held as a hero by so many. Laws in many states now allow physician-assisted suicide. Such a way to escape pain has of late been touted as a reasonable alternative to living a life deemed less than worth living.

While there is certainly no single source for the shift in modern posture toward suicide, some discussions of it undoubtedly have been more influential than others. A few years before Kervorkian, in the late 1970s, Peter Singer, then a professor of Ethics at Monash University and now the Ira. W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, took on the issue of the taking of human life. By virtue of his exalted status consisting of an endowed professorship at an Ivy League university, it might not be an overreach to say that Dr. Singer could be viewed as “America’s ethicist.” In the academic world, his ideas, perhaps more than any other individual scholar, have shaped the current American ethos, the American moral climate. (I have corresponded with him a time or two by e-mail.)

Peter Singer
Peter Singer

On the topic of suicide, Dr. Singer is in favor not just of suicide, but even the taking of one human life by another to alleviate pain. I haven’t time to rehears all of Dr. Singer’s arguments here; they are easily found online. At bottom, Singer’s views come down to a kind of practical hedonism.[7] Why are Dr. Singer’s views so widely held today? Why has America (and much of the West) shifted away from the notion of life being sacred to pleasure being sacred? In part, it has to do with mere pragmatism. Most of it, though, has to do with this: we have allowed ourselves to become removed from any sense of story, any sense that we are part of a larger narrative, a saga that has meaning the way a joke has a punch-line or story has a moral. When we remove ourselves from that way of viewing life, there can be no morality that isn’t merely practical: hence, the title of Dr. Singer’s most famous book, Practical Ethics. Such ethics are situation driven, based on practical outcomes. Singer’s position is that of moral pragmatism in the extreme. If pain can be eliminated by one’s taking one’s own life, then suicide is acceptable.

Let’s look at a bit more of Chesterton’s rant against suicide for just one moment: “The Christian attitude to the martyr and the suicide was not what is so often affirmed in modern morals. It was not a matter of degree. It was not that a line must be drawn somewhere, and that the self-slayer in exaltation fell within the line, the self-slayer in sadness just beyond it. The Christian feeling evidently was not merely that the suicide was carrying martyrdom too far. The Christian feeling was furiously for one and furiously against the other: these two things that looked so much alike were at opposite ends of heaven and hell.” And thus Dante’s seventh circle. Yet perhaps Chesterton might better have said that there is simply meaning in suffering and that avoiding it at all cost is to deny that meaning.

Martin Luther’s gentle response is surely more humane than Chesterton’s harsh condemnation. Chesterton’s observation, if unlikely to help the person struggling with mental illness, nevertheless may usefully address those who prefer to sit back and theorize, who find acceptable the current acceptance of suicide that Singer’s 1979 book precipitated or at least anticipated. Can’t we find a better way than death, even if that better way should prove to be less “practical”? If we wish to do so, we shall, at some point, have to acknowledge that there is meaning in suffering; that suffering itself is not simply to be avoided at all cost; and finally, that we most certainly are a part of a grander narrative that gives meaning to our individual stories. Here’s to a proper ending to a wonderful story, the wonderful story that tells a tale of and for each and every one of us!champagne glasses


[2] Orthodoxy, ch. 5; my italics.

[3] Orthodoxy, ch. 5; my italics.

[4] Robert Burton’s famous work, The Anatomy of Melancholy, enjoyed wide-ranging influence.

[5] I know this from firsthand experience, as Elaine Jakes died from this disease. Her hallucinations varied from the frightening—so frightening that already in her mid-50s she was being awoken by them from her deep sleep—to the benign. As an example of the latter, in the months before she moved in with us, she frequently thought she saw “the admiral” wandering about her house, which was then just across the street from our own; the admiral came with her and made frequent visits to our home, where she died roughly five years later.

[6] Ego non sum in ea sententia, ut penitus damnandos eos censeam, qui se ipsos occidunt; ratio est quia sie thun es nit gern, sed superantur Diaboli potentia …” [my translation of lemma 222, 7 April 1532].

[7] In all fairness, Professor Singer and/or his followers might dispute what I regard as a hedonistic impulse implicit in his work. It might be fairer to qualify that impulse as one particular manifestation of hedonism (nowadays associated with a refined palate), namely Epicureanism. While the modern idea of being an “epicure” is not an aspect of Practical Ethics, the notion central to Epicureanism’s historical teaching, specifically the avoidance of pain, is very much an aspect of Singer’s work.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Richest Man Alive

drillWhen my grandfather, Harry, died, he left some old implements here and there in his house, some of which my mother collected and then passed on to me. I had no idea how valuable they were. One was an old electric drill that still works. Another, a razor, also electric, was new to Harry at the time; it is also still fully functional. I use it but rarely since I shave with a blade. hrjakes.elecrazorHe left hammers, a few vice-grips, a tool box or two with various small apparatuses in them, plus a couple of wrenches and a now useless zigzag-shaped manual wood drill with a nob on the end. I say useless because, unlike the other drill he left me, it rarely finds its way into my highly unskilled hands. I can’t recall what else might be out in the shed and it’s raining right now and I’m too lazy to wade through the storm to look for anything else.manual drill

Those tools made me the richest man alive. They did so by not having any real value. Now I’m sure if I went on the Antiques Roadshow some pecuniary sum could be assessed (thirty-five dollars perhaps) for the least useful of them, i.e., the incidentally muscle-building manual drill. But about the other stuff—even the functioning drill or razor—I’m pretty sure they would say, “Well, friend, these aren’t really worth anything.” And that’s precisely why I am rich.

Now at this point, someone might say, “Your incessant use of paradoxes is obfuscating”—at least my wife would, who says this or something like it fairly frequently—objecting to my hitherto nonsensical story. How can valueless objects make you rich? They can’t in and of themselves but the lessons behind them can. My grandfather and his tools obliquely remind me that one really important aspect of the legacy he left me was hard work. He believed that not earning everything you own is less than honorable. He never expected his parents to leave him a legacy—indeed, they had nothing of substance to leave him—and, if they had left him anything at all, he would certainly have shared it with his brothers or sisters or even others outside his immediate family whom he knew were in some way less fortunate. Why? Is it because he did not earn it himself? Well, yes, I suppose, you could say that. In any case, that’s the short answer.screwdriver

A longer answer has to do with the legacy his parents (particularly his mother, Ann) did in fact leave him. That legacy was faith in the face of life’s afflictions, faith in the face of the hardest challenges, even death. Her favorite hymn was “That Old Rugged Cross.” She died in the faith, the faith of that cross. She left him that legacy. That was a gift far more valuable than her knitting needles or her blankets or even the one or two beautiful vases she owned—they went to Emily, one of Harry’s sisters, as his other, Ruth, had preceded her mother in death. But faith, the faith that sustained his mother through that tragedy and throughout her life–that was the legacy that Harry received, and he certainly understood, as much as any of us can, how very valuable that legacy was. And for a while Harry Jakes was the richest man in the world.

tool1I inherited from him a few tools that are not worth very much, if anything at all. But I also inherited from him and my grandmother, Blanche, a fortune. That fortune is an admittedly imperfect love for God and my fellow human being. That is the only unambiguous command of the New Testament, peppered everywhere within it, the central teaching of the faith of the old rugged cross (Luke 23:34; 23:43), that we ought love one another (John 13:34) ; that we ought love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 6:27) ; that we ought love and forgive our enemies (1 Peter 1:9) ; and, finally, that we ought pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:43-58).

hammersI have a friend who these days is squabbling over the inheritance that he and his brother received at their parents’ passing. At one point he said to me that he believes his brother cheated him out of a huge sum, six figures or more. He wants no further interaction with his brother; he may even sue him. He said that I myself couldn’t understand because I had never had access to that kind of money and thus I could not possibly know what it means to lose it, how it feels. And he’s right; I have never had commerce with such funds nor can I imagine losing so vast an amount of money. But I can tell him about the legacy that my grandfather left me. Harry said to be content with whatever work God gives you to do, to work hard at it and earn everything you own. And, once you do possess something, treat it as if it did not belong to you but to God; don’t think of anything as yours. Love God; love your fellow human being. And don’t worry about money, your inheritance, or anything at all but be ready at any time to give whatever you own to the poor, realizing the fraternal gulf between you and them is very slight but that between you and God is very great. “If you think like that,” he said, “you will be very close to God because such thinking is very close to God’s heart.” He told me this when I was a child as he packed his toolkit for a mission trip he was taking to Haiti with his church. He was going there to build houses for the poor, very likely with the very tools, valueless but so very valuable, that I now own.

toolboxIt took me a while to understand all this, to process it. And I am still processing it. In the meantime, even from the little bit I have understood, from the  tools  I inherited, from the twinkle in his eye as he packed for that voyage into the face of poverty, I am certain that it is not Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or Donald Trump but it is I, yes I, who am most certainly now the richest man alive.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On Toilets (and Other Things That Seem Funny)

hot toilet
Now you’re really on the hot seat.

Animals are not the only creatures or things on earth that are funny. In previous blogs we established that opossums are funny, horses and donkeys are not really edible, and that sheep, well sheep, offer the key to understanding the meaning of life. But I do not want to talk in this blog about animals such as the once-captive octopus who recently made the news by pushing boundaries/expanding his horizons—literally. (But seriously, good for him!) Octopus

Beyond this non-consideration of animals, I would also not really add that, given the present state of affairs in America, I will not deign to discuss the recent developments in the presidential race. Were I to do so, however, the word funny might just insert itself into the discourse, for from a distance at least it seems apropos to describe the current political field. Other adjectives of the same ilk that come to mind are hilarious, ridiculous (mostly that one), and absurd (perhaps that is a close second to ridiculous). But it is too easy to pick on politicians—so I leave that aside.   presidental race 2016Rather, as I reflect on things I found funny this week, I thought I would proffer here some less often considered items, starting with terms of endearment. Now something like “Honey” isn’t so much funny as it is sweet, even if it is a bit sticky; yet it is fitting qua a gentle appellation of love and is likely to remain perennially used as a substitute for sweetheart, another term whose connotation is obvious. Other such romantic terms, however well intended (like “hey there, lover”) are a bit suggestive and might be deemed less than appropriate for all audiences by the prudish.

Other funny, or perhaps in some cases not-so-funny, terms have to do with odd familial relationships. Take a term like mother-in-law. The last thing you want for that person is a term like that, as such a title sets a relationship on a razor’s edge right from the start. Your first thank you note to her might begin, “Dear Mother-in-law,” or worse, “Dear Janet” (or June or Julie or Jean)—or any first name, which would (and probably should) seem too palsy-walsy to you; your fall back, is “Dear Mrs. Jones” but that can’t work either, because she’s no longer a mere acquaintance. It’s the “law” part that makes it weird, as it makes it seem as if you should go to court to talk to her.

But it does not have to be that way! Think of the Italians: they have the lovely term suocera (pronounced SWO share ah) for mother-in-law. How lovely that sounds, rolls right off the, well, teeth, but it does so very gently. In German there is the less comely Schwiegermutter (which with the metathesis of the ‘e’ and ‘i’, looks strangely like, but is not, “silent mother” but other than that is not awkward). But everything in German sounds harsh (click here for some examples); German for butterfly is Schmetterling, while in Italian it is the lovely farafalla. But, at least for the Germans, the law business is left out. Not so in English! And that is why, as we have noted, it is especially awkward for Anglophones.

But that is not as funny as homophones, which perhaps to those with a limited lexicon may sound like a legitimate concern of the LGBTQIA community. But it is not. It simply means two words that sound alike. So, for example, Charmin® (the toilet tissue) and charming (the affectionate adjective). Charming Charmin® is indispensable.

flower toilet
A charming toilet (as opposed to the frightening “Fireman John” above or the “Surprise Commode” below)

And there is great confusion between “Charmin®-toilet-sale” and a “charming toilet for sale.” And I could go on, of course, with near homophones like synonym and cinnamon, or precise homophonic clusters such as building complex (where one lives) and building complex (affecting a psychologically troubled engineer who suffers from a condition akin to writer’s block); but I won’t.

I won’t because among the other funny things I thought of this week there are at least two that bear acknowledgment: the first, of course, is Ron Paul, doctor turned politician and father of recent presidential candidate Rand Paul, offering weird economic advice. Now I imagine that some of you may indulge in such conspiracy theories, and I apologize here for my Welsh gloomy skepticism. But that’s not so much funny as it is odd. But so are flower-covered toilets.

large toilet
Why some hate surprises

Napolean impersonatorThe second is, of course, the unexpected appearance of Napoleon Bonaparte impersonators at gatherings that are not costume parties—one just never knows what to say on such occasions. Then there are also the water-cooler conversations that consist of anachronistic urban legends: “Amelia Earhart is still alive.” (She was born in 1897). Then there are the odd conversations about Alice Cooper, and the false allegation that he and Eddie on “Leave it to Beaver,” were one and the same person. Funny as these things are—though awkward and strange might better describe them—I won’t close with them. I won’t close, either, with singers or actors with only one name, such as Cher, Sting, or Bono, the last of whom explains in fact what happened to Cher’s original last name; it drifted over to a guy named Paul David Hewson. Nay rather, what I will close with is old guys with beach bodies. And I shall leave you with that image to ponder all week. Funny isn’t it, or merely strange? You decide.

old man body builder


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Friends

Somewhere in central Texas there is, at the intersection of St. Mary’s and St. John’s streets, a place. Its name is My Brother’s Keeper, but those who stay there just call it BK, for short. There’s nothing fancy about the name or the place, or St. Mary’s or St. John’s, for that matter. Though I did not know it as I drove my old Ford in that direction, I had come there that evening to make friends.

BK’s furnishings are Spartan. There are not-very-comfortable looking bunk beds in rooms holding eight or perhaps ten people for a night’s stay. A narrow hallway with chipping paint. A small workroom; a recreational room, smaller yet; in back, a patio with a view of the sunset, for I have come just a few minutes before sunset. In the lobby, I sign in and chat with the staff, Brittany and Dane. But I am not here to hear Brittany’s or Dane’s stories but to tell one, so I thought at the time. At check-in I make a couple of jokes; they laugh. Then, of course, I quip awkwardly about being of Welsh descent. (I don’t know why I do that, since no one in Texas understands Welsh references: I invariably get a strange look.)

Dane writes you in; Brittany, as if performing a magic ritual, gently passes her weapon-detecting wand around your body. She smiles. Her love for all human beings is palpable; it shows in her eyes that twinkle, or rather glow with compassion and gentleness. Neither she nor Dane are dressed like the formal wardens of a proper institution; rather, they are dressed like college students. Perhaps they are just that; I never found out.

Several of the evening’s residents at BK and I go outside on the patio. Just moments before the sun begins its final downward course, I offer a brief spiritual reflection, one that will mention St. John but not St. Mary, even though here the streets cross. I have come to speak, in part, about why a friend of mine has told me that he no longer has faith. What is it that has made him lose his faith? It is the news, bad news about the economy, terrorism, the world going to hell in a hand basket—so he said at any rate. Just when faith could help him, he had walked away from it. He had lost his faith in people he told me. I had agreed with him that faith in people will disappoint; but there is another faith, it is at the place where Mary and John look up at a dying King, a King dying to make us princes and princesses. That story of love is what I wanted to tell because I was thinking perhaps they might well have, indeed are likely to have, faced challenges that could cause them to question their faith. I wanted to encourage them to keep going, keep walking in faith’s path even when what they see, what we all see, looks terribly gloomy and hopeless.


This is the story that I was trying stumblingly to share with only about fifteen of the many who had come to BK that evening. We’re out back, on that patio, where I speak about love, love from above, that allows us to keep faith. I warn against putting too much confidence in people. But I am speaking uncomfortably because I am doing so for an audience of people with no place to go, people of very little means. Some had come there, that evening, carrying their meager belongings in plastic grocery bags, while other brought a dilapidated suitcase from a thrift store, another a limping, tattered quasi-rolling board with one wheel broken—these are the lucky ones, for they have something to bring at all. I am uncomfortable not because they don’t have the American dream. Rather, I am uncomfortable because I do have it, and so much of it. Now someone might say, “That’s just white suburban guilt. Forget about that.” But even if that is the case, I cannot simply forget about it. I cannot because I am at the intersection of St. Mary’s and St. John’s and I am confronted not just with the idea of “the poor” but with people, real people, with names and faces. And stories.

Old Leather Suitcase

David[1] surprised me, for he had a library book, a thick one. “It’s the latest installment in the Divergent series. It’s a dystopia,” he said. Nineteen years old, he was perhaps the youngest in the shelter. He had been a student at a local college. His grandmother, who was raising him had gotten old, he said, too old to help him.

“Your parents?”

“Gone,” he said, “Not in my life. Never really were. My grandma raised us.”


“Yes there are three of us.”

“How did you wind up here?”

“Lost my job, couldn’t pay my rent. I was a student.”

“At college?”

“Yes, just taking my basics at a small two-year. I am hoping to be able to go on for a degree.”

Next to him sat Angelica, formerly a U.S. Coast Guard servicewoman, now looking for a job. She, too, was well read, and disclosed to me her hope of having a library in her own home one day.

“I just love books,” she said. I told her she might like the Curious Autobiography. I asked her a bit more about her story. After her discharge had followed her sister out west, she said—and by west she no doubt meant here, Texas—but her sister had problems, lost her job, was divorced, had to move back east (I think she said Florida) for a job. “Haven’t seen my sister for a long time now. I’ve got nobody here. I lost my job, lost my apartment. I’m trying to get a job. I’ve got an interview tomorrow.”

“I’ll say a prayer,” I said.

“Thank you,” she said and then she paused. After a moment, she told me about her time with the Coast Guard doing drug interdiction. “Drugs are ruining our country,” she said. I agreed.

After hearing more about the harrowing, quite heroic operations she had undertaken on the Coast Guard interceptors and about how a boom winch was mistaken by some drug runners for a Gatling gun, I could hardly stop myself from commenting, “You have an interesting story.

“I haven’t,” she added in closing, “had many friends to tell my story to.” And then, of course, I thought of Cicero, who not only extols friendship—for that is an obvious truism—but explains why it is vital for life. Part of that is the exchange of ideas, the sharing of virtues, and the telling of one’s stories to receptive ears. And that is just what Angelica and I, and David and I, and one or two others, too, were doing. And that is why I had come, for my message was encumbered by my lack of familiarity with that group, my own, tragically genuine, unfamiliarity with poverty. It had been a long time since I had been on the streets of Philadelphia going through garbage cans with Elaine Jakes—too many years.[2] I’d forgotten what it means to be poor. Indeed, I had never really known, for even then, we had a place to sleep that was our own.

Cicero quote1
A rather free, but not inaccurate paraphrase of De Amicitia 86.

That is why I am especially glad to have made my way to the intersection of St. Mary’s and St. John’s. I went thinking that I was doing so to tell a story, one based on love and kindness, on Psalm 14 and John 15 and to share reasons to keep faith even in the midst of life’s challenges and what can be the hardest of times. But I found out that in fact the real reason I was there was to listen to stories, those of David, of Angelica, and one or two others. These are my friends, and their story continues. I pray, too, that faith and friendship will be a part of those stories, and my own, until the final chapter of our books, until the last page is turned.

Cicero quote2
An accurate if truncated translation of De Amicitia 80.

[1] The names of people and even the streets have been changed to allow each individual to maintain their anonymity and, on the off chance that I misremember any of the details, to allow them to keep their personal and unique stories for themselves. Here I reveal merely what I can recall from my visit last week, a glimpse of much more complex and rich lives. BK is a real place that truly helps/empowers the disenfranchised of central Texas to get back on their feet. If you wish to donate, please click on this link or simply purchase a Curious Autobiography t-shirt. All proceeds to go MWMW, of which BK is one ministry.

[2] The Curious Autobiography, pp. 181– buy icon

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Opossum Logic & Safe Spaces


The phrase “o possum” in Latin means “Oh, can I!” possumYet this has nothing to do with the animal opossum, whose name among the scientific community is the far less catchy and harder to say didelphimorphia. The common name opossum is actually derived from a Native American dialect (Algonquian) meaning “white dog.”

Opossums, as you probably know, are marsupial omnivores. They walk with flat feet and are oddly resistant to snake bites. Even rattlesnakes cannot rattle them—they simply answer with an “Oh, I can resist you!” Even cottonmouths, said by some to be the most deadly of North American snakes, cannot kill them. Their chorus is always the same, “Oh, I can take it!”cottonmouth

I am thinking of these fine marsupials because I saw a family of them pass through my yard this week. They are cute as can be. I have heard that some types are actually domesticated, though I have never met anyone with a pet opossum. And, by the way, they do not sleep hanging by their tails. That is just a rumor presumably started by those who fear bats. But, they do “play possum.” While their first reaction to danger is to hiss like a cat, when deeply frightened, they can actually fall asleep for up to four hours and their body instinctively takes over, pretending that it is that of a dead animal. Their instincts make them secrete a terrible smelling liquid from their anal glands, and their lips curl back like those of a lifeless animal, leaving their teeth bared and showing some foaming saliva. Yet do not worry, for opossums are also quite resistant to rabies and rarely contract the disease.

Now why, you might wonder, am I taking so much time to delineate the particular features of an animal whose name has as much to do with the Latin “Oh I can!” as the Titanic’s has to do with Santa Claus, men’s formal dress and sunbathing. I am doing so because, of course, I find these animals fascinating. Their innate and unconscious capacity to play dead is intriguing to me: If only more nations would exercise such restraint when provoked by an aggressor. And the fact that they do not sleep by hanging from their tails—well that’s interesting, too, simply because of the misinformation that I received in fourth grade. Where did my teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, get that inaccurate description of these creatures? How did it go viral back in the days when nothing could do so because there was no Internet? Further, opossums are migratory. They don’t tend to stay in one place, unless they happen to have a good supply of food and water there. It stands to reason, but who knew?

gravity movie imageBut the title of this blog mentions the notion of safe spaces, as well. Though these have been in the news quite a bit lately, few of my readers are likely to be deeply concerned with the concept or practice, so removed as it may seem from our everyday life. On the light side, there are some obvious problems with the term, right off the bat: one need only rent the movie Gravity to ascertain immediately that space is certainly not a safe place. Yet, of course, this is not what is meant by this term. Its deeper meaning has been a topic very much in the news and is no laughing matter.

Recently the Washington Post reported that students at Emory felt unsafe because someone had written pro-Trump slogans in chalk on some of the pavements of the university.[1] trump sloganThese were merely slogans that, as far as I could tell from the photograph, said, “TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP” or ” TRUMP 2016.” Also recently, students at Oberlin demanded increased and more diverse—though someone might cogently argue less so—safe-space havens on campus.[2] Last fall a number of students at Yale surrounded and berated a faculty master, whose very title has been deemed racist,[3] to tell him what a poor job he was doing because he had suggested in an email that they not be too put out by the possibility that some Halloween costumes can be deemed offensive, should they happen to see one.

batman costume with captionIndeed, Halloween costumes are often offensive, and are meant to be so. This possibility, of course, offended some at Yale. But more offensive to them, apparently, was the suggestion that someone should ignore or write off as “in poor taste” Halloween costumes that were, in fact, in poor taste. The idea that merely ignoring, rolling one’s eyes at, or even snarkily retorting in passing to those wearing such costumes might in and of itself be an adequate way to deal with such offense set off a firestorm. To suggest as much was, it seemed, a violation of the notion of the safe space, the “home,” as one student called it, that Yale is expected by those students (or at least one student) to create for its constituents. Students are, it seemed to be argued, entitled to feel safe and secure at college. The very notion that something or someone could challenge that was not deemed tolerable to a number of the students.

According to the New York Times, the faculty master/lecturer has since left Yale,[4] an outcome no doubt seen as a great victory for those students. Yet, I wonder, had any of them ever considered the opossum? The opossum resists the bites even of venomous snakes. The opossum hisses when mildly threatened, but when greatly threatened simply plays dead and is left alone. opossum hissingThe opossum moves on, if necessary, the opossum is not known for being an attack animal. No one has ever heard of a “ferocious opossum.”[5] An opossum would not cost a young lecturer and his wife a job at Yale. An opossum would not demand a safe space; he would simply persist; he would hiss if necessary; under duress, he would simply play dead. And, whether hanging from his tail or not, he would be able to go to sleep at night with a good conscience, because he did all that he needed to do to keep himself safe, and he had done so decorously by animal standards, instead of acting out on feelings of entitlement and a false sense of temporary power. Opossums rarely have such feelings, I imagine. That’s why we like them.

I truly feel sorry for those young folks who feel so empowered now, especially after gaining their victory over their faculty —if the term still exists at Yale—master. There’s just a chance that when they leave the safe confines of the safe spaces of their safe university they won’t feel so empowered or so enabled, or even so safe. Will they be able, like the opossum to say, “Oh, can I!” when they try to tackle their first big assignment on their first job? And even if they do say something like that, will they in fact be so able as to get the job done without accusing their boss or co-workers of upsetting their safe space, puncturing the fragile casing of their feelings? However it may go for them, I hope for their sake, they eventually realize that they were not so smart as they thought. That ruining someone’s career over a Halloween costume is, well, not opossum-like, but asinine. Perhaps it’s something worse. Perhaps it’s downright bestial.opossum with babies