8 Seconds

August 10, 2009 | 13 comments
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This past weekend I took my family back to my hometown to watch a rodeo. This was my youngest son’s first rodeo experience, and he liked both the clowns and the “jumping cows”. (I’m sure the bulls would be even more ferocious if they knew that they were being described in such a way.)

I enjoy seeing the familiar faces and take comfort in the constancy of the area. Returning to my childhood community I can attend a rodeo that has been held yearly for a century, in a town with buildings even older, and at fair park facilities that go back generations. The sense of community and belonging is palpable.

I entered a rodeo once (and if you know me, you know how absurd that is). I rode a bull in the very arena that we watched the bull riders this weekend. It was my only rodeo, and I dominated that bull for the full 8 seconds. I decided that this rodeo business was too easy, that I would seek my physical challenges elsewhere.

Ok, it wasn’t exactly a rodeo. It was a Little Buckaroo. I was 8. And the bull that I rode wasn’t really a bull. It was a very large calf. And by calf I mean sheep. But it was the meanest sheep you have ever, ever seen. They named her White Lightening. Or White Chocolate. Or Creampuff. The name doesn’t matter. What matters is this: I rode her.

I still think I made it the full 8 seconds, but the stopwatch didn’t agree. It might have been broken. I only remember the first real buck, or maybe a violent kick. Ok, she lurched.

It happened just as we cleared the chute (I was thankful that I wasn’t going to hit that metal gate), and then I remember being shocked at how fast the earth was approaching. The one really positive thing about this experience was my short walk of shame – after I dusted myself off, I think I took three whole steps to exit the arena.

No more rodeo for me. I’m just a spectator now.

But this post is less about my humiliation, and more about our communities, the meaning of loyalty, and the stories that bind us. Stories that we create, but also stories that we adopt. Stories that matter, stories that give us a shared sense of history and meaning.

This weekend we watched a stirring patriotic performance from a precision riding team – a dozen or so riders on horseback, carrying American flags, displaying superior riding skills and dedication to the team. It was beautiful.

I am a patriotic person. I am thankful to be an American. I love the celebrations, the barbecues, the fireworks and the rich history that we share, as part of this larger community, this larger movement, we call a nation. But this particular patriotic celebration turned sour.

A narrator related a rather long story that purported to be the real story behind the national anthem. It was overly dramatic, sometimes corny, and quickly turned into a distastefully excessive appeal to emotion. Worse, it did violence to the real history, a story that is inspiring without any attempts to ramp it up with counterfeit gravitas.

I’ll spare you the details, (you can listen to a version here) but the story centered around Francis Scott Key’s experience in writing the Star Spangled Banner. Rather than relating the compassion and honor of Dr. Beanes, rather than relating Key’s efforts to free him through negotiation, and rather than relating the experience of three men aboard a sloop keeping watch that long night, this story became one of martyrs and super-heroic actions. It included black and white descriptions of the evil British fleet shelling a fort full of women and children. It described an absolute slaughter as the fathers inside the fort stepped forward, one by one, to personally hold up the colors, as they were being shredded by the British bombardment. It ended with a description of the Star Spangled Banner flying in the morning light, breaking the will of the British fleet, and being held up by dozens of bodies of patriots piled up around it.

Really!

My country is bigger than this. It doesn’t need manufactured or inflated tales to instill pride and loyalty. Such tales are an injustice to the real memory of those who have come before, and they create a false patriotism based upon an impossible standard – a patriotism where fealty does not simply mean loyalty and dedication, but unwavering and unquestioning loyalty. It is propaganda. It is the erection of graven images.

In recent years, in troubling times, we have experienced a dramatic rise in partisanship and inflated rhetoric. Somehow the loudest voices from each side drown out the vast middle. We lose sight of the fact that people of wisdom and good will may disagree, but that those disagreements need not foster resentment or division, or worse yet, expulsion.

Belonging to a group and being loyal to that group requires not only fealty, but also a mature trust that our shared history and our commonalities are sufficient to bind us without resorting to inflated fiction, and without requiring unrealistic demands. It requires a willingness to trust one another, to engage in our differences, and to wrestle in mutual integrity to serve each other and our community. Such an engagement requires patience, it requires effort, and it requires respect. But ultimately, such an engagement refines us, refines our community, and helps our communities to live.

It’s a more difficult path, to be sure. It might seem desirable, or somehow more pure, to belong to a community without division. But such a community would lack the ability to stimulate growth, without which our communities would ultimately be less. And so would we.

13 Responses to 8 Seconds

  1. mpb on August 10, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    you’re experience is really unfortunate. i don’t particularly love the national anthem, especially when we sing it in church, because of the imagery.

    i had kind of written off all patriotic songs as martyrs of the post-9/11 culture wars, until in church earlier this year i got to lead the congregation in singing “America The Beautiful”. this line, which i had previously failed to notice, seems to get it right:

    America! America!
    God mend thine every flaw,
    Confirm thy soul in self-control,
    Thy liberty in law!

  2. Ardis Parshall on August 10, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    My country is bigger than this. It doesn’t need manufactured or inflated tales to instill pride and loyalty. Such tales are an injustice to the real memory of those who have come before, and they create a false patriotism based upon an impossible standard

    I agree wholeheartedly with you on this; substitute “church” for country and “pride” for patriotism, and what you say is equally true about church history. The truth is always good enough, better than anything that can be manufactured.

    I’m not sure that I agree as fully with your conclusion that a “community without division” (read: a unified community) lacks the ability to grow or is otherwise less than desirable. A community too torn by strife can’t grow, either, or even survive. Maybe we could compromise and agree that unity on a core group of essentials (whether we could agree on that core or not) is desirable, even essential, but that individuality, differing perspectives and experiences, and other forms of differences are just as valuable.

  3. Rory Swensen on August 10, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    @mpb – Thank you for sharing that line, it does seem to get it right. As far as the experience itself, as I looked around at the crowd I don’t think I was alone in my assessment. The story was largely an unfortunate choice on the part of the narrator.

    @Ardis – I’m with you on both points. Great observations.

  4. queuno on August 10, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    <i.Maybe we could compromise and agree that unity on a core group of essentials (whether we could agree on that core or not) is desirable, even essential, but that individuality, differing perspectives and experiences, and other forms of differences are just as valuable.

    Sounds like a good approach for community, church, or even marriage and personal relationships.

    Good stuff.

  5. Dan on August 11, 2009 at 7:38 am

    Rory,

    I recommend you read Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” which discusses this particular phenomenon of nationalism. It is a fairly common occurrence for an imagined community (like the United States) to hyper-inflate an event that is tied to the identity of the imagined community. What really gets you, and me and others who live in a very factual world is that these types of occurrences, the over-hyping of actual, recorded events, are not true, and lose their meaning and energy when faced with the factual accounts of the incident they overhype. But for a lot of people, facts simply don’t matter, and they will let the emotion, nay pride, of the overhyped account of the event matter more, because it adds to their identity with their imagined community.

  6. Alison Moore Smith on August 11, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Moving back to Utah, we foolishly thought the kid’s rodeo events would be fun. So we let our two oldest sign up for the calf riding and the next to ride a sheep. All three ended up tossed on their heads within micro-seconds of leaving the gate. We’ll stay in the bleachers, thank you. Or maybe we’ll just go to the symphony.

    Rory, this reminded me of a friend in Boca. He was a convert to the church and served a mission to Utah. While there, he repeatedly told Stephen Robinson’s “Parable of the Bicycle” to investigators…as his own. He justified it by saying that when he told it people “really felt the Spirit.” I guess kind of like seminary students “felt the Spirit” when hearing that dead people control weather ala “I’ll Build You a Rainbow”?

    Anyway, while I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of a “core group of essentials” but I’d really be interested in hearing a single one that you think would fly in our current culture.

  7. Mark B. on August 11, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Crap. Does this mean I have to burn that painting of George Washington kneeling in the snow by his horse?

  8. Frank McIntyre on August 11, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    George Washington was never in the snow. Nor did he have a horse. Or knees.

  9. Hunter on August 11, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    And besides, the proportion of George’s legs to the rest of his body is all wrong. If Praying George in the Snow were to stand up, he’d be like 8’11″.

    Anyhow, back to the OP: As I sit in some Court of Honor/priesthood meeting/24th of July picnic/etc., etc., and hear equally ludicrous and offensive presentations, I often wonder, “Am I the only one here who is bothered by this?” Probably not, but I think enduring a certain amount of wind-beggedness is just part of being in a community. Hell, think of the number of awful presentations parents have to sit through all in the name of “supporting the kids.”

    We’re headed to the rodeo next week. I’ll try not to pay too much attention to the opening festivities.

  10. Hunter on August 11, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Oops, make that “wind-bag” not “wind-beg.”

  11. Alison Moore Smith on August 11, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    So when I get begged bugged that our YW only get a certificate at the pulpit for completing their entire Young Women in Excellence program, I should be glad that I’m avoiding an evening of wind-baggedness?

  12. Peter on August 12, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Ugh. This sort of thing is rampant in the Southeastern U.S., and rodeos are the prime venue for such dribble. It’s sort of the larger American version of a faith-promoting rumor. A patriotism-promoting rumor of sorts.

    I actually think rodeos are fun, but the last time I went to one they read some chain email-type thing about what the colors of the American flag represented, and then a bunch of girls on horseback rode around the arena with American flags while Toby Keith’s enlightened “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” blared from the speakers. There’s nothing so patriotic as waving a flag and singing “[W]e’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way.”

  13. Hunter on August 12, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Ha, Alison Moore Smith, good one.

    Actually, though, don’t you have to sit through your fair share of “wind-baggedness” in the Stake Standards nights? That’s my point — no matter the community you’re in, someone is going to abuse that special privilege of having the mike in one’s hand.

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