a little r & r

A few nights ago René and I watched another episode of “The West Wing.”  We’ve been semi-binge watching this seven-season series throughout much of the pandemic because it has become a kind of comfort-food amid the unrelenting chaos surrounding all of us.

This particular episode was quite moving.  A gifted world-class North Korean pianist is visiting the United States and surprises President Bartlet with a gift of a CD, upon which the pianist has written, “I want to defect.”  Only trouble is, in this quasi-factual series, our country is in negotiations regarding a possible limited arms agreement with North Korea.  Granting asylum to the pianist would only shut the door to a treaty and cause global unrest.  Sadly, the president has to tell the young performer the United States cannot grant him his wish. 

However, Bartlet offers an alternative:  the United States stands for freedom.  If the 23-year old should decide not to return to home the U.S. will honor his request.  But the president indicates if the pianist remains in the country, he could set off a nuclear war in the Middle East.

As the episode draws to a close with the pianist spellbinding the White House audience with his magnificent performance of Chopin, the savant rises to receive their applause.  He says, “Ladies, Gentlemen I wish to…I wish to…thank the President, the American people, for this opportunity.  I wish it be started many exchange, improve relations between our countries.”     

In that moment we, the TV audience, witness greatness; the greatness not just of a divinely-talented musician, but his willingness to put global peace and peace between our two nations above his understandable life-long longing for freedom.  

It comes as no surprise:  Deeply imbedded, though often buried, in each one of us is a yearning for greatness.  Not the kind in which we have to seek others adoration or bathe in superlatives.  Too many superlatives indicate self-idolatry or manipulation to gain hero-worship from the crowds.  Such excesses indicate the presence of an empty soul.

Still, we live in a time starved for greatness.   Sycophancy, cowardice, pretension, bloodlust for power, and tribalism are all marks of insecure people in highly insecure times.  Such vices breed chaos, anxiety, rage, hatred and fear.  They mark our society’s disdain for transcendence and a willingness to settle for pettiness, which makes us all look small.  But true greatness, is always found where humility (not lack of confidence) and humanity thrive.

After President Bartlet tells the pianist he cannot of his own accord grant the North Korean’s wish for asylum, but before the young man’s concluding performance, he introduces the president to the Korean word “Han.”  With no adequate parallel in English President Bartlet discovers  “Han” means “sad. “  We are all sad for the North Korean’s vanished hope.

We live in despairingly sad times.  Every day some new disaster unfolds.  Yet, if we are to taste greatness in us and in others, we must be willing to permit sadness into our lives; not because we are masochists, but because we are all a part of this great quilt of troubled humanity. 

Ironically, this willingness to accept suffering and sadness—others and ours—is a condition for discovering joy.  So, King, knowing death awaited him still spoke of a dream and reaching the mountaintop the night before he died.  Resigned not to cross into the Promised Land, Moses rejoices in catching a glimpse of it, giving his life meaning.  Mother Teresa found peace in her life by comforting the dying poor in Calcutta.   At the end of losing everyone and everything in his life from the farm to his health to his family, Job was able to behold the unconquerable greatness of God at the end of his life.

The psalmist got it right:  “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  We, like “West Wing’s” audience discover greatness and joy when we are willing to sacrifice something of ourselves for the greater good of God, our neighbor, our nation, and our world!  This greatness lingers deeply, secretly inside each of us; if only we believe that God believes in us and longs for our God-given greatness to come to full flower. 


For now, Rick