Did Jesus ever have a panic attack?

Some Christians would say “no.” After all, the Bible tells God’s people not to be anxious. “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matthew 6:25). “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God” (Philippians 4:6). “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7). If the Bible tells us not to be anxious, and Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), then it appears that Jesus never worried and was never anxious about anything.

As I have written before, “don’t worry” is not the eleventh commandment. When God tells us not to worry, he is promising to take care of us. We can tell God about anything that worries us, and we can trust him to take care of our problems. Worry and anxiety can be powerful temptations to sin, but anxiety in itself is not sinful. It is part of what happens in this world, more to some people than to others.

Anxiety is like anger. Anger can cause people to sin, but anger itself is not a sin. Evil things in this world make God angry, and they should make us angry. At times Jesus was angry. He was angry that the teachers of God’s Word were misunderstanding the Word and teaching others to misunderstand the Word. He was angry that the Temple was being misused. Jesus never sinned, but he was tempted by anger. Instead, he used the energy of his anger to fix the problem that made him angry.

Was Jesus ever tempted by anxiety? Did he ever have a panic attack? Jesus knew that he was on his way to the cross, but he did not dwell on what was going to happen. He was able to take one day at a time, just as he teaches us to do. He says, “Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). He taught his followers to pray for “daily bread.” Taking one day at a time, Jesus was able to bear the coming torture of the cross, remarking on occasion, “My hour has not yet come.”

Finally, though, his hour came. Jesus had the Passover meal with his disciples and then went with them to a garden called Gethsemane. There he was “sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37) or “deeply distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). The Greek words used by Matthew and Mark are significant. The word for “sorrowful” is somewhat common in the New Testament and covers a range of sorrows. The word for “deeply distressed” is used only by Mark. In addition to the distress of Jesus in the garden, Mark also uses it to describe the surprise of a crowd when Jesus arrived unexpectedly, and again to describe the reaction of the women who found the tomb of Jesus empty. The word for “troubled” is used by Paul (Philippians 2:26) and is also translated “distressed.” It is a compound word suggesting “away from home,” or feeling badly out of place. Jesus, then, according to Matthew and Mark, was feeling a deep and powerful emotion of sorrow, trouble, and distress. He did not keep his feeling a secret, but told his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38).

Luke uses an even stronger word, “agony” (Luke 22:44). In fact, the Greek word chosen by Luke is the source of the English words agony and anguish. It refers to intense suffering, but only of an emotional nature, never to physical pain. Luke adds the detail that “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” In the garden, Jesus was tempted to leave his mission. He was tempted by sorrow, distress, and agony. Given the descriptions of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus was suffering from an attack of anxiety, a genuine panic attack.

Other people in the Bible faced anxiety and depression. Elijah was depressed and wanted to die. The book of Job contains nearly a complete medical description of clinical depression. Paul in some of his letters expresses his melancholy feelings. Even Jesus, the sinless Son of God, dealt with powerful emotions of distress and agony.

Jesus prayed for help. He asked first if the mission could be changed, so he did not have to endure the cross. But Jesus also prayed the words he taught us to pray, “Your will be done.” Jesus was strengthened in his agony and was given the strength to complete his mission. Sinners are forgiven because Jesus resisted the temptation that came with distress and agony and continued to walk the path that leads to our salvation.

Jesus has not forgotten how he felt in the garden. When we pray about our feelings, he understands. He is able to help us, because he has faced every problem he allows us to endure. I find comfort in knowing that my Savior understands me so well, that he even knows how my anxiety feels.

J.

Anxiety observed: the SAPS measurement

As I mentioned in my last blog, this week has been full of stressful activities and situations, giving my wayward brain numerous opportunities to delve into anxiety. As an exercise in both CBT and Mindfulness, I decided to take the time to create the Salvageable Anxiety/Panic Scale (SAPS), similar to the scales used to rate earthquakes and tornados.

S1 anxiety: a general feeling that things are not quite right. At home, check to see that the doors are locked. While traveling, repeatedly run through the list of essential items that might have been left behind.

S2 anxiety: a sensation of racing heart and shallow breathing, accompanied by some discomfort in the chest or abdomen. Also a shaky feeling in hands, knees, and legs. Unusually sensitive to sounds and odors. Irritable.

S3 anxiety: trembling of hands is noticeable to others. Painful sensation of a knot located right behind the sternum. Easily angered and likely to shout at others. Talking may become higher-pitched and/or faster.

S4 anxiety: Intense sweating of head, face, and upper body, accompanied by trembling as if chilled. Eating is difficult and may result in vomiting. Angry shouting changes into inarticulate sounds. Sensation of being out of control.

S5 anxiety: Inability to leave the house, or to enter some other place or remain in that place. Sense of impending disaster.

To continue, I have never had an S5 panic attack, although I am acquainted with people who have, so I include it on the scale. In the last year, I can recall two occasions of S4 anxiety. S3 anxiety has occurred more often than I can count or recall.

SAPS is a system that applies to me and may or may not be relevant to any other person.

This scale is not a progression of feelings. I can remember times that I felt fine one minute and was at S3 the next minute. If I am in a public place, I can keep myself from shouting at other people. (The front seat of my car is not a public place.) In some cases I can identify the trigger for my anxiety. For example, my two S4 episodes both happened on mornings when I had a long drive scheduled for that day. Other times, the anxiety arises without warning and without an apparent trigger.

What am I doing about these SAPS events? I swallow a pair of pills every morning. I see a counselor regularly. I am trying to develop and practice Christian Mindfulness. Sometimes deep breathing and a Bible verse are helpful. And, in the last few days, I have been researching to learn the answer to this question: Did Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, ever experience a panic attack? I will post the results of my research tomorrow. (How’s that for a cliffhanger?)

J.

Rejoice with me…

I just had a really difficult weekend. I was anxious almost every moment I was awake, with all the symptoms: racing heart, shallow breathing, shaky legs, shaky hands. In fact, my daughter even noticed in church that my hands were shaking considerably.

I have a good idea what causes this anxiety—it comes from a large package of events all tied together in one weekend. A birthday in the family (not my birthday), family visiting from out of town, members of the family getting ready to go back to school (including me getting ready to teach), members of the family with health issues and with money issues, a big reception where I work tomorrow night for which I am preparing a display, and one or two other things I am not going to mention at this time.

It seems, though, that in the trying times in my life, one small happening always comes to symbolize them all. That one event, no matter how unconnected to the other concerns, becomes the focus of all the anxiety. This weekend that small event was the discovery, Saturday night, that the chain I was wearing around my neck no longer had the silver cross, one that has been on that chain for the thirty years I have owned it and worn it.

Now it’s just a piece of jewelry, a reminder of the true cross, but a silver cross all the same, with no magical or superstitious powers. No doubt it could be replaced. Losing that cross, though, was the final straw in a weekend gone wrong. Of course Sunday morning after breakfast and before church I walked through the house, trying to see where the cross had landed. It has come off its chain before, but I usually find it in my clothing. I searched and shook the clothing I had worn on Saturday. I was pretty sure the cross was still on the chain when I got home from the library and changed clothes Saturday afternoon, so I thought the cross should be in the house. Members of the family were helping me look.

Then I remembered that I had made a quick run to Walmart after changing clothes. Since there was time, I went back to Walmart, checked the parking lot, then asked at the customer service desk. Someone even got a key and checked the locked drawer where Walmart keeps more expensive lost items that have been found in the store. The cross was not there. I walked through the store to the aisles where I had shopped, but the floor was clean everywhere. I looked carefully in the parking lot again, then went home to go to church.

During the Bible readings at church, I remembered that I had spent some time reading Saturday afternoon with a purring cat curled up in my lap. (To add to the irony, that cat entered the family’s life in that same Walmart parking lot last fall.) The time spent reading and petting the cat came to mind in church because it had been the most calming part of the weekend so far. I remembered that I had looked at the floor in that room but had not felt through the cushions of the chair. I did my best to put the missing cross—and all the other worries of the weekend—aside to take part in the service. Then, when we got home from church, I checked throughout and under that chair.

No, the missing cross was not there.

Later Sunday afternoon I was walking through the kitchen—pacing through the house, actually, while trying to do some writing—and glanced toward the pantry. I had looked in that pantry for the missing cross more than once that morning and that afternoon. I even remember searching through a basket on the floor. Now, I saw, next to the basket, a plastic bag filled with plastic spoons and knives that had been there for days. The missing cross was lying right on top of that bag. It must have fallen off the chain while I was getting a snack Saturday night, but I cannot explain the fact that it went unseen. It was in an obvious place, very close where I had looked hard for it earlier in the day.

So now I can say to you all: rejoice with me, for I have found the cross that I had lost. Additionally I can trust that the answers to all the other worries and stresses of the weekend are also somehow lying in plain sight, ready to be seen when I have been prepared to see them.

And, somehow, it seems to me, those answers might also involve a cross.

J.

Five more back-to-school movies

Breakfast Club (1985): In this movie, John Hughes gets it right. Five high school students in a wealthy Chicago suburb are forced to serve detention in the school library on a Saturday. Like many other John Hughes movies, this movie portrays the stereotypes associated with teenagers in the 1980s. Unlike other John Hughes movies, the students address and challenge these stereotypes. All five of these students could have attended my high school, and the assistant principal and custodian would also have blended into the scene. When I want to remember what high school was really like, this is one of the two movies I choose to watch.

But, before I go on, I do have one comment. John Bender is being punished for pulling the fire alarm. Andrew assaulted a classmate in the locker room. Brian had a flare gun go off in his locker. (He was planning to kill himself because he got an F in shop class.) Claire ditched school to go shopping. Allison says that she came only because she had nothing better to do, but in another scene she says she is a compulsive liar. What do you think is her true story? Might there be a clue in the opening credits?

St. Elmo’s Fire (1985): This movie also portrays college graduates, although in this case the characters are in the autumn right after their graduation from Georgetown University, each trying to find his or her own way in the post-college professional world. All seven of them are spoiled and whiny, yet for all that their problems are real and their efforts to handle their problems are real.

I have one question: What career is Leslie (Ally Sheedy) pursuing? It’s important that she succeed at her career before she marries Alex, but just what is she doing? Architecture? Interior design? Some key scene or dialogue must have been cut from the movie.

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986): This is a time-travel movie with much more depth and subtlety than the Back to the Future franchise. At her twenty-fifth high school reunion, Peggy Sue is somehow swept back into her high school self, though possessing all the memories and emotions of her adult life. Some memories she is glad to relive, others frighten or distress her, and she discovers some things about her life and surroundings she had not noticed as a high school student. Kathleen Turner plays the complex Peggy Sue character convincingly, her once and future husband is played equally well by Nicholas Cage, and much of the rest of the cast also succeeds, including a young Jim Carrey.

Lucas (1986): This is the other movie I watch when I want to remember what high school was really like. The title character is a nerd, scientifically brilliant, but the object of ridicule from most of the athletes in the student body. He befriends a new girl in town, but soon she is on the cheerleading squad and dating a football player. Lucas tries to reinvent himself to gain her attention. In the near future, I will write a lengthy, spoiler-filled, review of this movie. Suffice it to say that many scenes from this movie put me right back in high school again, for better or for worse.

Dead Poets Society (1989): I attended twelve years of public school before going off to college, so I cannot exactly relate to the rich young men in an exclusive east-coast boarding school designed to prepare them for success in college and in their careers. In fact, I relate much more to the teacher, played by Robin Williams, who challenges the students to think for themselves in an environment that presses them to conform and to stifle individuality. More than Aladdin or Mrs. Doubtfire, this is the movie that comes to mind when I think of Robin Williams—not least because this movie also deals with the tragedy of suicide. Dead Poets Society is beautifully filmed, and the ending is as haunting as any final scene of any movie I can remember.

By the way, yesterday and today’s posts were created and posted from a computer I am still struggling to use, given this week’s update to Windows 10. J.

Five back-to-school movies

When I was a boy, school didn’t start until the middle of the last week of August. We had half a day, and then a full day or two, and then a weekend before the school year really got rolling. Of course these were the days when I walked to school, uphill, even in the snow, twice a day. Gasoline was forty cents a gallon, milk was $1.32 a gallon, you could buy a loaf of bread for twenty-four cents and mail a letter for six cents. No, I did not have a pet dinosaur!

Anyhow, certain movies from the late 1970s and from the 1980s remind me of going back to school. The movies on my list are based in high schools and colleges rather than elementary school, and some are more true-to-life than others. A lot of other movies are set in schools, but the following movies mean the most to me this month as children, teens, young adults, and teachers are on their way back to their respective classrooms.

Grease (1978): This movie is nothing like my high school memories. I did not attend school in the 1950s, none of my fellow students were in their twenties or thirties, and only a few of them regularly broke into song and dance. (Some of those who did, though, were pretty good.) The “Summer Loving” bit of the movie, though, perfectly captures the feelings of the end of summer vacation and the start of the school year. My favorite memory of Grease will not be shown on the screen—I remember a ten-year-old girl who had just seen the movie trying to explain its plot to me. Priceless!

Animal House (1978): My college was nothing like this movie, but some students there definitely tried to reproduce this movie on campus. We had fraternities and sororities, excessive drinking and partying, in the setting of stately buildings and droll professors like Donald Sutherland’s character. Many of the guys wished they were John Belushi. This movie is raunchy enough that I would be embarrassed to watch it with my parents or my children, but it has its moments. “Seven years of college—wasted!” “Did we give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!”

Fame (1980): Based on a real school in New York City, this movie shows scattered events from the lives of a few students and teachers at a high school dedicated to the fine arts (music, dance, and theater). Fame is more a collection of short stories than a movie with a single plot or theme, but the characters and their situations are entirely believable. Every song-and-dance number fits the movie. When I was in high school, I was involved in music and in theater, so some parts of this movie strike close to home.

Big Chill (1983): I saw this movie in a theater when it came out. All my friends saw this movie too. We were certain that we would keep in touch with each other, care about each other, and support each other. If it wasn’t for Facebook, most of us wouldn’t even know where the others are today. Not one scene in this movie takes place in a school, but this movie still reminds me of the intangible things that mattered most about college. It makes me think of the times we said to each other, “This is what college was meant to be.” Every fall I try to watch this movie the weekend of my alma mater’s homecoming celebration.

Footloose (1984): A young man from the big city must attend high school in a small town, a town where the council has banned dancing. Footloose is a typical coming-of-age, teen angst movie from the 1980s, but it is one of those movies that gets it right. Kevin Bacon shines as the central character, and John Lithgow is brilliant as the minister opposed to dancing, but the two of them are surrounded by smaller characters who are thoroughly convincing. Although the fist fight near the end of the movie seems contrived and unnecessary, every other scene builds the story, and the soundtrack is notable as well. I haven’t seen the recent remake, and I don’t want to see it. This movie is nearly perfect just the way it is.

Tomorrow: five more back-to-school movies from the 1980s. J.

Watergate

On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon became the only American President to resign his office. The reasons for his resignation are gathered together in a story that is often called “Watergate,” although the Watergate scandal involves far more than the office building and apartment complex of that name in Washington DC.

The seeds of the Watergate scandal were planted early in the Nixon administration when President Nixon and his advisors decided that the White House staff should include a Special Investigations Unit independent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other branches of the executive branch of American government that would normally conduct investigations at the order of the President. Nixon felt that he needed an independent unit for two reasons. First, as Vice-President under Dwight David Eisenhower, Nixon witnessed first-hand the fact that government agencies are frequently filled with people hired by previous administrations whose priorities and loyalties remain those of their appointers. Before Eisenhower’s election, the White House had been home to Democratic presidents for twenty years. After Eisenhower, the White House was home to Democratic presidents for another eight years. Many of the workers Nixon inherited in his administration had been hired under Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. Nixon wanted a team of investigators who would be loyal personally to him and his associates.

Moreover, Nixon intended to ask these investigators to look into matters that were not the business of the FBI or the CIA. He wanted information about his potential opponents in the next election, such as Edward Kennedy and Edmund Muskie. Nixon also wanted to identify which employees in the White House were “leaking,” that is, talking to reporters about government matters that Nixon preferred to keep secret. (These were not necessarily nefarious schemes; they included efforts to bring an end to the Vietnam War and to begin negotiations with the People’s Republic of China.) Because of their assignment to identify leaks, the Special Investigations Unit at times referred to themselves as “Plumbers.”

Four “Plumbers” worked in the White House. They were E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA official and writer of spy novels, recommended by Charles Colson; Egil “Bud” Krogh, a former partner of attorney John Ehrlichman, and then a special advisor to the President; G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent and failed candidate for the U. S. House of Representatives, briefly employed by John Mitchell’s Department of Justice; and David Young, a special assistant to the National Security Council that was headed by Henry Kissinger. The team hired additional investigators, including retired police officers Jack Caulfield and Tony Ulasewicz, as well as several associates of Howard Hunt from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.

Among the “leaks” investigated by the “Plumbers” was the revelation of a secret report about the handling of the Vietnam War during the 1960s. Known as the Pentagon Papers, this report was given to various newspapers by Daniel Ellsberg, also an assistant to the National Security Council. Nixon and Kissinger deplored the publication of the Pentagon Papers, not because they revealed any wrongdoing by the Nixon administration (They didn’t.), but because their publication risked revealing sensitive sources aiding the American government, as well as causing doubts in other governments (including China) that Nixon’s White House could keep important secrets hidden. The Plumbers sought and received permission through Ehrlichman to break into the office of LewisFielding, Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find information derogatory to Ellsberg. They failed to find Ellsberg’s personal files, and to hide their activities the team hired by the Plumbers damaged the office in such a way that it would appear that the break-in had been the work of criminals seeking prescription medications.

With an election year approaching, Attorney General John Mitchell was named head of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP), and Liddy was transferred to the CRP. His assignment was to investigate the plans of the Democratic Party and their candidate for President, so that Nixon’s campaign would have advance warning of any surprises from their opponents. Nixon stressed to his advisors and to the CRP that intelligence about Democratic plans was essential to his re-election. Liddy, believing that he had carte blanche to pursue such intelligence and to hinder the Democratic effort, presented a complicated and highly illegal scheme to Mitchell and the other directors of the CRP, seeking a budget of one million dollars. Appalled, Mitchell refused Liddy’s request, but Liddy allowed himself to be persuaded that the refusal was due to expense and not to legal objections. His second presentation scaled back the original plan and requested only half a million dollars. Again, Mitchell said no.

By the time of Liddy’s third presentation, Mitchell was already receiving pressure directly from Nixon, asking about the CRP’s intelligence campaign relative to the Democratic Party. Liddy’s proposal, now costing only $250,000 was one of many items on the agenda of a CRP planning meeting and was reluctantly approved. Liddy assembled a team of agents to seek information on the plans of the Democratic Party; these agents included some of the Cubans who had been hired by the Plumbers because of their relationship with Hunt. Liddy also recruited the help of James McCord, a former CIA agent who had been hired by the CRP to seek and remove electronic listening devices from the Republican and CRP offices in Washington DC.

Liddy sent his team, including McCord, in to the Democratic National Office located in the Watergate Complex in Washington DC. Their first foray into the office was largely successful, but some of the listening devices they installed did not work properly. The team was sent in again the night of June 16, 1972, and the five burglars were arrested early in the morning of June 17. They used tape to keep doors from locking behind them after they entered the building, and when a security guard first removed the tape, they replaced it. The five were wearing suits and plastic gloves and were caught with cameras and listening devices. They also had stacks of one hundred dollar bills in their wallets. Through a room key carried by one of the burglars, they were traced to a nearby motel room, where one of the burglars had left his wallet which included Howard Hunt’s office phone number in the White House. McCord was also quickly identified as an employee of the CRP.

By this time, illicit gathering of intelligence about the Democratic Party was unnecessary for Nixon’s victory. No secret plan of the Democrats was going to overwhelm Nixon’s eventual victory, in which he gained majorities in forty-nine of the fifty states. Moreover, as Nixon could have told Liddy and his burglars, no sensitive information was likely to be found in the official National Office of the Democratic Party. The trail of evidence leading from the burglars back to the White House was so blatant that some conspiracy theorists have speculated that the effort was deliberately bungled to embarrass the President. In fact, the errors revealed not a hidden conspiracy but the massive incompetence of Liddy, Hunt, and the men working for them.

Had Nixon disavowed and condemned the burglary and all those involved, the Watergate scandal would have been a minor event in the election campaign, barely worthy of a footnote in history books today. Instead of viewing the event as a moral problem, though, Nixon treated it as a political problem. He tried to diminish or remove any connection between the arrested men and his presidency, while at the same time he wanted to treat those arrested as naïve campaign volunteers who were trying to help the president and the country and who deserved at least some financial support. Given the Cuban connections of most of the men arrested, Nixon suggested that funds be raised from the Cuban-American community to pay for their legal defense and to support their families while they were imprisoned. Because of the CIA connections of Hunt, McCord, and the Cubans, Nixon also suggested that the CIA might inform the FBI that investigation of this crime could uncover legitimate CIA activities that were better kept secret. A recording of the conversation where Nixon proposed this manner of impeding the investigation was released in the summer of 1974, effectively ending Nixon’s efforts to complete his term as President of the United States.

By the end of June 1972, Nixon had returned his attention to national matters and to his own re-election, trusting his staff to handle the matter of the Watergate break-in, investigation, and forthcoming trials. Attorney John Dean represented the President and even attended sessions in which FBI agents interviewed CRP and White House staff. Meanwhile, television and newspaper reporters sought more information about the scandal and its underlying causes and significance. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post covered the story from the time of the arrest on June 17. Both reporters had sources within the FBI—Woodward’s source being Mark Felt, deputy director of the FBI, although his identity was hidden for years under the code name “Deep Throat.” These sources shared with both reporters every rumor that was mentioned during the investigation, and most of those rumors were printed in the Post. Over the summer and fall, the reporters developed a story of a large secret fund, fed by illegal donations from corporations and used for illegal activities by agents of the campaign. These rumors were generally untrue, but because they were reported in the newspaper, many of them have been repeated in studies and books about Watergate and are still widely believed to be true. Felt even persuaded Woodward that the reporters were being followed and were in personal danger. Bernstein, Woodward, and their editors reacted to the threat Felt described, but no danger to the reporters actually existed.

Nixon was re-elected in November 1972, but the investigation into the Watergate crimes continued. Money was raised for the defendants, which by this time included Hunt and Liddy. Money delivered to Hunt was kept by him and his family, while Hunt told the others that no money had been given. The five burglars, along with Hunt and Liddy, were sentenced at the end of January 1973. Appalled at the length of the sentence and irate that he had received no financial support, burglar James McCord wrote a letter to Judge John Sirica in March 1973, suggesting that many of the parties guilty of complicity in the Watergate scandal were going unpunished. A few days later, John Dean suggested to Nixon that the demands of the defendants (namely Hunt, although Dean seems not to have been aware of Hunt’s duplicity) could be as much as one million dollars. To Dean’s surprise, the President replied that the money could be found.
Meanwhile, L. Patrick Gray—acting director of the FBI since the death of J. Edgar Hoover—had been nominated by Nixon to be the next director of the FBI. Members of Congress questioned him during his nomination hearings about Watergate. Learning that he had allowed John Dean to sit in on interviews, and—worse—that Gray had taken and destroyed evidence relevant to the Watergate scandal, Congress refused to accept the nomination. Concerned by the growing scandal, President Nixon asked John Dean to write a report on the Watergate scandal, including what had been known about the scandal by members of the administration. Dean was concerned that such a report would lay the blame for covering up Watergate crimes upon Dean himself. He therefore began negotiating with Judge Sirica and with the members of Congress, offering to tell them all that he knew about Watergate.
At the end of April 1973, President Nixon called for the resignations of his chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, his special advisor John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindiest. At the same time, Nixon fired John Dean. In May, the President appointed Archibald Cox as Special Prosecutor to investigate any and all crimes related to the Watergate scandal. Nixon promised the full cooperation of the White House in Cox’s investigation.

Contrary to the President’s hopes, Congress did not stop looking into Watergate after the Special Prosecutor was named. During a routine questioning of Alexander Butterfield, a White House employee, members of Congress learned for the first time that the President had secretly recorded many of his conversations in the White House. This information was widely published, and both Cox and the Congressional committee began demanding that they be allowed to hear the recordings of conversations relating to Watergate. President Nixon said that executive privilege protected his recordings from Congress and even from his own Special Prosecutor. American courts, culminating in the Supreme Court, ruled that executive privileges did not cover materials, including audio recordings, that were evidence in the investigation of a crime.

Nixon and his lawyers offered to provide edited transcripts of the recorded conversations. Many of them were released over the following months, but the effort became a public relations disaster. The words “expletive deleted” were substituted for even the mildest of vulgar language, leaving an impression in the minds of many readers that the President and his advisors cursed and swore frequently. The printed words, separated from facial expressions and vocal inflections, were open to several interpretations, some of which suggested the President’s innocence while others seemed to prove his guilt.

By October Nixon realized that he was trapped in a losing battle. In an effort to regain control of the situation, he decided to fire Archibald Cox as Special Prosecutor. Both Attorney General Elliott Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than submit to the presidential order to fire Cox. Public reaction was swift and severely critical. Several resolutions of impeachment were presented in Confess in the following days. Eventually Nixon backed down and appointed a new Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who picked up the case where Cox had been interrupted and continued to demand more of the President’s recordings.

News of the scandal continued to obsess the nation, as various court cases, Congressional hearings, and the work of the Special Prosecutor continued to appear in the daily news. President Nixon tried to do his job, but more of his time and attention was drawn to the scandal too. (At the same time that he fired Cox, a war was being fought in southwest Asia between Israel and its neighbors.) Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 due to a scandal not involved with Watergate. Complex negotiations with the Soviet Union and with the People’s Republic of China were weakened because of the President’s political weakness. When the Supreme Court ruled in July 1974 that the President must release his tapes to investigators, and when the conversation from June 1972 was released (which mentioned asking the CIA to impede the FBI’s work), the Nixon presidency was effectively ended. A group of Republican Senators visited the President in the White House and warned him that, in their opinion, he would surely be impeached and convicted. Nixon finally resigned on August 9, 1974. A month later, President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for any crimes he might have committed as part of the Watergate scandal. Several dozen of Nixon’s advisors and workers were tried, convicted, and sentenced to time in prison for their role in the scandal.

What caused the Watergate scandal, and was it inevitable? Nixon said more than once that he regretted running the executive branch in such a way that its employees would even consider criminal behavior justified for the service of the President. Also, he said he regretted following his political instincts to deal with the situation rather than seeing its moral side. Watergate definitely would not have happened if Nixon’s aides and advisors had taken more care about who they hired. Liddy, Hunt, and their associates were a disaster waiting to happen. Trusting Gray and Dean was also a mistake; their errors in judgment had the President deep in trouble before he understood what had happened. Nixon might have survived had he not created evidence by recording his conversations. He meant to keep them secret, using them in the future to construct his memoirs. Once their existence was known outside of the White House, the outcome of the scandal was probably unavoidable.

Some historians claim that Watergate was an inevitable result of flaws in Nixon’s personality, or that Watergate was an inevitable result of corruption in government (including both the FBI and the CIA). Richard Nixon was in fact a man of high moral character; if anything, his desire to assist men who had broken the law while thinking they were serving him did more harm to Nixon than any part of the later cover-up. While the Watergate hearings led to new suspicions about abuse of power in the government, prompting additional hearings which revealed such abuses by the FBI and the CIA, they were also exaggerated by the willingness of some politicians and some journalists to believe the worst of Nixon and his men, then to seek evidence to verify their beliefs.

Richard Nixon served his country during a time of massive upheaval, a time of political assassinations, unrest over the Vietnam War, conflict over civil rights, riots in the cities, countercultural movements across the country, growing awareness of the vulnerability of the natural environment, and increasing bitterness between the two major political parties. Much of the population’s unease was focused on its President. What Nixon’s press agent described as “a third-rate burglary” without doubt was too petty an event to merit the overthrow of a government. Yet the President re-elected by one of the largest margins in American history was forced to resign less than two years later. No wonder some people assume that Nixon’s White House had greater evil lurking under the surface, exposed only by a third-rate burglary. No wonder others assume that the Watergate scandal must have been engineered by some sort of conspiracy intended to get Nixon out of the way and seize power over the American government.
The story of Watergate is not a story of grand crimes or grand conspiracies. It is the story of petty men—Hunt, Liddy, and Dean, among others—whose poor judgment led to a scandal and a crisis that spiraled out of anyone’s control. In some ways the resignation of President Nixon was the final act of a catharsis for all the turmoil of the 1960s. In that case, perhaps something like Watergate was bound to happen after all.

J.

First Friday fiction: Alibi or Lie?

For the next few months, I’ll be posting original, unpublished short stories on the first Friday of the month. Reproduction of any of these stories, or any part thereof, without permission of the author is prohibited.

Officer Kowalski sighed. With the back of his left hand, he rubbed his forehead, just above his eyebrows, “Bring him back to the desk,” he said. Kowalski would have preferred to have said, “Show him to my office,” but he had no office. All he had was a desk, surrounded by other desks, in the middle of a busy police station.

Kowalski would get an office with his next promotion. It would have glass walls rising from the floor to stop four feet below the ceiling, but at least it would be an office. Kowalski deserved that promotion. Everyone in the force knew it. His superiors had told him so several times. Barring a tragedy that he wouldn’t wish upon anyone in the force, Kowalski would have to wait at least three years for a position above him to become available. The City of Memphis had its share of turnover in the police ranks, but mostly turnover happened at the lower levels. Officers with Kowalski’s amount of skill and experience tend to stay at their jobs for as long as they can. No private job will offer them the same benefits, both material and emotional, that they find in big-city police work.

Casey led the witness to Kowalski’s desk. Pretending to study paperwork, Kowalski had a few seconds to measure the man. He was of average height, very well dressed, with pitch-black stylish hair. For a second Kowalski thought that the man was wearing make-up. Then he realized that the witness merely had sharply-defined features, including dark deep-set eyes and lips that, at first glance, seemed to have been painted. Kowalski caught the scent of cologne. He noticed the expensive watch on the left wrist, and he also observed that neither hand sported any rings.

Kowalski stood and shook the man’s hand. “Mr. Haven?” he asked. The man nodded. “May I call you Tom?” Another nod. “Please have a seat, Tom,” Kowalski said. Haven’s hands shook slightly. Kowalski knew that Haven was nervous, but that fact did not mean anything. Most citizens are unnerved by their first visit to a police station. He had come in on his own, though, not as a suspect. He said he had important evidence about a murder that had happened just a few hours earlier.

Kowalski was the investigator covering the case. He hoped that Haven’s statement was going to make the case easier to solve, but he doubted that would happen. In all his years of investigating crimes, Kowalski had secretly formed a rule based on Murphy’s Law—that bit of folklore which says that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Kowalski’s Corollary says that every new piece of evidence makes an investigation harder to solve.

Still, Haven was a witness and not a suspect—not yet, anyhow. Kowalski smiled, hoping to put Haven at ease, and then he gently said, “What did you want to tell me, Tom?”

“I’m here about the murder of Brad Greene,” Haven said. “You’re the one who’s looking into that, aren’t you?” This time Kowalski nodded. “Well, Jess phoned me at work and said that you’re keeping her at the station as a suspect in the murder. I’m here to tell you that she couldn’t have done it. She was with me all of last night.”

Involuntarily, Kowalski raised his eyebrows in surprise. Brad Greene had died some time between midnight and six a.m. The coroner was likely to give a more precise time of death after further study. Greene had been murdered in his own home, on Poplar Street—not in the rough part of town, but further south, where things generally were quiet. Naturally, Brad’s wife was the first person the police had wanted to question. Two officers had gone to her office downtown and had driven her to the station. Kowalski had already questioned her that morning. She acted stunned by the news of her husband’s death. She had insisted that she had not been home at all last night, but then she had held back from saying where she had spent the night.

Her reluctance to answer that one important question was the principal reason Kowalski had decided to keep her detained for further questioning. He had not yet charged her with the murder of her husband, but the paperwork was already started on his desktop computer. Narrowing his eyes, Kowalski peered across the desk at Haven and asked, “What time did Ms. Greene phoned you at work?”

Haven looked at his watch. “I guess it was about twenty minutes ago,” he said. Kowalski grunted. Jessica Greene had indeed used the phone twenty minutes earlier, as was her right. He had assumed that she was calling an attorney, or perhaps letting her parents know where she was and asking them to find an attorney for her. Tom Haven was dressed like a lawyer, but Kowalski knew that no lawyer would walk into a police station and announce, “The suspect was with me at the time of the crime.” At least not when the suspect was a pretty young woman, the victim was her husband, and the crime had happened at night.

As Haven fidgeted nervously, Kowalski decided to press his advantage. “What were the two of you doing all night long?” he asked, a blank look held on his face. “If you don’t mind me asking,” he added, insinuating that Haven might have secrets he would rather keep hidden.

“We were talking,” he replied. “Actually, she did most of the talking. And a lot of crying too. I sat there and listened. She was telling me how Brad had locked her out of the house. And she was talking about the years they were married and the kind of life they had together. Eventually she wound down and started to fall asleep. I got her a pillow and a blanket and let her sleep on the couch. And I fell asleep in a chair, so I would be there if she needed anything during the night.”

“So you two…slept together,” Kowalski said, his fingers poised over the computer keyboard.”

“No, not at all,” Haven vehemently objected. “We were asleep in the same room, but there was nothing sexual about it. Don’t put down that we slept together, because that isn’t true.” Kowalski typed nothing, and Haven continued, “In the morning we woke up, Jess got a change of clothes from her car and took a shower, and we ate breakfast together. We drove our separate cars to work but arrived at the same time. She could not have been at her home any time since eight o’clock last night.”

Kowalski had never planned, of course, to record that Haven and Ms. Greene slept together. He just wanted to gauge Haven’s reaction to the expression. Already he could see that Haven was deeply fond of Ms. Greene. He wondered if Haven was fond enough to lie on her behalf. “Can you think of any witnesses who can back up what you say, that she spent the entire night at your house last night?” he asked.

“I don’t know. The neighbors might have seen her car in the driveway. We have a good crime watch in our neighborhood, so that’s something that might have been noticed.”

Kowalski mused about a good crime watch. The Greenes’ house was in a part of the city protected by a good crime watch. Their neighbors called the police that morning. They reported that the back door of the house was wide open and that the place was unusually quiet. The first officers to respond walked carefully into the house through the open door, their guns drawn. Brad Greene’s body lay in the kitchen, bleeding from multiple stab wounds. He had been attacked by someone wielding a large knife from his own kitchen. Clearly there had been a protracted struggle. Apparently no neighbors had heard the sounds of the overnight attack. After calling for back-up, including someone from the coroner’s office to take charge of the body after the search was completed, the officers searched the rest of the house. No other person was present. So far as they could tell, nothing had been stolen: expensive electronics, jewelry, even money were sitting out in plain sight.

While other officers continued to examine the evidence in the kitchen, Kowalski spoke with the neighbors that were still at home. He had always considered it a quiet neighborhood, older houses on small lots, not far from the University of Memphis. He learned that the Greenes had moved into the house about six months ago and had been busy nights and weekends fixing up the place. They both dressed nicely, and they seemed to have plenty of money to spend, but they had made no effort to get to know anyone from the neighborhood. Kowalski could find no one who had heard any strange sounds during the night. He could find no one who knew whether or not Brad Greene had any enemies or was involved in any kind of activity that might lead to a sudden violent attack.

“You say that she talked with you about her marriage. Was this the first time she ever confided such details to you?”

“Well, I guess it was the second time, but the first time was earlier yesterday. When I got to work yesterday morning, she was on the phone and she was crying. I tried not to pay attention, since her personal life is none of my business. No one else was at the office yet, but it wouldn’t be long before the place filled up, and then our clients would start arriving. When she hung up the phone and she was still crying, I walked over to her desk and asked if I could do anything to help. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I guess I do need to talk to somebody.’

“Two of our coworkers got off the elevator just then, so Jess and I went into one of the meeting rooms and shut the door. That’s when she told me that she had gone home for lunch on Friday and caught Brad in their house with another woman. The three of them had a long argument—she called it a shouting match—until Jess left. She got in her car and drove to her parents’ house in Brownsville. She spent the weekend there. When she got home Sunday night, her clothes were on the porch. Loud music was playing inside the house. When she tried to get in, she found that the locks had been changed. She tried banging on the door. She tried calling him on her cell phone. She got no answer. Eventually, she went to a motel and spent the night there. Then she came to work in the morning, but she was still trying to get hold of Brad from work.”

Haven’s account matched in every detail what Ms. Greene had already said to Kowalski. She might have been telling the truth. She might have said all those things to Haven the day before. On the other hand, the two of them might have invented that story together any time in the past. If they were really clever, they could have arranged for every detail to check out as true—new locks in the doors of the house, and her car left in his driveway all night. Kowalski needed more information, and he needed to measure what kind of ties Haven might have to the accused.

“Before last night, had she ever visited your house before?”

“Once or twice before. I hosted a Christmas party for the whole office last year, and the summer before that, I had a cook-out. No, wait… She and Brad couldn’t make it to the cook-out. But she was there for the Christmas party.”

“Tell me, Tom: how long have you known Mrs. Greene?” Kowalski put a slight emphasis on the “Mrs.” just to see if Haven reacted, but he did not seem to have noticed the title.

“She joined the firm about two years ago, and we met on her first day on the job. So, about two years.”

“And what kind of work do the two of you do?”

“We’re investment counselors. We help people take care of their money.”

“And you must charge them a good amount for your advice,” Kowalski added, eying Haven’s nice clothing and remembering the outfit Ms. Greene was wearing. Kowalski wondered briefly what all the rich investment counselors had thought about one of their peers leaving the office escorted by two uniformed cops. Of course the officers had not told her that her husband was dead, not in front of her co-workers. That news had been given at the station. Glancing again at Haven’s nice suit, Kowalski pictured the downtown office, high in a glass and steel building, filled with counselors and clients all nicely dressed like Haven and like Ms. Greene.

“They seem to think that we’re worth it. No one takes advice about money from people who dress as if they don’t have much money.”

“Probably true. And once she started at the firm, and you got to know her, you got to like her pretty well?”

“We all got to like her. She’s a very likeable person. And she’s very professional. She does her job well, and she gets along well with people. Every one of the guys in the office likes visiting with her. If we can get her to smile, or to laugh—which isn’t hard to do, most days—it’s like a ray of sunshine in the office.”

“And she’s quite beautiful.” Kowalski was not being sarcastic; though she was a bit short and slender to suit his tastes, he had to admit that Jessica Greene was lovely. He had hesitated in his report, unsure which drop-box to select for her hair color: blonde or red. The computer didn’t allow him to choose a color in-between the two choices. Her eyes he had recorded as gray. He could well believe that on a better day they might sparkle charmingly.

“She is beautiful,” Haven agreed, “but what makes her even more attractive is that she doesn’t act like she knows that she’s beautiful. She’s a real person. There’s nothing phony about her. She’s genuinely kind to people. She doesn’t have to fake interest in anyone, because she really is interested.”

“How long have you been in love with her?”

Haven didn’t flinch at the challenge. “I don’t know. Maybe six months. Maybe a year. It all happened kind of gradually. I wasn’t really thinking about it when it happened.”

“Are you married, Tom?”

“No.”

“Divorced?”

“No, never married.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Are you even interested in ladies—apart from Mrs. Greene, of course? Or do your tastes run to men instead?” Haven shook his head, so Kowalski continued, “Little boys? Little girls? Farmyard animals?”

“No, none of that.” Kowalski had not managed to make Haven lose his temper, a fact which told Kowalski a great deal of what he wanted to know.

“Listen, I know nothing of this has anything to do with the murder last night, and you don’t have to answer any more of my questions. But if I’m going to take your word that Ms. Greene was with you all night long, and if that information is going to be given to a judge and a jury, the prosecutor is going to ask these kinds of questions too. In all your life, before you met Ms. Greene, haven’t you ever been in love?”

“I was in love. Once. It didn’t turn out well, and I’ve tried to stay away from it ever since.”

“I’d like you to tell me about it.”

Haven looked down at the floor for a few seconds. “Well, OK,” he said. His voice was even, almost monotone, as he shared his intimate account with Office Kowalski. “Jane and I knew each other as kids. We lived in a small town—Victoria, Mississippi. We went to the same schools for twelve years. Our mothers were friends, so we played together outside of school. We even went to the same church, so we saw each other pretty much every day. In eighth grade we started going steady, and in high school we were voted the ‘cutest couple.’

“Then she got a scholarship to Agnes Scott College, and I went to Mississippi State. We promised to be faithful, and we wrote a few letters back and forth, but mostly we waited for Christmas and for summers. The first couple of years were OK, but whenever I hinted that I intended to ask her to be my wife, she said she didn’t want to hear anything about it. The first big fight we had was the night before Christmas, our junior year. She told me that she was going to spend the summer in Georgia and not come home to Victoria. I begged her not to stay away, and I shouted at her and threatened her, and we ended up breaking up that Christmas.

“After that, I dated a couple other girls I knew at Mississippi State, but it wasn’t the same. It was almost like I was being with them only to get revenge on Jane. Mostly I hung out with the guys and concentrated on my studies.

“Jane was home again for Christmas, and we spent time together. It was almost like the last year hadn’t happened. The night before she went back to Georgia, I told her again that I wanted to marry her. She thought a little bit, and smiled, and said I would have to wait just a little longer. ‘Melanie is getting married next year,’ she said. Melanie is Jane’s younger sister. ‘Let’s wait until we’ve both graduated and wait until the wedding in June, and after that we can talk about us.’

“Well, I lived the winter and spring full of hope. Graduation happened—Jane and I graduated the same day, so we couldn’t be together—and then I made plans to drive to Alabama for Melanie’s wedding. Jane’s family lived in Alabama for a long time, for generations, so all the family weddings had to be at the same country church.

“I got up on a Saturday morning and drove for three hours into Alabama, and I found the church. It was a few minutes before noon. A lot of people were standing outside in the shade, including an elderly couple. I had only met them once before, but I had seen their pictures in Jane’s house plenty of times. I got out of the car and, more to make conversation than anything else, I walked over and asked them, “Is this where the Butler wedding is happening?”

“The old lady smiled and said, ‘Oh, yes, our oldest granddaughter, Jane Butler, is getting married this noon.’

“’You mean Melanie Butler, don’t you?’ I asked her, still smiling, sure that she was mistaken.

“She looked at her husband, a little bit confused, and I was still convinced that she had just mixed up the names of her granddaughters. But he didn’t look at all confused. ‘No, it’s Jane who’s getting married today,’ he said. ‘Melanie’s wedding isn’t until the fall.’

“Well, I didn’t know what to do. I realized that Jane hadn’t promised me anything. She only said that we’d talk after the wedding. I got back in my car and drove back to Victoria, Mississippi, and in the fall I went back to school and started working on my MBA. When I had that, I looked for a job, and I found one in Memphis. I’ve been working there five years, and for all that time, I didn’t worry myself about Jane or about any other woman.

Haven was still looking down at the floor. He didn’t see that Casey had come up behind him and was respectfully waiting to speak to Kowalski. “Then, two years ago, Jess joined the firm,” Haven continued. “Every day I noticed her—her walk, her smile, her laugh. I dreamed about her at night. But I couldn’t do anything, because she was already married.” Both his hands balled into fists as he repeated the last four words, pausing between them. “She was… already… married.”

Casey didn’t look as if he could wait much longer. Kowalski knew that Casey wouldn’t interrupt if he didn’t have something terribly important to say. “Excuse me a minute, Tom,” he said. He and Casey walked a few steps away from the desk. Haven did not look up at them. “What is it?” Kowalski asked.

“You can stop questioning him,” Casey said, gesturing at Haven. “We have got a confession.”

“Jessica Greene confessed to the murder?” Kowalski asked.

“No,” Casey answered. “It was a different woman. She just came in a few minutes ago, with her mother. She says that she was Greene’s girlfriend, that they had a big fight about midnight, and that it got out of hand. She says that he attacked her first. She has cuts and bruises that back up what she’s saying. Both women are pretty emotional.”

“I’ll talk with them in a minute,” Kowalski said. “Before I do, I need to finish up here.” He returned to his desk and sat down. “Well, Tom,” he said, “it looks as though I made you tell me more than I have any right to know. It appears that Ms. Greene is not an active suspect, and we’ll be able to let her go. She will have to stay in touch with us, of course, and probably testify at the trial. But in just a few minutes, we’ll be releasing her.

“Now, Tom, I usually don’t give advice,” he continued. “I’m not any good at it, and it’s not my job. For you, though, I’m going to make an exception. That young woman has been through hell several times over the last five days. She needs someone to look after her, someone who cares deeply about her, someone who is going to support her emotionally.” Haven looked at Officer Kowalski. His face was still expressionless, his eyes almost glazed. “Listen,” Kowalski said. “Don’t try to take things too fast. It’ll be a long time before she thinks of you as anything more than a friend. But don’t be too distant either. Be the friend that she needs. Be there for her now, and I wager that the two of you will be together for a good long time. Probably the rest of your lives.”

Tom Haven stood. He reached out to shake Officer Kowalski’s hand. Kowalski stood and accepted the gesture. They looked into each other’s eyes, their hands firmly gripped. Though he didn’t like to do it, Kowalski let go first. “You wait outside,” he said gruffly. “I’ll have the papers signed and send her out the door just as quick as I can.”

“I don’t know how to thank you,” Tom whispered.

“You take care of that girl,” Kowalski replied. “That’s all the thanks I need.”

Five movies that made me say “Wow!”

As always, when I describe movies in this blog, I am merely giving my opinion, not claiming to be able to list the best movies ever made. I am not a movie critic, and I do not play one on TV. But each of these five movies struck me with awe the first time I saw them and continue to make me think after multiple viewings. Sometimes I watch movies merely to be entertained, but when I want to exercise the cells between my ears, these are the kinds of movies I like to see. SPOILER ALERT–There are likely to be spoilers in these descriptions. You have been warned.

All That Jazz (1979): I first saw this as a college student with a group of friends, and when the movie ended we all went next door to the hamburger place, looked at each other for a while, and then began to discuss the experience. In fact, we talked about it all weekend. Bob Fosse wrote and directed this movie about a stage and screen choreographer and director. The story is said to be semi-autobiographical; if it is, then All That Jazz could be regarded as a public confession of Fosse’s faults. Director Joe Gideon abuses alcohol and drugs, is unfaithful in marriage and unkind to women, and is so driven to succeed in his career that he neither tends to the relationships in his life nor takes care of himself. As a result, he lands in the hospital with heart disease. The movie centers around the Kubler-Ross theory of five stages of dealing with one’s own impending death. As these are repeated—first in a comedian’s monologue, and later as a song-and-dance montage—Gideon shamelessly and deliberately flirts with death, who is portrayed in the film by Jessica Lange. The movie is not only about life and death; it is about relationships, caring for other people, and ultimately about the broad gray area between life and art. Not at all a family-friendly movie, but strongly thought-provoking.

The World According to Garp (1982): This is the other movie I saw with my friends in college, and again we spent the weekend talking about what we had just seen. The movie is based on John Irving’s novel of the same name. Robin Williams plays the title character, an aspiring author. (Why is it that so many first novels feature aspiring writers?) The movie shows the entire arc of Garp’s life, featuring the most important people in his life, including his mother (played by Glenn Close), who is a feminist nurse; and a transsexual former football star (played brilliantly by John Lithgow). Like All That Jazz, Garp is not a family-friendly movie, but it will provoke thoughts and discussions about American politics, gender issues, family and fidelity, and the rights of the individual confronted with the needs of society.

Joe versus the Volcano (1990): If any movie could dispel my depression, this would be the movie. Among other virtues, it is the earliest pairing of Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan. Hanks plays the title character, Joe Banks, who is trapped in a mind-numbing job and suffering from a variety of unpleasant physical symptoms. His doctor informs him that he is a hypochondriac, but then reveals that Joe has a brain cloud, a symptomless infirmity that will end his life in a few months. The next day, Joe is approached by a billionaire with a startling proposition: since Joe has only a short time to live, the billionaire wants Joe to jump into an active volcano, a religious ceremony that will close a contract between the billionaire and a Pacific Island nation. In return, Joe is given unlimited funds to spend on his way to the volcano. A splendid series of characters then help Joe redefine his life on the way to the volcano, which the islanders call the Big Wu. Meg Ryan plays three roles—a coworker of Joe in the beginning of the movie, and later the billionaire’s two daughters. Not subtly, but also not in-your-face, the movie uses episode after episode to ask questions about the meaning of life. If we are all on the road to death, why not confront it as a hero? Along the way, though, we must each first ask and answer the question, “Who am I?” which Joe suggests is the only question that really matters. Joe’s religious experience while floating on a raft in the South Pacific is a bit overacted by Hanks, but still important to the plan of the movie. The recurring symbolism of a crooked road, paired with another symbol of unsinkable steamer trunks, help to hold this movie together as a celebration of life itself.

The Truman Show (1998): Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man who does not realize the truth to the saying that “all the world’s a stage,” since he is unaware that, since birth, he has been the star performer in a television show. Everyone else around him is an actor, and the sets and plot turns are being directed by Chrisof, who lives up in the sky (behind the image of the moon). This exercise in solipsism is set at the very time that Truman is beginning to notice inconsistencies in his life and beginning to ask questions about what is real. What if all of life is an illusion, run by mysterious forces far beyond our knowledge and comprehension? The nearly god-like character of Christof, who loves Truman and yet tortures him for the entertainment of others, seems to have no superior being. Only one character ever utters the name of God, and she is an actress who once tried to free Truman from the set of the show and bring him into the real world. The last few minutes of the movie are spine-tingling, as Truman is confronted with his world’s version of the Big Wu.

American Beauty (1999): Before I saw this movie, I thought it was merely a creepy story about a middle-aged man who pursues a high school girl. That is part of the story, but only part. Lester and Carolyn Burnham (Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening) are unhappily married, with a tidy suburban house, a bitter teen-aged daughter, and an odd family that has moved into the house next door. Lester’s empty life changes for the worse as an efficiency expert inspects the office where he works. Meanwhile, his wife is being romantically drawn to a competing real estate agent. Suddenly, Lester rebels against every meaningless aspect of his life and begins striving instead to live truly. Not all his choices are noble or even respectable, but his motivation is understandable. Meanwhile, his daughter’s romance with the drug dealer living next door opens the Burnham family to new adventures, none of them happy. This startling movie cannot be watched only once; it raises too many questions about the meaning of life and about what actually matters in life.

Happy viewing!

J.

Sons of David

Reading through the books of First and Second Samuel in my devotions last month, I was struck by the theme of the sons of David. David had several wives and at least nineteen sons, but three of those sons particularly stood out in my mind as I was reading.

The theme of “Son of David” is significant, of course, because it is a Messianic title. David wanted to build a Temple in Jerusalem where God would be worshipped. Through the prophet Nathan, God sent a message to David, saying, “You will not build me a house, but I will build you a house.” God went on to say that a Son of David would be chosen to rule an eternal kingdom, and promised, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (II Samuel 7:14). A thousand years later, Jesus of Nazareth was recognized as the promised Son of David, the Son of God destined to rule an eternal kingdom.

But David had other sons as well. A son was born as a result of David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Nathan challenged David with a story about a rich man who stole a poor man’s only sheep, and David said, “That man deserves to die!” “You are that man,” Nathan replied, but then he said, “You will not die, but the child will die” (II Samuel 12:13-14).When the child was born and became sick, David wept and pled for the infant’s life, but the baby still died. David ended his mourning after the death of the child. “I shall go to him,” David said, “but he will not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23).

David sinned and deserved to die. David did not die. God was gracious and forgave the sin of David. But the son of David died as a consequence of David’s sin. The son of David was just a baby. He had done nothing wrong. Even so, his death followed David’s sin and, in a way, rescued David from the death he deserved. Later, the Son of David would be born in Bethlehem—David’s hometown—so he also could die in payment for David’s sin. He also was without sin and did not deserve to die. His life was threatened by King Herod when he was very young, but God protected him at that time, sending him to Egypt to escape Herod’s plot.

Trouble and strife entered David’s family following his sin. Amnon, the son of David and heir to David’s throne, attempted to seduce his half-sister Tamar and instead raped her. As a result, Tamar’s brother Absalom murdered Amnon when he had the opportunity. Amnon was guilty of sin, of course, but instead of being put on trial, condemned, and sentenced, he was struck down by his own brother and died. Another son of David had died, this time rejected by his own family. Later, the Son of David would also be rejected by his own people, first in Nazareth and later in Jerusalem. The people of Nazareth, who had known Jesus since he was a child, rejected his teaching and tried to throw him off a cliff and stone him to death. At that time, Jesus walked safely through the crowd, because his time to die had not yet come.

Absalom was punished with exile from Jerusalem, but later he was allowed to return. When he returned, he began to plot against his father. He tried to steal the kingdom from his father, and he nearly succeeded. David had to flee Jerusalem, but his faithful soldiers stayed with him. Israel fought a civil war between the forces of David and the forces of Absalom. David begged his soldiers to be gentle with his son, but when the leader of David’s forces found Absalom caught in a tree, he thought that the opportunity for victory was too good to miss. Joab killed the son of David while Absalom was hanging on a tree. David wanted to mourn over the death of his son, but Joab persuaded David to thank the soldiers who had fought for him and to celebrate their victory.

 The ultimate Son of David, who is also the Son of God, also died hanging on a tree. He was arrested in Jerusalem, turned over to the Roman authorities, and crucified. Jesus was guilty of no rebellion against his Father, but while hanging on the cross he was treated as guilty for all the sins of the world. Though he might mourn the death of his only-begotten Son, God the Father still accepts the sinners whose wrongdoing brought about the death of Jesus. As Absalom’s death meant victory for David, so the death of Jesus means eternal victory for all those who trust in him. Their sins are forgiven, and they are welcomed by God into an eternal Kingdom, an eternal celebration of the victory Jesus won.

Solomon replaced his father David on the throne of Israel and built the Temple David had wanted to build. Solomon was a son of David, but he was not the promised Son of David. Solomon ruled Israel for forty years and then died; his kingdom was not eternal. Jesus, the Son of David and Son of God, rules an eternal kingdom. His death means forgiveness and life for all God’s people. Those who trust in Jesus are not merely servants of God and citizens of his Kingdom; we are royalty, for the King has adopted us into his family. His victory is our victory, and because of his death we will live forever.

 J.

Blaming the victim, or, how can you say that?

I wrote a while ago about the advice one of my out-of-town relatives gave me, telling me to relax. That one post, and the response it has generated, has made me think about the other things people say to those of us who battle anxiety and/or depression. This list of things other people say is by no means original—you can find high-quality posts on the same subject here and here, for example—but these comments clearly show that those other people have no idea what they are saying with their helpful advice.

“It’s all in your head.” Well, of course it is. Did you think I blamed my feet for my anxiety and depression? All-in-my-head doesn’t make it less real or easier to bear. When you tell me that my problems are all in my head, all you are really saying is you can’t see my problem, so to you it doesn’t exist.

“You’re just being selfish.” “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself.” Anxiety and depression may, in some ways, be connected with selfishness, but they are not caused by a selfish nature or proof that the struggling person is more selfish than others. I’ve known people struggling with cancer who were very aware of their illness, to the point that they could talk about nothing else. For that matter, I’ve known people struggling with allergies or with the common cold who seemed obsessed with their illness. When a person is sick—and knows that he or she is sick—awareness of the sickness and its symptoms are inevitable. The cancer or the cold can be measured, though, whereas the anxiety and depression cannot be measured. If you don’t have cancer, you don’t know how the person struggling with cancer really feels. If you don’t have depression, you don’t know how the person struggling with depression really feels.

“Keep yourself busy doing things for other people, and you won’t have time to be anxious or depressed.” When people are emotionally paralyzed by anxiety or depression—unable to get out of bed, or unable to leave the house—it is a bit cruel to suggest that they can change their feelings just by keeping busy. I am blessed in that I have never missed a day’s work or a social obligation due to anxiety or depression, but I can attest to the fact that forcing myself to do my job or to attend someone else’s party did not ease my symptoms one bit. The wave of panic that hits while I’m sitting at my desk is there all the same. It does not matter if I keep working or if I hide under the desk. The main reason I don’t hide under the desk is that I don’t want to call attention to myself.

“Cheer up.” “Relax.” Yes, I would do these things if I could. Telling me to do those things does not make me more capable of doing them. If I could force myself to relax or to be cheerful, don’t you think I’d rather do that? As it is, I fake it as well as I can, just so I don’t bother you so much with my problems.

“You need to learn how to manage stress.” Honestly, I’m not sure that a strong connection exists between stress and anxiety. If I worried about something specific, my worry would be natural and acceptable, wouldn’t it? It’s the free-floating anxiety that puzzles you. Maybe you think that stress management and a positive mental attitude are all that is needed to win the fight against anxiety and depression, but the professionals who have studied cases like mine would, for the most part, disagree with you.

“It’s all your fault.” All right, no one has said those words to me so bluntly. But isn’t that exactly what is being said in every one of the examples given above? People in our society have mastered the art of blaming the victim. They seem to think, “If you are sick and I am not, I must be doing something right, and you must be doing something wrong.” We know that many broken bones are caused, directly or indirectly, by careless or dangerous behavior. Why not go to the emergency room and tell everyone who enters with a broken bone that, if they had been more careful, they would still be fine. Go to the pharmacy and tell everyone buying cold and flu medication that, if they took better care of themselves, they would not need the medicine.

According to the Bible, the Lord allowed Satan to test the faith of a man named Job. Job lost his wealth and his ten children, followed by his health. Three friends came to visit Job, and he began eloquently describing his depression. The three friends assured Job that his problems were his fault. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” they said to Job. “You are getting what you deserve. Change your life, and make yourself right with God, and your problems will cease.”

Job told his friends they were wrong. Then the Lord appeared and also told them they were wrong. He promised to forgive them when Job prayed for them. He restored Job’s blessings, without ever telling Job the back-story of why his problems happened in the first place.

The world is not fair. Good people suffer. Bad people get away with evil deeds. Blaming the victim solves nothing. If I had the courage, I would say to all these well-meaning advisors, “Be glad you don’t have the problems I have, but don’t be smug. I’m glad your life is going well. Please be a bit more patient with me as I try to manage mine.”

J.

Note–I wrote this several weeks ago and never got around to posting it until now. Getting to bring a family member home from the hospital last night had me too busy to compose a new post, and I remembered that I had several older ones in reserve. You are welcome. J.