Dave O'Brien: Moments, places, that bring us together

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WORCESTER >> On a recent beautiful fall Saturday afternoon, the Red Sox played the hated Yankees at home in Fenway Park. This event was of great importance in itself and also because both teams were in the race for the playoffs and World Series.

Afternoon games with crowds warmed by the fall sun are a little unusual; nowadays most games are played at night. One grandchild, a Boston area student, called that afternoon as he moved through the huge crowds in Kenmore Square outside Fenway Park, They were slowing his travel to work. I pointed out the beauty of the day, the importance of the event, and the relative happiness of the crowd. He was unimpressed but I could feel his smile as he went on to work.

Lost on the young

A few days later another grandchild called, just back home from a summer in Mexico and headed to a final year at the University of Chicago. How wonderful, I told her on the phone, to be in Chicago these days as the Cubs have clinched a place in the playoffs with the best record in baseball and have a good chance to win the World Series for the first time since 1908.

People across the city, in neighborhoods she has come to treasure, must be very excited. She was a bit puzzled, but out of respect for her grandfather seemed a little interested.

I did not call a third grandchild, also a Boston college student. As a small boy in 2004 he was devoted to the Red Sox and shared his grandfather's joy when, in his first year of close awareness of major league baseball, our Red Sox broke the curse and won it all. Later, as he moved through high school, he played the infield but lost interest in the Red Sox.

Grandfather tried to keep him engaged but concluded that this grandchild had experienced victory too early and been spared the suffering that may be required to truly enter Red Sox Nation. A film major, he might well wander with his camera amid the crowds in Boston streets, but take little notice of the baseball occasion.

Is there an American metaphor here? Years ago the literary historian R.W.B. Lewis wrote of the American as a new Adam, free from Europe's sinful history, starting over again the American wilderness, the new Garden of Eden. We Americans, once arrived (for some it takes awhile) are innocent, unhaunted by memories of persecution, freed from the harsh necessities of peasant, later immigrant, life, liberated from the conflicted past by nature — and more recently by parent nurture — we Americans start over again

Religious congregations and ethnic clubs no longer bind us together. Baseball (and other sports) no longer provide experiences of a common life and shared history but are now just another form of entertainment. Much is gained thereby, I am sure — more freedom, more confidence, less anxiety about the pain of defeat, perhaps more attention to family and friends, but there may be some loss as well. As an NPR commentator asked on Morning Edition late last month, what do we mean, you and I, when (if?) we say "my people"?

When, if ever, might we have moments like that of the monk Thomas Merton who fled the world, for the cloister, prayed that others might be delivered from the temptations of daily life, then, years later, on a crowded street corner in Louisville, had a conversion experience: "I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs."

In Memphis a decade later, in the spring of 1968, an exhausted Martin Luther King Jr. brought hope to ordinary people at a dark moment in their struggle for truthful justice: "I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!" The next day he was murdered.

Keeping faith alive

Their Christianity and mine, and our shared American civil religion, both are sustained by the promise that someday, we all may be one. That faith comes alive at occasional moments, as with Merton in Louisville or Dr. King in Memphis, when we realize that, somehow, we already are.

Where and with whom will we have such experiences that keep faith alive? When we had such feelings, as on Sept. 11, 2001, were they not grounded in daily experiences of living together? Where and with whom will we find "my people"?

Maybe at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park in October we may find people who are ours and get just a taste of the promised land. At least, amid the travails of this election year, it might be a good place to start.

Dave O'Brien is a professor of history emeritus at the College of the Holy Cross and is a summer resident of Richmond.


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