sábado, 5 de septiembre de 2009

Doing Good Things Through Words and Images

As he always does, Joel Osteen opened his televised sermon last Sunday with a joke. A friend of his assured him that cancer makes you good looking because ever since he suffered this disease, people approached him to comment with enthusiasm: “Boy, you are certainly looking good today.” I couldn’t stop laughing! Although his message was about the power of faith in developing a positive attitude to deal with challenging experiences, my mind began retrieving other images and files from the screen of my memory.

I remembered my then 11 years old daughter Carla, running upstairs as fast as she could when I first arrived home from the hospital after my first surgery the 23 of January, 2008. I was using a walker, my face was swollen, my jaw was twisted to one side, and half of my hair was still full of glue from the gauze the nurses removed from my head before sending me home. The other half of my head was bold with a scar full of clips. Carla’s mind was probably retrieving images of “The Elephant Man,” “Frankenstein’s Bride,” and “The Munsters Family.” They were all scary characters to look at, but none of them was her mom. None of them gave her the real and present danger of loosing the mother she knew forever. I am sure she was simultaneously experiencing horror and pity, but decided to step out of the realm of tragedy to view the experience from another perspective.

She came down several hours later and pretended that she wasn’t scared anymore. She brought her neighbor friends over, Danny and Irene, and after staring at me for a while, they all agreed that my head’s clips were similar to body piercing, my scar was just like a tattoo, my hair was definitely a Mohawk, and I was just the punk coolest version of the same Carmen they always knew. In a mater of minutes, the stage of my life was transformed by the creative power of images and language.

Beginning a sermon with a joke comes from a long tradition. Saint Augustine recommends it as a teaching tool in "On Christian Doctrine," and Erasmus goes so far as creating an ironic encomium while proposing a new spiritual point of view to both criticize and reform the Church. Joel Osteen’s joke reminded me of the possibility of doing good things with words and images. Carla, Danny and Irene might have been joking, but they lifted my spirit and reassured me that there was nothing scary about my current situation. Deeply inside, though, I knew that their act was heroic precisely because they were fighting against their own feelings: “If this happened to Carmen, it could happen to me or my mom, it could happen to any of us at any moment.” The way these three girls channeled their catharsis opened for me the possibility to overcome tragedy through the creative use of words and images.

In “The Praise of Folly,” the orator states that we owe her the gift of friendship, a relationship that is impossible without one of Folly’s handmaidens: Kolakia (Flattery). Now, we might consider flattery a vice, but you will agree that for the sake and love of a friend you will not tell him/her that he/she looks ugly or scary. Chances are that you will rather say that she/he looks mysterious, edgy or even “possessed with a deep and special kind of beauty.” When a friend gets into trouble for talking too much, I am sure you don’t go and tell her/him that he/she needs to stop being such a gossiper, but that he/she might be aware that some people might not appreciate his/her open frankness. That’s what I call doing good things through the creative power of words and images. Considering Danny’s, Irene’s and Carla’s re-reading of my dreadful scary looking face as “a super cool image of a punk with tattoos, body piercing and a Mohawk” in light of Folly’s views on friendship, I can further suggest that even a vice-like flattery can turn into a virtue when used to lift the spirit of any heart broken human being. Try it: twist your words and images to turn what is scary and ugly into something precious. Do it for cancer patients, friends, and strangers, or as a teaching tool in the classroom. In the process, we might find ourselves defeating our own biggest fear through a charitable act of folly.