There are at least three times in life when we are not in control of what our faces look like (and when, if we could see our own faces at just that moment, we’d be startled if not chagrined): when you are trying not to fall asleep, when you are trying not to laugh, and when you are trying not to cry. I had a really good Philosophy class at Calvin one year but it was at 1:00pm, right after lunch, and there must have been times as I fought off sleep when I looked ridiculous. Then again, I’ve also caught a major fit of the giggles in places where busting a gut laughing was the last thing you’d want to do and I am sure that my stifled guffaws yielded many’a facial contortion (think of Mary Richards at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown on the classic episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show!). Staving off tears likewise requires enormous effort, and when you are putting forth that effort, the shape of your face is the last thing on your mind. Sleep, laughter, crying: these are powerful urges at times and repressing them is no mean trick.
Last week I found a picture of Speaker John Boehner trying to control his urge to weep as he stood next to Pope Francis on the Speakers Balcony at the U.S. Congress. This particular still picture caught Boehner in what I found to be a rather hilarious facial contortion so I posted the picture on Facebook with the tag “Sometimes ya just have to cry.” A couple friends chided me for being a bit petty and they were probably right: Sorry, Mr. Speaker.
But then the next day Representative Boehner shocked everyone in Washington (President Obama was said to have been stunned) by announcing his resignation from the Speakership and from Congress effective October 31. In the news conference that followed the announcement, Mr. Boehner said that being with the Pope the previous day had indeed been a “crystallizing moment” for him, though he did not really elaborate.
So I wonder: when he stood before that vast throng in front of Congress with the Pope at his side, what did Speaker Boehner see that made him weep and that ultimately then made him resign?
Politically we know that Speaker Boehner has pretty much had it with overseeing a House of Representatives paralyzed by right-wing conservatives who have engineered upwards of 60 meaningless votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act but who cannot seem to come to a consensus on much of anything else. Washington has been in political gridlock for a long while now and although Speaker Boehner bears his own complicity in some of that, his efforts to move in a more positive direction have been stymied by people in his own party, not a few of whom have worked tirelessly to get him to quit (even as Boehner has been specifically ballyhooed by several of the Republicans running for the White House right now).
Look, I am not always in favor of the Speaker’s policies but I feel for the man: you can get beat up, critiqued, lied about, and bullied just so long. Nobody is made of steel. We all have feelings that can be hurt. Enough is finally enough.
So what did John Boehner see while he was with the Pope that made him both well up with emotion and then resign? Obviously I have no idea but . . . in the Pope’s gentle humility and in the quietly effective ways by which he communicates his message to millions, did Mr. Boehner just possibly see the vision of a better world–of a world that could be but that in the political reality of our day quite simply does not exist? Did he see a world where honesty beats lying, where being the servant of all is more important than being a successful CEO, where real change for the better in society is possible by bringing people together instead of using “wedge issues” quite literally to cleave them apart? Did he see what can happen when we value each person we encounter the way the Pope seems to do instead of resorting to name-calling or dismissing whole groups as “losers”?
Just before going out onto the Speakers Balcony, the Pope gently patted Mr. Boehner’s arm, showed him love, and then asked the Speaker to pray for him. Perhaps Mr. Boehner has become so used to being brutally elbowed aside and being assured that he could do nothing of substance that when he was instead gently embraced and then told that his own prayers really could make a difference, perhaps the contrast of all that to his workaday world was too much to bear.
It would be enough to make anyone weep.
Perhaps what the Speaker saw and what made him weep was the vision of a better world that could be but that is not. Maybe if the rest of us could well up with a few tears at the prospect of such a different reality, maybe we could all start to do something to make it happen. It surely is a better vision than picking the candidate who best expresses our own deep-seated anger and then sending him or her to Washington to spew all of our bile for us.
Or as the Pope’s namesake put it: make me a channel of your peace. That prayer also hopes that where there is sadness we will instead sow joy. Maybe the Pope’s deep-seated joy encountered Mr. Boehner’s deep-seated sadness and the triumph of joy was too much to bear.
But then there is also this: Blessed are you who mourn now for you will laugh.