10 funerals a reminder of what we value most

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President Trump boards Air Force One to Brussels on May 24 at the end of a two-day visit to Rome.

It is a deeply sad but perhaps appropriate synchronicity that in this most harrowing of political years, I have been to 10 funerals in six months.

They have ranged from church liturgies to a Jewish Shiva minyan to a Quaker meeting for worship. Some have been in the natural order of things - celebrations of those who lived into their 80s and 90s. Some have been raw gatherings of grief over lives cut short.

In this extraordinary stretch, beginning just after the presidential election, my family, friends, and I have mourned personal losses and what we feel are national losses. I don't wish to let the latter eclipse the pain of the former. But I've been struck by how the remembrances of these departed throw into sharp relief what's so lacking now in our national leadership.

At the eighth funeral, as a friend eulogized his "mamacita," as he called her, for her everyday acts of kindness and connection, I flashed on a phrase I heard in college, when a professor urged us to see the effect of policy on individual lives: The personal is political.

Underneath the headlines of party and elections, politics, Webster offers, is "the total complex of relations between people living in society." At each of these 10 funerals, the rabbis and ministers and eulogists celebrated the varied commitments the deceased made to building society.

Ten funerals offer a fair sampling of what we value in a life. In the end, we lift up a person's distinct way of living in the world, through what they stand for and what they leave behind. And always, it seems, we highlight the principled ways people act not for self interest but for others. That's the final accounting.

Not one of the deceased was in government. But each was political in ways our president, and his party, seem incapable of being.

So we celebrated Claire, a lifelong educator gone too soon at 48, for the motto that sat front and center on her desk: "Be kinder than necessary." Folks told stories of how Len, the controller at one of the city's largest nonprofit arts institutions, took time to write personal notes on pay stubs, especially to the apprentices. Bob's son spoke of how his dad could keep him from acting uncharitably with the admonition, "That's not what we do."

Don't dismiss these qualities as gauzy, funeral-induced sentimentality. The personal is political.

"Be kinder than necessary" was no Pollyanna bromide for Claire. She lived it with muscle and personal sacrifice, a policy statement that said generosity and lifting up the other come first. Writing notes on pay stubs of the apprentices says that the less powerful, be they just out-of-college artists or those with pre-existing health conditions or the president of Montenegro, are not to be shoved aside.

What if Republican lawmakers, as they watch the president hurl wild accusations at his predecessor, meddle in FBI investigations, and demand loyalty over justice, could stand up as one and say, "That's not what we do."

When we give the final accounting of a life, we tally how a person goes beyond the self to build connection, share power and resources, include the vulnerable. Six months of funeral-going make clear that these are pretty universal values. How absent they are in our nation's leaders.

In the same six months, the president and his party have put forth a "health care" proposal that will mean 23 million people will be without health coverage, but the wealthiest 1 percent will gain a large tax cut. His administration has issued a budget that eviscerates aid to our poorest families, backed in part by the housing secretary's assertion that poverty is "a state of mind." And the "leader of the free world," with full support of the House speaker and Senate majority leader, has turned his back on science, the health of the planet, and future generations in rejecting the Paris climate accord.

There is no way the president has acted since taking office that has not been about self-promotion, self-preservation, or amassing power and wealth. His politics might be personal, but that person is, as he said at his convention, "I and I alone."

You don't have to go to 10 funerals to know that's not what we do.

So here's to Claire and Len and Bob and Moose and the Davids and Betty and more. We know what we value in the people we love. We know those everyday values build the kind of society we extol. We must demand it from this president and his party.

Don't accept in the political what we would reject in the personal. In the final accounting, we're better than that.

David Bradley is a Philadelphia-based theater director, arts producer and educator. bradleydt@gmail.com

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