Me First!

You know how in grammar school you have to all line up single file whenever the class would be leaving the room? In my school we would always be vying to get to be first in line, some more strenuously than others.

You could always tell a lot about how people were made up temperamentally by how they would negotiate the daily quest to be first in line. There were the purely physical types [from later on, in high school, I’m remembering a certain sophomore who would get to daily mass first and park himself squarely and immovably on the aisle, in the first pew. I vividly see him even now hanging on for dear life as the other boys tried to get him to move over into the pew and out of his precious perch. The object of all this? Well, the fellow that sat in the first spot, in the first pew got to get to lunch first. The good Jesuits saw what was happening; and, after this went on for a while, they called pews to be the first to exit at random. Groans, all around.]Back to grammar school and the other kinds of kids. There were the opportunists who would lay back and wait for an opening. The politicians, trying to talk their way into place [what’s changed there?]. Then those who would just let the whole play unfold and take what was left after the chickens were through with their contest over top spot in the pecking order.

I do have to observe, isn’t that scene of a bunch of little brats pushing and shoving for first place more than a little like social life in the world in general? Do we live in a barnyard with a lot of other animals, like chickens scurrying feverishly to be first to gobble up the kernels farmer Jones tosses out in the morning? Are you living like the point of being alive is to get to the end of your days with the most stuff, or the most experiences, or the most sterling reputation, or the most historical impact, or… go ahead, you add something yourself. But, the real art—we are human beings, after all— is to do that and not appear to be doing it. Wrap it in the cloak of righteousness, or intellectual excellence, or patriotism, or religious zeal. Who could criticize that? Certainly not Oprah, or Donald Trump, or Sarah Palin, or Osama [has] bin Laden. I might be a little off topic; but, if the shoe fits, you’ll wear it. You are going to die, don't you know? So, unless you can afford to have your body, or your head deep frozen for some better day in the brave new future, best to ask yourself what’s it all about. Huh, Alfie?

Back to school. My grade school was Immaculate Conception in the once Poletown section of Detroit, Michigan. The good folks over at General Motors Corporation razed that whole entire neighborhood of social stability and cohesion so they could put up a Cadillac factory to further their quest for first in the automotive world. The good Dominican Sister in charge of one of my early year classes saw the madness we would descend into every time a line needed to be formed. So, one day she imparted this lesson: “Now children, you know that our dear, blessed, sweet suffering Lord Jesus said that ‘the last shall be first’ [to the everlasting kingdom of heaven, specifically]. I want you to ponder that when we form a line the next time.” So we did. We really did. Really took it to heart.

Next time we were directed to get in line, no one could be seen fighting for first in line. No, the fight was for last in line. Same as it ever was.

Confucius, that great expounder of the verities of human existence, once intoned this precious wisdom, “He who break wind in church, must sit in own pew.”

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