Essays on the Common Man (Part I)

I Am the Common Man

I am what you would call the common man, and in hard times you could call me the invisible man.

I struggle to make ends meet, but pressure amounts and the problems never seem to diminish. When it rains, it pours, until I find myself trying to keep afloat in this lake of misery and mediocrity. And if, for the brief moment, I ever forget how to swim, I will surely drown.

It seems that my dire concerns become mainstream only when there is an election to be won; my personal hurdles become another match point, political prostitution and mockery, a blood sport prize.

I am the common man. I am a simple man, so my concerns are not otherwise fashionable. They are rather ordinary, unadorned, like the faded T-shirt and the weathered pair of jeans I wear on the weekends. Or, better yet, like the long-sleeved pin-striped collared shirts and gray pants I wear to work each day. Not at all like the confident cardigan sweaters that I wear on casual Fridays.

My struggles are not to be exploited, worn and shelved and worn again as the situation demands. They are not a pair of shoes to be polished only to then be retired and collect falling dust in the closet. I live with this back-breaking burden every day, like the daily tax for living. My struggles are a plea for relief, a cry to ease the burden that may one day cripple me.

I am the common man, driven by unwavering faith and untarnished optimism, despite these harsh trials. My driving faith keeps others moving. As long as my feet are planted firmly on this earth, I don’t have the option to lift my arms to the unmoving heavens in pitiful surrender. If my children see me weep and bellow in sorrow, they will lose faith in their own futures. If I fail to lift my weary head, they, too, will ignore the opportunities before them. Yes, I am the common man, but to my babies, to my darling wife and aging parents, I am an extraordinary man indeed.

Until the time when my travails become more than a footnote in modern political discourse, I will work tirelessly to ensure a more prosperous lifetime for the next generation. And though I may stub my toe, I will continue to trot onwards, toward fulfillment and happiness, because my uncolored commonness is my dazzling uniqueness. I am strong because I am in the company and fellowship of many other common men and women. I am the overworked, underpaid, overburdened, underrepresented man.

You may otherwise refer to me as the common man.

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Why ‘Vote Your Conscience’ Is Flawed Advice

“Vote your conscience.”

I have heard this adage repeated with great regularity in political discourse. It is most often issued as advice to young and undecided voters – those who are “on the fence,” so to speak. And while I do not doubt that those who issue this advice may be doing so benignly, I strongly encourage them to reconsider just the shallowness of those words.

Imagine being given a question on a standard multiple-choice exam with four possible answers. However, by processes of your own reasoning, you were able to eliminate two of the four options. Imagine, then, that you were offered a “lifeline,” which allows you to consult with your teacher only once for advice on selecting the best answer of the two viable options. Would you not be offended if this teacher’s only advice to you is to “select with your conscience”?

Many may take objection to my analogy, and rightfully so. It is, in a sense, incongruous to compare the voting process to responding to a multiple-choice question. After all, in a true multiple-choice question it is understood that each choice is equally plausible. The same cannot be said about the voting process. If I were to use this analogy, I would first have to assume that elections are fair playgrounds.

I sadly cannot hold this assumption to be true. In any election, there will be clear outsiders who have much lower chances of winning. It is simply pretension that some names are placed on the ballot for the sake of appearances only. Whether those outsiders are disadvantaged because they lack the political resource to be true contenders or because they hold unpopular views, the truth of the matter still remains: They are outsiders and not equal players on the playground.

Another factor leading to this imbalance is the ‘flocking’ that usually occurs during elections. In life, people prefer to associate with (or flock to) winners. The larger the flock, the more likely the candidate is to attract followers. These followers may even be outsiders who were once contenders.

In theory, voting is a declaration of individualism and self-expression. In reality, it is a deliberate act that is best described as placing one’s penny in the right jar. In theory, voting is conscience-driven. In practice, it is very much group-driven. This glaring discrepancy between what voting should be and the reality is the source of much voter frustration and cynicism.

My first quarrel with telling people to vote their conscience is that it seems so detached from reality that it appears almost nonsensical. In fact, I’m tempted to believe that those giving this lackluster advice are doing so evasively. It is a nice, easy answer that shifts the full burden of responsibility to the one receiving the advice. This is the case in the example I provided above, in which the teacher, in a very subtle, devious way, tasks the test-taker with finding the answer. This response from the teacher chides and befuddles the test-taker more than it helps. If such is the case, one is better off not seeking the advice in the first place.

Finally, I take offense with the assertion implicit in the phrase “vote your conscience.” I find it quite condescending, actually. Never is the question asked “what if your conscience is wrong?” In real life, people make informed decisions based on the facts available and the options presented to them. Many of us are misled in good faith. Plenty of us have regretted occasions when we have acted purely on our gut instincts. Human beings are Homo sapiens, “wise men,” beings of sapience and sentience that act not just in good conscience but with good reason.

I completely understand why some people are quick to tell others to vote their conscience. It is, in less-offensive terms, another way of saying “make up your own mind.” It upholds the delusion that voting is the only decision one makes in which reason is subsidiary to conscience. It is in keeping with the false notion that elections are fair playgrounds where each player is equal in stature and each vote is equal in measure, while at the same time renouncing the unpleasant pennies-in-a-jar view of the voting process.

I find this advice particularly appalling when used to discolor the attitudes of our young voters who may already be estranged from the voting process. Young people are not unreasonable or foolish, they just need informed advice. And if we want to give our young citizens good advice, let’s not talk in abstractions by telling them offhandedly to “vote their conscience.”

All Things Desired

Strive for love, virtue and placidity in a world of hatred, blindness and drudgery. This is the resonating message from Max Ehrmann’s inspirational poem, Desiderata, which helped shape my personal philosophy on love and desire. The poem underlines that we all desire certain things – be it fame, success or admiration. Yet we are kept in bounds by what I believe is a very conflicted and cynical world. Why are we so critical of dreamers? Why must we dilute hope? Why must we tell our children to dream freely only to then assert that dreams, wishes and wants are nothing more than mere flights of fancy?

Desiderata warns of a harsh world awash with pain, disenchantment and unfulfilled desires. We are encouraged to separate our wants from our needs. We are encouraged to find our place in this universe and fulfill that place obediently. We are encouraged to live a life without regrets, far removed from earthly vexations and tribulations. Although I came to know Desiderata’s words, I quickly realized that knowledge does not always equate to understanding. The attitude of resignation, a sort of passive resistance against the crushing pressures of the world, contained in Desiderata was quite radical to me at the time.

I know that what exists within this world is a cycle of wanton suffering; a system that is indescribable, indefinable and inevitable. No one desires suffering, but perhaps Desiderata is trying to explain that pain is necessary, and that only by the support of each other can we grow to overcome our personal troubles. Most have heard the common metaphor of walking in another’s shoes, that it is impossible to truly understand a person until you know his or her struggles. Growing up, I had my share of struggles and detested others for not understanding my pain. After hearing that expression, I opened up to the painful experiences of others: poverty, divorce, sickness, loss. I learned in time that I wasn’t the only person living in a world of pain. That realization, prompted by Desiderata’s words, strengthened my resolve, and I sought to understand others more deeply and overcome my own pain in the process.

It is very difficult to leave our personal prisons, but when we do we see that we are not alone. The idea that we bear sole responsibility for our successes and failings is a dangerous proposition. I uphold the belief that no man is alone in his struggles. “All men know something of poverty,” W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote. He went on to state that the true tragedy is that “men know so little of men.” I want those who are depressed and lonely and even those contemplating suicide to genuinely consider this truth: You are not alone. What you are experiencing is not unusual or atypical. You are alive not to suffer alone but to find comfort and acceptance by joining in the universal expression of suffering. As expressed beautifully by Ehrmann, “you have a right to be here.”

We desire to be accepted and be loved – human nature defines it. But it’s hard to see love’s true image and easy to seek fake companionship, false acceptance and selfish lust masquerading as love. We are quick in taking illusions, painting them in our image, and labeling them as love. But that fake love is exclusive, and I only was to see those confined to the cold gloom of hospitals, prisons and slums. The unloved. Our desire to experience true love may ultimately be the sum of all desires. Love is the lifelong hankering which the other desires cannot placate or can only satisfy for brief stretches of time. Success, fame, beauty, admiration and the myriad of other desires serve their purpose in attempting to bring us closer to the true image of love.

One of my favorite biblical passages describes how love is patient and kind. Love is not envious and keeps no record of wrongs. One summer camp experience reinforced my faith in the tremendous human capacity for love and compassion. As a teen, I spent one summer at a lakeside camp in New York with adolescents who, like me, have been diagnosed since birth with mortal illnesses. The camp’s counselors and other supervisors were caring to say the least. I saw them talk to terminal young people – not about the pain that society says they are cursed to be born with, but about their hopes and dreams for the future. These counselors were just ordinary men and women with problems of their own, but who brought light to the blind and hope to the desperate. It is not enough to just be there for the one you love but to be there with them. I am sure that every child who left that camp felt blessed to experience love in its truest sense – not the disillusioned world of false love.

I find it difficult to keep peace in the noisy confusion of life. I still get anxious and weary in the face of adversity, but Desiderata’s words continue to be a source of inspiration and guidance. The world is at times hostile to dreamers, leaving them disarmed, disenchanted, disheartened and discouraged. The coming of age brings with it pain, doubt and the “sham” of lost love as we know it. I desire to dream even when I am rudely awakened by life’s unpredictable turmoil. I desire to learn from past mistakes while continuing the precarious undertaking of balancing my desires and needs.

The Image of Love

The Image of Love
Poetry and other reflections by Thorne McFarlane

In the gallery of memoirs, lies the image of love,
Redeeming with the grace and power from above,
In pursuit of humbler things, of all things desired,
In pursuit of invisible blessings are to be admired,
A quiet home, gentle aspirations, the muse of life,
The unbreakable bond between husband and wife,
The darkest of storms always bring the purest light,
Just one ounce of sunshine can sprout seeds of hope,
And the climbing joys overcome the downhill slope,
I see the stars in your eyes, the portrait now painted,
The picture wasn’t at all perfect, but we still made it.

Love is a bridge. If we can build and link both sides together, only then can we rise above the rough waters. If we disconnect and go headstrong, we will surely plummet.

Love is not judging,
It does not take advantage,
It is not faithless.
It does not forsake commitment.

Love is a temporary shelter. It keeps an opened entrance, but also allows an opened exit. If you can’t let love in or let it find its path out of your life, then you won’t have love.

Love is not selfish,
It is not jealous,
It is not pretentious,
It does not take,
It does not expect in return.

Love is an amazing force of human nature. Of all the things on this earth which should matter the most to any person, it is love. Nothing else brings reason to life, essence to humble souls, and redemption to all things. Nothing else is as universal as the image of love. Love is the cure for pain and the answer to injustice. It is timeless each moment and momentous each time. Cherish every moment of love. Don’t let anything obstruct something as precious and prized as the jewel of love.