Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

At least once a week he runs several times around the full perimeter of our local neighborhood park. And he’s always carrying that damn Confederate flag. That and then the white beard, white T-shirt and slow, deliberate running gait are always easily recognizable.

Today I saw him there again as I was driving the kids to school — and then again on my way home.

On the way home, the man in the Lexus SUV in front of me was another school parent who happened to be black. Before getting in our cars, he and I and another parent had just finished talking about the sorts of things over-educated, solidly middle-class parents of elementary school-aged children talk about on a Friday morning after morning assembly, when the temptation to linger and chat is rewarded. His license plate read “University of North Carolina,” and there was a judicial court sticker to the right of the rear windshield.

What is he thinking and feeling when he sees that flag?, as we drive by. It has to sting: a visceral pang. I’ll ask him next time I see him.

One day I had rolled down my window and feigning some polite cluelessness asked the man about the flag and why he was carrying it.

“States’ rights,” he said without blinking as he kept on running. “The war isn’t over.”

The line sounded like one he had probably rehearsed many times before. I guess maybe he wanted me to roll down my window and ask…

And yet the American Civil War was over. Most people accepted that fact — even if some still argued about the war’s cause. They, too, were outliers.

Once when our car was parked at a light and the man with the flag was running by, my husband had been less polite: he had angrily yelled something along the same lines — about how the war was long over and it was time to get over it.

This time the man with the flag kept right on going. He seemed not to hear.

Some things you literally have to take in stride, I guess.

And there are so many things that one can live for in this life. Some of these things are worth living for. Others are lost causes. Some things you just take in stride.

For so many reasons, I’d like to think I’m not like that man with the flag. (And yes, I’m not a self-professing white supremacist convinced that a war which ended in 1865 should be fought again in 2016 and its outcome any different.)

But when it comes to life, isn’t so much of what it means to be human about navigating loss — and about choosing what’s worth recovering and what isn’t? What’s loss counted as gain — and what’s not? What’s worth every fiber of inner resistance and what’s counted as “rubbish”? What’s a lost cause, and what really isn’t and never should be?

I suspect these questions are rarely as easy to answer as we sometimes assume they are…

“Pick your battles” goes the popular adage. It’s also a slice of popular wisdom that those in recovery from addiction and mental illness are familiar with. But picking one’s battles first requires being able to weed out lost causes. These aren’t always as viscerally clear as a Confederate flag bobbing around the park.