Monday, December 15, 2014

Skin Like Iron

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.  The Lord said to Satan, where have you come from?
Satan answered the Lord, From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.
-Job 1:6-7

For some of us the road is more important than anything.

More important than money. More important than careers. And as guilty as we feel about it when we lay awake at night--more important to the people who are nearest and dearest to us.

"Have you considered My servant Job?" the Lord asks, and we think: Job? Who gives a shit about Job? What is there to consider about some faithful, well-to-do family man?

Take your Job and shove it, man. What can a Person of the Road learn from somesome citizen. I want to know what Satan saw going back and forth.

I want to roam around too.

Our road can be literal--wrestling, comedy, or music. It can also be a metaphorical road such as the pursuit of truth, science, or the secrets in our own heart.

Either way, we cant not follow it.

But there is, as with all things, a price to be paid.

The road forces you to face yourself, and thats a hard thing. Not just a thing thats hard, but a thing that hardens.

Townes Van Zandts Pancho & Lefty is a song about cowboys, courage, death, life, and regret. But its also a song about the road, the choice to follow where it leads, and paying the price.

Heres the story: Pancho and Lefty are presumably bandits who terrorized the Mexican countryside in spite of the attempts of the hapless Federales to bring them to justice. Eventually, they catch up to and hang Pancho while Lefty flees to Ohio. It is strongly implied that the only reason for Panchos defeat was that Lefty betrayed him to the Federales, likely because he was bribed (*).

In any case, we have a few characters in our story.

Pancho, the man who fought.

Lefty, the one who fled.

And the Federales, who didnt do anything at all.

The song contrasts Pancho and Lefty, but for me, the real contrast is between the two protagonists and the Federales. While the two men made different choices and reaped different consequences, both of them made choices.

The Federalesnot so much.

The Federales claim credit for successes and rationalize failure, but they never take action. They defeat Pancho through Leftys actions, not their own. The only things the Federales do in the song is talk about what they could have done:  We could have caught Pancho anytime we wanted. We let Lefty goout of kindness.

And for what? The song starts out talking about All the Federales but by the last chorus there are only A few grey Federales left.  Their bold talk, their self-righteousness, their caution, their lack of action gains them nothing.  They are as subject to death and aging as Pancho and Lefty. The only difference is unlike the songs protagonists, they remain nameless and faceless, greying and dying while talking about things they could have done.

Pancho chooses the road and dies on it. Lefty starts along the road and turns back. The Federales refuse to step on the road at all. And as a result, from the beginning of the song to the end, they never change

It would be easy to judge them for it.

But as we learn from Pancho and Leftys respective fates, choosing the road is no guarantee of successful travels. Like Pancho, we can strive fully and still fail, with no one to listen to or care about the things we most want to communicate. Like Lefty, we can quit and bury everything we once strived for and spend the rest of our new lives frozen with regret and wondering about what could have been.

We romanticize the road. As the unnamed narrator cautions us in the first verse, we think it will keep us free and clean. Whatever our dream, we believe we can sink into it and it will keep us from harm, that the righteous armour of our commitment to a cause  is the only protection we need.

We find out this is not the case. We learn things about the world, about others, about ourselves that we might not have wished to discover. We find failure, rejection and disappointment. We experience betrayal, sometimes at the hands of others, sometimes due to our own shortcomings, insecurities, or expectations. Our victories dont bring us the things we expect; instead of an end to the road, we find it now stretches out further than we ever dreamed. Sometimes instead of a clear path, the road becomes murky and hard to follow or expands into a labyrinth.

As a result, we harden ourselves. We find ourselves wearing our skin like iron. We will not let what weve seen, what weve felt, what weve learned hurt us again.

But in doing so, we becoming something other than what we were. Its never talked about in the song, but I wonder if on the morning of the Day of the Dust, Pancho or Lefty ever looked in the mirror and wondered what had happened to them, how the pursuit of what they loved had turned them into something they no longer recognized.

Something to mull over.

I started this post talking about Job (**). Hes an interesting case. He never wanted to be on the road. But the road found him anyway. God brought it to him.

That sometimes happens. None of us are safe. Some of us choose the road, but sometimes--through tragedy, adversity, or the unexpected--the road chooses us.

(*)Not everyone agrees with that assessment. At least one writer points out that there is no textual evidence in the lyrics that Pancho and Lefty EVER EVEN MET EACH OTHER. Which is mind-blowing and textually true, but still feels like a reach to me.

(**) Which is weird, because spiritually speaking, the Book of Job doesn't do much for me. I'm an Ecclesiastes man to the bone.

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