July 29, 2020

John Denver’s 1977 Letter to Me

I’ll never forget John Denver’s reply to my letter.  I was an innocent kid and I'd asked him if the rumors were true that he used illegal drugs (marijuana).

He replied, “don’t let what you think about me get in the way of the value the music has for you.” At the time I thought it a cop-out, a non-answer, but I appreciate it anew all the time now and see the wisdom of it.

And his thoughts are certainly “contra the times” nowadays during our cancel culture, where professors, writers, public figures (and 15th century explorers) are deemed unworthy because of past bad deeds or thoughts.

Denver might’ve been my first experience of disappointment with a figure I esteemed but hardly the last. Now everybody and their brother has disappointed me: the U.S. voters, the FBI, CDC, Ireland, early Catholic bloggers who left the Faith, B. MacFarlane Jr., Cardinal McCarrick, Eric Gill, Herman Melville, Pope Francis (a very truncated list).

Part of it is that when I was a kid I had a disproportionate respect for adults, thinking them marvels of competency and goodness (at least compared to kids). I had a much more benign view of human nature back then before the disappointments. It’s not that I hadn’t learned much history, although I certainly could’ve learned a lot more, but I somehow felt that the era I lived in was different. I think it’s similar to how people who participate in a booming stock market feel "this time is different” even though all the indicators say the market should fall as it had in the past under similar conditions.

I felt it also because I’d come to political and religious awareness under the gauzy time of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. I read about the Medici popes but JP2 was not them, not even close, nor could the cardinal electors have been of the same quality to have elected JP2. I saw Communism fall, the Evil Empire gone. I saw the Reds win back-to-back World Series’s. I saw no U.S. wars or draft between 1975 and 1990. I could perhaps be forgiven for thinking I was living in a time when the era of “bad history” was gone.

But history comes back with a vengeance as does human nature. I knew intellectually that human nature doesn’t change and that people don’t get better with progress, but just didn’t have quite enough experience with it to bring it home.

Then came 9/11. And Bush’s wars. And Barack Obama. And the sudden conviction that half of cardinals are gay and that the gay mafia runs the Church. And that Pope Francis was coming to Make Catholicism Protestant Again (like in the early ‘70s). And of course the whole sordid tale of greed, sex, and corruption in the Church was beyond dispiriting.

But John Denver’s comment has stood the test of time. The value of the Catholic Church lay not in her hierarchy! “Don’t let the message of the gospel be lost by the actions of her members,” he might’ve said. Don’t let the appreciation of great books be lost if the writer was a horrible individual in his/her private life. Don’t let the value we feel for any artist be lost by the worst part of themselves. Don’t let the value we ought feel for our neighbor be lost by the positions they take or their actions. Easy to say, hard to do. Especially for an INSJ’r.

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