The following one-act play is based on an actual exchange of text messages that occurred between three politically like-minded brothers on election night of 2022.
Kevin (65): The Pathologist-in-Chief at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Professor and Chair of the Columbia University Department of Pathology and Cell Biology. On the verge of retirement, he is the oldest, most cosmopolitan, and wisest of the Roth siblings. He fought on the frontline of NYC’s battle with Covid-19.
J (57): A longtime elementary school administrator, author, professor of education, and educational consultant. He is the youngest of the trio and the most kind and gentle-hearted.
Ty (60): A literature and composition teacher. He’s a contrarian, highly self-critical, and an inveterate over-thinker.
Three separate sets are arranged on the stage and separated by dividers.
Stage left: Kevin sits on a couch in the living room of an Upper-East Side apartment with a glass of red wine nearby, a sporting event plays on his massive television screen, but it is muted as a Warren Zevon playlist emanates from Bose speakers. With his cell phone in hand, he texts a message and initiates the “conversation.” He has always been an instigator, who loves to “stir the pot.“
Stage right: J sits on the balcony of his downtown Tampa, Florida, apartment overlooking the city and nestling a bottle of some local brewery’s IPA with some “clever-by-half” name. The sound of election night coverage emanates from inside. His phone rests on his lap from which he has been watching a hockey game.
Center stage:Ty lies on his back reading, but apparently not-so-much enjoying, the latest “must read” literary novel. His cell phone is on an end table behind his head. Every few sentences, its siren voice calls to him. He happily sets aside his novel, surrenders to the temptation, and reaches to check Twitter for another blast of affirmation for his left-leaning world view. A bag of chips and a diet pop, not “soda” (He is in Ohio.) rest on a coffee table between him and his large, but not too large, television. He clearly, but insincerely, takes pride in his television’s relatively small proportion as a sign that he is a man of more refined tastes and activities than those found on the boob tube.
It’s late on an autumn election night. Simultaneously, Ty’s and J’s cell phones ding. Like well-conditioned Pavlov’s dogs, they immediately reach for their respective phones and read the message.
So begins a text exchange that scrolls on a large screen over the characters’ heads and is fully visible to the audience.
Kevin: A random thought. The more I learn, the less I know.
J: So true.
Ty: “True knowledge exists knowing you know nothing” – Socrates
Moments pass as Kevin rolls his eyes over Ty’s pedantic reply, while J pensively contemplates the quotation from Socrates, and Ty desperately tries to remain focused on the book he holds and avoid reaching for the remote and turning on MSNBC for the latest election results.
Kevin: The corollary is the less I learn, the more I think I know.
Ty: Your “random thought,” Kevin, led me to think about the following lyric from Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter”: “The more I know, the less I understand. All the things I though I knew, I’m learning again. I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter, but I think it’s about forgiveness.”
Kevin: Thanks for sharing the lyrics. I think the “order” is learn<understand<know<believe (as in faith)> I guess I’m mostly in the learning phase of my life, perhaps sometimes in the understand, rarely in the know, and almost never in believe territory.
J: Even getting to the “learn” stage was a long path for me. It was about twenty-seven years until I realized the importance of learning and trying to understand. Understanding is the most difficult and complex part for me. Just trying to understand is perplexing many times. Go Blue! [They are all Michigan fans.]
Ty: Not sure anyone who is honest and thinks for themselves ever graduates from the learning stage. The most life-changing realization for me occurred when I heard Henley’s line about forgiveness. I think I’d already unconsciously internalized it from observing Mom, but I didn’t fully realize its importance until I heard Henley sing it. Oftentimes, it’s just being willing to forgive myself for my own stupidity or poor choices. I have to say, for better or worse, I’ve become quite nihilistic but not pessimistic regarding belief. As Adam Duritz sings in “Mr. Jones,” “I don’t believe in anything. And I want to be someone to believe.” Too many people and too many of the so called “public servants,” elected officials, and religious institutions I was taught to believe in have disappointed me and/or proven themselves unworthy of my belief in them. Anyway, these days I’m trying to find meaning, purpose, and validation in the existential choices I get to make rather than those made for me from top down, prescriptive sources.
J: I am finally learning that forgiving is a 2-way street and that I often wanted to be forgiven but was not willing to forgive others or myself. I have to stop being so stubborn on that one.
Ty succumbs to temptation and turns on the election coverage.
J: So, which state is more ass backwards? Ohio or or Florida?
Ty: Ohio is the Mississippi of the North.
Kevin: In contrast, I will soon be moving from royal blue NY State to navy blue California. I’m just thankful that the “red wave” became a little ripple. I’m headed to bed! Good night.
Kevin exits stage left.
J: Me too. Good night, brother.
J exits stage right.
Alone on the stage, Ty rises from the couch and walks to the center front of the stage and speaks directly to the audience.
Ty: I need to apologize for that stupid “Ohio is Mississippi” comment I texted a few moments ago. That came from a place of anger, judgment, and arrogance. Sadly, I’m often guilty of all three. If we are ever to, once again, strive to be a “more perfect union,” it will only happen if we, as a currently widely-divided people, consciously choose to follow Kevin’s chain of learning about<knowing<understanding<and believing in one another and only if we choose to accept that, unless we forgive and move past our mutual disdain for one another that we’ve allowed to fester over the past few years, we will forever be engaged in a cold civil war between red and blue. Somewhere along the way, we allowed ourselves to be convinced that we were our own worst enemies, and we turned on ourselves. Somewhere along the way, we removed civility from public discourse. Somewhere along the way, we learned to enjoy gloating over our political rivals’ failures more than basking in our shared victories as Americans.
As I mentioned earlier in a text, I want to be “someone who believes” in America and the principles of a liberal democracy for which it once stood, when “liberal” was not considered a pejorative term by those on the right. It’s the system of governance we once exported to the rest of the world that we have turned our own backs to.
Anyway, I’m convinced that Don Henley and J were correct: healing begins with forgiveness.