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In days of old, sailors navigated their courses across the vast expanse of the open seas by fixing on the North Star.
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In days of old, sailors navigated their courses across the vast expanse of the open seas by fixing on the North Star. That serves as an excellent metaphor as we navigate across the oft-times turbulent waters of our lives and are confronted by challenges about which course to follow.
In “Moral Clarity at High Noon,” I explored how Marshal Will Kane was able to act nobly and with conviction once the fog that initially engulfed him lifted. Kane had a critical asset working in his favor: He was a mature, sophisticated adult.
We don’t know much of Kane’s past, only that he brought law and order to the town in large part by taking on the most notorious of the town’s criminal element. Outside that, we’re left to conjecture about his past and how he developed a high sense of moral clarity, a virtue found wanting in the town’s morally bankrupt citizens.
We can only speculate about his past, but it is likely he floundered his way through his maturation process to reach the level he had. Thus, when he faced the ultimate test, Kane was able to right himself relatively quickly after being knocked off-kilter.
Coming-of-age teens and young 20-somethings, who are relatively bereft of conditioning life experiences, don’t have the mettle Kane had. They must go through the proverbial school of hard knocks. During that developmental stage of life, they are constantly challenged to remain true to what they intuitively know is right.
That is what young adulthood largely entails: moral maturation. Education is not only about figuring out which career path to follow; it is also about defining their moral universe. Which path to follow?
The biblical myth of the three temptations Jesus faced serves as good model. In them, Jesus is tempted to turn stone into bread to relieve his hunger, jump from a high point to see if angels would catch him before he plummeted into the earth and worship Satan who would ensure that he would enjoy great power and riches. (A hidden gem of a parable for materialistic capitalism in the last one.)
In his delightful, but thoughtful coming-of-age novel “Lawn Boy,” Jonathan Evison follows that three-temptation pattern through his protagonist, 22-year-old Mike Muñoz. Mike had nothing but crap piled on his plate through his formative years, beginning when he was five and his low-life father broke his heart and shattered his dream of an adventure in Disneyland. That experience became etched into his psyche and came to symbolize his sense of unworthiness. It also came to symbolize the unattainable.
His was only to dream, not to have.
Mike has an older, super-overweight, mentally disabled brother he becomes big brother to after their father abandoned them. Compounding it, Mike struggles with his identity in multiple ways including his ethnicity. While he becomes close to an older migrant worker from Mexico who serves as a mentor of sorts, Mike refuses to be called by his Latino name, Miguel.
Mike has a skillset that shows his artistic nature: He’s a topiarist. He can shape and mold hedges and shrubs into animal-like forms. Jobs like that, though, are low-paid and unappreciated. He is offered and accepts several positions only to find himself in each experience facing a moral qualm: Compromise his integrity and cheapen his soul or remain true to his moral North Star and live nobly even if it means living in near destitution.
By remaining fixed on his moral North Star, Mike joins Marshal Kane. Both know right from wrong and refuse to weasel their way out of morally and ethically challenging situations.
It is for that reason “Lawn Boy” has landed on banned book lists. It is not because of Mike’s moral turpitude. In fact, it is very much the opposite, for all his earthy language, Mike models for coming-of-agers how to maintain personal integrity and accept the truth of their being. It is by holding true to what young people know in their hearts is good and right. And that scares the bejesus out of book banners exuding the rarefied air of moral superiority.
Jerry Fabyanic is the author of “Sisyphus Wins” and “Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit.” He lives in Georgetown.
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