December 15, 2010


Last night I watched the film “My Fair Lady” and went to bed humming “I could have danced all night, I could have danced all night…”  As it turned out, I should have danced all night. It would have made more sense than to lie tossing and turning until 3 a.m. Nothing in my thoughts that day prepared me for a worrisome night and yet I found myself gripped by an anxiety that refused to allow me to sleep. I arose the next morning thinking not about Eliza Doolittle but about Harold Pinter and his play, “The Dumbwaiter.”

His story is about two killers who sit in a basement flat waiting for orders concerning their next victim. Suddenly a service elevator begins to send down requests for food which the men are unable to supply. Frantically, they search their suitcases for biscuits, bars of chocolate, potato chips… anything to fulfill the machine’s incessant demands. Finally, one of the killers steps to the speaker tube to explain they have no more food. Their apology ignored, the messages continue to harass.

The irony of Pinter’s play comes from the tension it builds, not because these men are murderers and are about to kill someone, but because they feel persecuted when they are flooded with demands they cannot fulfill and which come from an unknown source over which they have no control.

Sitting down to my oatmeal this morning, it occurred to me that life in the twenty-first century is riddled with this sort of angst. At any given moment, we can be impacted by events we cannot foresee and are not of our making. If Ireland falters on its debt, stocks on the New York exchange tumble. If hedge fund speculators hit upon a scheme to make money in the mortgage market, the value of my home may implode. If a pious man straps a bomb under his clothes and blows up a school, we are faced with the uncertainty of knowing whom we can trust.

As the world moves to a global economy, as natural resources shrink, as the Internet and jet travel facilitate confrontations between competing cultures, more and more people with ideas foreign to ours will  be found on the streets where we live. To be anxious is normal. It means we’re paying attention. But unlike Professor Higgins who thinks the world would be better if more of us were like him, he and we must learn to live with strangers who “aren’t.” It’s no use saying “all I want is a room somewhere.” We can’t escape this new, diverse society that is, at times, unsettling.