PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Thank God For Bernie

If you are on social media anywhere these days, it is impossible to miss. A photo of a single man, his face covered by a mask, but still clearly glowering underneath, sitting in a fold-up chair, bundled up in a warm coat and wearing glorious mittens, photoshopped into a myriad of odd locations.

The Bernie meme.

This picture of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, taken this past week as he sat in the cold Washington, D.C., wind prior to inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, probably appears pretty normal to New Englanders and people from the Northern Plains. He looks like a smart guy bundled up to keep warm. In fact, he bore a striking resemblance to some of the folks who came to outdoor worship this past November at Emanuel in Hartford, Conn.

However, given the sartorial resplendence of the rest of the attendees, dressed to the nines for the event, he stood in stark contrast. Practical to the very core of his being, Bernie showed up dressed for the weather not the event. He even had a manilla envelope in his hand, like he was on his way to the post office after he got done with this thing.

This was the birth of a thousand memes, as people stuck this photo of Bernie in a hundred odd locations, from him in the window, blowing by with Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” looking out as the tornado hits; to Bernie sitting in the Iron Throne from the “Game of Thrones”; to Bernie as one of the grumpy old men Muppets in the Balcony; to Bernie in pretty much every pop culture reference from the past 60 years. Some go even further back — one of my favorites is a bemittened hand reaching out to touch the hand of Adam in a remake of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

One of the things I have noticed as I see the Bernie memes, which I admit to trying to spot in every photo that comes across my Facebook feed, is that they are being shared with joyous abandon by people of all political stripes as well as those who completely eschew politics. I have  seen posts by friends who believe that Bernie’s social democratic stripes are anathema to their view of America to friends who have been “feeling the Bern” for years to friends who would rather implode than post anything political.

Even Sanders himself has gotten into the act. I saw some people feared that he might think he was being laughed at, but Bernie is a practical New Englander to the core, one who cared more about being warm than making a fashion statement. What we saw was who he was. So he took the photo, put it on a sweatshirt and sold it, giving all the profits to Vermont’s Meals on Wheels, while advertising whenever he was asked, the quality of Vermont made coats and mittens. I hear there are socks now, too. I may have to look into that.

As I have witnessed this Bernie meme mania over the past week, I have been pondering why it has taken hold the way it has, across boundaries, cultures and politics. In a nation that is seemingly divided by everything, we have become united in a common belief that (almost) everyone loves a good Bernie meme.

I think one reason is that it is helping so many of us who want to find places to unite in the midst of such fierce division, with a shared laugh. The key to finding unity in a divided nation is seeking out common values and things that draw us together. In doing that, we can embrace the other person’s humanity even if we have fierce policy disagreements.

But beyond that, I think it is helping us find a sense of community.  Let’s face it, the past year has been isolating and lonely. We feel separated from one another. Sure, we can Zoom with loved ones, or talk on the phone. And during the summer, we had a chance to gather outside when the weather was warm. But now that it is winter, that is even harder. And we feel more cut off from one another. Most of us just want a good hug.

In Genesis, in the creation story where God is creating Adam and Eve, after Adam is formed out of dust, God says, “It is not good that this man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18) God knows that we were created to be in community.

I heard a story on NPR this morning about how death by suicide and by drug overdose have increased during the pandemic, and one of the key reasons is because of the sense of isolation people are feeling and the lack of coping mechanism with which to deal with it. People are literally dying of loneliness.

In the middle of this great separation, we need to be intentional about finding places where we can experience what we are lacking. Rather than being drawn into the divisions that play out on the media, we are looking for a place where we can share a laugh. And that is where what the Bernie memes have become: a shared laugh across the great divide, caused by pandemic and partisanship.

We are moving forward in a positive way now with the pandemic — there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, and I am relatively sure it isn’t an oncoming train. More and more people are being vaccinated and there is a sense of hope ahead.

But all of us who live in the northern climate know that some of the hardest days of winter are the ones when you know spring is near but the snow just keeps falling. So I think we have to be more conscious than ever about finding those moments when we can celebrate a shared laugh, a joke, a source of joy that seeks to celebrate life.

There is a holiness in humor that doesn’t tear people down but rather looks at the absurdity of life and finds some joy. So as we near the “end of these days,” I am going to work hard on finding ways to laugh with others, whether it is a new  Bernie meme, a light-hearted joke or a good pun, and try to find ways to celebrate the fact that a sense of humor can help us as much as our other senses to weather the storm and keep the faith.

I think that this paraphrase of Isaiah 11 may be just the reminder we need as we seek to find community in the midst of isolation and unity in a time of division. Please note the source.

“The leopard will lie down with the goats … and a picture of Bernie in glorious mittens shall lead them.”  2 Opinions 11:6


O God who created laughter, help us to celebrate the joys of life by finding ways to not take ourselves too seriously. Allow us to seek out paths that spread joy and feel the community that is created when we rejoice in the gift of humor that lifts us up and draws us together as we deal with our foibles and find your grace. In the name of your Son, who spread joy, we pray. Amen.

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