Chicago heals what ails us

In the 2022-2023 year, it seemed that just about everyone with a pulse was buzzing about the show, ‘The Bear’, on Hulu.

Reviews also abounded, with headlines like, ‘The Bear’ is one of the most stressful things on TV right now. It’s also great (Rolling Stone, July 7, 2022) and ‘The Bear’ Episode 7 Delivers ‘Uncut Gems’ Levels of Anxiety (Decider, July 13, 2022).

With the amount of tension and anxiety in the world these days, this did not sound like enlivening watching.

But with the highly anticipated drop of Season 2 this July, the beautifully poignant and insightful opinion piece by David French in The New York Times, ‘The Bear’ and the Need for a Place to Belong’, changed my mind and convinced me to watch.

I had just seen the actor, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, in No Hard Feelings, so I was intrigued to learn of his character, Richie, in ‘The Bear’. As a natural bridge-builder who lives the practice of sacred salutation to all lives, the current cultural and societal landscape in the U.S. and around the world causes me deep existential dissonance. I know from lived experience that all lives are trekking a trek that challenges us in the making of meaning and the crafting of our stories. I tend to empathy, which demands humility, openness, understanding, listening and a recognition that all lives are striving to be, and the transactional nature of the physical world - which exists in hyperdrive in the United States - can make that exceedingly difficult.

Enter Richie and ‘The Bear’: a story of healing, love, the power of place, the transcending of generational distress, and the forging of family that envelopes and extends beyond blood. But even deeper than that, I experienced it as a story of SACRED SALUTATION. David French’s intention and wake-up call to The New York Times demographic in the telling of Richie’s story is made clear in the biographical note at the end of the piece that he is the author of Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.

Richie is, indeed, one of the most irritating, aggravating, obnoxious, stress-inducing, loud and bombastic characters you will ever meet. After an exchange of exquisitely awful misogyny towards, Syd, a young and competent staffer at the iconic neighborhood Chicago sandwich shop that protagonist (and often antagonist), Carmy, has inherited from his brother, Richie turns on a dime to deliver one of the most tender, poignant, heart-wrenching moments in the series when he comforts his young daughter on the phone. Richie proves over and over again to be a walking, ranting, yelling, punching, provocative ball of contradiction.

It’s hard to discuss Richie’s arc without spoilers, but it comes as no surprise that Richie, along with all the other characters, is in deep pain. The whole Bear family is shouldering the weight of grief in different forms and in different ways. This sounds like a downer-fest to be avoided for the tenderized of heart, pummeled by the miseries of division that have overtly roared into our cultural zeitgeist since around 2015. But the show is truly one of the most beautiful, spot-on salutations of our broken-hearted condition, with a deep empathy for the men of our world whose search for meaning in shifting demographic, social and economic sands never seems easy. Have many of us really stopped as human beings in these last bubbled years to consider the impacts of the nonstop assault on all demographics these days? This doesn’t mean releasing any group from the responsibilities that they have engendered; nor does it mean universalizing or dismissing hundreds of years of horrible cruelty. But the willingness to put ourselves in others’ shoes - the effort to understand any and all people - is not something that should be lost. When it is, we see the world we have today. And shows like ‘The Bear’ become almost excruciatingly unbearable in their tenderness because such tenderness seems all but absent in our world and has become weaponized.

Even with the convincing of David French’s piece, after watching the first two episodes of ‘The Bear’, I thought I would have to leave it there. I don’t typically volunteer to be bombarded by live-wire, white-hot tension. But something caused me to persist, and I’m so glad I did. Since I had not watched the show when it dropped last summer, I got the chance to fully inhabit its world straight through all 18 episodes of the show. Season 2, Episode 6 is torture. And Episode 7 is transcendent, and from that point on, Richie is a revelation.

If we find ourselves rooting for Richie by the end of season 2, then we cannot release ourselves from the empathy of understanding why January 6 happened - without ignoring or downplaying all the horrific things it enacted and revealed. If we find the arcs of transformation in ‘The Bear’ and our responses to them believable, perhaps we have a glimmer of a capacity to recognize that much awfulness sources from pain, loss, confusion, fear. As French notes in his piece, “There are millions upon millions of Richies in these United States.”

I do not believe that any one person’s or group’s experience of pain, loss, confusion or fear is less or more than another’s. These very human emotions and experiences are universal in their workings, while diverse in their expressions and the scale of their impacts. Saluting this universality while acknowledging the very real imbalanced scales of impact is an act of living in Sacred Salutation. As French goes on to say in citing a passage from the Christian tradition,

“‘A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.’ Richie is the very definition of a bruised reed, and as is so often the case, his bruises don’t manifest themselves in attractive ways. It’s easy to love someone who presents as vulnerable. It’s harder to love those who manifest their pain with rage and snarls… We see the rage but we miss the pain.”

Chicago is a place that sees the rage and the pain with its practical, grounded, underdog, upstart, “every-person” kind of history and reputation. Carmy IS Chicago in some ways, haunted by chasing after the approval of his charismatic, popular older brother, who could be said to play the role of New York City. Since 2012, I have come to know Chicago deeply, and I’m so glad I do in the watching of ‘The Bear’. In some ways, I can’t imagine watching it without knowing Chicago, but one of the show’s great masteries is that it completely communicates the essence and vibe of Chicago with its exquisite vignettes of quiet city moments. Chicago is as much a character in ‘The Bear’ as all the others; I really don’t think it could have been set anywhere else.

Because of Chicago’s nature and roots as a city, it has the capacity to heal what ails us. It surely does have its problems like any city, which are over-reported in the media without the fair balancing of all the extraordinary things that positively distinguishes it from other places, but the very nature of Chicago’s problems is actually a pointer to its unique strengths, high energies it’s stewarding and promising future. The stew of ‘The Bear’s’ characters - all the way to the battle-crazed cosplay videogame players and warring shady sidewalk men who are convinced to stand down by diminutive, female, Black Syd with the promise of sandwiches and soda pops - is totally Chicago. Resourceful, bold, humble enough to self-doubt even in the midst of demonstrable skill, able to hold the space for the Richies - and the Donnas - of the world as fragmented puzzles on the way to becoming whole within its big shoulders of gruff humanism without fanfare or self-aggrandizement: This is the best of who we are, and who we can be, individually and as a society.

French leaves us with this food for thought, as lovingly dished as Syd’s inspired potato chip omelette tenderly prepared for exhausted Sugar:

“Episode by episode, [Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s] performance [as Richie] reveals both the nature of suffering and the simple human power of telling a person in pain - by deeds even more than by words - that he will not be left behind, that he has a place where he truly belongs.”