Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues tells a story of young army recruits going through basic training at a boot camp in Mississippi during World War II.
It was the character named Epstein who most drew the attention of my heart as he demonstrated dignity and compassion despite being picked on by his sergeant and fellow recruits, mainly because he is Jewish and philosophical in his approach to life.
When the play open, Epstein appears to be a young man with a weak constitution. “Diagnosed with a nervous stomach,” he says, with a doctor’s report to prove it.
Yet, scrawny private Epstein stands strong and tall, again and again, throughout the play.
“I just don’t think it’s necessary to dehumanize a man in order to get him to perform,” he tells Sergeant Toomey. “You can get better results raising our spirits than lowering our dignity.”
In a scene near the end of the play, Sergeant Toomey, drunk and with a .45 pistol in his hand, attempts again to humiliate and subjugate Epstein. After relaying how his father taught him obedience and discipline with the help of a belt, Toomey asks Epstein, “What did your father teach you?”
“Dignity and compassion,” Epstein answers.
The young recruit Epstein is not naive, weak, or unrealistic about life, as he is sometimes judged because of his seemingly soft values and ideals. When a bunk mate imagines a day with no problems, Epstein replies that “A day without problems would be over by a.m.”
As this day ends, I find myself hopeful and hoping: May we learn to face each challenge with dignity and compassion and nurture these inborn gifts within all children.
I wonder where and how we might observe and experience The Twelve Gifts tomorrow.