19 December 2009

Surviving (this version of) America

Next fall will mark the 10-year anniversary of a still-popular "reality" TV series. And 10 months into the reign of our ostensible Deliverer, America remains, I believe, very much a "Survivor" society. Just think of it: we still haven't figured out how to treat each other on a desert island! That is, you and I may work together decently enough (for the time being) to ensure that somebody else's loss is our eventual gain. But in the final count - and I'm told this happens in offices and boardrooms no less than on TV shows - my gain must require some substantial and irrecoverable loss on your part. At the same time, apparently it's not enough that so many of us should find ourselves living the drama five or more days a week; it must also be ours for the viewing. Having both given and received our own quota of stress and humiliation for the day, we must now sit down to relax and enjoy somebody else's.

So. And meanwhile, this is also the Nation - I'm told - whose big banks and Federal Government are suddenly going to listen to the needs not just of large, but of medium- and small-sized businesses. And whose medium- and small-business owners are suddenly going to listen to the needs, not just of their technical and corporate, but of their human components and clientele. Or at least enough to engineer some semblance of a long-term recovery. But how, pray tell?

One more question. Is this the society whose random passers-by are somehow going to wrench ears and eyes away from cell phones and BlackBerries, or at least long enough to re-discover (try not to laugh too hard) each other? Whose everyday folks-you-meet-on-the-street are suddenly going to re-learn how to recognize, and accept, each other's common humanity - each other's residual creaturely goodness, if nothing else? Or at least enough to close ranks against an unprecedented enemy? An enemy, might I add, whose peculiar methods of keeping (his) God unoffended may demand - at any time, in any place - the slaughter of any number of innocent, defenseless men, women and children?

Somehow I don't think so. Those of us who've lived in the US for more than two generations have probably lived in several distinct Americas over the course of one lifetime. I can't say which if any of these previous versions of my country would have been up to the job of our present challenges. But definitely not this version. All evidence to date suggests our "Survivor" society constitutes neither an effective army nor an effective weapon in the real war - the ideological and spiritual war - against Holy Terror. Indeed, if anything, our present, ever-so-productive ways of looking and living past each other may yet prove the ultimate self-sabotage.

I get the feeling we don't know the first thing about survival either. Much less prosperity.

12 December 2009

Exploring the Rooms at the Top

I don't think I've ever heard of a joyful cynic, or a happy misanthrope. Not even one who was enviably rich and successful, and blessed with an uncanny eye for opportunity. And I'm sure I've never met anyone whose happiness - whose joy in living - did not include at least some capacity to enjoy other people, and other people's happiness. At least on some occasions. Why is that, I wonder?

Whatever the reason, may I share with you something I've been suspecting for quite a long time (albeit my manner of suggestion may be a mite too bold and categorical for some tastes)?

There is no human creature we meet in the flesh who is not an opportunity. The most randomly irrelevant individual we meet is a priceless invitation to gain Something hardly any of us seeks expressly or consciously - though there is not one of us who does not long for It in the quieted deeps of our souls, in a secret place, and language, whose music no human words could ever express. The sorriest human being you or I know, then, is much more than an opportunity to exercise patience, or even kindness. The most wretched excuse for man, woman or child you can think of is also an irreplaceable chance: - a golden opportunity, for both you and me, to invest, and grow, and prosper. But in what?

Not necessarily in anything material, though that too may come with time. But, for now, simply in that most exquisitely attentive and appreciative depth of Knowledge, that richly brocaded strand of Wealth, that modest, mostly unapplauded, yet utterly satisfying peak of Success we call love.

A Taste of our own Medicine

I suspect one of the reasons why it's so devilishly hard to "swallow our pride" is that it tastes so plain bloody awful. Then again, if we can barely stomach our own pride, imagine how it must taste to other people.

07 December 2009

A Toast (with belated apologies to Commodore Stephen Decatur)

To my country:
In her domestic and foreign policies may she be ever in the right.
But Right or Left, she is still my country.

30 October 2009

Missing the Undercurrent

A normally busy metropolitan interstate at the peak of rush hour is a place in which there are many things going on. But it is probably not the best place in which to discern the rather less obvious virtues and talents of your fellow-drivers.

In the same way, I imagine there are many people in this world who seem slow and stupid, for no other reason than because their gifts, talents, insights lie so much farther beneath the Surface - that heavy, dull, thudding, unresting, unrelenting interstate of life! - than most of us could ever fathom with even the best of human teachers. Or perhaps it is because these individuals' native wisdom (such as it may or may not be) is of a more diffuse and subtle, quietly sifting nature than is detectible by the rather heavier senses of the rest of us. Sometimes quiet things need Quiet in order to be raised - like the unassuming guest called unexpectedly to take her place at the Table's head - to their right pitch, and true volume. In this present wise Age a hard, callous, caustic disposition can often seem not only "practical" and necessary, but overwhelmingly impressive and even admirable. But how much does our admiration blind and deafen - and deaden - us to!

* * * * *

"You're absolutely ruthless, aren't you?" observes the sharp, glaring-bright woman in the Irish TV sitcom whose name I forget. "I like that in a man."

And then I consider what a happier, more discerning, more interesting place this world would be, if more people didn't.

24 October 2009

The Spawn II, III, IV etc

This Thing - what do you suppose it is? What is this most virtuously vicious, hateful, hideous thing that has entwined itself in the bowels, and now presumes to arrogate to itself the very soul, of modern Sunni Islam?

Well, if to know what a thing is, first and foremost, is to know where it came from, then I'd be lying if I told you I knew. What I will tell you, however, is something of which I'm all but certain. This Thing, whatever it is, did not get to where it is today all by itself. And while I can claim no expertise in the field of Islam's ancient and medieval varieties, I'm aware of nothing in the religion's history that offers any exact parallels to this latest modern craze, this if-necessary-all-must-die-so-that-God-may-live obsession. The closest I can get to it - maybe - is that particular mindset, not unknown during the Cold War, which underlay the phrase "Better dead than Red."

Nor do I know the whole story of how Saudi Arabia became the febrile spawning-ground for such an apocalyptic hatred, not only of all things Communist, but of most things Western, human, kindly, decent, etc. But I do know of a country which for at least three decades now has enjoyed, through its Saudi allies, a warm and many-faceted relationship with Wahhabi Islam. Of course one can't be sure the US was exactly present at the conception of this other, later, and to all appearances thoroughly modern monster known as Islamofascism. But I have no doubt America was both present and participant in the baby's delivery.

As I recall, the immediate pretext for the 1980s radicalization of Afghan Islam was the de-stabilization of the Soviet bloc; the long-term goal was the destruction of Russian Communism. The Soviets were godless, so presumably the Saudis and Pakis who hated them were proportionately godly. In any case, by now it must be clear religion isn't everything. On the contrary, we Yanks are of all fools the most miserable if we presume that Totalitarianism is clumsier today at wielding the sword of religion than it was 50 years ago brandishing the knife of atheism. There is nothing inherently anti-religious about the Totalitarian Beast. Think about it: If you truly believe it is not History or Progress or Freedom, but God Himself who is commanding you to kill or control somebody, does that make your coercive act thereby harder to execute, or easier? And will you do it with a worse conscience, or a better one?

But we Americans are twice-shamed fools if we suppose this Thing that crawled out of the AfPak border madrassas has no chance of landing on other religions' doorsteps - let alone slithering all the way inside. Remember, like any edition of Monopoly, Holy War in the Name of Global Dictatorship is a game not just for two, but three, four, maybe even five or six players. Sooner or later every major religion may want to get in on the stakes. And where will it all end, given the present direction and speed of our advance? Well, my own best hunch is that, by the time the smoke clears, the holy warriors will have got the Global Dictatorship part of it right. Whether it will be the result they all intended is another matter; though by then I doubt if it will matter what any of us intended. By then, I more than suspect, religious freedom as we presently know it will be a quaint piece of history. Mind you, I don't believe humankind will be by any means finished with religion per se; I only suggest that in the interests of global peace it may be deemed necessary to confine tolerance to just one form and object of worship, and one only. As to which lucky religion will draw the winning number I don't so much as care to speculate, because frankly (cf. Daniel 11: 37-38) I don't even think it exists yet.

23 October 2009

A Lowly Perfection

"Why are you standing here idle all day?"

So inquires the owner of the vineyard - Matthew 20: 6-7 - of the famous 11th-hour workers (whom very shortly he is going to pay the exact same wage as his full-timers). And their reply?

"Because no one has hired us."

I can't say I've had much experience of Nature, or Nature's God. But how like the God of the Bible is that vineyard-owner! How like One who is always making a big deal out of absolutely nothing. How annoyingly like Him, to take what is (based on all available evidence of past performance) hopelessly inert and unusable and unemployable, and not only glorify it needlessly, but make it actually useful, perhaps even - for its brief span of time - integral(?), to the whole operation.

But then every span of time is brief relative to the whole Operation; every beginning is a tiny rumor or whisper of shoreline relative to the Ocean of Time surging behind it. And no one, to my knowledge, has yet measured that ocean, either in depth or in surface area. But now suppose evolution should prove to be a Divine no less than a human truth. What late-comers to the vineyard will that make of us proud, wage-sensitive, indignant humans! Imagine a bunch of 10+ hour workers haggling over their time-cards with a Worker who has put in, at last count, something like eleven hundred quadrillion hours.

And yet what strange, to all appearances largely unproductive work He has been about. Think of all those megabillions of years of Universe in which not much of anything seemed to be happening - or happening so slowly that the pageant of Life by comparison seems no bigger than a single footnote in the Oxford English Dictionary. Again, how like this Biblical God - and how subtle, and humble, of Him - to make Mount Everests out of molehills. How like this God, to take the most unpromising, featureless, futureless rudiments of what we so patronizingly call "Nature," and from out of them, coax results of such exquisite, tapestried, unimaginable promise as even the creature Man is still known to be on occasion. It all makes no sense. One might as well make something from nothing; a keen, battle-hardened soldier out of a bumpkin who laps up stream-water like a horse from a trough; a missionary out of a streetwalker; a martyr from a tax-collector. Why would any self-respecting deity want to make himself look so ridiculous? Besides taking so bloody long getting on with it?

Then again, if we're going to say we believe God (and not just in Him, whatever that means), then perhaps we ought to consider the possibility, not only that He knows what He does, but that - even then - He knew what He was doing. No doubt He had His reasons. Just this once, do you suppose we might give Him the benefit of a doubt? Maybe, after all, there is nothing in "Nature" so idle, so adrift, so accidental, that it cannot be made purposeful. And maybe there is nothing truly natural - even in us, or in any living thing - that is so malfunctioning, nothing so genetically deranged and deformed and disfigured, that it cannot at some eleventh hour be made perfect. Though not necessarily by us humans, just yet. Or at least, not in our present state of derangement.

19 October 2009

The evil whose name we dare not speak

As I never tire of repeating, in today's Globally Enlightened World there is no shortage of fierce verbal political enmities. Really, it almost strains the imagination to think they could get any fiercer without guns going off. Yet somehow, in the past year or two, this same globe appears to have taken yet another of its astoundingly nimble turns, if not for the worse, then for the more incredible.

What seems to have emerged is two distinct, completely non-overlapping classes of political opponent. In other words, there are now two rigidly separate categories of people whom you and I politically don't like and don't trust. There is that first and more familiarly contemptible kind, towards whom no suspicion is too unfounded, no accusation too improbable, no epithet too extreme or exaggerated, no verbal weapon too damning, either in this life or in the next. No, nowadays we don't weigh our words any too carefully around our domestic political enemies - mainly (I suspect) because, when you get right down to it, we're really not all that afraid of what these folks might do to us. And then there's that other class of opponent, around whom we tiptoe with the utmost verbal delicacy, because basically we're more or less - well - terrified. And so it is that, eight years on, an ideology which manages to clothe the most hellish atrocities in the language of holiness and God goes tripping along its merry global way. And for the most part - notwithstanding all our fancy weapons and wars and espionages - nobody so much as says "Boo!" to it.

Then again, even supposing anyone had the courage to mutter that one syllable, when would we Americans find the time? Most of us are already too busy screaming "Bigot!" and "Blasphemer!" at each other.

Funny, though. I don't remember anyone being afraid to call Communism evil. At least not the Russian variety . . .

08 October 2009

Some Brisk Words for Busy Christians

There's just no mistaking it sometimes. There are times, I sincerely believe, when God desires a radical, wholesale, thoroughgoing change in the life of a particular human being other than you or me. And sometimes it is equally plain that God intends you to be the means or instrument of that change. And then there are other times when you're equally mistaken - whether as to the nature or degree of the change God intends, or in your notion that you are be its instrument.

We all make mistakes, even when we're absolutely right about something. Indeed, it is precisely then that the false impregnability of our position often leads us into the most grievous mistakes. That is why it is of the utmost importance, whenever you believe you're being called to be the means of massive change in somebody's life, that you see much more than the total wrongness of that individual. Much more important is that you try, and make up your mind, to see as much of the totality of that individual as God's Spirit permits. This is doubly true when your aim is to dislodge some entrenched and very likely deluded set of opinions. I don't care if the person for whom you're praying has just joined the Revolutionary Communist Party - or al Qaeda. There are always going to be more aspects of anyone than even you can possibly see at any one time. And possibly in any one lifetime. All the more reason for you to be open to, and willing to draw upon, any or all of these less visible or prominent aspects. And particularly if you plan to marshall for this glorious Project of Change not just your own best energies, but his or hers. In sum, if you want to do your part in making the whole man (or woman) happy, then you must make your appeal to the whole of him - and especially those parts of him that are most unhappy, and in all likelihood no less oppressed and miserable (under the yoke of his entrenched position) than you or I would be if we had to live with him.

Notice just now how I stressed the "totality of that individual as God's Spirit permits." But I'd like you to read that last proviso more as a window to see through than as a wall to be climbed over. For there is no room or suite of rooms in the entire house to which God's Spirit will not give you entry, provided you're willing to love. It is only as you love that you're able to see, as sympathetically and transparently as any human can - not just what it is to pray for, or preach to, or proselytize, or convert, or even give your life for - but what it is to be that creature, in all its folly and misery, in all its hope and glory. Nor need you worry how tightly a given door is bolted. There is no door into any human creature which Love cannot, eventually, open; no room into whose furthest recesses Love does not have abundant light to see, and see accurately. And, as often as not, even kindly.

Indeed there is no telling how many slumbering or otherwise buried rooms within each of us Love cannot resuscitate. And the more the better, too, for all concerned. After all, if your supreme prayer for another is not only that she may make herself do God's will, but that she may make herself happy in the doing of it, then you're going to need all the allies you can get. Duty is necessary, but unseasoned by joy how quickly it becomes drudgery! How much better, if the one who is your "prayer project" can truly say with the Psalmist, not just "I am obliged . . . ," or even "I am determined . . . ," but also

"I delight to do thy will, O God:
Yea, they law is within my heart."

How much better, if the long-awaited change you see emerging isn't just the one you wanted right along, but one that he or she likes too.

Bless the (Bad) Beasts and the Children

There must be few things more nauseating than to watch somebody - be it man or beast - getting way too much of something they really didn't need in the first place. Especially when the person administering the dose, the gift or the favor happens to think it is exactly what is needed, whether the recipient agrees with him or not.

I'm reminded of a saying ascribed to the American comedian and actor W C Fields:
"Any man who hates dogs and children can't be all bad."
I don't recall what my reaction was when I first heard it, but I imagine it must have been something not too far down the road from horror.

But then I look at this wondrous, breath-taking, even suffocating global Age of ours. And I see how wisely we post-moderns have come to love our dogs and our children, and with what exquisite discernment of their true needs and natures and characters we have brought them up in the ways that they should go. And I begin to see how the not-all-bad man, sick to death of all this great gushing "love," might even - on occasion - feel more than a little tempted towards the opposite sentiment.

Surpassing the Pharisees

I'm not saying America's on the brink of an ideological civil war (although you couldn't prove it from the testimonies of our national unity-loving political media). But there does seem to be in this country a large and growing number of people, of nearly every persuasion, who think they're better than other Americans because of the political opinions they hold. Now I find this thought more than a little disturbing, if not tragic - especially when you consider the large and possibly growing numbers of people beyond our borders who seem abundantly prepared to destroy - or perhaps I should say sacrifice? - all of us, and for reasons that lie quite outside any familiar spectrum of American political and religious views. In short: if Now is not a good time to get a more proportionate view of of our domestic differences, then When?

But even if you don't consider apocalyptic Islamism the deadliest of threats to human life everywhere, I still think you have good reason to be disturbed by our present levels of domestic contempt. Think of it - to despise, or in some cases even hate, someone else, on account of a mere opinion! I could sympathize much better if the provocation had been some sick, twisted ideal, for which our opponent was prepared to kill and destroy and even die himself. Some Cause for which he was sure he'd go straight to Heaven (in which case, really, who else would want to go?) But of itself an opinion is such a thin, filmy, transitory substance on which to base and judge your superiority over someone else. Especially nowadays, when the current battle lines of opinion have been mostly pre-drawn for us little ones, and by media as public-spirited, as broadly patriotic, and as free from all taint of sordid motive as Fox and MSNBC.

In any case, even the most well-grounded, firmly-held set of opinions is seldom more than an infinitesimal pinprick of a point, perched uneasily atop that most intricately-vaulted and -corridored pyramid we call a human being. In other words, there are more things in human nature than are dreamt of in anyone's philosophy. Even, I am told, beautiful, delightful, unimaginable things. Things for which, blessedly, we have an archaeological Guide more reliable than even Hamlet, or Hamlet's author. And One who is, besides, an immeasurably more interesting writer than either Karl Marx or Ayn Rand.

On the other hand, maybe we should be grateful our various and conflicting claims to superiority stand on ground as flimsy as a political opinion. What if we had more solid reasons for looking down on the next guy? Perceived superiority is always a dangerous thing to take too seriously, whether in ourselves or in others: and all the more dangerous when the perception is accurate. For all we know, the Pharisees may have boasted innumerable moral and spiritual advantages - and I mean genuine advantages - over their Sadducee rivals. But I don't notice it helped them much when there arose a Moral Test for which even they were unprepared.

05 October 2009

Exiting Kabul: A Popeye'd Perspective

"Which way (out of) Afghanistan?"

Or so runs my paraphrase of a question that seems to be on a growing number of official lips these days. Which proves - to me anyway - that you can do just about anything reasonable with a conclusion except jump to it. Oh, no doubt it would be a mere nothing at all to get out of Afghanistan, compared to the really big danger - er, challenge - that lies in wait for us. For if the past 20 years have taught us anything, surely it is the nature of the Ultimate Problem: How to get away from Afghanistan. Apparently this tortured country has become the instability that keeps on bleeding . . . and infecting . . .

On the other hand, I suppose nothing would be more tempting than to conclude that, in proportion as we Americans have been wrong about their country, in the same degree the Taliban have been right. And certainly one does have to give them credit for being tenacious, resilient little bastards. I imagine there's very little they don't understand about (their region of) Afghanistan. Indeed they may have a magical finger on the pulse of the country as a whole - except for that percentage of its people who'd be driven stark raving miserable under their holy rule. A percentage that is all but sure to grow exponentially once Sacred Victory has been achieved. Really, have these guys learned nothing from 1970s Cambodia?

And does that ever bring me back. Phnom Penh May 1975. The Khmer Rouge had just spent the previous 4 years learning in spades what clumsy, heavy-handed, half-hearted occupiers we Yanks were. And then their own proudly home-grown version of earthly hell broke loose. Funny how the Khmer Rouge never managed to turn their same, US-oppression-exposing mirror back on themselves. If only they'd bothered to learn half as much about their own people - not to mention their people's neighbors (e.g., Communist Vietnam) - as they'd obviously come to learn about us. In the same way, I suspect the Taliban know us Americans, along with our proverbial weaknesses, follies and stupidities, far better than they know their own people. I want to say these new poster-hero "we-beat-the-Americans" guerrillas: "You maniacs just have to live in the country you so delight in tormenting. The rest of us have the unenviable job of having to live with it. And worst of all, never knowing when we may quite literally have to go back in - again."

So naturally - no matter how well or badly things turn out - any American thinking with all her brain is going to continue to keep a respectfully (as distinct from contemptuously) vigilant eye on Afghanistan. She knows how quickly the misery of people on the ground can become the misery-and-horror of people in distant skyscrapers. She understands how easy it is to disrupt locally before hammering globally. Of course one may still question whether the US should be in AfPak for a long military haul. And I'm sure those who do have a number of valid concerns. But before we conclude anything rash, we Yanks would do well to recall the example of a cartoon hero from a more edifying period of our history - a hero who, if I remember correctly, detested bullies of all stripes, no matter how locally-grown or righteously-inspired they might fancy themselves. What was it Popeye often said, from out of the thick of battle with his worst enemies? Something like "I can take it if you can"?

Getting the Things right

Who says Human Progress is an illusion? Personally the only progress among humans I've ever found to be remotely illusory is the moral and spiritual kind. In other words, the more things change, the more we remain the same. But what of it? Who on earth is going to care whether you or I become saints? Who's going to remember you or me a thousand years from now anyway? Aha. So then it's really not we the makers, but the things we make - the systems and empires, the gadgets and monuments and citadels - that count. Right?

16 September 2009

Of "Liar!" (and other blunt words)

For some time now, I've enjoyed a bitter running quarrel with today's political words. You know, those polite words that make up our ever-so-globally-enlightened modern public discourse. Nor am I in the least picky about which ones I don't like. They may be words Republican or Democrat; Tory or Labour; conservative or liberal - or libertarian. They may even be words whose message is radically individualist or collectivist. (I notice it is the radical varieties of these last two persuasions that seem to have the most Devil in the details).

Frankly, most of the time they all make me just a little sick - or at least a bit queasy. And I suppose that is because, for the most part, when I read today's public words, I seldom if ever get the sense that there's a decent human being behind them, such as tries to fear God and love her neighbor. And who allows, moreover, that occasionally even she may be mistaken.

I'll admit our modern words seem sharp and penetrating enough, until you try to use them to shed some real, living Light upon any living creature. It is then you discover that most of them are mostly worthless for the conveyance of any sentiment beyond rage, contempt and self-congratulation. Now this in itself need not be any reason for discouragement, much less journalistic despair. What it rather means, I hope, is that there's no telling what extraordinary things our commentators might discover, and write about - if for once they could step out of their ordinary verbal comfort zones. Imagine if any one of them tried to care half as much for real persons, places and things as for their own glorious ideas about them. Think what your own agenda for a particular country might look like, if for once you considered that - very likely - that place, and its people, have had a rich and busy existence well before even the birth of your agenda.

My own biggest issue with our modern public words is, I think, a very simple one. Somehow they never seem to go down deep enough. Seriously. Have you ever lived through a time, like these past 15 years or so, when political words made such a busy to-do of blustering and thundering about on the surface of life? When was the last time you read words that even scratched the surface of, say, Richard B Cheney? Or Michael Moore? Or William Jefferson Clinton? And not because any of these fellows is especially good or bad, or right or wrong, or politically correct or incorrect - but because they are all big, and troubled, and troubling human beings. Perhaps even men of Shakespearean dimensions. Not the sort of men whom Shakespeare necessarily would have much liked or admired, but ones he'd surely have found a great deal to write about. And about whom he would have chosen his words, and his thoughts, most carefully.

But how can we even think adequately about any subject, if we lack words human enough - and humanly encompassing, and compassionate, enough - to begin a civil conversation about it?

That is why, today more than ever, I believe we need big, excavating words - words that open up the things we are looking at, so that we may not only look, but descend, way down deep into the substance, and the mystery, of them. And here I mean the substance of . . . whatever it is we are talking about. Whatever thing, or person, or place. And I do mean human places here, as much as the human beings who inhabit them. Notice, however, I've said nothing about abstractions like ethnicity, or ideology, or religion, or civilization. Even a tiny, out-of-the-way, seemingly insignificant place is worth more than any of these big global things, because a place is where human beings don't just text and send, but live and die. It is, after all, the ground by which they came from God, and shall return to God. (And even the poorest human clay God saw fit to make is worth immeasurably more than the most infallible human ideology, or the most impregnable human civilization.) Above all, a place remains that setting where people can be most freely what God made them to be, most freely and abundantly human - in addition to all those later things (religion, ideology, technology, etc) they may try or want to make themselves. A place is the One Thing which demands that you learn to behave decently towards - and to think decently about - not just some virtuous like-minded person, halfway round the globe, with whom you sovereignly choose to connect, but also that possibly quite different person on the bus who just happens to be sitting next to you. Only in real space is there some reasonable hope of of there coming out of you all the Everything God first put in. Which is, in the final count, the only Way we shall ever be equipped to deal kindly with the people in front of us who fall contemptibly beneath our self-made expectations, and ideologies, and agendas. Yet once again, for that blessed result we will need not just any old mean, hard, kickass words, but the right ones.

But our public words aren't just too meager, and stripping, and bone-dry. They're much too severing - and binding. They chop here, they slice there, they tie and package everywhere. They do, in short, everything they can to get the specimen under examination most tightly crammed into the box of our preconceptions. Or worse still, of our ideological and - God help us all - organizational agendas.

Take two not-so-random examples from our recent political past: Adolf Hitler and H G Wells. Was the visionary, apocalyptic, futuristic Hitler only a man of the Left? or of the Right? Was he nothing more than a hyper-efficient racist, whose own personal Ku Klux Klan happened to seize the machinery of state? Or was he just a singularly single-minded patriot driven mad by the iniquities of the Versailles Treaty? And what of the supremely organization-minded, pro-business, anti-labor Wells? Was he merely a socialist? or a fascist? Or was he simply a frustrated liberal humanist, who could hardly be blamed if Man's Best Future had long ago outgrown and discarded capitalism and democracy? I doubt if any - or all - of these categories can even pretend to fathom the spiritual, the human complexity that was Hitler or Wells. Oh, I'm sure our clipped, tight, dismissive sentences can easily package and mail them both, and in less than a paragraph. But can they even begin to cut the strings - much less open the boxes - of who these two men were? Or of their real effects and influences, and legacies - and upon all of us?

So I repeat: Today more than ever the need is desperate for big, generous, embracing words and sentences. Words hearty enough to do something like justice, and mercy, to the real amplitude of human nature - its unsearchable, unexcavatable variety - and that often in just one human creature! Else I see no hope of our being able to understand and prepare for the things that are coming: both the things that can help us, and the things that threaten us. And here I want to include even the ugliest of human threats. Our present grudging, labeling, pigeonholing words will never do more than a rough justice, either to the vast, richly mysterious evil that was Hitler or Stalin - or to the yet more richly unfathomable good of which, in the right Hands, both might have been capable.

Let us work and pray, then, that our best words may also be searchlights: not only throwing into sharpest relief what buried or residual goodness may yet peep out of a human monster's soul, but isolating and exposing all the worst our monsters have made of themselves and our world. And by "the worst" I mean the entire infection of evil, from tiniest root to tip of outermost leaf. I mean everything that prevents our "worst" men and women - and the not-so-much-better rest of us! - from living, and finding pleasure in, the inconceivable Purpose for which you and I were first made. It's a daunting project - but as with everything we can always start out small, and humble. At the very least, it will require words rather more attentively quiet - and quietly discerning - than those with which lately we've become accustomed to wage our loud, denunciatory wars of Light against Darkness. Words which know how to listen as well as speak, and that speak so much the better for having listened. After all, even the purest evil has been known to assume, on occasion, all the quietness and subtlety of a serpent.

05 September 2009

The Garden-room of the Heart

I must be one of the most horticulturally illiterate souls ever to venture a written word on the subject. I know the merest handful of plants and flowers by name, and the great majority of them not even by sight. Mind you, this is the same fellow who, not too many posts ago, presumed to give forth on the subject of the "best" (read: his favorite) English poets. And on the topic of "Nature," of all things!

Yet there is something about this business of quietly growing things that won't leave me alone. There is something in particular about flowers growing wild in places where we may least expect them - places that may seem abandoned, or run-down, or neglected. Or maybe just places whose peculiar loveliness - perhaps - has yet to be duly noted or appreciated. And yet see how they come to life, not just in the hands, but one might almost swear under the gaze, of the right Admirer. What is it about creatures like these, that when you allow them another kind of place, one inside your heart - a place where they can not only be seen for themselves, but can also, as it were, see you for yours (ah, but which Self?) - that makes you feel all of a sudden privy, even for a brief moment, to one of the oldest secrets of the Universe?

Eventually, of course, there will be nothing to stop us from manufacturing flowers in our own anthropocentric image: flowers of such mathematical perfection - of curvature and angularity and symmetry - as will make us wonder why we'd ever bothered with the old, nature-and-grace-dependent varieties. But then we will no longer be in on the Secret.

A Right Companionable Beast

However we may apportion the lion's share of blame for the conflict, Russia's incursion last year into Georgia was a reminder. Political and economic evil did not die with the Cold War. Neither did it simply retire into its cave for an indefinite hibernation. After all, collective evil is not just the lumbering behemoth we remember from the Soviet Era. We just happened to catch the monster on a bad day. Wait till we see what its good days are like. On the whole it remains a superbly eager, resourceful, enterprising, even chameleonic animal. Above all it is never blind to an opportunity. And while lately the Totalitarian Beast may be showing some rather abundant signs of life in Putin's Russia, that need not blind us to its penchant for wearing a Saudi - perhaps even a (winsomely smiling) Chinese - as well as a Russian, face.

Nor need we ever doubt the Beast's willingness to find a breeding-place in the bowels of religions and civilizations, no less than of nations and territories. Indeed I doubt if any civilization is wholly immune to the brutally simplistic charms of totalitarianism. Least of all one that places a high premium on efficiency. All the more reason, it seems to me, why we should be scarcely less alert to signs of the creature's track-marks upon our own, European and American - and Christian - souls.

04 September 2009

The Judges of God

I suppose nearly all of us do it. I certainly have. But it seems to me there are few thoughts we can entertain that are worse than looking at another human being, and wishing you were him or her. It has got to be the grossest of insults not only to yourself, but to your Maker. In fact there is only one thought we can have towards other people that I believe is worse. It is to look at a fellow human creature, in all that creature's richness and depth and storied complexity, and to imagine what it's like to be him or her, and to thank God you aren't.

Humility and Glory in Shakespeare

A key point to remember in Shakespeare's plays:
Everybody who is Anybody falls, and Time - almost as much as it is in life - is the great fallibilizer. In the tragedies big people fall in big ways at the end or near-end of the story. In the comedies little people fall in little ways, more or less around the middle to the end of the story. So far as I can tell, that is the principal Shakespearean difference between tragic and comic. In what are called the romances the fall, or descent, is as much spiritual as it is visible; it is usually accompanied by insight and repentance; and it is often followed by something that I think can best be described as transfiguration.

01 September 2009

Exporting "America"

Rule 3 of Twenty-first-Century Global Politics:
Never underestimate the ability of Great Powers to combine - and in some cases even merge - their resources.

There is fervid debate in high circles these days over whether the United States is in permanent decline - and if so, which if any of its principal contenders is best positioned to replace it.

My question: Why talk about replacement at all? In a globalizing era, isn't there room at the top for everybody, provided they're big and oafish and mean enough?

Since when are mutual jealousy and vindictiveness always the topmost sentiments among Great Powers? Powerful states have long found all sorts of reasons to combine as well as compete. Recall the growing warmth between America and Britain at the beginning of the 20th century. And between Britain and Russia in the course of the same decade. I can think of periods, too, when nothing has done more to produce fraternal feeling among the "Great" than a common loathing of the small and weak. Remember: It was the perceived strength of the British Empire, and not its actual weakness, that made Britain an attractive possible ally to Hitler in the late '30s (and in particular its ability to keep "all those colored races" in subjection). And if I'm not mistaken, more than a few on the appeasing side in Britain cherished similar hopes of Nazi Germany. To say nothing of the hopes of the delusionary
Stalin . . .

Even now, in this still-globalizing age, there is no Iron Law decreeing that the Globalizers must inevitably collide rather than collude. So . . . anyone up for a Sino-Euro-Saudi-American axis? Personally I can't think of any combination of powers more likely to show real tenderness of heart to the world's "lesser" and "declining" nations. Unless of course it be Putin's Russia. And speaking of the former Soviet Union, I wonder if it isn't so much globalization itself that has derailed, but merely the Trotskyist first phase of its career. "Worldwide globalist revolution" may have reached the end of its road. But who knows what chances yet remain for a Stalinese "globalization-on-one-continent"? And think of it: Our own beloved America may yet go down (in this case literally) in history as its midwife . . .

"And what, pray, is your first rule of 21st-Century Global Politics?"
Never take for granted the unity and power of the American Nation.
Let's face it: Many if not most politically articulate Americans would much rather hate each other than confront an enemy who genuinely hates and wants to destroy them both. Apparently it's much more fun to play soldiers in a domestic War on Error than it is to prosecute intelligently a global War on Terror. In any case, serious engagement with an enemy whose aim is to destroy our sense of common citizenship is not a thing to be undertaken lightly. Good heavens, it might actually increase our sense of common citizenship! And with God knows what irreparable consequences for our decidedly uncivic-minded American civilization -

"Yes, yes, and your second rule?!!"
Never underestimate the exportability of the American Model.
In other words, what 19th-century Americans did to the North American interior can be duplicated, albeit with some difficulty and much blood, on other continents. Maybe even - who knows? - on the biggest of all continents: The one comprising those places we call "Europe" and "Asia." And once again, just as the Western Powers were able to combine c. 1900 for the joint exploitation of Imperial China, so I don't think it's beyond the resources of today's globally-minded Europeans, Arabs, Chinese, etc, to collaborate peacefully - at least with each other - in the development of their common Eurasian frontier.
And all of it, perhaps again as in early 20th-century China, under the most generous American auspices. And why not? We Americans have been not unknown to encourage fair play and good sportsmanship among the Goliaths of the world, however bullying we may be towards its Davids. In this case however - unlike the coasts of Imperial China - the region to be exploited would be all but entirely inland. And America would be alone among the interested powers - Europe, Russia, China, etc - in having less-than-direct physical access to the Eurasian interior.
The unintended(?) effect may be to create such an overwhelming pan-Eurasian global preponderance as will sideline the US on the world stage - politically, economically, militarily - for generations to come. If not for ever. In which case the United States will have the further glory of being remembered as the Nation that sacrificed its own sovereign place and influence in the world - for good or ill - for the sake of its "idea".

Once again, God heal America.

25 August 2009

The Salt of the Earth

It seems to me that the world is made up of three kinds of people:
1) Those who are humble when they've been humbled (and that means most of us, from you to me to Bernard Madoff);
2) those who are defiant when they've been humbled;
3) those who know Who is keeping them afloat no matter how well they swim.

24 August 2009

No Country is an Island

I don't think I've ever put much faith in those foreign-policy ideas variously known as "isolationism" or "non-interventionism - at least not as guarantors of world peace and stability. Indeed, I'm not sure how effective "isolation" is even for keeping one's own country at peace, and even with one's own neighbors and trading partners. Of course it may work for Switzerland or Bhutan or the Marquesas Islands. But for Britain and America? How far, I wonder, did "righteous isolation" keep the United States from going to war with Canada and Mexico in the first half of the 19th century? And how effective was "benevolent non-intervention" in preventing Britain's opium wars with China during roughly the same period?

Which brings me to another, I think rather closely related question. Isn't it strange how being "isolated" from a particular part of the world, or ignorant of it, or indifferent to the great questions of its Past and its Future, has never stopped Americans from investing in that place? Isn't it even stranger, that our American investments in a particular country never quite seem to keep us from going to war over that country? And then, when we are seemingly right in the thick of the action, from pulling out more or less abruptly? And then, strangest of all, sometimes we even go on to behave as though we barely knew there ever was such a country! Until, of course, the time comes when we might need a pipeline or two.

My point is not to argue against overseas investment, or overland pipelines, or even war when it becomes necessary. My point is to insist that we do everything we can to know - respectfully, thoughtfully, vigilantly - the places in which we are investing. And that means, I think, every place in which we have a substantial corporate or military presence. Even those places that we expect very shortly will become the most like us. After all, no matter how far we may engirdle the globe with our Starbucks and Best Buys and Costcos, things aren't always going to change in exactly the ways we expect them to. And that means an invasion of Iran or Pakistan is likely to remain - for the foreseeable future - a very different thing from acquiring Texas or California.

23 August 2009

The Rapture of English Poetry; or, A Meeting of Souls

What I like best about the best of the English poets is this uncanny, almost mad impulse they have, of wanting to read and decipher the non-human natural world. Some of them, you'd almost swear, could immerse themselves in a water-meadow as if it were Oxford's Bodleian Library. Or better yet, as if they'd thought they could decode, in every one of that meadow's creatures, a series of inscriptions, monuments, friezes and sculptures - and these of a civilization not only lost and irrecoverable, but wholly unsurpassable by even the best we moderns could ever achieve. Not, of course, a civilization whole and entire, but ruins and fragments. And yet even the tiniest of these fragments suggesting a way of Life immeasurably superior to all the grandest of our future utopias - superior, at least, in all those things that matter most permanently: Kindness, quietness, solitude, patience, wonder, rapture, delight.

I can't be sure what exactly these better poets have found, or whether indeed they've found anything. I can only write about what I see as the passion of their search. The best of them seem to search the "nature" of their field of vision, and every visible thing in it, as it were archaeologically: as if there lay concealed everywhere in its folds - even amid its most unforgiving conflicts, even in the savagery of "tiny" bird preying upon worm - some imprint of a human Self we had long ago lost or discarded. Almost as if, say, my childhood enjoyment of an old and much-beloved tree - and that tree's own, in its measure, delighted response to my enjoyment - were all things that still lay hidden, like a secret treasure, among its leaves and its bark: hidden, and waiting, and perhaps even hopeful of a periodic reunion (of hidden tree and hidden self) through all the intervening ravages of sun, and wind, and fire, and Man.

A Tale of Two Economies

Walter de la Mare's tale The Wharf: An extraordinarily simple and wide-ranging story, set in England c. 1920, that moves from town to farm to dream, and then back again. It contains a horror more of the real than of the imaginary kind, more of the soul than of the flesh, plus a hope so tangible you can practically smell it. But for me obviously it is much easier to describe its effect than to summarize its plot. Let me just say that out of the residue left over when the details have evaporated, a most interesting pattern seems to emerge: A powerful meditation on our human world and the treasures it has, out of which it makes refuse; and on the natural world around us, and the refuse it has, out of which it makes treasure.

21 August 2009

A Monstrous Future

I don't mean to seem utterly down on American culture. I believe my country to be one of the utmost importance to the future of the world, and one that has been given a part of inestimable value to play in that future. But right now the whole world, the entire earth is crying from the depths of its pain for an America that is quieter and humbler than probably anything we've ever known. We all need this transformation. Mexico needs it, China needs it, Europe and India and Arabia need it. We all need an America that is quiet and humble enough to see the visible creatures of God - whoever and whatever they may be - for what they are, and not just for what we can fashion them into. We need to see once again the lighter, more delicate presence of God at work and at play in the world, and not just the rather more brutally unmistakable evidence of ourselves.

Or else - what? We can further bury ourselves in matters and things more manipulable to us - things of which we seem to be the gods, and which make us feel like gods. We can continue in our present role of playing Dr Frankenstein to a monstrous new world - our dazzling tour de force of global dissection and reassemblage. Imagine the adventure of living in a thoroughly modern, prefabricated human world! A world, not of places and peoples that arose "naturally" or historically, but one consisting entirely of a scrapheap of human cultures welded into a design, manufacture, and efficiency of our own choosing . . .

A fascinating experiment, no? And then, down the road, we'll have the further opportunity of seeing how well and how long the monster obeys - or even tolerates - its creator. The choice, as we Americans like to say, is ours.

13 August 2009

Geese vs Ganders

Comparing the Bush and Obama foreign-policy styles, the distinguished military historian Eliot Cohen wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal:

". . . the patter of applause from a press whose sycophancy would embarrass a Renaissance court should not hide the dangers inherent in Mr Obama's style, which is characterized by an easy assumption of foreign policy omniscience and omnicompetence.
"Some of his ambitions will come crashing down into ruin, and surely ghastly surprises lie athwart our path. The Bush administration, many of its critics said, fell victim to hubris, the fatal arrogance punished, according to the ancients, by the goddess Nemesis. The Greeks would understand the irony if we discovered that cold-eyed lady, always hovering closer than politicians realize, turning an increasingly disapproving gaze on today's White House."

So . . . and do you suppose Mr Bush's critics might also have been right? Or has the current administration alone managed to corner the market on hubris?

Maybe I'm getting harder to please. I've often enjoyed articles by Mr Cohen over the years. And particularly those having anything to do with the War on Terror. But what is it about today's climate of political debate that makes me more than a little nauseous? I keep getting the sense that fair-mindedness, over the past 15 or so years, either (1) has become something ridiculous and passe, or (2) has been re-defined beyond recognition. Here, in essence, is what I understand commentators of this Enlightened Global Age to be saying about political morality:

"Whatever it is, it's good - or at least OK - when we do it, because we're good. By the same token, it's bad when you do it, because - well, you know . . ."

Or, to put the matter still more delicately: "What is at most a pardonable failing when done by my side - say, for example, arrogance - becomes at the very least a matter of deep concern (i.e., lots of brow-furrowing and hand-wringing) when you guys do it. The reason? Well, being less corrupt than you folks to begin with, we are by definition not only better able to handle the temptations of power, but less dangerous when we succumb to them. Got it?"

Note the reasoning here. Notice how those exact vices which become most deadly when I fail to perceive them in myself - like arrogance and self-conceit and over-confidence - are made more excusable, not despite my being subject to them, but because I am subject to them! And all because I'm on the right political side! And so those same excusable (but only in ourselves) vices go on to poison the whole political discourse and atmosphere of a country, even as they become more and more detestable to each contending side.

And who loses out worst in the end, worse than even our smug, pompous Democrats and Republicans? Oh, nobody important. Only a certain more or less negligible human entity - as I suppose all mere countries are these days - known as the United(?) States of America. Meanwhile, a certain Osama looks out upon all that he has made, and lo, it may not be very good. But it's looking better with every passing day.

God heal America.

The Last Word on America

I don't think the world - even in this Age - is by any means finished with America. Or vice versa.

And yet, big as America is, and as unimaginably bigger as it plans to get, there are always going to be things in this world we cannot encompass. And not just militarily or economically, but culturally. And even - if you can imagine it - spiritually. Right up until the very Last Day, this earth will be full of things that exceed even the vastness and variety of our American civilization. Things wiser than our most extraordinary intelligence, wilder than our most unbridled inventiveness, wickeder than our most cynically hardboiled opportunism, uglier than our blandest stripmalls, holier than our 100+ flavors of Bible-believing, Bible-ignoring Christianity. Most important of all, I believe, this earth contains strange things - things more exquisitely remembering, more longingly hopeful, more quietly and restfully and confidently expectant, than all our most exhilarating optimisms. But expectant of what? And of Whom?

That is the great question of our times, isn't it? And even if we're sure we're living the right answer, there remains the rest of creation - both human and beyond - to think about. As long as day follows night, the loneliness, the longing of their souls will cry to be filled, and that is a howling even we Americans can't feed or put to sleep. But even if we aren't God's Chosen Civilization, we can still do our part, in preparing the earth for the coming of this last Word of all.

But we'll need to get going. Because the sooner America realizes it is not the last word on much of anything, the sooner it can begin to broaden its at present rather specialized vocabulary. Just think of the words we'll discover and explore! Words that speak - and not just of science and abstract categorization, or of neat political labels and compartments, or of economic and organizational utilities and agendas, but of Life. And not just any kind of life so-called. I am thinking of words kind, and observant, and attentive enough - maybe even delighting enough - to speak of the livingness, the individuality, of this particular creature. Or that one. Anything from a centipede to a systems analyst. From a peacock to a professor of astrophysics. From a starving child in Eritrea to a geostrategist at Rand Corporation. What difference does it make what kinds of creatures? Haven't we got words enough for all of them? Aren't they all in their various ways - blind and seeing, wise and foolish, open and grudging - aren't they all, in one or another buried corner of their souls, awaiting the manifestation of the sons of God?

Mind you, I'm not talking about who these often vain creatures think they are, or what they pretend they want. I mean what they are in their inmost and utmost selves, in the deep wonder and secrecy of what they have been made. And please remember - even with material as stubbornly unpromising as you and I - there is nothing God made that He cannot re-make.

12 August 2009

Unexpected Continuities

Much has been made in recent years of the miraculously productive capitalism of post-Maoist China. God knows it isn't hard to see why. Indeed, it would be hard to think of anything we buy these days that China doesn't make, in one brand or another.

And yet - however some of us may try to "put the whole thing in perspective" - few of us would deny the immense cultural, the environmental, above all the human costs, of Beijing's distinctive capitalist experiment. Today's China certainly is making rapid, perhaps even historically unprecedented strides in the direction of a fully industrialized market economy. Yet even as I write, its progress towards democracy and legal protection of human rights may not uncharitably be described as one step forward, two steps back.

And so I think by now a certain question may be in order. But it is one we need to ask more than rhetorically. Quite simply, what is the good, in a given country, of a form of capitalism that retains all the seminal values of that country's previous phase of socialism? Not the window-dressing values, but the core ones. Not all the lip-service about caring and compassion and equality, but the real agenda: The breakneck drivenness; the quest to prove civilizational superiority; the blithe disregard of any human cost; the hell-bent determination to achieve growth-and-progress-at-any-price. I'll admit the egalitarian letter of Maoism may be both safely dead and irretrievably buried. But can we be quite as sure of the utopian Maoist spirit?

The problem with demarcating boundaries in history is that nothing is ever really, definitively over. In 1972, on the eve of Nixon's Shanghai Communique, no one could have foreseen the frankly capitalist direction mainland China would take by the end of the seventies. In 1989, on the eve of the Tiananmen Massacre, few could have predicted the anti-rural, elitist, almost inhumanly perfectionist bent of Chinese capitalism in the ensuing decades.

Now it appears we may have turned another corner - at least we in the English-speaking world. But who knows what part the current "Chinese model" may yet play in our own renovation - or gutting - of Anglo-Saxon capitalism? Neither can we be sure that socialism of any kind will take its place, and if so which of its innumerable varieties and mutations. Certainly capitalism in our day has shown itself more than capable of a few good mutations of its own. Just look at the past two decades. I doubt if anyone at the height of Western Cold War capitalism could have predicted a post-Cold War successor so profoundly different in character and spirit: so drab, so unhedonistic, so workaholically full (rather than free) of care.

We may fondly hope the worst of that, too, is behind us. But suppose it happens that we've turned a real corner, and not an imaginary one. What good will it be, if the neighborhood we're entering is not a better one, but every bit as bad or worse? What would be the good - what might be the justification - of an American "socialism" that retained all the impatience, the arrogance, the disdain for history, the contempt of human beings - in sum, all the worst virtues - of the "capitalism" that preceded it?

31 July 2009

Just who did we think we were?

Obama has been in office a little more than 6 months.

I don't doubt he has been coming up with some pretty threadbare answers. That doesn't mean there haven't been some very, very good questions along the way. And though it is unlikely that today's neat little ideological boxes are going to be of much help here, surely we can think our way out of them? Provided, that is, we can find words old enough, and rich enough, to re-frame and ask our questions in the right ways. Words that more nearly encompass who and what we human beings are, and not just all the wonderful things we'd like to make, and buy, and sell.

Only to find the right language we may have to re-locate our workspaces for a brief while. We probably will need a breather from the narrow, stuffy aisles of today's infallible Economics and Politics. For far too long, too many otherwise sensible people have had their noses buried in the likes of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Perhaps it's time they consulted some other writers who can shed a more generous and penetrating light on human behavior as a whole. Authors like Arthur Miller and Chekhov and Chesterton. Like Dostoevski, Dickens and Wordsworth. Like Pascal and Shakespeare. Maybe even Dante or Aquinas, or St Augustine. Or St Paul.

As for the questions themselves, I'm afraid the best-worded and best-phrased among them will have to wait for a more gifted blogger. But for now, here is my personal best:

Does anyone know what on earth our recent Masters of the Universe were thinking of? (Assuming they were on earth at all, and not locked away in some ivory tower of self-infatuation?)
How did such an extraordinary concentration of intelligence, talent, wealth, ambition and - in some cases at least - hard work, manage to produce such monumental foolishness? such epic confusion? such instantaneous poverty? How did the superhuman vigor and self-confidence of a few issue in such a paralysing loss of confidence in the rest of us mere mortals? In this best of all possible countries, I thought we paid our geniuses stratospheric salaries for making things go right (as distinct from making them go right off a cliff). So when did human talent become something merely to be worshiped and appeased - rather than channeled, and disciplined, and directed finally to some decent earthly use?

On second thought maybe I'm being naive. A mere cursory examination of the facts might be enough to explain how our wise CEOs, investment bankers, auditors, etc, managed to do it. The better, but less pleasant and more difficult question might be: How did they become morally capable of it? (And with so many others - politicians, economists, historians, pundits, preachers - looking on approvingly?)

But to address that would demand a much harder, much closer look at ourselves as an actively-thinking Nation - at our intellectual and moral and business cultures - than most of us at present are capable of. Myself included.


A Matter of Quality

Some may complain that I grossly over-rate the power, the beauty, the penetrativeness of mere words. Maybe I am a little soft-in-the-head - to believe that attentively-chosen, watchful, heedful words and phrases can actually change, and not just the ways we write and read, but the things we think and do. I'm sure, too, there are pictures that can paint a thousand words a thousand times over. But do they always paint them well?

Think of the last time you saw a photograph, a drawing or a painting that "spoke" to you. Do you remember how it did its speaking? Was it only by means of other pictures or images? Or was it also in words?

28 July 2009

The Point of this Blog

For those who feel completely lost - believe me, I know the feeling - this blog is about words, and how they sound, and why we use them. It is also about paths - both good and bad, wise and foolish. Paths that may seem to us very new but which are in fact very, very old.

As I see it, only God the Father has ever done anything new. And only God the Son has ever been humble enough to be the complete reflection of the Father in all that He is and does. And to be that big-enough receptacle in which everything else - including us - can be made new in its turn. That is the only Way you and I can ever do or be anything new: - i.e., through Him, with Him, in Him. And in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

So far as I can tell, we humans left to our own devices don't change all that much. We keep on doing the same fast, slick, clever, kickass and badass things we've done ever since Cain committed the first murder, and then went on to build the first city. What's new is how we keep on coming up with ever-more powerful techniques and procedures and gadgets for doing them. And of course (dare I forget?) organizations, to extend our wondrous achievements indefinitely through time and space.

The perennial goal is to keep on doing what we've always done, only this time, not to succeed momentarily, but to triumph. Not just to be famous and glorious for a brief spell, but to be permanently happy - or at least "fulfilled" - and supremely powerful. But above all, to be able - finally - to insure ourselves against those rather unpleasant consequences that have always attended the limitless, conscienceless pursuit of power and wealth, whether in the individual, in the organization, or in the species. Consequences like the gradual, steady corruption of the soul. Or the peril of eternal damnation.

To put it politely, we are an ambitious race. I don't believe there is anywhere in the physical universe that we humans cannot and - Time permitting - will not go. Not that even then we'd be satisfied. If we could, we would commute regularly back and forth between life and death, with the express aim of conquering Heaven and extinguishing Hell. Lotsa luck.

27 July 2009

Words Imperfect

Nowadays everyone means business. (Though I wonder, does anyone ever bother to ask what business means? or what it ought to mean?) And so we try to say whatever we have to say in the bluntest, most heavy-handed, most hard-hearted language available. Apparently the cardinal sin of today's serious writing is to let a stray grain or two of poetic rhythm wander into the meat of your essay. Especially (dammit) when you're supposed to be making a point.

But never despise words simply because they have music, simply because they flow, or because they persist in resounding and echoing deep into the well of one's heart or soul or memory. Often the word that stirs in us the longest, richest chords of memory is the one that knows us best, because that is the word which goes most bravely and deeply inside us. Indeed, no explorer enters into the heart of things - both of the thing itself, and of the often forbidding jungle of our own hearts - more boldly than the right word.

Just look at the modern carelessness with which we toss off the clumsy, the makeshift, the wrong word. And then notice how often we find ourselves resorting to deliberately offensive, even spiteful language, just to make our precious points. And where has it gotten us?

Might that same habit be a small part, not only of why we argue badly, but of why we keep on coming up with the wrong answers, the wrong solutions, the wrong certainties?

26 July 2009

A more-than-American freedom

"And their voices repeat
Words ancient and sweet
A rune once I knew,
But, alas, now forget,
A rune known of old
Which, alas, I forget. -"
- Walter de la Mare

". . . Stand ye in the ways, and see,
and ask for the old paths, where is the good way,
and walk therein;
and ye shall find rest for your souls.
But they said, We will not walk therein . . ."
- Jeremiah 6: 16

"Old." "Rest." "Walk." Not exactly the sort of words that seem to have a lot of traction these days. But who knows? For some time now we've been living in a most aggressively new and laborious and driving Age. And I don't think even the best ministrations of Barack & Co are likely to change that. Assuming, of course, they even want to.

And yet don't we all reach a point where we've driven - both ourselves and others - as far as we can, and for a change have to walk? Where we've worked ourselves as long and hard as we can - only to find rest forced on us? Where we've pursued the Almighty New and Young and Restless to what seemed like the outer limits of human consciousness - only to get the nagging, creeping feeling we've been there before? And that it really didn't work out so well then either?

Except that now we're so different, aren't we? So much smarter than some musty old history or literature or legend or faith? So much better at getting ahead, and still coming out on top, than any Hitler or Napoleon, any Macbeth or Julius Caesar, any King Herod or King Ahab?

Then again, America has always been a passionate lover of the new, and of opportunity. And what now lies in front of us - at least when some of the ideological smoke clears, and the screaming dies down - may be an unprecedentedly new opportunity. An opportunity to seek a kind of freedom that may be unfamiliar to many of us. Or maybe just sorely neglected. Not the usual freedom to be a first-class prick. Rather, the freedom to see, and know, and understand the prick in all of us. And most urgently, to know that first-class prickliness will no more work for us moderns - that we can no more "get away with" it, or be made happy in it - than it worked for the blackest-dyed villain in the world's oldest fairy-tale.

A sort of Cinderella-pushed-into-the-corner-by-the-fire kind of freedom. But somehow also, I think, a freedom that will prove to be both older, and bigger, and deeper, and more satisfying - and more holy - than anything a "husky, brawling, big-shouldered" America ever offered to its most ambitious immigrants.

A despised, Cinderella kind of freedom. Let's pray we don't pick the wrong Prince.