22 December 2010

The Best that We Can Be

We Americans are a God-fearing nation. Or at least so we claim. (At present I think we'd be more exactly described as a God-hat-doffing civilization, or a God-pious-oath-muttering civilization.) And yet - whether one likes us or not, or likes our God or not - one must admit we Yanks have had an intense, far-reaching impact upon the world as a whole. Including those parts of it that most proudly proclaim their secularity. Even the most secular-minded, or the most politically correct, Europeans would be hard-pressed to deny that. Likewise the most up-and-coming Chinese.

At the same time that should hardly satisfy us. Near-perfect as we often seem when compared with the rest of sluggish humanity, even we Yanks can always do better. And so it occurs to me that this largely Yank-driven world would run a lot more considerately, honestly, transparently - in a word, a whole lot better - if certain new things were to happen to us. Or at least to our present way of thinking. Remember, we're Americans. We like the new, sometimes to the point of infatuation.

With that in mind, I'd like to offer the following suggestion: That, namely, this would be not just a new and a better world, but a literally more God-fearing one, if only we Americans took more seriously a certain curious notion we have. I mean this notion of the Divine origin of things we did not make. Including those creatures - you, me, other living things - that most of us believe did not evolve more or less by themselves, but were rather more directly and purposefully created by God. It would also be a better world if we Yanks lived a lot less seriously this other, often bizarre notion we have - of the Divine inspiration of things we do make. And in particular those purposeful things we call technological, and those things pertaining to what we call procedures, and systems, and organizations. And even ideas.

I understand that, like any clever, hardy and resourceful people, we can all too easily become enraptured with the works of our hands, and the products of our intelligence. But we also have an impressive body of sacred writings, in which most of us profess in some fashion to believe, which testify that there is much more to Life than either of those things. Indeed it's even suggested, in many divers places, that there are times when those two things can become rather marginal - if not positively detrimental - to something else we call Eternal Life. What I don't understand, then, is why we Americans of all people should be the last nation on earth to want to question the value, either of unbridled technological growth, or of the ideas that conduce to it. Still less do I understand why we should be the last country on earth to see the point of cherishing some portion of: (1) the created earth as it was given to us; or even of (2) our own natures as they were given to us.

In the first place, has "nature" in its given state really nothing of value to teach us, that we insist on teaching ourselves "better" by endlessly - and often thoughtlessly - reconstructing and reconfiguring it? It's true we humans are inestimably smarter than any other mode of life that presents itself to our attention here on earth. But hopefully we God-fearing Americans are also aware that our best smartness is as nothing compared to God's wisdom. And precisely because our best wisdom is as nothing compared even to God's worst foolishness, He is able to surprise us. He can do strange, paradoxical things, like calling forth sons of Abraham from stones, and releasing their pent-up energies in a chorus of praise. And He has been known to conceal, as it were, even in the lowliest things He makes - even in those creatures most brutely and grossly inferior to our august selves - subtle, yet stubborn, complexities, that may elude our best efforts to simplify them. Complexities that indeed may always elude us - or at least for so long as we continue to esteem our human wisdom and power more highly than our human createdness, and lowliness, and receptivity. Which is perhaps another way of saying if we want to become better - i.e., more God-empowered - masters of our earthly dominion, a good place to start might be to try becoming better servants. Or at the very least, more humble in the presence of those lowly strange things, and that strange lowly God, whom no amount of human superiority shall ever equip us to understand.

And that brings me to my second point: The exalted species we've fashioned out of what was once placed in the Garden merely to dress and to keep it. So what of it? What of the splendid job we've done on ourselves? Have we humans really so much to show for our endless self-reconstructions, that we should like nothing better than to "redouble the pace," so to speak, in our relentless overhaul of everything else?

Mind you, I've no doubt we Yanks will continue to love our gadgets and tinkering and systematizing. And no doubt the rest of the world will continue - with one degree or other of shame and hypocrisy - to love us for our love of those things. But haven't at least some of us been known to pride ourselves also on our love of God? My question, then, is how far it is possible to love anybody without taking seriously the things he has to say. And if you're going to take seriously the things he says, how much more those particular creatures - you and me, for instance - for the sake of whom, or perhaps even the salvation of whom, he says them? But if our Maker be such - no, if His words alone be such, that we can only receive them with the utmost seriousness, of what immeasurable value are those other words of His - His creatures - on whose behalf, and for whose blessing and strengthening, those same words were written down?

Suppose, then, that these works of God are also His words, and so also to be heeded. And not nearly so much for what we creatures think and say, as for what we are, and need. Why then do we treat these works as we so often do: as if they were nothing, and needed nothing? Why do we so often treat other human beings - including many of our fellow-Americans - almost as if they were works of our own, to be worked and slaved and lorded over, and then dispensed with, as we deem necessary? And not just the ones we lay off but the ones we keep on.

But please don't misunderstand me. I'm aware that any extensive rearrangement of these matters is likely to involve a certain degree of harm to the feelings of some highly - in a few cases even self-proclaimedly - productive people. People on whose entrepreneurial and managerial gifts we all depend. Nor am I entirely insensitive to the sensitivities of the more self-consciously self-made men and women among us. I can imagine what an abysmally humiliating thing it must be having to depend on other human beings, or having to accept even their paid help. And even worse being expected to acknowledge and appreciate it. Especially when, as in much of our modern organizational culture, you can so easily get away with acting like you don't need anybody - even as you squeeze everybody who's left twice as hard. (So much more dignified - don't you think? - to acknowledge one's dependence on systems and technologies and other things of our illustrious creation.)

Yet here I thought at least some of us modern Americans were trying to be just about the realest, genuinest, sincerest Christians who've ever lived. Why should we of all people fear humiliation, or loss of dignity? With 200+ years of practice, why, you'd think we could have written the book on humility. Or is that - now I'm beginning to get nervous - is that just one more traditional virtue growing steadily more obsolete in the glowing light of that revolutionary New World our Paines and Jeffersons only glimpsed from the far side of the Potomac?

Again, I can understand the atheistic likes of a Richard Dawkins or a Peter Singer fully embracing that proud Jeffersonian vision: - the dream of a fabulous, everything-is-possible new world, that runs dazzling, dizzying circles round the old fallen earth of Scripture. Or rather I believe our Dawkinses and Singers would embrace that vision if they were logically consistent. Indeed I can see the logic of Thomas Huxley's modern heirs waxing poetic about this unbounded New World. I can imagine them composing entire odes to the pride of the naturally superior and enterprising, or whole dirges confessing the sad but necessary expendability of lesser human specimens - to say nothing of other whole species - in the face of the demands of Endless Progress. Or even the endless demands of Beijing. But us Christian Americans? What's all that socially Darwinian posturing got to do with us?

And that returns me to the second part of my original question: Why so often do we treat those other, lesser works of God as we do? Much less, I mean, as our Scriptural dominion, and much more as our own divine creation, to be milked and ravaged and disposed of as we see fit? (Imagine our God treating us like that.) And why, on the other hand, do we so revere the works of our hands and brains - even ideas, and systems, and organizations - so much so that one might suppose we thought they weren't our creations at all, but rather gifts of God? Again, I can understand certain other nations being susceptible to these kinds of idolatry. But us God-fearing Americans?

But let's suppose for the sake of argument that all the things God has given to us deserve only our most ruthless and heedless exploitation. Including our own most humanly-unfathomable inner workings, and each other's. Just find an unguarded opening somewhere and drill away, so to speak. How much more worthy of exploitation, then, are the things we not only give but impose on ourselves and each other? And not just our organizations, systems, ideas - but even our ideologies? Why can't we Yanks be as unremorsefully pragmatic, as willing to pry apart and reassemble, manipulate and discard, in our use of the things we think and devise, as in our use of what Somebody Else has devised? Why do we tremble in the presence of these former things - especially we pioneering Americans, who got where we are (so the legend goes) by fearing no one and nothing? What midnight revelation-in-a-dream has all of a sudden made both our handwork and our brainwork quasi-sacred? Worst of all, why do our politicians insist on falling all over themselves, not to mention stepping on and reviling each other, in an effort to vindicate their particular vision of the quasi-sanctity of human innovativeness - whether of gadgetry, of systems, or of ideas?

Take a long, close, even a tender and pitying look (assuming anyone has the time) at our modern Palins and Pelosis. Both these political types are known for espousing a certain bold, often loud, clamorous and morally indignant, and withal not terribly nuanced, vision of the American Future. That, at any rate, is mostly what I get when I look at the two of them politically. What I cannot see, when I look at either of them humanly, is why a Sarah Palin deserves to be stereotyped, caricatured, anathematized, or reduced to something less than human, simply for failing to subscribe to some well-intentioned but possibly misguided politician's peculiar notions of Freedom and Progress. Or why a Nancy Pelosi deserves to be stereotyped, caricatured, dehumanized, etc, simply for failing to subscribe to some well-intentioned but equally misguided politician's peculiar notions of Freedom and Growth. And I'm even less able to see why any of us should waste energy - or even much thought - on either of these good ladies' respective visions either of Progress or of Growth. Especially when there's good reason to believe both ladies' agendas are mere variations on a certain very popular contemporary theme. I mean our obsession with a certain kind of More: More exaltation of what is done at the expense of the doers, of what is made at the expense of the makers, of systems and organizations at the expense of the organized and systematized, of ideals at the expense of those less-than-ideal human creatures - ultimately all of us - who must at all costs measure up to them.

And now take, if you can, an even longer, closer look at each of these two human souls: past what you may see as the present vileness of their respective errors, past even the growing rigidities of their early wrong turns and poorly-guided choices - all the way back to the humanity of each. And perhaps even something of what that humanity might be worth in - or how it once may have delighted - the sight of their Maker. Is either of these good women worth sacrificing, or writing off, or throwing over, or giving up on - even by each other - simply because of some ideology one of them happens to believe in, and the other falls short of? Is what God made them both from the Beginning - and what He may yet remake them - really of so little consequence, when compared to the wonders they've made and mismade of themselves, and each other? And that brings me back to you and me. Is either of us worth sacrificing, or dehumanizing - or demonizing - simply because of my "truth," or your "falsehood"?

It's true that our "truths" have often enabled us Yanks to do some stupendous material things, and that these have sometimes deservedly commanded the world's awe, reverence and - most sincerely - imitation. But can we be sure in every instance that the world's valuations are those of God? Can we be certain God cares more for Microsoft than for a monkey? Or that He is more alive in us when we are upgrading the former than when we are uplifting the latter? At least in the monkey's case it is we who are the trainers. Nor am I in the least suggesting the two kinds of skill are mutually exclusive, or even inversely proportionate. Who's to say the patience required to train a monkey - not to mention the wisdom involved in gaining his trust and respect - will be of no use in running a company? Or that the (dare I print the vile four letters?) love needed to coax and nurse the decidedly tentative gifts of this lower grade of primate will be of no help in shepherding the rather more explosive talents of our own kind?

Just think how much more blessed we Americans might be with the mystery, the beauty, the complexity of God-made things - not just in our zoos or backyards, but in our own brains - if for a change we took our Godly rhetoric seriously. And how we wouldn't get our feet, or our ships and tankers, stuck in those God-made things quite so often. And just think how much less infatuated we'd be with our man-made things - even humble loans, and stocks and bonds! - and how we wouldn't get our hands and brains stuck in them quite so disastrously. Because really, if we have a hard time taking seriously the words the Lord God spoke - and those from the morning of Creation onwards - is it any wonder we have an even harder time reading correctly and clearly the words we speak? And that therefore neither our businesses nor our governments are anywhere near as honest or transparent - or even as humanly (as distinct from corporately) considerate - as we would like them to be?

Anyhow, the older I get, the more it seems to me that every thing God made is a kind of strange literature, begging to be decoded, explored, savored, by the sympathetic reader, as distinct from the critic who is hyper-critical. A sort of livingly unfolding story, if you will, begging to be read humbly, and heedfully, for what that creature is and needs - as distinct from what you and I in our arrogance think it is, or think we may need from it. By sympathetic, then, I mean the sort of reader who respects - indeed delights in - a thing for being what it is, and not just for its merely human usefulness. And yes, any thing: even a small child: and for reasons quite separate from that over-loaded creature's learning-potential, or its purchasing-power, or its future productivity. The kind of reader I envision is one who would no more criticize a lemur for not being a leopard, or a lion, than she would fault Friday for failing to be Robinson Crusoe, or belittle St Peter because he wasn't St Paul. Much less take issue with John Paul II for not choosing to be J P Morgan. She knows it takes all kinds to make a better world. But if we cannot teach ourselves to be more patient with, and loving of, the specific thingness of various things - even the oceans-deep things we ourselves are - then I don't see how we shall ever learn to respect the unique personhood of various people. Including those persons we Americans think, in our inestimable business wisdom, that we have no use, or time, or work for.

In short (if I may put the matter in terms of a classic literature course), we need readers who are skilled at reading and exploring, and not just skimming or Cliff-Noting, the world of God-made things: readers who can "lose themselves" in the various books of Nature for the pleasures of the books themselves, and of their Author - instead of just crimping what they need in order to pass some course in Natural Resource Management. Or Applied Geo-engineering. Readers, in a phrase, who have in them a little more of the author Washington Irving, and a lot less of his character Ichabod Crane. Because no matter how passionately Ichabod may have believed otherwise, the truth is that what we humans make of things, and what we can get out of them, is by no means always the most important thing about them. Or sometimes, by God's grace, even the most useful. A chicken is not always better for having been folded comfortably into a pie. And neither are we always better for having eaten it. Meanwhile, just think of the great many humans - let alone other creatures - we discard, and overlook, and fail to use and employ wisely, in this Crane-like process of focusing solely on our own narrow uses, and ignoring the rather broader, more imaginative, more compassionate uses of, once again, Somebody Else.
On the other hand, if we Americans cannot learn to read more sympathetically this irreplaceable collection of books beneath our feet, that we so patronizingly call Nature, then I fear it won't be long before we lose both our skill and our joy in reading any other scriptures. Including not only, of course, the Book of Books, but those other, Divinely fascinating books we know as our Selves, and each Other. And then how much longer do you suppose we'll remain even a God-deferring civilization? Or even, for that matter, a world-leading economy?

The Worst Sort of Bad Conscience

Overheard: "My boss really does have a good side, you know. Unfortunately she's thoroughly ashamed of it."

21 December 2010

What Drives Us to Drink

"A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it's only human nature."

"Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above."

- The African Queen (1951)

Rise above nature? And here I was thinking only the Divinest of loves could even raise us to its pitiful level. Strange, though, how our own most widely popular means of lifting ourselves up - pride, power, empire, overwork, insomnia, sexual dysfunction - almost invariably drag us farther down . . .

19 December 2010

What Drives Us

I often think pleasure is ridiculously over-rated as a source of human motivation. Or at least of our modern human motivation. How many civilized human beings do you suppose there are today who do anything purely for pleasure - that is, minus the influence of some vanity project or other adulterating agenda? Certainly, in any case, it's not for those pure pleasures that are, in the words of Psalm 16, always to be found at the right hand of God. And perhaps even less for those rare pleasures to be gleaned from that music of words which, according to Proverbs 15: 26, are both pleasant and pure.

And yet the longer I live, the more I am amazed at the lengths to which human creatures will go - how much they'll exert and extend themselves, not just to others' hurt but to their own, and not just for the sacrifice of other people but of themselves - in the pursuit of something they call power. I wish I could see what they hope to gain by it. After all, our lust for earthly power and influence is such an infinitesimal - and worse of all, constricting - part of our makeup, compared to the vastness, the unsearchableness of those regions our Maker has planted deepest within us. Yet see how we think nothing of abasing the greater before the lesser; see how we revere this pompous little pinprick as if he were the whole show, or in any case the engine that drives the whole. Thank God we are, then - even the most driven among us - so much more than anything we do or make or own. Or even anything we leave behind. Thank God there's always something else going on inside us - a barely-there voice, I'll admit, that we may seldom if ever hear above all the raucous din of our doing. But just think how much better we'd do all sorts of things if for a change we tried to listen! Think how much more purposefully we'd do them, and thoughtfully; how much more heedful we'd be of our beholdenness to the Past, and of our duties to the Future. To say nothing of the enveloping, rumor-filled mystery that surrounds us everyplace we walk, almost as if we were skirting the borders of something lost and irretrievable, and yet vouchsafed for us - provided we walk respectfully.

Imagine, too, how boring we all would be, if our whole lives - or worse, our whole thoughts - consisted merely of the things we do or make or own. And think how oppressively dull we invariably become - how monotone, and monochrome, and even monstrous - when we live solely for that ultimately enfeebling thing we know as Power on Earth.

But perhaps you think a Lady Macbeth would have been an utterly enchanting person to know - and all the more so when in the throes of her latest intrigues, or at the summit of her latest triumphs! Maybe you imagine her as a thoroughly engaging and enlivening conversationalist - I mean, when her eyes are not darting every which way, or when she's not looking over her shoulder, or listening in on someone's conversation, or checking her iPhone and other twinkling things for the latest updates . . .

13 December 2010

How Far We've Come

Why is it, do you think, that some of the scariest, most heart-stoppingly terrifying dreams we have consist of things that we don't seem to be part of, but are rather watching on a movie or TV screen? Spectacles that place us in no immediate (dream) danger, and yet enable us to identify with the danger of a dream-character on a screen.

At least that's been the pattern of my experience. Moreover, not only do I know it's only a dream, but I know the dream is one in which I'm not in the least a participant, but merely a spectator. And yet there I am, grimacing and recoiling as if it were all happening to me. Funny, but I don't get anything like that feeling of Clintonesque pain when watching a real-life film, regardless of how much the characters may suffer, or how much their suffering may "plead" for my sympathy.

And certainly no one I know would dare accuse me of having cornered anyone's market on compassion.

So what do you think? Is sympathy - at least at the subconscious level of dreams - really all that strange to any of us humans ? Is self-identification, even with the sufferings and torments of an imaginary character, really as foreign to our natures as the Enemy - or any other economist - would have us believe?

But then again, which human nature are we talking about - the one that was given to us? Or the one we've re-set and re-configured, times beyond counting, in the interests of something we call Growth and Profit and Progress?

12 December 2010

A Critical Stage in a Writer's Growth

Whatever there is of good in what we write depends in some degree - at least if the fount is not one day to dry up completely - upon the patience, the indulgence, the hospitality of the reader. And in gaining access to that sometimes retiring, unobtrusive good, the "critical faculty," as we conventionally understand it, may show all the subtlety of a sledgehammer in detecting the unsuspected chords of a piano. The problem with the best in what we write is that it is often the shyest part of our repertoire. Shy creations, no less than shy creatures, require more than the glowering looks of the harsh critic for the discovery of their strengths. They require the sort of critic who, in judging any author, sees, yes, and does not spare, all the pride and pompousness, all the preening and pretension, of the warden - but also sees beyond them, to the dreams, the hopes, the longing, of the prisoner inside.

07 December 2010

The Temperamental Genius

Have you ever felt "damned if you do, damned if you don't" about something really big? I mean really big. Something that might conceivably have consequences that are lives-endangering, or even world-unsettling - at least in the hands of those folks who can actually make or break the world?

Suppose, let's say, you and your family were locked in a building, or marooned on an island, or besieged in a city, with a bunch of brilliant, aggressively resourceful people whom none of you trusts anywhere near as far as they'd like to throw you. A bunch of people who have ingeniously compelling ways of selling you absurdly cheap (and sometimes even absurdly bad) products, and loaning you (what will eventually become) ridiculously expensive amounts of money. And whom you would more than anything love to stop buying and borrowing from, if only you could afford it. And yet concerning whom you know, from long experience, that it behooves you to think twice about doing anything - anything, however otherwise reasonable - that might make them angry. And mostly it's not even because of the tightness of your mutual entanglement, or the apparently diminishing wiggle room available to you both. Mostly it's because these brilliant opportunists are, shall we say, temperamental, and extremely touchy, and still smarting badly from all sorts of past injuries and humiliations. It's not necessarily that in the long haul of their history they've suffered unduly worse than other folks. It is rather because any humiliation at all would be grossly incommensurate with their true worth and just deserts as a people and a culture. Because no Chinese (or American, or Briton, or German, or Pole, or Arab, or ________ [insert the superior nationality of your choice]) should ever have to suffer like that. Maybe Russians and Jews - after all, they're used to it, and certainly at least the Russians have done more than a little to deserve it. But surely no people of any real culture and accomplishment.

By now you've probably guessed that I'm no fan of the People's Republic. But it is for that very reason that I think we'd all do well to be leery of provoking them. Caution is especially in order when it comes to arousing what I call the collective stubbornness, and the collective impulsiveness, of the mainland Chinese leadership. I think it makes sense, regardless of whether you love or hate, or distrust, or simply want to get along with Beijing - much as wariness and caution made very good sense, many years ago, in dealing with a certain other nation who had a similarly high opinion of their own admittedly high worth. Right now I'm recalling how certain far-sighted Britons and Americans, who tended to know a thing or two about German history and German character, gradually grew more and more concerned about the stubbornness and impulsiveness of the German ruling classes over the first third of the 20th century.

My point is not that either the Germans or the Chinese are in any way savage, barbarous, uncultured or unaccomplished nations. No, if anything my feelings are quite the reverse. It's just that when I think about today's mainland Chinese in particular, and about all the various things they might or might not do, I'm reminded of certain individuals I've known, and the likes of whom maybe all of us have known. Men and women, often highly civilized, cultured and gifted, as well as ambitious and enterprising, who were very good at getting their way. I recall how these individuals, in the course of getting extremely big for their breeches, also got very much used to having their way with pretty much everyone (and then all the more despised and took advantage of those who tried to accommodate them). And lastly, I'm reminded of how extremely self- (and other-) destructive people like these can be, when they feel they're no longer able to get their way, and start thinking they have to take it.