27 March 2011

In a Handbasket

Say, is it my usual over-active imagination? - or hypersensitivity? Or are more of today's people, in their various busy, hard-pressed movements about the Room of Life, shifting more and more to that particular gear known as Survival Mode? In other words, don't just take what's offered you, but lunge for it.

And if it so happens you've taken one or two fingers along with the first bite, why, so much the better for all your pains and effort. I mean, we're all more or less jungle animals anyway, right? Or at least we ought to be, if we know what's good for us. (Funny, isn't it? - how we God-fearing Americans have such a hard time believing passionately in evolution, except when it comes to how we treat each other . . . Hence also, perhaps, our God-fearing murder rates, in which statistic - if I'm reading correctly - we've been leading the Modern World since well before the Birth of the Modern Ghetto. Or could it be that the bulk of our killings are done by that c. 15% of us who atheist or agnostic . . . )

And meanwhile, if the jungle becomes more concrete as well as abstract - or better yet, becomes more plastic and filled with circuitry! - why, so much the better for the survival prospects of the species. After all, aren't most of us mere individual human beings just so many steps and stairs on which the race ascends to Economic Glory (unlike our busy globe-enriching organizations, which - in any case - must needs be free to take the elevators)?

It would be nice to know if we are in fact getting nastier by necessity. Because as we pretty much know already, in today's efficiency-enlightened world, survival and its requirements can be made to cover a cornucopian mass of sins and other offenses. And if I'm correct, might not this rampant survivalism have serious moral - not to mention economic morale - consequences for even our brightest and most efficient workers? Really, how much are they all worth anyhow, in the final cost-benefit analysis? I mean, they're only human.

Imagine, then, a world in which every kindness, every courtesy, every generosity is nearly always interpreted as either weakness or manipulation. Or both. And interpreted in such a way that the most brutal advantage is nearly always taken of these gestures. ("Thank you? Yeah, right.") Even by, every now and then, one's closest family members. Or at least by those among them who value their own employment prospects and other survival indicators. And in such a way, meanwhile, that any person fool enough to extend these human decencies is safely presumed to getting - in the end - what he or she deserves.

Such a world is about as near a thing to Hell on Earth as I hope we hypermoderns* ever get. I just never dreamed we'd be getting there so expressly, and in such a hurry.

* To call us post-modern would be both grossly flattering and wildly inaccurate.

On the other hand, if such a deliciously seething pot of moral chaos isn't begging for the "lid" of a "Beast," what is?

21 March 2011

Strange Bedfellows?

Words (again).

Does anyone know how Man comes to make the extraordinary sounds he does? Line by line, precept by precept, generation by nameless generation - until at length the right word resounds clear, bell-like, as if from out of some inmost corridor of one's own soul . . .

Who can be sure, then, that the majority of our everyday household words merely say what they mean, and don't also sound like what they mean? That the sound of a well-chosen word rarely if ever helps to situate, to anchor and fasten down, that word's meaning? That our simplest, most time-honed and time-hallowed words have little or nothing in them of the deliberately onomatopoeic? Or that both the meanings and the sounds of many of our best words haven't got myriad criss-crossing, multi-layered, multi-sedimented relationships with other words, of similar sound?

Take a moment to listen to the following sounds. Try to hear the music, the mystery - and yes, the overlapping, interlacing meanings - enwoven into the rhymes of such familiar words as loud, crowd, proud, shroud. And then tell me if you can think of better, more grating, more relentless sounds for any of those things. Or words that reinforce more powerfully the kinship of those particular things with each other . . .

An Unmerciful Steward

For some reason I'm getting really tired of hearing the phrase social injustice. There's something about the mere wording itself that I don't like. To me, the expression seems all but guaranteed to ensure that whatever social result we achieve by invoking it is going to be very different from - if not the opposite of - the aim we first intended. In other words, it's a phrase almost sure to come back and bite us in the end.

I wonder, too, if much of what modern liberals decry as social injustice, at least in the wealthier countries, is not in fact something altogether different. It may be nothing more than a certain very familiar process: a kind of sifting or winnowing, if you will, whereby those who are deemed ruthless, exacting and enterprising enough to be worthy of a society's lion's share of wealth, power and influence get exactly what they deserve. And then some. So that, by those particular standards of social worthiness, what really is going on is the most precise and accurate social justice.

But I think I've found another phrase, which perhaps much better serves the purpose liberals may be intending. The purpose of my phrase is to describe a certain other familiar practice, or process: the one by which organizations compete with each other to use the people they depend on to the point of sickness, if not unto death - and then deny that they ever needed them. Or in some cases even deny, Peter-like, that they ever knew them. And so naturally, for this pattern - this process by which people don't so much get what they deserve as they are given what we all know they don't - I prefer the term social unmercy. And while no doubt I may be over-reacting, I seem to find evidence of it almost everywhere. And what amazes me, in particular, is that such an abundance of social unmercy as we enjoy today is somehow deemed compatible with our present, upgraded version of American culture. In other words, with our Christianly-upgraded American culture.

One might reasonably have expected just the opposite. Given our current hearty levels of profession of sound Christian faith, one might have hoped something more on the order of social mercy would have come naturally to us. And all the more so given our current numbers and strength. For my part I can't think of a time when Christians were more thoroughly marbled through each and every layer and segment of American society. Including the ownership or management of God knows how many key - or soon-to-be key? - American businesses, foundations, etc. For the umpteenth time we Christians have proven we know how to get things done. And even to kick ass. Indeed I'm sure at times it must seem - at least to those on the receiving end - as if we were competing with the most remorseless Chinese sweatshop-owners to prove who can make dependable and trustworthy human creatures feel more expendable. Really, what is this Thing anyway, that we Christian Americans feel we must sacrifice to the mainland Chinese, that we shouldn't be working twice as hard to make an acceptable sacrifice to our Maker? Ah, but what am I thinking . . .

Behold, O blessed children of Locke, these our mighty, modern, ironclad Laws of Economics, that were even the prophets Amos and Micah alive to see their glorious work, they could but mutter Thomistically: "Everything I have written is straw."

On the other hand, assuming it truly is mercy, and mercy Divinely poured out, that we rich and influential Christians have received, is it asking so much that we should humanly pass it on?

18 March 2011

The Horizon We've Lost

“The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.”

Might I paraphrase a quote from a dear old film that’s none the worse for age and wear? The original Lost Horizon (1937) may not be to everybody’s most fashionably hypermodern tastes. It’s stiff and hokey in places, though delightfully homely in others. Though I have to admit, the qualities called to mind by that last adjective – basic human warmth, and an extraordinary patience in the teeth of even our worst kinds of impatience – are hardly the virtues most likely to commend the film to some of our more ideologically purpose-driven souls today. Thank God He hasn’t appointed our generation to be the final arbiters of all wisdom. And as regards homeliness, who’s to say that the truths we first learned at home – at the beginning, so to speak – may not also be the truths we’ll most need at the end?

In any case, one of the things that most fascinates me about the film is a certain line it contains, that I believe is true of all of us, and no less true today than when our first parents first sinned. Somewhere near the climax of the story, Ronald Coleman’s character, Conway, makes a very interesting observation about a certain much-older-than-she-looks young “local” woman, the Russian-born Maria. Here is a “girl” who has no realistic idea how long she has been living in the - to all appearances - mysteriously youth- preserving confines of Shangri-La. For all we know, as the movie unfolds, it may be well over a century. All we can be sure of is that it seems to her like an eternity. And yet, like any healthy, vigorous young person, she more or less assumes she’s got at least one or two more eternities to go. As Conway reflects on the prospect of her leaving forever the lengthiest “home” she’s ever known, he insists (to his differently-opinioned brother) that “she is a fragile thing, who needs to live in a place where fragile things are loved.”

True enough about Maria, one may safely suppose. After all, she’s a movie creature, and must needs live and die on the movie’s terms. But what about us real-life creators, as we prepare confidently to extend and perfect our human longevity into a superhumanly indeterminate future? And in particular, what about those commandingly efficient souls among us who, as all markets know and proclaim, shall alone be the ones most fit to lead and prod us into this bold new world?* At first glance Conway’s cautionary note may not seem to apply to us at all. And certainly not to the “best” and most enterprising of us. And even if we were all as fragile as Maria, it would not exactly be the easiest thing about us to detect.

*Or else leave us behind in the old one?

It so happens that we humans have this most brutally-ingrained mental habit, as old and as foolish as Creation’s first murderer, of worshiping strength and despising weakness. And all in the apparent belief that it will make the world a better place. Or in any event a more interesting and challenging place. But while this habit may speak volumes about the kind of creators – or even the kind of gods – we’d all like to be, it doesn’t say beans about the sort of creatures we really are. Nowadays, perhaps under the influence of more recent and very different schools of film-making – well, we may not exactly equate strength with badness. But I think as often as not we find ourselves assuming that the two are at least directly proportionate: the badder we are, the stronger we are. Or even, the stronger we want to be, the badder we must become? And much of our experience of “life” may, at least for a time, seem to corroborate this assumption. But what about those strengths of ours, so admired and applauded by the “prosperous” world, that only work to hide our weaknesses from us, until such a day as we find out – much, much too late – how weak we really were? And what about those strong, sturdy vices we cultivate, again so conducive to the world’s “prosperity,” that only serve to divert and distract us from the good we might have been, until at length we stand – again, much too late for the doing of any good – before the throne of Absolute Goodness?

The truth is that nobody is ever either as bad, or as strong, as we think they are. Or even as bad or as strong as they themselves would like to be. At least not in this life. No, the consummate “perfection” of evil in any human soul must wait for its fulfillment in another life, in a very different kind of existence, which I pray none of us may ever see or attain.

Meanwhile, back in this present life, what sort of creatures are we? We are, it seems to me, the sort of creatures who have been most graciously and generously limited by God in this matter of how bad or how strong we can be. And what limits us is this precious, abundant thing we have already been made, as distinct from the rather meager and less-than-precious things we try or succeed in making ourselves. And the more the distinction between these two has become apparent to me, the more thoroughly I’m persuaded of two other things. The more I am convinced that we humans are:

(1) much less morally different from each other – much less “better” or “worse” – than we think we are; and
(2) we are much more fragile than even the strongest and wisest of us could ever humanly conceive.

So fragile, in fact, that it’s precisely when we strive most proudly and manfully, as it were, to transgress or transcend these God-inwoven limitations that we do the most harm. It is then that we go the furthest in breaking and shattering, not only other people – and them often irreparably, so far as their goodness and usefulness in this life is concerned – but our own best selves too. Of course, there is nothing we break that God cannot put back together. But that’s another, much broader and deeper story.

In the first place, I have no doubt the differences separating the best from the worst of us aren’t nearly so great in God’s sight as they are in ours. Just think about it. God being all that He is, and all that He does, how could it be otherwise? Our Maker is not “of a piece” with the best of us, nor is He three or four grades above the best. Rather is He outside the grading-scale altogether, being both its inventor, its paymaster, and the one who supplies the health and strength by which the laborers work. On top of it all, every so often He’s been known to revise that scale, in sometimes the most drastic, unexpected, and even disconcerting ways. Only our Maker could make a sage out of a beggar, or a dunce out of a CEO. And I think that means our God is such, in effect, that even today’s most esteemed and accoladed CEOs would be unwise to boast in His presence, or to presume even a direct lineage or kinship however remote. And I've been told more or less the same holds true of the most perfect and righteous Pharisees. Or even our own most brilliant and self-dependent entrepreneurs.

“Not nearly so great in God’s sight.” There remains of course the question of our own sight, which these days – at least in the realm of economics (if not politics) – often appears to be all we’ve got to go on. But even there, where the human moral divide may seem at times a yawning chasm, surely the gap at its worst has never been anything that Divine grace, humanly embodied, cannot bridge? Or that Divine love, humanly expressed, cannot close? Indeed I don’t see how we can believe anything else, and not also believe that God died a human death - and passed on to us a Divinely-human Life - for nothing.

In the second place, the “strongest” of us are not so very different from that decades-long “prisoner” of Shangri-la, Maria – the fragile rebel whose dreams and ambitions for a better life (not unlike Satan’s?) so vastly exceeded both her wisdom about life, and her knowledge of herself and her origins. And who in consequence began her journey out, across the Himalayas, with the physical constitution of a twenty-year-old, and ended it with the corpse of a centenarian. Like Maria we are all fragile things, who need to live in a place where fragile things are loved – and not despised. Indeed, how else, if not by means of this Place and this Love, is our fragility ever to be made strong? or our strength ever to be made holy and pure? But if we keep on mocking and deriding, and being ashamed of and disgusted with, our fragility – both our own and each other’s – if we continue to press on down this road of self-attenuation, of self-mutilation that we call Power and Growth and Progress, then I’ll tell you one thing of which I’m certain. We shall not only continue to eviscerate our hope of ever finding such a place in the world to come, but we shall destroy, root and branch and seed and soil, all vestiges of such a place in our present universe as well. And then, having run out of worlds to conquer and “be strong” in, where shall we go?

Modern Insomnia

"Money never sleeps." So much the worse for money. And for all of us who put our trust in it.

06 March 2011

Variety as the Swamp of Life

I think we post-Cold Warriors will be remembered as living in one of the Great Ages, if not of Invention, then of love of invention. And perhaps even more strongly, of lust for inventiveness. Indeed if it were up to me to encapsulate the spirit behind our most anguished handwringing over the State and Future of American Education, I think I'd sum it up with the following slogan: Every man, woman and child a Thomas Edison! Or at least a Jack Welch. Oh, for Pete's sake, even a Warren Buffett would do.

In short, everyone very sharp, very skilled, and ultimately very inventive - to the point of one's inventions achieving radical and even painful transformation of whole societies and cultures - in the manipulation of either

1) physical forces,

2) procedures and people,

3) money.

And that means all of us. Or else get off the Ship of Life, which moves very fast, please remember, and doesn't need dead weight.

"Yes, but surely it take all kinds . . . ?" Well, contrary to time-worn opinion, it evidently takes just one kind of person to make up Today's World: eager, restless, sharp-elbowed, dynamic, hard-driving, innovative, enterprising and unstoppable. And last but not least, always in a ferocious, heritage-and-civilization-consuming hurry. Which likely does not mean, please note, one who has time to stop and load up on all the Boy Scout or 4-H virtues either. (Besides, didn't we leave all that squareness behind in the Sixties?) And as for all the other kinds, who used to make up the world -

"Excuse me, but we're building a Future here. We need everyone on the same page of the latest version, or preferably coming up with a better one. Those who can't or won't conform can go to the wall."

Yet I notice even in history - and especially the kind of history we try to ignore or "transcend" - one question can follow upon another almost as surely as day follows night. And so my next question is: Having (re-)made the world, and more or less remade everybody in it into this One Kind of Person - with everyone who can't make the grade pretty much expiring of guilt or shame - what then? I mean, it is all about the Expansion of Freedom, isn't it? So what happens when we find we can't keep running the world - or running it in a way that preserves its freedoms against the predations of the strong as well as of the weak - without all these other kinds of people?

Small Favors

It occurs to me that I ought to be grateful for my decidedly limited stock of looks and charm. With the right qualifications I might have been a raging sex addict.