31 August 2013

The Ultimate Self-Abuse

Being a wholly unscientific postscript to "Cultivating a Difference" 

One thing about me you can be sure of:

Call me a hopeless Romanticist – at least in the very oldest sense of the word – and I’ll nearly always plead guilty to the charge. A Romantic, that is, in the political sense of Disraeli, and Bagehot, and Burke; in the aesthetic sense of Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge; in the literary sense of Clare and Cowley and Vaughan (maybe even Shakespeare?). A lover of symbol, and emblem, and figurative speech; of what’s often rather dismissively called tradition, or antiquity; of all sorts of very old things, God- or man-made, that we can never fully know the beginnings of, or come fully to the end of. Like even, I'm told, some nursery-rhymes. But things, in any case, that we can never hope to know (or use) better by despising.

And that includes not a few human things, too, that seem to be of very recent origin. Though we may never guess how deep in fact the roots are until we start pulling at them. Or how closely interwoven are the threads. Like, for instance, a certain "loose" thread we started playing with, and pulling at, called Libya, that very quickly began to unravel a certain shirt called Syria.

Now I know how much a literary preference of, say, Country over Town may seem like an archaism – if not a rude impertinence – in bustling times like these. I realize how much it can go against the grain of an Age which seems to believe there’s nothing nature- or God-made that can’t be humanly re-engineered. And if not consistently for the better, always for the more interesting or exciting. Even a few of our modern environmentalists, as I understand them, seem convinced that Man's nature can be re-designed to make him more eco-“friendly”: almost as if the part of him which longs for companionship with natural things could be excised, and a component inserted that makes him see himself only as Nature’s intruder, spoiler and contaminant. And even here, note how the Man-Nature relationship remains adversarial to the core: only this time Nature holds the "moral" high ground.    
  
Anyhow, the reason I call myself incorrigibly Romantic is simple. It is this nagging sense I have, and can’t get past: namely, that there are certain things in this world which can only be better understood by – imagine it! – not taking them apart. Like ourselves, for instance.

As for the visible earth beneath our feet, uncultivated nature is, of course, a much more ferocious thing than any human creature can afford to be sentimental about. In short, whatever in nature we haven't yet subdued is always more or less prepared to make a meal, or other mutilated mess, of us. In some brute circumstances it is simply a choice of dissect or be dissected.

Yet the fact remains, whatever we humans have managed to subdue we can also abuse, manipulate, exploit. And terrorize. In a word, even puny, hapless, martyred man can be a tyrant. And not just of other humans. To believe anything less would make us, again, the most uncritical sentimentalists – and this time concerning a species which proves, every waking hour, its descent at least as much from Cain (Genesis 4: 17-24) as from Seth. A species of which there is every reason to believe that, as the saying goes, he’s only just getting started. And the man who thinks nothing of abusing the nature around him will soon think nothing of abusing – dissecting, reconfiguring, “improving” – the nature within.

26 August 2013

Some (to me) obvious points that I wish were more evident to Today's Visionary Rich and Powerful

Being a few brief words to our modern environmental, corporate and other nihilists:

You don't love nature better by hating man.

You don't love man better by hating nature.

You don't make human beings more perfect by hating, despising or otherwise running roughshod over human nature (however confident you may be of improving on what you assume are God's deliberate mistakes).

22 August 2013

Cultivating a Difference

Gardeners. Don't ask me why I'm on this kick again. But any ideas as to what be may be some of the more important things they have to teach us? 

Not so much, of course, with their conscious minds (which latter, I find, haven’t got in them nearly as much useful or valuable instruction as we too often assume). I mean rather with that part of themselves - yes, even of gardeners - which we commonly term the spirit. Though a more exhaustive description of it might include that neglected or “lost” room, somewhere in each of us, in which we are least resistant to (more helpless in the face of?) our need for God.     

But I don’t just mean any sort of gardener either. Rather that kind which tries to garden, not just for his own (landlord's) enjoyment, or that of his visitors and guests – vital as I’ll admit these factors are – but also for the pleasure, rest, even refreshment (however one may define those things) of its most permanent and continuous residents. 

Now you know when I open with a question like that, my own answer can’t be far behind. All the more reason to make my pronouns clear. What the best, most passionate, most pastoral gardeners remind me is that, yes, Man is the highest of the earth’s predators. As well as the one most intelligent, adaptive, productive and creatively resourceful. Not to mention, now that I think of it, most destructively resourceful. And relentless. At least of those visible predators on earth that we know of. And there are plenty of works, in every part and throughout many levels of the earth, that testify – quite powerfully and eloquently – to this side of his nature. But are there no others?

Aren’t there works of his which remind us that, at least on occasion, he can be something much more? Indeed (if I may venture the gradation at all) not even just more. But also, in places – in the odd garden here or there – something profoundly different from a predator. So different, in fact, as to appear almost the opposite?

Conceivably, even - in the right Hands, of course - at least as much shepherd as wolf?

20 August 2013

Wisdom from our Times

"Contrary to popular nostalgia, the best things in life ARE things.

"And no, they aren't free."

18 August 2013

Former Selves (and How We Choose to Hate Them)

New selves. Most of the time, I suppose, they’re pretty wonderful. Until they start running way ahead of everbody, God included. Until they start imagining the only way to “secure” the progress they’ve made is to hate (or loathe, or despise, or condescend to, or disclaim all prior connection with) their former selves. As if it were some crowning human virtue to be heartily ashamed of whatever thread of continuity, thin or strong, still exists between that indescribable creature God first imagined us to be, and what presently He (hopefully He, that is, and not ourselves) is re-imaging us. But maybe I can illustrate with a couple of stories.        

Number one: A teenager stays out all night unexplainedly. The next morning his brothers and sisters all rally to “cover” for him, in a way meant to cushion if not defuse some serious parental outrage. And quite effectively too, as it turns out. His parents, till the day they die, never once learn the truth of where he was, or what he was doing. A few years later he encounters the same problem with his younger brother (this time both parents being away on vacation). Naturally he’s more or less appalled at the brother’s abysmal want of consideration, responsibility and maturity. Perhaps even decency. And so he defaults to that tried-and-true method of elder-sibling discipline which consists of shouting and screaming first, and asking questions later. And all in a way that straddles uneasily (if it doesn’t actually step over) the border of physical violence.        

Number two: A frightened, confused young woman terminates her pregnancy. Not, though, without considerable uneasiness, followed by a seed of remorse to bear fruit many years down the road. Three decades on, and now firmly in the pro-life camp, she’s developed the most curious ways of talking about other women considering or tempted by abortion. About their overriding need, not to explore adoption as a healthy, natural and viable alternative, but to “face the music,” to take “full responsibility” for their actions.      

It is, I think, a rather sad state of affairs when we begin to measure our freedom, distance and independence from old and bad behaviors by our absence of compassion or mercy for people in like circumstances. As if it would defile or contaminate us even so much as to remember what it was like – much less who and what we were – back when we were in that place. Of course we all have our various ways of hating and disavowing old selves; of protecting our futures from our pasts, so speak. But there is one way that I can easily imagine being among the worst. In addition to being perhaps the most politically and religiously divisive, on both familial, local and global scales (prospective jihadists – and those who study them! – please take note).        

There is a kind of imagination that I could almost swear is as old as creation. Or at least as old as that peculiar mercy by which God was moved to go back to the drawing-board with that first human pair in the garden, instead of writing them off. There is a kind of imagination which enables you to enter into, and dwell for a time – to tent, or tabernacle, as it were – in the misery and horror, not just of what I’ve done, but of who I am. Or, more precisely, of what I’ve become. Almost as if One, who knew me far better than you could ever know yourself, were to make you a small part of a bridge to an older, and newer, and better mode of me:  a version not just incomparably richer, but immeasurably more absorbing and satisfying, both to myself and (thank God for that) to other people. In short, a better me than even you or I, in all our hard-earned wisdom and experience, could ever conceive of, much less engineer. I have little doubt, too that as God’s Incarnation comes to dwell in each of us more fittingly and securely – like a gem in its setting – that same imagination is quickened, sharpened, made more penetrating and discerning. After all, it’s only right that that which is both the purest fulfillment of your human nature, and that nature’s supremest pleasure – namely, the formation of God Himself in the very core of your being – should also be the Way by which you know most utterly, most as if it were your own, the origins and meaning of another’s pain, and another's sin.          

At the same time this imaginative gift is not something to which any of us is joined at the hip. You and I are quite free to disrespect or neglect, or even scorn and ridicule, this strange faculty as much we like. Or rather, more commonly, as much as we deem necessary, for that urgent and holy business of defending and asserting ourselves, and getting on, and making our way in the world. I can’t help but think, however, that as we make progress down that particular road – for now I’ll call it the Anti-Imaginative Path – we strangle not just a part of who we were, and indeed are, but the fullness of what we can become. After all it’s no small thing to smother, in myself, precisely that in me which is best able to love most freely, and with most joy. That in me which is able to see any God-made thing most purely and accurately for itself, as it were:  for the Divine delight that it was from the beginning, and not just for the human convenience or obstacle, or irrelevance or terror, that it has since been made.       

In short, it seems to me, if there exists one way both saving and releasing, both shielding and liberating, of entering into another human creature’s agony, it is that Sacrifice through which you and I are indwelt by a humanly incarnate God. A sacrifice that tells – in graphic detail, if you will – of the kind of God we have, and why He is inconceivably different from any god we could ever conceive of. Of course another sort of god might have devised another, cleverer and cleaner means of release. One no doubt involving much less cost to himself, and much greater risk to us. But he would not be the God Who is by His very nature literally and actually Love.      

The same Love, incidentally, of which you and I are called to be not just objects but instruments. Indeed here we see, as perhaps nowhere else, the humility of the Divine love at its most radical and uncompromising:  that One Who is Absolute Purity should make the impure His voice, and hands, and feet; that He should yearn not just to give love to us, but to be Love through us.         

So why do I constrain His work in my heart? Why do I affect to be better than my Master, and so refuse to identify with the lost and miserable, even to the point where I try to expurgate my own memory – my own soul, as it were? It could be I think I’m keeping myself pure and unspotted by the world. Or that I’m necessarily burning a highly dangerous – if not a deadly – bridge back to that horrid place where I can recall most vividly what it’s like (“it must really suck”) to be you. But of all the various ways in which we humans try to surpass or transcend ourselves, surely among the most deadening is that way which, far from sustaining and enlarging my ability to enter into the heart of your affliction, kills it.  

15 August 2013

American Deism

Truth to tell, I'm not sure exactly what I mean by that phrase. But a tentative definition might run as follows:

The two statements from the post immediately below, plus a third:

The surest way for man to keep doing God's work is to continue putting Him out of a job. 

American Romanticism

God made the country; man made the town.

Moral: God never makes anything that He doesn't expect man to improve on. And not just considerably, but, where possible, beyond recognition.

17 January 2013

Yule 2012 Recap: More like an Antichristmas

Having been away from blogging for most of last year's second half (due in large measure, first, to a fairly serious illness, and second, to a semi-major relocation), my one wish is that I could have come back to it under better circumstances. But recent events in Connecticut and elsewhere left me in anything but a Christmas-like mood.  I’ll do my best to make up for lost time, though I can hardly guarantee even the meager results my limited lot of readers have come to expect.  

Indeed, some of the sharper among them may be quick to point out that even seemingly idyllic Nativity narratives (“ideal for children”) are no strangers to the massacring of innocence. At least, however, in the case of Matthew’s Gospel the perpetrator was a king madly unsure of his crown, whose pretext was a kind of paranoid expediency; it wasn't, say, a former Temple student seeking posthumous glory as a mass-homicidal pervert. In any case, thank Heaven we don’t have mass-homicidally insecure absolute despots running around modern America. We have other kinds of despots, and I suspect sufficient historical hindsight will reveal the alarming extent to which they’ve come to permeate both our public and our business life. But as for outright insanity, both our methods and our candidates for madness differ notably from those of Herod’s time.  

In fact, what it seems we’re discovering these days is that potential loons – and of course I do mean even the dangerously loony – can turn up practically anywhere. And often say and do the darndest things. And not least the kids among them. If only the militarily criminally insane were found just in kings’ palaces. Or on the front lines of intimately vicious civil or covert or guerrilla wars. The scary thing is that, however few and statistically “irrelevant” these mad avengers remain, nowadays they’re at least as likely to descend on movie theaters, shopping malls and primary schools as on gang-warfare-ravaged slums. Weirdest of all, they don’t just deposit themselves in clean, leafy suburbs to do their dirty work. They’ve even been known to grow out of them.  
And I just can’t seem to get over the shock. Indeed, despite the "measured" tone of my last post, I'm not even sure I want to.

It may well be, of course, that I’ve bought into our national myths – of by-golly-gee-whiz American innocence – far more than I realized. Mind you, I can easily excuse anyone being shocked to read of these vile things happening in, say, some peaceful town or village, far removed from labor strife or civil war, in the middle of the American or British 19th century. Or even in either of those countries’ hideously socialist mid-twentieth centuries (wrap your brain round that paradox). There's one thing, however, that in any case should NOT shock me. It is that an America like our modern version – a nation so not only self-destructively busy, but almost honor- and duty-bound, as it were, to make money any envelope-shredding way it can – has come to think nothing of polluting its own wellsprings. That an America like ours should deem it, at worst, a sad but inescapable necessity to waste, neglect, abuse or corrupt its own, well, literal American innocence. Whether by means of the latest simulated-reality videogames, or via some other cutting-edge mode of media rabies. As if children were, you know, nothing much in themselves. At least nothing much worth worrying about, so long as no pervert physically bothers them ("Why, kids practically raise THEMSELVES, don't they?"). Nothing more than so many Lockean blank pages, on which we more seasoned ones must ("for Liberty's sake!") be free to write every manner of social rottenness and filth and horror. The better, of course, to initiate them into all the rigors and terrors of the “real” world:

“After all, it really doesn’t matter what we expose them to, or how early; I mean, whatever doesn’t kill them only makes them stronger, right?” 

Right, then:  so let’s say my security-guard uncle had to live well into mid-life before he had the dubious privilege of seeing human brains or entrails splattered on a classroom window. Am I supposed to consider it a mark of social advance, that in a generation or two that initiating age is as likely to be five as forty-five?

More clarity on this in a few days (I hope). And sorry for the graphic note on which I ended. I clearly have some things I need to work through.

13 January 2013

Sandy Hook Notwithstanding

Call me a hopelesssly muddleheaded optimist (never mind for now what other epithets I may have earned).

It's just that the older I get, and the more I see of "Life" so-called, the more I'm persuaded that most people essentially want to do good. If not exactly to be good (which can be a very different thing in any case). At the same time I'm also struck by how often we mortals are surrounded by, if not saturated with, some really screwed-up notions of what good is, and how it ought to be done. In fact, more and more I'm inclined to wonder if the most perennial routine moral problem we humans face is not people who are bent on doing harm, or who don't care a damn - or are incapable of caring - what harm they do. It is rather the utter cluelessness of the rest of us who try, or purport, or presume to deal with the various potential and other harm-doers.

But now try to imagine, if you can, that more of our "great and good" people were to become actually serious about doing good well, for a change. And not just doing it passionately, or exhaustingly, or expensively. Or even expertly. What might be an outcome?

Surely, at very least, we'd find ourselves paying a rather closer and more respectful - perhaps even humble? - attention to individuals themselves? While channeling somewhat less of our usual reverence to the procedures, programs, systems designed to manage (= warehouse) them? Might we be rather more attentive to individual specifics, rather less beholden to, or besotted with, generalities? In short, rather more reverent - at least the Jews and Christians among us - of the things God has made, a mite less worshipful of the products of our own tinkering?

I'm not saying even a bare majority of us would necessarily agree concerning what to do about this or that individual. At least not right away. But I do suspect that more than a few good and talented people - each in their respective ways, and according to their respective schools and disciplines and training - would become vastly better at recognizing the point(s) at which cognitive or perceptual impairment veers off into mental derangement, and mental derangement teeters on the edge of moral depravity.

Of course those points would vary, again, from one individual to another. (Thus raising the inevitable questions of manpower and availability. On the other hand didn't Somebody, once upon a pre-automated time, have something useful to say about plentiful harvests and shortages of labor?)  Hence my original emphasis on attentiveness, and in particular to those immemorial complexities in any living thing that predate our busy hands and brains and procedures. Along with its implication that, before we can look at any one or any thing in terms of what we can make of it, or ought to make of it - before, indeed, we decide we ought to make it into anything else at all - it might behoove us to spend a bit more time understanding what it is already. And since our various warehousing systems, theories, programs, etc, are almost by definition more concerned with the use ("What can we get out of it?") than with the knowledge or the intrinsic value of any creature, frankly I'm at a loss to understand just how they're supposed to do that. Or at least in a way that actually lightens the burden of our omni-expanding security procedures? As opposed to our usual pattern of making them still heavier? Or more obnoxiously invasive? Or more behavior-monitoring (or even -modifying?)

Just a thought.

03 January 2013

Modern Idealism (and its discontents?)

For all the chicanery and skulduggery of our modern US politics and finance, I firmly believe - and will argue to anyone's face - that these are fiercely idealistic times. After all, it takes a truly rare and ferocious idealist to be prepared to stab his friends, his colleagues, his family, his country in the back for the sake of a principle. Yet it has been done, and I'm told on more than one occasion.* Even to the extent of the idealist finally sacrificing his own health, sanity, or peace of mind to his Immortal Dream of - what? The perfect program? Or company? Or lobby? Or (gun-free or gun-ridden) political/economic utopia?

* And arguably by a growing number of key political and economic players - though so far their efforts seem largely confined to intermittent Russian roulette games with the Nation's credit rating, geopolitical credibility with allies, etc. 

Or, if nothing else, to his cussed sense of being right. Anyhow, here’s what I suspect many of our modern idealists – both public and private and even not-for-profit – are thinking (if only they could dare say it): 

“Please understand me: This task, this project, this program, this agenda, this enterprise, is so vital, and so worthy of our utmost sacrifice, that we’re not going to be satisfied with anyone doing merely his or her respective best. Do you understand me? We’re not going to settle for just doing our best. We’re going to do it RIGHT. Even if it kills us.” 

That last sentence, of course, being the only part they don't dare say. Not yet, anyway.

Now here's my question: Suppose the odd chance that there are, in the mid-to-upper reaches of today’s global society, even a goodly handful of bright, gifted, powerful, successful and extremely influential people. All of whom are prepared to make themselves and others mortally wretched for the sake of something they believe to be good in the long run (“maybe not in this generation, or the next one, or even the next . . .”). And that the great majority of them are not confirmed bachelors or celibates or monks, but go on to have children. And that these same children proceed to grow up, after a fashion. Or at least grow out of what was likely in any case a not terribly happy childhood. If gifted and highly respected individuals are willing to kill themselves and others very slowly, as it were, for the sake of the ultimate wealth or growth, or progress, or human perfectibility, then why does it surprise us that other gifted, albeit sorely neglected (misnurtured?) individuals, should fantasize about killing and dying very quickly, for the sake of the ultimate lunacy? And are even more and more prepared, it would seem, to act on that lunacy?