Category Archives: human nature

violet

The Wisdom of Violet

All this thinking is highly overrated. Violet, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey

season five

As “Downton Abbey” continues through its sixth and final season here in the States, here are some thoughts from a few months ago from everyone’s favorite character . . .

The American showing of Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey’s fifth season just ended, to the dismay of its millions of fans who now must wait until next January to get their next Downton fix. It’s a bit worse for Jeanne and me. Late last year Jeanne signed up to throw a few monthly dollars in the direction of our local PBS station; in return, we were shipped the full fifth season of the series in DVD at the end of January. The fifth season had just started its Sunday evening run a couple of weeks earlier, and now we had in our hands the rest of the season with no need to parcel the episodes out one week at a time. The DVDs showed up a couple of days before we got smacked with Juno, the first and worst of a series of winter storms that came in unrelenting succession over the next month. With Tuesday and then Wednesday classes cancelled, we binge-watched Lord Grantham along his relatives and homies cavort and angst through eight straight episodes—about eleven or twelve hours of viewing. And we wanted more.

All Downton fans have their favorite characters—I’ve noted in a previous post from a few weeks back that mine is Mister Carson, the erstwhile butler of the establishment.

The Wisdom of Mister Carson

violetBut everyone loves Lord Grantham’s mother Violet, the dowager countess and source of endless entertainment from meaningful glances to pithy retorts, a lovably manipulative force behind virtually everything going on in each episode with a wit as dry as a martini. Violet is played so memorably by Dame Maggie Smith that I cannot imagine anyone else being Violet (although I suspect Dame Judi Dench could do it, just differently). In this most recent season any number of Violet one-liners made me laugh, then think. Here are a few of them.

All this thinking is highly overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914 nobody ever thought.

Downton Abbey begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and in five seasons has proceeded through the Great War to the disturbing, iconoclastic years in the war’s wake, concluding the fifth season at Christmas 1923. In my twenty-plus years of teaching in an interdisciplinary humanities program, the most important thing I have learned about history is that no event ever changed the world so fully and irrevocably as World War One. yeatsWilliam Butler Yeats captured these dark transformations perfectly in his 1919 poem “The Second Coming.”

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction, while the

Worst are full of passionate intensity.

That these lines are directly applicable to our world a century later is testimony to just how complete the changes were.

Violet finds herself in a world she does not understand in which none of the fixed and reliable rules that have given her life and society stability apply. There was a time when people knew their place, when one knew what to expect, when things made sense. That world is gone, and she blames it on too much thinking. She might have a point. Not long ago some philosophical wag wrote that “Socrates may have been right when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but the overexamined life is nothing to write home about either.”

A lack of compassion is as vulgar as an excess of tears.

maryThis is Violet’s comment to her granddaughter Mary when Mary shows a remarkable lack of concern for her sister Edith’s sadness and mourning over the death of her lover and father of her child. It is a remarkable comment from a woman whose whole life has been defined by the sort of British aristocratic reserve that looks, at least on the surface, like lack of compassion on steroids. But an excess of any sort on the spectrum of emotion is “vulgar,” perhaps the worst thing that could possibly be said about a British aristocrat in the post-Edwardian era.

In my team-taught colloquium entitled “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Freedom and Truth in the Nazi Era,” my students (and I) regularly struggle to find the appropriate emotional response to the horrors we are studying. At the end of our final class last week before spring break, my historian teammate Ray ended the two hours with a few minutes video from the liberation of Auschwitz. Emaciated, skeletal bodies piled fifteen feet or more high. auschwitzThese bodies being thrown one by one into a mass grave. Ray wisely ended the class with no comment, switching the computer off as students quietly gathered their things and filed out.

As I’ve been reading my students’ intellectual notebook entries this week, several have written “I don’t know how to respond to what I was seeing.” And neither do I. But our response cannot be academic and clinical, nor can it be a paralyzing wave of emotion. The worst that we humans can do to each other must be responded to with all of the resources available to us. Our response must be human, in other words. This reminds me yet again of why I resonate with a religion whose central truth is that God became human.

Hope is a tease to prevent us from accepting reality.

To which the idealist responds that realism or pragmatism is a device to help us avoid dreaming of and hoping for what could be rather than settling for what is. I have written occasionally about the dynamic of hope in this blog,

Hopeful Thinking

and like to think of myself as a “pragmatic idealsimpragmatic idealist” or perhaps an “optimistic realist.” These things really are not contradictory, although many (including Violet) assume that they are. The philosopher in me tends toward realism, with Aristotle, David Hume, William James as three of my most important philosophical influences. Yet that realism is tempered by my faith which in my understanding both applies directly to the real world I struggle with every day yet offers transcendent hope that there is more to reality than what I struggle with every day. I resonate with Hamlet’s conviction that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy”—this is how I manage to be both a philosopher and a Christian, something that a good friend worried that I would not be able to pull off many years ago.

Thanks, Violet, for your thought-provoking insights and asides—keep them coming!violet 2

Carson and Hughes

The Wisdom of Mister Carson

 

As those who love Masterpiece Theater and great television know, “Downton Abbey” is in the middle of its sixth and final season on Sunday nights here in the U. S. I’ve written frequently about what I’ve learned from this show–here’s a post about my favorite Downton character from a bit over a year ago . . .

Season FourIn anticipation of Season Five of “Downton Abbey” making it across the pond to PBS next month, Jeanne and I just finished binge-watching Season Four over the last few evenings to remind us, first, of exactly what is going on in the lives of the two dozen or so characters in the middle of the 1920s and, second, just why this is probably our favorite show on television. That’s saying a lot. We love good television and have several series that we keep up with religiously, including “The Newsroom” which just finished its final season (bummer) and “Homeland” which is close to the end of its fourth season. We are anxiously awaiting the return of “The Americans” next month on FX for a new season. But “Downton Abbey” is a phenomenon in our house, just as it has been for millions of other viewers. No violence, no nudity or sex, no f-bombs—just great character development and brilliant acting from top to bottom. Who knew that people would like something like that?

I learned many months ago that if I was a character on “Downton Abbey,” I would be the stodgy and formal Mr. Carson.mister carson

Which Downton Abbey character are you?

And that’s fine with me. Mr. Carson runs the staff similarly to how I run the academic program I direct, with a firm hand and an occasional adjusting of the rules when appropriate. I’m a bit concerned about Mr. Carson’s attachment to tradition and fear of new things, but he’s loosening up a bit as the seasons progress. The main reason I resonate with Mr. Carson is his penchant for pithy and insightful one-liner comments on what is going on around him, a talent rivaled in Downton only by the Dowager Countess of Grantham Violet Crowley upstairs. Here are a few Carsonian observations from the early episodes of Season Four:

I always thought there is something foreign about high spirits at breakfast.

morning personHere’s a difference between Mr. Carson and me—he’s not a morning person and I am. I’m at the gym every morning at 6:00. I would much rather teach at 8:30 than at 1:30 (which is my nap time). But the kind of morning person I am is not the sort which is inclined to “high spirits.” I love the morning because it is quiet, because if there is any time during the day that I will be able to slip immediately into “centered” mode, it is when I first get up. As I read the appointed Psalm 90 this morning, I read

In the morning, fill us with your love;

We shall exult and rejoice all our days

Mercyand a reading from Lamentations at my friend and colleague’s memorial service a couple of weeks ago reminded me that the mercies of the Lord are renewed every morning. Morning is a good time to reset and, if necessary, commit to a “redo” of previous days that didn’t work out as planned, intended or wished. As Jeanne mentioned the other day, if the Lord renews mercy every morning, then there’s no reason we cannot be merciful to ourselves. High spirits are not required.

The business of life is the acquisition of memories.

One of my last classes with my Honors freshmen this semester was focused on Book Eleven of Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine on timea fascinating and complex analysis of time that no philosopher matched or surpassed for a millennium after Augustine. One of his interesting questions has to do with what it is that we are focusing our attention on when we consider past events in the present. The past event is gone, but everything that we experience leaves some sort of internal impression on us, bits and pieces that we file away, consciously or unconsciously, in our “memory banks.” Each person’s history, indeed each person, is a creative stitching together of these impressions. Because we know that these internal impressions are impermanent and fleeting, we take pictures, write memoirs, and tell stories, all in the attempt to make permanent what is fleeting. Earlier in Psalm 90 this morning, the psalmist describes what we are fighting against.

You sweep us away like a dream,

like grass which springs up in the morning.

In the morning it springs up and flowers;

by evening it withers and fades.

Which brings me to one more piece of wisdom from Mr. Carson.

We shout and scream and wail and cry but in the end we must all die

HughesAs Mrs. Hughes, the chief housekeeper who is the closest thing Mr. Carson has to a best friend replies, “Well, that’s cheered me up. Thank you.” Who knew that Mr. Carson is a philosopher? Mr. Carson is the epitome of English reserve, carrying the most British stiff upper lip imaginable; if he was a philosopher, he would be an early twentieth-century incarnation of the Stoicism of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. Stoic reserve is just one of many possible responses to a brutal and inescapable fact—we all are going to die.

Impermanence and loss is a continuing theme throughout the seasons of “Downton Abbey,” through the ravages of World War I in Season Two to the tragic death of the heir to the family fortune in a car crash at the end of Season Three, a loss that is the connecting thread throughout all of the Season Four episodes that Jeanne and I finished watching last evening. By the end of the season some people are moving on, good fortune has smiled on others, but an uncertain future faces them all. This isn’t BBC drama—this is real life. One of the interesting attractions of “Downton Abbey” is that happiness and despair, misfortune and luck, triumph and defeat, are features of everyone’s lives—upstairs and downstairs, privileged and struggling, the family and the help. Violet and EdithAn extended study of life as it happens does not require spies, blowing things up, gratuitous torture and dismemberment, or naked boobs and butts every week. All it requires is noticing how life actually happens to us. As Violet, the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham tells her struggling and star-crossed granddaughter Edith, “Life is a series of problems that we need to solve—first one, then another—until we die.” Ain’t it the truth.Carson and Hughes

Hope in Exile

As is the case with any profession, the life of an academic includes some great and some not-so-great features. After twenty-five years of being a college professor, here’s a brief list:

Great:

• Sabbatical

• Being in the classroomlove teaching

• Team-teaching with colleagues

• Planning courses

• Writing

• Beer with fellow teachers on Friday afternoons

Not So Much:

• Gradingtechnology

• Being in a dysfunctional department

• Trying to get what you have written published

• Technology in the classroom

And academic conferences. Especially academic conferences

I have written in the past about my dislike of academic conferences. Conference papers are the bread-and-butter of the academic life when climbing the tenure and promotion ladder, but I’ve never been a fan. A lot of posturing, name-dropping, networking and having papers read at you. Not to mention overheated and ugly seminar rooms along with stale pastries and lukewarm coffee. I do not learn much just by listening to someone—I’m more a visual and tactile learner—but traditionally that’s been the way things go at conferences. colloquy posterOf course I usually forget that when I present a paper, I’m expecting my audience to appreciate mine far more than I enjoy theirs.

Fortunately I have not had to work the academic conference circuit vigorously since I earned promotion to full professor almost fifteen years ago. There is, however, one group of academics that I enjoy gathering with annually for a conference—the American Weil Society. If you read this blog regularly or even occasionally, you know that Simone Weil shows up on a semi-regular basis. I’ve had an intellectual affair with this strange woman from the first half of the twentieth century for at over fifteen years now (Jeanne calls Simone my mistress), a connection that has produced a book, several articles, and a paper at the Weil colloquy almost every year.

I have attended the annual Weil Society colloquy just about every year for the past couple of decades; we have hosted the Weil colloquy twice in the past ten years here at Providence College. There are a solid two dozen or so Weil scholars from North America who attend just about every colloquy. The theme of this year’s colloquy is hope in exile“Hope in Exile,” an evocative topic that prompted me to send in a brief proposal. The proposal was accepted, so now I have to write the paper. That’s one of the great things about a blog—it provides me with an opportunity to run my thoughts past intelligent people before I am responsible for them in person.

As I searched my notes and Simone Weil texts the other day for “hope” references, I was surprised to find that she doesn’t explicitly discuss the topic very often. And yet, the theme of how to avoid despair in the middle of a world that seems determined to drive us toward it on a daily basis is a thread that winds through most of her writing. In her final work, NfrThe Need for Roots, Weil considers why despair is not a necessity.

If pure good were never capable of producing on this earth true greatness in art, science, theoretical speculation, public enterprise, if in all these spheres there were only false greatness, if in all these spheres everything were despicable, and consequently condemnable, there would be no hope at all for the affairs of this world; no possible illumination of this world by the other one. But it is not so. (Emphasis mine)

This reminded me of something I just read the other day from Marilynne Robinson:

Cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and, since we are human, there are always grounds for it. It has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible. And from time to time it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream-state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat.

One encounters this sort of “somber panic” and such proposed “terrible remedies” everywhere one turns these days. When everything is pushing intelligent people toward cynicism and/or despair, what reasons are there, if any, to cultivate hope? The cynic is likely to agree with Violet, dowager countess of downtonDownton Abbey, who says that “hope is a tease to keep us from accepting reality.” The hopeful person might counter with something like what I heard Maria Popova say on NPR’s “On Point” the other day: “Cynicism is the sewage of the soul.” My guess is that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes.

Simone Weil’s insight is a good place to start. If it is actually the case that human beings are incapable of producing anything of value, if it is true that even the best of human endeavors are polluted by falsity and worthy of condemnation, then cynicism or despair are the reasonable order of the day. There is no reason other than naïveté to hope for anything other than a continuation of mediocrity, violence, and death until we finally manage to snuff ourselves out. But after setting the stage for such despair, Weil opens the window a crack with just one sentence: But it is not so. RobinsonMarilynne Robinson concludes her comments on the attractiveness of cultural pessimism with a similar sentiment.

When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism—exactly the same grounds, in fact—that is, because we are human . . . To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

The stakes could not possibly be higher. As I begin working on this with the upcoming conference in mind, I start with the premise that what really needs to be sorted out is the relationship between critical thinking and hope, since critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Our contemporary challenge is to find a place between the scylla and charybdisScylla of cynicism and the Charybdis of naïveté, seeking to build a life in that space because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom as well as a futile self-protection mechanism. And perhaps it is worth taking note of Simone Weil’s suggestion that the illumination of this world by “the other one” might be a reason to hope. What is that other world? How might a passageway for mutual illumination be opened? Stay tuned—I welcome your ideas and contributions!

the other

I Was a Stranger

A few days ago in a Facebook discussion thread that I should have avoided participating in, a person developed an extended analogy in which she likened the presence of undocumented immigrants in our country to an infestation of raccoons in one’s basement. To solve the problem one should hire the most effective exterminator one can find–the exterminator’s moral fiber, methods, or personal qualities are irrelevant. If the raccoons are undocumented immigrants, it is not difficult to imagine what lessons we are to draw from the exterminator.

This made me think about an essay about strangers I wrote a bit over a year ago . . .

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the story of one of the strangest love triangles imaginable. Acis and GalateaTwo points of the triangle make sense—Galatea, a sea-nymph and Acis, the son of a sea-nymph—but the third point makes things interesting. The story of Polyphemus the Cyclops is well-known from Homer’s Odyssey, but Ovid’s story involves Polyphemus in earlier days—solitary, huge, hairy,  one-eyed, and hopelessly in love with Galatea. Galatea, who tells the story, isn’t having any of it: “I could not say whether love for Acis or hatred of the Cyclops was stronger in me.” But Polyphemus is not deterred. He combs his hair with a rake, trims his beard with a scythe, suspends his habit of destroying passing ships and eating the sailors, playing musicand settles down on top of a hill with a homemade instrument made of “a hundred bound reeds” to try his hand at musical composition and performance.

The Cyclops’ hilarious love song reveals his inexperience at wooing sea nymphs, as his descriptions of Galatea range from “more radiant than crystal, smoother than shells polished by the tide” to “meaner than a pregnant bear . . . more vicious than a snake that’s been stepped on and kicked.” Toward the middle of his ode, Polyphemus gets down to business: “If you really knew me, Galatea, you’d be sorry you ran.” Understanding that a hairy giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead is not your typical match for a sea nymph, the Cyclops emphasizes what he brings to the relationship table—polyphemussurprisingacisandgalatealots of sheep and goats, a nice cozy cave, all the fresh fruit one could want from his orchard, as well as excellent family connections through his father Neptune, the god of the sea. What’s not to like? “Tell me why, when you turn your back on Cyclops, you love Acis, and why do you prefer his embrace to mine?” Polyphemus’ frustration rises to the boiling point when he catches sight of Galatea and Acis making love in the forest; he tears the top off a mountain and drops it on top of Acis while Galatea dives into the ocean in terror. throwing a rockAcis’ blood seeping from under the pile of rocks turns into a river as Acis is turned into a river-god, yet another metamorphosis in Ovid’s strange collection of stories.

The tale of Galatea and Polyphemus was one of many I discussed in seminar with twelve Honors freshmen last Friday. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, various suggestions ranged from a comparison of civilized with barbarian people to a morality tale about the dangers of unrequited love. “But why doesn’t Galatea take Polyphemus’ advances seriously?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “The Cyclops has a lot to offer—a nice place to live, a comfortable lifestyle, property, great family connections—he’s even captured a couple of bear cubs so Galatea can have unusual and interesting pets! What’s not to like (other than his being a hairy giant with one eye, that is)?” Why does Galatea prefer Acis, who is a nonentity with nothing to offer other than being good-looking? In the middle of a number of very amusing comments from my students, one young lady thoughtfully hit the nail on the head: “Polyphemus is just too different, too unusual, too scary for Galatea to take him seriously.” the otherUndoubtedly true, which raises an important larger problem: The Problem of the Other.

Human beings are hard-wired to form the strongest connections with those who are most like themselves, dividing naturally into groups of “Us” versus “Them” according to dividing lines both natural and imaginary. The Problem of the Other covers all manner of challenges and fears, from those who look different through those who think differently to those who do not share our values. The Other is often the person or persons who I choose to ignore or pretend does not exist, those who I choose to treat as invisible. But just as Polyphemus could not be ignored, neither can the Other. Furthermore, yesterday’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, those who we would just as soon ignore are the very persons who are to be the primary focus of our concern. 6a00e54ecc070b88330177444f3010970d-320wiAnd our spiritual survival depends on it.

In Matthew 25 can be found the familiar apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment, with those judged being separated into the sheep and the goats (sort of like Polyphemus’ charges) and sent to eternal bliss or darkness. More interesting than the possibility of reward or damnation are the criteria used to make the judgment. Explaining to the sheep on their way to the heavenly kingdom why this is their destination, Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And we don’t need to wait for Jesus to show up to act this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” obamaThe greatest challenge of the life of faith is to recognize the divine in the most unlikely places—and in those people who are the most invisible.

In his prime time speech on immigration reform not long ago, President Obama closed with a rewording of a passage from Exodus 22: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers . . .” I fully understand that public policy should not be shaped according to religious principles, but there is a psychological truth in these passages that transcends the various choices concerning religion that one might make. The moral health of an individual or a group is revealed by how they choose to treat those most unlike themselves. small victoriesThe outsider, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the poor—all of the various manifestations of the Other. For at heart we are all strangers seeking a home. As Anne Lamott writes, “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full.” To refuse a home to the stranger, to reject those who are unlike us, to imagine that different means less important, is to imagine fellow human beings as Polyphemus—too strange, too different, too scary to be included, appreciated or loved. But just as Polyphemus, all of us need the same things. And we are called to be those things for each other.sheep and goats

Give Us Barabbas

easter cantataAn annual musical fixture of my Baptist upbringing was the Easter Cantata. Each year on Easter evening our small choir would perform a contemporary setting of the Passion and Easter story from Last Supper through the Resurrection. My aunt Gloria was the choir director, several of my relatives sang in the choir from my pre-teen years on, and from about age twelve through high school I was the piano accompanist for this annual event. We weren’t that good and the quality of the music we performed was even worse, cranked out in some evangelical music factory on a regular basis in a sad mockery of the superhuman weekly bachcantata-composing efforts of my musical hero, Johann Sebastian Bach, in 18th century Leipzig.

The cantata score each year as well as our performance was completely forgettable, but I was reminded the other day of a striking feature of each cantata. During the portion portraying Jesus’ trial before Pilate, one male would sing the part of Pilate (my cousin Greg one year), another would be Jesus (my cousin Greg a different year), and the rest of the choir was the crowd singing “Release unto us Barabbas!” “Away with this man!” “We have no king but Caesar!” and “Crucify him!” I remember clearly the strange dissonance of these lyrics sung vigorously in a building dedicated to the worship of the man being condemned to death; even though the temptation was to consider the crowd as evil sinners, give us barabbasI also remember wondering if there might have been more than a few well-meaning folks in the group calling for Jesus’ crucifixion who actually thought they were doing the right thing. Sometimes “Give us Barabbas!” seems to make sense.

I think we find ourselves in one of those times. Regular readers of this blog know that I have been wondering about how Christians who are also Republicans fit all of that together and, most recently, why so many evangelical Christians support Donald Trump. Then this past Sunday, Donald Trump gave the convocation address at Liberty University, the self-proclaimed largest evangelical Christian university in the world.

Donald Trump at Liberty Universitytrump at liberty

Interviews with students afterwards revealed strong support for Trump because of his perceived honesty, directness, outside-Washington status, business experience, and the perception that he had the best chance among the Republican candidates to defeat Hillary Clinton. Trump’s inability to identify the location of his favorite Bible verse or to even quote it accurately, his apparent lack of any commitment to traditional Christian values beyond lip service, and the fact that a conservative Christian leader described Trump recently as “the most immoral and ungodly man to ever run for President of the United States” seemed to matter little, if at all. One student said “I know a lot of people speak of his ego and how that’s not a Christian value — but I honestly think his ego is what gets things done. I’m okay with an egotistical president. He wants to be the best, and I think for that reason, he gets things done.” When faced with the opportunity to judge a candidate according to the values he and his chosen university profess, this student chose to punt. “Give us Barabbas.”givenness

At the gym later in the day I read an essay from Marilynne Robinson’s recent collection The Givenness of Things that shone some new light on these matters. In “Awakening,” Robinson reflects on a contemporary phenomenon that runs rampant through our current public and political discourse—a professed “Christianity” that looks and sounds like anything but Christianity.

No doubt as a consequence of a recent vogue for feeling culturally embattled, the word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic. On one hand I do not wish to overstate the degree to which these two uses of the word “Christian” are mutually exclusive, and on the other hand I think it would be a very difficult thing to overstate how deeply incompatible they can be.

For many people, in other words, “Christianity” has become a tribal label, a marker of “us” vs. “them,” the very sort of tribalism that currently infects and threatens to permanently damage our political and social structures. Robinson notes that when the hallmarks of being a Christian are reduced to “are you in or out?” very un-Christian consequences are inevitable.saved and unsaved

The simple, central, urgent pressure to step over the line that separates the saved from the unsaved, and after this the right, even the obligation, to turn and judge that great sinful world the redeemed have left behind—this is what I see as the essential nature of the emerging Christianity. Those who have crossed this line can be outrageously forgiving of one another and themselves, and very cruel in their denunciations of anyone else.

How is it, I have been wondering recently, that professed Christians can support candidates and policies that are, by any stretch of the imagination, anything but embodiments of traditional Christian values? If Marilynne Robinson is right, it is because contemporary Christianity often is not a way of life or a commitment to the principles of a historic and beautiful religion—it is rather a way to facilitate what are often the worst tendencies in human nature and behavior.

People of good faith get caught up in these things in all times and all places. In the excitement of the moment who really knows he or she might not also shout, “Give us Barabbas!”

muslims are terroristsAll of this sounds rather harsh and judgmental—also not congruent with Christian values. So be it. I grow weary of hearing the name of my faith used in the service of un-Christian and inhumane policies and actions, in much the same way that sincere and serious Muslims must tire of hearing their ancient religion’s name used as a placeholder and justification for terrorism and murder. The truth of the matter is that Christianity as a lived faith runs contrary to much of our deepest, natural human wiring. The first will be last; to him who asks give; turn the other cheek; judge not. Tribal Christianity, on the other hand, appeals to the worst in our nature. As Robinson points out,

It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more than virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed, who are, in fact, a threat to all we hold dear . . . If the claims to Christian identity we hear now are rooted in an instinctive tribalism, they are entirely inappropriate, certainly uninformed, because in its nature the religion they claim has no boundaries, no shibboleths, no genealogies or hereditary claimants.

As Robinson writes, fear and the desire for identity and a place to belong can cause people of good will and intentions to choose and accept things that are in truth the very opposite of what they claim to believe in, even with the real thing right in front of them. But fear need not rule the day.voting

We should take very seriously what the dreadful past can tell us about our blindnesses and predilections. The haunting fact is that we are morally free. If everyone around us is calling for Barabbas, it is only probable—but never necessary—that some of us join in.

squirrel

Hanging Out With Juno

In anticipation of what is likely to be our first real snow of the winter tonight and tomorrow, I’m remembering a visit from a very nasty lady exactly a year ago . . .

My usual reaction as a seasoned New Englander to panicked reports of the next big “Snowpocalypse” event coming our way is “whatever.” So when I heard on the local NPR weather update last Saturday as it snowed a couple of sloppy inches that asnowpocalypse “MAJOR SNOW EVENT” was coming our way late Monday night into Tuesday, I took it with several grains of salt. How many times in my life have the prognosticators predicted a “historic weather event,” only to have it embarrassingly fizzle into little or nothing when the appointed time comes? Except, of course, that weather experts appear to be immune to embarrassment or even the ability to say “we were wrong.” They just keep on predicting the worst in the blind hope that sometime they might actually be right.

But a few things indicated that this time might be different. First, the predictions from various venues were remarkably similar (I heard later that this is because they were using a new model—the American model—for the first time rather than the usual European one. Makes sense). It will start on Monday night, go straight through Tuesday, the wind will be 40-50 miles per hour, 18-24 inches are predicted, and the Providence-Boston area is the bull’s-eye. No waffling, no saying that “the amounts will range from one inch to fifty depending on how the storm tracks,” no qualifications such as “it might turn out to be all rain.” Just “you’re in for a serious weather ass-kicking, Providence.” heraSecond, although I despise the Weather Channel’s insistence that even the most minor weather event must be named, I took notice when I heard that the impending storm had been named Juno. The late January storm last year, named Janus, was bad enough. But everyone knows that Juno/Hera was a bitch. She was manipulative, nasty, arbitrary, and generally not easy to get along with. I know, the fact that her husband Jupiter/Zeus was a serial cheater who slept at the drop of a hat with semi-divine and mortal women in forms ranging from a swan or bull to a shower of gold probably helps explain Juno/Hera’s general bad attitude. But maybe Jupiter/Zeus’ straying activities had something to do with the fact that he couldn’t stand being around his wife. Just saying.

For a teacher, especially early in a new semester, rumored weather cancellations of classes are a pain in the ass. Just as the students do, the faculty claims to be excited about the prospect of an unexpected “day off”—on Sunday I posted on Facebook that I was thoroughly annoyed that the promised storm was coming Monday night through Tuesday. snow dayGiven that Tuesday is the day this semester that I am not in class, I wanted to know why the storm couldn’t be scheduled for Wednesday, by far my heaviest teaching day of the week. What is the point of cancelled classes on a day when I have no classes? But in truth, what I was really worried about was that if Juno turned out to be as bad-ass as predicted, the odds were high that both Tuesday and Wednesday classes would be cancelled. As I chatted with colleagues Monday about the incoming weather event, we privately agreed that having to retool and revise the syllabus in the wake of cancelled classes was a far greater pain than any benefit received from getting to sleep an extra hour or two because of a snow day. I much prefer snow events on the weekend (except when they cancel church on a Sunday that I am scheduled to play the organ—this happened once last winter). In short, people need to check with me before they plan unusual weather.

Jeanne and I decided to park our car in the underground parking lot on campus to spare our Hyundai Eva (named after Adolf Hitler’s girlfriend—a long story) getting snowed and blown on and us the annoyance of digging her out of six-foot drifts. The snow started late Monday afternoon, intensified in the evening, hit hard in the middle of the night, and was going strong when I woke up at my usual 5:15—just as the prognosticators said it would. snow 002Good for them—even a broken clock is right twice every twenty-four hours. Looking out the window I was reminded of my days in Laramie in the eighties where it the wind was so strong during a winter storm that it snowed sideways. It was impossible to tell how much it had actually snowed; due to drifting we had received anywhere from nothing to five feet of the stuff, depending on where I looked. I know from growing up in Vermont that one should never wait until a storm ends to start shoveling—better to shovel 6-8 inches several times than three feet once. But not this time—trying to shovel while Juno was still in Rhode Island would have been as effective as spitting into a hurricane.

snow 004On Tuesday I watched the drifts pile higher and higher, particularly amused when I discovered that there were two feet of snow drifted tight against the back door as well as a larger four- or five-foot drift between that door and the snow shovels six feet away that we had wisely moved from the garage to the back patio to make them easy to grab when the storm was over. This happened at about the same time I learned that classes were also cancelled for Wednesday, throwing all three of my syllabi into complete disarray. And who said that living in New England during the winter is not fun? Jeanne and I did zero shoveling on Tuesday, watched episodes four through nine of Season Five of Downton Abbey (we got the whole thing in DVD a couple of days ago because Jeanne started throwing a few monthly bucks WGBH-PBS’s way a few weeks ago), I drank Balvenie, and we slept well.

Wednesday was less fun because the snow shoveling staff failed to show up and we had to do it ourselves. According to a Facebook acquaintance the official snowfall in Providence from Juno was 19.5 inches (and we know that Facebook is always right), but because of tightly packed three- to four-foot drifts from top to bottom of our driveway, it shoveled like a lot more. With impeccable timing, just as we were close to finished our neighbor Al, with whom we share a driveway, said that he was going to be borrowing a friend’s snowblower and would have been happy to do our side with it. snow 007Actually Al’s a sweetheart and came back with it in time to blow out the end of our drive where the plow had deposited five feet worth of cement-heavy material. Later today I’ll be retrieving our car from the campus lot and parking it in our shoveled driveway just in time for the plow to pile a few feet more of snow in the end as it makes a sweep pushing the banks back in the middle of the night.

Strangely enough, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love New England, including the storms, and snow emergencies bring out the Good Samaritan best in everyone. Al cleared out the end of our driveway, we kicked in $10 to some enterprising youngsters to shovel out our neighbor across the street when she didn’t have enough cash on hand, and everyone is in a “pay it forward” mood. Except the fool who blew his horn impatiently for ten minutes as he sat behind an oil truck delivering oil to our elderly neighbor on the other side whose tank had run dry. I hope Winter Storm Javier dumps five feet on him next January.snow 008

no complaining

Educating the Uneducated

This is the point in the semester where teachers start returning the first graded assignments to students and students start having a fit. A bit over a year ago I wrote about one of these exchanges that was particularly satisfying . . . 

An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly. Epictetus

 We have all had the experience of only realizing after the fact what we should have said in real time. This happens to teachers frequently—you want to tell the unvarnished truth to a student who badly needs to hear it, but circumstances don’t allow it. But every once in a while, one gets the chance to actually say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. DWCI had that opportunity in an email exchange early this week.

A quick setup—I direct an interdisciplinary program (Development of Western Civilization, known colloquially by faculty and students as “DWC” or “CIV”) in which at any given time eighty or so faculty are teaching close to two thousand students. If students are having difficulty in class I am the next resource after the faculty teaching their section. A few evenings ago I received an email from a student complaining about his professor; I gave myself until the next morning, then responded. The original exchange of emails, as well as those that followed, is below. These are entirely unedited other than to change the names (except mine).

11/3/14 7:24 PM Hello Dr. Vance Morgan my name is PO and I am a freshmen at Providence College.  This email is with regards to my CIV seminar teacher Dr. X.  Currently I have a D- in the class and I believe I deserve much better.  In high school I was in the top decile in my grade and history was my best subject.  We recently got midterm grades back and the highest grade in both of X’s seminars was an 82.  I received a 60 and after conversing with some of my classmates I found out that I had done better than a good amount of them.  He gave out very little partial credit where credit was due and he is very bias.  unhappy studentWe also have written 5 papers and I’ve only received back one so far.  Also, in seminar he goes out on tangents and hardly gives time for individuals to participate.  Also, he bashes anyone who has a “wrong” answer that doesn’t consist with his own beliefs.  I know that you are not Dr. X and you can’t speak on his behalf but I do all the readings and take notes in lecture and I do not believe my grade reflects my work ethic solely based on his system of grading.  When the highest grade in both seminar classes (and there are some very smart individuals in my seminar class) is an 82 that says something about his grading system and I believe it is unfair.  He makes his gradings based on if he agrees with the material one’s written.  I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining but I just want to know what you think I should do to do better in the class or if I should do anything else.  Tomorrow I’m going to talk to him about my grade but I doubt he will change anything.  Sorry for bothering you with this long message but I’m doing well in all my other classes and I don’t want CIV to completely destroy my GPA.  Let me know if there’s anything you can do to help or if there is anything I can do to get my grade up.  Thank you for your time and get back to me whenever you get the chance.  Sincerely, PO

11/4/14 8:21 AM Dear PO: After reading your email carefully, I have a couple of comments and a couple of suggestions:

  1. Your record in high school and how you are doing in your other classes this semester is irrelevant to how you are doing in DWC. So are the grades that other students are getting in DWC, which are not your concern. You may have been a successful student in high school and may be doing well in other classes here at PC now but you are not yet a successful student in DWC. If I were you I would also be concerned about my DWC grade and be concerned about how to do better. I would not, however, assume that my grade is something that was arbitrarily given to me by my professor, as you seem to have assumed. Your midterm grade is simply Dr. X’s recording of what you have earned thus far in DWC this semester.
  2. You may believe that eighteen or nineteen years of life experience and eight or nine weeks of college experience qualifies you to have an informed opinion about how a college course should be organized and taught, but you are mistaken. Dr. X is a fine and experienced DWC no complainingprofessor with a well-earned reputation for excellent teaching and a willingness to help students. Your rambling critique of various aspects of seminar and his teaching style is clearly aimed at finding every way possible to place responsibility for your poor performance in DWC this semester on someone other than yourself.
  3. DWC is a difficult course–no one is claiming otherwise. It is not at all unusual for midterm grades to be of the sort that you describe in your email. I had no midterm grades over an 84 in either of my freshman DWC seminars this semester. It often takes a while for freshman students to become acclimated to the rigors of this program and to adjust their usual studying habits to the greater demands of DWC. Things generally get better in the second half of the semester, but only if you use what has happened to this point wisely. The last thing you want to do now is start blaming your professor for your lack of success rather than seriously considering what you need to be doing differently in order to ensure success. Having a good work ethic, doing the readings and taking notes are all good places to start, but are by no means a guarantee of success.

That said, here are a couple of suggestions (since you asked):OAS

  1. Make use of the Office of Academic Services (OAS). The OAS, located in the library, has tutoring available for all aspects of DWC, including writing, note-taking, seminar discussion and preparation for exams and quizzes. They are anxious to be of assistance, particularly to first semester freshmen. Use their services.
  2. Meet with Dr. X. This is the one good idea that you include in your email. But, if you are intending to meet with Dr. X only to argue about your grade, then you are absolutely correct when you “doubt that he will change anything.” He won’t, nor should he. If, rather, you are interested in clarification about grading policies and (especially) getting advice for how to do better in DWC going forward, Dr. X will be happy to help you.
  3. Change your attitude. You say that “I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining,” but that is exactly what you are doing. Your email is nothing but an extended session of complaining and attempting to blame someone else for something that you are ultimately responsible for. attitude adjustmentIf you want to be successful in DWC and in college overall, it’s time to take responsibility for yourself. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (someone you might be studying later this semester) wrote, “An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly.” It’s time to stop doing that. Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 9:42 AM Good morning Dr. X: I thought you might enjoy reading an email that I received last evening from one of your DWC seminar students and my response this morning. . . Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 10:04 AM I apologize for complaining and I appreciate your help. I will do my very best to work harder in the class and use your words of advice to help benefit me in the class.  Thank you. Sincerely, PO11/4/14

10:28 AM Best of luck with the rest of the semester. Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 3:26 PM The young man who wrote you came to visit with me this morning, and seemed quite contrite.  He didn’t bring his exam with him, and simply asked how he might improve.  That was a big change in attitude.  This young man started the semester by putting his head down on the desk while I was lecturing.  He hardly said a word in seminar.  I saw him consulting spark notes before I began seminar last week.  I think you’ve taught him a lesson, Vance.  Time will tell; I’ll keep you informed. Dr. X

Time will indeed tell, as it always does. But in one exchange of emails (1) a student’s path has perhaps been slightly redirected for the better, (2) a professional relationship and friendship with a colleague has been strengthened, and (3) I got to say what every teacher want frequently wants, but seldom gets, to say. Not bad for a day’s work. :-)time will tell

White Privilege

If I lived by my principles fully, I would never shop at Walmart. For reasons too numerous to belabor, Walmart represents many of the worst features of American capitalism. But there are many items that Jeanne and I regularly purchase at Walmart, items that we could get at any number of other retail establishments. So why do we go to Walmart? Because it’s convenient and its cheaper. walmartPrinciples be damned, apparently—I guess there’s an American capitalist in me after all. But I must confess that I don’t enjoy going there—I feel as if I’m doing something wrong every time I pull into Walmart’s parking lot.

Last Saturday was my latest excursion to the dark side for dog treats, a few cheap picture frames, checking the Keurig display (our Walmart occasionally has our favorite Amaretto flavor), shampoo, cold medicine, and a couple of other items for which in our experience Walmart has the lowest prices. After paying I headed for the exit where, as is the custom at this Walmart, there was an employee checking the bags of those leaving the store for the parking lot—something that Jeanne and I both find annoying and yet another reason to hate Walmart. Then something happened that I found worthy of a Facebook post when I got home.

walmart-security-checkHad an interesting experience at Walmart this morning. After buying my stuff and heading for the exit, there’s a Hispanic family in front of me and an African-American guy behind me. After checking the receipt of the family in front of me to make sure everything is accounted for, the Walmart employee at the door (an older white guy) waves me through. I said “No, either you check everybody or you check nobody.” Checking my receipt, he said “you’re right.” In the parking lot afterward, the guy behind me said “thanks, man–that was nice.”

This was not a typical thing for me to do; my awareness usually is only high enough to show the employee my receipt if she or he insists and get the hell out of there. But this time I noticed something and, contrary to my nature, said something about it. “Good for me,” I congratulated myself as I drove home.sticker

White privilege—I confess that although I read about it frequently and have intellectually affirmed that it exists for a long time, in practical terms I have been virtually blind to it. Jeanne and I have laughed occasionally that there are no two whiter people in the world than we are. I have white hair in a ponytail and white skin that is a product of my Scandinavian gene pool. Jeanne acts Italian, but has the beautiful, freckled lily-white skin from the Irish half of her ancestry. Without Jeanne’s red hair we would look like Casper and his significant other. But during our current Presidential election cycle my almost-sixty-year-old whiteness has come to my attention more frequently than in the past—I hear and read over and over again that certain elements of U. S. citizenry is angry, upset about all sorts of things, an anger that is making outsider candidates such as Ben Carson and Donald Trump attractive in spite of their complete lack of traditional qualifications for the Presidency. mad as hellAnd what sorts of people are angriest? Older white people, particularly older white guys. My demographic, in other words.

So what are older white people angry about? According to an older white couple interviewed by MSNBC while standing in line for a Trump rally, “everything.” When asked to be more specific, neither one of them went further than “we want America to be the way it used to be,” in alignment with Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” The attractiveness of that, of course, depends on how one defines “great”—as one of the anchors on “Weekend Update” on the Saturday Night Live broadcast that Donald Trump hosted recently remarked, “Whenever rich old white guys start bringing up the good old days, my Negro senses start tingling.” Specific issues are often raised, but the general sense is often that a segment of the population—particularly older white folks—have a gnawing fear that things they have taken for granted their whole lives are changing and that the world they thought they could depend on seems not quite so dependable any more. There is anger that a world which used to make perfect sense isn’t making sense any more. yodaOne blunt but honest way of describing this is that older white folks aren’t happy about an emerging world in which whiteness and entitlement are no longer synonymous.

I was surprised that my brief Facebook post about my Walmart experience received more “likes” and comments than anything I have ever posted on Facebook—and I’m pretty active there (more than I should be). My experience apparently hit a nerve—positively. One Facebook acquaintance whom I have never met in person commented “Not only is it great that you pointed this out at the time, but it is great that you posted about it. Too many of us white people aren’t even aware that this happens . . . probably partly because we aren’t even aware that ANYONE gets checked . . . when it doesn’t happen to us, we don’t notice.” It takes conscious awareness for the privileged to even see their privilege—this is why “All Lives Matter” from a white person is not an appropriate response to “Black Lives Matter.” This response implies that “of course black lives matter—we all do, because everyone is equal in our country. Didn’t you know that?” Ignoring, of course, the fact that older white folks like I have been the beneficiaries of generations of accumulated and embedded privilege our whole lives, white privilegeusually without our even being aware—it can be jarring to be told forcefully that what we take for granted has been institutionally denied to those unlike us throughout the history of our country.

As I posted on this blog a week ago, my New Year’s Resolution is to find ways to be a blessing in my corner of the world—I’d like to think that my Walmart experience is a start. I’m not an angry older white person—even if I shared the fears of those who express such anger (and I don’t), I would not be able to sustain it for long. Being perpetually pissed takes a psychological toll. But as an older white person I am privileged in ways that are both institutional and unjust—I commit myself to noticing and addressing those ways as often as possible. As a close friend commented on my Facebook story, “I love those moments which move life toward justice—one has to believe that it all adds up.” One bit of awareness at a time.

Losing is not as much fun as Winning

sports fanaticAnyone who knows me or who reads this blog even occasionally knows that I am a sports fan in the true sense of the word’s etymology— “fanatic.” My fanaticism is focused and selective. I pay no attention to the NBA unless the Boston Celtics make a deep run in the playoffs (something that hasn’t happened for a few years). My interest in the NHL is similarly connected to whether the Bruins are in the playoffs. My obsessions, in ascending order of obsessiveness, are the New England Patriots, the Boston Red Sox, the Providence College Men’s  Hockey Friars, and the Providence College Men’s Basketball Friars. Once the Red Sox finished last in 2015 for the third time in the last four years (they won the World Series the other year), little did I know that I was entering a fall/winter sports season that has so far been one for my record books. Pats nationThe Patriots and the two Friars squads have been doing nothing but win. I did encounter a sobering reality this past week though—losing is not as much fun as winning.

Consider the Patriots. Ten games into the season they sported a 10-0 record; comparisons were being made to the 2007 team that came one Super Bowl defensive stop short of having a perfect season and everything was great in Patriots Nation. Then injuries and sloppy play caught up with them and they limped into the playoffs with a 12-4 record, looking very much like a team that plans to be “one and done” when they play their first playoff game in ten days. I even had to suffer the indignity of going behind enemy lines and watching them lose to the despised New York Jets a couple of weeks ago at my brother-in-law’s house on Long Island surrounded by in-law Jets fans. I was gracious and took the high road—the Patriots had already clinched a spot in the playoffs and the Jets had to win to keep their hopes alive. I must say, though, that I took delight in seeing the Jets lose the next weekend and fail to make the playoffs after all. hockey6The Patriots may do fine in ten days, but I’m not holding my breath. One thing I do know—losing is not as much fun as winning.

Consider the PC Friars hockey team. I wrote in this blog last April about their astounding run to the NCAA National Hockey Championship last winter—one of my most memorable sports experiences.

We Are the Champions!

This season they have played as if they intend to repeat as champions, going undefeated in the first half of the season that ended at Christmas with a 12-0-3 record and ranked #1 in the country for six consecutive weeks. Then last week happened. The Friars played in a between-Christmas-and-New-Year’s tournament in Florida of all places; they were upset by Cornell in overtime in the first game for their first loss of the season (they won the next day). mayors cupFour days later they were beaten by in-town rival Brown University (we had beaten them 4-1 a few weeks earlier) in an even larger upset. I understand the whole “throw the comparative records out” truism about in-town rivals, but it sucks to lose to a team that has only won three games all year. Don’t they realize who they were playing? We’re the national champions, for God’s sake!

In the latest rankings, the Friars have “tumbled” from #1 to #3. Tonight we play mighty Boston College at their place, then tomorrow night here in Providence—two very important league games (we’re still undefeated in league play). Two wins will right the ship and propel us toward a vigorous defense of our national title when playoff time comes. Because one thing I know for sure—losing is not as much fun as winning.PC basketball

Consider the PC Friars basketball team. They have gradually become the talk of college basketball nationwide by starting the season 14-1 with wins over two top-ten ranked teams away from home and with their only loss being to the team that was at the time ranked #1 in the country (we were in the lead with just six minutes left in that game). We were on the sports world’s radar at the beginning of the season because our point guard is a strong candidate for national player of the year and is likely to be an NBA lottery pick in June—he stunned everyone but the most hopeful Friars fans by choosing not to jump to the NBA at the end of his sophomore year last season. But the team’s being this good came out of nowhere; after making it into the national Top 25 rankings a few weeks ago, they climbed to the rarified air of #8 last Monday, the first time in decades they’ve been ranked that high.friartown On the same day an ESPN basketball person tweeted that at this point in the season the Friars arguably have the national player of the year, the national coach of the year, and the national most improved player of the year all on the same team. Friartown, to say the least, is going nuts.

Then last Tuesday happened. We hosted the Marquette Golden Eagles—the very team that we played (and defeated) last season when I was the honorary faculty bench coach for a game.

Retiring Undefeated

Marquette is my alma mater—I always want the Golden Eagles to do well, except when they play the Friars. The Friars were favored by ten points, coming into the game with an eight game winning streak and two Big East wins under our belt while Marquette had lost their first two league games. The crowd was nuts, everything looked great—then the game started. As the saying goes, this is why they play the games rather than just awarding the victory to the favored, higher ranked team. We looked out of sorts all night, couldn’t get our offense in synch and couldn’t play defense for long stretches of time. Marquette slapped a zone defense on us, which we approached in a similar fashion to the penguins struggling with a rope in this video:

Still, we came back from a big first-half deficit and took an eight-point lead in the second half—game over, I thought.

Not so much. Marquette didn’t realize they were supposed to stop playing at that point, caught us with a minute or so left, shut us down during our last possession, and won by a point. It’s funny how the rules declare the team with the most points at the end of the game the winner. In the post-game press conference, cooleythe coach annoyingly provided solid words of wisdom: “Understand this isn’t the end of the world. It’s a game. It’s our 16th game. Is it disappointing to lose? Absolutely. But we lost to a good basketball team and there is a lot of basketball to be played. It’s disappointing to lose at home but at the same time it’s a learning experience for the guys. We lost. Move on. You’re not going to go 30-1, 28-2.” The fanatic in me asks “Why not?” The realist in me says “Of course not. But losing is not as much fun as winning.”

The fact of the matter is that if your team makes the playoffs, the final game of the season will be a loss unless they win the championship. I have been fortunate as a fan to have my teams win a collective eight championships in the last fifteen years, but even with great programs that is the exception rather than the norm. One thing I know for sure: Losing is not as much fun as winning.losing and winning

The Best and the Worst: A Wish for the New Year

Love does not say “I ought to love”—it loves. Pity does not say “It is right to feel pity”—it pities. Justice does not say, “I am bound to be just”—it acts justly. George Eliot

There are eight to ten movies that Jeanne and I watch religiously during the Christmas season, from the obvious (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “White Christmas”) to a few that are not as well-known. We ended our annual Christmas movie-watching binge on Christmas Eve this year with one of the lesser known films, the 2006 French film “Joyeux Noel.” Joyeux NoelOne of my favorites, this film is a fictionalized account of the 1914 Christmas Truce that spontaneously occurred in numerous places along the battlefield trenches throughout France during the first Christmas season of World War I. The movie is strangely both feel-good and devastatingly sad. The soldiers from both the German and the Allied sides are portrayed as humane and patriotic, willing to share in spontaneous brotherhood and solidarity for twelve hours or so, all the time knowing (as the viewer also knows) that carnage will return within hours and continue for another five hellish years. William Butler Yeats described it well: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.the second coming

I am not the first person during the past weeks and months to think of the next two lines from Yeats’ “The Second Coming” when considering current events: The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. From departmental drama to presidential politics to immigration crises to the war on terrorism, these lines capture the essence of the world we live in. During this holiday season, the closing lines of Yeats’ masterpiece are especially haunting: And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? What is this world that we have created? And what hope is there, as we move to yet another year, to stem the blood-dimmed tide and begin to do something different?

With a few notable exceptions, the public sphere these days is crammed to overflowing with people who embody Yeats’ observation. Those who have boundless passion and energy, grabbing all the headlines and air space regularly display the worst aspects of what humans can be—intolerant, judgmental, pompous, self-centered, ambitious for all the wrong reasons—while evidence of what is best about us seldom rises to our attention. my life in middlemarchI read in Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch the other day a line from a George Eliot essay that could have been written yesterday about many of our public figures. In a withering critique of Dr. John Cumming, a well-known nineteenth-century Scottish Evangelical preacher, Eliot comments on his ability “to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morality with a high reputation for sanctity.” Our current political landscape is populated with such people; as Eliot writes elsewhere, “one’s ambition is always in the inverse proportion of one’s knowledge.” And this is not forced on us—if pollsters are correct, this is precisely the sort of person that many of us are attracted to.

The obvious solution for this would be to find a way to spark the conviction of the “best” so that better people will seek the highest offices in the land. This is a problem that has challenged philosophers and others since Plato’s Republic—how is one to ensure that the best people are in charge of things (Plato essentially said they should be forced to do so)? My own thinking is that the “best” do not necessarily lack conviction as Yeats suggests; instead, the “best” are those whose conviction leads them to live the sort of life described by middlemarchGeorge Eliot beautifully in the final sentence of Middlemarch:

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Goodness does not enter the world on grand stages with fanfare and media coverage. Rather, the best people are those who live lives of excellence and virtue with conviction, seeking no reward or notoriety. How is such conviction cultivated?

Many argue that religious faith is the most likely, perhaps the only, source of moral excellence and conviction. There is strong evidence linking faith and moral excellence, but we are all aware of just how much damage and violence is done in the name of religious purity and conviction in our nation and world. In his recent book sacksNot in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks, until recently the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, reflects on the connection between faith and moral conviction:

Abraham himself sought to be a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That idea, ignored for many of the intervening centuries, remains the simplest definition of Abrahamic faith. It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world. The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry . . . To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity but of sacrilege.

It is perhaps time for persons of all faiths to seek common sources of moral conviction, shared simply by being human.

George Eliot consciously intended her novels to be an inspiration for human excellence, but she spent most of her adult life as an agnostic, having left the Anglicanism of her youth behind in her early twenties. She found the wellspring of moral excellence and conviction in obvious, but often overlooked places—good and badour shared humanity and our capacity to empathize with others. Her answer to the perennial question “Why be moral?” is as direct as it is simple:

I am just and honest, not because I expect to live in another world, but because, having felt the pain of injustice and dishonesty towards myself, I have a fellow-feeling with other people, who would suffer the same pain if I were unjust or dishonest towards them. It is a pang to me to witness the suffering of fellow-beings, and I feel their suffering the more acutely because they are mortal—because their lives are so short, I would have them, if possible, filled with happiness and not misery.

This is not a call to debate, legislation, philosophical hair-splitting, or theological distinctions. It is a simple call to action. As the prophet Micah wrote so many centuries ago, “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.” These are action verbs. We are called to do more than talk.

In keeping with Rabbi Sacks’ call, my New Year’s resolution is to find new ways to be a blessing in the part of the world that is in front of me on a daily basis. Perhaps if enough of us shared that resolution, our collective conviction might introduce some positive change into a world that badly needs it. It’s worth a try.