Category Archives: Jeanne

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Celebrating Life

I recently submitted two grant proposals related to my sabbatical that will begin next July. The stakes are high–especially since I don’t handle rejection well. But I am a bit better at it than I used to be, thanks to something that happened toward the end of my last sabbatical . . .

There’s nothing more pitiful than a grown man feeling sorry for himself. But that’s where I found myself a few years ago while on sabbatical. My first conscious thought upon awakening was of the email I received the night before informing me that Icollegeville-inst1[1] had not been accepted into a summer writing workshop at the Ecumenical Institute where I was spending my sabbatical, a workshop that I really really really wanted to be part of. My career in academia has mercifully been almost rejection free, and it’s a good thing because I don’t handle rejection well. Despite learning from the email that there had been 141 applications for 12 slots, I took the “no” as a negative judgment about the whole me, from my ponytail to my shoes. This, in addition to my second conscious thought–“I only have nine days left here on sabbatical and then I’m leaving this place I’ve come to love”–and my third thought– “I have an exit interview this morning with the Institute program director”– made for a less-than-fabulous morning.

Slouching in my usual seat in the choir stalls for noon prayer, I was definitely not in the mood. For the first time in the dozens and dozens of liturgies in which I had participated from that seat over the previous four months,100_0331 I didn’t feel like being there. The hymn was lame, followed as usual by a section from Psalm 119 extolling the wonders of God’s law and how fabulous it is to obey God’s word. Whatever.  One minute of silence. The second psalm was entirely forgettable, until the end when the solo monk for the day sucked some phlegm down his windpipe the wrong way. After several seconds of coughing and throat clearing, he finished the last three lines sounding like he’d been sucking on helium. No biggie, dude—happens to me all the time. One minute of silence. The third psalm, number forty-something, included the line “it is good that I was afflicted.” Oh really? Well if you were as afflicted as poor rejected me you wouldn’t have written that. Stand up and bow your head as you recite “Give praise to the Father Almighty . . .”.  Disobediently, I didn’t bow my head—what do they think I am, a sheep?

Sit back down, another minute of silence. Solo monk says “Blah, Blah, Blah, Alleluia,” and we respond in kind, “Blah, Blah, Blah, Alleluia.” Stand up for the final prayer, which sounds like the grownups in the old Charlie Brown cartoons on television.charlie%20brown%20teacher[1]

“Wah, Wahwah, Wahwah, Wah,

Wawah, Wah, Wahwah, Wah,

Wahwahwahwah, Wah, Wahwah, Wah,

In the name of Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ,

Who lives and reigns and celebrates life

With You and the Holy Spirit,

One God, forever and ever, Amen.”

“Lives and reigns and celebrates life”??? That one I’d never heard before—I think solo monk added it impromptu for my benefit. In any event, it worked like the face slap in the old Aqua Velva commercials and got my attention—“Thanks, I needed that!” I guess I’d never thought of the Father, J.C., and the Holy Spirit celebrating life together as one God forever and ever. What would that look like? My first image is of a Gary Larson-like cartoon. Imagine a round table. Seated on the left is an old, somewhat overweight guy with shoulder-length white hair and big white beard, wearing a white robe and drinking 18-year-old Balvenie neat (he saves the 21-year-old for Sundays). In the middle facing you is a sandaled younger guy with dark hair, skin and beard, hoisting a pint of Guinness and saying “Brilliant!!” imagesCAR35IOXOn the right, facing the white-haired old guy, is a dove standing on the table and dipping her beak into a martini with two olives. I guess it says something about me that my first image of celebrating life involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but it’s definitely a way of celebrating life.

Well if they can celebrate life forever and ever, amen, I guess I can try it too. And the evening before the day in question, for five hours before reading the email that shall no longer be mentioned, I had been doing just that with friends. Two of my good buddies (a married resident scholar couple), 100_0369a guitar-picking monk who is a native of Montana and tends the monastery orchard, and me. Our conversation ranged from still-new President Obama’s controversial commencement speech at Notre Dame to abortion to politics at the Abbey, while eating salmon, potatoes, salad, and drinking lots of wine. We ended up sitting on the back patio overlooking the lake as it got dark.  100_0366In the dusk the lake became still and as calm as glass, reflecting the trees along the shore in upside-down perfection. Brother John serenaded us with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez tunes, and talked about our colleague Conrad who had unexpectedly died (while pouring himself a martini) just a few days earlier. Conrad had loved this place, and thought it was a little bit of heaven. “I think this a bit of heaven too,” my friend said. If I believed in heaven, I would have agreed—but wait, that’s a different essay.

1852724[1]Then Brother John  started playing “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” and I knew my friend was right—this was heaven. “Summertime” is a song that Jeanne sings beautifully; she had sung “Suzanne” with Brother John after a group dinner when she had visited me for a few days over Easter and he fell in love with her (he told me so in an email). I can understand that because over twenty years ago, two days after we met, Jeanne, my dad, and I were having drinks in a Wyoming lounge attached to the restaurant where we’d just had dinner (my boys went back to my folks’ condo with Grandmaw).Jeanne singing Jeanne went to the front and, accompanied by the resident lounge lizard on the piano, sang another Gershwin tune, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man Of Mine.” I decided she was singing it to me and I fell off the edge of the cliff I’d been balancing on for the previous two days. I was in love. I didn’t tell her for another month, but hey, that’s pretty quick for me.

When I got back to my apartment that evening, I checked my email, got rejected, and stopped celebrating life. How stupid. I am an introverted celebrator—IMG_9677I’ll never suck the marrow out of every minute and second like my dachshund Frieda and some other people I know. My kind of celebration expresses itself in what Anne Lamott says is one of the two best prayers ever: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” (The other one is “Help! Help! Help!’) I have a lot to celebrate, as do we all, if I just remember to find it. I can’t promise that I can stick to it forever and ever, amen, but I can at least finish out the day.

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Death Is Nothing Terrible

We are all going to die! That’s just so awful. I didn’t agree to this. How do we live in the face of this? Anne Lamott

Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to engage with various groups of people in the classroom on occasional weekends. I’ve had a couple of these opportunities over the past three weekends. The topic is always the same–How to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world largely outside of our control?

As the centerpiece of my college’s extensive required core curriculum, the Development of Western Civilization Program that I direct is of great interest to many more people than just the faculty and students who are in the trenches of the course every day. Parents of prospective students, alums and donors, parents of freshmen students in their first semester—004all of these and more are interested in exactly what takes place in the program’s classrooms, experiences that are the signature shared experiences of all students at Providence College. This is a program so daunting as to generate horror stories of mythic proportions, yet whose importance is revealed by its being the center of pedagogical energy in our new humanities building.

In order to give these various constituencies a taste of the DWC experience, I often am asked on a Saturday afternoon to give a “mock DWC lecture” for fifty minutes to visiting grownups. These lectures are a lot of fun, because the room is full of adults rather than eighteen and nineteen year old adult wannabes. The people at these lectures love to participate, they get my jokes, and cause me to think that maybe I am a good teacher after all. This semester I have given mock lectures four times—twice on the afternoon of the dedication of the new humanities building, once for an Open House for prospective students and their parents, and one for images[1]Freshman Family Weekend. My “go to” lecture in such situations over the past few semesters has been an introduction to Stoicism, one of the Roman world’s unique contributions to Western philosophy, a lecture that I call “Death Is Nothing Terrible.” Why the esoteric topic and depressing title? Because Stoicism is a philosophy for grownups, for human beings who have been run over a few times by life, are a bit frayed around the edges, and are ready to converse briefly about strategies concerning how to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world that apparently lacks both. What better to talk about on a Saturday afternoon?

The most noted Stoics over a couple of centuries were not professional philosophers—their day jobs were remarkably diverse. imagesCALBM2ZLCicero was a lawyer and politician, Epictetus was a slave, and Marcus Aurelius was an emperor. What do a politician, slave and emperor share in common that might explain their attraction to the same philosophical framework? Each of them is a person who, at least in theory, lives a life that is primarily answerable to others, a person who is largely not in control of her or his own life. And this, the Stoics say, is actually the situation that we all find ourselves in.

Epicurus_bust2[1]Epictetus, the Stoic I usually focus the room’s attention on, was a well-educated Greek slave owned by a wealthy Roman landowner. Epictetus’s role in the household was to tutor and educate the children of his owner, a task he carried out so effectively that his master freed him in the later years of his life. Epictetus begins the Enchiridion, a short text that—according to legend—Roman soldiers on campaign carried with them while away from their homes and farms for years at a time, by asking us to do a brief thought experiment along with him. Make two columns on a piece of paper (or on a chalkboard). At the top of the left column, write “Within my control.” On top of the right column, write “Not within my control.” Start with the right column and begin listing all of the things that you encounter or interact with on a daily basis that are not in your control. At a lecture, people immediately start calling out

The Weather! No kidding!

When and how you die! The only thing we know for sure is that within 100 years, everyone in this lecture hall will be dead! But how and when—we don’t know.

Other people! “How much time do you spend in a day or week trying to influence what other people think or do?” I ask. “A lot!” “How’s that going for you?” “It doesn’t work!”

Your family! You may have participated in activities likely to produce a child, but you didn’t ask for this child! How often when younger did you think or say “I didn’t ask to be born into this family”? You were right!

Your health! You may spend a great deal of time exercising and eating right, then get run over by a bus this afternoon!

My gender! My race!

After a few minutes of information gathering and general hilarity, it is clear that many, indeed the vast majority, of the things that define and shape our lives are in the right-hand “Not in my control” column. Enchiridion-Epictetus[1]What’s left to go in the left-hand column? Someone will immediately call out something like “My attitude about everything in the right-hand column!” This person not only is correct, but has also identified the core insight than energizes Stoicism. “Some things are up to us, and some things are not,” writes Epictetus in the first sentence of the Enchiridion. We spend the vast majority of our time and energy messing around in the right-hand column, trying to change and control things that are not up to us. Better idea—transfer all of that energy to the left-hand column. I cannot control what hand I have been dealt in terms of gender, race, family, place and time of birth. Nor can I control or manipulate what other people do or the vast forces of fate. But I can (and must) take control of how I process these matters, how I will consider and shape my response to what jumps out of the right-hand column. My inner life is within my control. 002[1]The Stoic slogan is “from inner tranquility comes outer effectiveness.” By taking control of my mind, my emotions, my desires, my thoughts and my attitude I can respond to an out-of-control world from a place of serenity and peace. And that might just make a difference in the right-hand column.

Of course the proof is in the application and the details, which I spend the second half of the session with my “students” exploring. Epictetus ranges over family relationships, friendships, dynamics at work—just about everything normal human beings encounter from the right-hand column on a daily basis. But one of the greatest Stoic obsessions is with something that we generally don’t want to think or talk about. Death. This is not because the Stoics were depressing or morbid (although they often are caricatured as such). Rather, this is because the Stoics knew that despite all evidence to the contrary, the garden variety human being lives her or his life as if all the time in the world is available. We live our lives as if we are immortal. But we know, deep down, that human beings have a shockingly short shelf life. work on paper by Laurie LiptonSo why do we try to avoid this inexorable truth from the right-hand column?

Epictetus suggests that what we are afraid of is not death, but rather our thoughts and attitudes about death. “Death is nothing terrible . . . but having the opinion that death is terrible, this is what is terrible.” And my thoughts and attitudes are in the left-hand column—shaping these is within my power. Rather than obsessing about how I will die and what might happen (if anything) after I die, imagesCA3Y08VLI might want to pay attention to the classic Stoic mantra: Carpe diem. Epictetus expands in a memorable thespian analogy:

Remember that you are an actor in a play of such a kind as the playwright chooses: short, if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, play even this part well; and so also for the parts of a disabled person, an administrator, or a private individual. For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

Don’t waste timeimagesCA2WWW18. Be the best that you can be. Seize the day. These are, in many ways, annoying caricatures of a very rich and complex Stoic world view. But I think Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius would be fine with bumper sticker expressions of Stoicism, just so long as they are reflective of inner work that is more than a molecule deep. Don’t wait another moment to get serious.

For how long will you put off demanding of yourself the best, and never to transgress the dictates of reason? . . . From this moment commit yourself to living as an adult . . . Remember that the contest is now, that the Olympic Games are now.

Postscript: After one of my mock lectures last fall, my lovely Jeanne came up to me and said “From inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. That sounds like prayer.” Hmm. I think there might be an essay in that.imagesCAKB0ODG

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My Mother, the Giraffe

I learned something interesting about giraffes from one of my colleagues the other day. He was lecturing on Roman art and architecture; when discussing the Coliseum, he mentioned that Roman audiences loved to watch novelty battles—between a woman and a dwarf, or a dog and a porcupine for instance. The voracious Roman appetite for more and more exotic beasts and contests produced a variety of combatants from all corners of the empire, including elephants, apes, the great cats, and rhinoceroses. fighting giraffeAnd giraffes.

Imagine the scene: a fighting giraffe towers above its opponent, then with one swift motion lowers its large jaws and bites the head off its human or non-human combatant. And the crowd goes wild. Except that giraffes turned out to be rather disinterested gladiators, preferring to lope lazily around the arena, look for vegetation to munch, and take naps rather than fighting to the death. Pacifists in the arena aren’t very entertaining, so giraffes in the Coliseum gave way to slightly more aggressive creatures. None of this surprised me, because although I have no direct experience with giraffes other than admiring them at the zoo, I gained intimate knowledge over the years of giraffe-like gentleness and peace, channeled through beloved human form—my mother.

Although I would have denied it vociferously as a boy or adolescent, I was a classic momma’s boy. untitledMy older brother loved my mother but was all about Dad, while my attachments were the exact opposite. My brother and I were a twentieth-century version of Esau and Jacob. My mother was a 100% Swede, with the appropriate accompanying last name (“Thorsen”—son of Thor), stature, and stoic personality. She was the stable center of my universe, while my father, an itinerant preacher and fund-raiser for his small Bible school, was on the road as often as he was home. We lived out in the country and my brother and I rode the bus a half-hour each way every school day. rapture and tribulationMy mother’s loving presence when I entered the house after a long day at work was so predictable and expected that on the rare occasions when she was not where I expected her to be I assumed the worst. I imagined that the rapture I had heard about so often in church and was so afraid of had occurred and my mother had been snatched up into heaven, leaving my brother and me, sinners that we were, to fend for ourselves during the tribulation to come. Be careful how much Baptist theology gets packed into Sunday School for the youngsters—someone will probably take it seriously.

Flashing forward several decades, shortly after we met (introduced by my parents), Jeanne mentioned to me that she had always thought of my mother as a giraffe—Jeanne knew my parents well for ten years or so before the two of us ever met. I had never imagined my mother as a giraffe, but once Jeanne said it I realized that it was a perfect comparison. giraffes can't danceMy mother had the temperament, grace, and even the long neck of a giraffe. Jeanne pulled out a children’s book the other day entitled Giraffes Can’t Dance—with my mother in mind, there should also be books called Giraffes Can’t Go To Movies and Giraffes Can’t Drink Alcoholic Beverages. Baptist giraffes, at least, did not do such things and neither did my mother.

My mother was in many ways a typical 1950s homemaker, cooking, cleaning, knitting, sewing, and generally making the place run. My father was charismatic and volatile; my mother was neither. But she provided a foundation and safety net so secure and reliable that on the few occasions that she was sick, away, or for some other reason unable to play her usual roles my inner world would temporarily descend into chaos. My father had a great sense of humor; my mother couldn’t tell a joke without either forgetting a crucial part of the setup or screwing up the punchline. Bruce and Trudy's wedding picture (2)She had no enemies and disliked no one. That’s not entirely true—I know of a couple of people over the years about whom she actually said something negative. I’ve often noted that the definition of a total asshole is someone that my mother would not have liked.

The word that most immediately comes to mind when I think about my mother—which I do frequently—is peace. She was the embodiment of parental love, setting a standard that I seldom if ever lived up to when I became a parent. But her presence and demeanor surrounded those around her in an atmosphere of calmness. Last Sunday during the All Saints liturgy, as both my mother and father were present to me even more than usual, I noticed how many times the word “peace” has a central place in the Episcopal service: “In peace we pray to you, Lord God,” “The peace of the Lord be always with you,” “The peace that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ.” The deep center of peace that I’ve discovered within over the past few years is where I believe God is—it is also where I am most deeply connected with my mother.

I am an interesting mixture of elements inherited from my parents. My sense of humor, what skills I have as a teacher, my love of books and the life of the mind, my intellectual restlessness and constant questioning of my faith, and my relatively low tolerance for being sick or for pain I get from my father. I remember many years ago a couple, B and N, who had known my parents for years before I met them were telling Jeanne and me stories about various times that my parents stayed at their house. These stories frequently featured my father being demanding, temperamental and self-centered as he often was. N said to me “in many ways, you remind me a lot of your father. But you’re a lot nicer.” Trudy and Bruce summer or fall of 1979If so, it is only because I inherited my mother’s natural concern for things and people other than herself, her Swedish even temperament, and her ability to empathize deeply (perhaps too deeply at times) with others. Of course I could also write about my negative characteristics that I also inherited equally from my parents, but I’m running out of space in this essay.

My mother was born on Halloween and would have been eighty-six years old last Friday. I shudder to think of what a handful my father at that age might have been, but I imagine my mother at eighty-six as just an older and smaller version of the loving, peaceful giraffe-like person that she was. She died far too young of cancer only three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday; I am just one year younger now than she was when she died. I recall receiving phone calls and cards from friends of my parents whom I never had met in the weeks after she died—the gist of most of them was that while my father the preacher and teacher was the ostensible draw and star of the meetings he held across the country, giraffe mother 2my mother was the real attraction. “We came to hear Bruce, but we really wanted to spend time with Trudy.” I dedicated my first book, published six years after she died, to my mother with the following verses from Proverbs: She opens her mouth with wisdom . . . Her children rise up and call her blessed.

Mom lived just long enough to play matchmaker and facilitate the meeting and budding romance between her little boy and the person whom she somehow knew had the potential to be the love of my life. Jeanne and I met at my parents’ condominium the day before Thanksgiving in 1987; I was accompanied by my seven- and five-year old sons, just five months after the end of a difficult eleven-year marriage. Things clicked, our relationship developed with nightly telephone conversations between Santa Fe and Laramie, and when Jeanne joined me in Laramie and we returned with the boys to spend the Christmas holidays with my parents, we stayed at the local Motel Six (no room at my parents’ small condo) where my mother had properly reserved separate rooms—with an adjoining door. Thanks, Mom.

Mom and her sisters

Mom and her sisters

The World’s Most Interesting Man

In one of my interdisciplinary classes we are in the transition between Ancient Greece and Rome. Which means we’re in the world of Alexander the Great. As I listened to my history colleague’s excellent introductory lecture to the Hellenistic world the other day, my thoughts drifted to someone else who, as Alexander was in his day, is simply the best at everything . . .

His words carry weight that would break a less interesting man’s jaw

Every once in a while, Madison Avenue gets it right and an advertising campaign takes on a life of its own. When I was in my late twenties and early thirties, miller-lite-ad[1]Miller Lite’s “Tastes Great . . . Less Filling” campaign went viral. This simple disagreement about what was more remarkable about Miller Lite—that it tasted more like real beer than expected or that its reduced calories made it possible to drink more of it without feeling bloated—started showing up in the strangest places. During the campaign’s heyday, I was studying for my Master’s degree at the University of Wyoming and never missed a UW Cowboys’ basketball game.Pic C - Cat Fight[1] During time-outs, the student section behind the basket at one end of the arena would stand as if on cue, point threateningly at the student section behind the other basket, and scream TASTES GREAT!!! at the top of its lungs. In response the opposite section would rise as one, point back and scream LESS FILLING!!! Back and forth the challenge would go, louder and louder, soon involving every one of the several thousand fans in a competition that for the moment was more intense than the game on the court.

When opportunity knocks and he’s not home, opportunity waits.

super-bowl-etrade-baby-[1]Jeanne’s favorite current ad campaign is the talking baby on E-trade ads—“I guess that riding the dog like a small horse is frowned upon in this establishment!”—who never fails to cause her to laugh uproariously. I find these ads occasionally amusing, but personally find talking babies somewhat creepy. images[8]My own favorite campaign, one that unfortunately seems to have almost run its course, is Dos Equis’ “The World’s Most Interesting Man.”

In a past life, he was himself.

The picture of suaveness and refinement, perfectly dressed for every occasion, sporting the perfectly groomed salt-and-pepper beard I wish I could grow, surrounded by gorgeous women, various ads show The World’s Most Interesting Man saving babies from fires, playing polo or cricket, and generally excelling at everything he does, as the voice over reveals various remarkable facts about him.

His mother has a tattoo that says “son.”

Some ads include life advice from The World’s Most Interesting Man.

The World’s Most Interesting Man on Skateboarding: “No”

Or

The World’s Most Interesting Man on Boxers or Briefs: “What comes between a man and his pants is his own business”

the-most-interesting-man-in-the-world-meme-generator-i-don-t-always-drink-beer-but-when-i-do-i-make-chuck-norris-serve-it-to-me-in-a-dress-f73cff[1]Each ad concludes with The World’s Most Interesting Man at table in a mahogany-paneled room, flanked by beautiful people, lifting a glass of beer toward the viewer. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis. Stay thirsty, my friend.”

The World’s Most Interesting Man is every man’s best imagined self, the man who he would like to bring into the world every day but who is never available. Napoleonzyexvm[1] is a central character in War and Peace; he is one of the few human beings ever—along, perhaps, with Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and a few others—who actually was able to for a number of years to not only believe that he was The World’s Most Interesting Man but also to have millions of people agree with him and to see events bear their collective opinion out. One of my favorite chapters in Tolstoy’s novel is at the Battle of Borodinoaleksandr-averyanov-battle-for-the-shevardinsky-redoubt-undated[1] , where Tolstoy gives the reader access to Napoleon’s inner dialogue as he slowly realizes that, on this day at least, he is not The World’s Most Interesting Man. There is a Napoleon in each of us convinced that we are the center of the universe and undoubtedly the world’s most interesting and important human being. It’s just that for most of us this inner World’s Most Interesting Person never seems to show up except when we are alone.

He once had an awkward moment, just to see what it felt like.

My position directing a large academic program often requires me to act as if I have more confidence than I actually do, as if I am The World’s Most Effective and Intimidating Director. Sometimes props help. My favorite coffee cup at work, a cup that I paid forty dollars for because a monk made it, was shattered a few weeks ago when I dropped it on a particularly stressful day. So I’m considering which coffee cup to bring from home in the fall as my replacement Director’s coffee cup to break in the new Ruane Center for the Humanities, the beautiful new digs that we will be moving into over the summer. The top candidate for new Director’s coffee cup at the moment is one that my son gave me last year for Father’s Day, a cup large enough to take a bath in.

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Maybe it will do double duty as the Development of Western Civilization version of a speaking staff, and I’ll allow each faculty member at meetings to hold it as they speak. It seems that I come closest to letting my internal “Most Interesting Man” out at work. On the door of my philosophy department office is a take-off on “The World’s Most Interesting Man” that I found on-line. There he is, perfectly coiffed, manicured and dressed, holding a glass of beer and sayingMost interesting man

I don’t always hear from God, but when I do, He sounds like me

            What I suspect makes this ad campaign so amusing to me and many others is that it actually hits very close to home. We really do frequently believe and act as if we are the world’s most interesting human, usually to discover in short order that not only are we not that interesting, we’re not even that important in the larger scheme of things. The Psalms are particularly effective at pricking balloons of self-importance. As I have developed the habit of reading the assigned Liturgy of the Hours psalms every weekday morning, I have been treated to regular reminders that I’m not so great. This morning at Vigils, the assigned psalm-reading monk read Psalm 62:

scale-balance[1]Common folk are only a breath,

The great are an illusion.

Placed in the scales they rise;

They weigh less than a breath.

“Placed in the scales they rise”—as my friend Ivan once commented, that’s the ultimate description of a lightweight. Coupled with such deflating put downs from the Psalmist, of course, are lines similar to those that close Psalm 62:

Psalms-62-Verse-11[1]For God has said only one thing;

Only two do I know:

That to God alone belongs power,

And to you Lord, love;

And that you repay us all

According to our deeds.

God’s coffee cup, which I’m sure is as vast as the Pacific Ocean outside my retreat room, undoubtedly says055

I AM a BIG fucking deal . . . and you’re not

Good to keep in mind. And yet . . . this is the same God who invites me to intimacy and friendship. It is probably best to keep my inner “World’s Most Interesting Man” to myself—except on those rare occasions when I just have to let him briefly see the light of day.

He wouldn’t be afraid to show his feminine side—if he had one.

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Accept the Anchor

Is it ever right to hold a grudge? Is resentment or unforgiveness ever justified? These questions were front and center in a seminar with my freshmen last week; their answers revealed one of the most important and ubiquitous moral divides of all—the divide between what we think we should believe and what we actually believe. And behind the discussion loomed an even larger moral issue: moral compassWhere does a person’s moral compass come from, and is there any way of determining whether that moral compass is accurate?

I’ve been teaching philosophy for twenty-five years and there are few areas of philosophy or philosophers that have not shown up somewhere in my classroom over those years. Ethics is my favorite systematic area of philosophy to teach on an introductory level, because ethics is where the often esoteric and abstract discipline of philosophy intersects immediately and directly with real life. And in the world of ethics, no philosopher ever got it better than Aristotle. Aristotle RaphaelHis framework for thinking about and trying to live the moral life is flexible, dynamic, creative and practical in that it provides broad but identifiable boundaries for the life of human excellence within which each individual human being has the opportunity to make many important choices about what sort of person she or he will be. Aristotle’s ethic avoids both the Scylla of absolute and rigid moral rules and the Charybdis of “anything goes” relativism by continually reminding us that there is a point to a human life, that some lives are clearly not worth living, and it is up to each of us to identify the purpose of our lives as we live out the process of shaping and defining that purpose.

The most important feature of Aristotle’s ethical vision is the virtues, which he identifies as “good habits,” habits that will more often than not facilitate the living of a flourishing human life. These he contrasts with vices, bad habits that tend to hinder the living of such a life. habitsThe notion of the key to the moral life being habits rather than obedience to rules is often both intriguing and confusing to eighteen-year-old freshmen; last week in seminar I focused my students’ attention on the “virtues as habits” idea by first brainstorming with them to produce a list of a dozen virtues, then providing them with a list of Aristotle’s examples of such habits scattered through the portions of his primary text on ethics that we had read for the day.

There were many virtues on our list that are not on Aristotle’s list. Where, for instance, are humility, honesty, patience, love, faith and hope? Perhaps even more confusing are some of the items that Aristotle does include on his list that were not on ours. There were several such items—wittiness, high-mindedness and right ambition, for instance—which raised eyebrows and provided an opportunity to consider just how different Aristotle’s definition of virtue is from our own. But the item on Aristotle’s list that bothered my students the most was “just resentment,” the idea that one of the good habits that will facilitate the life of human excellence is being able to tell when forgiveness is appropriate and when is it better to hold on to one’s resentment.forgiveness Aristotle did not list forgiveness as a foundational virtue but, as many of my students pointed out, we know better. Or do we?

“How many of you think that forgiveness is a virtue?” I asked my students—every hand went up. “How many of you can think of a situation in which it would be natural not to forgive?” Most hands, but not all, went up. I gave my own example of the latter. In the earlier years of my teaching career I often taught applied ethics courses, which usually turned out to be a crash course in various moral theories for a few weeks, which we then applied to four or five tough moral problems for the rest of the semester. capital punishmentThe issue of capital punishment, which I consider to be one of the toughest moral nuts to crack without making a mess, was often on the syllabus. I told my students that in the abstract I believe the best moral arguments are against capital punishment, starting with the simple point that to respond to harm with more harm reduces a society to the level of the person being punished. “But,” I quickly added, “I know that if someone killed my wife or my sons and was found guilty, if I lived in a state where the death penalty was on the books I would want to be the one to administer the lethal injection or pull the switch.” There’s a place where even if I have developed the habit of forgiveness, the habit of just resentment seems more appropriate.

Several students vigorously nodded their heads in agreement, but others pressed back. One student had learned an important lesson well from Socrates two weeks earlier when he told a friend why, even though he has an opportunity to escape his prison cell and execution, he will not do so. “Who are you damaging if you don’t forgive?” my student asked. “Not the guy who’s being executed. He’s dead. just resentmentBut you will never move on and will never get past what has happened if you carry resentment around for the rest of your life.” “What if I don’t want to move on?” I asked. “Then you’ll never be able to live Aristotle’s life of human flourishing,” she replied. Touché.

But most of my students agreed that to forgive indiscriminately is not natural to human beings, despite the psychological damage that accompanies lack of forgiveness. “So where did we get the idea that we must forgive regardless of the situation?” I wondered. “We certainly learned that long before we considered that not forgiving might hurtful to ourselves.” “I learned it in church,” one said, while another said that she had learned it in school (which, since it was a parochial school, is pretty much the same as learning it in church). That strikes me as the real truth. I learned that universal forgiveness is a virtue because I was taught at an early age that a first century Jewish carpenter said that we must love our enemies and told one of his followers that he should forgive his neighbor not the very challenging seven times but the impossible seventy times seven. Aristotle and JesusAristotle perhaps doesn’t put such a habit on his virtue list because he lived more than three centuries before the Jewish carpenter and was not inclined to include on his list habits that are humanly impossible.

Truth be told, we all have the foundational pieces of our moral lives given to us long before we develop the capacity to challenge them—and often we never get to the challenge part. I usually urge my students to question and challenge what they have never questioned and challenged. But on this given day it struck me that in addition to questioning, it is equally important to first identify what we have been given. The fact that my students thought Aristotle was wrong about just resentment because they had been carrying around the directive to forgive their whole life was not mistaken—it is just a fact. The Jewish carpenter will be on display in a few weeks in seminar and when he is, we’ll remember Aristotle.

Ileopardn The Leopard, the Jo Nesbo Norwegian crime drama I am currently reading, the main character, an extraordinarily complex person in every way imaginable, is berating himself because he can’t seem to move past some inhibitions he has carried his whole life. A colleague suggests that he should relax.

You can’t just disregard your own feelings like that, Harry. You, like everyone else, are trying to leapfrog the fact that we are governed by notions of what’s right and wrong. Your intellect may not have all the arguments for these notions, but nonetheless they are rooted deep, deep inside you. Right and wrong. Perhaps its things you were told by your parents when you were a child, a fairy tale with a moral your grandmother read, or something unfair you experienced at school and you spent time thinking through. The sum of all these half-forgotten things. “Anchored deep within” is in fact an appropriate expression. Because it tells you that you may not be able to see the anchor in the depths, but you damn well can’t move from the spot—that’s what you float around and that’s where your home is. Accept the anchor.anchor

not your friend

I Am Not Your Friend

If it’s Friday, it’s time to think once again about interactions between various constituencies in academia. Today I am not thinking about faculty-administration relations. I’m wondering instead about the dynamic between professors and students.

One of the challenges and joys of team teaching in an interdisciplinary program—something I have been doing for twenty years—is that you get to teach with all sorts of people. Young and not so young, introvert and extrovert, high maintenance and low maintenance, mount rushmorecollegial and not-so-much, colleagues who belong on the teaching version of Mount Rushmore and others who have a difficult time avoiding embarrassment in the classroom. And everything between these various extremes. The various three- and four-person teams I have been part of have ranged from forever memorable to eminently forgettable. My team last fall was one of the most memorable, largely because one of my teammates was someone who really didn’t want to be there.

I have been directing the interdisciplinary program I teach in for the past three and a half years. Scheduling twenty three-person teams out of the rotating faculty that staff the program from four large departments from semester to semester is one of, if not the most challenging part of the job. Negotiating the time constraints while attempting to honor various faculty “requests” (I want to teach with these people, I do not want to teach with this person, I cannot teach before 9:30 or after 2:30, Rubiks cubeI cannot teach more than three days per week and definitely not on Fridays) is like trying to solve a 36-sided Rubik’s cube. The only accompanying perk is that I get to choose who I will teach with each semester. Last fall, one of my teammates was a colleague from history in his last year of teaching before retirement. J had taught in the program I direct in the past, but not for a dozen years or more. I was sure J was not thrilled to be sent back for the first semester of his last year before retirement. Known for his curmudgeonly and crusty demeanor (as well as his expertise in military history), I thought it might be a good idea to put him with me—both because we have been friends for several years (we are frequently at the gym at the same time) and because I wanted to protect unsuspecting colleagues from what J might bring to the table on a bad day.

J is in his early seventies; teamed with T, old white guysa classicist from Art History who is in his late fifties as I am, our triumvirate was the “old fart”/”old white guys” team let loose on 100 or so unsuspecting freshmen. It was a blast. It turned out that each of my teammates shared my ironic and sarcastic sense of humor, so we spent the first several weeks laughing in class at each other’s cracks and side comments while the children wrote them down dutifully in their notebooks in the off chance that such information might be on the next quiz or exam, all the time wondering what planet they had landed on.

At one of our first weekly team meetings, the topic of office hours came up. T (a complete rookie in the program) wanted to know whether there was a required amount of office hours a faculty member teaching in the program had to hold per week (there isn’t), prompting J to mention what he had told the students in each of his seminars the first time they met.

These are my office hours. If you have questions or need help, this is when I’ll be in my office. But don’t just drop in to “shoot the shit” or hang out. I am not your friend. I’m in my early seventies and all of you are eighteen years old. If someone my age wants to be your friend, you should call the police.not your friend

I wouldn’t have put my office hours policy quite that directly to my students, but I know exactly what J was talking about. There are many faculty colleagues who have students lined up outside their door every day, often just to chat or get life advice (the person whose office is next to mine is one of these people). I am not one of those faculty—nor do I want to be one.

I have written frequently about the interesting challenges and opportunities presented to an extreme introvert by the teaching life. I learned to channel what few extroverted neurons I have directly into my teaching first by treating the classroom like a stage on which I am acting (some of the best thespians I have ever met are naturally introverted). Over the years I not only have internalized these energies so that I no longer feel like I am performing, but also have become far more personal and transparent in the classroom than I used to be. I share so much about myself and my life in the classroom that in some ways my students probably know more about me than anyone other than Jeanne and my sons. INFJA willingness to be transparent not only breaks down the formality that is inherent in the classroom but also gives me an endless supply of illustrations for difficult philosophical concepts. I think I have become a more naturally open person over the years because of my profession, which is a good thing for a 19-1 introvert on the Myers-Briggs scale.

But I am still a dedicated introvert, which causes a bit of confusion when my students encounter “Out-of-class Morgan” and find him to be quite different from “In-class Morgan.” I know that almost everyone’s first impression of me before they get to know me (if they ever do) is one of formality, aloofness and perhaps superiority (none of which are actually true—it’s just how introverts are often read by non-introverts). I can live with that and actually make good use of it on occasion. But my students’ first impression of me is in the classroom, where I am extroverted, loquacious, inviting and often funny. my caveThere’s a moment of cognitive dissonance when one of them shows up in my office and finds out that my natural state of being is quite different. I never have been able to make my office an extension of the classroom—my office is first my space, a space out of which I take great pains to create a “Morgan cave.” And in that natural habitat I am my default self. An introvert. That means that my face does not necessarily light up with joy when a student or colleague pokes their head in the door—SONY DSCit often feels like an interruption.

I’m working on it. Since my office is a cave reflecting my interests, it is full of items as eclectic as the things I love, including tons of books, pictures of the family, penguin paraphernalia and a small stuffed Big Bird, a shot glass that says “I heart Jesus,” and a large coffee cup that says BFD“I’m a BIG Fucking Deal.” Come to think of it, my Morgan cave is probably a den of cognitive dissonance for the unprepared or uninitiated. Students find out very quickly that I am excellent with and often more helpful in email communication rather than face to face, which is fine with me. Email is an introverts dream; phone calls are not, and unannounced visits definitely are not.

I love my students, but I am their professor, not their friend. Some develop into friends over time—my office is full of cards and pictures of former students with whom I have a continuing friendship long after they graduated. I’m looking forward this evening to seeing two of them for the first time in a year and a half. They were students in one of my freshman classes a number of years ago, each took several more classes with me (different ones) over their four years at the college, they started dating as seniors, were married a couple of years later—a happy couple and I take full responsibility for it. bday fairyThey will be attending a dinner tonight on campus that Jeanne and I will also be attending—they call Jeanne the BCF: “The Birthday Cake Fairy.” It’s a long story and probably the centerpiece of a new post soon.

I was reminded when reading Ian McEwan’s The Children Act last week that, even though I naturally keep a distance between myself and my students outside of class, I have invited them into something intimate in the classroom that I cannot ignore. McEwanA young man says to the central character in the novel that “I feel you’ve brought me close to something else, something really beautiful and deep, but I don’t really know what it is.” That’s what I love about teaching—I get to open the door to a wonderfully beautiful and profound world for my students on a regular basis. Often the person who opens the door becomes a placeholder for what lies beyond the door. I have to remember that the invitation does not end when I walk out of class—I need to keep the door of the Morgan cave open—at least a crack. Even J learned something during his semester teaching with me. At one of our last team meetings of the semester, J said “Vance, I’m really pissed!” “Why?” I wanted to know. “Because I’m really beginning to like my students.”

monochrome exposure

Monochrome Exposure

October is often the month that the best new movies of the year are released and the best books of the year are published—this year is no exception. Jeanne and I saw “The Judge” last night; although it did not crack my “top” anything list, it was very good, especially the lead acting performances by Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., and Vera Farmiga. On the novels front, two of favorite novelists’ latest were published within a couple of days of each other—Marilynne Robinson’s Lila and Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. I was in the middle of my latest Scandinavian mystery when these two novels arrived from Amazon, so Jeanne grabbed Lila and I read The Children Act last week as soon as I left Denmark.

The Children Act is the story of Fiona Maye, an experienced and highly respected family court judge in London. The story centers on how a particular case impacts both her professional and personal life. McEwanA seventeen-year-old boy is hospitalized with leukemia; his regimen of treatment requires a cluster of powerful medicines, including one that produces anemia. To combat the anemia a blood transfusion is required—standard procedure. But the boy and his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and blood transfusions are prohibited by their religious beliefs. Fiona hears testimony from attorneys representing the interests of the hospital, the young man (three months away from his eighteenth birthday and legal majority), and his parents. In her judgment on the case, Judge Maye writes something that could have been written about me at age seventeen:

His childhood has been an uninterrupted monochrome exposure to a forceful view of the world and he cannot fail to have been conditioned by it.

Just how strongly the religious training and atmosphere of my youth influenced and shaped me was brought to my attention sharply just a few days ago as InquirersI spoke with six folks ranging in age from fifteen to seventy in an “Inquirers’” class at the small Episcopal church that Jeanne and I attend. Such classes are preparation for the Episcopalian version of confirmation, capped by a liturgy involving the Bishop at his annual appearance next month. Inquirers class is open to persons who wish to join the church officially, those who wish to renew their original baptismal vows so far removed in the distant past that what the vows say—let alone what they mean—has been forgotten, persons who wish to be “received” into the Episcopal church from other churches in which they were originally confirmed (most often disaffected Catholics), and anyone who is just looking for an hour’s worth of religious entertainment on a Wednesday evening. Knowing that my own religious upbringing in the Baptist church included brainwashing in the Bible, my good friend and rector of the church Marsue asked me if I would come to this particular meeting to talk about “Bible History.”

October and November are by far the busiest and most stressful months of the academic year for me as director of a large interdisciplinary program on my college campus, so I unashamedly admit that I hadn’t thought for more than five minutes about what I was going to say to this class as I walked into church on Wednesday evening. OT worldBut I was not at all worried—I knew that just relying on my fifty-plus year old foundation in things Biblical would be more than sufficient to introduce Episcopalian-wannabes who had probably never encountered Scripture first hand in their life to the Bible lay of the land. I even forgot to bring one of the dozen or more Bibles at home with me. Upon request, Marsue produced a book with a few maps relevant to Old Testament events from her office, while the church secretary (who is one of the Inquirers) scared up a few Bibles.

Directing everyone to the Table of Contents, I table of contentswalked them through the patriarchs, the exodus, the time of the judges, the unified kingdom under David and Solomon, the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Israel’s captivity in Assyria followed by Judah’s captivity in Babylon a century and a half later, capped by the Persian emperor Cyrus’ allowing the Hebrews to return to the devastated Promised Land to rebuild the Temple and their communities—all in a bit over a half hour. It was fun to return to the Sunday School lessons of my youth (a Sunday School that was run like a real school—we were expected to learn things, subject to quizzes and exams). It was even more fun to come up for air occasionally and ask for questions. There weren’t any, because everyone (especially the teenagers) was looking at me as if I were a mutant or some sort of trained monkey. I was working without notes—no notes are necessary when plugging into things learned in-depth at a young age. As Aristotle says, if you want people to learn things they won’t forget, get them when they are very young.

After the crash course in Old Testament happenings, Marsue made a few comments that opened the door to broader issues. I had pointed out on the maps that the centerpiece of these historical events—Canaan—is remarkably tiny in the overall scope of things. MonotheismYet in our twenty-first century this part of the world continues to carry extraordinary importance to billions of people both politically and religiously. The three great monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all claim Abraham as their father and this part of the world as the central home of their faith. The violence and bloodshed of the current Middle East mirrors the violence of the Old Testament, just on a larger scale. The Palestinians of today have the same grievance against the still relatively new nation of Israel that the native people of the Promised Land had against the recently freed Hebrews of the Old Testament. We were here first.

In the midst of making these contemporary connections, one of the older members of group—one of the church’s two current sextons—spoke for the first time as he remembered various conversations with people of different faith commitments over the years. Whether during impromptu discussions with fellow soldiers during basic training or conversations with his next door neighbor, he noted how it has always struck him that people with significant faith differences actually share a great deal in common. ‘one godWhy can’t we simply understand that we can believe in the same God in very different ways?” he wondered. Why all the hatred, the violence, the suspicion and judgmental attitudes?

Her Honor Fiona Maye runs headlong into the same issue as she deliberates her decision in the case of the Jehovah’s Witness teenager. She’s not a religious person herself, but whether religious or not, the Jehovah’s Witness belief that God’s will does not include blood transfusions, even if required to save a life, seems odd, peculiar, and irrational. Such apparently arbitrary rules are cultish—something from which normal persons need to be protected or perhaps rescued. And yet, Fiona realizes, that one person’s cult is another person’s truth.

mountainsReligions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a great distance, none obviously higher, more important, or truer than another. What was to judge?

Fiona’s position and status requires her to make a judgment, but she realizes that it cannot be on the basis of moral superiority or certainty. For what makes sense and what is true for a person is always largely shaped by that person’s experiences, some of which—especially those of one’s early youth—one does not freely choose.

I remember a number of years ago when my therapist, after listening during yet another session to my descriptions of how the impact of my religious heritage on my adult life had been, in my understanding at that time, largely negative, suggested to me that I might want to trybuddhism Buddhism. If Christianity isn’t working, try something else. But I knew that I couldn’t do it, even if I wanted to. I’ve been working on this for a while now, and I realize more and more that although I have no basis on which to insist that my faith is the best way to package the truth, it is my truth. Each unique expression of faith, viewed from a distance, looks pretty much the same to an objective observer, which is a good thing for all persons of faith to remember as they get ready to go into religious warfare, virtual or actual, on a regular basis. But faith is never lived from a distance. It is inhabited up close. My monochrome exposure to faith as a child may have exploded over time into Technicolor, but the original imprint is still there. It is not mine to impose on anyone else, but it is mine.roses

hello october

October Musings

Autumn in NEAutumn is my favorite season of the year, and October is my favorite month. This is not surprising for a native New Englander, since turning leaves together with crisp, sunny and cool days are an attractive combination. Even on this particular middle-of-October day as I write, when it is unseasonably warm and humid with a threat of heavy rain later, a few typically beautiful fall days in the past week and the promise of more to come keeps me weather-happy. I know that autumn bums many people who live where the seasons change out because it means that winter is coming. But I like winter as well, or at least the idea of it. The older I get the less I enjoy the actual fact of shoveling snow on occasion and having to warm the car up every morning, but I’ll take it over the Florida summer humidity and heat that my son and daughter-in-law profess to love for some unknown reason.halloween birthday

October not only means my favorite kind of weather, but also puts me in a reminiscent mood. October was an important month during my growing up years because both my mother and my brother were born in October (my mother on Halloween, which meant that we usually ignored her birthday in exchange for more interesting activities). It is actually my brother’s birthday today as I write; he has now lived two years longer than my mother did, and I’m within two years of the age at which she died. She died of cancer in October, just three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday, followed a couple of weeks later unexpectedly by the death of my father-in-law of only a few months. That was twenty-six years ago; last week Jeanne was in Brooklyn for a week to be with and help her sister after the October death of her sister’s husband of more than forty years.

October is a centrally important month every year for both students and faculty on college campuses—the first big papers and often the first significant exam of the semester (or perhaps the midterm exam)midterm are usually October events. For students this means even more stress than usual; for faculty it means that the first few weeks of the semester that have pleasantly been free of tons of grading are now at an end. Faculty love to bitch and moan about grading—I used to be great at such complaining until Jeanne asked me once many years ago at the end of my latest grading whine-fest “Isn’t that part of your job?” Well yes, I guess it is. It’s the one part of my job that I hope I don’t have to do in my next life (because I still intend to be a college professor—there’s nothing better). Now I tend to think of October grading as a great opportunity to learn new things from my students.

For instance, my colleague on an interdisciplinary faculty team informed me by email a few days ago that she just read the following in one of her freshman papers: “As Mr. Morgan talked about in lecture, during this time and culture, obeying god was the priority of every man, even if that means sacrificing your own son, which happened a lot in olden times.” Google UMy colleague wrote “I guess I must have missed that lecture.” I responded that “Mr. Morgan is my evil twin who gives lectures on off days for students who don’t come to the regularly scheduled lectures. I take no responsibility for anything Mr. Morgan says.” In one of my own papers (the same assignment that produced my colleague’s paper) one of my freshman began as follows: “According to Google, happiness is defined as . . .” I’m glad that I’m old enough that I won’t have to fully adjust to the brave new educational world that is just around the bend.Kathleen

October also often brings important speakers to campus. At the beginning of Q and A at her on campus talk the other day, best-selling author (and resident scholar for this year at my college) Kathleen Norris mentioned how much she used to enjoy Q and A sessions with second-graders to whom she was bringing poetry in North and South Dakota classrooms many years ago. “How old are you?” “How much do you weigh?” “Do you have a cat?” “How much money do you make?” “Do you have a bicycle?” The next time I am in attendance at a scholarly paper event, those are the questions I’m going to ask. Because those are the things I really want to know.

Even though the liturgical year is still slogging through endless weeks of “Ordinary Time,” October always brings welcome entertainment. Two Sundays ago we celebrated Saint Francis Sunday with “Blessing of the animals.”

Three years ago

Three years ago

This year

This year

Twenty-one dogs, a hamster and a turtle were in attendance (twice as many dogs as were present the previous year), but no cats. That confirms my long-standing suspicions that cats are agnostics or atheists. I was lector for the fourth straight Saint Francis Sunday and read the story of Balaam and his donkey from Numbers. My friend Marsue, who is rector of our little Episcopal church, makes sure I am scheduled as lector for this event every year because I always bring my dachshund Frieda to the lectern so she can stare people down while I’m reading.

Last Sunday we returned to the regular cycle of readings, which during this liturgical year in ordinary time has been walking us through the familiar and fascinating stories of the patriarchs in Genesis and the dramatic escape of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage in Exodus. On Sunday in Exodus 32 Moses is up on Mount Sinai hanging out while God writes the Ten Commandments and everyone else figures he’s never coming back. So they make the Golden Calf, start a minor orgy, and you know how that worked out. golden calfMoses is pissed; God is even more pissed. “Jesus Christ!” God yells (he forgot what part of the Bible he was in for a moment). “Moses, can you believe this shit?? I’ve had enough of these clowns! Stand back, Moses, while I wipe them all out. Then I’ll start over again with a new bunch of people starting with you, sort of like I did with Abraham in the previous book.” Moses points out that this would make God look bad, given that he put so much effort and creative thought—from plagues to parting a sea—into getting these people out of slavery, only to kill them in the desert. God’s response to Moses’ point is my favorite verse in the Jewish Scriptures, perhaps in the entire Bible: And the Lord changed His mind. The implications are unlimited.

October also provides me with a yearly opportunity to introduce a bunch of innocent freshmen to my choice for the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition: Aristotle. McEwanHis vision of the moral life, of the life of human flourishing, is second to none. I came across a beautiful description of such a life in Ian McEwan’s latest novel (an October release just a few days ago), The Children Act:

Welfare, happiness, well-being must embrace the philosophical concept of the good life. She listed some relevant ingredients, goals toward which a child might grow. Economic and moral freedom, virtue, compassion and altruism, satisfying work through engagement with demanding tasks, a flourishing network of personal relationships, earning the esteem of others, pursuing larger meanings to one’s existence, and having at the center of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love.

Autumn is a time when I feel, at least a little bit, that such a life might be possible. Thanks, October.love october

lifes-a-bitch[1]

Suffering into Truth

Every fall I get to spend several weeks with a bunch of freshmen in the wonderful world of ancient Greek literature and philosophy; two weeks ago it was Herodotus, last week Aeschylus, this week Plato. These guys make you think! Here’s what I was thinking last fall–similar thoughts this year.

Jeanne got on the Amtrak early one Sunday morning not long ago, beginning two weeks of work-related travel. Bummed out, I decided to head south for church an hour and a half early in order to spend that extra time in a nice little coffee shop just down the road from Trinity Episcopal, reading and doing my introverted thing. herodotus[1]My text for the morning was Herodotus’s Histories, the primary text for the coming week’s Development of Western Civilization freshman seminars.

Herodotus is considered to be the first true historian, but historian or not, he’s a great story-teller. His “history” is often page after page of anecdotal tales about strange and distant lands, often based more on second-hand rumor than direct observation. Consider, for instance, his description of a certain Thracian tribe’s practices at the birth of a baby:

When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.

That’s a sixth-century BCE version of “life’s a bitch and then you die,”lifes-a-bitch[1] codified into the very fabric of a culture. The first stop on Jeanne’s two-week travels was to stop in New Jersey briefly to help celebrate the first birthday of her great-niece with her family. Something tells me that Emma’s first birthday was not marked with a recitation of “the whole catalogue of human sorrows.”

But if brutal honesty were the rule of the day, perhaps her Emma’s first birthday celebration should have been so marked. The ancient Greeks, Herodotus included, understood better than any group of people before and perhaps since the often tragic tension that lies just below the surface of human life. In Aeschylus’s Oresteiafull[1], the trilogy of plays that was the previous week’s focus with my DWC freshmen, we encountered the horribly messy history of the house of Atreus, undoubtedly the most dysfunctional and f–ked up family in all of literature. In this midst of this powerful and tragic work, Aeschylus occasionally reminds us that tragedy and pain is not just part of myth and legend—it is an integral part of the human condition. We must, Aeschylus writes, “suffer into truth.”

At the risk of “piling on,” here’s one more observation about the darkness that often envelops human existence. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche tells the ancient tale of King Midas, who spends a great deal of energy and time midas_silenus[1]chasing down the satyr Silenus in order to ask him a simple question: “What is the very best and most preferable of all things for man?” Silenus’ response: “Why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is – to meet an early death.” To which I’m sure Silenus added: “Have a nice day!”

imagesCAP8LYMLAs the main character in the movie “Playing for Time,” played by Vanessa Redgrave, says in the aftermath of the horrors of Auschwitz, “we’ve found something out about ourselves, and it isn’t good news.” The texts and stories mentioned above are pre-Christian—apparently the ancient Greeks did not need a doctrine of original sin to notice that there’s something seriously wrong with human beings. In the words of John Henry Newman, we are afflicted by “some aboriginal calamity.” And we need help, the sort of help that the mere elimination of headline tragedies and sources of suffering would not provide. The human condition is not a generally pleasant state that is inexplicably and unpredictably invaded on occasion by events both tragic and destructive. It’s much worse than that because evil, tragedy and suffering are woven into the very fabric of human nature. Anne Lamott opens her just-released book Help, Thanks, Wow with these lines from Rumi:

You’re crying: you say you’ve burned yourself.rumiport[1]

But can you think of anyone who’s not

hazy with smoke?

No, I can’t.

So what to do? The upcoming Advent season is the season of expectation and hope, energized by the desire that we can be better, that “life’s a bitch and then you die” need not be the final word concerning the human story. The truth of human suffering, of course, is embedded in the Christian narrative, about which Simone Weil writes that “The genius of Christianity is that it does not provide a supernatural cure for suffering, but provides a supernatural use.”  The Incarnation that Advent anticipates is the beginning of this narrative; tIMG_0091[1]he promise of Advent is that there is a glimmer of light in the distance that is about to dawn—“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.” A rumor of legitimate hope is about to literally be fleshed out. As we turn our attention away from our obsession with the human condition toward distant promise, we choose to believe that when the divine takes on our human suffering and pain, we in turn take on divinity itself.  The choice to look outward in expectation is within our power, as this text from Baruch describes:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Help is on the way.

imagesCA2XEOYS

Having a Human Experience

Several years ago, as my mother-in-law was steadily descending into the hell of Alzheimer’s, an acquaintance described Jeanne’s most recent difficult interaction with her mother this way: alzheimers-brainpuzzle-512[1]“Rose is a spiritual being having a human experience.” This was a helpful reminder that there is more to a human being than her body, a something more that is not necessarily subject to the vicissitudes of our physical existence. Because we know our physical selves are temporary and have a very short shelf life, comparatively speaking, human beings have a natural attraction to any way of thinking or belief that promises something more, that identifies something that is not subject to sickness, disease, pain, suffering, decay and death. It is an attractive promise, so attractive that I find that most of my students, the majority of whom are products of Catholic primary and secondary education, consider the promise of life in heaven after one’s physical body has worn out and stopped running to be the primary, perhaps the only, reason to be a person of faith.

Shortly after Easter, as she frequently does whether intended or unintended, Jeanne made an observation that has been germinating ever since she planted the seed. We had just returned from church on imagesCAAQ2XYKDoubting Thomas Sunday, when Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus has risen until he has seen and can physically touch the scars of the nails in Jesus’s hands and feet and the place where the spear pierced his side. “Why,” Jeanne wondered, “are the scars still present on Jesus’s resurrected body?” Great question, for which there might be quick surface level answers, but a question which worms its way deeper the longer it sits. Jesus not only bears the scars of suffering and torture in his resurrected body, but he also takes this scarred body back with him to heaven. Why? Wondering about that during a few days of silence and solitude on retreat took me back to a familiar text that never fails to shock me every time I hear or read it.

Psalm 22 is a seminal text on human pain and suffering, a psalm that Jesus quotes—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—as he hangs dying in agony on the cross. It is a text so powerful and wrenching in its portrayal of human affliction that I find it difficult to even read.

imagesCA2XEOYSLike water I am poured out

Disjointed are all my bones

My heart has become like wax

It is melted within my breast

Parched as burnt clay is my throat

My tongue cleaves to my jaws 

Even more crushing than the physical suffering is the psychological distress of isolation and abandonment.

O God, I call by day and you give no reply

Station%207%20Jesus%20Falls%20a%20Second%20Time%20Small[1]I call by night and I find no peace

I am a worm and no man

The butt of all, laughing-stock of the people

All who see me deride me

They curl their lips, they toss their heads

“He trusted in the Lord, let him save him

If this is his friend.” 

This is not fiction. Whether from disease, human cruelty, self-inflicted calamity, or just the chance misfortunes of life, human beings are in this place physically and spiritually as I write. What can be said when someone is dying physically, empty emotionally, hasn’t had a fresh thought in years, and has been abandoned by friends and family? Where is God? Is there God? Is there no help?

imagesCAM20K4VOne of the “New Atheists” whose popular books have made dabbling in atheism trendy in the past decade or so—Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins . . . I forget which one—writes that he finds it impossible to respect any religion whose foundational symbol is an instrument of torture and death. But in truth it is this very image of torture and death that makes the Christian story disturbingly and inescapably real. The suffering and pain portrayed in Psalm 22 is the human reality, whether Jesus on the cross, my mother-in-law suffering from Alzheimer’s, an abused child, or a victim of injustice anywhere in the world. None of us is ever more than one step away from Psalm 22. Finding God in the middle of it requires taking the very strange Christian story very seriously.

The hope of the Christian faith is not that the suffering and pain that is natural to embodied, physical creatures will somehow be eliminated or overcome, incarnation[1]but rather that our very human condition will be transformed from within, from the presence of the divine in each of us first foreshadowed by the Incarnation, God becoming human. Christianity is a full-bodied faith, involving every part of us—warts and all. One does not follow Christ by overcoming or rejecting ones humanity, but rather by participating in a transformation of that humanity into a unique bearer of the divine.

In the end, Rose was not a spiritual being having a human experience, as if being spiritual and being human are two different things. Strangely, she was a human being having a divine experience. What can be offered or said to or about a person in the midst of a Psalm 22 experience? Perhaps nothing. But somehow suffering, emptiness, abandonment and exhaustion bear a family resemblance—they all look like God. God who empties the divine into each cracked, leaky human container. We are hard-wired to expect God only in the miraculous, the spectacular, the triumphant; when this invariably does not happen, hqdefault[1]we conclude that God is absent, agreeing with the first thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus. But if the heart of God is self-emptying, then isn’t the empty shell of a person, at the end of her resources and without support, the very image of God? The most ludicrous, inefficient, messy scheme imaginable, but this is a God I can relate to—one that doesn’t run away from human imperfection and ruin. One who embraces and fills us again—over and over.