Category Archives: suffering

Giotto lamentation

The Weight of this Sad Time

It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words, but I am this morning. This post from several months ago sort of captures my mood at the moment; as Wittgenstein wrote, “of that which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Shakespeare, King Lear

Last week I spent a couple of mornings and part of an afternoon participating in a faculty end-of-the-year workshop held annually for the honors faculty. It is always held the week after Commencement; with sabbatical just around the corner, I considered not attending this year. Cost of DiscipleshipBut the two morning seminars were on King Lear and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, two worthy texts that should be on everyone’s top whatever list. That, along with a reasonable stipend, was enough for me to sign up.

The King Lear seminar, led by a Shakespeare scholar from the English department, was a welcome return to a text that I find both strikingly dark and strangely compelling every time I read it. I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other author (certainly more insightful than any philosopher I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy for a couple of years. tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]As it always does, the play blew me away, disturbed me, and left me wondering whether my colleagues might find some glimmers of hope and redemption that have always escaped me.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. Furthermore, Shakespeare sets the play in an early England that as yet has not been “Christianized”—typical and familiar moralizing and redemptive language is as out of place here as it would have been in Ancient Greece or Rome. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.”imagesCAOCS0RP Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods;

They kill us for their sport.

Lear 2008My colleagues and I ended two morning hours of seminar and another afternoon hour by viewing the final act of the play on screen with the 2008 version starring Ian MacKellan as Lear. It is a stark production with Beckett-like sparse staging toward the end. As character after character dies—Lear’s three daughters, the evil Edmund, and ultimately Lear himself—and the stage is littered with corpses, the play ends with Edgar’s final lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Fade to black. The seminar leader asked us for our feelings, our impressions of what we had just viewed, and for the first time in thirty years in academia I heard something I’ve never before heard when in the presence of twenty scholars: total silence. In obedience to Edward’s directive, no one felt obligated to say anything that “should” be said; at least for a minute or two, we were not professors ready to discuss the next topic to death, Auschwitzbut human beings stunned into silence by Shakespeare’s brilliant and disabling portrayal of a meaningless and hopeless world.

I was reminded of one of the final classes in my “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester. My colleague Ray was up front andeyeglasses ended the two-hour session with footage from the liberation of Auschwitz. The students were exposed to a variety of tough material, both in writing and on the screen, throughout the semester, but this particular footage was especially difficult to watch. There was no narration, no voice over, just hundreds of emaciated dead bodies stacked like so much wood, rooms filled to the ceiling with eyeglasses, hair, or shoes. Bulldozers pushing piles of bodies into a pit for burial just as they would push garbage into a pit at a landfill. suvivorsAnd perhaps most horrific of all were the close-ups on the faces of the just-liberated prisoners who were still barely alive. The haunting and empty gazes still float through my memory and probably will never leave. At the end of the several minute montage there was dead silence in the room. Ray wisely made no comment and simply turned off the computer and AV system, then began gathering his books and notes. This was the cue for the rest of us to do the same, and we left the room in silence.

This would have probably been the appropriate conclusion to the King Lear seminar the other day as well. But after what seemed like a very long silence, someone made a comment, then someone else followed up, and pretty soon we were doing what academics do in every context and setting—talking. Several people referenced the silence that preceded the talking and began to analyze what it was about both the play and the film adaptation that caused us not to say anything. speak what we feelBut with Edgar’s final lines in mind, our first reaction was most in keeping with “Speak what we feel”—except that our feelings were, at least for a few moments, deeper than words could express. Once we started putting what we felt into words, it was very easy to shift into “what we ought to say,” and the powerful moment was lost.Greenberg

Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. And, as Irving Greenberg writes in Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire, if we feel that something must be said, we need to be very careful about what it is.

The Holocaust challenges the claims of all the standards that compete for modern man’s loyalties.  Nor does it give simple, clear answers or definitive solutions.  To claim that it does is not to take the burning children seriously…Giotto lamentationLet us offer, then, as a working principle the following: No statement, theological, or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.

A Lonely Pawn

Have you never felt like one of those pawns forgotten in a corner of the board, with the sounds of battle fading behind them? They try to stand straight but wonder if they still have a king to serve. Arturo Pérez-Reverteperez reverte

As is my usual custom, I am trying to read as many non-academic, non-work-related books this month as I can before I return to the classroom in three weeks. My current author is Arturo Pérez-Reverte, an internationally acclaimed Spanish author of mysteries and thrillers notable for their intricate and labyrinthine plots. He’s good—not at the top of my list of mystery authors with Elizabeth George, Louise Penny, or P. D. James, but no more than one rung lower on the ladder of excellence. I just finished The Flanders Panel, a complicated and multi-layered story with a sixteenth-century painting by a Flemish master at the center. flanders panelThe painting depicts two men playing a game of chess, with an aristocratic woman reading a book by the window in the background—a game within a game within a game, as it turns out. I’m glad I know a little bit about chess, because its intricacies and strategies take center stage as various characters seek to decipher hidden clues in the painting that promise to reveal the story of a murder that inspired the work of art, as well as to shed light on more recent suspicious deaths.

Let me be clear—I am a horrible chess player. I learned the rules of the game and the movements of each piece from my Dad (also a horrible player), but I know nothing about strategy. The chess matches I have participated in over the years have been bloodbaths, similar to the Battle of the Bastards toward the end of the most recent season of “Game of Thrones.” battle of the bastardsI recall many games where the losing side had only a naked and solitary king left when things finally ended. You don’t need to know anything about chess to realize that when one piece is being chased around sixty-four squares by several hostile enemy pieces, checkmate will soon occur. I taught my youngest son Justin the basics of chess as my father had taught me—my older son Caleb lacked the patience. Justin took the game far more seriously than I ever have, joining the chess club in high school and practicing at home when he could get me to play. “I’ll play you until you beat me,” I said—and I was true to my word. He beat me for the first time during his freshman or sophomore year, and I never played him again. My willingness to be humiliated is limited.

The Flanders Panel is good, but the Pérez-Reverte quotation at the beginning of this essay is from a different mystery—The Seville Communion. Because it involves ideas and issues that I am perpetually fascinated by, this story is my favorite of the four Pérez-Reverte mysteries I have read so far. seville communionThe main character in The Seville Communion is Lorenzo Quart, a Jesuit priest sent from the Vatican to Seville charged with sorting out a complicated and tangled situation involving Our Lady of Tears, a historic but crumbling Catholic church built on land for which various constituencies have plans that do not include a church in which only a few dozen people worship per week. Father Quart considers himself to be a soldier in the Roman Catholic army rather than a priest; he is intelligent, effective, agnostic, and cynical. But he meets his match in Father Priamo Ferro, the aging priest in charge of the church in question. Quart expects Ferro to be an embodiment of everything Quart hates—old-style Catholicism with Latin masses for the benefit of a handful of elderly female parishioners. What he finds instead generates conversations reminiscent of another famous literary conversation set in Seville—Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor tale from The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor converses with Jesus, who has unexpectedly and inexplicably shown up in sixteenth-century Seville. grand inquisitorTheir wide-ranging conversation focuses on the impossibility of Jesus’ message of individual freedom, choice, and responsibility—the Inquisitor points out that the Catholic church has spent centuries repackaging Christianity into something that human beings want and can handle. The freedom proclaimed by Jesus is too demanding and makes people unhappy. Human beings prefer security and consolation to an unendurable freedom. All that human beings want is to be saved from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making free decisions for themselves. In The Seville Communion, the conversations between Fathers Quart and Ferro focus on precisely why human beings need consolation and security in the first place.

Quart is surprised to find that Ferro, who appears to be an embodiment of traditional, faithful Catholicism, has not believed in the existence of God for some time; Ferro is convinced that not even the Pope believes in God any more. But this doesn’t matter. As Ferro tells Quart, the purpose of faith is

To reassure man confronted with the horror of his own solitude, death, and the void . . . Faith doesn’t even need the existence of God. It’s a blind leap into a pair of welcoming arms. It’s solace in the face of senseless fear and suffering. The child’s trust in the hand that leads out of darkness.lifes a bitch

The greatest human fear? That nothing means anything. That life’s a bitch and then we die. As the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus, the purpose of faith is to convince ourselves, in the face of contrary evidence, that somewhere, somehow, there is a purpose to it all. The church’s role is to facilitate this illusion. As Ferro explains, the challenge is

How to preserve, then, the message of life in a world that bears the seal of death? Man dies, he knows he will die, and also knows that, unlike kings, popes, and generals, he’ll leave no trace. He tells himself there must be something more. Otherwise, the universe is simply a joke in very poor taste; senseless chaos. So faith becomes a kind of hope, a solace.

In the great game of life, most of us are lonely pawns. Pawns are the most plentiful and least powerful pieces on a chessboard. pawnPawns can move only one square at a time, and only forward. It must often be tempting for a pawn to imagine that there is no point to the game, that other pieces with more options are the only ones that can make a difference, that perhaps the king who the pawn is assigned to defend does not even exist. And yet the pawn endures—until it is taken and removed from the board. No wonder we embrace stories that tell us otherwise, stories intended to convince us that there is something bigger going on in which each of us, often unwittingly and in ignorance, plays a part.

The Grand Inquisitor and Father Ferro have a point—there’s a lot to be said for exchanging the challenge of freedom and responsibility for the security of what Dostoevsky calls “miracle, mystery, and authority.” But to exchange freedom and responsibility for security and comfort, no matter how seductive, is to sacrifice both what makes us human and the heart of true faith. As Simon Critchley, in an essay focusing on the Grand Inquisitor story, writes:

It is the freedom of faith. It is the acceptance—submission to, even—a demand that both places a perhaps intolerable burden on the self, but which also energizes a movement of subjective conversion, to begin again . . . Faith hopes for grace . . . Such an experience of faith is not certainty . . . On this view, doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, it is certainty. If faith becomes certainty, then we have become seduced by the temptations of miracle, mystery, and authority . . . meanking of life[Faith] is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience of freedom.

In the midst of uncertainty and lack of information, each lonely pawn has a continual choice to make. Does my life mean anything? Can I make a difference? When considering these questions, it is worth remembering that even the lowly pawn, once in a while, gets to move one space diagonally and perhaps change the whole landscape of the game. True faith is a leap, but not into the security of collective conformity. Rather, it is a continuing commitment to and embrace of both freedom and responsibility–the choice to pursue that most elusive of goals: the meaning of my life.

Naming Our Demons

sheep on its backMy youngest son was a vet tech for a number of years and had many informed opinions about different types of animals. The stupidest animals he ever dealt with were sheep—I always knew that it is not a compliment when human beings are regularly likened to sheep in the Bible. For instance, Justin tells me that all one has to do to get a sheep to behave is to put it on its back. Once feet up, a sheep apparently believes that she or he has been conquered and will not struggle, no matter what is done to it. Just watch the movie “Babe” and you’ll find out how dumb sheep are.babe

“Babe” also lets us know which animal occupies the other end of the intelligence spectrum from sheep. Despite a lot of bad press of various sorts, pigs are incredibly intelligent; Justin says that the some of the pigs he dealt with were smarter than a lot of the humans he knows. Pigs get a bad rap—they have the reputation of being lazy, they are fat, they are dirty, and there is no situation in which being called a “pig” is a good thing. Pigs are animals-non-grata in the Bible—on the unclean and “don’t eat” list along with a number of other beasts.smart pig And pigs were major players in the gospel reading a couple of Sundays ago, one of the strangest episodes to emerge from the stories of Jesus.

In Luke 8 Jesus and his entourage are in the land of the Gerasenes, in what would be modern-day Jordan. There he encounters a man “who had demons,” a man who has been living naked “among the tombs” for many years. The man (or the demons) knows Jesus on sight and begs for mercy. After a brief exchange, Jesus casts the demons out of the man and, agreeing to  their request sends them into a herd of swine minding their own business close by. The pigs rush down a hill into a nearby lake and drown. The swineherds run to town reporting what just happened (and undoubtedly also to file a legal claim against Jesus for ruining their livelihood). into the pigsAlthough somewhat unusual, on one level the story is just another tale of Jesus’ compassion and healing powers; hidden in the narrative, however, are at least a couple of details worth considering.

The man knows Jesus’ name, but Jesus does not know his, nor apparently does he know the identity of the entities possessing the man. Jesus asks “What is your name?” to which the man answers “‘Legion;’ for many demons had entered him.” Contemporary scholars often stress that ailments identified as possession by evil spirits in the ancient world were almost certainly diseases such as epilepsy, psychological disorders, or any medical problem manifesting itself in unusual behavior or appearance. But we need not delve into a discussion of whether Satan and demons are real in order to find value in Jesus’ question to the man. In her Sunday sermon on this text, my good friend Marsue, who is an Episcopal priest, advised her congregation to “Name your demon.” “Have you ever felt that something just isn’t right, that something inside is out of whack but you don’t know what?” Marsue asked. As the saying tells us, your giant goes with you wherever you go. And so do your demons. ThoreauThoreau once wrote that most of us live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave never grappling with the sources of that desperation.

This applies not only on an individual but on a collective level. It is much easier to project our fears and concerns onto the “Other,” whether defined by religious commitment, racial identity, countries of origin, or sexual orientation, than it is to realize that our fears and concerns always are rooted much more closely to home than we choose to accept. Iris Murdoch once suggested that one of the best questions one can ask oneself regularly is “What are you afraid of?” If our consistent answer is “those who are most unlike us,” it is time to consider the possibility that we are turning others into what we are most uncomfortable with and fear about ourselves. The first steps toward naming my demons begin with identifying those persons and situations I am most uncomfortable with and asking “afraid ofwhat am I so afraid of? What is its name?” Just like vampires, our demons cannot survive when we shine light on them.

In the story from Luke, after Jesus casts the demons into the pigs, the news spreads quickly and the community comes to see the healed man “clothed and in his right mind.” Jesus is a rock star because he has made a man who everyone avoided like the plague whole again and the townspeople invite Jesus and the man into their town for a big celebration. Well . . . not so much. Instead, “all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” There’s that “f” word again—what were these people afraid of? Their disturbing reaction to the healing of a tormented and troubled neighbor raises another important question. Not only does each of us need to ask “what am I afraid of?” but each of us also needs to ask “do I want to be free of that fear?” For years, the residents of Gerasa were very clear about who this demon-possessed man was and how to handle him. “Stay away from him.” “Don’t let the kids go near the cemetery where he lurks unaccompanied.” “He’s dangerous.” “There’s no hope for him—best to ignore him as much as possible.” healedBut now, all of a sudden, everything has changed.

Dealing with demons is a risky business. Risky because I might be so used to and comfortable with my demons that I cannot imagine life without them. As Jesus asked the man at the pool of Bethsaida, “do you want to be made whole?” Although we might deny it, the immediate answer for many of us is undoubtedly “I’m not so sure.” I can’t imagine myself without my prejudices, my preconceptions, my weaknesses—many of which I did not choose but which have defined me for longer than I can remember. This is also risky for those around me, because now all of their preconceptions are brought to light as well. All of the categories that defined the previously demon-possessed man—someone to be avoided, a dangerous person, insane, and so on—now have to be rethought. the otherMore generally, they have discovered that the “Other” is exactly the same as they are.

Retooling our preconceptions and discovering what is common among us rather than what divides us is very difficult work, work that directly challenges our comfortable categorizations. Do we really want to know that those whom we regularly keep at arm’s length are, regardless of religious commitment, race, or sexual orientation exactly the same as we are in every respect that matters? The citizens of Gerasa knew that what had just happened to the demon-possessed man was a total game changer—and they were not ready or willing to play the new game. We are not told how they responded to the newly healed man over time, but we do know that they asked the man responsible for the healing to leave. Naming our demons requires also taking responsibility for what comes afterward—a radical retooling and rethinking of everything we think, say, and do. That’s a lot of work—it’s a lot easier just to hang on to our demons. Unless we actually want to be made well.

What Do You Want?

Anyone who reads this blog regularly or even occasionally knows that I love movies. Solidly in my top ten, maybe even in the top five, is the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.” About half way through the story, Ray and TerryRay Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) and Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) are in the bowels of my beloved Fenway Park. Ray has brought Terry there in an attempt to involve him in a ludicrous scheme that Mann is trying to resist getting sucked into. Mann was a major player in the 60s civil rights and anti-Viet Nam protests who now, twenty years later, is tired of being everyone’s unofficial guru and voice of the flower power generation. He just wants to be left alone. “So what do you want?” Ray asks Terry.

Terry: I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy.

Ray: (gesturing to the concession stand they are in front of) No, I mean, what do you WANT?

Terry: Oh. Dog and a beer.what do you want

Sometimes, “What do you want?” is just a question about one’s lunch or dinner preferences. At other times, the question raises far more important issues. In John’s gospel we find a classic “What do you want?” situation where a man’s health and happiness hang in the balance. It’s an odd story, relatively straightforward on the surface but with many layers of complexity underneath. While in Jerusalem early in his ministry, Jesus and the disciples come to the Pool of Bethesda, rumored to have healing powers, but only under special circumstances. “An angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.” A strange phenomenon, for sure, but hey, this took place before modern science told us that this sort of thing is impossible. Not surprisingly, the perimeter of the pool is crowded with “a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water.”bethesda

Among this multitude is a man who has been afflicted with an unspecified infirmity for thirty-eight years. When I first heard this story in Sunday School as a kid, I thought that this guy had been at the pool for thirty-eight years, which would definitely suck. But in truth, we are not told how long he has been there, nor why Jesus chooses him at random out of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people seeking healing to strike up a conversation with. Jesus asks the man a strange, seemingly stupid question: “Do you want to be made well?” All sorts of possible responses come to mind:

  • No, moron, I just like hanging out with sick people.
  • I thought I did, but now that you ask I realize that I sort of enjoy being incapacitated.
  • Yes, but the copay on my health insurance is so large that I have to wait for my next disability check to come in.

Ask a stupid question, you usually get a stupid answer. But Jesus’ question reminds me of a character from Louise Penny’s Still Life, who I wrote about a month or so ago.still life

Myrna, proprietor of a small bookstore in Three Pines, Quebec, and Inspector Gamache, Penny’s talented murder-solving hero, are having a conversation about the inevitability of change and the various ways in which human beings deal with it. For twenty-five years Myrna was a psychologist in Montreal, one hour’s drive to the north, before chucking it all, moving to rural Three Pines, and rebooting her life entirely. Why did she do it?

I lost sympathy with many of my patients. After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped. I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen. Every week he’d come with the same complaints, “Someone hurt me. Life is unfair. It’s not my fault.” For three years I’d been making suggestions, and for three years he’d done nothing. Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood. He wasn’t changing because he didn’t want to. He had no intention of changing. For the next twenty years we would go through this charade. And I realized in that same instant that most of my clients were exactly like him.

So maybe “Do you want to be made well?” isn’t a stupid question after all. It’s interesting that the man at the Bethesda pool doesn’t simply answer “yes” or “no.” Instead, he provides an excuse and defensive explanation for why he hasn’t been healed already. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Roughly paraphrased: “It’s not my fault that I’m in this position—I have no friends or family to help me out, everyone hates me, there’s a vast conspiracy to keep me from the pool, it’s unfair that only the first person in gets healed, yadda, yadda, yadda.” take up your bedMaybe he realizes, for the first time, what the cost of being healed might be. Is he ready to live without the limitations with which he has lived so long, which have in a strange way become his friends and enablers? Who will he be when he is no longer defined by his infirmity? Sure enough, Jesus heals him, he rolls up his mat and walks, and gets into trouble with the Pharisee Sabbath police because Jesus chose to heal him on the one day that it is illegal to do any work (including carrying your mat). Be careful what you ask for.

“What do you want?” It’s a question each of us would do well to consider carefully. As well as “What changes are you willing to undergo in order to get there?” We need to be sure that we wouldn’t prefer to keep things as they are.

Under My Skin, Part Two: Yes, It Hurts!

Bright and early on Wednesday morning, it began. Actually, it began around 10:30 on Wednesday morning—that’s bright and early for my son, who often works late into the evening. He had tattooed until midnight on Tuesday night. After Photoshopping two pictures of my dachshund Frieda into one, tracing the picture onto what looked all the world like carbon paper (familiar to those old enough to remember typewriters), then transferring the tracing onto my left arm, we were ready.

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“Looks like you’ll be doing paint by number,” I said to Caleb. “Thanks for reducing my profession to a kid’s activity, Dad,” he replied.

With a small light strapped on his forehead, Caleb looked like a miner. My sister-in-law LaVona had been asking me for a couple of days if I was nervous. I wasn’t, but even if I had been, I had announced to my corner of the world that this was happening, so I would be a great disappointment to all and a total pussy if I backed out now. cleatsI wasn’t sure what a tattoo needle biting into my skin would feel like, but it really wasn’t that bad (stay tuned). I told those present (Caleb, my brother, and me) that “It feels like a centipede is walking on my arm with tiny cleats on.” That was kind of a cool visual, one that worked for at least a while.

Caleb’s job was to do the tattoo, my brother’s job was to document the event with his camera and my tablet, and my job was to stay as still as possible as I reclined in the tattoo version of a dentist’s chair. All three of us are Tolkien fans, so we talked about our various favorite parts of the books and movies, then moved to “Breaking Bad,” “Rome,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Game of Thrones,” and every other movie and television show we could think of.WIN_20160413_12_51_08_ProWIN_20160413_12_06_29_Pro

 

 

 

 

This took up the first ninety minutes or so of the event, as Caleb tattooed from the bottom of Frieda’s outline (her coat) up through the right side of her face. I learned that different tattoo needles cause different uncomfortable and annoying sensations—the shading needle is not as intense as the outlining needle, for instance. But I was doing great—no cold sweats or familiar light-headedness that precedes fainting, and no fighting off the desire to scream or cry. I was the man, impressive to all present—especially me.WIN_20160413_12_51_16_Pro

The female contingent of my entourage—Jeanne, LaVona, and my daughter-in-law Alisha—Caleb’s partner in life and business as well as a tattoo artist in her own right—arrived around 1:00, fully expecting to hear screams, I think. They also were impressed with my Stoic determination. Jeanne tried to feed me an orange until Alisha reported that food is not allowed in the tattooing area. Apparently the Florida health inspector would not approve. Jeanne sat next to me on the opposite side from Caleb, LaVona watched Caleb’s activities with the same interest that people probably showed in Michaelangelo’s work on the Sistine ceiling, and Alisha—who sees and does this sort of thing every day—headed to the other room with Stephanie, the office manager, to do some paperwork and pay some bills. After a while, Jeanne and LaVona headed out to experience the wonders of downtown Fort Myers. They invited my brother to join them, but he knew better than to abandon his assigned photography tasks.WIN_20160413_14_07_55_ProWIN_20160413_13_51_37_Pro

 

 

 

 

About two hours in, we took a brief ten-minute break—I got to eat my orange (plus another), take a bathroom break, and was ready to finish this thing up. Caleb noted that it might feel a bit more painful when he started up again. That was an understatement. “FUCK!!!” my internal child yelled as we recommenced. “You’re right, that does hurt a bit more,” my outward philosopher commented. As it turns out, Caleb began to explain, first-time tattoo subjects tend to go through a version of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief while under the needle—I had spent the first two hours in Denial. But my best manly-man efforts kept me on top of sensations that were beginning to cross the line from annoying to “that fucking hurts.” And Caleb continued to fill Frieda in from the bottom up with his fancy tattoo-by-number instruments as I observed the process upside-down.WIN_20160413_14_26_29_Pro

At about the three-hour mark, Caleb got to Frieda’s left ear—the closest portion of the tattoo to my armpit. Apparently that’s a sensitive area. “HOLY SHIT!!!” my internal child screamed. “Are you using the outlining needle?” my external Stoic calmly asked—he was. Then he revealed that it was likely to get worse. Before long he would be returning to the bottom, coat area of the tattoo to add some shading (apparently the light colors have to be saved for last to avoid discoloration). “Whatever,” I thought—it can’t be any worse than it already is. About this time Jeanne and LaVona returned; after a few minutes of sitting next to me and observing that I was fidgeting more than when she had been there earlier, she helpfully suggested that I should sit still. “I’m doing the best I can!” I replied in a not-so-pleasant tone—Caleb observed that I had now moved from Denial to Anger. Helpfully, Tom Petty started singing “You Don’t Know How It Feels” right about then on the Pandora station Caleb had queued up, so I didn’t have to say any more.WIN_20160413_14_43_19_Pro

As he moved to the shading portion, Caleb reminded me of his warning that “this is not going to feel amazing.” It didn’t. For the first time I started practicing the deep breathing through my nose and my mantra from Psalm 133: “Surely I have set my soul in silence and in peace.” “You can scream, you know,” Jeanne reminded me. “That’s not how I roll,” I thought as I rummaged around for my silence and peace spot.WIN_20160413_15_14_51_Pro

I never fully found it, but got close enough to sort of stay on top of something that had passed from an annoying sting to at least the first circle of descent into pain. “How much longer do we have?” I asked Caleb as I moved from the Anger stage into Bargaining. “Not that much longer,” he replied, helping me skip from Bargaining over Depression into Acceptance.

I interpreted “not that much longer” to mean about five or ten minutes—by the time Caleb finished the shading and added some white highlights, it was about forty-five. In addition to the pain level increasing slowly but steadily, I also got a major left-cheek ass cramp that wouldn’t go away. Pandora gifted us with “Stairway to Heaven,” the greatest rock song ever, and shortly after, it ended.WIN_20160413_15_34_58_Pro

I rolled out of the chair, Caleb wiped the fruits of his labor down with alcohol, and I got to see the finished product in a full-length mirror for the first time. And there was Friedalina, with her “I am superior to you in every way” attitude, looking back at me from my upper left arm. It was worth it—I now have a tattoo immortalizing a dog, who also happens to have been the subject of my very first blog post almost four years ago and of my first short essay attempt at a writer’s conference eight or nine years ago.

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

From essay to tattoo—there’s something appropriate about that.WIN_20160413_16_04_14_Pro

Under My Skin

I hate being a disappointment to my son, but I know that I am. Caleb is a tattoo artist; as I reported on Thursday, caleb tattooJeanne and I have been witnesses of Caleb’s transformation from a tattooing rookie working on a friend in our dining room several years ago to an international rock star tattoo artist who owns two tattoo shops, a tattoo school, and takes several trips annually with our daughter-in-law Alisha to conventions and guest artistships in Germany, Italy, France, England, and all over North America. He’s a success in his field by all measures; we are inordinately proud and direct people to his Facebook sites to be astounded by his artistry as often as we can. But I know that deep down he considers himself to be a failure. Why? Because even though he has been perfecting his craft and growing his business for almost a decade, he has yet to achieve his greatest professional goal—tattooing his father and stepmother.

This is not for lack of trying. Caleb and I have had regular conversations about this:

  • Come on, Dad, you’ve got to get a tattoo.
  • Not happening.
  • Why not? You like them, you talk about them all the time. Come on! You’re a liberal! What could you possibly have against tattoos?
  • I have absolutely NOTHING against tattoos! It’s PAIN that I’m not in favor of!

And so it goes. Once a couple of years ago,Nietzsche I mentioned to Caleb that if I ever got a tattoo, it would probably be the iconic silhouette of Nietzsche with his trademark eyebrows and mustache. Unfortunately, Caleb interpreted my hypothetical situation as evidence of incremental movement toward actually getting one. He was mistaken. As he should have known simply from being my son, philosophers love to delve into hypotheticals.

  • If you lived in 1940s Nazi-occupied Belgium and were hiding a Jewish family in your attic, would you lie to the Nazi officer at your front door to keep him from finding out?
  • If you were on a life raft with a half dozen other people in the middle of the ocean, would you be willing to kill one of our fellow raft inhabitants so the rest of you could stay alive by eating him?
  • Would you be willing to murder someone for the good of mankind?
  • Kirk and PicardIf Captain Kirk and Captain Picard got into a fight, who would win?

Stuff like that. My hypothetical about tattooing was nothing more than the “if . . . then . . .” puzzles that are the bread and butter of all philosophy professors.

It’s not as if Caleb has ever hidden the fact that getting a tattoo hurts. A lot. He has a full back tattoo involving dinosaurs in a prehistoric landscape that his friend and tattooing mentor Lisa did over several sessions and many hours a few years ago; Caleb made it clear that the process was painful. Actually he said “It hurt like a motherf**ker.” yes it hurtsOn the wall of his original Connecticut tattoo shop facing the door hangs a large sign that says YES IT HURTS. I know that my pain tolerance is very low, so excuse me if I don’t willingly subject myself to something like that, no matter how beautiful and special the result might be.

I turned sixty exactly a month ago. Knowing that we were headed for a week with Caleb and Alisha, as well as my younger son Justin, my brother, and my sister-in-law, I chose to delay the spectacular celebration of my six decades on earth until we got to Florida. What exactly is the appropriate way to mark such an auspicious event?

Sixty Years On

Chances are we’ll be going to Sanibel and Captiva Islands, maybe to one of the billions of tourist attractions in the Orlando area, perhaps even back to Key West (although if we do, this time we’re taking the ferry rather than driving—the traffic jam going and coming last time was abominable). But none of those are sufficiently unique for this once in a lifetime occurrence. Knowing that deciding and planning would take several weeks of rumination and decision making, I started thinking about it last fall. And before long, it became clear what my sixtieth birthday present to myself would be.

Caleb and Alisha visited over last Thanksgiving week. As Caleb sat on the couch poking away at his phone as is his custom, I rocked his world.

  • Caleb, I know what I want for my sixtieth birthday.
  • What?
  • I want a tattoo when we’re in Florida in April.
  • Wait a minute. You want a tattoo? Are you shitting me?? You’re not having a senior moment???
  • No, I’m serious. I want a tattoo.
  • What do you want, that Nietzsche thing?
  • (I show him a picture on my laptop) Can you do this?IMG_9677
  • You want a FRIEDA tattoo? (uproarious laughter) Why am I not surprised? Yes, I can do that.
  • Then that’s what I want for my sixtieth birthday.
  • You’re not going to fucking back out of this, are you? You’re not going to change your mind?
  • No, Caleb, I want a Frieda tattoo.

Why a tattoo of my dachshund? What guy wouldn’t want a permanent reminder of the second most important female in his life?miracles happen

Sometime in the next seven days I will be getting a tattoo. If you hear screaming from the direction of wherever Florida is related to you, it’s me. I’m quite sure that an account of the experience will make it into a blog post soon! A good friend of mine once defined a miracle as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever, ever happen—and it happens anyways.” If so, there’s a miracle on the horizon. I’m getting a tattoo.

The Hungry Person’s Bread

311878_web_vo.Capitalist-Christian_colI have been known to make extreme statements for effect in the classroom. One of them would be judged by many to be so extreme as to be ludicrous, but I actually believe it is absolutely true: It is not possible to be a good capitalist and a good Christian at the same time. Outside of class, I share this truth only with people who I am virtually sure are of like mind. I was pleased to find out as I prepared for seminar a few weeks ago that the big guy agrees with me.

I have written about my love/hate relationship with Thomas Aquinas on this blog before—despite my best efforts to avoid his looming presence on campus, he is undoubtedly the most important theologian/philosopher of the medieval world.

The Big Guy and Me

St-Thomas-Aquinas1In addition, I frequently teach in an interdisciplinary course that addresses material from Charlemagne to the seventeenth century, two of the disciplines to be addressed in this course are philosophy and theology; guess what, dude—you’re doing Aquinas! The last time I taught this course we did roughly two weeks on Aquinas, the first on his thought concerning the relationship of faith and reason, the second on the nature of law. My theology colleague chose the appropriate texts from the Summa Theologicasumma-theologica for seminar, and I got to spend a couple of hours of seminar time—twice!—working on the big guy’s work with eighteen second-semester freshmen who were less than thrilled to spend yet another precious 100 minutes of their lives with a dead white guy, especially one who is both a philosopher and a theologian, for God’s sake.

But the “Aquinas on Law” seminar turned out to be one of the liveliest I have had all semester, indeed one of the liveliest in recent memory. That’s because wedged into the middle of several articles on various law-related topics, Aquinas asks a very practical and contemporary-sounding question: “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” His answer caused my young students, most at least marginally Catholic and more-than-marginal budding capitalists, to learn something they should have learned from watching Not like the otherSesame Street—some things just don’t go together.

Summa Theologica 2.2, Question 66, Article 7 is framed within the parameters of Aquinas’ understanding of eternal law, natural law, and human law. “Eternal law” is the Divine rational governance of the universe as a cosmic community, while “Human law” is our human version of the same activity, the project of applying rational governance to our activities as individuals and communities. “Natural law” serves as a bridge between eternal and human law; it is the imprint of the eternal Law in the nature of things. natural lawIn the big guy’s own words, “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” At its best, human law is an objective, enforceable expression of what we know from the natural law em-bedded in our natures to be right and wrong. But, of course, things are never that simple.

Which brings us to “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” If he had been writing several centuries later, Aquinas would have illustrated his discussion with Victor Hugo’s story of Jean Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables.javert and valjean Valjean steals food to feed his starving niece and nephew, is arrested for theft and sentenced to twenty years in prison according to the applicable law. He escapes from prison and, through years of complications is pursued by an obsessively dedicated policeman, Javert. Using Aquinas’ categories of law, the conflict between Javert and Valjean reflects the tension that can arise between human law and natural law. Which one of them has “right” on his side? Valjean or Javert? After listing some preliminary objections, Aquinas is very clear about “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need.” “In cases of need,” he writes, “all things are common property, so there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.” Valjean’s taking of food owned by another to save his family members trumps property rights. Javert’s insistence that the letter of the law against theft be inexorably applied is misdirected energy.

This in itself made my students uncomfortable; the big guy’s explanation of his position made some of them downright pissed. “Whatever certain persons have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” ambroseIf you have more than you need, that extra literally does not belong to you. And in case you missed that, Aquinas quotes Ambrose:

It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.

“That sounds like communism!” several of my students complained believing, as many in our capitalist world believe, that such an accusation signifies the effective and immediate end of the conversation. “Not really,” I responded, “but you know who it does remind me of? The early Christian communities in the Book of Acts.” Acts-4.34-37These communities were so dedicated to the principle of common ownership of goods and distribution of those goods according to need that people were reportedly struck dead for claiming to be dedicated to the principle and lying about it. If the big guy had been in attendance at my seminar, the ensuing conversation might have gone something like this:

Student 1: My property belongs to me! I worked for it and no one has a right to it other than me!

The Big Guy: I agree—to a point. “Each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.” The purpose of property ownership is to facilitate your responsibility to ensure that those in need are taken care of.

Student 2: But I worked hard for what I own! No one has the right to tell me what to do with it!

BG: You’re assuming that you are more important than others, that the purpose of labor is your own enrichment and benefit rather than the community’s.

Student 3: I’m more than happy to consider giving of my surplus to those in need—I’m not heartless, and I usually get a tax deduction when I do. But I’m not obligated to do it.

imagesBG: According to the natural law, you are.

Student 4: But what if the person in need is lazy? Or a drug addict? Or just a loser? What if she doesn’t deserve my help?

BG: None of that matters. Why the person is in need is irrelevant. She is in need. You have the capacity to help her. End of story.

Student 4: This is ridiculous! It’s naive, unrealistic, idealistic, and will never work. Where did you ever get such a dumb idea?

indexBG: I know of a guy who gave an important talk once that’s all about this. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount. Check it out.

In one very brief article, the big guy challenges our most basic capitalist assumptions—that my property belongs to me, that I may give of my surplus to those in need if I choose but am not obligated to do so, that before I help a person in need I want to know why that person is in need, and so on. But of course Aquinas isn’t making a case for capitalism. He’s making a case for living out the directives of the gospel, directives given so often and so clearly that they can’t be missed. there but for the grace6Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, befriend the friendless, house the homeless—when you do this to the least of these, you have done it to me. I am the last person to claim that I effectively live this out—but I’ve at least become convinced that the way to deal with incompatible beliefs is not to pretend that they fit together.

A Practicing Atheist

A couple of weeks ago, a Facebook acquaintance posted the following:

When I say I’m an atheist, what I’m saying is that my personal journey of education and introspection has brought me to that conclusion. It’s about me and my choices. If you take that as an insult, please realize that, although Christians in this country get preferential treatment, not everything is actually about you. I am not bothered by belief. I do not consider the existence of every church a personal insult. Please enjoy your privilege and stop making atheism about you.

My response: “From a progressive Christian, thank you.” Her post reminded me of something Simone Weil once wrote about atheism. I reflected on it in one of my earliest posts on this blog.

Simone Weil writes that “Atheism is a purification.” Not where I come from. No word or phrase was more mysterious or terror producing for a young Baptist boy than “atheist.” I certainly didn’t know any, nor did my parents, nor did anyone in my extended family, nor did anyone who attended our church. But none of us knew any serial killers, either. Apparently atheists were out there somewhere, running Hollywood, teaching in secular universities, and generally sticking their thumbs in the eye of what they denied the existence of. It wasn’t clear to me how an atheist could even stay alive. If God snuffed out Uzzah just for putting his hand on the Ark in the Old Testament, how did people who had the nerve to say “God doesn’t exist” manage to last? I came to suspect that atheists were mythical creatures like unicorns and Big Foot, until one day I heard my aunt Gloria, who had a very loud voice, whispering to my mother in the next room about the new high school science teacher. “He spends a lot of time teaching evolution; I’ll bet he’s a practicing atheist.”

Now that’s a very interesting concept—a “practicing atheist.” What exactly does that mean? Is that someone who is very serious about atheism, who has gone beyond the lazy “God doesn’t exist” verbal stage and is actually putting this stuff into action? Does one practice atheism as I practiced the piano as a child, in hopes of becoming a concert atheist? Is the “practicing atheist” an atheist in training, sort of a double- or triple-AAA newbie practicing and honing his atheist skills until he gets to the atheist big leagues? Does the “practicing atheist” try it out for a while to see how she likes it? I mean, I could be a “practicing” any number of things, like a practicing vegetarian. I could do it for a while, and even realize that it was good for me, but before long I’d just have to eat some meat. Given my general obsession with the “God question,” maybe practicing atheism for a while would be good for the health of my soul, just as vegetarianism would be good for my bodily well-being.

Practicing atheism would put an end to creating God in my own image. I have known many gods in my lifetime, and every one of them is either a projection of myself or of the person(s) who introduced me.

  • A now silent God who stopped communicating directly with human beings several centuries ago, once the dictation of the divine word in print was finished.
  • A God who invites into the inner sanctum only those who have a special “prayer language.”
  • A God who “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” but who at the same time is so judgmental and exclusive that the vast majority of the billions of human beings who have ever lived will end up in hell.
  • An arbitrary God whose ire will be raised by the consumption of meat on Fridays during Lent, but who does not particularly care about pre-marital sex.
  • An exclusively masculine God.
  • A God who is more concerned with the length of male hair and female skirts than with the breadth and depth of one’s spiritual hunger and desire.
  • A God whose paramount concerns are one’s positions on sexual orientation, abortion, or universal health care.
  •  A God who micromanages every detail of reality at every moment, including tsunamis, birth defects, and oil spills.
  •  A God who is more honored by self-reliance than by compassion for those in need.

 And many more. As a practicing atheist I might still have anthropomorphic issues, but an anthropomorphic God would not be one of them.

Practicing atheism would be an effective antidote to any remaining obsession from my youth with what happens after physical death. We all sang songs about what a day of rejoicing it will be when we all get heaven. I don’t know any atheist hymns, so perhaps I should write one which draws my attention to now. As a child I thought that the only reason to become a Christian was to get an ironclad fire insurance policy from hell. We used to sing “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through; If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?” Maybe I should love this world that is my home, one that I only get to live in for a short while. This is the world I’ve been given.

Atheism would provide me with new tools to apply to the problem of suffering and evil. Once I stop wondering why God allows the innocent to suffer, the guilty not to suffer, earthquakes to obliterate thousands, and the world generally to operate contrary to my wishes, the landscape looks quite different. Suffering exists—so does evil. The practicing atheist cannot ask “Why doesn’t God do something about this?” and asks instead “What does this require of me?” A fresh look at my world without God-tinted lenses reveals that suffering and violence are inextricably tangled with beauty. The waves on the ocean are no less beautiful because we know that sometimes people are drowned in them. A practicing atheist recommends a certain Stoic embrace of reality, rather than a childish affirmation of the parts I like and an impotent resistance to those I don’t.

Atheism would make it much more difficult for me to seek false consolations for disappointments, difficulties, and perceived injustices. I am reminded, year after year, that a significant majority of my students, most of whom are parochial school educated, believe that consolation is the only real reason to believe in God. But consolation, although emotionally attractive, is almost always an attractive lie. If my only response to human pain, mine or someone else’s, is that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us,” then pretty soon I become incapable of even seeing much of the suffering around me. There are times when Albert Camus’ project in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “to see if I can live without appeal,” has to be my project. What if this is all there is? What if the only responses available to suffering and pain are ours? What if I don’t get to pass the buck on to the divine?

“Atheism is a purification” is not a call to become an atheist. Rather, for me a serious season of practicing atheism would serve as a purgative, a process of spiritual cleansing, eliminating loose vocabulary, sloppy habits, and lazy certainties which dull my spiritual sensibilities. If my Christian faith means anything, it means God in the flesh, incarnated in all features of this difficult, troublesome, exhilarating and precious world that is a divine gift. Christianity will not be fully incarnated until it is joined with a respect and reverence for this world. Practicing atheism can help. As Simone Weil writes, “Let us love this country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love. It is this country that God has given us to love. He has willed that it should be difficult yet possible to love it.”

The Problem of Goodness

During the early years of my career I developed the habit of teaching at least one overload course per semester in my college’s evening program. The immediate reason for taking on the extra course was entirely mercenary—new professors don’t make a lot and we needed the money. sceTeaching in the evening school—it’s called the School of Continuing Education (SCE) at the college where I have taught for the past twenty-one years—provides unique challenges. The typical evening course has an eclectic group of students, ranging from day students who either are trying to earn an “easy” three credits or are making up for an “F” the previous semester to adult students who are earning an associates or bachelor’s degree one course at a time, a process often stretched over many years. I particularly love teaching adult students, grown-ups with life experience who often are either making great personal sacrifices returning to college after many years or who are in their fifties or sixties (or older) taking their first college course. Such students seize ownership of their education in ways that eighteen to twenty year olds seldom do. They challenge, question, participate, keep the teacher on her or his toes, and inject life into even the most boring topics. I stopped teaching regularly at night a number of years ago for several reasons, but still miss my SCE students.wordperfect

I remember with particular fondness an introductory philosophy course that I taught many years ago in the SCE, so long ago that I no longer have the syllabus and lesson plans in my digital archives (the documents were probably written in WordPerfect). The twenty-five students were the usual grab bag, including five or six youngsters from the day school, a couple of ROTC officers, some secretaries and administrative assistants from various departments and offices across campus, and a guy who had just been hired by the college as a night shift security guard. Before I even met my students I decided that they would be guinea pigs as I chose to scrap earlier versions of the syllabus and do something new. A standard topic in introductory philosophy courses is “the problem of evil”—why do bad things happen to good people, problem of goodnessif there is a good God why is there so much evil in the world, and so on. My intuition then (and now) was that a different angle on this stale set of questions was needed. What if we flipped the question on its head and asked where goodness comes from? After all, we are thoroughly familiar with the multitude of bad things that humans do and that happen to them. Instead of spinning our collective wheels there, why not investigate the phenomenon of goodness? How does goodness happen in a world where bad things grab most of the headlines and air space? I called the course “The Problem of Goodness,” and we were off.

I remember the discussions far more clearly than the texts and materials we used. I do remember spending class time with several films—“Schindler’s List, ” “Playing for Time,” and the wonderful “Life is Beautiful.”life is beautiful We read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of how the seeds of a powerful therapeutic technique for psychological healing were planted and nurtured in the midst of Auschwitz. But my main “take away” from this course came to light during one of our final class meetings. “What conclusions can we draw from our semester together?” I asked. “What have we learned about the possibility of goodness in the face of a world filled with evil?”

Various suggestions were offered, but I have never forgotten an idea contributed by one of the ROTC officers sitting in the back. “It seems to me,” he said, “that Goodness is perpetuated by individuals while evil, more often than not, is perpetrated by groups.” Such sweeping generalizations are always open to counter-examples, but at the time the students agreed that our studies that semester supported the conclusion. I have frequently returned to this thesis over the fifteen or more years since our “The Problem of Goodness” class, most recently in a colloquium I have team-taught twice with a colleague from the history department called “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era”—we will be teaching it for a third time in Spring 2017. In this focused investigation of goodness in the context of evil, the conclusions drawn by my students have been remarkably similar to those drawn by my students almost two decades ago—goodness is sparked by individual commitment—what is committed to is less important than the requirement that individuals must be willing, often contrary to powerful collective forces, to risk a great deal–even one’s own life—in the pursuit of goodness.Edmund-Burke

Edmund Burke famously said that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In order, however, for this to be more than just another platitude we need to ask exactly what is required for good people to do something. It is one thing to rail against the failure of individuals to resist the collective power of evil, but it is another to specify what is needed for people to act. In the final seminar of my “Love Never Fails” colloquium, I gave my students the following assignment: Based on what we have learned, suppose that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

know who you areKnow who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. I cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. But one of the continuing themes of the semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied, this was not an academic exercise. socratesJust as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. As Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is the ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” There is no greater technique for escaping the iron grasp of ego and self-centeredness than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

fear notDon’t be afraid: There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

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