The Big(ger) Picture

Woke up this morning with history on my mind. Not capital ‘H’ History, the totally-not-God-because-that-would-be-stupid Agent upon whose wrong side no right thinking person would want to be – Vengeance is mine, sayeth History – but the more modest small ‘h’ history that is the stories we tell each other to try understand ourselves.

(This, I suppose, needs to be distinguished further from the serious study of What Actually Happened, which, I hear, used to be what professional historians did, before they boarded the Woke Train for Paradise.)

When they got to the New World, the Puritans believed they were founding the New Jerusalem. Because they *finally* understood this God-thing correctly and were getting to run everything, their earthly efforts would no doubt result in simply the bestest civilization and culture ever. (1)

Harvard was a state run and supported school created to train up proper Calvinist preachers and leaders – a seminary, in the modern sense. We might anachronistically assume the Pilgrims, fleeing from government oppression, would be careful to maintain a distinction between church and state. We would be wrong. This assumption ignores John Calvin, who, as a fundamental aspect of his religious program, took over political and police power in Geneva, up to and including having people executed.

Calvin was a smart and very well educated man, who had opponents burned at the stake. So was Cotton Mather, a Harvard man who fomented and supported witch hunts. So were many of the key people who became Marxist, National Socialists, and other Fascists. If they were around today, these are the people we would find shopping at Whole Foods, which seem to be preferentially located in college towns. Whole Foods sells, essentially, a sense of moral and intellectual superiority. Never mind that there’s not an iota of scientific evidence supporting most of the claims. Never mind that what organic, natural, non-GMO foods inescapably represent is the belief poor people ought to starve. Go to the location in Berkeley (I’ve been inside once), and admire all the students and professors dutifully picking up their probiotics and gluten-free oatmeal. These are our betters.

Intelligence and education do not make people any less gullible. Rather, intelligence and education might change those things about which we are gullible, while inoculating against ever learning anything ever again. The modern well-educated person possesses a complete framework within which all experience is placed and through which all experience is filtered. Part of this framework is the never-to-be-challenged certainty that all *other* intelligent and educated people agree with them in every important detail. Once the framework is in place, what, exactly, would one learn?

It cannot be overstated how certain these folks are that they KNOW what’s going on. The air of exhaustion that greets any mere intellectual challenges, the long-suffering sighs which any disagreement with their framework/filter draws forth- these are the autoimmune response of the inoculation mentioned above. Push, and the macrophages are released: anger, accusations of stupidity, dishonesty, EVIL. Mental quarantine is enforced.

Next chance I get, I’m going to ask one of my less rabid relatives to do the following thought experiment: Imagine someone you consider intelligent, well-educated, and open-minded. Can you name three fundamental issues upon which you could disagree with him without dismissing him?

I doubt my relatives would understand the question.

  1. Menand is a loathsome Commie apologist, but he did make the best quip about the Harvard herd’s sense of superiority: Oliver Wendall Holmes Sr. “…saw no reason to challenge the premises of a social dispensation that had, over the course of two centuries, contrived to produce a man as genial and accomplished as himself.” That Holmes had rejected Calvinism and embraced rationalism is my point: professed dogmas were superficial and could change and did change, but the sense of superiority and, indeed, destiny, were much more fundamental. This conviction of knowing how things stood and what ought to be done carried through while the veneer was successfully remodeled: from Puritanism to Unitarianism to Hegelianism/Darwinism on through Marxism to our present sneering Nihilism. Our betters KNOW they are right with a desperate conviction foreign and nearly incomprehensible to us little people.

Slow on the Uptake

Although I receive constant reminders of my profound ignorance of almost everything from this little thing we like to call ‘reality’, nonetheless I’m having a bit of a ‘doh!’ moment. My head keeps spinning with frustration over the level of scientific and historical illiteracy evident everywhere, the level of functional innumeracy, when, obviously, those are mere symptoms. People have been screaming the name of the real problem from the rooftops for centuries. I have even heard it, and acknowledged it. Repeatedly.

Few Americans have have any understanding of science or history, no grasp of what a set of numbers might mean, because few Americans have any grasp of reality. Not merely no grasp on the particulars any one of us receives moment by moment through our senses – although even that is clearly lacking – but no grasp of the general principle that there even is an objective reality that doesn’t care how you feel about it.

Somehow, I keep forgetting this grim fact, and waste my time gathering evidence and shaping arguments, as if evidence and arguments will convince anybody except the tiny fraction of people willing to be convinced – OF ANYTHING.

Memento Mori – not just a good idea. It used to be that death, a very real thing that a) happens to everyone, and b) clearly doesn’t care how you feel about it, put some sort of cap or lid on our fantasies. At the very least, even those convinced of their own immortality would (eventually, gratifyingly) die. Reality got the last word, and, more important here, everybody knew reality got the last word.

Now? Death, where is thy sting? Hiding out in nursing homes, hospices, homeless encampments, third world countries – places YOU don’t have to see it or worry about it. This partly explains the freak-out over the d*mn virus: people refuse to consider exactly WHO is dying of this thing. An easily identifiable population sharing one critical trait: they are already dying of something else. That’s why they’re in nursing homes in the first place. But we are not allowed to consider this factor, instead, on the off chance anybody notices the age distribution, it’s sweet, welcoming grandmas who we are killing if we go maskless, or get together with friends, or open a restaurant, or support the wrong political candidate. Which grandma would that be? The comparatively vigorous grandma out gardening in the yard every day? Or, perhaps, the grandma who been stuck in a nursing home, where she will be lying in bed with soaps on the flat screen, drifting in and out of coherence, unable to take care of even her most basic needs, for the last few months of her life?

Have any of these people ever been to a nursing home?

Without any real experience of death in their lives, except as a horrible wrong thing that we need the government to protect us from, the last real tether to reality has been broken.

As I written before (perhaps ad nauseum), I learned a lot from getting to know a large variety of families from very different backgrounds through the school and church. My own families, while closer and experienced in more detail, don’t work as well, in the fish-describing-water sense. One thing that I noticed many times: the family story. Two examples:

I was once having dinner with this ‘blended’ family. The sisters of the mother to two out of the three children were also there. They were discussing an incident from their childhood where one of them got hurt on a trampoline. At one point, they all became, again, little girls: one of them explained that no one was to blame for the accident, and the other two nodded and spoke in agreement. It was clearly a critical part of the story that they all agree on the explanation of where the blame lay, and that this was not the first time this issue had arisen.

This seems, no doubt, utterly trivial, but you had to be there. These three professional women’s whole demeaners and even voices changed, for the brief moment it took to make sure they all agreed to the story. It was clearly very important to them that they agreed, and had been since the time of the incident. This made me wonder what had actually happened. There’s lots more to this picture, mostly centering around how this family also shared a story about how the damage to the children of divorce could be mitigated if not eliminated if all the adults behaved properly. Reality suggested otherwise, in this case.

Next, a tragically more common experience: there was a family with two mutually exclusive stories, one in which divorce was no big deal, and that the one parent acting as if he’d been betrayed was just being a big baby, and that the kids needed to get over it. The other story was, obviously, that this husband had been blindsided and betrayed by an act of wanton, petty selfishness, an act that damaged his and their children’s lives.

Because the stories were incompatible, the kids were forced by the mother to pick one. If they even acknowledged any validity at all of dad’s story, they were cut out of mom’s life. So siblings start by losing their family, then move on to losing each other as they are forced to pick. The price of acceptance was never contradicting the story.

And on and on – once you see this, you can’t unsee it. This buy-the-story-as-the-price-of-membership shibboleth is EVERYWHERE in human lives. At a very base emotional level, we stupid, crazy, damaged humans need our stories, and even more, need our tribes. To belong to the family, and, by extension, the tribe, there are tales we must accept. Comparing those tales to objective reality is suicide in most cases. So we simply don’t – some abstract notion of truth simply can’t prevail over the immediate, visceral need to belong.

The incessant ad hominem attacks on dissenters is exactly this: if you disagree with the story, you are not a part of the tribe or family – and that is problem! No vitriol or imaginative effort is spared in describing the evil that lurks in the hearts of – take your pick: climate change deniers, Trump voters, people who don’t ‘believe’ (note the word choice) that lockdowns are absolutely necessary and are saving millions of lives. Truth? What is that? We just need to know: are you of our tribe, or not?

At least the Yanomami are upfront about it: if you don’t speak our language, you are not human. But we’re certainly gaining ground on this front. Ah, progress!

Brazil's Highest Mountains: The Lone Guards of the Amazon ...
If only our self-appointed betters would embrace Yanomami fashion sense as well. That would be an improvement.

On Protecting Your Emotional & Spiritual Health

Clarissa, a college professor who is immersed in but not of the current academic tribe, is always good to read. She grew up in Eastern Europe and has broad experience of the world, and so her takes on America are priceless. Here is some good advice, from someone whose extensive experience under repressive regimes puts her in a good position to know:

When an aggressive psy-op is being conducted against you, you’ve got to protect yourself. Take measures. I’ve seen people turn into a cowering mess. It’s very sad.

Rule #1: curate your sources of information extremely carefully. Look at the lengths we go to in order to protect our bodies from a virus. We need to do the same to protect our minds.

Rule #2: the philosophy of “I’m such a special cookie” will be your downfall. It’s precisely the people who believe they are too smart to be manipulated who succumb the most easily. I have developed a narrative of “I’m extremely sensitive and impressionable, so I’m high-risk.” It helps you still feel very special yet protect yourself from the onslaught.

Rule #3: dedicate 2-3 days a week to a complete news and media blackout.

I succumbed to the corona-panic back in March, folks. I’m a hypochondriac and an OCD neurotic with a history of late-term pregnancy loss. It could have ended badly. But I used these strategies, blacked out the media, avoided FB, and saved my sanity.

Currently, the second part of this psy-op is being unleashed. So please, stay vigilant, and curate, curate, curate.

On a spiritual level, these are also good first steps. We don’t need to let ourselves get hammered over the head with the glee and flexes of our self-appointed betters. Living well is not just the best revenge, but is also the first steps to recovery. Don’t feed the black dog.

I’m reminded of two passages from C.S. Lewis, another college professor who was immersed in but not of his academic tribe. In That Hideous Strength, Jane, Lewis’s stand in for the relatively harmless modern enlightened and therefore clueless people, visits Dr. and Mrs. Dimble, old friends from her student days. Their home is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Cottage of Lost Play or even the Last Homely House – except the magic is wholesome normalcy:

Cecil Dimble, a Fellow of Northumberland, had been Jane’s tutor for her last year as a student and Mrs. Dimble (one tended to call her Mother Dimble) had been a kind of unofficial aunt to all the girls of her year. A liking for the female pupils of one’s husband is not, perhaps, so common as might be wished among dons’ wives; but Mrs. Dimble appeared to like all Dr. Dimble’s pupils of both sexes and the Dimbles’ house, away on the far side of the river, was a kind of noisy salon all the term. She had been particularly fond of Jane with that kind of affection which a humorous, easy natured and childless woman sometimes feels for a girl whom she thinks pretty and rather absurd. For the last year or so Jane had been somewhat losing sight of the Dimbles and felt rather guilty about it. She accepted the invitation to lunch.

The Dimbles, childless but with a house full of ‘children’ as it were, have a garden famous among those children; the N.I.C.E. is planning to bulldoze it along with their house. An echo of Adam and Eve in Eden, certainly, but with the added New Testament touch of having no natural offspring, but plenty of adopted children, as it were. (I could write a long essay just about this scene – better stop now.)

Normal, happy people and their stuff must get bulldozed by the progressive people – they offend and terrify them. For good reason. For our parts, we should try to be those normal, happy people. And plant spectacular gardens according to our skills and gifts. If it get bulldozed, plant another.

And from Perelandra, the Lady has been listening to the Un-Man as Ransom watches helplessly:

But the Lady did not appear to be listening to him. She stood like one almost dazed with the richness of a day-dream. She did not look in the least like a woman who is thinking about a new dress. The expression of her face was noble. It was a great deal too noble. Greatness, tragedy, high sentiment — these were obviously what occupied her thoughts. Ransom perceived that the affair of the robes and the mirror had been only superficially concerned with what is commonly called female vanity. The image of her beautiful body had been offered to her only as a means to awake the far more perilous image of her great Soul. The external and, as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play.

Our play has likewise already been written, and from the same source. Sadly, we are not unfallen Adams and Eves, but rather fatally crippled souls in need of salvation. So, when we are tempted to see ourselves as noble, heroic, great souls, we grab is with no hesitation. I’m not going to look it up – curate! – but we all remember that speech delivered to SS people, explaining how only truly far-sighted and heroic people could bring themselves to kill all Jews, even the nice ones they had been friends with. Men can make themselves do unspeakable evil when the story they tell themselves is how tragically heroic they are.

And everybody today is repeating the same story.

I suppose I’m required to end with one more Lewis quotation:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology (Making of Modern Theology)

A clear conscience is only necessary for the useful idiots. A nihilist conscience is a contradiction in terms.

I like Mr. Bultitude, nature in its natural relationship with Man, wiping out lots of evil. One can hope.

The Unknown Unknowns

“For neither good nor evil can last for ever; and so it follows that as evil has lasted a long time, good must now be close at hand.”
― Cervantes, Don Quixote

First, those front row kids? This is their finest hour. This is their payoff. All those years, sitting right up front, hanging on the teacher’s every word, doing exactly as told, regurgitating everything right on cue, never having been troubled by a single independent thought they didn’t promptly hunt down and kill, they are now sure that they, the most intelligent, most enlightened, most *moral* generation the onward march of Progress has ever produced, are helping put those evil, stupid back row kids in their places!

There’s another participation trophy in it for them, after all. Those people whose sense of self are formed by family, faith, community, who appreciate a pat on the back, but don’t need anyone to tell them they’ve done something worthwhile, who live in no fear of the disapproval of the authorities who approval they never wanted – they are sure getting theirs, oh boy! How dare we highlight their empty lives by, you know, acting like grownups and getting on with it. How dare we!

On a more generous note, these poor souls, abandoned by the parents, churches, and communities that should have helped give them an appropriate sense of worth, deprived of any chance to own either their own success or their own failure, getting their only sense of achievement, only sense of belonging, hell, only sense of family they ever got at school, desperately toeing the line, doing as told, fitting in – or else! face a yawning abyss where those of us who have roots and a sense of independent yet interdependent self have a soul. They despise those who reject and mock their world. This is their moment. Their sorry, pathetic moment. May God have mercy on us all.

Aristotle anticipated the whole history-doomed to repeat it thing in the simple statement: Anything that has happened is possible. All sorts of stuff might happen. Some predictable, some not so much; some good, some bad, some neutral; some the true nature of which is not evident for some time, and not evident to all people. Some unknowns out of left field, things that might makes things turn out in, let us say, unanticipated ways. So let’s indulge in wild speculation. More than usual, I mean.

  1. China falls. Way overdue. While a whole boatload of the leadership and their lackies deserve just about anything they might get, I wouldn’t wish a front-row seat to this on anyone. The act refuses to stay on stage. (I indulged in some fiction on this, just to blow off some stream)
  2. With the chaos that would result, a whole lot of fine American patriots (*cough*) would find their loyalties and funding up in the air. Uncertainty of this kind tends to result in some mix of over caution and insane overreaction.
  3. The infighting and purges get out of control before the pacification is sufficiently complete. Our new reptilian overlords then get too busy whacking each other to properly monitor the rest of us, and stuff happens.
  4. This one cracks me up: our new politburo screw up so bad that even the rabbits can’t swallow it. Never mind – ain’t happening. See: When Prophecy Fails (point #4) Holding onto ‘disconfirmed’ beliefs is hard on one’s own, but get a support group together, and – Bam! – people will believe anything, as long as all their buddies believe it.
  5. Some else happens. My money, if I had to be, would be on this.

Technology is different. In Don Quixote, Cervantes laments the introduction of firearms into warfare has made it so any coward can kill a brave man. This, from a man wounded at the Battle of Lepanto. We can hardly imagine how ugly was the close in fighting, even hand to hand, that the battle devolved into as the ships rammed each other and got entangled. Cervantes was a manly man to show up for that fight.

His disgust with those who can kill without themselves facing death would have been off the charts today. It’s only gotten worse since, in the sense that anyone who can work a joystick is now more deadly than Atilla.

MSNBC Remember this? Now, even if the claims of the Yemenis are just propaganda, and all those people were in fact terrorists, the point remains: a man who has probably never been in real physical danger in his life can order the deaths of men 10,000 miles away at no risk. And the tech has only gotten better.

MAY 22, 2013 / 6:21 PM / CBS/AP Again, all these men were enemies and deserved to die, we are assured. But, again – how brave do you have to be to kill them?

The H-Man’s thugs had to at least round up and shoot his enemies and competitors. We’ve moved beyond such primitive lack of intermediation. Our Lightbringer was able to watch people die from the comfort of his home. Our front row kids, who are, need I remind you, the most *moral* people ever, are unencumbered by primitive notions such as honor. Ends, means, whatever – that stuff is hard! Just tell us what to do!

Machiavelli assures his readers that, when the time comes to do dirty deeds, a prince will never lack for men willing to do them. Severian questions whether any have the necessary competence to build and run complex machines for very long. I wish I could agree, but even the Soviets got rocket science right. The Germans were the best of the best on the engineering front. So – I don’t know.

Couple Links & Observations

Apropos of nothing.

First off, SF&F has a long and often even noble tradition of describing dystopian futures. Here’s Zachary Denman, a British guy making short sci-fi videos – that’s what they say they are – on the 2nd Person Tube. Wild speculations that, were they said seriously about right now, instead of a distant made-up future, might get one into trouble. Nonetheless, like all made-up fictional type stuff, they might provide some small insight into how people are thinking and feeling now. For example.

Second, a bit of conventional wisdom, I’ve heard, is that one should fight to the death, if necessary, when first being kidnapped. While in some traditional circumstances, your kidnappers will need you alive, and so you might bet on getting ransomed or released eventually, in other, more pathologically or politically motivated grabs, chances are poor you’ll ever get out alive once you’ve been stuffed in the back of the black SUV. Besides, “The initial phase of a kidnapping provides the best opportunities to escape.”

Third, for some reason this thought from Solzhenitsyn springs to mind:

“And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

Gulag Archipelago

You’re checking in to see what Sarah Hoyt and William Briggs are on about these days, right? John C. Wright happened to be taking a little walk with some friends on the 6th when some possibly interesting stuff happened.

Funny how unimportant the virus seems at the moment. In and of itself, I mean.

One last thought: although I have not slept well since March, one thought, a feeling, really, I can’t shake: this will all turn out better than we have any right to hope. Watching the Hindenburg go down in slow motion for going on 10 months now, seeing predictions of political, financial, and social doom come true, watching – most depressing of all – a large percentage, probably a majority, of people just go along and get angry with you if you don’t – well, it’s been interesting. But as I mentioned before, I had this vivid dream (I am a Joseph after all) where something utterly unexpected occurs just as all hope is lost. Weird. And, when I can focus enough to really pray, calm settles in. So, make of that what you will. Maybe it’s days, maybe it’s years, but everything is alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.

Personal Impedimenta, etc.

A. What a great word. Buried in the idea of things that hinder your journey is the idea of stuff you need for that journey, maybe, even, things essential for the purpose of the journey in the first place. Dictionaries consistently give the example of the baggage an army carries. But wouldn’t weapons, say, constitute a large part of that baggage? Weapons both hinder your travels AND allow you to do what you’re traveling to do: wage war. The examples I came across were in Manalive, where Innocent Smith carries a large bag full of items essential to his being Innocent Smith, and in The Metal Monster, where Dr. Goodwin’s scientific equipment are so described.

I seem to have accumulated a lot of impedimenta over the years. I hope it’s of the essential kind. Speaking of which –

Two years ago, several of you were kind enough to do a little beta reading on a couple of my stories, which I do deeply appreciate. For a number of reasons, I set aside almost all fiction writing then. Now, I’m jonesing to get back to it.

Rocky And Bullwinkle Moose And Squirrel GIF ...

In another context, someone (Severian?) was describing the nature of personal change, where one is doomed to failure if one simply tries to muscle through a particular activity – dieting, say, or writing books. Instead, to succeed in loosing weight or writing books, one must, cognitive-therapy style, become the sort of person who weighs an appropriate amount and writes books.

Easier said than done, of course, but at least it’s possible. In the great Catholic tradition of both/and, I will remind myself, as I diet and write, that I’m exactly the sort of guy to weigh around 210 and publish stuff. Do and believe.

And ignore that Bullwinkle never did pull a rabbit out of that hat of his, IIRC.

B. On the Covidiocy front, we’ve reached the point where we are plumbing the depths of the psychological damage done to our rootless, abandoned, manipulated population, children of all ages deprived of all normal human relationships, ‘raised’ by equally damaged parents, taught to worship the abstracted individual and, above all, that their personal worth derives from doing as they are told and saying what they are told to say. The family, village, and church being destroyed or abandoned, and the idea that purpose and satisfaction derive from duties we mostly don’t get to choose having been reduced to incomprehensibility, school becomes an oasis of order – do as you are told, and get a gold star! Get a degree, a job, a life! Get the only affirmation, the only sense of belonging, you may ever get. Woe to any who kick at this goad!

I wonder: is there anything at all that would convince the rabbits they’ve been had? What would it take for your typical Front Row Kid to admit: wow, I’ve been royally played. What can be stricken from the list, at least insofar as they are considered individually:

  • Evidence. It’s no so much that the rabbits don’t care about evidence, it’s that years of training have both 1) rendered them incapable of looking at or even knowing what evidence, as opposed to hearsay and bald unsupported statements, is, and 2) convinced them that parroting whatever the approved authority figure says IS considering the evidence. They don’t know what they don’t know, but are convinced they do.
  • The examples of our betters. Brix, it appears, is travelling to one her vacation homes and Christmassing with 3 generations of her family. So much for lockdowns, social distancing, etc. – for her, Pelosi, Newsom, and many others. Not that the rabbits have heard of this contempt, because the hairdos with journalism degrees are unlikely to mention it.
  • Their own lying eyes. How many rabbits personally know even 1 otherwise healthy person who died of COVID? Of course, this would require acknowledgement that the people, if any, they know whose deaths, in CDC terminology, *involved* COVID were well on their way to assuming their places in the Choir Invisible with or without the help of a respiratory virus. Which is a thought not allowed to enter their minds.
  • Basic logic. E.g., if masks work, then they are trapping billions of live, dangerous viruses. If so, handling used masks without a hazmat suit, gloves, a hazardous waste disposal containers, incineration, etc. would be SUICIDE! OH MY GOD!!! Yet, they are treated with less care and caution than a used Kleenex. Stuffed into and dragged out of pockets, fiddled with, thrown any old place, used for hours, days, weeks at a time. I find them on the street whenever I go walking. Same logical problems with social distancing: if 6 feet is good, why is there still a pandemic? If we’re not safe to meet indoors, why are stores still open? why are there lockdowns, when it’s safer outside? And so on.

Would some combination of these factors finally burst the bubble? The constantly evolving story, where it’s 15 days to flatten the curve to as long as it takes to create a vaccine (but not properly test it – what, don’t you trust Big Pharma and the billions in criminal fines they’ve paid for exaggerated claims and falsifying data?) to – I dunno, what are they claiming today?

These are all rhetorical questions, of course. Nothing so trivial as loss of liberty and sanity will cause the properly educated Front Row Kids to reevaluate their self-image as the smartest, best educated, most moral people in history. Such wunderkind couldn’t possibly be clueless rubes, ignorant of even the most basic principles of science and logic, mindless parrots of whatever they hear, easily-frightened, historically illiterate rabbits about as likely to think or act independently as the gears in a pocket watch. What would you rather be, the smart kid with membership in the circle of smart kids, or the kid suddenly alone, cut adrift from the only society he’s every really known?

Good thing I believe in miracles. Otherwise, I’d have to start throwing punches, and I’m too old for that.

C. Still have hardly decorated for Christmas. Stuff came up, and the available slots for family-time activity sort of vanished. Decorating by one’s self seems kinda sad. But we will get it done.

We have passed the point of her family/my family scrambling over holidays. Except for my MIL, who lives with us, parents are dead; brothers and sisters are far away or cowering rabbits or both. So no plans at that level of family. BUT: now we have a married daughter! Her in-laws, to their credit and with our approval, want to be friends. This daughter and her husband just bought a house, appropriately about 1 hr 15 min from each set of in-laws – just far enough for a little separation, but close enough for regular visitations and family activities.

So now we get to coordinate among our children’s families (well, 1 so far, but I’d bet 2 or even 3 extended family branches within the next few years). I’m digging it.

On the home-home front, failing to get commitment on what people want for Christmas dinner(s). The fam is not big on turkey – fine by me, a lot of work for something not really all that popular. Tried to ask after lamb – ambivalence. Then, partly in jest, suggested: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy – probably the most popular thing I make around here (1) (I do make d*mn fine fried chicken). I got the ‘not special enough’ response.

Seriously considering getting some ribeye steaks. That’s what I’d like to do. Maybe for Epiphany, when Middle Son and his girl will be in town. Or maybe a slab of salmon?

Merry Christmas to all!

  1. I love to cook. Things I regularly make for dinner, in order of family popularity: fried chicken; hamburgers; Napa cabbage tacos (fish, chicken, beef, or pork, using cabbage leaves instead of tortillas – makes for a much lighter meal), pork chops, various curries and rice. Make a lot of other things, too, but these are staples.

Hope?

Way, way TMI. You’ve been warned.

Can’t say I understand hope. It seems to be a blend of faith and love: if you believe that, in the end, we win, or rather, we ride the coattails of the Victor, then you have hope. This faith that everything turns out well in the end is inextricable from love, it seems to me, as a love of this vision, of justice and goodness, is needed, else the faith soon dies.

This is not what is meant by hope? It is a separate virtue? Or only separable in the abstract? Is hope the actualization of faith & love? Or something else entirely? I don’t know.

Yet, I feel the hope I don’t understand. On every level of life, from getting up in the morning to do what needs to be done that day, to persevering in the sight of mindless rampage, of cynical manipulation, of the appearances of the victory of evil – even in the valley of the shadow of death, a ray of hope breaks through.

And to me, it really is breaking through, from the outside. Half a lifetime ago, faced with despair, I put myself at the mercies of the psychological profession for a season. Crazy, right? What I found out: by the measures that profession uses, I was seriously depressed, as in, there are people institutionalized (so I was told) that aren’t as depressed as I was. The nice therapist lady was, I think, trying to get me take it seriously. She also said that my frustrations over a lifetime of massive underachievement did not take into account how much of my energy was required to hold it together, to maintain a facade of functionality.

Well. This was supposed to be helpful, I suppose. Maybe it even was. Hard to tell.

That was a long time ago, 30 years of marriage and 5 children ago. One odd thing: while I was certainly willing to run the ‘can I eat myself to death?’ protocol, that was it. I have no idea why drugs and alcohol have no appeal to me – seems like they should. Neither does suicide. There are definitely times I wish I weren’t alive, but I’d never actively do anything to make that come about. Somehow, I’ve muddled through. Somehow, we all have.

But – the paradox: I remain one of the happiest people I know. I have 4 living children who love me, and, perhaps more important, love each other. One dead son any man would be proud of. And a loving wife who has put up with all this for 35+ years. I live in a land of plenty in a time of peace. And God loves me.

That last part isn’t a theoretical conclusion nor an act of faith. Things have happened to me. I have been cared for in inexplicable ways. I could no sooner deny that God loves me than I can reject the evidence of my eyes. One can come up with theories, just as one can convince one’s self that we live in the Matrix. Possible – but unconvincing. And, ultimately and by definition, insane.

In the same way, not all the time, but often, I see or rather feel rays of hope. Something from outside me lets me know it will be OK.

Blind Pollyanna? Nope, I’m about as gimlet-eyed in my view of the world as anybody. As Machiavelli said, you have to govern as if all men are animals, for they will sooner or later act like it. But – hope. We can be better. I can be better.

So maybe, today, I work on some short stories or novels or compositions that my fear of failure (and, possibly, an even greater fear of success) have moved me to set aside, often for years and decades. Perhaps I do something good, to shake a fist at the towering tidal wave of angry stupidity that looks like it’s about to break on top of us all.

Something makes me feel that wave will break short of the shore, kick up a mountain of foam, get everybody damp – and that’s it.

One can hope.

Who Do You Say That I Am?

From whom and from where do we get our identity? Who are we?

The question in the title is, of course, from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus asks the Apostles who people say He is:

*
13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi* he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist,* others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16 Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood* has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,* and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.* Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.

NABRE
Peter striking the High Priests’ servant Malchus with a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, by Giuseppe Cesari c. 1597

Peter, who over the course of the Gospels is revealed to be, at different times, a tempter of God, an impulsive hothead, and a coward, nonetheless knows who Jesus is. Because he knows Who his Lord is, that Lord is able to tell him who *he* is. He is defined, not by his talents or achievements, nor by his membership in an oppressed group, but by his role: Peter is the Rock upon which Christ’s Church will be built, he is the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Heaven, the holder of the King’s keys.

So the goofball – that Peter is no great shakes is a great comfort to us other goofballs – gets assigned a task of great glory. That he’s hardly up to the task doesn’t matter so much as his getting up and trying again every time he fails. He converts thousands with a Pentecost sermon; Paul rebukes him. He runs to the empty tomb; the Risen Lord extracts from him that very painful 3 part confession of love, and reinforces his assigned role: feed my sheep. He, and King David, are our examples and models of leadership under God: far from perfect, but faithful.

It will cost him. But it was worth it. He, with Paul, are the third rank of saints, behind only Mary and Joseph. Not bad.

I sit here, in my backyard, under the shade of two ancient walnut trees, flowers blooming, a light breeze blowing, a picture of homely contentment, much closer to the end of my life than to its beginning. Who am I? If I confess My Lord, and say Who He is, he will tell me who I am. I am a husband and a father – that’s my particular vocation. I am a brother, an uncle, a son. I am a friend.

I am a lamb under shepherds. I am a loyal citizen and patriot under temporal powers, a lover of the land of my birth because it is the land of my birth.

I am a beloved child of God. I understand little of this, but it give me comfort and reveals my purpose. It is our lot to need to rechoose this every moment, for we will forget, and not know who we are. We are always a moment of forgetfulness from losing ourselves.

We live among people, our brothers and sisters, who don’t know who they are. Since they will not confess the Lord, yet need someone to tell them who they are, they are doomed to believe they are whoever those who do not love them tell them they are.

From Benson’s ‘Lord of the World’

Papa Angelicus:

It was Papa Angelicus whom he was about to see; that amazing old man who had been appointed Secretary of State just fifty years ago, at the age of thirty, and Pope nine years previously.  It was he who had carried out the extraordinary policy of yielding the churches throughout the whole of Italy to the Government, in exchange for the temporal lordship of Rome, and who had since set himself to make it a city of saints. He had cared, it appeared, nothing whatever for the world’s opinion; his policy, so far as it could be called one, consisted in a very simple thing: he had declared in Epistle after Epistle that the object of the Church was to do glory to God by producing supernatural virtues in man, and that nothing at all was of any significance or importance except so far as it effected this object…

…he had said that on the whole the latter-day discoveries of man tended to distract immortal souls from a contemplation of eternal verities—not that these discoveries could be anything but good in themselves, since after all they gave insight into the wonderful laws of God—but that at present they were too exciting to the imagination.

Fr. Percy:

Persecution, he said, was coming. … But persecution was not to be feared. It would no doubt cause apostasies, as it had always done, but these were deplorable only on account of the individual apostates. On the other hand, it would reassure the faithful; and purge out the half-hearted. Once, in the early ages, Satan’s attack had been made on the bodily side, with whips and fire and beasts; in the sixteenth century it had been on the intellectual side; in the twentieth century on the springs of moral and spiritual life. Now it seemed as if the assault was on all three planes at once. 

But what was chiefly to be feared was the positive influence of Humanitarianism: it was coming, like the kingdom of God, with power; it was crushing the imaginative and the romantic, it was assuming rather than asserting its own truth; it was smothering with bolsters instead of wounding and stimulating with steel or controversy. It seemed to be forcing its way, almost objectively, into the inner world. Persons who had scarcely heard its name were professing its tenets; priests absorbed it, as they absorbed God in Communion—he mentioned the names of the recent apostates—children drank it in like Christianity itself. The soul “naturally Christian” seemed to be becoming “the soul naturally infidel.” 

Persecution, cried the priest, was to be welcomed like salvation, prayed for, and grasped; but he feared that the authorities were too shrewd, and knew the antidote and the poison apart. There might be individual martyrdoms—in fact there would be, and very many—but they would be in spite of secular government, not because of it. Finally, he expected, Humanitarianism would presently put on the dress of liturgy and sacrifice, and when that was done, the Church’s cause, unless God intervened, would be over.

Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson

Written before WWI. Benson feared what would happen if the ‘humanitarian’ aspects of modernism – socialism – worked, what might happen if secular powers were able, by intelligent management, to eliminate the physical causes of human suffering, and, by making suicide a sacred, state-supported right, cause spiritual suffering to be something avoidable and individually chosen.

Looked at from Benson’s perspective, we have been spared, I suppose, the curse of successful socialism. He was writing before the horrors of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent horrors under Soviet, Chinese, Cambodian and so on, Communist regimes. His worries that secular management of everything would WORK proved baseless. Instead, we have the curse of those committed to the idea that a paradies is around the corner despite it never having resulted from previous efforts, that it will work if we just keep trying, in the face of mountains of evidence – and mountains of bodies – proving it won’t.

Hurray! I guess?

Question: In that last paragraph, did Benson overrate the shrewdness of secular government? Is he right about the adoption of the trappings of liturgy and sacrifice?

Beauty, Intellect, Beethoven & Scripture

A Happy, Holy & Blessed Christmas to all, and to all a happy and prosperous New Year!

Consider the 2nd movembt of Beethoven’s 7th symphony:

The story goes that when Beethoven debuted this work, the audience stopped the concert after this movement, and insisted it be repeated. Classical music audiences were a little more outgoing back in the day, it seems.

The audience’s reaction is perfectly understandable: pre-recorded music, one might die before getting a chance to hear this sublime and beautiful piece again, so why not now? A work this beautiful is life-changing. It may sound like just another overly-familiar classical work to jaded ears, but in context it is strikingly unusual: listen to the whole 7th, which is one of civilizations greatest works of art in any medium, and the 2nd movement still stands out.

But this Allegretto isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it’s also deeply satisfying intellectually. The more you listen and think about it, the better it gets. Beethoven sets himself a series of puzzles or challenges, and ‘solves’ each one in inventive and unusual ways, yet, somehow, after you’ve heard it, all the little departures from expectations (or beauty where you didn’t know what to expect) sound utterly inevitable. And it fits perfectly within the symphony as a whole – as hard as it is to believe, it was only with this 7th symphony that Beethoven finally won over all the critics, many of whom had disliked his 3rd and nit-picked his 5th. The 7th is just perfect, and that 2nd movement slayed people.

Finally, as is true of all great art, the 7th, especially the 2nd movement, is bottomless: you can go as deep as you want, and there’s always more.

This confluence of soul stirring beauty and soul-stirring intellectual gratification is , of course, what makes great art great in the first place. Only in these dark modern times would anyone think to divorce emotional force from intellectual beauty.

These (mundane & traditional) thoughts were occasioned by the Christmas Gospel reading:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David,
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

LK 2:1-14

This Gospel story from Luke is beautiful in a specific and somewhat odd way. Consider these 2 sentences from the middle of the selection:

While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.

This is the climax of the story: Mary gives birth to the son foretold by the prophets and announced to her by an angel of God, yet Luke gives it a sentence, as if it were any other birth of any man. The Lord and Creator of the the Universe, as described in the opening of John’s Gospel, or even as, in a similarly subtle and understated way, in Mary’s encounter with her cousin Elizabeth in the passage immediately preceding this one, is wrapped in the cloth of the poor and laid in a feeding trough for animals, with the casual, after the fact explanation: there was no room in the inn.

So, two matter-of-fact sentences that lay out the entirety of the Christian claim, paradox and stumbling block: That God became Man in this very specific time and place, utterly weak and humbled, and was wrapped and bound and laid among the food for animals by his own mother’s hands. He wasn’t even able to find a place at what was no doubt the very humble inn.

The artwork inspired by these two lines could fill any number of museums; a concert of the music written to commemorate them would go on for months; and the books holding the writings about them would fill any number libraries. And the flood shows no signs of abating.

Then, a great multitude of angels sing a song of infinite glory – to a bunch of sheep, and the shepherds watching over them.

The story of Christ’s birth is as beautiful as it is simple, and satisfies the soul. But it is also intellectually satisfying, not in the sense of providing a tidy summation, but in the sense of offering infinite depths to explore.

Glory to God in the highest!