Crosscurrents: God’s “Presence in the Present”

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I’m not feeling terribly optimistic about current events–yet I don’t wish to pollute my or anyone else’s celebration of the birth of Hope with excessive brooding over our ephemeral world.  Allow me, then, to share with you one chapter from the rough draft of a book that I plan to see finished in 2020.

I intend for this final chapter of the book’s first part to summarize by compacting several assertions made about the “numinous moment” or “event outside of time”.  Yet before I attempt that act of stitching together, an analogy may be helpful.  I’ve been racking my brain for an adequate one—for a parable, almost, that could convey to our linear-thinking minds how real time might match up to time as we know it.  I at last came up with something akin to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

Imagine that you are walking across fog-strewn terrain toward a vague but steady light source.  You really have nowhere else to go that offers any apparent sense of destination; for the mist curls so thickly about your feet that you can’t even see your shoes, and that shimmering beacon on your horizon is your single reference in the soupy haze.

Unrevealed to you, then, in any very clear manner is the enormous but very gradual staircase across which you walk.  Its steps are suited to a giant’s feet, each being perhaps three yards wide; yet despite their great breadth, they rise by only an inch at a time.  You’re actually cutting across these stairs at a broad angle.  The result is that you can advance for fifty or sixty yards along one step before you stumble into the next one’s rise.  Naturally, since you can’t see your feet, you conclude at every mild stumble that the ground beneath you is a bit uneven.  You have no notion of slowly ascending a great staircase rather than moving ever forward toward the light which—you hope—will be the refuge liberating you from the milling gloom.

Those stairs that come at your progress laterally and throw it off balance once in a while are, of course, meant to represent the “outside of time” moments that subtly take us by surprise once in a while… and then, usually, are forgotten at once, since we assume that our attention should be fixed on forward motion.  The biblical phrase “stumbling block” had a part in helping me weave this strange analogy, for we indeed tend to treat such moments as interruptions or distractions.  We dismiss them with whatever explanation is ready at hand and get back to the serious business of “progress”.  Yet what could be more serious, in a spiritual sense, than climbing the giant’s staircase and seeing where it takes us?  If only we knew that it was there beneath the haze—that the little trips that sometimes throw us off stride all have an order!  But our senses aren’t equipped to provide such information directly.  Any knowledge of the stairs would have to be pieced together with extreme patience, most of it requiring a certain amount of inattention to that forward motion we think so full of promise.

For what kinds of experience, exactly, should we keep an eye peeled?  In the course of Part One’s ramble, I believe I have volunteered three at various points.  The first would be personal experiences that have stubbornly stayed with us for years, many (perhaps most) of them deeply rooted in childhood.  In discussing the sort of encounter that I myself recall as having knocked me off my stride and stood me upright, I did not mention anything as numinous as an angelic visitation, a message delivered in God’s voice, or a Near-Death Experience.  That’s because I have never lived through any event of the kind.  I suppose that those of us to whom God does not speak plain English in a deep, unmistakable voice have a little trouble fully believing those who claim to have been so contacted.  We don’t necessarily disbelieve them… but we wonder if their personality may be of a naive and very excitable type.  Everybody has dreams, and some of us have vivid dreams.  (Here I may include myself: my dreams are always in color and sometimes more “high-def” than any waking experience.)  A stable person understands, though, that you take a dream with a grain of salt.

Near-Death Experiences I find to be far more intriguing.  No doubt, some people massage a rough stay in the hospital until it looks like a trip to the Beyond, just as some people innocently mistake an escaped balloon that catches the sun’s last light for a UFO.  When so many witnesses of sound mind and solid character, however, testify so resonantly to the presence of something that greeted them as their vital signs flat-lined, I can’t wave their words aside.  (For that matter, a seasoned pilot makes a very good UFO witness—and there are several such reporters of strange aircraft.)  In attempting to retrieve a particular title for citation here, I found that the medical doctor/author whose name eludes me is veritably buried on the Internet under a mass of similar professionals who have documented the NDE over the past forty years.  Take your pick of them all.  It’s a pretty impressive witness list, however you arrange it.

But, no, I have presented in my discussion no such mind-boggling evidence.  The encounters I tried to describe do not grab you by the lapels, shake you, and announce sonorously, “I come from the other world!”  They simply don’t fit into the routine… and they fail to fit in after a fashion that you can’t forget, because it so insistently seems to mean something.  Just what it may mean, you never manage to decide satisfactorily.  It’s there, sticking out… and you can’t smooth it away as the reasonable effect of some handy nearby cause.

Which brings me to a second kind of experience, and a clearly related kind: art.  If I had to define an art object (or if I were given the chance to do so—for this is my wheelhouse), I should start by saying succinctly that it “expresses the inexpressible”.  Then I should probably try to express myself better and end up making a mess of my definition… because the paradox here is ineradicable.  A work of art assembles material impressions in such a way as to leave you convinced that their collaboration encodes a vital message, a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  You proceed to write an article or a book about the work, if you’re a scholar—and the more words you weave together in trying to nab the message, the more fish slip through your net.  What we academic types always seem to miss about art is its most fundamental characteristic: that it forever points to something not quite there.

Art, I’m convinced, is an angel that God sends to all of us.  The winged visitor might be a painting, a temple, or a mere tune—or the simple-seeming lyrics of the tune; but whatever his specific shape, the cherub manages to whack us lovingly upside the head and make us stumble a little on the invisible step of the giant’s staircase.  All true art calls us to faith.  It does so just by nudging us out of our determined forward stride for an instant.  Its subject by no means has to be the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, or anything related to any item of orthodox belief.  When I was an officer in a regional division of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, a lot of paper- and article-submissions passed under my eye—and the vast majority addressed some issue in the work of John Milton, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, or some other overtly Christian writer.  I always regretted such narrowness of focus in our undertaking.  I wish we could have faced the academy head-on with the confident assertion that all true art comes from God.

For the academy needed a good stiff slap in the face—or punch in the nose—from those of us whom the angel had smacked… but we instead huddled around “our” authors who, for the most part, had been banished from contemporary college classes, anyway.  As I described in an earlier chapter (and will not reiterate now), our ailing culture’s intelligentsia have exploited the free pass we gave them to dismantle art entirely, presenting its essential mystery as no more than a cheap kind of hypnotism practiced by the powerful upon the oppressed.  That thick-headed, empty-souled program of demoralization should never have been allowed to pass unchallenged.

But it was… and so, as a culture, I think our sense of the mystical lurking in material things all around us took refuge in nature.  Again, the overlap with other kinds of numinous experience is obvious.  Many of my personal “outside of time” moments involved a particular natural setting, and many of the arts draw heavily upon nature, as well.  In their quasi-scientific zeal to explain everything away in some “sensible” deterministic fashion, our intellectuals like to attribute our visceral bond with nature to a genetically hardwired response to life on the savanna.  Of course we like trees!  They represented safety from lions when we were naked apes.  Of course we like purling streams!  Every living creature needs water, and water that runs swiftly is least apt to cause illness.

You can hardly win at this game if you protest, “No, it’s not the tree’s height and the stoutness of its limbs for climbing that I like.  It’s the intricate play of shadows in the pine needles—it’s the soughing of the branches in a breeze.”  What do you know?  You don’t have a Ph.D.!

One of the responses that most fascinates me is the one we register to distant sounds.  A far-off train whistle or dog’s bark… such “racket” can induce a deep sense of peace when, a mile or two away, it is scarcely heard.  Isn’t that because of its delightful (yet painful—delightfully painful) hint that even the most energetic spurts of life are but bursting bubbles on a vast ocean’s surface?  The abyss of meaning here is grandly unfathomable.  And how on earth would the evolutionary biologist disarm such a spiritual phenomenon?  Would he say that our apelike ancestors of course perked up when they heard distant sounds, because those were warnings of approaching predators?  But the approach of a predator would ignite an impulsive fear, not stir up a leisurely meditation—and to argue that the reaction has evolved as we have become less susceptible to predators might explain a diminution of fear, but couldn’t conceivably explain the emergence of pleasure.  Why can our “best and brightest” not accept that their explanations won’t reach every nook of the forest?

I will wander off target again if I don’t take care… but I might point out, in passing, that even we non-scientists are now sabotaging our relationships with nature through intrusions of progressive thinking—through cultic outbursts of “future-worship”.  We can’t simply let the indefinite play of light and shadow in a forest or down a mountain glen speak to us of the unspeakable: we have to bend that moment into “activism”.  We must “save nature” by outlawing the removal of underbrush and deadwood, by replacing mines with the “renewable energy” of wind turbines.  In the process, we create tinderboxes that will incinerate millions of acres in the next wildfire, and we erect killing machines that slaughter hawks and other high-flying species by the tens of millions annually… but we sleep better at night, because we have come home from our nature hike with a “mission”.

I’m no fan of the internal combustion engine.  I recall dropping a word or two about my long walking tours in Ireland and Scotland, and I routinely walked to and from work before my retirement.  I’m not out of sympathy with the general distaste for our high-tech pace of living—not at all.  But, please… let nature live!  Don’t be the doctor who starts cutting out organs when a little bedrest would cure the patient.  After putting up bluebird houses around our property, my wife and I have seen families of bluebirds a dozen strong congregate around the watering dish almost daily.  That’s a good feeling.  We don’t really have to go beyond that and agitate to increase the percentage of ethanol in gasoline—which will cause yet more meadowland to be put under the plow, which will destroy yet more wildlife habitat.  Every experience of nature doesn’t have to feed into a political agenda… does it?

To the extent that it does, or that we let it do so, we seal off what may be perhaps our decaying culture’s final portal upon the numinous.  I have come to adopt a single word in my thoughts for the ungainly phrase, “numinous experiences”, which I shall begin using from here on out.  I call these “outside of time” encounters, or smacks in the side of the head, or glimpses out the train’s window, or nudges off the tunnel’s track… I call them crosscurrents.  We need to yield to these rare transverse currents whenever they briefly stroke us: we need not to attempt to wrestle them onto a vector that parallels our forward motion.  They won’t go there.  They are all telling us the same thing, and it is this.  “The purpose of what you do is not the purpose you offer when explaining what you do.”  Our actions are indeed purposive, if we are good people—but not purposive in any sense that we can define, since their ultimate objective is not of this world.  When we nevertheless succeed in reducing our explanations and definitions to terms that make complete sense in this world—and when we thereafter adjust our actions to suit the verbal formulas we have produced in mutilating efficiency—we become less good.  We lose touch with the spirit.  We skew our forward motion so that we no longer trip over the occasional, invisible step of the giant’s staircase.  We proceed, instead, along a perfectly flat surface, paying attention only to its “corrected” smoothness that permits a speedier advance… and we climb the staircase no farther, nor do we even notice that we’re straying from the beacon at our lower level.

“Corrupted Mind/World Interface”: The Black Plague of Our Time (Part II)

Let me cut to the chase. The following observations appear to me to indicate the presence of “Corrupted Mind/Body Interface” in our midst, and especially among our young people. I submit (and you can scroll back to my post for October 26 if you want to review the numerous symptoms in our recent history) that some of us Americans have lately approached critical moral issues around the globe with a suicidal irresponsibility, and that we have done so thanks to having lost our sense of how physical reality connects with the “noosphere” (the world of mind and ideas). You could say that all societies have always possessed a few members, at least, who struggled with bridging the subject/object gap. All of us as individuals face that struggle daily, in fact… but no more dramatically than we face—and meet—the challenge to get out of bed. Sane, mature people understand that they can’t fly from a ten-story window just because, minutes earlier, they were Superman in a dream. The number and extremity of cases in our ailing culture where people actually seem to be sleepwalking through some such fantasy suggests to me that a very distinctive epidemic has broken out.

Here are further symptoms, far more specific to our time and to our immediate neighbors than those I discussed before.

Mood-Altering Drugs: We have them in disturbing abundance. Yes, the New World natives were smoking nicotine of hallucinatory potency and drinking mescal that made them think they were walking upside-down… but the consumption was reserved for ritual occasions, and then mostly for shamans. Yes, we’ve know the God of the Vine for time immemorial; but there, too, drunkenness was usually considered a social faux pas when it surpassed certain limits on festive occasions. People seldom got pasted in a lonely room. Today we witness alarming spikes in the use of numerous substances whose effects drive the world far back from the individual’s awareness, and such use often knows no ritual kind of boundary. Indeed, it’s probably more characteristic of completely isolated settings today than social or celebratory ones. As a society, we’re escapist. I am tempted even to cite the proliferation of “dragon-master”, “time-traveler”, “shape-shifter”, and “witch” or “vampire” romances that are advertised on my Kindle every time I power it up—but I didn’t wish to appear facetious. As a public health crisis, drug and alcohol abuse scarcely belongs in the same category as adult comic books. Nevertheless, the difference is one of intensity. Both habits can be addictive, both develop a tendency to retreat from the world when it offers challenges, and both eventually allow unaddressed realities to metastasize into major problems.

Eating Disorders: In my youth, anorexia and bulimia were constantly in the news (e.g., when Karen Carpenter essentially starved herself to death). Now we seldom hear about them: our new crisis carries us in the other direction—yet in the same direction, ultimately. We eat too much, and we eat foods that immerse us in endorphins, presumably because we’re not very happy most of the time. Happiness is generally (if superficially) connected to social life. Girls of forty years ago were starving themselves to be sexually attractive (though I know that their self-torment rooted much more deeply than that); girls and boys of today are stuffing themselves because they have virtually no significant connections with the outside world at all, and they seek relief from the pain of “non-existence”.

Self-Neutering Sexual Habits: If a blank is inserted into the phrase, “drugs and _____”, the word “sex” is probably more likely to be supplied than “alcohol”. Certainly when casting back in our memory to the Seventies, those of us able to recall that shallowest of decades will dredge up the rapid decline of sexual morals at least as readily as the growing dependency on recreational drugs. I confess that at no time did I foresee the vector taken by the era’s libertinage; I figured that new couplings of increasingly bizarre kinds would degenerate into complex varieties of promiscuity ending in something like Huxley’s Brave New World. Instead… instead, the destination seems to be a kind of abstinence that would shock a monk. Wildly permissive and abusive opposite-sex arrangements apparently inspired a retreat into same-sex alternatives, which themselves are now morphing into sexual self-mutilation as confused young people seesaw between genders (or among them: we’re no longer allowed even to speak of a mere two). Sex with robots is offered as an option in some parts of the world. The most credible endpoint, though, seems to me to be that we ourselves will emulate the robot in having no sexual appetite whatever; and the sexual drive, however numerous and frightful the varieties of antisocial behavior it can fuel, has nevertheless always been a motive to learn socialization skills. Now our society is well along the way toward discarding it, utterly and for good.

Ineptitude With Oral Communication: Surely few indicators of “disconnect” with the external world could be more obvious than the inability simply to speak at an audible pitch and with basic eloquence. Believe me when I say that classroom teachers of a certain age all have a stock of favorite student gaffes (e.g., “for granite” instead of “for granted” and, of course, the dreaded “cereal killer”). These have grown more abundant and laughable in recent years… but the underlying truth isn’t really very funny. Our children are forgetting, not just how to spell, but how to talk. The lapse in skills includes even (I am convinced) merely producing an oral volume sufficient to reach beyond one’s elbow. Toward the end of my own career, I occasionally wondered if my hearing were going bad, given that I had to ask students to repeat themselves so often. Yet I noticed no signs of deterioration outside the classroom. I concluded that, over a span of three decades, young adults had largely lost the register needed to make their voices audible across an occupied space of twenty-by-thirty feet. Such encounters were as alien to their regular existence as parachuting or scuba-diving.

Neurotic Sensitivity to Insult: As the Word becomes a stranger to us, the few words remaining in our vocabulary must take on meanings they were never intended to bear. A monosyllable as neutral as “rope” can suddenly start an associative chain of dominoes falling… and at the end of that chain is “hanging”, as in “lynching”, as in “racism” and “KKK”. (We could get to about the same stopping point, by the way, with the word “chain”.) Now, to suppose that everyone who ever says “rope” is guilty of “hate speech” in “code” is to be suspicious to the verge of paranoid insanity… and yet, hundreds of college campuses and workplaces appear to have bestowed a kind of fearful veneration upon this folly. We are not even allowed the defense of insisting that we had in mind the word “rope’s” conventional meaning. The paranoids among us insist, in return, that we don’t know what we intended, because we have been subliminally programmed by our racist environment. We are held captive, in short, by the nightmarish fantasies in those who hear us but refuse to listen to us. We end up playing a part scripted in their impenetrably insulated heads which we can’t read, but which is nonetheless a particular crime of ours. The disruption of interface here, interestingly, doesn’t just put the “offended” completely at odds with the world: it justifies his or her extreme discomfort with the situation—it objectifies being at odds. “What do you mean, we’re not communicating? I heard what you said! Now I’m removing your right to say anything more! Don’t you dare say another word!”

Projection of Social Failures: I believe the more accepted word among psychologists is “transfer”—we have an increasing tendency now to thrust our social ineptitude upon others as the cause of our misery rather than to recognize its origin in ourselves. (I ended the previous item by noting that the “I know what you meant!” insistence on registering insult does precisely this.) If people of other races make us nervous, then the cause of our trembling is the presence of racists all around us. If we have unusual or ungovernable sexual appetites, then the cause of our extreme restlessness is the presence of predators or “gay-bashers” all around us. If an inclination to open hostility poisons many of our encounters with other people, then the cause of our elevated blood pressure is the presence of gun-toting rednecks all around us. Women demand that men not so much as “touch” them with a lingering gaze… and also that access to instant abortion under any circumstances be legally provided. Protesters scream that they want peace and safety… and welcome the support of masked thugs armed with bats and bottles. We seem to acquire our awareness of the horrors haunting the outside world by looking in the mirror… without, of course, having the least idea that it’s not a window.

Preference for Non-Human Friends: The growth in attachment to dogs and cats in Western society is really quite remarkable. I loved my Welsh terrier when I was a boy (though I never felt much attraction to felines, perhaps because of my allergies). Pets are fine. Who doesn’t like Lassie? But the prospect of young people, especially, devoting massive amounts of time and money to a pet or pets in progressive cities like Denver leaves me stunned. For the most part, these are persons of an age when they would have been married and tending to children in previous generations. Now they deeply mistrust “long-term relationships” and are so adverse to child-rearing that disposing of an unwanted baby after birth doesn’t strike them as murder (or so they claim)… yet their hearts melt at the thought of the fur ball that will greet them with a tail wag or a purr whenever they walk through the door. No degree of emotional negotiation or interpretation is needed to cuddle Mr. Mittens.

Dangerous Naïveté About Human Nature: It shouldn’t come as a surprise, when everything above is weighed, that we (or many among us) have only a pre-adolescent’s grasp of likely human motivations. Again, young men especially seem surprised that (for instance) a girl used for sex during a semester should think herself in a purposive, soulful relationship—or young women seem surprised, in the same scenario, that men have no manners and no nobility. College grads of both genders (let’s pretend there are only two) assume that police are Gestapo thugs, that soldiers are butchering mercenaries, and that business management always wants to push employees to the brink of starvation for sake of a wider profit margin; yet the same downy-cheeked cynics have no imaginative difficulty in picturing a world where only uniformed figures carry guns, which are only ever used to protect the helpless innocent—and where government bureaucrats daily spring to the defense of the oppressed without the least thought of power, promotion, or pay raise. The degree of emotional incoherence and retardation involved in trusting socialism—the practice of confiscating property by force and redistributing it as willed by an elite few (known in other ages as piracy)—to bring happiness to the world is mind-numbing.

Ignorance of How Things Are Produced: This category is probably best appreciated by viewing the next two… but it’s important to realize that our alienated, unsocialized citizenry doesn’t simply lack connection to other human beings. Its ignorance of the material universe is an integral part of the paranoid isolation we have been describing. How many of us believe that putting a plastic outlet cover on sheetrock somehow draws clean, inexhaustible energy from the Spirit World? How many have any inkling that solar panels are produced with Rare Earth Elements mined in miserable locales of the Third World commonly called “cancer villages”? Apparently some do not understand where babies come from, despite having been saturated in “sex education” since Kindergarten.

Qualitative Imbecility: Of course, babies are not “made” in the fashion of solar panels. My final example above leaks from a vast ignorance about how economies function into how natural cause-and-effect works. I’m sure that high school students today are much better equipped with hardware in chemistry or biology class than my generation was; and, we must hasten to add, they have the Internet. There is scarcely any plausible way to explain their degree of ignorance about the basics rhythms and connections of the natural world, then, if we do not posit that their daily, practical experience of that world is alarmingly deprived. How many understand that a year of unusual weather patterns offers up virtually no relevant data to the study of climate? How many grasp that deadwood left untrimmed in a grassland or forest becomes tinder for major fires? Why do so many not comprehend that human cultures (which are natural phenomena in many ways) annihilate each other unless allowed some degree of isolation? This stuff isn’t “rocket science”.

Quantitative Imbecility: Plenty of young people are more proficient at math already than I ever was on my best day… but plenty more can’t seem to reach an elementary proficiency. Related to our nation’s special instance of cultural collision… why is it hard to grasp that resources of all kinds are limited for handling Mexico’s itinerant laborers? Does the fact that so many of our citizens cannot correctly write out “twenty-three trillion” in numeral form mean that our debt problem is solved? Is there something about the volume of illegal immigrants pouring into our sanctuary cities that college students cannot connect with congested traffic, deteriorating infrastructure, increases in infectious disease, rises in pollution of all kinds, and escalating crime rates? Or why do these students and their parents believe—why did they ever believe—that the Big Brotherly FAFSA applications they were required to fill out upon completion of high school would lead to “free money”? Why, as a society, can’t we count? We’re no more obtuse, one must assume, than our forefathers. Could it be that we have lost touch with the world’s “thingness”—that we no longer have direct experience of plants receiving too much water, of fireplaces lacking sufficient chopped wood, of gutters too high for a certain ladder?

I have perhaps already been prolix, so I will end my list here rather arbitrarily. I’ve written enough, surely, to promote the point that our awareness of the world is being challenged today in ways unknown to other times. We lack common sense to a degree that, as far as I know, has no parallel in any society’s general population.

Last week I happened to read two explanations of why more than fifty percent of millennials appear to view socialism favorably. David Limbaugh blames academic propagandists; Tucker Carlson blames the student debt crisis. I myself have to believe that much, much more is going wrong. The “millennial mind” (if I may be pardoned the phrase) is being won over to suicidal folly neither by professorial harangues nor by economic self-interest. Its collective attitudes and outlook are far more deeply embedded than such causality can explain. The disease eating away at us has gnawed all the way to the bone.

Let Freedom Ring… Where? How?

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This roundabout discussion begins with a strange “revelation” that struck me earlier in the month.  Question: why does almost nobody in either house of Congress appear concerned about a 23-trillion-dollar national debt (not counting unfunded liabilities that would run up the tab at least fourfold)?  Some of our elected representatives can’t count, granted; and some are so deeply mired in graft and corruption that their interest in their fellow citizens’ future is equivalent to Marie Antoinette’s.  Yet I consider it obtusely cynical to consign virtually every member of both parties to one of these two categories.  What about the members who can do addition without their fingers and toes and who have also graduated to a modicum of normal adult responsibility?  How can they sit by and watch the dollar’s purchase power overheat and explode?

Answer (revelation): they must genuinely believe that the dollar’s collapse will be a good thing.

How can they believe this?  Because in such calamitous circumstances, the nations of the world would have to become—in a word much beloved of President Clinton whenever he discussed economic issues—interdependent.  All nations having grown equally insolvent, various political rivals around the planet will have to patch up their differences and create a single worldwide system.  Though I understand pitifully little about banking, it seems to me (based upon my limited research) that the world banking industry has already taken large strides toward assuming control over everybody’s finances, thanks to digitalization and other “initiatives”.  Baron Rothschild et al., for example, have a very clever plan for transforming “carbon credits” into a single world currency, centrally controlled by… Baron Rothschild et al.

All the same, would that be such a insufferably bad thing—I mean, one big clunking system?  The truth is that we haven’t yet seen a World War III, with over half a century having been run off the clock since the Cold War’s first dark days.  China, for all her saber-rattling, obviously knows that she can bring us to our knees just by standing back and watching us collapse under the effects of our own moral flabbiness.  No need for her to push buttons that may envelope the planet in radioactive dust for centuries: just let the Yanks continue to forget how to procreate, to snarl at each other because of skin color, and to medicate themselves with gateways to what Baudelaire aptly called “artificial paradises”.

Okay… I can see how some worldly-wise attorney whose understanding of human nature and history hovers at imbecilic levels would buy into this vision enthusiastically.  No more war.  No more borders.  No more doctors for some but not for others.  We know that Congress’s membership now includes several genuine, outspoken socialists—and many, many more on the Republican side have imbibed of Socialism Lite and decided that they can get used to the slightly sickening aftertaste.  Besides… well, I no doubt drew too heavy a line earlier between the principled and the corrupt.  You can endorse the “no more wars, no more borders” scenario in principle and also calculate, in the back of your mind, how you and your children are bound to enjoy certain privileges as members of the governing elite.

For the rest of us, though… I ask sincerely: what would be the disadvantages of living under a one-world government whose citizens are now forced to settle their differences without mushroom clouds?

I suggest that we can effectively prophesy daily life in such a “terminally safe” world just by looking closely—or, even better, viewing distantly for enhanced perspective—the beams and joists rising all about us right now.  Let this picture settle into focus. We would be fed constantly the “soma” of the broadcast media to sustain our state of contented ignorance and somnolent amusement.  We would be disarmed to ensure that the rare individual who went off his meds wouldn’t pose much of a threat.  We would be watched around the clock by indefatigable electronic eyes.  If we strayed into a public expression of “unproductive” criticism (and all criticism of the Unit, of course, would be classed as unproductive), Nanny Google would send us into time-out.  (In the classic BBC serial, The Prisoner, the extreme form of time-out—utter social ostracism—follows the Village Council’s verdict that one’s behavior is “unmutual”.)  Intrusive oversight wouldn’t stop at utterances, either. Our very facial expressions and body language would be monitored and graded.  The “People’s Republic” of China is already blazing the trail with ubiquitous surveillance cameras and a system of “virtue points”.  Those detected in moody or uncooperative attitudes would see their “credit score” docked sufficiently to deny them travel rights, perhaps, or to thwart their children’s entry into a good school. (Egalitarianism notwithstanding, the “right school” will remain a secret passage into the oligarchic elite’s corridors of power.)  I believe the Trump Administration has nodded in the direction of allowing similar surveillance to influence Second Amendment rights.  Nothing to worry about just yet, just now… but if you pay attention to the sand vibrating under the soles of your shoes, you can indeed discern the thump-thump-thump of some rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.

So… there’s your choice.  Option One: life without fear of nuclear holocaust or immolation in Walmart’s bread aisle when a psycho’s girlfriend splits, at the cost of having your brow movements monitored as you brush your teeth.  Option Two: risk of all the fears eliminated in Option One, but with minimal cost of invisible surveillance and moralistic lecturing from Super-Nanny.  The more elderly of us will resist the first choice as its popularity swells, and we’ll probably end up in a mass grave after we flunk out of Re-education Camp for the third time.  The younger of us will be right at home with two-way mirrors everywhere they go, since they actually invite such constant universal exposure into their lives already with their “devices”.

Die, then, old warhorses!  Ye shall not by much precede the generation of asses who win but a few more years before the Committee on Social Harmony euthanizes them as they wait for a hip or knee replacement.

But is there really no alternative?  Are not our so-called “sanctuary cities” in fact pointing us in its direction?  What if we created discrete communities wherein people could live by their own rules—what if we went in that direction rather than transforming the entire human race into robots with uniform behavioral programming?  Let the West Coast, for instance, have marriage of species to other species or of one to three, five, or ten; borders that appear only on paper; one school curriculum, one income, one housing module, and one doctor with one bag of meds for all and sundry; free weed; and elections modeled after Major League Baseball’s All Star Game, where you vote as many times as you like.  Let those happy campers become a province of China, for all I care: they already are, for all I can make out.

On the other side of the continent, let the Southeast insist upon postings of the Ten Commandments in all public places.  Let her citizens be required to carry self-defensive weapons upon exiting the front door.  Abolish school districts: let each school teach that curriculum which concerned parents approve.  Let marriage exist only between a man and a woman, and let vandals who deface monuments cool their heels for a few months in the calaboose.

Let residents of one area who flee its “horrors” to a more congenial space be required to have settled in for five years before they enjoy full voting rights; and let regional legislatures be required to approve new law in two sessions with an intermission of at least two years between confirmations.  Build in some stability, some “drag”. Give customs and manners a fighting chance against George Soros and Mark Zuckerberg. Let cultures separate out according to their preferred values… and let surrounding cultures honor the shift of ethos that accompanies crossing a boundary marked on paper.

Why is this vision a pipedream?  Idealistic critics will say, “We went through all this Tenth Amendment crap with slavery.  If higher moral principle had not trumped regional special interests, human beings might still be laboring under the whip in the Deep South.”  Well… the rude release of illiterate and unskilled slave populations into “freedom” was in fact responsible for much of the misery that descendants of freedmen carried well into the next century; and the considerable opposition to slavery within the South would have expelled it even before the Civil War, perhaps, if national politics hadn’t introduced a complex friction of economic interests (cf. Marc Egnal’s Clash of Extremes).  May I point out, too, that many of our idealists who would raise this protest make no such noise when Muslim immigrants insist upon introducing the brutality of Sharia into their new neighborhoods?

The real obstacle, of course, is practical.  What will keep regional equivalents of the insatiably power-hungry Chinese elite—or the Chinese themselves—from occupying Alabama if New Mexico becomes a convenient launching point? Should states (and I mean all political states, not just the late-great “united” ones) solemnly undersign a treaty that will require each to come to the rescue if a bully invades a weakling? But we know this won’t work. Our current domestic politics show us nothing if not that progressive ideologues treat promises with contempt—and why wouldn’t they? Since reality is “evolving”, the circumstances involved in the promise you made yesterday are already irrelevant tomorrow.

The Chinese will lie, as they always do (unless truth proves more expedient in specific instances); and their ally states from California to Washington will connive at the lying, since their governing elite is more Machiavellian than that founding father of calculated duplicity. I see no alternative but for more principled states to bend their principles—near the breaking point sometimes—in the formation of effective counter-alliances. The Southeast, for instance, could team readily enough with Israel… but to muster the muscle necessary for browbeating China into retreat, it might also have to pact with Putin. India is another obvious friend; but Indonesia? Some of the more stable, adult-friendly Islamic republics?

This is a new pair of unsavory options. Do you lock arms with a neighbor who beats his wife as the pirates come streaming off their ship… or do you board up your own doors and windows, hoping for the best? The survival of states where the individual may still be free to grope his way toward God will almost certainly depend upon alliances with other states whose god is not ours.

Putin at least claims to be Christian, and at least makes an outward show of valuing the nuclear family and a modest level of public decency. He sent the obscene Pussy Riot crew to prison for a year: not an act that sits well with an American constitutionalist, but vastly preferable to Ted Wheeler’s allowing Antifa to bludgeon harmless bystanders. Aleksandr Litvinenko was probably poisoned on Putin’s nod… yes, and Vince Foster probably didn’t commit suicide. Putin seized Crimea—after a public plebiscite overwhelmingly approved the annexation. Putin silences dissident reporters, we hear; minister’s daughter Angela Merkel silences them at least as well with the help of former East German propagandists policing the Internet and wielding “hate speech” like a Stasi thug’s choke-hold. Our Pythoness, Wikipedia, warns that Putin’s trusted advisor, Aleksandr Dugin, is a fascist—but Dugin seems very confused himself about his pedigree: an anti-communist who admires Lenin and a Russian nationalist who treasures culturally diverse traditions.

When the most important thing is at last to have co-signatories in the mutual defense pact who keep their word, it may be that belief in God—some immortal god, any creator-god—is the only relevant factor in resisting the aggressive holy war of Secular Utopians, whose god is tear-it-all-down Whimsy. Societies whose members hold something immutable and sacred beyond this world’s terms are under vast attack. (I’m not keen on the Koran—but we “Islamophobes” should notice what the Chinese are doing to the Uighurs.) While not all such “believing” societies encourage the individual search for the divine, the alternative is an annihilation of the divine in bursts of individual petulance that soon settle into an animal sameness (lust, fear, envy, and the rest).

Of course, if our critical requirement for alliance is a belief in a higher power that postpones utter joy and perfect justice to another dimension, then a good many of our “Christian” ministers and priests will have to ally themselves with our adversaries. We would have to banish them to California, if they aren’t already there.

In summary, I would dare to say that a realistic hope for humane civilization is possible… but only if we don’t hope for too much humanity from our military back-up.

Me and MPC: “Christianity Lite” and the Death of the Spirit

For the purposes of this “dialogue”, I’m going to personify the doctrine that I see (on websites) and hear (in services) coming out of contemporary Methodist and Presbyterian USA congregations as MPC.  I will also lay as a ground rule that we will not bandy Bible verses.  I freely concede that I would lose such a tennis match to anyone who has spent years in a seminary… but I find, in any case, that bending Scripture into heated discussions is equivalent to wrangling over whether an Inkblot Test portrays a dog on a chain or a prickly pear cactus.  That kind of exchange isn’t very edifying.

ME: My thumbnail definition of Christianity would run something like this.  Every human being has a soul, and all souls are unique and precious to God.  They are constantly called toward closer union with Him, and that coalescence becomes a state beyond time that discovers utter fulfillment.  Yet souls resist the call as they pass from earthly childhood to adulthood, and they may be lost when the ends of this world replace the higher, inexpressible ends that work through this world’s matter to make themselves more visible.  Hence a radical reorientation in the adult—a “birth from above”—is required to lift his nose out of the glittering muck.

MPC: Yes, of course.  God calls upon us to serve others… and we fight fiercely against that duty as we busily feather our own selfish nest.  It’s a shock to us to realize that we’re often not living life even when we are busiest—but we busy ourselves with the wrong things.  We are immersed in life, but not in living it. For we must act in the here and now in order to serve others.  Airy pieties do not feed the hungry, cure the sick, or clothe the poor.  The way to the Kingdom is through energetic activity.  We must give generously of our time and possessions.  We must fight on all fronts against worldly forces that starve the less fortunate or hold them in chains: that is our high calling.

ME: Is it?  In a way, certainly… but your explanation appears to me to risk confusion.  Isn’t part of our calling also to dissuade other people from surrendering their lives to utter immersion in worldly affairs?  Yet if I will achieve my high purpose only to the degree that I fight poverty and injustice, then it seems reasonable that I would spend every waking hour soliciting donations or filing motions; not only that, but I should probably also amass a maximum of wealth so that I might devote it to those worthy causes.  And it would also seem that the impoverished and the unjustly imprisoned cannot live fulfilling lives without the intercession of energetic, wealthy benefactors like me.  Yet I personally find that such people are often light-years ahead of their “benefactors” spiritually.

MPC: Which is precisely why we must assist them rather than standing by in idle complacency.  They’re our brothers and sisters!  We would readily recognize the common humanity in them if we did not allow social convention to insulate us from the greater need, the higher calling.  Our membership in the arbitrary socio-economic communities into which we were born keeps pulling us down into a torpid, “us/them” mindset that paralyzes us.

ME: Yes, I’ve often noticed that you’re an inveterate enemy of social convention.  You don’t like settled communities, do you—except those church communities of your own design, some of whose orders of worship and representations of duty can be… pretty inflexible.  Somewhere in all of your “replacement conventions” is the line one crosses into introductory cultism.

MPC: That, of course, is an invidious portrayal of our mission and not deserving of a response.  Yet it is true that we must labor tirelessly to loosen the glue that holds people inactive because they believe their brethren to be only among those who speak their language, wear their kind of clothing, and live in their kind of neighborhood.

ME: Well, there’s no condescending generalization at all in that portrayal, is there?  But let’s stipulate that human communities (your communions, too, by the way) tend to brainwash people—for I see no need to mince words: we’re talking about behavioral conditioning.  Do you not find it perfectly absurd to maintain that any human being can mature healthily and successfully in a cultural vacuum—an environment where the day has no tendency to rhythm and social interaction no predictable niceties?  People would go paranoid en masse!  They would live trembling under rubble like the survivors of Troy after the city was sacked and burned.

MPC: And this, brother, is just why our communions groom that “cult” of worshipful daily life at which you sneer.  People need organization—and how better to organize their lives than around acts of loving concern and ritual sharing?

ME: You have now negated the moral value both of loving and of sharing, though you have blundered into a very honest description, I believe, of your objectives.  What I see in all this is you of the priestly caste prescribing virtuous behavior to your… flock, shall we call them… and they obeying mindlessly in the confidence that their prophets know better than they what is to be done.  You will tell me, perhaps, that playing Moses to the herd is an onerous burden, and one that you would willingly have rejected if not impelled by a higher voice.

MPC: Mock on, brother.  We are not strangers to persecution.  But the sad truth is that the oppressed would remain in chains and the poor sit starving in their hovels if all were such as you.  Yes, people require leadership.  They must be organized.

ME: Organized to accomplish the bare necessities of living, yes—but their will must be left free!  Look: is your objective to enter the figure “zero” in the Homeless and Starving categories, even though you have to program the populace rigorously to reach that end; or is it to facilitate the discovery of a passage to God among individual souls?

MPC: This is more of that airy speculation which, if indulged, would indeed leave thousands of people homeless and starving.  We promote action, not “feel good” formulas.

ME: I consider that very, very debatable.  But let’s stay at the practical level.  Do you dispute that even the bluntest pagan will share food with his starving neighbor out of primitive decency?  In fact, small tribal societies are the most generous in the world at this kind of thing.  Yet you say that vast communities of givers must be orchestrated to maximize the efficiency of the relief effort (once again casting yourselves, I notice, in the role of the unit’s collective conscience).  Shouldn’t your calling, rather, be to awaken people far and wide from their fixation with mere physical survival, and beyond that from their determination to strike a admirable pose before the eyes of the masses?  If you can do that, then they will embellish their rudimentary decency with higher service—perhaps with less money-making and more dedication to playing with their children or cultivating trees that survived the developer’s bulldozer.  If you awaken people to indefinite ends, that is, you may just find that you get most of the definite results you want.  A man who pauses to notice the stars is at least as likely to play Good Samaritan as a robot programmed to change tires for stranded motorists.  But no!  Not good enough!  You’ve hopped several squares at once in this board game, as it were: you’ve directed everyone just how to be concerned and where to give.  You’ve created efficiency.  Your gospel might as well be a Stalinist five-year plan.

MPC: Oh, yes—it was bound to come to this sooner or later, wasn’t it?  The “c” word, the “s” word.  We’re communists, then… we’re socialists, is it?  Well, I know you don’t like to hear the Gospels quoted… so let’s try a different citation.  As a matter of fact, the plan that Jesus lays out for human society is essentially a socialist one, and there’s no reason why he wouldn’t have uttered, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

ME: Ah, yes: Saint Karl!  But let me shift this… discussion… to a different footing.  Let’s grant that the Christian’s high mission is to feed the hungry and clothe the poor.  And let’s say that the mission is accomplished, as it may indeed be.  Obesity is already reaching epidemic proportions even in some Third World nations—and look at the so-called refugees pouring into Europe who are sporting Nikes and Land’s End workout suits.

MPC: The poor are always with you, brother… but pardon my slip of the tongue!  I quoted Scripture!

ME: No harm done—you happen to have quoted it very ineptly.  Christ utters those words exactly to underscore that the objective is not a smooth-running social machine.  But say, if you can possibly imagine, that one day you awaken to find no hungry to feed and no naked to clothe.  You’d be done, wouldn’t you?  Your church would have no further reason for being.  You need the needy!  You desperately need them.  You need them to be needy.  If they didn’t exist (as Voltaire quipped of God), you’d have to invent them.  Your purpose, your direction… it would be gone.  Your god would be dead.

MPC: How puerile!  How pitiful!  And all of this just to justify your sitting on your pile of loathsome lucre instead of helping your fellow man!

ME: Not an answer… and, by the way, you have no idea how I live or what my income is.  We can compare homes and cars later, if you like.  But okay, let’s stay with your new theme of rationalizing an egotistical choice with hifalutin motives.  Let’s talk about justice for a minute—a word you strain with even greater overuse than “gift”.  You exhort your congregation not to go to bed at night if the day hasn’t included some step toward bringing more justice into the world.

MPC: And, no doubt, that disturbs you for some strange reason.

ME: Yes.  It disturbs me because… how do you know?

MPC: How… do we know what?

ME: Where the just course lies?  How do you, miserable human being, know that a boy’s life of relative poverty isn’t preparing him for an adulthood of noble, enduring, invincible accomplishment?  You haven’t even visited the boy’s home!  How do you know that the dark-eyed alien facing twenty years for child-molestation isn’t actually a child-molester?  You haven’t even reviewed the case against him!  You cram individuals into sweeping categories that fit your script—and then you proceed with the script, ignoring specific circumstances and significant evidence.  You have no time for details: you have to create a fairy tale in which you play the plumed hero on a white charger!

MPC: Whereas you, once again, would just leave the boy mired in poverty and the disenfranchised suspect rotting in jail while you interminably dig for “further evidence”… all so that you don’t have to move a muscle.

ME: You’re claiming that I rearrange reality to favor my complacency—yet you can’t so much as conceive of the possibility that you do the same, at a much worse level, by brushing over details in generating just the little drama where you can play the hero, the true believer.  You never seem to harbor the slightest suspicion that perhaps what you call “justice” is a very simplistic reading of a complex situation.

MPC: Yes, everything must always be complex, mustn’t it?  Complexity is always an excellent excuse for doing nothing.

ME: And doing nothing is usually a better alternative than doing the wrong thing—such as destroying initiative in young people to have them be the little victims you pull from the fire, or releasing a mass-murderer upon the public who has been cast as someone wrongfully condemned by a racist jury.

MPC: My goodness!  We wouldn’t be speaking just a little bit stereotypically there, would we?

ME: No!  Not typically at all!  Specifically!  I speak of specific cases that get nudged aside in your stereotypes… and you refuse to allow the reality of exceptions to your rule.  Anyone who questions your categories is “stereotyping”!

MPC: I can see little hope for discovering common ground in this conversation.  I’m afraid the action of the spirit must precede any such exchange if significant compromise is to be reached… and the spirit has simply not touched you.

ME: What spirit, precisely?  For that’s the final point I would have made, the endgame.  What in your system, finally, is spiritual?  What you project forward into the “eschaton” is the truly perfected human society, where nobody does anything he doesn’t want to do, where all have their needs utterly fulfilled… and I don’t see where God fits into the picture, except as the architect of the whole thing: a boy with an ant farm between two pieces of glass who wakes up one morning and finds that his insects have finally figured out their tunnels.  The ultimate purpose of the human soul is to crawl happily about in human tunnels, visiting a friend here, a friend there.  Nothing but friends, everywhere!  But no God.  Where is the fusion with God’s mind in which the Christian is supposed to hope and to which he is meant to summon others?  Where is God’s mind?  Where is the intersection of the galaxies, the music that plays outside of linear time?  I see nothing in your miserable utopian prison but human architect ground out by very human minds.  It sickens me!

MPC: Peace, brother.  We’ll all pray for you.  Struggle can be fertile.  Our doors are open to you whenever you wish to enter.

… And so it goes.  Please view my brief new videos, The Perverted Concept of Justice in the Secular-Utopian Church and The Perverted Concept of Giving in the Secular-Utopian Church, if these subjects interest you.

The Seventies: Our First Full Decade of Cultural Decline

(I’ve been utterly preoccupied this week with preparing a re-edition of a novel invisibly published almost twenty years ago: Footprints in the Snow of the Moon. I hope to have it accessible on Amazon by mid-week. In writing the preface, at any rate, I decided that I could post an excerpt here that might not be uninteresting to IC’s audience.)

I heard a television documentary declare recently that Sharon Tate’s murder at the insane hands of the Manson gang was the end of the Sixties.  The remark wasn’t intended chronologically: its implication was plainly that the depraved brutality of the deed corrupted the “Sixties dream” and exiled American culture from the Eden of free love and rejection of social hierarchy.  If only, if only a few crazed loons hadn’t flown off the preserve!

In a far more significant sense, the Manson murders (there were several, by the way) were the climax of the Sixties—the necessary, inevitable dark fruit of a poisoned tree.  When human beings are freed of their inhibitions, the animal impulses that come to the surface vying for control may be lamb-like one instant… and then lupine the next.  Not that any wolf deserves to be defamed by comparison with Charles Manson: no, the human being wholly liberated of shame or guilt is an infinitely more atrocious creature than anything we can find in raw nature.  Thanks to his imagination, he can indulge a lust that has no analogue in any merely brutish chemistry: not a lust for sex or food, but for dominating the will of others—libido dominandi.

In unmooring the individual will from the cables with which two and a half millennia (punctuated by a few notable lacunae) of Judeo-Christian and classical Stoic morality had secured it, the Sixties set a generation of directionless young people loose upon each other—looking high and low for what they “wanted” and what they considered “relevant”, brushing aside entire systems and institutions that they considered “old” or “patriarchal”.  Frankly, this thumbnail sketch of the Sixties ethos is already in error: only the final years of the decade grew “radical”.  Most of the cultural clearing-and-leveling labor was accomplished in the Seventies.

Now, I will not maintain that the decade of flaring cuffs and collars, bushy unisex hair styles, and anorexic pop-singers saw a proliferation of drug-addicted mass-murderers.  Manson, let us say, was the face reflected in the pool at the chasm’s bottom.  For if human beings are distinct from the purely animal in bearing their blessed curse of free will and imagination, their distinction remains grafted upon an animal substrate.  They like to move in herds.  The herd lifts from the individual’s shoulders the complex burdens of freedom.  The hand of Satan that scrawled “helter skelter” in Sharon Tate’s blood no doubt hazed many a young “free spirit” away from the edge.  Indulging impulse was tamed (superficially and for the time being) into a social endeavor, and even a sociable one.  In those passive, pacifist Seventies, it turned out that you could “find yourself” while looking and acting exactly like the legions of “seekers” all around you; and this was indeed unsurprising, because it also turned out that our “self” was essentially a construct of DNA—our instinct to mate, our natural aversion to forced labor, our inbred terror of physical threat, our primate comfort in belonging to a group.

Statistical outliers—rogue elephants—would register a dangerous resurgence in the Eighties, when the cult of pleasure irresistibly fed into a cult of acquisitive hunger.  For most of the intermediate decade, however, I observed my peers to be lingering in an insipid sameness, neither searching for a guru in India like the Beatles nor snorting cocaine to amass royal fortunes on Wall Street.  The Seventies were a trough between crests.  They were a lull in whose wash uninspired hordes supposed themselves to be riding the wild surf.

The word “infantilism” would leap to mind if the present time had not laid yet a better claim to it.  Today, as I sit writing, college students are (as an abandoned cliché once had it) “much as nature might have left them”.  Several years ago already, my undergraduates hadn’t a clue what I intended when, as we read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight together, I associated the evocation of fertility in Arthur’s all-green visitor with the recovery of longer days after the winter solstice.  Most of them didn’t know what a solstice was.  Now their younger brothers and sisters are lecturing all of us on the planet’s climate and ordering us to “shut up” if we raise an objection.

In comparison, the overgrown children of the Seventies were at least not rude brats.  And they had developed a decisive gender—very decisive!  In that they could be said to have blazed a trail into puberty that leaves their contemporaries far behind.  Yet their hair still grew long in the pristine ringlets whose first formal shearing brings mothers to tears.  Their bodies were of the supple quality that allows toddlers to absorb infinite falls without taking much harm.  In fact, it was wrong of me to celebrate puberty in them with such confidence; some of the girls, at least, had found a way to resist menstruation.  I know I mentioned anorexia in passing.

Wasn’t abortion part of the same bid for “prolonged innocence”?  Children don’t become mothers and fathers, so… so pregnancies just shouldn’t be happening.  Something was amiss there.  Reset the clock and go back to playing in the nursery: those two months of alarming discomfort never happened.

Well, our overgrown children today appear to have discovered the full Mansonian potential of sacrificing small, fleshy masses with little fingers and tiny noses.  It’s a rite performed to a known god whose name I shall not repeat.  In that respect as in so many others, I prefer the “terminal adolescence” of the Seventies.  Observers of the scene back then could still see that something was wrong; and the gullible young fools sucked into doing the wrong still had, as often as not, an inkling that they had been led astray.  It was a time suitable to be the backdrop of a morality play, whereas today… today we find only the appalling chaos fit for writing what the ancients would have called a catabasis: a journey through Hell.

Why the difference?  I think it consists entirely in this: fifty years ago, vestiges of those twenty-five hundred years of Western culture lingered among the herd’s hoofprints.  Today, they’re all gone.  Fifty years ago, the young who had jettisoned the cargo of Western civilization in favor of “relevance” (which, in terms of college work, involved a much lightened reading list: a very happy accident in the Decade of Pleasure) had still seen Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet and Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons at the movies.  Today’s graduate students have cut their narrative teeth on comic-book superheroes—about whom some of them will probably write a dissertation.  I devoutly hope that a few of our twenty-first century crop will find their way out of Hell, having heeded a spiritual voice within that can easily outshout the Call of the Sociopath if attended to… yet Hell is where they are, where they have to search for exits.  Fifty years ago, exits higher up the road were still open.  They just weren’t being well maintained.

Nothing distresses me more in retrospect about that lost decade than the invertebracy of the Christian church in the face of so many formidable challenges.  As a young man navigating the day’s troubled waters, I had a keen sense that most Christian denominations were responding to the times, “Wait!  Don’t leave us behind!  We’re one of you!  Love, peace, togetherness, a better world… that’s what we’re all about!”  Yes… and that was apparently all they were about: no sin, no guilt, no repentance, no abstinence, no difficult ascent through stones and briars, no resistance to worldly seductions.  No comfort.  In my experience of the Seventies, the Church desperately fought against irrelevancy by rendering itself irrelevant.  Those whom it courted abjectly had already found what they craved in the here-and-now; or if their souls were not wholly drained of breath and secretly craved a lifeline to the Beyond, the Church had cast aside that line in its zeal to fashion a better here-and-now.

Again, one might make precisely the same claim of organized Christianity in the twenty-first century, and make it with a vengeance; but the trend began when trousers rode low, their buckles spread broad, and their bottoms belled wide.

I could write lengthily about the “charismatic” movements that sometimes spiraled into cultism during this decade—but I should be wandering too far afield from the subjects addressed in Footprints, which do not include these.  If I lend any emphasis at all to the matter of religion here, it’s because the novel struck me so powerfully—as I edited it after almost two decades—as groping for the spiritual.  This, too, seems to me characteristic of the Seventies: I mean, groping clumsily after something fulfilling and immaterial… and not being able to find it.  Finding substitutes for it in all the wrong places.  Yet again, yes, one might say as much of any generation of human beings.  The difference is that most such generations were graced with some form of organized faith that offered a clear alternative to sex, drugs, wealth, and power.  The Seventies, having inherited from the previous years a contempt for all reverend institutions, were left with a Church that embraced the secular world’s facile opposition of sex and drugs to wealth and power, as if those pairs defined adversarial ends of a spectrum.

The charismatic represented less a third way—a midpoint on the spectrum—than a retreat into that infantilism (too young for sex, too young for power) typical of the era’s approach to other moral crises.  There was no genuine escape from this world’s traps (and Sartre’s Huis Clos, whose title literally translates such despair, was taught in every sophomore French class).  Those who survived the day’s Charybdis of rival forces circling the same focal void and were at last spewed out upon Odysseus’s stunted fig tree faced a bleak, lonely prospect.

One of my faithful collaborators in the charitable venture, The Center for Literate Values, gave the original novel a kind review (what else would you expect of any officer in a public charity?)—but voiced a mild regret that the book did not investigate faith as a solution.  I won’t say that I took the criticism under advisement in my rewriting.  Rather, in my rewriting, I discovered that the forces I had unleashed in these fairly ordinary Middle Americans (ordinary on the surface—the only level at which anyone is ordinary), most of them well under thirty, needed to “blow up the world” a little more.  There needed to be more frustration with the options offered by a relatively smooth-purring, profitably hedonistic society now free and clear of the Vietnam nightmare.  I don’t say that there needed to be more options: faith often grows exactly because more is needed but no further options are possible.  I felt a considerable pressure to let something intrude into my “dystopic pastoral” which would lighten life’s burdens, paradoxically, by acknowledging that burdens don’t disappear in this life.

I had to make the narrator turn somewhat more consciously mature at the end.  And I did so: that’s the book’s major change.  Some may persist, “But I still don’t see his faith taking shape.  Where’s his faith?”  My answer: not in the things and people of this world—but running straight through them; not in the institutions of this world, but thriving in spite of them.

How many people in fact weathered the Seventies with a spiritual insight of such elevation?  Well… as a novelist, I don’t do statistical analysis.  I try to present the most instructive case, and sometimes I thereby present the least probable.  I will bring to general attention, however, that the narrator’s retrospective places his final thoughts in the late Nineties: he’s had plenty of time to mull it all over.  If you were “on the ground” during that somnolent spiritual war which was the late Seventies, you didn’t yet know that promiscuous sex might harm your body as well as your soul: AIDS was yet unheard-of.  You didn’t know that foreign nationals might plot to murder thousands of your neighbors in the midst of their routine: plane hijackings always ended with a rerouting to Beirut or Tripoli, usually after the passengers were swapped out for a million bucks.  You didn’t know that school children might so much as fantasize about gunning their classmates down: video games and our sociopathologizing “social media” were a glimmer in some developer’s eye.

I doubt that we learned much of anything from the Seventies, in short, while they were being played out.  Any lesson would have come years later (and it doesn’t appear that most of us have learned the full lesson, even fifty years later).  What I like about the Seventies as an artist, though, is precisely that they are “pure” of mixed motive when one scans them for moral cautionary tales.  At the time, no one would have known just how risky to bodily health and mere survival were many trendy new habits.  The only reason for resisting them would have been abstract: a stand in principle uncomplicated by a gun pointed at the head.

A Payday for Neanderthal Descendants? Why Not?

Practically every Caucasian, it seems, has about two percent of the Neanderthal genome.  Current theory has it that Homo Sapiens, having invaded Northern Europe from Africa, interbred with the much less numerous species until, about 30,000 years ago, individuals clearly identifiable as Neanderthal disappeared.

Now, some of us go beyond the two percent.  I’m certain that I do.  No, I don’t have red hair, or a receding chin, or an aquiline nose… but I do have deep-set and fairly large eye sockets, I comfortably possess all of my wisdom teeth, my bones are exceptionally dense, and my hands are strangely broad with short fingers.  I’ve decided on this evidence to bump my Neanderthal percentage up to three or four.

“Why would you want to do that, and in public?” you may ask.  “You’re admitting that you’re a knuckle-dragging caveman—you’re making yourself an object of derision!”  Ah, dear reader, you are making my case for me!  Discrimination!  Vile slander!  I have been the victim of it throughout my life… and I haven’t even understood the basis of it, nor have my persecutors.  None of us fully realized what separated me from them.  It wasn’t my distant, distracted manner; at most, that was a consequence of being viewed as “different”.  The difference was never clarified in any quarter—not until now—but it was perceived subconsciously from every quarter.

And sometimes the contempt leaked out in a conscious, if unexamined, sneer.  Knuckle-dragging, indeed!  Why do we have the mainstream image of the Neanderthal as a simian, stooped-over ruffian who hadn’t enough sense to climb back into his tree?  That particular calumny arose from the misidentification of an arthritic spinal column as belonging to a healthy adult.  Neanderthals walked quite as erectly as the most upright H.S.  Their cranial capacity actually exceeded that of the typical Homo Sapiens.

But you H.S.’s, with your genetically encoded scorn of other species, naturally projected a pejorative interpretation upon the evidence.  And your “Neanderthal sensors” were constantly deployed in their wicked subconscious scan of your environment for any intruder with a more-than-two-percent genome.  You have endless laughs at the expense of redheads or “gingers”.  You deride the gloomy or the daydreaming (tendencies which Swift bestowed upon his ape-like Yahoos).  You crack obscene jokes about people who lack your long, slender fingers.

White racism is vile enough (and we’ve all learned that only Caucasians can be racist, so “white racism” is a redundancy).  But to bully, belittle, and ultimately breed out of existence a species upon whose territory you trespassed uninvited—and trespassed when you left Africa, by the way (just saying…)—falls nothing short of genocidal.  You loathsome people!  You have destroyed, not my life alone, but the lives of all in my tribe.  Oh, you possess a few of our genes… a very few, which you commandeered by raping our maidens after murdering their families.  It was our genetic inheritance that made you resistant to northern contagions; and for this, our thanks is eternally to be the butt of your off-color jokes!

I’m owed reparations—generous reparations.  I have already been somewhat compensated, to be sure, by the geneticist’s gift of explaining to me everything that has ever turned out less than perfect in my life.  It was all the result of persecution!  I no longer have to look back and question if my best-laid schemes were perpetually sabotaged by a character flaw that I couldn’t correct.  But those years of self-doubt were torturous, and simply to be absolved of their swirling accusations is too small an indemnity.  I need something more material.  I’ll take a check.

And even after I deposit the payoff, I’ll ride this nag until she falters and faints beneath me.  Then I’ll skin her hide and hang it on a stick, and I’ll ride that stick around about the wide world.  Universities must have programs in Neanderthal Studies.  Politicians must busy themselves courting the Neanderthal vote.  The calendar must have a Neanderthal Culture day… but schoolchildren must not knit frowns into their smooth brows or wear pads to broaden their shoulders as if to “ape the ape” in solidarity.  Such displays of cultural appropriation hurt our feelings.  The whole “caveman” thing

leaves very painful scars.  I can sense a lawsuit against Geico looming.

Membership in an oppressed minority turns out to to be the Sutter’s Mill or the Klondike of our time: it’s a gold strike.  One has to dig, sometimes quite deeply… but there’s gold in them thar genes!

Spiritual Rebirth: The Contemporary Mind’s Arch-Enemy

The scribble I had in mind for today will keep for another week.  I’ve decided to offer something more appropriate to Easter Sunday, 2019.

It is difficult to sense an infusion of new life when one casts one’s eyes about the current scene.  Debate has long been terminated on the subject of abortion.  It is considered gauche, or sexist, or racist, or some such reason-throttling chunk of mud-sling, to observe that most women really needn’t get “notably pregnant” at all against their will.  They may abstain from sex; they may abstain a mere three days each month from sex; they may patronize any one of a dozen cheap, accessible varieties of contraception; or, all of the above having failed, they may at least discharge their loathsome burden in the first trimester.  What we have before us, instead, appears to be a species of woman that has sex at least once a day with no regard for the consequences and despite hating males categorically and on principle.  Briefly, the “debate” shifted this year to whether or not one might actually murder a baby already born… but now the air is once again as thick with slung excrement as Gulliver’s Forest of the Yahoos.  A significant portion of our neighbors refuses to have a civil discussion about the impropriety of infanticide.

Paris is burning… well, part of it has been burning, anyway.  I don’t believe even Adolf Hitler had designated Notre Dame Cathedral for demolition as his occupying troops withdrew—but let us cede the point, for argument’s sake, that the conflagration was accidental.  It remains nonetheless undeniable that the “religion of peace” continues to make huge, heavy strides through Western Christendom.  One must observe, in fairness, that Islam does not condone abortion: it certainly has the diseased relics of “Christendom” beat on that and a few other fronts.  Similarly, one should not attribute directly to Koranic teaching the hideous practice of Female Genital Mutilation, which is morally superior to the Aztec manner of female-body-part excision—but only just.  Yet neither are Islamic leaders outspoken in their condemnation of the ritual sadism to which young girls in their faith are often submitted. In that regard, their “tolerance” has a disturbingly Western/postmodern odor. I read yesterday that nineteen states—approximately two-fifths of our union—permit these degraded, barbaric operations to proceed unmolested by the law.  That’s pretty typical of the Christian caricature which we have become.  Christ didn’t “judge”; therefore, we mustn’t “judge”, either.  Slice away.  God bless you… and how long will racist members of Congress oppose funding FGM through Medicare?  How dare they?  If they were really Christian…

I think I prefer my Yahoo excrement straight in the face rather than kneaded into my bread. To be impassive to atrocity is to be “tolerant”; to be indifferent to the outrage of fundamental decency is to be “Christian”. Nowadays, every word of the English language is apt to have a value diametrically opposed to its original intent.  One can no longer utter the simplest sentence without its leaving the taste of the latrine in one’s mouth.  Our words have been stolen from us, or in some cases (the worst cases) returned after mutilations as nightmarish as the mad scientist’s who grafts wings onto a rabbit.  To write nada or loco is cultural appropriation if your skin isn’t the right color.  (I’ve never been able to determine just what that color is: even the original Spaniards were part Moorish in many cases—and it turns out that Portugal is home to a particularly high concentration of Neanderthal DNA!)  To employ a “gendered” pronoun is to risk professional termination, fines, and perhaps incarceration not just in our ally nations, but in our own topsy-turvy academic world.  To protest against the idiocy of it all is to manifest the deplorable “white privilege”, suspicion of which crime precludes any effort at defense and carries a minimum mandatory sentence of social ostracism for a day.  “The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart goes all decorum,” as a white-privileged patriarch once opined.  Did that bard, prophetically, diagnose our abortion culture, perhaps?  Too many babies… the twenty- and thirty-somethings are unwilling to surrender their diapers to new arrivals that might compete for attention.

In the midst of such lunacy, Hope appears to have retreated to the Moon, left vacant by the descent of our dominant ideologies.  What does the dawn of this day in 2019 promise, other than a deeper plunge into disgrace and inhumanity?

I will attempt just a very brief answer.  As I age, I grow more aware that virtually all of our spiritual confusion arises from an intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) confidence that we understand time.  Specifically, time in all of our constructs is linear: a “timeline”.  The times are suffocatingly depressing because, for those of us with sufficient memory, they so clearly describe a nosedive into arrogance, petulance, self-absorption, self-indulgence, absurdity, and outright stupidity.  The “Darwinian staircase” scaling upward on the shoulders of Homo Erectus, Cro-Magnon, and Homo Sapiens has now reversed its motion as precipitously as an amusement-park slide.

Yet why do we suppose that the image of time forced upon us by our human understanding is ultimately valid?  We should know, thanks to the operation of our same faculties, that we are incapable of fathoming the utter truth of things.  We are compelled by “logic” to believe both in a First Cause and in the dependency of every cause upon a previous cause as its effect.  We are compelled, likewise, to believe that every event contains causative events within it and also that no event could possibly happen if there were not an atomic, irreducible, “buck stops here” micro-event at the bottom of it all.  (Twentieth-century science latched on to the speed of light in order to keep the system from collapsing upon itself—but “C” is a mere conceptual convenience whose truth is under serious question in current physics.)

What, then, if all of our timelines are indeed illusions?  What if “then” is also “now”?  Frankly, I feel crucifixion happening all around me every day.  Why not resurrection, as well?  For the ascent from death is as inescapable as the terrestrial impact of a falling apple—or as the germination of the fallen apple’s seeds: they are all held together by an inviolable metaphysical force in a single expanding time.  Our linear timelines are constantly bombarded from right angles by the pressing reality of this superior, immutable time.  Our “progress” is constantly being knocked off course by inklings that our imagined destination is illusory—that we are “here and now” in an ultimate truth whose focal gravity our silly designs vainly struggle to resist.  What good is a promotion if we buy it with lies and betrayals?  What good is a glistening new palace erected with dollars extorted from the meager savings of our dupes?  We fight and fight against the winds blowing contrary to our “advance”, the wind that bloweth we know not whence.  We detest that interference.  We curse it.  Yet it draws us and draws us back to the simplicity of the child—the dwelling in the “here and now” which we abandoned when we decided to “make something of ourselves”.

Do not, please, misread my remarks in the light of a recent piece I dedicated to “the power of now”.  “Now” is not a renunciation of past and future: it is a reclaiming of the past and future as properly belonging to the Real, the Right, the Good.  As we fight to postpone the reign of goodness over our daily compromises and calculations, we fight ineffectually, futilely.  We may resist rebirth into the light of the true day; but to do so, we shall have to suffocate our soul, willfully and persistently, after it is already drawing breaths on its own.  Souls don’t die in the womb.  Only suicide kills them.

The Power of Always: Feeling Fine vs. Serving God

I stopped reading Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now before quite reaching the halfway mark.  I wanted very much to see what had electrified my son about this bestselling book that seems to have enthralled the elder brethren of his generation (it was first published two years after he was born, in 1997)… and, okay, most of what I thought I knew about that generation stands confirmed.  Its members are traumatized by crass materialism, deadend carnality, and much social and economic pressure to dive into the oily soup of career-chase.  They crave a truce, a few moments of peace: a bike ride in the park, a joint… a slug of pop-Buddhism.

I admit that the introduction Mr. Tolle appends to my edition did not prejudice me in his favor.  His obvious delight at being selected for Oprah’s book club gave me a pain—and not just because his liberating higher consciousness should be impervious to such delights.  Oprah is just another of our culture’s tiresome frauds, as her recent efforts at race-baiting on behalf of Stacey Abrams prove.  This man is not in good company.

More significantly, the theme of “we must save the world from imminent self-destruction—children should be taught my lessons in grade school,” also appears as early as the intro, if memory serves.  Now, I at once acknowledge that Tolle later condemns progressive utopianism for the ravages wrought by Stalin and Mao.  He’s not the fool for whom I had originally mistaken him (the fool, for instance, that we have in Oprah).  Licking one’s chops in anticipation of Never Never Land’s Golden Omelet merely elicits millions and millions of ruthlessly broken eggshells.  So glad you saw that, Mr. Tolle.

Nevertheless, as a fellow anti-utopian, I do not delude myself that the world may be massively redeemed through re-education.  Any guru worth his salt should know that enlightenment comes one soul at a time, and often one small ray at a time as spiritual sunrise chases away darkness over a period of years.  You can’t teach vast numbers of people to “think right” in a single programmatic undertaking—and you certainly can’t awaken these people while they’re still learning the fine points of toilet training.  This vein of messianism clouds the book repeatedly.  In someone who would appear to oppose the collectivist and the totalitarian, it looks as odd as a snake with wings.

And the Snake, you know, lies at the heart of the contradiction: original sin.  People don’t make others and themselves miserable through greed, envy, lust, scorn, and pride because their intellectual light burns too dim: they do so because of an essential attraction to wickedness insufficiently fought down.  The very surrender to the present which Tolle’s book recommends might readily be suborned to serve egotistical ends (an insight which, I’m very happy to report, my son accessed without help from me).  A person who refuses to be sucked into the rat race may have committed his life to higher things… or he may simply be displaying laziness, or even cowardice.  He may be taking a stand against vulgar, corrosive materialism… or he may be refusing to take a visible, vocal stand against immoral powers that deserve to be resisted.  The fox, with his clever capacity for rationalization, had no difficulty persuading himself that the grapes he couldn’t reach were sour.

Yet more than anything, the topos that became unendurable to me was the “no reality but now” claptrap.  To claim that the past has dissolved forever in vain memory and that the future is forever waiting to be born in its gilded haze is a truism worthy of a fortune cookie.  Is this really the face that sold a million books—a Charlie Chan’s mimicking Confucius with skeletally bare clichés?

From one perspective, the present is in fact the least real of our times.  “N” is already a memory before I finish pronouncing the “w” of “now”.  Nothing is ever truly present; time, a moving object, cannot be restricted to a single point.

From a more spiritual perspective, however—which should be the more appropriate one here—no act is banished from the present, though its date of arrival nestle far back in calendar time; nor is the future “not yet” to a person of vision and resolution, for he knows that he will stay the rightful course regardless of circumstance.  Linear time is indeed the great enemy of spirituality, perhaps the greatest of all.  As an athlete, my son knows that certain complex maneuvers cannot be performed if attention is awarded to each micro-motion: the whole sequence of connected movements, rather, must be thought of as one.  So for life.  The sense of things resides in an awareness that what you did before has meaning, and that what you will do must acquire meaning by conformity to a righteously chosen course.  This is the life of principle.  The course, naturally, may be adjusted.  Given the fallibility of us human beings, it must be so—constantly.  The adjustment is made on the basis of lessons learned from the past.  The principle, the transcendent goodness, rests eternally and immutably above our scrambles in a perpetual Now… but as an abstraction, it requires us to live in its moment by making an ongoing succession of twists and turns.

I consider God to be the source of that goodness, and my communications with it to be the operation of the spirit within me (or the Holy Spirit, if you prefer a translation into more orthodox terms).  I do not consider God or highest reality to be that “now” when I pause over my rake or shovel and study a flight of birds returning north for the spring.  Such an instant of spiritual “exhalation” (as in release from particular, very finite concerns) can undoubtedly be uplifting.  The intellectual orientation required for tapping into the inspiration of goodness must certainly include recognizing the puniness of specific endeavors.  (This can often be identical to a sense of humor.)  Living in the spirit does not end with releasing the strains that daily challenges place on our psyche, however.  A man might achieve such release after refusing to stand up and protest on behalf of his falsely accused neighbor.  In that case, he would not have liberated his spirit from worldly concerns, but enslaved it to worldly anxiety with the narcotic of self-hypnosis.

I applaud Mr. Tolle insofar as he has lured some hundreds or thousands of young people from a despair common in our post-believing society.  I should prefer, though, to see them exposed to a belief that valorizes their individual soul and gives direction to each new day rather than sedating them into an omphaloskeptic coma.  That the messengers of a profounder faith have generally not put their good news before this generation is, of course, hardly Eckhart Tolle’s fault.

Panic Attacks: The Canary Stops Singing

Panic attacks, by definition, are irrational.  They tend to have a specific cause, at least at the beginning; but the element of panic becomes fully, painfully discernible when the merest mental movement in the direction of the “raw” area instantly elevates heart rate and sends up blood pressure.  Veins pound in the head, ears ring, breathing becomes almost as difficult as if one were suffocating… and perhaps the worst is the fear that lingers after the event passes; for, since the attack appeared from nowhere, it might reappear at any moment without notice.

These observations are not simply the fruit of browsing the Internet: they describe my own experience of attacks.  The odd thing is that I hadn’t suffered them for years… until the past couple of weeks.  They used to be almost crippling when, as an academic, I held tenure-track jobs and would grow aware (as I inevitably did, it seemed) that I was doomed to be turned out of house and home for causes over which I had no control.  (On two such occasions, for instance, I had rendered myself persona non grata unwittingly by publishing scholarly articles: small schools nourish large egos, and I had stolen a little sunlight from people who craved every beam.)

Why I should be revisiting this hellish terrain in retirement is somewhat mysterious to me.  I suppose the closest thing to a specific cause was my reflecting that I might be invited to jury duty one fine day—and then I would have to enter into elaborate and humiliating explanation of my inability to sit still for hours on end, thanks to a shrunken bladder.  (Yeah, I know: this is a natural part of aging—but I also tend to trace it to a period of overexposure to an ancient generation of computers that featured cathode ray tubes.  Those months catalyzed other nagging problems, as well, at which “medical professionals” sneered and scoffed… part of the reason why I stay away from doctors and treat myself with homeopathy.)

I don’t like being under the power of other people, for the very real reason that my experience of such relationships has taught me that they veer to the abusive, sooner or later.  I certainly see nothing in the world of politics that inclines me to reconsider my “problem with authority”.  Very nearly being saddled with a socialist governor last fall just after moving to the state of Georgia did nothing to calm my nerves; watching the movement to enfranchise masses of people who have entered the country illegally hasn’t pacified me; and trying in my own paltry way to assist a man serving three life sentences for crimes he didn’t commit has opened up a whole new vista of abused authority to me.

Add to that my ongoing battles to have FedEx, UPS, and the USPS deliver packages all the way to the end of my half-mile driveway… then the ever-present knowledge that my son now lives a thousand miles away in a city that wants to fund the heroin habit of its drug addicts… and, well, retirement hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses.  True, we can always find things to worry about; but when I was working, at least I had to ignore the horizon’s clouds for hours on end and address the tasks at hand.

I still have such tasks—and working on my garden or in my nascent orchard is, indeed, just what this doctor ordered.  As I lowered my shovel from an innovative type of raised garden bed yesterday, attracted by what I had long supposed to be turkey calls, I discovered a V of cranes making straight north… and then another.  The peace I felt at that moment utterly annihilated whatever serpentine shadows were coiling within me.  And even indoors, I can write, as I am doing now.

What I cannot do is, in a moment of foolish confidence, revisit the origins of the panic with a view to unraveling them rationally.  After every sequence of calm explanation and reasonable solution, a voice howls back, “But people are not reasonable!  Your behavioral autopsies have no relevance, no bite—people will do whatever their black hearts urge them to do!  Their hunger for power upon more power is insatiable, even to the point of self-destruction!”  And then another tailspin and another nosedive… all thanks to the attempt to be rational.

I understand why some sufferers cling to crosses.  I’ve tried that.  It may work a little bit for a while.  One really does have the sensation, you know, of fighting with the devil—with an assertive force of lunacy that wraps every effort at dispassionate analysis into an obscene adornment for his tail.  The Cross: “See this!  Stand back!”  It works better for hearts not so dominated by the mind as is mine.

At some point, my mind asked, “What does it work at all, even for a little?  What does the Cross represent that frightens this devil away?”  My son counseled me to live in the present moment and not allow questions about the invisible future to torment me.  He is all aglow with Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now (at least for now).  I began reading the book and, I confess, found myself immediately challenged to overcome the man’s aura of millenarian charism, his ecstatic “my light would transform the world if only the world could rend the veil before it”… his egotism.  At last, in a Tolle-like revelation, I toyed with the notion that living in the Now is precisely the wrong way to beat the devil—that the devil, in fact, enjoys the suffocating confines of Now and can cut the soul’s mooring very adroitly within them.  Or to say it from another angle: the true Now is Always.  The Cross is that Now, that Always within which a lifetime of struggles is but one moment.  To continue in the struggle, to insist upon the struggle’s purpose and ultimate success, to understand its victory as already secure merely by virtue of a struggle’s being made….  We win when we refuse to slide easily downstream.  We ride a rising tide that absorbs all streams into the great wide ocean.

Does Tolle reject that Now Is Always in his Always Now?  I’ll have to read the book through.  But the fact that my son has been able to allay his own devils with Mr. Tolle’s help advises me that young people in our aging and ailing society stand in grave need of a guru—a doctor who doesn’t simply laugh at their anguish and tell them that it’s imaginary.  To be sure, many gurus are false prophets: perhaps most.  Having such power over impressionable hearts is a heady drought, and few can resist its intoxicating effects.  None of that neutralizes the evidence that we were not made to lead the highly artificial lives that progressive technology has imposed upon us.  Though only two people in a hundred (according to Wikipedia) suffer panic attacks such as mine, I find it more than a little likely that our current political nuttiness is symptomatic of a collective panic.  What is the unhinged, hysterical insistence upon the planet’s impending meltdown if not the distorted cry of a generation cut off from its natural roots?

I wish these children of the iPod and iPhone were not so trusting of the very types whose lust for power could indeed render our lives unlivable—therein lies a major component of my own disposition to panic.  But I do understand the refrain of, “The sky is falling.”  Individually, we must strive to live in that completed moment when the sky has already fallen rather than, collectively, trying to build artificial staircases to the zenith.

 

The Mortal Risks of Too Much Success

My son amazed me by grasping within a year that his B.A. in Business Administration was a dead end and plunging himself into a sixteen-week course that prepared him to write Java code.  Now he’s… well, I mustn’t brag on him, even though today is his twenty-fourth birthday.  Suffice it to say that he’s making half again as much as his old man ever earned.

So now he can check the “gainful employment” box.  I was shocked, however, when he revealed during his recent visit how unrewarding he suddenly finds life to be.  He was a college athlete: no more baseball.  He was an intense student: no more techniques or disciplines to master.  He occupies one of the few plateaus offered by the American Dream, where you can stand up and gaze about rather than worry over your next foothold.  Comfort, security, a future… so what’s next?  A new car?  A house?  Marriage and family?  Are those, then—including the wife and children—acquisitions that mark an elevated status, like a new suit of expensive clothes?

The church he attends (and the churches attended by many in our more prosperous communities) veritably seethes with community-service projects, missionary activities, “outreach”… sure, that could be the next step!  Now that your own life has attained a plateau from whose ridge you clearly see the abyss of nullify at your feet, divert your eyes by rushing to bestow upon others the material blessings which turned to ash in your own hands.  Help others a few steps up the same plateau.  Whatever you do, just don’t rear up and take conscious notice that you occupy an island from whose heights the stars are as distant as ever.

Or become a socialist—a Bernie-baby.  (It’s very nearly the same thing as joining a progressive church.)  Wrap yourself in an “activism” that demands equal pay for all, equal housing, equal education, equal health care, equal transportation, equal access to amusements; or save a planet that doesn’t need saving, while you wildly cast about—in your own desperate need of salvation—for something or someone to save.  The planet needs saving—yes, it does!  Yes, it does!  Become a mindless zealot.  Whatever you do, don’t look over that ledge into the existential abyss that mirrors your life’s futility.

We have placed our young people in this dilemma precisely by engineering the most prosperous society in human history.  The basic necessities of survival preoccupied human beings for millennia; now they—we—worry over which gender pronoun to use and whether cows are passing wind too often: anything to distract us from peering over the edge into the abyss.

If I appear to make light of such anguish, it’s really the flight from anguish—the childish, highly creative, utterly delusional evasions of it—that make me smile.  The anguish itself can kill.  It almost killed me.  I am fully satisfied that it won’t kill my son, thank God: his dark side (and only the shallowest puddles have no murkiness) is not as sinister and paralyzing as mine.  But what I’m about to say is neither a joking matter nor, if you will bear with me, a frontal assault upon capitalism.  It’s just how things are: life.

In an advanced, high-tech economy, you make money by producing and selling things.  Since need is somewhat subjective, you maximize your marketing opportunities by making the public perceive commodities as necessary which are not so—whose possession may, indeed, create true need or otherwise cause harm.  You lure the masses into “needing” burgers and fries, iPhones, video games, Nike sneakers, Pop Tarts, torn blue jeans, a kitchen island, a well-mowed lawn.  I discovered yesterday that almonds are required to be pasteurized, thanks to two salmonella outbreaks more than a decade ago.  The process is not required of any other nut, yet the almond is no more susceptible to contamination than other nuts.  The mandate appears to be no more than a marketing strategy endorsed by both public and private sectors to ensure a gullible public that life’s risks can be neutralized.  If you’re involved in some such initiative as this, you probably make a handsome salary.  And what the hell are you actually doing with your time on earth?

It gets worse.  Because of the system’s success at generating “needless necessities” and then surrounding each product with numerous bureaucratic careers concerned with measuring, validating, and policing, the cost of everything constantly rises.  Small new enterprises cannot compete in the advertisement-and-regulation-saturated atmosphere of this highly evolved economy… and so they steadily disappear.  Young people could once find their meaning simply by inheriting a position at the local grocery or tannery or freight office: “A.B. Lindstrom, Grocer”; “Buck’s Boots and Saddles”.  “We deliver groceries to your doorstep… we custom-fit every boot… we take packages to all local destinations before the sun goes down.”  There was much pride invested in such operations.  They served the community, and their clients became a kind of extended family.

In our brave new world of vast chains and corporate mergers, personal relationships of this kind are the stuff of claptrap publicity rather than of reality.  No sense of fixity, of rootedness, remains: everything’s in constant flux.  Rarely does a human voice even answer the complaint hotline now; rarely is there even a phone number to call rather than a website with “frequently asked questions”.

The young person in the labor force, then, is left with… a paycheck.  A paycheck to spend on baubles and frivolities that may create—briefly—the illusion of happiness.  And we wonder why our youth are so unmoored from reality, and why our collective manifests signs of clinical insanity….

My son will be fine, because he is one of the few who will stare straight into the abyss.  True faith, I am convinced, comes only to those who doubt.  The strongest answer to the question, “Why believe in God,” is the number of unanswerable questions surrounding that central one.  Those who shield their eyes and ears from the plateau’s windblown isolation dwell in the illusion that the stars sit within easy reach.  They don’t.  They’re stars.

Those thuds you hear with increasing rapidity and rising volume are the sound of fools trying to step onto a star from an extension ladder.  That’s where our society is today: catastrophic folly.  And we did it to ourselves, by being successful.  I don’t really have any single solution for how we cure ourselves of our suicidal impulses.  Perhaps the corpses around us will eventually be too thick for another ladder to be erected.

Happy birthday, my son! Carry on.