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.

On the Value of Inanimate Things to the Human Soul

Making a major physical move forces one to throw things away.  In the process of sifting through drawers of old clothes and boxes of old papers, one says goodbye to certain habits that won’t return, to certain friendships or projects that aren’t going to be resuscitated.  It’s sobering, of course.  Anything that constrains an outright admission of life’s limits—not just of roads untraveled, but of roads never or no longer to be traveled—is a strong nudge from mortality.

I’ve had many such nudges over the past half-year; and I am also sentimental in a “where are the snows of yesteryear?” vein, as I haven’t tried to conceal.  Today I may finally decide to throw away a pair of old shoes whose soles I can no longer Gorilla-glue into service.  I began wearing them to a teaching gig in Tennessee over twenty-five years ago.  They were somewhat casual for the assignment, being New Balance jogging shoes (though of a quiet monochrome greenish-brown); but aching heels are the one physical cross I have had to bear since youth—and the office environment of the 1990’s was not exactly formal, anyway.  As the two old boys aged along with me, I at last had to relegate them to rough duty in the yard, like racehorses reduced to drawing a plough.  Then they couldn’t even drag themselves through furrow and flowerbed.  I’ll give them a little salute as I drop them in the garbage bag, because… because I’m sentimental.  (I will not write, “Shoes have soles, too, you know.”

Seriously, I’m more and more convinced that there are conditions in which “thingness” is entitled to higher consideration.  After all, we express ourselves through things—through clothes and cars, yes, but also through less conventional, more intimate acquisitions like framed pictures and furniture.  (That these latter two examples are in short supply among today’s younger set deserves note: more of that later.)  Furthermore, the relationship between us and our “expressions” is reciprocal.  To some extent, the surroundings we suppose ourselves to have brought into being ex nihilo, like a little god engineering a mini-Creation, draw us into their orbit after a routine of months and years.  We thought we had planted the boxwoods about the windows to show the neighbors that we had genteel taste: now their shaggy overgrowth seems insidiously to whisper, “Let it slide… everything changes on the outside, nothing within is visible, and all will soon be forgotten,” as we drearily retreat to our castle for a weekend of licking psychic wounds.

To live is to develop a lengthy and complex relationship with things.  They are your points of contact with the outside world.  I know, I know… the cliché has it that people are those points; but people, as individuals, are themselves constantly seeking stable points of reference or of definition.  Using one of them to be your anchor in a shifting sea is not only inviting major drift—it is denying whatever individual stands in question, I should say, the same right to create a framework as you have claimed.  It is a kind of selfishness, whose advanced stages might be called narcissism.  Don’t show me the signed photo of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump smiling into the camera with you: show me the sunrise in Yosemite that you snapped—or, just maybe, the Vermeer reproduction whose bourgeois “mass art” flaws don’t impede you from seeing genius.

Have you noticed (as I have) how very dated the terms of this discussion sound?  For “selfies” are pretty much the only “pictures” (or “images”) we produce any more; and we don’t confer upon them as much permanence as mortals can muster by sealing them in a frame, but we “post” them, rather, on some fluid Internet platform, one after another after another.  These are our walls: this our gallery.

And if influential or cool or crazy people do not figure in the post, then something partaking of the “icon” or “emoji” is probably center-staged, as if we were communicating with fellow extra-terrestrials through a kind of secret semaphore.  The things around us every day—trees, stars, clouds… a window sill, an old spoon, an ancient straw hat—don’t appear on our New Age radar.  We have lost contact with “things”.  We express ourselves precisely through the unwritten language of tribal identification transmitted by the posted JPEG, as if we were beating drums in a dense jungle.  Our individuality has been consumed by membership, and our creativity commandeered by shibboleth.

Last night I blundered upon an episode of Fixer Upper (the “rockstar booster” of household celebrities Chip and Joanna)… and I took special care to notice what appeared on the refurbished walls of the overhauled dream house du jour, since my wife and I realized that we hadn’t really penetrated any “cutting edge” suburban dwellings for years.  The answer was… nothing.  Sure enough.  Or virtually nothing.  Certainly no framed pictures: a bit of tarnished Thirties signage such as American Pickers would have retrieved from a garage attic, and also three god-awful mock-ups of life-sized cellos crucified side by side over a sofa.  Of course, the surprised and delighted home-buying couple had not previously seen the decor, so it can scarcely be laid at the doorstep of their personal taste… but they squealed on cue with joy, and I got the feeling that one of them must have loved stringed instruments.  Is it Piet Mondrian who, about a century ago, painted the flat portrait of a chauffeur sitting cross-kneed before the painting of a car?  Have we really been caught in this descending loop for about a hundred years?  “You like horses?  See, Gustave adorn your walls with the horse hooves and a bridle, I think, over here.  Yes?  Is exquisite, no?  Is so you, darling!”

Ugh.  And “you” are so… so nothing, so instantly and utterly absorbed into images of what you claim to love, worship, or endorse, without any thoughtful articulation of them or integration of their contours into your broader existence.  You are just… a snapshot, a selfie where the person or object sharing the frame steals the show.  You are not knitted or kneaded into surroundings where you have labored purposefully and zealously: you’re another object that just happens to be “there then”.

I can almost understand, in this context, how the word “property” has acquired such sordid connotations to young people.  Property: props.  The stuff you gather about you to strike an instant’s pose, to play a part long enough for the image to upload.  Fake… fake news.  Your property is your personal fake news, the “statement” in which you wrap your nullity as in the layers of skin concealing an onion’s emptiness (to borrow an epiphany from that great faker, Pier Gynt).

Yet young people, alas, cannot escape this labyrinth-without-exit.  They run to embrace socialism as if it were the systematic opposition of posing, fraud, and property-clinging statements… and the embrace is itself another selfie, a statement bidding for instant and superficial effect without any engagement of depth or detail.  Why, if I were to attempt starting some kind of intellectual movement with this article as a springboard, I would almost immediately have to select a URL for a website and half a dozen keyword phrases.  Who am I, as viewed by the world through my website?  “IndividualExpression.com”?  “AuthenticArt.org”?  Should I give it a spiritual twist, or would that identify me with the wrong set?

People who dedicate themselves to saving stray cats are “all cat”.  People who reject the crass materialism of our time are “all shamanism” or “all health food” or “all UFO”.  Our fierce suction into the Charybdis of electronic caricature—which I so very much wished to resist in my final years as a teacher—has snared us in a nightmare where every breakout simply follows another corridor down the same narrowing hole.

We have objectified the object to the point where it can no longer convey our subjective intent.  It cannot express us: it can only devour us.

And so all images are merely “fake news”, and people themselves merely the content of fake news; and as we scorn the fraud of all broadcast images defacing our day’s channels and passages, so we increasingly scorn the people wearing those images like tribal masks.  Young black dude… Lexus Republican… emo chick… Hispanic male… white girl who eats way too much….

Oddly enough… could this degenerative disease, as we talk on and on about “respecting the other” and “celebrating diversity”, possibly be rooted in a contempt for things—real, visible, tangible things—as vehicles of the human soul’s identity?