Saturday, December 12, 2015
Climate Change, ISIS, Or Saving One's Soul - What's A Mother To Do?
Becky Parsons had always been a decisive girl. She knew well beforehand what she wanted from Santa Claus (Barbie, a baby stroller, and, oddly, a Bowie knife), never hesitated when it came to deciding on science projects, book reports, or friends.
Marfa Oliphant, for example, was nobody’s friend. A social misfit and oddball who lived on the outer fringe of New Brighton girly society. Although parents, for lack of a better term, had called her a tomboy, she had no interest whatsoever in throwing rocks, baseball, or toads. Her interest was girls, and she, like most alternatively sexed children, had state-of-the-art gender radar. She knew which girls swung her way and which did not. Her first overtures were never rebuffed – politely dismissed, of course, but the door was always left wide open for Marfa’s next unerring foray.
Becky knew right off the bat that she wanted Marfa as a friend – not because of any deviant sexual interest; but because this girl was one of a kind, willful, determined, smart, and eccentric. They became fast friends, and once the issue of sex had been dismissed (“I love you, but I want Jimmy Davis”), they were inseparable. Becky was not concerned about rumor and innuendo (all of New Brighton was talking) and could have cared less what people thought of her and Marfa.
Father Brophy, himself drawn to same-sex relations but as a priest under an obligation to call out sexual deviancy when he suspected it, said, “Rebecca, I hope you are following the way of the Lord.”
“Yes, Father, I am”, she replied; but Brophy, embarrassed by the topic but clearly obsessed with what these two young girls did in the privacy of their bedrooms, hemmed and hawed, and could only manage a weak “Let us pray” before turning to matters of the sacristy.
Becky’s parents were even more concerned than Father Brophy, for they more than anything wanted grandchildren; and since Rebecca was their only child, offspring had to come from her or no one. At the same time they didn’t know how to broach the subject of their daughter’s close friendship. Censorship, warning, and punishment could drive the girls into each other’s arms (God forbid); but letting things ride would be derelict at best.
They opted for a middle ground which amounted to nothing at all. Their suggestions and admonitions were so tempered and diluted, that Becky could never even get their drift.
The point is not Becky’s intimacy with Marfa Oliphant, but her decisiveness and determination. She knew without a doubt where she wanted to go to secondary school – Lancaster Academy, a small girls school in the Adirondacks which featured art, dance, and poetry; had long ago expunged all traces of finishing school social grace education; and was considered a feeder school for the Seven Sisters. In her senior year, she had the same resolve and purpose as she always had had – Radcliffe it was to be.
At the end of her sophomore year she chose the Classics as a major. Despite the urgings of her parents who wanted her at least get some return on their investment and major in economics or chemistry, she met with the Department head, convinced her of her commitment to antiquity and an academic career in Septuagint Studies, and never looked back.
After graduation and graduate school at Harvard, Rebecca did indeed follow the career and intellectual path she had set out years before. Never once did she waver. Whereas other students faltered when it came to Pliny’s impossibly dense, encyclopedic Naturalis Historia, Rebecca flourished. There was something special about reading original sources despite their length and complexity. She never found any Greek or Roman author particularly inspiring. The Greek Comedies weren’t funny at all; and the Oedipus myth had been reinterpreted and retold so many times that there was little left to mine. Yet, she graduated with high honors, was accepted as an Assistant Professor at Harvard’s School of Classical Studies, and went on to make a name for herself in the field, small though it was.
For years, decades even, Becky Parsons lived happily in her privileged, circumscribed intellectual aerie. Within such a narrow discipline and within the ivory tower of all ivory towers at Harvard, she was free to live and think narrowly but intensely.
It was only many years later when Becky began to have existential doubts. She realized that she knew precious little about the real world in which she lived; and worse, had no clue as to why it was configured the way it was. The ancient Greeks and Romans had provided insights into the social architecture which provides the foundation for Western thought and behavior, but they had little to offer when it came to Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, or now ISIS.
Of course Sophocles’ and Plato’s ruminations on being, reality, and existence had value and salience, but they seemed too archaic, doctrinaire, and inflexible for a salient application to today’s events. Plato’s dualism was a fascinating philosophical postulate; but what did it matter whether the world was lived on one plane or two? Hundreds of millions of people had been killed under Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot alone; and not a one, dying on the battlefield, considered realms of existence.
At best, the elite had epiphanies of understanding. Count Andrei, the hero of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, encounters Napoleon on the battlefield, and dying, understands that the great man, his hero and idol, was no different from him. All is one, and with a smile he drifted into unconsciousness only to find peace and further understanding on his deathbed many years later.
At the time of my last meeting with Becky Parsons, the Western world was at sixes and sevens, flummoxed by the Islamic State, blindsided by President Putin of Russia, out-bullied by Israel and Iran, and floundering in the Middle East and Afghanistan. It looked like the days of American imperialism were over, and that the country’s downfall was imminent.
At the same time, the Administration backed by environmental scientists was predicting the imminent destruction of the earth because of global warming. The President sounded more and more like a tattered street-corner evangelical preacher, wailing about the end of the world. American society was being turned on its head by violent protests about race, forced to rethink sexuality and sexual identity, backed into a corner about abortion, and transgender rights, and worried sick about the destruction of the rain forests.
Once decisive Rebecca Parsons who never had had a doubt in the world, suddenly found herself in turbulent moral, ethical, and political waters. She didn’t know which way to turn, and her insular academic life was of no help whatsoever.
To make matters worse, Becky was increasingly concerned with what’s what – that is the state of her soul, the nature of religion, and the great, yawning void of eternity. Forget insults to the world’s climate or injustices meted out to the inner city. Her soul was in play and she had paid absolutely no attention to it.
She looked around and saw that all of her colleagues had made friendly accommodations. One had joined the United Church of Christ, a denomination known for its good works and social conscience and its ministration to the spiritually needy. Two birds with one stone, as it were; and here Rebecca was on a vast, empty prairie with neither birds nor stones.
Others had become true believers. Unwilling to hedge their bets and plant feet in both camps, they became ardent supporters of the environmental movement or once again went to the barricades for civil rights. Still others returned to the religion of their youth, enrolled in theological seminaries, or simply became amateur evangelists, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.
Because Becky had always been so decisive, when faced with an impossible array of important existential choices, she was paralyzed. Climate change vs saving her soul was not the melodramatic Punch and Judy show laughed at by her immovable Harvard colleagues. It was the choice of the times.
Whether a late-life nihilistic epiphany ; a realization that she had simply fooled herself into a false and comfortable decisiveness; or plumb laziness, she woke up one morning as decisive as ever. Everything that Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre had said was absolutely true. Life was indeed meaningless, and only acts of will validate human existence. These willful acts are neither good nor bad, but simply exist as human expressions. “I am, therefore I do” to borrow from Descartes.
Rebecca, like most of us, have preferences within our nihilism. Some things are more meaningless than others. Climate change, for example, is a folly of the philosophically unenlightened. If the first verses of John mean anything, there was existence before existence; and given the infinitude of time, space, and divinity, a few degrees Fahrenheit are not worth bothering about. Diversity, given the scope of 10,000 years of human history is nonsense. People have always acted out of self-protection and self-interest. Competition for scarce resources and territory has always been the rule. The survival of the fittest has not disappeared as a scientific and economic principle; and what will be will be.
There may or may not be a God. The question of the historical Jesus is a good but irrelevant one; and Biblical certitude is as misguided as Rebecca’s own overweening belief in absolute rightness of decisions.
Climate change? ISIS? Saving one’s immortal soul? Rebecca had no idea which to choose. She finally and happily pulled the plug on anxiety, moral conundrums, and ethical dilemmas. None to soon, for as the Jews have always known beware of becoming too soon old and too late schmart.