"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Child Abuse–When The Church Loses Its Moral Authority Can Individual Faith Remain?

The Catholic Church is under increasing attack because of its decades-long tolerance of abusive priests and the cover up of sexual crimes.  Even the most devout Catholics have begun to question their allegiance to an institution which claims to be the holy representative of Christ on earth but which has turned a blind eye to the worst kind of predatory sexual behavior and in so doing lost any semblance of moral authority.
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Yet is it so easy to reject a 2000 year old institution founded on sound religious, moral, and philosophical principles; one based on a sophisticated theology, and one which asserts its unbroken line of authority to Peter and Jesus himself?  Why should the institution suffer from the corruption and venality of its bishops and prelates who, after all, are only human?

Ordination, however, is not simply a rite of initiation into a religious corporation; but a rite of apostolic succession and a sacrament.  A priest is not simply an employee but through a sacramental ordination a man of God.   Such an anointment should guarantee goodness; and should have as much spiritual authority as the other sacraments.  If Confession can forgive sins and make a sinner again holy in God’s eyes, then Ordination should have a similar protective or redemptive quality.  If Consecration, another sacrament, can invoke Christ on the altar, then Ordination should confer at least a measure of the same spiritual essence of Christ himself.

The moral failure of priests is reprehensible not only because of this divine ordination and dereliction of religious duty and responsibility, but because of the commission of sins of the very worst order – the preying on innocent children. 

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Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov says this to his faithful, believing brother Alyosha:

And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price. … I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. … And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.

Ivan cannot continue to believe in God or Jesus Christ because of Christ’s acceptance of children’s suffering.   Ivan admitted to Alyosha that he might even accept the idea of adult suffering as way of ritual, spiritual purification – a necessary, difficult way to approach God – but how could the Almighty possibly have created a world of suffering for innocent, sin-free children?

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The Catholic Church by condoning, ignoring, covering up the unconscionable act of child sexual abuse by its clergy has collectively institutionally committed the most heinous of sins.  Not only have individual priests been guilty of sexual predation, but the Church itself in its craven and indefensible attempts to dismiss the allegations to protect itself has committed a worse crime.   Christ asked that the children come to him and be blessed; yet his ordained and their superiors have ignored that blessing of innocence, betrayed it, and committed evil. This is not a venial sin, one that can be easily forgiven and atoned for.  Even after atonement the Church must determine how – if at all – it can regain the trust and faith of its followers.  It does not seem credible or possible; and this crisis might well signal the beginning of the end of the Catholic Church.

Yet the Church, as divinely inspired as it might be, is made up of men who can only act like men; and in their corruption are no different from anyone else.  Ordination, in turns out, does not confer any higher moral authority or, because of its foundation in Jesus Christ himself, assure right behavior.  It is no more that an institutional marker, a signifier of a priestly class, endowing moral authority and the right to speak for the Church itself on behalf of the Pope and the Vatican on matters of faith.

The crimes of Catholic priests and their superiors – the crimes of men – not only cast doubt on the Sacrament of Ordination; but on all the sacraments.  How can one take seriously the Sacrament of Confession administered by priests whose moral judgment and authority is necessarily impaired by the human nature they share with everyone.  How can parents send their children to Confession when the priest on the other side of the confessional screen may be enticing, influencing, and corrupting them?  How can any couple feel right and just in a marriage performed by a gay priest who considers it a nuisance and for whom the very union of a man and a woman is too exclusive and irrelevant? While the other sacraments – Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, and Extreme Unction – may be excluded from lay condemnation because they are religious rites, affairs of covenant and compliance between priest and God; the others which are intimately associated with human behavior cannot be.

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In other words, the crisis of sexual abuse within the Church cannot be resolved either by expunging all sexual offenders, by refusing ordination to homosexuals, or even reforming the Church to be more open, intolerant of aberrant behavior, and cooperative with civil authorities.  Its very nature has been challenged.  There is no one who can look at the Church with the same respect and obedience.  Its very lineage and spiritual authority have been shown to be suspect.

If the Church is made up of men, it is also the living legacy of Jesus and the Apostles who told the simple, compelling story of divine birth, death, and resurrection; and the theologians who built a complex religion on the basis of these teachings.  it was up to Tertullian, Clement, Augustine, and Aquinas among many others to fashion a theology – a religious doctrine which spelled out in logical detail the principles espoused and promoted by Christ and his early followers.  The concept of the Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit co-existing as one God – was never easily confirmed and adopted; and questions of the dual human-divine nature of Christ, the essence and role of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of God the Father are debated even today.

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The other principle articles of Christian faith – the Cross and the Resurrection – have been no less difficult to conclude.  The world before Jesus was one of universal, perennial, ineradicable sin, an evil world which despite individual repentance and right living could only fall farther away from the principles of God’s Creation without divine intervention.  Christ’s death on the cross was the one, single act of universal forgiveness; and his resurrection was the offer of universal salvation.

Whether myth of divine revelation, the story is compelling and the principles which underlie it powerful and engaging.   Christianity, like Ancient Greek philosophy, was a cogent and influential explanation of meaning, purpose, and existence.  Yet Christianity offered a means to an end, and did not simply rest on explanation.  The myth/revelation was a dynamic one involving the participation of both God and Man – a joint resolution to re-create a better world.

Not only is the religion intellectually and theologically complex, but understanding its origins, derived from Greek philosophy, Mesopotamian and Assyrian myth, Jewish Law, tradition, and practice; and appreciating the brilliance of the Roman institutional organization which underlay Paul’s evangelism and the rapid growth of the Church are key to retaining respect for the Church.

In other words, acknowledge the corruption and venality of priests, bishops, cardinals, and the Vatican itself; insist on institutional reform, justice, and even retribution; but do not reject the Church itself.  The principles of Christ’s teaching, the highly-evolved logical philosophy of Church theologians, and its universal mythical culture should form the basis of a new Catholic confession.

Even granting the Church’s complete moral indiscipline and failure and the exposure of the very political (i.e. self-serving, expansionist, treasury-based, bureaucratic) reasons for its institutional structure, organization, and legislation, is there any reason to abandon the faith?  Cannot faith exist without the institutional framework of the Church?

Dostoevsky was perhaps the most eloquent when in The Brothers Karamazov he challenged Christ whom he condemned for selling false promises to the masses which only want ‘miracle, mystery, and authority’. The sophisticated religious principles enunciated by Christ in response to the Devil’s temptations were, in the hands of the manipulative Church, became the raison d’etre for its existence.  We, the Church, are the only ones who can help you to realize Christ’s promises; but as importantly give you the structure, the simplicity, and the marvels that you so desperately need.   Faith cannot exist without the Church.

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Perhaps now, however, it can.  Not the faith of immediacy offered by Protestant evangelical ceremony and belief; but one based on the principles of the Gospels, the Epistles, and the reasoning of early theologians.  Given Dostoevsky’s skepticism, perhaps we cannot do without spiritual intermediaries.  Our minds will wander.  Yet for at least some, this freedom from institutional authority might be not only a way to retain faith but to increase it.  A return to first principles, the origins of faith.

Empires never last and the seeds of their own destruction are usually found within as well as without.  All institutions suffer from an arrogance of power, a sense of invincibility, an automatic closing of ranks, and a hostility towards their accusers.  The longer an institution exists and the longer it exists without major reform, the more resistant to change it becomes.  Corruption is overlooked because of an inerrant belief in the rightness of the institution itself.  In the case of the Catholic Church, it is almost impossible for the Vatican to assume that it, as an institution, can possibly be in the wrong.  The rest of us know better.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Cult Of Inclusivity And The Decline Of Nationhood–The Orwellian Gulag Of Race, Gender, And Ethnicity

The cult of identity is by now well known in the United States.  Race, gender, and ethnicity have become the only markers of social legitimacy in a nation in which a sense of universal values, core beliefs, and national integrity has given way to individual group ethics, morality, ambition, and activism. Being an American is secondary to belonging to particular groups best characterized by their victimhood.  Social progress, advocates say, can only be achieved if focus is placed squarely on the discrimination, prejudice, and marginalization to which minority groups, gays, and women have been subjected; and on the reformative measures necessary to eliminate these damaging and destructive elements of society.  This can only happen through an invincible solidarity – an absolute allegiance to the group, to its purpose and principles, and to its agenda for radical change.  There can be no overarching allegiance to country or nation for such patriotism would not only detract from the particular, unique struggles of individual groups; but would be consorting with the enemy.  It is the white, male, patriotic, corporate American majority which is the problem and at the root of all social ills.

The obligatory if not forceful inclusion of people of color, of non-traditional sexuality, women, and  minority cultures into separatist groups which are Orwellian gulags of groupthink requires the suppression of individual character, integrity, and personal worth in the interest of the group and its political ambitions.  Intellect, talent, creativity, humor, spirituality, compassion – in fact any of the very human attributes that have been historically valued as essential to the survival and prospering of society and civilization – have been devalued, set aside, and dismissed as irrelevant. 

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Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, Koestler, Brecht, and Kundera all understood the nature of totalitarianism and wrote more about its moral, ethical, and spiritual damage than its anti-historical attempts to restructure society, government, politics and economics.  Under such totalitarian systems, the individual was reduced to a cipher, supernumerary, hands and arms only, a minor cog in a large wheel, laboring for the State, deprived of religion, family, and personal community.  The totalitarian state was a gulag of the mind, one of mental concentration camps where freedom of thought was condemned, personal expression suppressed, and individual enterprise of any kind eliminated.

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If one is categorized first, foremost, and exclusively as black, gay, female, or Latino; and if any other personal signifiers are denied as disruptive to the political purpose of the group, then those associations which publicly advocate progress and social justice are no more than Solzhenitsyn’s gulags – places of mental and spiritual internment designed to reform the anti-progressive nature of all those who enter and deny their individuality and their being.

Perhaps the worst example of the social gulags of today’s progressivism is deaf culture, one as hierarchical, demanding, and politically motivated as any.  The profoundly deaf are the respected elders, the expression of the centrality of a culture which is proudly independent of the hearing world.  Lip-reading and cochlear implants are retrogressive, retrograde, destructive expressions of cultural weakness.  There is nothing wrong with being profoundly deaf, say this faction’s leaders for it is not a disability but simply the marker and signifier of an important culture.  Assimilation into the hearing world is considered traitorous and must be challenged and eventually eliminated, otherwise deaf culture will gradually disappear and eventually cease to exist.

How can this possibly be, ask those who can hear?  How, if surgical implants and innovative high tech interface with neural electronics can enable deaf children to hear, could any parent possibly refuse?  And how could any leader of the deaf community ever attempt to prevent them?

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When and how did this happen? When did individualism become replaced by group identity? When did those attributes of high civilization espoused since Ancient Greece and Rome become marginalized?  Cato the Elder, a philosopher and educator, known especially for his diptychs, simple pedagogical aphorisms about the indispensable characteristics of a Roman leader, promoted a moral and ethnical package, all the precepts of which were necessary for good leadership to follow – courage, honesty, respect, compassion, diligence, and honor.  In Cato’s mind these were universal codes of behavior.  Although they were most important for those in positions of authority and leadership, he knew that they were fundamental for the success of society, culture, and civilization. 

These same principles have characterized all most Western civilizations ever since.  In fact, Jefferson and his colleagues referred to them in the earliest documents of the new republic.  The nation required an unquestioned moral, spiritual, and ethical foundation.

He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality... The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules." (Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787. ME 6:257, Papers 12:15)

In addition to Jefferson’s sense of God-given rights and the necessary spiritual foundation of the nation, individual morality, a sense of duty and right and wrong, was even more fundamental.  The nation would thrive on individualism, but never at the expense of the large community.  For Jefferson there would always be a balance between individual spirit, character, and enterprise and social integrity.  The rights of Man might be God-given, but they did not come automatically.  ‘Science’ – reason, logic, and rationality would only go so far.  Being principled was not a matter of cognition.

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This delicate balance so well expressed by the Founding Fathers seems to have been lost.  Individualism in the best sense of Jeffersonian morality has given way to crass individualism, a selfish, self-centered abusive ambition; and his sense of a community made up of moral individuals each unique and uniquely able to contribute to the commonweal, seems all but lost.  When speaking of community Jefferson was not thinking of exclusive, narrowly-defined, proprietary groups, but of the community at large – community in general, a philosophical construct.  Sadly, his vision seems to have all but disappeared.

Those who argue for identity politics insist that a more perfect, fair, and just world, Jefferson’s ideal, can never be achieved without the struggle between antithetical forces – Marx’s dialectic.  Progress towards a better if not utopian world will only happen if those who are fighting for justice keep their eyes on the prize, subsume any and all personality and personal ambitions within the group. 

Opponents argue that such exclusiveness in the name of inclusivity and group power is dangerous and corrosive to national integrity, identity, and strength.  Every loud, defiant, non-negotiable demand from one group necessarily outrages every other; and promotes divisiveness, antagonism, and hatred.  While history is filled with social, class, and political struggles; and the desire for reform, liberation, and justice are universal, there is always a price to be paid.  More importantly history has always been shown to be a zero-sum affair.  For every action there is a reaction; and in the end life goes on as it always has, following the dictates of human nature.   What has enabled great civilizations to prosper despite their wars, civil conflicts, and injustices, has been a set of core, universal values, a respect for individualism, and an acknowledgement of the importance of family, community, and nation.

In other words, societies without core, mutually respected, moral, civic, and ethical values would be no more than chaotic, perpetually divided, strife-ridden places.  A delicate balance between Cato’s principles and human nature.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Resurrection Myth–Why Everything Is Derivative And Nothing Original, But Does It Matter?

Richard Carrier a historian whose On The Historicity Of Jesus caused not a little controversy in the Christian community, largely because of his argument that many resurrection myths existed long before Jesus in the Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Mesopotamian, and Roman worlds. The cultic myths of Osiris, Tammuz, Attis, Mithra, and others were well known.  While it is difficult to prove a direct relationship between them and the authorship of the New Testament Gospels, it would be illogical to completely dismiss their influence.  Carrier gives one example:
It is far more likely that a resurrected Adonis cult was not new. The more so as we can confirm several other examples of clearly pre-Christian dying and rising gods well known across the Roman Empire: the savior cult Zalmoxis (of Thracian origin) is clearly attested in Herodotus centuries before Christianity; the imperial cult of the resurrected Romulus is likewise attested in several pre-Christian authors…and the Egyptian savior cult of the resurrected Osiris is likewise undeniably ancient.
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Perhaps more importantly the concept of resurrection is as old as human civilization.  Joseph Campbell who wrote extensively about the nature and persistence of myths called the resurrection story a ‘monomyth’, one that sums up the lessons of all others.  The myth of human resurrection is not surprising since the concept of death and rebirth is essentially the story of human existence.  One cannot look at the seasons, mythologists contended, or the rising and setting of the sun, and sleep and awakening without assuming the principle of rebirth, regeneration, and natural resurrection.

Leon McKenzie, a mythologist like Campbell, noted that Jung had similar ideas and wrote of a ‘resurrection archetype’ – a meaning structure in the human psyche based on universal human experience. This meaning structure, McKenzie went on, is the primary model for the death-revival myths of antiquity.  From ancient times resurrection myths began emerging out of this archetypal matrix. Experience of the resurrection theme in the natural world led to the formation of a resurrection archetype in the collective unconscious of the human race. This archetype is the source of myths of dying and reviving pagan gods; and in his opinion is distinctly associated with the Christian myth of the resurrection.

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None of this should be a surprise, for human beings have always created myths to explain the unexplainable, to codify and legitimize popular perceptions of human and physical nature, and to give religion an easily understandable, visible face.  Myths often if not always are about some aspect of the divine.  Roman and Greek paganism was based on divine character, personality, and interaction with human beings.  Earthly things happened because of the intervention of the gods – their anger, their unhappiness, their pleasure, and their often capricious will.   When a myth like resurrection is so intimately linked to familiar, observable natural cycles, the conflation of that assumption with both the human need for myth and religion, the appearance of resurrection and divine intervention in human affairs in the Bible should be expected.

The contention that the Biblical Resurrection is derivative and used in as illustrative, mythological way just as it was in the ancient past is very difficult for Christians to accept because Christ’s death and resurrection are at the very heart of the faith.   The Epistles of Paul, Galatians in particular, are the most explicit about the foundational nature of the cross.  Belief in Christ’s death and resurrection, his forgiveness of sins, his grace, and the nature of justification, is the absolute sine qua non of the gospel he was promoting.  How then, can a faithful Christian even consider the possibility that this central, formative feature of their faith was derived and anything but the unique, God-given story told in the Gospels and the Epistles?

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The same of course can be said of the Old Testament.  The story of Moses and Sargon, ancient king of Assyria (The Birth Legend of Sargon of Akkad) are remarkably similar.  In the Sargon myth, the future king ‘was born in secret, placed in a reed basket, the hatch sealed with pitch, left to the river,and  found by a drawer of water’.  The parallels to the Moses myth are especially remarkable because of their almost word-for-word similarity. 

Jewish historian Gary Greenberg remarks on the Hebrew adoption and adaptation of Babylonian myths, a not surprising fact given the long Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews during which time the Torah was begun (according to Biblical scholars it was finished in Jerusalem after liberation).
The most difficult problem concerned the flood stories. Originally, the biblical flood story was a Creation myth based on the [Egyptian] Hermopolitian traditions… In Babylon however, the Hebrews encountered a new worldwide flood myth that occurred in the tenth generation of humanity rather than at the beginning of time. In an attempt to synchronize their own history with that of the learned Babylonians, the Hebrews moved the flood story from the beginning of Creation to the tenth generation of the local version.
The existence of pre-Hebrew myths that parallel many of those in the Old Testament suggests either a direct or indirect influence; or, in the spirit of Jung and Campbell above, the persistence of common, human experience.  The Garden of Eden, The Floor, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead which is remarkably close to the Ten Commandments are but a few myths of common origin and influence.
Shakespeare had a different take on human history.  If all his Histories were laid down in chronological order and read sequentially, it would be obvious that although the characters and personalities changed, the stories themselves did not.  Human nature, considered the Bard, was essential, unchanging, and remarkably consistent.  Kings, queens, and courtiers always acted out of territorial interest, self-preservation, legacy, and wealth.  Only the ways that they pursued their ambitions changed, and for Shakespeare that was enough to craft his historical fictions. Shakespeare himself was influenced by Machiavelli whose radical new world view was consistent with his amoral, deterministic view of history.

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Modern scientists cannot agree on the relative importance of nature and nurture; but the human product has not changed since the Paleolithic.  Genes, historical precedent, and upbringing have combined to produce the same results today as 10,000 years ago.  We are just as aggressive, territorial, self-interested and self-preserving as we ever were.

All human endeavor is derivative.  Even the works of assumed geniuses like Einstein, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton did not do their work independent of any prior influences but because of them. Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and especially James Clerk Maxwell, whose work directly inspired the theory of relativity, were noted and credited influences on Einstein. Einstein revered Maxwell, who, using the language of mathematics in a new and radical way, resolved the seemingly insoluble controversy between Faraday’s idea of lines of force and Newton’s theory of action-at-a-distance.

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Perhaps the greatest American novelist of all time, William Faulkner, a contemporary of James Joyce wrote The Sound and the Fury in 1929, seven years after Joyce’s Ulysses. As in the other cases of derivation cited above, it is difficult to prove by unmistakable nonetheless.
When asked about the influence of Joyce on his own writing during the early years of his fame, following the publication of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, Faulkner tended to be understandably evasive. In a 1932 interview with Henry Nash Smith, for example, Faulkner claimed, in fact, that he had never read Ulysses, invoking instead a vague aural source for his knowledge of Joycean methods: ” ‘ You know,’ he smiled, ‘sometimes I think there must be a sort of pollen of ideas floating in the air, which fertilizes similarly minds here and there which have not had direct contact. I had heard of Joyce, of course,’ he went on. ‘Some one told me about what he was doing, and it is possible that I was influenced by what I heard”.
In a moment of irony that may not have been lost on the interviewer, Faulkner reached over to his table and handed Smith a 1924 edition of the book. . . By 1947, Faulkner hardly needed to be so coy, telling an English class at the University of Mississippi that Joyce was “the father of modern literature. By 1957, Faulkner’s pronouncements on Joyce had become fully classical: “James Joyce was one of the great men of my time. He was electrocuted by the divine fire” (Hamblin and Peek)
Modern critics have noticed the influences of Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and Conrad; but this could be said about a number of writers. The point is only that there is never anything new under the sun, only a retelling of familiar favorite stories.

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The point is, does derivation matter? Should the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament be devalued or even dismissed because of their reliance on antecedents? Perhaps they should, since anything derived from myth is itself myth.  Or perhaps they should not.  The Bible, however influenced by ancient pagan myths, tells its own particular story and should be valued as such.  The mythological context within which it is written can be looked at as enrichment and a pedagogical aide.  Absalom, Absalom whose title recalls the Bible, is one of the most original, creative, and insightful works of literature.  Its Biblical references and themes, the literary critic Harold Bloom are not only predictable but essential.  No work of Western literature is independent of Biblical tradition.

We all think we’re unique in some way.  Christians believe that their uniqueness comes from a unique, God-given soul while most others believe in the incalculable possible combinations of DNA and environmental influences.  We simply have to be different from one another.  Yet, like the kings and queens of Shakespeare’s history, we act and perform no differently than our ancestors.  So it is no surprise that we have similar aspiration, ambitions, desires, and natural responses.  What we do, one from another, may be different but never, ever unique.

Monday, February 18, 2019

It’s Not What I Signed Up For–Dealing With Bad Choices As A Bad Metaphor

gPeter Hargrove had married twice, once for love, the second for convenience.  The first was not unusual, for most men deceived by naivete, are left with an empty suitcase on the curb or on the way to anywhere but where the marriage ended.  In Hargrove’s case it was Bayonne, New Jersey, as good a place as any for the end of a love affair.  A bad place in most people’s minds – oil refineries, train terminals, bus stations and urban blight – but no worse than Weirton, Livingston, Wethersfield, or a thousand other places where one tends to end up.

It was a marriage of true Romeo and Juliet adolescent love – the kind that never exists or can exist except in pulp romances and Shakespeare, but one which had to be given its due.  Regardless of age, immaturity, and inexperience, a love affair with profound expectations is worth something.  And Peter and Laura did indeed expect to be happy, to live a long life together, and to die happily.  There was nothing wrong with the dream – such idealism is necessary to float the waters of the bog.  It was, as usual, the realization of it which was troubled and flawed.

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For one thing, Peter and Laura were from different sides of the philosophical tracks.  He, even at a young age, was a pessimist thanks to his mother who had never got over the slights and insults, real or imagined, of her childhood and who was vengeful and suspicious of anyone and everything.  Laura of equally modest background inherited the best of her gene pool.  She was open and aggressively happy.  She was a diva, a queen, a prima ballerina to his rather dowdy, insecure, corporate accountable self.

That alone was enough to doom the pair, but Laura’s sexual unconventionality and Peter’s stubborn refusal to commit to any social grouping whether party, nation, neighborhood, or marriage were oil and water.  No amount of conciliation ,counseling, or better judgement could have saved a marriage with such antipodal partners.

They were young enough, childless, and with ample professional opportunities head of them for the divorce not to be disruptive.  They parted amicably, spoke regularly, and despite multiple marriages for both, confessed love for each other.  It was a shame, both admitted, that they had been too young to accommodate to each other, to have been more tolerant and accepting; but neither believed that fantasy.  They loved each other like all first lovers; and because of the inexplicable nature of that particular delirium, would carry with them the regret and remorse of a marriage dissolved for no good reason until they died.

Peter’s second marriage, while not quite on the rebound, was certainly an anodyne for the first.  Not only did he want to put Laura’s theatricality behind him, but wanted a mate of just the opposite composition.  Martha was the anti-Laura – calm, reserved, centered, practical, and accepting.  Finally a woman who would be a partner rather than an adversary – a calm, fiduciary asset rather than an emotional gymnast.

Soon, thanks to Martha, Peter’s world became fixable, predictable, and logical; and as remote from his illogical, intemperate, chaotic former life as possible.   He could never have  imagined that Martha’s unflappability was a function of something far more than simple equanimity – which is all he wanted - far more than the influence of her simple upbringing; but an outlook.  A philosophy encoded in her genes and only coincidentally encouraged by her Iowa farm past and her Calvinist parents. He had made, despite his best intentions, his second bad choice.

Despite a positive beginning – it was the 60s after all, and even the most tailored and fitted person would be interested in tie-dye and communal living and their life together was the perfect blend of carefreeness and emotional security he had hoped for – Peter soon realized his misjudgment.  Martha had little of the hippy and all of the solid, familiar, American values of husbandry, planning, and resolution.  In fact he soon realized that what mattered to Martha was not the end result but the process itself; but he also realized that when ends and means are the same, the journey is endless and pointless.

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As much as he hated to admit it, Peter found himself asking where his first wife was now that he needed her.  All her deceptions, outrageous sexual margins, vaudevillian theatricality would be forgiven and forgotten if only she would show up.  A vain, fantastical thought since she was long gone and buried, but it was the principle of the thing, the essence of what marriage should be that counted.  He had traded unpredictability for predictability; and, like everyone who has made bad choices, regretted his own.

Peter was betwixt and between with no one to blame but himself.  Foolish to fall in romantic, comic book love with a woman who was the antipode to his ordinariness; foolish to divorce her even when they were more suited to each other, despite superficial differences of character, personality, and background than he and Martha ever could be; foolish to marry Martha in the first place; and foolish to stay married despite increasing age and many, many danger signs.

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Peter’s marriages were not unique or even that noteworthy.  Many men have fallen head over heels for the wrong woman, and then on the rebound opted for someone different but no better; but such bad choices are by no means restricted to marriage. Everyone jumps the gun on flimsy assumptions, convinced that she is right, it is right, they are right only to find out that nothing is the way it seemed.  Irrational, emotional, bad choices are to be expected.

How can anyone expect someone of scrambled, assorted genes, influenced by parents who had made their own bad choices, and cast – regardless of makeup or upbringing – into an equally random environment not of his own choosing make good ones?   We think we are making the right decisions but are more often than not disappointed, seduced by irrational ideas, hooked by lines randomly thrown into the water, and never able to quite free ourselves. Peter was too hard on himself. Bad choices are the rule rather than the exception in a Hobbesian life.

The tragic dilemma is man’s presumption of free will in a doggedly predestined world – not Calvin’s idea of a divinely preordained life, but one determined by genetic, social, cultural, and environmental factors is as old as Jesus Christ who left his followers to decipher his words about faith, the divine absolute, and free will he spoke to the Devil in the Wilderness.

How do we deal with the dilemma and out bad choices? We make do.  Inertia is the operative term.  We get by, sort things out, and if we’re lucky meander in the right direction to a not completely unhappy end.  The older we get the fewer regrets we have about bad choices because we are impatient we are to sort out the future – where, in God’s name, are we headed?  Another dilemma but one without choice.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

In Praise Of The Impractical–What Happens When A Head In The Clouds Meets A Calvinist

Polly Alcott  had come by her practical, organizational skills naturally.  The daughter of a Wyoming rancher whose pride was a back-forty scattered with old tractors, truck chassis, and harvester engines; and a mother skilled in pickling, putting up, and making do with the odds and ends of farm life, Polly could never simply let things be.  Not only had the careful husbandry of her childhood taken deep root, but so had her parents’ Puritan fundamentalism.  Not only was idleness a dereliction of ranch family duty but sin against the Lord. ‘Idle hands make light the devil’s work’ was taken seriously in the Alcott family.  There was something inherently, innately wrong and immoral in wasting time.  According to her father, any pursuit other than tending to the ranch, the back-forty, the cattle feed, the silos, and the barn was irrelevant, dismissive of Christ’s teaching, and disrespectful of the mind and body given at Creation.

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For better or worse, Polly had inherited or retained only the secular pragmatism of her parents, not their Puritanism, although given her upbringing and the inextricable relationship between good and practicality that characterized it, one could never be sure.  In any case Polly was her father’s daughter in one essential, telling way.  Nothing other than nuts and bolts, repair and restoration, and the planning and organization that made it all possible mattered.  As an adult Polly was unmatched for her deliberate, unhurried, and well-thought out management of her home, family, and garden. 

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Life is a zero-sum game, and although Polly’s 19th century ranch ethos had definite and legitimate value, few men were interested in a woman with a mind, spirit, and body so close to the ground.  She was not unattractive; and her quiet, unassuming demeanor suggested a reasonable if not complaisant marriage; but there was something about her practical determination – obvious to the more interested suitors – that was off-putting.  She simply had little interest in anything but the here and now.

Many suitors thought that she would make a particularly good mate – a loyal, faithful, and above all dutiful and practical housewife; a good mother, and attentive to the essentials of hearth and home.  Many others thought that if they were to get married; if marriage was really required and expected, then better to marry elegantly to someone of charm, wit, and allure. 

Because those men who were looking for a maitresse de ferme were few  in a liberated generation, Polly found mating surprisingly difficult.  She had been raised to believe that a child of the Lord, practiced in the ways of the world, would be always considered valuable if not cherished.  She failed to understand that the Victorian values of her parents were of little or no relevance.   She waited, alone on the dancing school floor, while all the other girls were picked.

Polly did eventually marry to a man who had just come off a very painful divorce and a troubled, dysfunctional first marriage.  Anyone would be better, he thought, than his first wife, a burlesque queen, outsized, out-sexed, and outrageously radical – a woman who had inherited her beauty from her Russian mother and explosive personality from her Italian father but whose DNA had gotten so twisted by generations of ne’er-do-wells, prostitutes, and hangers-on that she could barely hew the faintest of social lines.  Which was why her future husband could not resist her.  She was the diva, the femme fatale, the irresistible female he had always wanted but thought out of his reach.

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Of course his marriage could never have lasted.  Oil and water – conservative Catholic and out-of-bounds sex princess – but a union of diametric opposites appealed to both.  He wanted excitement, sexual promise, and  a release from the ordinary. She wanted an imposed brake on her sexual and emotional profligacy.  Although they failed, their marriage was a tribute to the institution.  As flawed as it is, peopled by failure and disappointment far more than satisfaction, it was worth a try.

In any case, beaten,  discouraged, disappointed, and scarred by the experience, he found Polly Alcott the unexpected antidote.  Their early years together were perfect and uncomplicated.  They asked nothing of each other and were happy for what they shared in an unencumbered life of travel, adventure, and friends.

Whether it was a matter of age or circumstances – a house, baby, and a responsible job – Polly lost, put aside, deferred, forgot (her husband never knew which) whatever carefreeness she had had; and returned unequivocally to her practical Wyoming roots.  The change was so gradual that her husband hardly noticed but soon he recognized a pattern.  Like her father before her, busyness itself became her profession.

Of course he would be happy not to grope and grasp for pots and pans, be less drafty upstairs, and be warmer overall, but at what cost? Was the constant disruption and irritation really worth it? And wasn’t a life of gradual accommodation less stressful and obtrusive in an otherwise reflective, peaceful life?  The older he got and the more focused he became on the end of his life, the more his wife’s purposefulness bothered him.  If life was in God’s hands, then attempts to moderate, modify, or alter its course was senseless.

As life went on with no break in his wife’s ambitious routine, her husband wondered where she had gone.  This wasn’t the girl he married, certainly.  Yes, her calm centeredness had indeed been a welcome change from the emotional gymnastics of his first wife; and yes he looked forward to a life without serial crises, but he had never anticipated such limitations.  Although his first marriage had been disastrous, the dissolution was only because two talented, sexually ambitious, and highly intelligent people could not live together - two positive charges without a negative will explode.  A second marriage of emotional convenience was no better. 

Polly was oblivious to the growing discontent of her husband. How could she be otherwise? Her way , the way of the farm and the ranch, the way of Luther and Calvin, was the only way.  Her husband’s Catholic, Mediterranean, and libertarian background was a mystery that she had little interest in unraveling.

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To be fair, her husband had little give in him and was as convinced of the evolutionary quality of his academic, intellectual, artistic ways as Polly was of Calvinism; and this stubborn difference was the reason for their later quarrels and dissolution of their marriage.  Polly had done no wrong.  She had been ‘determined’ to act out her God-given character, genetic makeup, and upbringing.  Her oblivion to her husband’s own preoccupations were neither selfish nor ignorant.  She could not have acted otherwise.  Nor had her husband been at fault, for he no sooner could escape his education or the poetry and art of his mother.  Literature was not simply made up of stories of other people.  It had relevance. 

It was a shame that their life had to end this way – still married, too much inertia for change, too little promise outside; but it was a marriage in name only.  Separate quarters, separate interests, and separate preoccupations.  He learned to live with her dogged purposefulness.  She accepted his indifference and purposelessness.  Not exactly a marriage made in heaven, but an illustrative one.  Philosophy, outlook, and valuation always rule; and since these fundamentals are installed at birth, there is little chance of accommodation.  When the difference in outlook is as great as that between Polly and her husband, marriage has very little chance of success.