We Are All To Blame

Featured Image is The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya

We are all to blame, we are all to blame…and if only all were convinced of it!

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons

Morality is not a guide for living a blameless life. It is not a method for keeping your hands unsoiled by culpability.

I do not know if anyone really believes that it is, but I have noticed many talk as if it were so.

The conversation goes like this: Bob talks about how Jane fell short of some exacting moral standard, and thus shares the blame for something wicked. Jill points out that Bob himself has fallen short of that or some other exacting standard, and thus shares the blame for the same thing or something else. Heather turns around and pulls the same thing on Jill.

In short, they proceed by negation.

This game can go on indefinitely; many never escape it. It takes a big leap to see that no one can be blameless. Our hands are always dirty, just by living in this world, supported by institutions which require an ocean of blood to create and maintain. As social creatures we always stand in relationship to other people, and these relationships always involve an element of domination and hurt.

Once you make this leap, only two paths remain open to you.

The first is nihilism. The blame game and the standards are both negated entirely. The players become disenchanted; everything beautiful about the world becomes entirely obscured by ugliness. Institutions become just tools of power, relationships become just relationships of domination.

The second is acceptance. Seeing the ugliness in the world and in ourselves, and taking ownership of it. Accepting responsibility for having a place in this world, and confronting your own wrongdoings. Above all, it is seeing everyone as well as yourself for their ugliness and their beauty and loving them for both. You must be able to do this in order to accept the world. If ugliness irreparably tarnishes the beautiful for you, then you will end up either rejecting the world, or falling into self-deception.

This path is much more difficult than the other, and more difficult still than the idle chatter of the blame game. It is a wonder that we ever find acceptance, even for a fleeting moment.

I don’t imagine I can convince you to seek this acceptance. But I hope that you can see that, although you are not blameless, you are worthy of love.

 

Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder

She’s sitting across from me in a pub. It’s well after dark and the shadows are closing in around her. It’s cool outside, so she has elegantly wrapped a thick, black, impeccably embroidered Kashmiri shaal around her shoulders. Her hair is pulled back, as she used to wear it back then, and she’s leaning into the back of her seat. The smile on her face is perfect: it’s the final second of a closed-mouth smile, before her mouth comes open and she gives me that big, bright, loving smile that I’ve seen so many times since then. Her lips are pursed, her head angled to the side, and her eyes are absolutely gleaming at me.

It is a vision of pure beauty.

Not quite eight years ago, through dumb luck, I managed to capture a photograph of the exact moment – the precise second – I realized that my wife is the most beautiful woman I had, and have, ever seen in my whole life. I don’t mean that the photograph is a favorite photograph I have of her. No, I mean that even had I not snapped that photograph, that moment would still be the moment I came to that appraisal of her. It was just my dumb luck that I happened to be taking her photograph when I realized it. Lucky me.

There are two reasons why I’m not including that photograph in this blog post. First, I’m not going to plaster my personal life all over a public forum. Take that, Kim Kardashian! Second, even if I did, nobody else would see in that photo the same image I just described. They’d see only a pretty young woman smiling for the camera. It’s not that you had to be there, it’s that you couldn’t have been there – you weren’t me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

You have to take your own photograph.

Continue reading “Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder”

Acceptance as Accepting Responsibility

Featured image is In Love, by Marcus Stone.

Last year, while struggling to come to terms with some ugliness close to home, I wrote about acceptance.

Of its opposite, rejection, I said this:

Rejection is to deny either the existence or the legitimacy of what is rejected. The idealist rejects the argument of the economist that the optimal number of murders, rapes, thefts, and traffic accidents is greater than zero. He denies the existence of fundamentally ineradicable problems.

And on acceptance:

Let us say that we are human beings who strive for order, but also for justice, for generosity, but also for prudence. Acceptance means recognizing that there are fundamental gaps in what we can accomplish in this striving, and that those gaps are often enormous—but having a heart that is at peace, nevertheless.

Recently I came across a discussion by Charles Taylor of Dostoyevsky on this very topic, in the former’s terrific book Sources of the Self. I find I’m unable to get it out of my head.

Dostoyevsky’s vision of rejection is something that people who have the highest moral sensibilities are the most vulnerable to, precisely because they are most sensitive to the ugliness in the world.

Rejecting the world seals one’s sense of its loathsomeness and of one’s own, insofar as one is part of it. And from this can only come acts of hate and destruction. Moreover, these radiate out from one in a chain, a kind of negative apostolic succession, as one inspires others through this loathing to loathe in their turn.

He continues:

Dostoyevsky’s rejectors arc “schismatics” (raskolniki), cut off from the world and hence grace. They cannot but wreak destruction. The noblest wreak it only on themselves. The most base destroy others. Although powered by the noblest sense of the injustice of things, this schism is ultimately also the fruit of pride, Dostoyevsky holds. We separate because we don’t want to see ourselves as part of the evil; we want to raise ourselves above it, away from the blame for it. The outward projection of the terrorist is the most violent manifestation of this common motive.

But acceptance is the only way to heal from the wounds inflicted by an ugly world:

What will transform us is an ability to love the world and ourselves, to see it as good in spite of the wrong. But this will only come to us if we can accept being part of it, and that means accepting responsibility. Just as ‘no one is to blame’ is the slogan of the materialist revolutionaries, so ‘we are all to blame’ is of Dostoyevsky’s healing figures. Loving the world and ourselves is in a sense a miracle, in face of all the evil and degradation that it and we contain. But the miracle comes on us if we accept being part of it. Involved in this is our acceptance of love from others. We become capable of love through being loved; and over against the perverse apostolic succession is a grace-dispensing one[.]

Acceptance means accepting responsibility.

The idea that greater transparency will make the world a better place is pretty popular these days. And yet it seems that massively expanded access to information has largely turned public discourse more vitriolic, and less forgiving.

Rather than shining a light on the darkness, it seems to me instead that we have closed ourselves off, afraid of allowing the darkness in. Yet there is already darkness within, and to close ourselves off is to leave ourselves alone with it.

To be exposed to so much of the ugliness of the world would be challenging in any time. But I think our current situation makes us particularly vulnerable. We are ideologically inclined to let “failure set the agenda,” and we lack a shared framework to justify wholeheartedly loving the world.

Growing up is a process of moving from earnest naiveté to accepting responsibility for being a part of the world. Few of us get to the wholehearted loving of the world, ugliness and all, that Dostoyevsky’s most saintly characters manage to achieve. And all of us feel the pull of rejection when we are faced by the world’s ugliness.

But each of us is capable of accepting the world, with its wonders and its horrors.

Adam Knew His Wife Eve

And she acquired not the Lord, as she hoped, but a murderer.

It is an odd euphemism, isn’t it, for sex. “To know” someone has for millennia elicited stifled giggles from the adolescent male, “in the biblical sense,” knowwudimean? It is doubly strange because the Bible, especially the Christian Old Testament, blushes not to describe sexual activity in ways that would make Chaucer blush. The story of Onan and his brothers is so explicit that it is simply off-limits in mixed company (Genesis 38). Translators of the prophets often notoriously smooth over certain images to prevent hyperventilation among the Ladies Aid set, whose fundraisers pay translator salaries (Isaiah 64:6). And some images are untouchable (Ezekiel 16).

So why to know as a euphemism?

It’s not a euphemism: it’s the story of sexual dominance. The bible is describing exactly what Radical Feminists are expressing, as Paul Crider reports in his latest post. The bible is describing the fall from a graceful relationship, in which the woman came out of man to help him have dominion over the earth, a relationship which seems best to describe as a willing partnership, unfettered by coveting, which is the sin of the self which drives all the other sins. Now, instead of a willing partnership, which was to have dominion over the earth, in part, by filling it up, multiplying, the primary relationship of a man to a woman is that of sexual dominance: Adam knew his wife Eve.

God had set them in a garden, where he gave them leave to eat the fruit of any of the trees of that garden, even the Tree of Life, but they were forbidden to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Except the translation is difficult, and can’t express what this tree is for.

A little Hebrew: the noun knowledge might be a verb (I hereby make the case that it is), which changes the nouns following, i.e., “good and evil” from a genitive relationship into the direct objects of the verb. Thus, we would render the phrase as “You may not eat of the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil.”

It becomes, therefore, parallel to Adam knowing his wife Eve.

But first, why would God not want his creatures to know good and evil? I think a second question helps answer this one, and also furthers us into understanding just what in the hell happened at that tree: how would they know what good and evil are, so that they could choose between right and wrong?

Ah, but it’s not about intellectual information: they would first trust God to teach them, then they would learn information as they set themselves to the task of having dominion over the earth, also known as wisdom, reasoning with each other, and their many and varied offspring, as to the best course for developing the resources of the earth for the good of all. Instead, knowing good and evil is about acquisition. It is a rare usage, which makes this entire post tenuous, at best, but it is a usage nonetheless that when one acquires property, one knows it, to the effect that one has control over it and exercises authority over it. That is what this tree is for: to exercise authority over good and evil.

With application to sexual activity, a counterexample is helpful. The Son of God became flesh, John says, and made his dwelling among us, not by the will of a man, but by the will of God (John 1:12-14), a reference to Jesus’ origins which are much discussed through the heart of John’s Gospel, the Jews of whom called Jesus a Samaritan, which is equivalent to calling Mother Mary a whore.

And so, to know someone sexually is for the male to overcome the female (no furtive giggling, you there in the back row), for him to acquire her for the sake of begetting. The story of Jacob acquiring his two wives, the daughters of Laban, through fourteen years of labor, exemplifies this, and their desire to acquire him, one over the other, is made plain when, in the etiological Sadie Hawkins dance, after purchasing the rights to Jacob from Rachel by means of mandrakes, Leah runs up to Jacob, saying, “You must come into me tonight, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes!” (Ah! The romance of youth!) (Genesis 30:14ff).

At the beginning, Eve was certainly aware of this relationship change, seeing it as plain as day that her husband had acquired her in a relationship of domination, thinking that she was due her own acquisition in the process: “I have acquired a man, Yahweh (the Lord)!” And she called him Acquisition (Cain), the progenitor of human culture, starting with murder.

Human culture has its primeval foundation in sexual domination, which the Lord pronounced against them, either as part of the curse for reaching out to acquire domination over good and evil, or as a mere description of the consequences of the same. He says, “You, Woman, shall desire to be over your husband [in a dominating relationship], but he shall lord it over you.” Yes, the willing partnership is now dissolved, and a grappling of domination has taken its place.

All respect is due, then, to the Radical Feminists, who have seen and named the sexual relationship as it is, agreeing in whole with the picture presented in the first part of the Christian Bible, especially when they condemn pornography and prostitution as vehicles to perpetuate the domination of the man over his woman. We shall see, having progressed so far as to produce the Radical Feminists, whether our society can unloose what our mother and father wrought.

Blessed Are the Meek

After last night’s annual bacchanalia, it was a pleasure to awaken groggily to Samuel Hammond’s delightful celebration of materialism, in which he channels The Preacher, known to many as Ecclesiastes, which tries to translate the Hebrew “Qohelet,” the one who calls the assembly.

It is the godless book of the Bible, disturbing in its nihilism, but it became one of the “little scrolls,” those books which are designated for use by the post-exilic Jews for public reading during their own bacchanals. This 2900 year old book was read aloud during the Feast of Booths, that gargantuan outdoor party celebrating the harvest. In short, while you are totally blitzed on new wine, engorging yourself on the fat of the land, and looking lustily upon one another, as commanded by Moses, The Preacher shouts over the landscape: “Meaningless!”

Consider Sam:

“Status competitions are our main, if not only, source of meaning in the universe.”

and

“So meditate if you have to, but don’t be afraid to day dream a little, too. It may fill you with anxiety, and it definitely won’t make you happy, but later in life you just might find yourself building a spaceship to Mars.”

And The Preacher:

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:10 ESV)

Adam Gurri has been pestering me to write a defense of Christianity here in the hallowed halls of Sweet Talk, but I have thus far demurred, being unmotivated to do so in the midst of those who are so certain, but Sam’s stimulating post has evoked a little something irresistible.

If I may categorize (naturally, drawing distinctions simplifies, and the elements of this taxonomy will, in real life, overlap):

There are those who see the world as it is and celebrate it. Thus Samuel Hammond.

There are two classes of those who see the world as it is and mourn over it as broken.

Class One copes, meditating.

Class Two will not cope, continuing to mourn, in the hope for a restoration of what is broken. Christians define this class.

For Christians, the brokenness of the world is best mourned in the body of Christ, who stands crucified, in which Christians participate by means of the mystery of the sacraments.

This mystery is articulated by one Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, who persecuted the Body of Christ with all his might until he had a vision of the Crucified One, and he writes about him whom he saw:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17 ESV)

It is important here to note a few boundaries. This is not a refutation of the science of evolution, but it is a declaration of pre-eminence, which is offensive. Note carefully that the Christian view of creation is cast not in terms of material manifestation, which Christ says is vapor, but in terms of dominion, rulers, authorities, i.e.,  that rascally elusive normativity.

More than that, since the universe is held together in, with, and under a human body, the material world is transformed into a world of relational interaction. To wit: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and equally (because God is a human in Jesus, and we are in him and he is in us), love your neighbor as yourself.

A rocket-size measuring contest is the epitome of pursuing meaninglessness. Meaningfulness is measured in interpersonal relationships, beginning with the male-female relationship, which perpetuates the species, and also embodies thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities, beginning at home, which is broken and should be mourned. Normativity dominates; it does not love, nor does it allow for distinction, only ruthless conformity, as evolution teaches: we adapt to strength, not weakness.

The relationship of a man to a woman is hopelessly weak.

 

Acceptance

What is acceptance?

(Here I can hear Heidegger chiming in something like “the word speaks to us in Latin.”)

It is best to start our investigation from its opposite, rejection.

Rejection is to deny either the existence or the legitimacy of what is rejected. The idealist rejects the argument of the economist that the optimal number of murders, rapes, thefts, and traffic accidents is greater than zero. He denies the existence of fundamentally ineradicable problems.

The economist rejects complete solutions as criteria for judging a given problem. She denies the existence of actions and choices without trade-offs, where improvement in one area does not mean taking away resources that could have been put to other uses.

The victim of a crime who sees how the sausage of justice is made, and often fails to be made, may reject the entire justice system. That is, they may deny its legitimacy, perhaps thinking simple vengeance is closer to true justice.

Acceptance is not complete acquiescence to the demands of others or to the status quo. Even the radical submission of the Amish does not mean that—they make many demands as a community, even of the larger world and its politics from which they strive to remain separate.

Let us say that we are human beings who strive for order, but also for justice, for generosity, but also for prudence. Acceptance means recognizing that there are fundamental gaps in what we can accomplish in this striving, and that those gaps are often enormous—but having a heart that is at peace, nevertheless.

The politics and the ideology of rejection are always the enterprise of a heart at war with the world. He whose heart is at war sees the cracks in our fallible human arrangements, and the ugliness that spills out of them, and thinks that ugliness must be all there is, underneath it all.

He makes demands of the world, and rejects the world even when these demands are met. For no demand that can be met can ever purify the world of all ugliness and fill in every gap and crack—or even most of them.

She whose heart is at peace extends an unconditional love and understanding to a world full of hurt and hurting. She makes demands, but her love is never predicated on having those demands met. She understands that the pursuit of justice almost always itself entails acts of injustice, but still believes that justice is what we should strive for. She understands that the compromises and trade-offs that go into maintaining order are often stained in ugliness themselves, and yet she still desires that order be maintained, even if she hopes for an order with as little ugliness as we can manage.

Acceptance is encountering the ugliness of the world without letting it stick to you. Rejection is encountering that ugliness and letting it define you.

Sorry About Your Friend

Charlie* came by the house today, looking like the bottom of a city garbage tote in the middle of July, if it were hot, which it’s not. I noticed right away that he couldn’t hear what I was saying; I kept having to repeat myself.

Eventually the conversation turned black, concerning a piece of property over which is some familial contention and striving. He said, “I have insurance. I’ll burn the [expletive] thing down before I let them put a For Sale sign in front of it. Ricky would have helped me.”

Ordinarily, Charlie is a nice enough guy. He takes care of his mother, who is 93, and he greets me and my children kindly, even going so far as to fetch the boys frozen popsicles when it’s hot out, which is rarely but is known to happen. The boys are forbidden to go into his house, first, out of prudence, second, because Charlie is known to invite young men into his house, whereupon he offers them drugs, then performs unspeakable acts of a sexual nature upon them while they are passed out. He represents a problem, the outbreak of leprosy in our otherwise holy camp.

“Ricky,” he continued. “Ricky Matt. He was my best friend. He’s laid out at the funeral home today.” Ah.

Ordinarily, Charlie is not fractured drunk and high by noon. His best friend was shot in the head three times by State Police after he pointed a shotgun at them. Ricky and David Sweat had had an argument in a cabin because Ricky had drunk himself into a stupor. The plan had been to make for Canada, and they were nearing the goal. This happens: self-destructive persons cannot fathom success, and they sabotage themselves. So they split up, and they were both captured.

The more pitiful of the two was killed, stone drunk. They could smell the alcohol pouring out with his blood and brains from feet away. They even offered to show Charlie the pictures of his friend. He said to me, “I didn’t want to look at them. They told me there were three holes and lots of brains.”

My neighbor was standing in front of me, suppressing the mourning reflexes with a heavy consumption of alcohol and drugs.

For fifteen years, Ricky and Charlie had written each other, dating back to when Ricky was in Mexico. After Ricky escaped from prison, State Troopers ransacked Charlie’s house (1, 2, 3…8 houses from mine), looking for all those letters and any indication of Ricky’s whereabouts or intentions. Charlie said, “I told them to get lost; they were wasting their time.” He stood there, staring at me, stupefied.

“Sorry about your friend,” I said. I wondered what it must be like to have a best friend’s violent death celebrated on television.

“He would have helped me burn it down. He always looked out for me. I know he went and did some bad things…”


*Charlie is a pseudonym