Sunday Night Journal: July 2005

July 3     July 10     July 17     July 24     July 31    

July 10                                [page top]         [permanent link]

You Can’t, In Fact, Always Get What You Want (Waiting for Dennis)

This is a Sunday morning Journal. By Sunday night it’s very unlikely that I’ll have electricity, which means I won’t have Internet access. It’s possible that I won’t have a home, at least not one that is habitable without major repairs. We are waiting for Hurricane Dennis, a vicious storm, frightening not only in itself but because there has never been a storm so bad this early in the season.

Being a hundred yards from Mobile Bay, our house is vulnerable to wind, water, and falling tree damage in a hurricane. At the moment the last of these seems the most likely. As a tree lover I had never wished for fewer trees until last year when Hurricane Ivan poked a hole in our roof. I wish now I had taken the trouble and expense to have some of the trees around the house trimmed or removed. Now I can only wait. The newer suburbs, big open tracts that used to be fields or orchards but now have no trees more than twenty or thirty feet tall, suddenly look secure and desirable.

We don’t have much of a house. In a situation where we could not afford both house and location we favored—“privileged,” to use the currently popular jargon—location. The house is just a couple of steps above a trailer—small, pre-fab, low-ceilinged, built in the mid-70s, rather flimsily for its time but I’m told not so badly by current standards. I can’t say I’ve ever been fond of the house for its own sake, but it’s full of things that I value, and besides I want my grandchildren to be able to know the place where their parents spent at least part of their childhoods (we moved here in 1992). Now, like George Bailey, I’m singing a different tune and trying to strike bargains with God, just like a million or so people along this stretch of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi coastline. One thing’s for sure: we aren’t all going to get what we’re asking for.

Tuesday Afternoon Update

We were spared this time. The storm weakened considerably and went further east than intially predicted. Mindful of the ethical and theological problems raised by the fact that the storm hit someone else instead (see this item from last summer), I emphasize the sudden reduction in strength which made Dennis considerably less destructive than it might have been. My wife points out that this was the Psalm from yesterday’s Mass:

Then would the waters have engulfed us, and torrent gone over us; over our heads would have been swept the raging waters. Blessed be the Lord, who did not give us a prey to their teeth!

Our help is in the name of the Lord.

Our life, like a bird, has escaped from the snare of the fowler. Indeed the snare has been broken and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Our help is in the name of the Lord.


July 3                                [page top]         [permanent link]

Independence Day and Indian Larry

I occasionally watch a couple of TV shows, American Chopper and The Great Biker Build-Off, which, in case you don’t know, involve building custom Harley-style motorcycles. I guess I have enough Anarcho-American in me to be susceptible to the romance of motorcycles, and actually owned a couple of small ones in my younger days. Also, the show appeals to my appreciation (discussed here last week) of people who can do things that require a lot of physical intelligence and skill. Building these bikes requires an impressive combination of craftsmanship and engineering, with both at the service of a very American aesthetic. For my money these guys are far better and more interesting artists than the average Turner Prize winner.

One episode featured a bike builder named Indian Larry, previously unknown to me but apparently very well known in motorcycle circles. At the end of the show there was a memorial note along the lines of “In Memory of Indian Larry, 1949-2004.” Out of curiosity I looked up Indian Larry on the web and found that he had been killed while performing a stunt—standing on the seat of a moving motorcycle—without a helmet.

In my continual effort to figure out the United States of America, I sometimes think of it as an experiment on God’s part, as if he had said, in a sort of limited recapitulation of Eden and the Fall: I’m going to allow these people to attain an unprecedented level of freedom and abundance. I’m going to take away many of the excuses—hunger, famine, brutal oppression—for sin that I’ve been hearing for lo these many millennia. They’ve been telling me they would be more virtuous if life wasn’t so hard. Let’s give them a chance to prove it. Or perhaps it’s a sort of reversal of Job’s story; perhaps Satan made a wager with God that his beloved human race could not become prosperous without also becoming corrupt.

If either of these is the case, we have clearly let God down. We’ve misunderstood the nature of freedom. As one wise man after another, most prominently the late Pope, has tried to tell us, the point is what we choose, not simply that we choose; to freely choose the good, not to freely choose, period, with all choices being considered equal and the choosing itself a godlike and unquestionable act.

We’re like Indian Larry, who would probably be alive today if he had been wearing a helmet: gifted and freely exercising our gifts, but unable to resist taking that extra step into recklessness and ruin. Admittedly, there is, at least to my fallen eyes, a bold grandeur in Larry’s gesture. But it can’t be considered wise, and it is unwise in a very defiant and American way.

Here we are at another Independence Day, and it seems that with every passing year the concept of freedom as a path toward the good is less honored, and the concept of freedom as the power to follow every least dictate of whim or sensuality is more exalted. One can say for Indian Larry that he at least took his risks knowingly, and would probably not, had he survived, whined and tried to sue somebody because of his injuries. Increasing numbers of Americans seem to see government’s role in maintaining freedom as an obligation not to interfere before, but to be ready to assist after, the crash—non-judgmentally, of course.

I hope that, if he was not in the habit of doing so, Indian Larry sought God’s mercy as he died. I hope that we as a nation will not wait until we are “between the stirrup and the ground” before changing our ways. I’m hopeful, but not optimistic.


July 17                                [page top]         [permanent link]

To Pray As We Ought

I don’t say this at all proudly, but I’ve never been much for reading Scripture on my own. Catholics of course are often criticized for this lack of attention to the written Word, but in my case the Church can’t take the blame, since I grew up Protestant and certainly didn’t lack for good examples and encouragement in this respect. I’ve been noticing, though, as I get older, that Scripture speaks to me more and more, whether encountered in solitary reading or at Mass. Frequently it’s almost oracular, as if a very specific message were being given to me, which I have no doubt is in fact the case for everyone who has “ears to hear”—the same words, with distinct and providential import for each one who receives it.

Today’s Epistle, for instance, always strikes me as immensely comforting and directly applicable to my own life:

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.    (Romans 8:26-27)

It seems that I often find myself unsure of what to pray for beyond the always-safe “thy will be done.” I feel myself to be intruding on God’s prerogatives when I pray very specifically. I second-guess myself, particularly when praying for other people, and wonder if what I want is really what is best for them. This is true especially when the context is some situation where I’ve made such a mess of things that no resolution, no correction of the original wrong, is possible without further damage.

There is, moreover, something worse at work in me, a superstitious streak which is directly traceable to that well-known story by W. W. Jacobs, “The Monkey’s Paw.” It can be found online easily enough, but I’m not providing the link: if you haven’t read it, I don’t particularly recommend that you do so, because I don’t want it to haunt anyone else as it has haunted me. Suffice to say that it’s a variant of the old three-wishes pattern, and gives a truly horrible turn to the adage “Be careful what you wish for.” It’s marvelously effective, a masterpiece of the Edgar Allen Poe school of implicit horror. I read it as a child, and have (obviously) never forgotten it; I might have had this quirk about prayer without the story, but the story gives my misgiving a very definite and unforgettable shape: suppose I pray for the wrong thing, and God grants it, and something bad follows? Of course I know that this is nonsense, a defect in me, and that God is not the malign nemesis at work in the story, but still the idea floats around in the back of my mind when I pray for anything very specific.

It’s interesting that the King James Version from which I quote above—and which of course is not what I heard at Mass—has “what we should pray for” while the New American Bible has “how to pray.” They’re not necessarily contradictory—“how to pray” can, obviously, include the object of prayer—but I prefer the KJV. It emphasizes a more elemental form of assistance. “How to pray” might refer only to the difficulty of finding the right words; “what to pray for” gets at the fundamental problems of will and understanding, and offers to correct our deficiencies at their root and heart, assuring us that those groans—those longings, praises, regrets, petitions, and confessions—which cannot be uttered are perfectly known to the One to whom we so imperfectly direct them.


July 24                                [page top]         [permanent link]

Heat. Humidity. Sex.

It is miserably hot and humid here, as it normally is in mid-July. Air conditioning has transformed the South, so that this sort of heat is only a nuisance, not a major factor in how one lives, except that it drives people to stay indoors, so that the southern summer now resembles the northern winter in that one doesn’t willingly spend much time outside except for certain seasonal recreational activities.

Now and then I hear someone wonder aloud how people endured this climate in the days before air conditioning. Well, I’m old enough to remember a time when air conditioning was relatively rare, when the doors of those businesses that were air-conditioned often displayed an advertisement for Kool cigarettes which read Come in—it’s KOOL inside, and I don’t even remember it as being all that bad: it was just the way things were, and you lived with it. But getting used to air conditioning makes being out in really hot weather for more than a few minutes seem miserable to most of us, and utterly intolerable to some, to hear them talk.

I would like to say that I scorn this effete comfort, but I don’t. My house and car are air-conditioned (and if I had to choose I might give up cooling the former before the latter). I do still regard it as a luxury, though, and one that might not always be there. I don’t take it for granted, and I find it salutary to be reminded of what life is like without it.

Yesterday I mowed the lawn at around three in the afternoon, when most of it was in shade. The lawn is not large, requiring only half an hour or so to mow, but the heat was so overpowering that I took a long break in the middle of the job. I would not have been much wetter if someone had poured a bucket of water over me. So rather than go inside, where it was twenty degrees cooler, I sat in the swing outside, aware of each little rivulet running down my face and neck, clothes sticking to me everywhere.

If you’re out in this heat you don’t ever actually get cool. You only go from miserable if you’re active to uncomfortable if you’re still. If you get this hot and then go into an air-conditioned house, you get an instantaneous chill of rapidly evaporating moisture; it can even become uncomfortably cool. But if you’re outside, you don’t get that. Rather, you realize after a lapse of minutes that you’re not sweating as much as you were. And you never dry out; you just go from thoroughly wet to merely damp.

In this condition any movement of air is a cool touch, the only thing you feel that is not describable as “heat.” And so you become aware of the least little breeze. There is nearly always some movement of air where I live, as it’s close to the water, but my house is sheltered beneath a bluff and surrounded by trees, so I can frequently see the treetops moving but feel no wind at all. Yesterday was comparatively still, the breeze reaching me only in intermittent light puffs, each one a delight. I sat quietly for ten or fifteen minutes, swinging a bit, waiting for and enjoying these, until I went back to work.

When every interior is air-conditioned it’s easy to lose touch with the wonderful reality signified by the phrase “cool breeze.” It’s good to be reminded of these elemental pleasures, too easily lost in a world of more powerful and pervasive ones. The former are in fact to me, and I suspect to most people if they will slow down to experience them, often more deeply satisfying than the latter, even though, as I say, I don’t really want to give up my air conditioning, if only because not having it would cause me to be even more indolent than I already am.

I read recently of some sociologist’s finding that the use of pornography among young men is causing them to grow jaded about sex. I can’t provide the reference, as I have no idea now where I read it, but the researcher made the claim that for those who absorb a steady stream of pornography—which the Internet has made it very easy to do—mere casual fornication is no longer sufficient, that the young men expect the young women to perform for them as the prostitutes of pornography do, and that it takes more and more exotic and no doubt perverse activity to excite them.

This is sad and disgusting but predictable. Of course saturating the environment with sexual imagery will in time decrease most people’s reaction to that imagery, and it is no new discovery that profligate sexual activity eventually leaves one jaded and unresponsive and in need of ever stronger stimuli. As C.S. Lewis has Screwtape say, “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.” The complete eroticisation of culture leads naturally to the diminishment of the erotic. The flood of sexual imagery that now engulfs us was by comparison only a trickle when I was a teenager, and when I recall the electric jolt I could then experience as the result of a touch or a glimpse of a bit more leg than was ordinarily revealed, I have no doubt as to which kind of society I would rather be young in.

Unlike the pleasure of a cool breeze, the pleasure of eroticism is the object of obsessive anticipation. It also frequently suffers from a considerable falling-off between the anticipated pleasure and the reality. What happens when the fantasy crowds out the reality altogether? Even if no moral considerations were involved, pornography would be something to deplore as leading in the long run to a much reduced ability to experience and appreciate real pleasure.



July 31                                [page top]         [permanent link]

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Purification of Memory

I have little patience with the historical self-righteousness that comes so easily to much of the pampered West nowadays. Those of us born after the Second World War, who have had at least in physical terms the softest lives of any people who have ever lived, often seem to find it easy to pass the most severe judgment on everyone who lived before us, even regarding situations in which they were struggling for a decent life, or even for their very survival, against dangers which we have never had to face, partly and precisely because they did. If we had been there, we seem to believe, we would have done the right thing. I sometimes even get the sense from people my own age (mid-50s) that we have never entirely let go of the pity we felt for ourselves when we were young, finding ourselves in a world which, to our aggrieved astonishment, was not perfect.

This readiness to condemn seems odd when contrasted with the widespread belief that we have no right to judge the actions of anyone else, especially if we have not walked a mile in his shoes. Such caution apparently applies to everyone except our own ancestors, who are vilified for every occasion when they failed to meet the ethical standards we have retroactively set for them. “Liberal self-loathing” is the term sometimes given to this contempt for one’s own cultural past when it’s found on the left, but that doesn’t seem really accurate, as the condemnation is not directed toward self either individually or collectively: the judges do not really view themselves as being part of the culture they condemn. They themselves belong to the new, all-tolerant, all-liberating, all-knowing culture toward which evolution has been working for millennia and the main task of which is to finish off its mortal enemy, the old stupid vicious culture. And besides, a variant of the phenomenon can be found on the right, although it is less straightforward. I think both instances are at least partly mutant forms of American exceptionalism, but that’s a subject for another note.

Rejection of this almost mindless refusal even to attempt to understand the past should not and need not mean a reactive attempt to whitewash it. In fact, contempt for the past is probably at least in part a reaction against versions of history which painted a too-pretty picture of it. The temptation to believe our enemies to be thoroughly evil and our friends to be almost perfect is almost as strong when we look at history as when we look around us in the present day. But I recall how stunning and somehow liberating it was to me to read Swift’s Tale of a Tub, in which English Puritans are portrayed as ridiculous fanatics. It was not so much that I thought Swift was entirely correct about them—he had, of course, his own polemical goals—as that it was refreshing to get a different view of them, one in which they were neither the noble crusaders of one strain of American history, or the evil witch-hunters of another strain. Perhaps that was the point at which I understood with my heart as well as my mind that history was not simple and that those who acted in it were facing a world in which good and evil, truth and falsehood, were as mixed and murky as they are to us.

Under John Paul II, the Catholic Church has recently undertaken an historical evaluation of itself which has been called “the purification of memory.” The phrase (I am not sure whether the Pope himself was the author of it) is meant to describe a process of facing the Church’s past with the greatest attainable degree of humility and honesty. But it is not an abstract or academic exercise; “it is also meant to be an occasion for a change of mentality and certain attitudes in the Church, as well as the source of a new teaching for the future, in the consciousness that the sins of the past remain as temptations in the present.” (See this document.)

Something like that, I think, is needed in the United States with respect to—well, with respect to many things, but in particular to the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 60th anniversaries of which are coming up this week. Those bombings are only the most dramatic and terrifyingly efficient instances of the general practice of bombing civilians in which the U.S.A. engaged during the Second World War. Of course every other belligerent having the capability did the same, but it is we who now stand in a position of dominance over much of the earth, and our ability to see the right path and to follow it will have a decisive effect on the rest of the world, and will determine whether our future is to be that of a nation intent on justice or of one devolving into just another large-scale criminal enterprise, like most of the world’s now-fallen empires.

We must face, and take responsibility for, the simple fact that what we did at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong. I call this a “simple” fact fully aware that not everyone grants its status as fact, much less that it is simple. The simplicity to which I refer is not that of the historical decision, which was indeed complex, but of the abstract ethical principle: it is wrong to target noncombatants in war. It is wrong to incinerate non-combatants in their hundreds of thousands at a swoop. It is wrong, and, what perhaps most needs saying in our present ethical climate, even if you have powerful reasons for doing it, it is still wrong. And if it is not wrong, then our argument with, say, Osama bin-Laden becomes a question of who struck first and who had the greater provocation; that is, we have no principled argument against his methods.

I am not saying that the circumstances surrounding the decision to use the atomic bomb were such that the right decision should have been easy. That is exactly the error I want to avoid, and of which those who defend the acts might accuse me. I do not even want to evaluate the objective moral culpability of those who made the decision and those who carried it out. That is for God to determine. I want to emphasize that there were strong reasons for the decision, and most of all to stress what is so easy to ignore for those evaluating such acts from the comfortable, safe, and omniscient vantage point of the future: that the cost of deciding otherwise might have been enormous.

If you think it was easy to be Harry Truman in 1945, and that you would certainly never have done what he did, spend a while imagining yourself looking at the casualty figures from the war in the Pacific and contemplating those that could be expected in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. Think of asking a nation which had already sent most of its young men into the hell of modern war to keep sending them, with the expectation that an even higher percentage of them would not return. Read something real and unsentimental about the war and imagine yourself as a soldier who has survived the Philippines or Guadalcanal and would now face something worse. Think, too, of the nightmare that would have faced the civilian population of Japan, caught in the middle of a land war that would involve the entire country until the last soldier surrendered or was killed. Then imagine that you could make all these horrible possibilities go away by one or two acts that would cost no American lives and quite probably fewer Japanese lives than would have been taken in an invasion.

No, it was not an easy decision, and anyone who thinks it would have been if only he had been there to make it is fooling himself. Even one untempted to swerve from absolute principle would have been, and ought to have been, daunted, to say the least, by the possible consequences of not doing the forbidden thing. There is indeed much we might say, much that has been said, in extenuation of the decision. But what we cannot and must not say is that it was right.

Why is it important to recognize this? Because “the sins of the past remain as temptations in the present.” One who believes that stealing is wrong may, given the right combination of temptations and pressures, steal anyway. But one who does not believe stealing is wrong is almost certain to do it regularly. We Americans have a tendency to believe that if we really, really need to do a thing, it must therefore be right. I sometimes think that may be our fatal flaw. But it is a far lesser sin to fail to live up to the moral law than to reject it.