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A couple weeks ago I wrote a bit about Sia, who is clearly a master of the songwriting conventions this decade of pop music demands. On the third single from her recent album, she sings in anguish:

I’m at home
On my own
Check my phone
Nothing, though
Act busy
Order in
Pay TV
It’s agony

I may cry, ruining my makeup
Wash away all the things you’ve taken
I don’t care if I don’t look pretty
Big girls cry when their hearts are breaking
Big girls cry when their hearts are breaking
Big girls cry when their heart is breaking

The poor are frequently envious of the rich for their ease of living and luxurious material possessions. They often scoff at the complaints of the wealthy. The women in this song is “stuck” at home, surround by custom delivered food, expensive pay-per-view television, and her iPhone 6+ phablet. Later in the song we hear about the private jets and campaign she keeps for company. But what’s her current state? Agony.

In a way, the agony of the rich can be even greater than that of the poor. They have the added pressure of feeling as if they SHOULD be happy and thankful. When the poor feel like crap, it makes more sense. Psychologically they have a much easier time processing their misery. Their lack of food, stability, warmth, and medicine makes for a completely plausible source of despair. The rich on the other hand, still feel like total crap, but have the additional dissonance of being surrounded by everything they could ever want – maybe even plenty of friends. So what the heck is wrong? “Why is a broken heart so damn terrible?” they wonder. But of course, it is.

I think the net stress and existential angst of the rich and poor ends up being about equal. It just takes different forms. If anything, the value we place on money and wealth today serves to further aggravate the poor (offering them a false hope) while being especially maddening to the rich. Wherever we personally are on this continuum (middle America, etc.) we end up experiencing an equalizing mix of both.

In what direction lies a cure? To that end, I offer this quote a friend of mine recently posted from St. John Chrysostom:

The sins of the rich, such as greed and selfishness, are obvious for all to see. The sins of the poor are less conspicuous, yet equally corrosive of the soul. Some poor people are tempted to envy the rich; indeed this is a form of vicarious greed, because the poor person wanting great wealth is in spirit no different from the rich person amassing great wealth. Many poor people are gripped by fear: their hearts are caught in a chain of anxiety, worrying whether they will have food on their plates tomorrow or clothes on their backs. Some poor people are constantly formulating in their minds devious plans to cheat the rich to obtain their Wealth; this is no different in spirit from the rich making plans to exploit the poor by paying low wages. The art of being poor is to trust in God for everything, to demand nothing-and to be grateful for all that is given.
(On Living Simply, Homily 7)

In this absolutely sublime passage from C.S. Lewis’s ‘Till We Have Faces’, Orual, the main character, describes the joy she found in raising Psyche, her half sister:

The years, doubtless, went round then as now, but in my memory it seems to have been all springs and summers. I think the almonds and the cherries blossomed earlier in those years and the blossoms lasted longer; how they hung on in such winds I don’t know, for I see the boughs always rocking and dancing against blue-and-white skies, and their shadows flowing water-like over all the hills and valleys of Psyche’s body. I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me. I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister. I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich.

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The delusion of the mechanical perfectibility of mankind through a combined process of scientific knowledge and unconscious evolution has been responsible for a great deal of heartache. It is, at bottom, far more pessimistic that Christian pessimism because, if science and progress break down, there is nothing to fall back upon.
-Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos

Here in my hometown, we had an outbreak of whooping cough back in December. This past week or so, it’s been the measles. Some people I know have ended up in the hospital. In the media, there’s been a veritable pile-on of abuse, from all corners, heaped upon those who choose not to vaccinate their children. On one hand, I don’t have a lot of sympathy with their case – all four of my children are vaccinated, as am I, and in only two days time I will be entrusting my daughter into the hands of a surgeon and anesthesiologist. However, a friend of mine earlier today pointed out that something smells off about some of the rhetoric used to champion vaccination. The diversity of genetics and environment is rarely even acknowledged. In the sea of talk, the focus remains fixed on the binary choices of individuals and the technology at their disposal.

I’d like to affirm this annoyance at how subjects are dealt with out of context. The modern scientific approach, while acknowledging the existence of other factors, typically plows ahead with it’s quest to deal with everything in as abstract a manner as possible. It endeavors to control the world through a plan of categorize, divide, and conquer. But then we meet the 90-year-old bacon-eating chain-smoker who is happy as a clam and the 24-year-old health and exercise fanatic who is dying of cancer. The presence of both these people are offensive to those who are always pushing in their thought and discourse to isolate the variables to make sense of the world.

We scream and point fingers at the luddite parents who have just lost a child to measles, but we are not so quick to admit that the child could have died regardless of what pharmaceuticals were given them. You can be a careful driver who always wears a seat belt and still have your head smashed in by a drunk from out of nowhere. You can go to all the right schools, make all the right friends, spend your weeks in a Csikszentmihalyi-inspired state of flow and STILL get passed over for that big promotion. On the other hand, you can make a slew of bad choices and still end up with a mountain of blessings you don’t “deserve”. This is offensive to those trying to exert control over the world. I think this is why, despite our better judgement, we keep ripping situations out of their context to put just one appendage of them under the microscope. We pay a lot of lip service to “holistic” consideration, but when push comes to shove, we’ll pick just a couple things and assign them all the weight.

There are lots of examples, but I’ll just pick one for the moment. I know of several church denominations that will automatically defrock a pastor if one of their children leaves the faith. “If he can’t keep his own household in order, then he has no business shepherding the flock!” is the thought. And yes, I do think a pastor or priest with wayward children should indeed be examined. But, this kind of zero tolerance policy always leads to scorched earth. Why? Because you can be an amazing near-perfect parent and STILL have one of your kids turn out bad. The idea that your efforts alone practically make or break the whole thing is a complete load of hooey. And although it’s less common, one can have seemingly well-groomed children with all kinds of rottenness underneath the surface. The whole man and his work should be considered at all times. Presbyteries and colleges of bishops should be seats of careful (holistic!) judgement, not laboratories where a sample sequencer tells us everything we need to know.

The world is an incredibly complex place where mysterious forces are at work. We think that if we just have enough variables in our model and a computer large enough to crunch the numbers, then risk will approach zero. But we don’t really know what the heck we’re doing half the time. Tragedy can come like a storm from blue skies, and grace can strike like lightening as well. Our hope must lie somewhere else than in our own wisdom, aptitude for self-control, and capacity to control our circumstances. Yes, science provides valuable information and tools and we should strive to use them wisely. But they will always break down. Maybe not for you today, but maybe for your friend today. And they will break down for you eventually too. Have something to fall back upon that covers everything. I’ll take resurrection.

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Earlier today, Joshua Gibbs wrote:

“If a thing is not transcendent, it is arbitrary.”

Now I think I’ll attempt to apply this to language for just a moment. As I stare at my only partially-tackled bookshelves, I am sharply reminded of the great multitude of thought on this topic that I am ignorant of. Nonetheless, I think I can still explore a few worthwhile avenues with what I have.

Is the naming of a thing arbitrary? Man is an absolute whiz at naming things – God created him this way and gave him the task of naming everything long before the fall. In the millennia after, he has not ceased to categorize everything. With man, it’s all naming all the time. But is his naming arbitrary? Is he just making crap up out of thin air, like a database assigns pseudo-unique GUID’s to each record? Here’s an example: {96ac1fe6-032c-4df5-9620-5772b37365c2}. Are our names just like that, or are they rooted in reality, the natural, or as we might say, the transcendent?

“I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me!”
– J.R.R. Tolkien

Notice Tolkien does not have him say “My name is Gandalf”. He is unique and his name means himself, which, to some degree means that himself means his name. Tolkien writes this even while explaining elsewhere that his “real” name (or at least older name) is Olórin. Tolkien names everything in his world carefully based first on what they are.

He even offers some commentary on this own craft at times. Consider this passage about Beorn from The Hobbit:

“And why is it called the Carrock?” asked Bilbo as he went along at the wizard’s side.

“He called it the Carrock, because carrock is his word for it. He calls things like that carrocks, and this one is the Carrock because it is the only one near his home and he knows it well.”

Why is that thing named such? Gandalf’s answer is, that as far as he is concerned, the name is arbitrary. Beorn called it that, so that’s what it is! He knows it well (and probably even built it), so he get’s to name it and the rest of us will use that name too. But it is sort of made up. Or maybe Gandalf is just admitting that he doesn’t know exactly where the word comes from. He doesn’t know the history or reason for it’s name, but he assumes one exists.

I don’t think anyone will deny that language is rooted in history. That words grow out of other words is not up for debate, even if it is frustrating to those trying to stretch language in new direction.

“When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean” (Humpty Dumpty, from Alice in Wonderland)

Like Humpty Dumpty, Stephen [Joyce’s autobiographical protagonist] would like to exert complete mastery over language and meaning, but his experience consistently brings home the fact that none of us has such power. He may complain, in Ulysses, that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” but he realized that he must do so in a language conditioned by that very history.
-Kevin J.H. Dettmar, Introductory notes to James Joyce, p.xxv

And from this one can jump straight into some thought by Derrida or other post-modernists. What they essentially did was to follow this line of thinking to it’s logical end and conclude that all words are indeed arbitrary – not transcendent. There is no real meaning to be found in anything. Sure our words now are based on meaningful older things, but if you go all the way back to Adam, he’s just making crap up. Zebra might as well be {c4786612-6c21-4574-bc8f-d8c6c52775cb}, Fox {a3386dfe-7e82-4ec1-baf0-71b91bb9da47}, etc.

But, if we are theists, if must believe their is a transcendent underneath our words. If we are children of Abraham (formerly Abram!), we must say that a name is there for a reason – a reason that is not just more piles of slippery words. If we are Christians, we must believe that the words God speaks transcend even lips or ink. One time they even walked around on the earth and bled on the ground. There are good names, and there are evil names because there is real good and real evil. And the thing came into being first and then was named. Man may resist or “deconstruct” as much as he might, but most of the time he will still end up giving appropriate, that is natural, names to things.

piano-soldiers

Perhaps the first thing that [the average man] can learn from the artists is that the only way of mastering one’s material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgement, as the world revenges itself upon the domineering artist.
-Dorothy Sayers, from the essay Problem Picture

This passage really struck me to the heart when I read it, as it seems to describe the antidote to the bulk of the frustrations I’ve experienced as a musician.

Instead of mastery, cooperation in love. This goes first of all for one’s body. Are you really a baritone? Stop trying to bang your head against the wall singing the tenor part. Soprano’s who are really alto’s? The same goes for you. Do you have weak hands but still love to play the guitar? There really is a tremendous amount of music that can be played without continuous bar chords, but a lot of the classical repertoire may be agonizing to you. Don’t make yourself miserable. Work WITH your body, not against it, and find a way forward. Find some different stuff to play. Eyes don’t work very well? Don’t get angry – start memorizing. There is a time to discipline your body into shape, but there is also a time, when youth has passed, to just STOP and figure out what works and what you’re actually capable of. The person who lost an arm in a car accident knows this and will obviously take a one-handed approach to the piano. But YOU are not whole either. I am not whole either, even if my “disability” may be less obvious. Work with your body in love – with it’s nature.

The other angle involves collaboration with other people. Push to much for your own way and things will blow up in your face. The other musicians will revenge themselves upon the domineering artist. The primary way they do this is by quitting, and then you are left to play by yourself, which isn’t much fun at all. As Sayer’s says, we should abandon mastery and cooperate with the material (the music, the instruments, our friends, our bodies) in love. Rather than trying to Lord it over these things, be their servant.

I’ve only begun to meditate on what this means.

To the average man, life presents itself, not as material malleable to his hand, but as a series of PROBLEMS of extreme difficulty, which he has to SOLVE with the means at his disposal. And he is distressed to find that the more means he can dispose of – such as machine power, rapid transport, and general civilized amenities, the more his problems grow in hardness and complexity. This is particularly disconcerting to him, because he has been frequently told that the increase of scientific knowledge would give him mastery over nature – which ought, surely, to imply mastery over life.
-Dorothy Sayers, Problem Picture

There’s a joke in computer programming circles that says if you have a problem and you try to solve it with Regular Expression (aka Regex), then you now have two problems. Now regex is a very powerful tool. A chainsaw or a syringe of heroin is a powerful tool as well and can give you command over nature but just as quickly make your problems even harder. (Have you ever tried to start a chainsaw that hasn’t been perfectly maintained? Good luck with that.)

Mo’ money, mo’ problems. Why? It’s not just because you’ve got people trying to grab your cash. It’s because you really do have more power. But with that power comes not just a greater ability to solve problems, but also an increase in the complexity of what you need to solve. It may very well be that their difficulty increases at a greater rate than your new found means.

Are women who stay home today to raise the kids any less stressed out than they were a century ago because now they have automatic washing machines? I think the answer is a resounding “no”. Those of us in the workforce – is our productivity so much higher than that of our grandfather’s? I think if considered carefully, the answer is maybe not so clear. We are frustrated because we feel it should be obviously better.

This dynamic is why I am extremely skeptical of any system that seem to assume that an increase in progress or evolution will one day free us from our chains. The futurists who prattle on about the AI “Singularity” seem completely oblivious to the phenomenon described above. Marxist politicians also possess this seed of insane optimism about humanity. I think that if anything is going to save us, it’s going to have to come from OUTSIDE us. This is what the hope in the second advent of Christ is. The one who holds the scepter over death breaks into time. Our solviong is rife with with ill side-effects. He doesn’t come to solve a problem but rather to remake all of creation.

Time is a difficult subject for thought because in a sense we know too much about it. It is perhaps the only phenomenon of which we have direct apprehension; if all our senses were destroyed, we should still remain aware of duration. Moreover, all conscious thought is a process in time; so that to think consciously about time is like trying to use a ruler to measure its own length.
-Dorothy Sayers, from the essay Strong Meat

Our epistemology must be found in time. For it takes time to think about something – time to “know” it. We are nothing like God, who can “know” something without time – instantly from our perspective. Or are we nothing like this? Is there an analogy? I think perhaps there is.

Freud was fascinated by the activity of the unconscious. Today, we are often enamored by the power of intuition. Witness the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink and the many TED talks in the same vein. This is a knowing that seems to happen outside of time. Now, on reflection we know it is happening IN time just like all our other processing, but the time is not perceived. It doesn’t SEEM like it’s there. We cannot put our finger on the duration, or even confirm that their was any.

It would seem that omniscient thought would have quality of intuition, rather than that of a super-computing quantum AI making 10^400 calculations per second. Those would still be logged and in order. God may create sequentially, but He does not think as such. For us to to have the knowledge of good and evil, we became tainted by evil because it had to actively pass through our thoughts. God can know evil “intuitively” without actualizing it.

Jesus, as fully man, stepped into this temporal limitation. In the gospels, we find he knows secret things, but these are revealed to him by the Holy Spirit, in time. He’s drinking from the fire-hose of God’s love even while in another sense, He is the whole ocean.

A friend of mine online recently commented that the philosophy of time is especially hard. I agree, and I think Sayer’s was right – it is a difficult subject for thought.

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The following is a passage from Dorothy Sayer’s essay ‘The Other Six Deadly Sins’. I present it here, essentially unaltered, except interspersed with recent real headlines from, alternately, The Huffington Post and The Blaze. It seems my feed on Facebook is little more than a mashup of these two newspapers as of late. The following are all actual headlines from these popular sites, going back only a few days.

We all know pretty well the man – or, perhaps still more frequently, the woman – who says that anybody who tortures a helpless animal should be flogged till he shrieks for mercy.

Fraud and Betrayal Over the 20-Week Abortion Ban: Shame on These Women

The harsh, grating tone and the squinting, vicious countenance accompanying the declaring are enough to warn us that this righteous anger is devil born and trembling on the verge of mania.

You Can Murder Your Child, But You Can’t Make Medical Decisions For Her

But we do not always recognize this ugly form of possession when it cloaks itself under a zeal for efficiency or a lofty resolution to expose scandals – particularly if it expresses itself only in print or in platform verbiage.

Even Voter Fraud Couldn’t Save Mary Landrieu

It is well known to the more unscrupulous part of the press that nothing pays so well in the newspaper world as the manufacture of schisms and the exploitation of wrath.

Yes, Billy Crystal DID Just Make A Homophobic Statement (And Here’s Why It Matters)

Turn over the pages of the more popular papers if you want to see how avarice thrives on hatred and the passion of violence.

‘American Sniper’ Made Some Fans ‘Wanna Go Shoot Some F**king Arabs’

To foment grievance and to set men at variance is the trade by which agitators thrive and journalists make money.

Biased Media Demonize Police But Defend Islam

A dogfight, a brawl, or a war is always news; if news of that kind is lacking, it pays well to contrive it.

Cuomo’s War Against Teachers Is an Attack on Women

The average English [American] mind is a fertile field in which to sow the dragon’s teeth of moral indignation, and the fight that follows will be blind, brutal, and merciless.

Obama Threatens Free Speech (Again!)

Why Is Franklin Graham so Anti-Jesus?

I will end only by mentioning that Sayer’s essay is from 1942.

Up until [recently] the Church, in hunting down [the sin of lust], has had the active alliance of Caesar, who has been concerned to maintain family solidarity and the orderly devolution of property in the interest of the state. Now that contract and not status is held to be the basis of society, Caesar need no longer rely on the family to maintain social solidarity; and now that so much property is held anonymously by trusts and joint stock companies, the laws of inheritance lose a great deal of their importance. Consequently, Caesar is now much less interested than he was in the sleeping arrangements of his citizens, and has in this manner cynically denounced his alliance with the Church. This is a warning against putting one’s trust in any child of man – particularly in Caesar. If the Church is to continue her campaign against lust, she must do so on her own – that is, on sacramental – grounds; and she will have to do it, if not in defiance of Caesar, at least without his assistance.
-Dorothy Sayers, from The Other Six Deadly Sins

In any current event, there’s always more going on than meets the eye – forces at work over many years. A tall tower requires a deep foundation whose bricks were laid a long time before the most visible ones at the top. It’s been pointed out that contemporary “gay marriage” has its roots in the “no fault divorce” of two generations ago. Because Christians (though other religious traditionalists can be grouped in here) neglected to fight THAT back in the day, the road was paved for eventually making “marriage” a mushy concept defined only by the whims of the state.

In the same way, there was more going on with the sexual revolution of the 1960s than just a critical mass of influential secularists wanting to have sex with whoever/whenever. There has always been a critical mass of that! But the ground-work for it actually becoming institutionalized started with the depersonalization of property. The rise of the legal contract (versus inheritance by blood), the stock market, and public corporations, set the foundation for people to act as free agents apart from their money and land and families in a way unprecedented in civilization before. During the sexual revolution, Caesar (the government) woke up one day and realized that IT no longer cared who slept with who and so the champions of traditional morality lost a powerful (though incidental) ally. The irony is that this new foundation was often laid by conservative capitalists – sometimes very religious ones – who never dreamed of it’s far-reaching consequences.

So what can religious conservatives do today? For starters, we can stop pretending like Caesar is still a potential ally in the foreseeable future. And, if we want to change things eventually, we might address lower and larger bricks in the tower of those who do not fear God, rather than the shiny new ones on top.

The reason why men often find themselves happy and satisfied in the army is that for the first time in their lives, they find themselves doing something not for the sake of pay, which is miserable, but for the sake of getting the thing done.
-Dorothy Sayers (quoting a surgeon friend), in Creed or Chaos

Some people reminisce constantly about their days in high school – as if that time was the pinnacle of their existence before the stranglehold of adulthood seized them and has never let go. In a similar vein are those who, whatever the context, can’t go five whole minutes without bringing up some anecdote about their years in the military. I used to think this was just limited to career service men or those who fought in notable wars, but on close examination, this attitude often shows up in people who spent, say, a relatively uneventful six years in the navy. What makes this time in the army (or whatever) such a dominant experience of their lives that is serves as the (nearly always implicitly superior) measuring rod to everything that comes after it? I think Sayer’s get’s to the answer here. Man is wired to work hard, and to work toward a tangible, meaningful, and beautiful goal. Working for a paycheck taints this natural psychology like a rock in the shoe plagues a marathon runner. Recalling that one race you ran where you DIDN’T have a rock in your shoe – well, it would be hard to forget.

Can we escape paychecks today? Various economic philosophers, from Marxists to distributivists think so. Zizek says we are incapable of imagining such a world. I think I’m going to say no – they can’t be done away with. However, their effect on man’s work CAN be significantly mitigated, IF we’re careful and creative. Recovering or developing a more comprehensive theology of vocation would be a good step in the right direction on this. The “protestant work ethic”, despite it merits, needs to be scrapped in favor of something more holistic. We are not even close to articulating this well yet.