"The experience of meaninglessness is more radical than mysticism.Therefore it transcends the mystical experience"--Paul Tillich
I always like the notion, common in the evangelical protestant faiths among whose devotees I grew up, that death heralds the beginning of a long cinema show. One's life is played back for one's critical eye. In society in general, one's life "flashes before one" in an instant. But in the way it was told to me, actually one's life plays like a particularly detailed documentary film. The person who lived the life is the moviegoer, and God is the ultimate Critic.
The Albert Brooks comedy of some years ago, Defending Your Life, took this conceit and grafted on to it the notion of an actual trial based on excerpts from one's particular filmstrip. Each person's "trial" lasted a given number of days, to permit a full evaluation of the personal growth evidenced in the life lived. At trial's conclusion, one went back to live another life, or one transcended on to a different plane. I always liked the part of that film in which the hotel one got to stay in during the trial was a reflection of how charitable one was in life. I always worry that I have Bel Age pretensions, but only a Motel 6 font of activity.
I don't know about all the various theories of the afterlife, although the notion of curling up with a good film of myself and some popcorn does have some modest allure. But I am aware that in this life I already have been given a front row seat for how my life is lived. What film shall I make?
Tonight our president issued an ultimatum to the leader of Iraq that the Iraqi leader must exit power in two days or be overthrown militarily. Once again, I find myself in adrenalin-laden times. It's such a curious contrast, isn't it? I find myself trying to remember to paypal for two small ebay purchases, while Mr. Bush on my radio reads a detailed precis of UN violations and warlike intentions.
But the issue that confronts me tonight is not the issue of great matters of global import. I have written extensively on my own notions of "what should be", but ultimately, what I say "should be" carries little weight with the decision makers on either side of the issue. I cast my vote, I say my peace, but ultimately, this is just one tiny component of how I spend my day.
Lately I'm occupied with the concept of doing small things to make a difference. I've come to realize over time that it's not enough, this ritual of daily living. One must find more meaning in one's life than the general wave of CNN and the WB. One must do more than make fervent prayers and think great thoughts. I love the old Steve Wynn song lyric that goes "well, I thought I knew the answer/but no question was posed".
One of our local school districts garnered controversy when a special committee, appointed to develop a list of "core values", for which the school district should strive, listed out as a "common value" the "belief in a Supreme Being". Of course, I could take five thousand characters or so to express my dislike for such assaults upon freedom of religion, and my bemusement that in this country anyone can believe whatever they want, so long as they believe what the majority wants them to believe. I am not an atheist, but the atheistophobic parts of our culture meet with my disapproval. But the easy political point intrigues me less than the symbolism in adding such a statement to a general statement of core beliefs. It doesn't matter what they do, so long as their supposed values are in their mission statement. This leads, of course, to inauthenticity. I think today many people experience a frightening wave of disbelief and disillusion. A smouldering meaninglessness envelops society in a way that the tobacco companies, in their heyday, would have adopted as a marketing strategy. "Is God Dead?", Joe Camel would ask, "then light up a menthol!".
History teaches us that Mohandas Gandhi, a prospering middle age lawyer, began his fight to end tyranny and oppression when he was set off a train for daring to use a first class ticket to ride first class. His life ended, of course, when a fellow Indian and Hindu assasinated him for daring to suggest, if I may broadly paraphrase, that even Moslems were entitled to an end to tyranny and oppression. It's a picture book life, of salt taxes and mass marches and a funeral attended by a cast of hundreds of thousands.
I am a big admirer of Gandhi (although I admire his positions on peace and non-violence much more than I admire his odd fruitarian and earth-pack alternative health regime). I also like the German theologian Bonhoeffer, whom the Nazis executed in light of his actions in opposition to their regime. I'm intrigued by Dorothy Day, who transcended personal difficulties and deep disaffection with life to found the Catholic Worker movement and fight for the dignity of the ordinary working person. But in many ways, these heroes of mine present cinemascopic problems. Great men and women tend to generate great stories and great personal mythos. They rise from humble origins to do great things, cleaning Augean stables, blinding the societal cyclops. So many people whom I admire seem to be gifted with almost a predetermined inner fortitude or talent--an ability to do things that the rest of us cannot do.
But perhaps Dorothy Day said it best--"Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed that easily". I do not believe in "sacramental saints", but instead use the term more pragmatically, to describe those who do what I find to be great things. Even with the non-religious label,though, I think that's it's far too easy to "explain" a saint away as unduly holy or gifted. This excuses individual activity to do what one can do. If one is not a saint, then one has a "hall pass" from participating in the world. Why would God create saints, if not to shoulder all the burden of being good?
I love C.J. Koch's novel, The Year of Living Dangerously. The novel uses the turbulent era surrounding the 1960s Indonesian leader Sukarno and imagery from the wayang dance, a shadow puppet morality play, to build a powerful metaphor about the challenge of doing good for the ordinary person. Koch uses the character of Billy Kwan, the half-Chinese, half-Australian cameraman, to drive home a point about the difficult of doing good. Kwan fancies himself a sort of wayang puppeteer, who maneuvers the characters he fancies through a complex play. He lives his life through heroes, in essence his puppets, whom he eventually concludes betray him. But although he is in one sense an observer and a manipulator, he is in another sense entirely consumed with the problem of doing extraordinary good. He is consumed by the obsession to sainthood. But his efforts fail--and sainthood eludes and yet consumes him. Ultimately, he dies in the midst of a futile gesture at protest.
It's so tempting to mentally divide people into "one size fits all" labels--saint, sinner, prude, slut, hero, villain, mindful, heedless. But the labels just serve as impediments. It's too easy to relegate people to one stack or another--and far too simple to relegate oneself to the scrapheap, damned for want of sainthood.
Lately, though, I wonder about how to go about doing what I will express here as my personal thimbleful of good. I find that doing good in an institutional way is so very challenging. I am quite good at any volunteer thing that can be done in one shot or one sitting. But I find it very hard to commit myself to doing good on a routine basis. Lately, I wonder if I should find my own paths to doing good. Instead of trying to fit myself into some formula of "how to be good", I think I should try new things, new ways to do something that helps.
Lately, my schemes and strategems are more flights of fancy.
I imagine running charity blitz chess championships. Indeed, the chess grandmaster Walter Browne, who runs the World Blitz Chess Association, and about whom I will share a fun story in a subsequent post, just e mailed me yesterday with details on how to set up to do just that. The idea is not a bad one--an outlet for people to play fun chess with the entry fees donated to charity. But that inner critic nonethless appears. I am pretty good at doing mental business "pro formas". By my mental count, my idea will never raise great sums of money. Since it will never raise great sums of money, I therefore mentally disparage it. After all, what good is doing good if one is not some superstar of goodness? This is the trap of aspiring to a certain kind of "sainthood". The result of such thinking, for me, is paralysis in doing anything at all.
I know that I am not good at certain ways of doing good. I volunteered to write letters for the folks who line up shut-ins with whom to correspond. I thought I'd be a natural for this, as I write so prolifically, and love snail and e mail. In fact, though, I got caught up in some work things, as well as a family matter, and dropped the ball entirely. I should have behaved much better, and I did paypal a small donation and write a suitable apology. But I ask myself, why? Why would I drop such a catch-able ball?
I think here the other trap, the trap of "sin" arises. I forget to do something the first day, and then by the second day it becomes a chore, a matter to procrastinate. By the end of a week, it is a burden. I like that character Julia Flyte in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. At one point, she describes the decision to violate her marriage vows, but recognizes that her state is not merely one of the hackneyed "living in sin". Instead, she sees sin as all-pervading, that she "eats sin", "drinks sin" with her tea, and is in essence immersed in sin. I find this metaphor fascinating, and an interesting plot device to pave the way for a lesson on the concept of grace which is stark, awe-inspiring and yet almost unfulfilling in its relative austerity.
But for me, the notion that if I am not a saint, I must be a sinner, keys into so many of my own issues with self-esteem. I am not sure anything about the notion of damnation saves me. I do not choose, though, to live in these constructs, as powerful as they are for me. I am hunting for new houses in which to live, perhaps not so fancy as the sainthood of my dreams, but maybe a bit more attainable on my limited spiritual income.
I think that the hardest thing, particularly in these troubled times, is to give oneself permission to be both ordinary and caring. When one sees helping to be as inevitable as dry cleaning a suit, when one leaves the sin and sainthood behind, then one can really get something done. It's my hope that when one turns off the inner brownie point counter, and just has fun with the idea of doing good, one can be liberated from the burden of saintliness and sin.
It's almost like a mantra, this thing I want to experience--
"I do not know all the answers. Let me do good anyway. I do not know the way. Let me do good anyway. I have no skills. Let me do good anyway".
I think harshness besets us now. Let me do good anyway.
I will not gain Heaven. Let me do good anyway. I will not escape Hell. Let me do good anyway. I will feel the despairs and indecisions endemic in my nature. Let me do good anyway.
No matter what choices I make, I could have made better ones, or worse ones. What if they show the movie of my life, and I am only a bit player in it? What if it turns out I was never the leading man?
I think that this is a time in which ordinariness is a virtue.
I want to embrace that I am neither demon nor saint, and
merely move on to do the things I can. I don't know what I am doing. But I must do it anyway.