Post 35

The Air in August: Reflections on Aging

On August tenth, the air was different.  It carried the scent of fall.

Yet it’s supposed to be summer!  It’s the second half of summer holidays, and everything is so perfectly lush and green and full. The sun is shining on the people at the festivals and the nights can feel hot.  But I see: it’s a ruse, an illusion.  So I concluded, by the time my walk was done, that August is sort of a false month.  August is a middle-aged woman dying her hair.

Give me October instead, when everything is fading in earnest, and going out with a bang: fireworks everywhere.

Yes, I know I shouldn’t criticize any month.  (And you’re also thinking that I shouldn’t alienate hair-dying readers either – yes, yes, but I’ll get to that too.) It seems ungrateful, I suppose.

And you, being rational, will surely argue, at the Tribunal of Fair Criticism, that August is the month of fullness, the month of fruition, the month of the Assumption and the birthday month for one-twelfth of the world.

You would be right, of course.

But for now, I smell the air, and it puts me in the mood of Qoheleth: “This also is futility and a striving after the wind.”  (Ecclesiastes)

I’m prepared to admit that my prejudice against August is irrational (if all prejudices are irrational then I suppose that’s redundant), but I take comfort in the fact that Chesterton’s wife was opposed to the moon.  And besides, if you can have a favorite month, then why can’t you have a month that you dislike?  That’s what I’d tell the judge at the Tribunal.  It’s a somewhat persuasive argument?  Or here’s another one: a person cannot control what or whom they like or dislike, so if I dislike the smell of autumn in the summer, then it’s just the way I’m wired.  Is that any better?  That one’s in keeping with the distinction which I’ve heard, to the effect that Christians are commanded to love – a matter of the will – but not commanded to like – a matter of who-knows-what.  And of course this all reminds me of Chesterton’s quotation, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

But I’m actually quite open-minded about the issue, as you’ll see from the following: I, the Mostly-Anonymous Blogger who dislikes August, hereby declare, in the spirit of Tolerance for All Months, that in the highly improbable event of my extended relocation, planned or unplanned, to another part of the world where the length of summer exceeds 12.75 weeks, that I will generously and magnanimously suspend my dislike of August.  I further declare that I am prepared to substitute, or to consider substituting, without excessive and unreasonable delay, my aforementioned dislike of August for dislike of whichever month looks lush but smells otherwise.

So you see, I leave room for negotiation.

Turning to other critical and pressing world issues, I’m not sure where I stand on hair-dying anymore.  I used to be opposed, but exposure to wise women who do it has made me wonder whether they rightly do it to please their husbands, along the lines of Post 13.  On the other hand, VeraciousOne, who is entirely elegant, doesn’t do it, saying “It’s about honesty.”

And have you heard?  Gray is the new blond.  The hairdresser showed me a little collection of hair swatches in shades of gray (now there’s a phrase that has gone up in flames – of hellfire, I suppose); she said the blue-gray one is particularly popular.  Young people are dying their hair ‘granny gray’ just to show how very hip they are.

Hey, maybe they’ve read Chesterton, who wrote a story where the villain, “the wickedest man in England,” is described, in part, like this: “his hair, which was largely grey, was curled with the instinct of one who appreciated the gradual beauty of grey and silver.”  (The Club of Queer Trades)  I liked that.

But even if gray hair is in style, aging itself is very unfashionable these days.  And I can understand why.  Our culture idolizes the health and beauty of youth, and is not willing to sacrifice these things for the wisdom and experience of the aged.  Being young is cool, and being old is cool to the extent that it imitates being young.  The senior who participates in the marathon is cool; the senior who has a walker is not cool.  That wealthy old golfer is given respect, but it’s not because of his age; it’s because he’s a good tipper and his Lexus is parked outside the country club.  Take away his money and people won’t laugh at his jokes anymore.  Contrast this with other cultures or even our own culture a few generations ago: respect for elders, whether they were healthy or wealthy or not, was a reality.

But above and beyond all this, being old nowadays can be really depressing.  It’s considered an unthinkable burden for a family to live with elderly relatives, and therefore, care (if it can be called that) of the aged is left to institutions and their overworked staff.  The poor go to the grim seniors’ residence, and the rich go to the place with the plush carpets and the chandelier in the dining room.  Welcome to the rest of your life.

A few weeks ago, I was a captive audience for a television, and I was amazed to see that almost every second commercial was for a wearable device which, at the press of a button, would connect you to some call centre, aka Big Brother, who would alert the medical authorities in the event that you had a medical emergency.  There were quite a few Orwellian companies that you could choose from.  The job of the commercials is to make it look all normal and sensible, but the popularity of these devices is sad proof of the isolation that so many seniors experience, daily.  They live unvisited for days and weeks and months at a time.  It must be painful and demoralizing.  This is where ‘independence’ has brought our society.

So it is no wonder that our pleasure-oriented culture would rather not think about aging, nor its even less-welcome cousin, Sister Death, as St. Francis of Assisi called it.  A person might admit, grudgingly, that he is aging, but death is for other people, not for him.  I’m too young for that; I’m too healthy for that; I’m too busy for that.

And as a result, we’ve come up with a few convenient lies to tell ourselves about aging.  I’m thinking of those little phrases that somehow get started and then get circulated so often that they start seeming true, even though they’re stupid.  My concern is that the more we accept these phrases, the stupider we get as a culture.

I’m thinking of: “You’re only as old as you feel,” or, “Age is just a number.”

Give me a break.

(Now I haven’t heard you saying it, so don’t take this personally.  Instead, view it as the random rantings of a person who has the audacity to disparage August and triangles and round buildings.)

In the first place, you must notice that nobody who is young, let’s say 24 or under, says these things.

(I choose 24 because when you turn 25, you’ll probably notice that you are ‘a quarter of a century’ and it may occur to you that the birthdays are going to keep coming, and will bring you to – shudder – 30.)

Indeed, this phrase is invariably said by people past their prime, who believe that they are unique in their outlook and approach to life.  Unlike those other people, who are old and inactive, they feel young.  So this is the first problem with it: nearly EVERYONE feels young.  Or to put it another way, nearly everyone FEELS young, on the inside.

Who feels old on the inside?  Do you look at an 82-year-old woman and think, “Now there’s someone who feels old”?  If you did, you’d be wrong. She doesn’t feel any different, inside, than she did when she was 24.  Just ask her.  I dare you.  Go around asking everyone how old they feel, and I bet you won’t find any who feel much different than they did decades ago. We look out at the world with the same eyes we always did, and we think with the same brain.  We acknowledge the decline in eyes and brain, but we feel largely unchanged in who we are on a deeper level.

That 82-year-old woman is just as surprised as you would be if you woke up one morning to find that you had aged 49 years while you were asleep.  She’s caught off guard by the rapid and sudden decline in her abilities and appearance.  She has laugh lines when she’s sad, and frown lines even when she’s happy. “My face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain,” said W.H. Auden.

I like the lines of that nostalgic song:

Just tonight I stood before the tavern
Nothing seemed the way it used to be
In the glass I saw a strange reflection
Was that lonely woman really me?

– “Those Were the Days” (songwriter Gene Raskin)

No, I think the people who feel old on the inside are the exception, not the rule.  Those of us who feel like we were born middle-aged (or in the Middle Ages) are outliers.  But even so, we felt 40 then, and we feel 40 now and will probably always feel 40.

Our chronological aging does not affect that deep interior part of us which is timeless, which is beyond time, which is eternal.   We feel young because, not surprisingly, an eternal people never would get old.

So there’s an aspect of reality reflected in denying and defying aging, which is pretty much what these expressions encourage.

But instead of getting to a truthful place which can be reached with a consideration of a little bit of theology, our society scoffs at such ‘unreasonable’ notions and goes on to say things which are ridiculous, like “you’re only as old as you feel.”

Let’s be sensible: your age is not about how you feel.  Your age is about math – counting, to be specific.  You start on the date of your birth (or, like the Koreans used to, you acknowledge the time in the womb by starting a year earlier than the date of birth), and then you add the days that have elapsed since then.  It’s kind of beautiful in its logic, isn’t it?

Let’s not be relativistic about those things which we should not be.  Sure, if you want to call yourself an artist, go ahead, I won’t argue.  (I remember when a fellow teenager said to me that if you don’t identify yourself as an artist, people will say, “Wow, you’re a good draw-er.”)  And if you want to call yourself a writer, go ahead!  (I know you’re just a blogger though.)

But there are limits to this game of make-believe, I hope.

Or are we such lovers of relativism that we would say that what is objectively true shall be subordinate to what we feel?  My mom is a cat and my dad is a cat, and my birth certificate used to say I am a cat, but I’ve had it changed because lately I’ve been feeling like a dog.

Woof.

My birth certificate says that I was born in 1901, but trust me, I really do feel very young.  Contact Vital Statistics to change the year to 2001.  You must play along with me because I make my own truth about myself.  I feel young, and if you were paying attention, you would see that I dress like the young person I am.  Or could it be that you failed to notice the strategically-placed holes in my jeans?  And my hair: you noticed, I hope, that I am sporting the very latest shade of granny gray?  

Ah, you say, settle down, it’s just an expression.

No, I won’t!  I won’t settle down!  I am determined to have my tantrum right here and right now and waaaaaaa!  Who says I have to be mature?  Who dares stop me if I want to be 2 years old?  That’s how I feel!  How dare you tell me, you intolerant counting person, that I am not 2?

I WANT to be 2.

So I am.

So there.

Nya-nya.

Welcome to my own personal world of make-believe.  You have to play along.  If you don’t, well, that just proves you’re a meanie.

And lest you think I exaggerate, I see references on the internet to a person’s ‘health age.’  With almost no effort, I found the following quotation:

Have you ever heard a phrase along the lines of “30 is the new 40”? Such statements are an excellent illustration of a simple fact – namely, that the details on your birth certificate don’t have to dictate your physical and mental state. Instead, it is your “health age” that can determine your overall health and energy level. Whatever ideas you may have of what it means to be 40, 50 or beyond, you don’t simply have to accept the limitations associated with age. By carefully adjusting your lifestyle and investing in the right anti-aging treatment, you may be able to regain control of your mind and body and continue to live your life as you choose.

 – www.longevitycentres.com

Isn’t the expression “40 is the new 30”?   (Ah, these unequal equalities are so confusing!)  Anyway, here the writer discredits the “details” of your birth certificate.  Yeah, all those pesky details!  Those aren’t the facts.  The FACT is that the DETAILS don’t have to matter or make one iota of difference.  And look at the carrot at the end of the paragraph: “continue to live YOUR life as YOU choose.”  Ah yes, good old independence!

Now of course they begin with some facts so obvious that they don’t need to be stated: an old person can be healthier than a young person.  So far so good.

But you see where this is going.

This website provides the modern ‘scientific’ version of a crystal ball, one of many life-expectancy calculators.  I recommend using one, because it’s wise to think about these things.  The one on this website gave me the longest life-expectancy of all.  Apparently, I am going to live until I am 105.  And my ‘Health Age’ is 16.

Sixteen!

This is not ‘good news.’  It is nonsense.

But how can a person argue with this?  They made up the questions, and they made up the answer too.  It’s a FACT.  And isn’t that interesting that they want to speak in terms of a “simple fact” when there aren’t very many facts which are simpler than the fact of your date of birth, and hence, your real age? In lieu of this, they substitute a time-consuming questionnaire (not simple) in order to give me my ‘health age.’

Sigh.

Indeed, I cannot prove to them that I will not live until I am 105.  How can I prove that they’re wrong?  I can show that it is statistically extremely improbable, and I can show them that there were certain questions missing from their questionnaire, but once you step away from common sense starting-points, well, you can make the truth be whatever you want it to be.  That’s the problem with almost all philosophy; it doesn’t begin with natural starting-points.  Chesterton praised St. Thomas Aquinas because St. Thomas Aquinas, unparalleled genius that he was, began with what he could learn from his senses.  What is more sensible than that?  And, unparalleled genius that he was, he climbed very, very, high from that foundation.

But anyway, my answer to all the people at the Longevity Centres of America is to say that they cannot prove that I will live until I am 105, and they cannot sell me anything that will ‘enable me to regain control of my mind and body’ in any significant way (as if anyone really has very much control over these things in the first place).

Who knows how long they will live?  Will you be that health-conscious person who dies at the age of 33, or that sickly person who outlives all her friends and dies at 93?  Statistically speaking, my chance of a sudden death is greater than my chance of living until I am 105.  And even if 99% of my body has a health age of 16, surely at least 1% of my body knows how to act its age.  And perhaps that 1% will have a decisive vote and take me down.

So there is uncertainty, but these uncertainties exist in the context of some basic certainties.  If you are 79, you are not young.  If you are 69, you are not young.  If you are 59, you are not young.  If you are 49, you are not young.  If you are 39, you are not young.

At 39, you are middle-aged.  39 is roughly the middle.  The bible says that a man’s life is ‘three-score and ten’ which is 70, and despite all the talk of living longer, we can, in general, hope for a life about 80 years long.  Even that is not guaranteed, in which case, you might be past the middle of your life at age 39.

And when you consider the fact that, in general, our vitality tapers off as we reach these later years, we shouldn’t get too excited about getting an extra 8 or 10 years on top of this.  To put it another way, the extra years that you’d get, if you were to win the longevity lottery, are the ‘weaker’ ones, those discounted ones that are on sale at the dollar store.  Remove the gift wrap and you’ll see some saggy years staring back at you: 84, 85, 86, 87.  You won’t luck out and get an extra set of the 20s or 30s.

Now I’m not saying that those later years aren’t worth having; they are truly a gift, just like all the other days that God gives us, and if they are marked by sorrow or suffering, then we can gain great spiritual benefit from them.  (Euthanasia’s greatest crime is that it steals from us our big chance for penance and atonement – being procrastinators, we’ll avoid such things until we have no choice but to face them.)

What I am saying is, let’s be realistic, and not delude ourselves, by our words or actions, into thinking that we have more time than we have.   Our very lives are like August.  It may look like an endless summer, and sound like one and even feel like one, but there’s a scent in the air, and it’s time to prepare.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted

– Ecclesiastes, 3:1-2

Post 34

The Good, the Bad and the Unusual:
More About Blogging

Sometime between Post 32 and 33, my dad told me that he was subscribing to my blog.

I did not know this.  This can happen when you don’t have access to your own stats.

As a matter of fact, I did not know that he knew I had a blog.   You can be sure that upon hearing this, I mentally ‘re-read’ my posts through my dad’s perspective, or what I think my dad’s perspective would be.

Hmm.  It’s an unusual feeling.

Isn’t it odd that there are things that we’ll tell to the complete stranger but that we won’t tell nearly so easily to our own family?  I could speculate about why that is, but here’s Chesterton’s take:

Men always talk about the most important things to total strangers. It is because in the total stranger we perceive man himself; the image of God is not disguised by resemblances to an uncle or doubts of the wisdom of a moustache.

–  G.K. Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades, Chapter 5

Yet this isn’t the first time I’ve found myself experiencing unusual sensations due to blogging.

For instance, there’s the feeling you get when you run into the same stimulus that provoked you to start a topic in the first place.

Soon after Post 19, I walked into a hospital in which there was a modern art exhibition and sale in a little internal gallery.  Displayed prominently was a canvas of black circles on a white background, just like my hypothetical example.  I looked at it, and thought to myself, “How uncanny.  I wrote about exactly that.” Then I saw a patient whose gown was sliding off his shoulder, and another whose gown gaped open in the back, and I thought to myself, “and I wrote about that” (Post 6) and as I saw the staff wheeling something somewhere, I thought, “and about that too” (Post 9).  Tonight as I opened the pizza box, I remembered my hypothetical green peppers (Post 22).

It’s almost as if you think, “Now that really reminds me of something someone said once!” and then you pause. “Ah yes, that someone was me.”

But it doesn’t end there.  When I went out with friends, I could barely contain myself as we wandered onto the discussion of feminism right after I had finished a post on it (Post 31).  When SpiritedOne said, “I do call myself a feminist – but I explain that I’m a pro-life feminist,” I felt like Arnold Horshack on “Welcome Back Kotter,” (“Oooh! Oooh! Oooh!”) but what are you supposed to say?  How about, “Ladies, I really appreciate your attendance here tonight.  Please move your cheesecake aside while I set up my laptop; there we go.  The first slide you’re going to be seeing here – oh, let me just try to click through to it; there we go – for tonight’s PowerPoint presentation – do you all have a clear view? – is an overview of Blog Post #31, which was posted on July 29, 2015.  As you look at these bullets, you’ll notice -is my microphone on? – that this post contains, as usual, several digressions into completely unrelated topics . . .”

Yeah, maybe not.

“Gee, I wonder how come my friends never invite me out anymore.”

So instead I made valuable contributions to the conversation such as this, “I wrote about that!” and then later, I added this gem: “Ooh, yes, exactly!  I said that too!”

How can I let myself get started on the topic when I’ve said it all before?  How much kimchee is too much?  You’ve got easy access to the written version, but now that I’ve got you here in person, I’ll give you the audio version too.  As a matter of fact, I have a printed-out version right here; you can read along as I share my thoughts on the topic.  And would you be interested in a fridge magnet by any chance?

Yeah, it feels strange.

And then there are the things that I would count on the negative side of the ledger, which I didn’t fully appreciate before.

One minus is that the standard for blogging is so low that you can barely admit to doing it.  You feel sheepish.  The other day a woman said to me, “I’ve carved out some time to write today.”  She said that she’s working on a book and that she hopes to have it published one day.  I felt like saying, “I write too!  I write all the time!  When I’m not writing on the computer, I’m writing in my head!  I write when I shouldn’t be writing!  I write when I have no time carved out for writing!  I can’t stop!” 

But I didn’t say anything, because if you tell people that you write, then they’ll ask you what you write, and then it will turn out that it’s only a blog.  A blog, where ‘publishing’ is only a mouse click away.

Someone saw me typing once and asked, “Are you a writer?”  I said, “Well, not really.”  A few minutes later, someone asked the same thing.  “Are you a writer?”  I said, “Well, kind of.  It’s a blog.”

Another thing, which is a mixture of good and bad and strange is the way that I often find, after posting, that the exact same point was made by somebody else. That might not sound so bad, but allow me an analogy.  Starting a new topic is like diving into the river.  You think it will be a fairly straightforward swim, and the other side of the river doesn’t look too far away; it won’t be like the last time.  You happily jump in.  Then part way through, as always, you find that it’s fairly tough work; there are obstacles that you didn’t expect, and you can’t swim around them; you must swim through them.  So you keep going, and then at last, you arrive on the other side, panting and tired.  Nevertheless, you have a sense of accomplishment, because you’ve done your best and you made it after all.  As you are toweling off, you look up, and you notice something.

Wait a minute – that’s not – that’s a bridge, isn’t it?

It turns out that someone else, probably Chesterton, was here several decades ago, and he built a bridge, elegant and perfect, that spans that exact same river that you wanted to cross.

Oh.

I see.

Well, well.

So I guess I could have just – I could have just – taken that.

And I tell you, just this morning, after writing my post about dancing, I was resting.  I lazily picked up a copy of Gilbert, a magazine which is free to members of the American Chesterton Society, and I read this:

He once contrasted the scientific civilization advocated by Joseph McCabe with the religious commonwealth of the Middle Ages by asserting that the former believes in specialists doing things that the latter believes everyone should do.  Chesterton gives a few examples.  Once “this habit of dancing was a common habit with everybody, and was not necessarily confined to a professional class.  A person could dance without being a dancer; a person could dance without being a specialist; a person could dance without being pink.” He gives another example. “The very fact that Mr. McCabe thinks of dancing as a thing belonging to hired women at the Alhambra [a ballet hall] is an illustration of the same principle by which he is able to think of religion as a thing belonging to some hired men in white neckties.”  This is in line with his idea of the democratic faith being that terribly important things must be left to ordinary people.

And then he gives two more examples.  “Once men sang together round a table in chorus; now one man sings alone, for the absurd reason that he can sing better.  If scientific civilization goes on (which is most improbable) only one man will laugh, because he can laugh better than the rest.”

– David Fagerberg, “Smile, You’re on the Internet,” Gilbert Magazine, Volume 18, No. 6-7, May-June 2015

I read this not more than fifteen minutes after publishing my post about dancing.  I could not believe the timing!

I guess the good news is that I went in the same direction as Chesterton, but I have to say, it does feel strange to stand here, dripping wet, looking at that bridge.

So arguably, I should do more reading, in order to find more of these bridges before I start any given topic.  But I confess that I’ve noticed another unintended consequence of blogging, and that is that I approach books with some trepidation now: “Oh dear, the next few pages of this book will probably have a whole bunch of great quotations, and will fill my head with new ideas, and then I’ll have even more blog topics than I already have and then I won’t be able to remember all these new ideas and plus I’ll have even more places to look whenever I want to retrieve a quotation because I’ll have even more source material than I already have now.”

Sigh.

Okay, no more thinking for today.  Maybe I’ll just go read the instruction manual for the alarm clock.

Instruction manuals. Language. Precision in language. Truth. Beauty. Goodness.  Aagh!

Happy Birthday Dad.  Welcome to my blog.  Can I interest you in a fridge magnet?

Post 33

So I Think You Can Dance:
Reflections on Dancing Today

I can imagine why, on the theory of evolution, games of hide-and-seek and tag would appeal to even young children.  But it surprised me to find that if you turn on music with a good beat, a tiny toddler will start bouncing up and down to the rhythm.  It looks largely involuntary.  Why are our brains set up to be so receptive to music?  And why does certain music make us want to dance?  Why is this trait so important, from an evolutionary standpoint?  Survival of the most rhythmic?

Some would tell me that certain traits are ‘just there’ and others would come up with something about how dancing was fundamental to our survival because in all prehistoric cultures, dancing built a sense of community and was therefore important in mating and this is why all the cavemen whose brains could not tell that it was time to party because their neurons weren’t wired for music just continued to sit and stare at the fire while the hip cavemen went off to the hip caveman nightclub and got all the cavewomen and then passed along their Caveman-Can-Dance genes to their offspring.

(And on that topic, it just so happens that after writing the above, I saw a book called Sex at Dawn: Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality which was being given away for free.  It briefly crossed my mind to thumb through it, just for laughs, but then I decided against it – one time a wise priest had said to me, “Be careful what you read; life is short,” so I generally operate on the notion that life is too short for fiction.)

But anyway, I don’t see the animals dancing.  A teensy-weensy fraction of them, out of the billions of animals out there, have been known to use a tool (which of course proves that Animals are Exactly Like People, Only Better), but I don’t see any dancing.

And no, that male bird ‘tap-dancing’ in order to impress the female bird doesn’t count.  And the amazing dancing cats on YouTube (there must be a few) don’t count either.  And as for your aunt’s ferret – oh, stop it now – don’t be argumentative!  You get my point – stick with me or go find a blog where you can leave comments.

It’s the people who are dancing.  Or to be more accurate, it’s the people who WANT to dance.  I think it’s very deeply rooted.  It’s an expression of joy, for one thing.  I watched a nature documentary where the BBC film crews were trying so hard to capture footage of snow leopards in the wild, and when they finally did, they told the local guides the good news.  I was fascinated.  The guides started dancing!  They just started twirling around – it was a folk-dance version of the football players’ touchdown dance.

I saw that, and thought: “Look at those men.  They’re actually dancing for joy. That’s so healthy!  How come we never see that?”  I, for one, don’t know any men who dance in public.

And the other day I went to a local annual festival where each country or ethnic group has at least a couple of huge tents, featuring the food, handicrafts, history and music of that part of the world.  It’s a wonderful festival and since there are eighty or so pavilions, it takes all day if you want to visit them all: a most suitable plan of action.  It’s an embodiment of distributism, another ‘-ism’ that I like.  Very nice.

Anyway, some of the countries have dancing.  Now I did enjoy a fair bit of the dancing that I saw, but for the most part, there were barely any men doing it.  So when I went to the Croatian pavilion and saw that every female dancer had a partner, I was impressed.  It was enjoyable to see, and not only did the men look good, all dressed up in the traditional ethnic clothing and doing their traditional ethnic moves, but they made the women look good, just by virtue of their contrasting look and style of movement.  I thought to myself: “Look at these men, looking so sharp!  They look good doing this.  How come we never see that?”

It gave me the same feeling that I had upon watching a performance of flag-throwers on a trip to Europe.  That was in a city square, and there were a lot of flag-throwers, both men and boys, and a big crowd of spectators.  The purpose of the performance was to raise funds to pay for the restoration of a statue of a lion.  They weren’t actually dancing, but it had that feeling, because they were very synchronized and while they did their routine, a line of drummers kept a steady beat.  The big flags were on poles and had a coat of arms on them, and the men tossed them up and caught them.  (The flags were a symbol of purity and were therefore not supposed to touch the ground.) These sturdy fast-footed men presented as very masculine, wearing smart-looking medieval clothing: hats, jackets, tights and boots.  I marvelled at the pageantry of it all: “This is so incredible.  You never see this back home.”

So this post is a lament about the loss of something from the past.  It’s a lament because I can’t see a solution.  I like that quotation from Chesterton, when he said something to the effect that “I am aware that much of what I hold dear is vanishing.”

So when do you see men dancing nowadays?  From what I can tell, the only time they’ll dance is when they go to the club to meet women.  And of course, romantic aims have always been one of the main motivations for people to dance, ever since that first disco ball was hung up in a cave.  George Bernard Shaw, who was almost always on the opposite side of an issue from Chesterton, called dancing “a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire” which I think is clever, but I like this waltz version of the same concept: “Heaven – I’m in Heaven – And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak!  And I seem to find the happiness I seek / When we’re out together dancing cheek-to-cheek.” (Irving Berlin, songwriter) 

Perhaps it’s this angle that led many Protestant denominations to declare dancing sinful, but I think they went too far, especially in light of all the scriptural references to dancing, and especially if dancing is part of being human, which is what I think.  Catholics say dancing has its place.

But anyway, I know that men dance at weddings sometimes.  As a matter of fact, I suspect that in many cases, it’s pretty much the last dancing some men ever do.   After that, they just go home and stare at the fire; their dancing days are over.

I don’t think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Dancing used to be so much more, and every time I saw these things – the men with the flags, the folk dancers at the festival and the spontaneous dancing upon hearing good news – it struck me that we’ve really lost something as a culture, to have kept only the nightclub version of dancing (boom-boom-boom).  Now I know about the ballroom dancing clubs, but that seems to be almost a world unto itself, like some specialized sport.   When this ballroom dancing spills out into the regular community, like at a wedding, it somehow seems like an awkward clash of cultures, like chili next to sushi at a potluck.  I’m reminiscing about the days of Cinderella, when everybody in the community anticipated or at least knew about the upcoming ball, and everybody without a wicked stepmother was able to go, and, once there, danced the same dance.

Dancing used to be done by all the adults, and it wasn’t just a mating thing; the older generations would come out and they would join in as well.  And perhaps these long-married couples were some of the better dancers – having had the same partner for decades, they’d be very well attuned to each other.

I am nostalgic for something which isn’t part of my own memories – the balls and the country dances, and maybe even the dances in the local dance hall and in the basements of the (Catholic) churches, though I think those tended to be less multi-generational.  Where have all these dances gone?  Nowadays we have dancing (although just the other day, I spoke to a 70-year-old who said that the nightclub version doesn’t qualify as dancing, which I don’t think is quite fair) but we don’t have dances.  At least, we don’t have them the way we used to.

And yet I note that we are, as a culture, quite interested in watching other people dance, either incorporated into a singer’s performance or as a reality television show (“So You Think You Can Dance”).  Dancing has changed from something which we did for amusement, into something that we watch for amusement.

And if you look at dancing today, the most recently invented versions are designed, in general, for watching.  They are for performing rather than sharing with other dancers.  Now I know that dance-as-performance has always existed, and that dancing isn’t always about interaction with other dancers.  I know that even in the context of folk-dancing, there are times when the star dancer takes the stage alone and does his or her thing.  (I can’t help but think of belly-dancing here – bleck – or Salome’s dance which ended with John the Baptist’s head on a platter, but that’s just me.)   My point is that very few (I can’t say none, because maybe there are some, and you would know, and be dying to tell me) of the new styles are designed to reflect relationship with each other.  What I mean is that in the classical and traditional forms of dance, dancers were usually facing each other, in a line or in pairs.  There was a relationship there, but nowadays, from what I can see, the dancers are solo, or if there is a group, they face the audience (or video camera) and not each other.   They may be (mostly) synchronized, like the K-Pop performers at the Korean pavilion (who do not show us the heritage of Korea, but rather, the effect of the western culture on that heritage), but they are all facing in the same direction, like people on an elevator who are waiting for the doors to open.

And so there we are, watching the dancers/performers.  We ourselves don’t sing and dance and act; we watch professionals, who sing and dance and act.

Our society has become extremely passive and far more interested in inputs than outputs.  Take singing: it used to be the case that we all knew many stanzas worth of several songs, and people like Karol Wojtyla could remember all the words even when the voices of everyone around him had faded away, but now there aren’t very many songs that we all hold in common.  Even Christmas carols, the last hold-outs for a shared musical culture, are becoming unfamiliar.  The instrumental versions pop up here and there, but we can’t sing beyond the first stanza.  We don’t sing as a community anymore.

And it’s the same with theatre – we don’t do it as a grassroots thing either; in the past, most schools or parishes would spend months preparing for a Christmas play, but nowadays it almost never happens.  A good priest was telling me that in Poland, each parish had a theatre group, and then there would be a festival where the groups would compete.  That’s a lot of regular folks doing a lot of theatre!  And why not?  It’s too fun to leave to the experts!  Here in Canada, there seems to be a lot of theatre happening, but it’s not the way it looks: if you took away the government subsidies on which almost all of them depend, most of this theatre would vanish overnight (and I don’t know if that would be a bad thing –  one could argue that the government shouldn’t be in the business of supporting art; when the churches commissioned artists, the churches at least wanted and kept this art, but when a faceless and fleeting government gives subsidies, I don’t know if anybody really cares for the art produced).  My point is that it’s been so long since average people organized theatre for themselves that we’ve almost forgotten that it’s possible.

And it’s the same with so many things – we have more cooking shows than ever, and yet the cooking know-how of the average American is lower than it has ever been.  A few generations ago, a woman could feed her family for weeks if she had access to a bag of flour and a few other things, but nowadays, that knowledge has nearly vanished; one or two generations of children raised on processed convenience foods by working mothers has been enough to almost wipe out vital skills.  I’m not saying that there aren’t signs of hope, and I know that not all cooking shows are alike, but I question whether ‘cooking as entertainment’ is going to lure average folks back into the kitchen.  Does it inspire or does it intimidate?  When the average American watches ‘the professional’ with his quick knife and exotic ingredients, I wonder if the reaction isn’t, to some extent, “Gee, I can’t do that!”  The entertainment so often consists of doing what the average cook cannot (and need not) do.  Seeing the ‘real chefs’ accomplish incredible feats in minutes in spotless kitchens is so different from how everyday cooking generally looks and feels.  And the higher the entertainment value, the more distorted things can become.  I saw one show where the judging chef actually spat out, in disgust, the food that the contestant chef had cooked.  How rude!  I hope the contestant chef can one day forgive that immature judge.

And it happens with sports, where we watch instead of play (gone are the days of neighborhood recreational soccer for example), and it happens with sex, where watching becomes voyeuristic and destructive of people and relationships due to pornography.  (Alas, the technology of the internet combined with the technology of photography or videography are turned here to evil ends.)

Now of course entertainment in moderation is a good and human thing; I’m not knocking it, actually – my point is that we used to entertain ourselves more by doing rather than by watching.

So these days we watch dancing, and we watch the judges who watch dancing, and we talk about it and some footage ‘goes viral,’ but as it turns out, we don’t do much dancing ourselves anymore.  We leave it to the pros.

At least, we don’t dance when anybody is watching.  You’ve heard the rather recent line, “Dance like nobody’s watching”?  When you stop and think about that, doesn’t it strike you that there’s a sad underbelly to that notion, even though it is supposed to suggest liberty?  In the past, you needed the community in order to dance, and dancing was one of the benefits that community offered.  But now, it’s the opposite: you can dance truly and freely only if you can dance alone.

TenaciousOne, who does organize dances at a local community hall, noticed that nobody will dance at these events until the room is completely dark.  She emphasized to me, “completely dark, as in, pitch black!”  But once the darkness is in place, everyone parties like it’s 1999.  Who can resist that addictive beat?  We’re no better at resisting than we were when we were toddlers, and even the senior in the group home taps her foot when she hears the music that once made her move.  But anyway, these people were just itching to dance; they just didn’t want to be that reality show contestant who ‘thinks he can dance.’  The ‘expert’ phenomenon has caused the average person to feel quite self-conscious about his own dancing.  If you can’t do it like the rock stars, then maybe you shouldn’t do it at all.

And here let me talk about experts in general.  The best expert is the one who educates and encourages.  The best expert is someone who does not remind you that your skills are so inferior to his nor make you feel incompetent, but rather, someone who makes you feel like you too could learn these skills if you tried, and who even makes you want to.   The great saints speak to everyone in their writings, constantly reminding all of us, who feel quite ordinary, that we too are supposed to become saints, and that we can indeed improve our ways, starting now.  When you listen to a really inspiring preacher, you feel encouraged to try again. To encourage, to educate – that’s the point.

But anyway, when it comes to dancing (and singing and acting too) I think we’d be better off to reclaim these things as part of our own personhood, as part of the simple and pure joy of being human.  I like Chesterton’s quotation: “It is too often forgotten that just as a bad man is nevertheless a man, so a bad poet is nevertheless a poet.” (The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Bk. 3, Ch. 1)   In this context, even a bad dancer is a dancer.  It’s not that there’s no such thing as dancing badly, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done; let’s move away from the performance aspect of it; dancing should not become the exclusive property of the people on television or the experts.  Dancing is one of those things that belongs to everybody, like walking or running or jumping.  You have your version of it, but you have your own version of eating and sleeping too.  It’s not an activity that warrants the warning, “Do not attempt to repeat this at home.  These dancers are trained professionals who have great bodies and know how to move them.”

I’m imagining a show called, “So You Think You Can Walk.”  People would be screened and tested on their ability to adapt to different terrain, videotaped and eliminated by the 1984-esque voting public.  “No more Fit-Bit for you, my friend!” Wouldn’t it make people self-conscious about the entire activity?  There might be a lot more sitting, even if sitting is the new smoking, as they say.

And since this post is a lament, I don’t have a solution.  I don’t have a way to get what I want.  And I don’t ask for much, really.

All I want is for everyone to get dressed in ball gowns and elegant suits, in silks, satins and velvet, in embroidered cloaks and gloves, with hair done exactly so.  If we need a fairy Godmother here, then so be it.  I want everyone to make their way to the local castle, where we’ll be met by the king himself and his dazzling son.  The immaculate palace will be lit all through with glowing candles, and the orchestra will play music which sweeps us off our feet.  Everyone will dance, the young and the old, the tall and the short, the rich and the poor.  Sometimes we’ll dance as pairs, and sometimes we’ll dance in formation.  We’ll eat together, and then we’ll dance some more.  We won’t get tired and everyone will be there except for the wicked stepmother.  But the clock won’t chime that it’s midnight, because midnight will never come.  We’ll live happily ever after, and we’ll dance forevermore.

 “. . . A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . .“ (Ecclesiastes)

 

Post 32

Truth, Beauty and Goodness:
Reflections on Precision

When I think of ‘Truth, Beauty and Goodness,’ I do not immediately picture an airplane.  As a matter of fact, nothing remotely mechanical comes to mind.  A few weeks ago, I happened to glance at a heavy-duty mechanic’s study material.  It had formulas containing words like ‘velocity’ and ‘mass.’  I closed it quickly and exclaimed, “It’s just like physics!” (in other words, impenetrably difficult and therefore boring).

No, when I hear, ‘Truth, Beauty and Goodness,’ I think about art and music and great literature.  To me, it means all the things which uplift a civilization mentally and spiritually, as opposed to machines, such as elevators and airplanes, which lift people physically.

But then I started thinking about precision.

Precision is an element of truth, beauty and goodness, and wherever you find Truth, then Beauty and Goodness are not far behind.

The truth contained in a mechanic’s manual is there only to the extent that there is precision.  If the diagrams, instructions or formulas are inaccurate or vague, then you lose the truth.  But if the content is true, then it will say certain things about the way the universe works in a specific way (how one mechanical part fits another part and how they function together to make the whole accomplish its purpose) and other things about the way the universe works in a general way (the formulas and mathematical principles).  You need precision to state the truth in a mechanic’s manual, and when you have that truth, it’s beautiful, because the way the universe works is beautiful.  Even the functional aspects of man-made things are beautiful because they cooperate with and demonstrate the laws of the universe in order to succeed.

Now I’m never going to be a fan of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (due to the part about Zen, and due to the part about the bike), but I can understand that a mechanic is beholding beauty when he sees how everything works together with such precision.  Precision is an element of Beauty.  And when the parts work together the way they should, you have Goodness.

It’s the same with other disciplines.  The surgeon is dealing in microns, and is beautifully precise, but so is the professional tennis player, dealing with inches.  The baker relies on the rules of chemistry in order to create that flawless cake, and of course, there’s the musician.  Apparently when someone praised Bach’s organ playing, he said, “There is nothing to it.  You only have to hit the right notes at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”  The precision in timing here leads to beautiful results.  Conversely, less precision means less beauty.

So I realized that so many people who are working in non-artistic fields are enjoying beauty just as much as any artist – it’s just not beauty in the way we might normally think of it.  They enjoy beauty expressed as precision in the things they handle on a daily basis.

And where there’s Beauty, then Truth and Goodness are not far behind.

Or so I thought.

I have heard Truth, Beauty and Goodness referred to as sort of a ‘trinity’ and I thought that was kind of nice.  You know – a list of three things, and in the Christian culture, three things make you think of the Trinity.  It’s an easy concept to throw around, and kind of cute.  But I didn’t really think about it as much more than a list or an expression.  (Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of an anti-threeist.  Triangles have never been my favorite shape, though I feel an appropriate amount of Catholic guilt about that.  And I suppose now that you and I know each other so well, I can probably also tell you that I don’t care for circles either.  I dislike being in a round building, even if it’s a church or even if it’s really famous.  I like squares.)

Now, however, I’ve been rather struck by the relationship between Truth, Beauty and Goodness.  It’s a little spookier than I thought.  Maybe it is some kind of Holy-Ghost-ish trinity.

Maybe they’re all the same thing.

After all, when I tried to write about precision, I found that one concept and example became the other thing before my very eyes – changing from one animal to another even while I had it in my grasp.  I could barely write about it coherently, which of course is ironic when trying to write about precision!  When I thought about math, for example, and about those repeating digits or how a line in mathematical terms has neither beginning nor end, and infinity this and infinity that (math is always doing that), well, in no time at all I found myself at the mystery of infinity itself, which sounds a lot like eternity to me.  If there’s no such thing as eternity, can there be such a thing as infinity?  I suppose some would tell me they’re both just concepts.  Interesting concepts, don’t you think?   Doesn’t it say something about humans that we have such concepts?   Anyway, then I turn to look at music as a manifestation of Beauty, and of course there I find math, again. (“Fancy meeting you here!”)  And what is math if not Truth?  We always use 2+2=4 (and the concept of gravity) as an embodiment of obvious, unavoidable, non-negotiable Truth.

In thinking and writing about beauty in terms of precision, which is where I started, I couldn’t travel very far without bumping into truth and goodness, and soon I pictured a non-round, non-triangular (let’s go with hexagonal) building with three doors.  You see me entering at the door called “Beauty” but then I see Truth and Goodness have arrived before me and have already taken off their coats.  I enter at the door called “Truth” and notice that Beauty and Goodness are over in the corner having a drink.  I enter at the door called “Goodness” and I see Truth and Beauty have their feet up on the (square) coffee table acting like they own the place.  What is going on?

I think I know: they must all be the same thing!  It’s some kind of mystery, because they’re the same even while they are different.  Beauty = Truth = Goodness.

I started with an airplane, or a mechanic’s manual, and I wound up with Beauty, but let’s approach it by starting with Beauty.  What’s the ‘Beauty’ equivalent of 2+2=4?  What is something that everyone will agree is beautiful?  The Mona Lisa?  The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?  Andy Warhol’s cans of tomato soup?

I think the phrase, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is a little bit dangerous, because if you take it a certain way, it almost denies the existence of objective beauty.   It makes it seem like Beauty is not ‘out there.’  It’s just all in your head – a subjective experience.  Things are not beautiful, things are not ugly, things are just things, and you’re the one putting an interpretation on it.

And here again, I come face to face with feminists (“Fancy meeting you here”), who say that the very concept of beauty is problematic.  They dislike the way a woman’s appearance is considered more important than a man’s appearance.  It angers them that a woman is ‘supposed to be’ pretty; they say it’s a social construct, a fiction created by men, and perpetuated by male-led institutions, in order to make women feel bad about their own self-image.  The intention of feminists is good, because we shouldn’t say that one woman is ‘better’ than another woman because she’s got a prettier face or figure, and all women should appreciate their own appearance, but, as usual, the feminists go too far.

(I did really like the Dove Real Beauty Sketches commercial about women’s self-perceptions of their own appearance, but I also laughed at the New Feelings Time male spoof of it).

The truth is, there is such a thing as beauty, and everyone knows it.  People know it and they want to experience it.  And when it comes to art, precision in beauty has a name, and it is called realism.  Art is beautiful when it tells the truth about what we see.

It is for this reason that the average person mostly ignores the work of modern painters, even though they would be willing to line up for hours outside the Vatican museums or the Louvre in order to see the work of painters of the past.  That’s where they can still find painters who did realism.  Realism requires bravery, because anyone can measure for themselves how close it came to the goal.  If the boat doesn’t look like it’s in the water or the smile looks plastic, then you’ve failed and it’s obvious.   But when realism is right, it is so very, very right.  The way that robe gleams in the painting makes it look like it’s three-dimensional.   And you touch the foot on that marble statue because you can even see the veins.  Someone has been achingly precise, and you are rightly impressed.

And the greater the precision, the more we will recognize that this work of art speaks the truth.  This sculpture has captured the form, this painting has captured the look, and this play has captured the emotion.  In these cases, the accuracy results in beauty and in truth.

But returning to painting, most modern painters produce works which are extremely imprecise and therefore devoid of beauty.  Instead of the precision of realism, they give us shape, colour, mood, emotion, personality, attitude and innovation after innovation, even literally turning themselves inside out, covering the canvas with their own bodily fluids (really, and yes, it’s as disgusting as it sounds).  But they won’t give you realism; they won’t paint you a tree with any precision.  They’ll get the paint onto the canvas (methods vary) and if you think you see a tree when they’re done, then the artists will generously allow you to say you think you see one.  No, once upon a time, artists did their best to give you realism, and included every little detail, but now, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  And people do look elsewhere indeed!

Enter photography.  Thank God for photography.

If you want to find all the people, this is where they are.  Even women who rarely use their camera will take photos of the flowers that they grew.  And then there are all those people with more expertise – they capture the images with skill and freely share them.  The technology of the internet is combined with the technology of photography to get everyone their fill of beauty; photos of birds, trees, water, landscapes, all known mammals and creatures of the sea are what they are sending and forwarding.  We are enthralled with these images.  All this appreciation of beauty is healthy and good, and it encourages the photographers to give us more of the same: time-lapse photos, high speed photos, close-ups, aerial photos, portraits of all kinds.

In short, there is such a thing as objective beauty and people of all ages are basking in it, regularly.  Meanwhile, only the multimillionaires can afford the most ‘elevated’ art – but let them hoard it; the rest of us don’t care enough about abstract images to share them.

Nature (and most photography) brings us the patterns and the symmetry that satisfy our brains and our souls.  Our brains react to precision.  Research proves that mice and babies become attentive and have different brain activity upon detecting symmetry and patterns, compared with asymmetry and random static.  We are wired for what’s beautiful; it’s not just a subjective construct; it’s not just ‘in the eye of the beholder.’

Consider even a typical leaf.  We all agree it’s beautiful – an illustration of obvious, unavoidable, non-negotiable Beauty, in the same way that 2+2=4 is an illustration of obvious, unavoidable, non-negotiable Truth.  But the reason it is beautiful is because it has precise mathematical rules and truths to it, in its form and patterns and even colouration.  Truth = Beauty.  We meet math yet again.

A few years ago, I enjoyed reading Catherine Shanahan’s book, Deep Nutrition.  She mentions biomathematics, which studies the mathematical relationships in nature:

Biomathematicians are confirming that phi and the Fibonacci sequence are encoded not just in the human face, but in living matter everywhere.

The shape of a pinecone, the segments of insect bodies, the spiral of the nautilus shell, the bones of your fingers and the relative sizes of your teeth – everything that grows owes its form to the geometry of phi.  When a plant shoot puts out a new leaf, it does so in such a way that lower leaves are least obscured, and can still receive sunlight.  This is . . . phyllotaxis, which describes the spiralling growth of stems, petals, roots, and other plant organs in 90 percent of plants . . . The angle of phyllotaxis is 137.5 degrees, or 1/phi x phi x 360 degrees.  We can see the same pattern of branching, twisting, so-called dendritic growth when we look at nerve cells in the brain.  All these instances of patterned growth are directed not by DNA but by the rules of math and physics, which act on living tissue automatically to create pattern.

– Catherine Shanahan and Luke Shanahan, Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, Chapter 3

And turning to Goodness, that’s when things work the way they are supposed to work, and are free from what makes them not work.  When an engine works without defect, it is good; it is fulfilling its purpose.  When a leaf grows free from disease, and does its job of gathering sunlight on its surface or its other leafy jobs, then that’s good.

In terms of human beings – this is where it gets interesting – when we say someone is ‘a good person’ you don’t have to be religious to mean that they have a lot of virtues and fewer vices.  It’s typical to say things like, “My grandmother was a saint” or “She’s such an angel” or “I’m not Mother Teresa” when we are talking about the comparative goodness of people.  The idea is that they (saints, angels and Mother Teresa) are good.

People are good and manifest Goodness when they do what they are supposed to do, and when they move away from sinful behaviour.  We are good when we fulfill our purpose, which the Baltimore Catechism famously described this way: “God made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.”  We are good when do unto others as we would have them do unto us; that is Goodness.  And in this area, just as in the areas of Truth and Beauty, it is better to have precision.  Some people would say there’s no need to write out a whole bunch of rules and doctrines about Goodness and the practice of it, but it’s just like Truth and Beauty.  It is possible and desirable and helpful to be precise about these spiritual things too.  It is possible, for example, to describe the different virtues, and to describe spiritual realities, even though they are mysterious.

Of course, some people are annoyed by the fact that the Church has all this writing about all these things.  They say it’s enough to have a few general principles about being good to each other.

Chesterton tackled this subject often.  His point was that although you don’t need all the details and rules and principles when everything is going well, you certainly will need all of this when things are going wrong or threatening to go wrong.  Once (I can’t remember where) he used the analogy of a broken leg – when it’s broken, you need to know exactly where all the bones and tendons are in order to restore health.

I like this first pair of quotations because it is so true that most people who condemn Catholic dogma have not read it:

I am not over-awed by a young gentleman saying that he cannot submit his intellect to dogma; because I doubt whether he has even used his intellect enough to define dogma.

– Autobiography, Chapter 4

I began to examine more exactly the general Christian theology which many execrated and few examined.

– Autobiography Chapter 7

In the quotation below, Chesterton says that it was stunning for him to realize that such vast numbers of people, who belonged to “semi-secular chapels” didn’t have really any defined ideas about spiritual matters at all, and he says it’s a shame:

I suppose I have got a dogmatic mind.  Anyhow, even when I did not believe in any of the things called dogmas, I assumed that people were sorted out into solid groups by the dogmas they believed or disbelieved . . . I have come to the conclusion that I was largely mistaken in this idea.  I believe now that the congregations of these semi-secular chapels consists largely of one vast and vague sea of wandering doubters, with their wandering doubts . . .

Amid all this scattered thinking, sometimes not unfairly to be called scatter-brained thinking, I began to piece together the fragments of the old religious scheme . . . And the more I saw of real human nature, the more I came to suspect that it was really rather bad for all these people that it had disappeared. Many of them held, and still hold, very noble and necessary truths in the social and secular area . . . Their hearts were in the right place, but their heads were emphatically in the wrong place . . .

– Autobiography, Chapter 7

In this next quotation, Chesterton is more emphatic – without dogma, things can go very, very wrong:

. . . [T]his vividly illuminates the provincial stupidity of those who object to what they call “creeds and dogmas.”  It was precisely the creed and dogma that saved the sanity of the world.  These people generally propose an alternative religion of intuition and feeling.  If, in the really Dark Ages, there had been a religion of feeling, it would have been a religion of black and suicidal feeling . . . [w]hat kept [a suicidal man’s] thought in touch with healthier and more humanistic thought was simply and solely the Dogma.

–  Saint Francis, Chapter 4.

But my favorite quotation on the subject of dogma is this, because I think it’s so funny to picture Chesterton screaming:

You have seen possibly 999 times, possibly more, in leading articles, essays, public speeches, the statement that we do not require any dogma or any creed, that religion should be free from doctrine and dogmas, and so on.  I at least have seen it more than 999 times.   If I see it again I shall scream.  It is possibly the most unfathomable, thoughtless nonsense being talked, even in our non-sensical time, because everything depends on what is your dogma or doctrine about the things you are considering.

– G.K. Chesterton, “Beauty in the Commonplace”

Chesterton’s point (and mine) in all of this is that even Goodness needs to be defined precisely.  We can’t leave such important matters to “intuition and feeling.”  Nobody wants a vague map, unclear assembly instructions or even poor board-game instructions, yet these things are not nearly as important as the weighty subjects which the Church needs to speak about.

The Church would not be doing her job as a Mother if her teaching were just warm, fuzzy and comfortable, or if she did not teach at all.  The world changes, and Christ instituted the Church so that even simple people would have a source of reliable information about how to navigate new challenges.  With its teaching authority (called the Magisterium), people have intelligent, rational and worthy direction.  And speaking of Beauty, in many cases the Church identifies problems which are the furthest thing from ‘beautiful’ because the Truth must be spoken. But Truth itself is always beautiful, no matter what it is about. For example, it is extremely disturbing to hear, as recently discovered, how the abortionists at the Planned Parenthood clinics are ‘harvesting’ the organs of partially born babies in order to sell these organs to pharmaceutical companies for significant personal profit. But it is far better that the truth be known than that it be replaced by a lie. It would be a lie, for example, to say that the abortionist’s main concern is for the woman having the abortion. That would be falsehood, and falsehood is always ugly, even when it’s more comfortable. In any case, the teachings of the Church are consistent with scripture and past teaching, and therefore does not replace any of what has come before, 2000 years’ worth of precision.

I am grateful for this precision.  The Church’s documents are beautiful, true and good, and, if followed, will lead to wisdom and holiness.  If followed, they will enable us to live fruitful lives, becoming the saints we were always meant to be.  You could say that these documents form an ‘Operator’s Manual’ of sorts.  And it’s a pretty good analogy, because they are quite technical sometimes, and quite dry too, but it’s this way just because they are so precise.  And precision is good.

But be not afraid, for God is merciful: you won’t find a single physics formula in any of them.

Post 31

A Strong Woman: Reflections on (New) Feminism

I once happened to ask some friends, “What’s the opposite of a feminist?”

I guess the answer depends on your perception of feminism.  Interestingly, the word feminism meant, once upon a time, the state of being feminine.  But ever since the women’s movement, feminism means whatever is masculine.

Feminism, ironically, uses men as its gold standard.  After all, feminism is about women getting everything that men have.  Feminism looks at men, and sees what they are doing, and what they value, and what they have, and says, “We want that. It’s better.”  Feminism looks at women, and sees what they are doing, and what they value, and what they have, and says, “We don’t want this. It’s worse.”

(Yes, I know it’s not as overt as this.  A feminist would tell me that women should have access to all spheres, yet if you study what things the feminists are demanding at any given time, it’s usually aimed at getting more of what the men appear to have.)

And because all cultures (and almost all mammals and birds too) exhibit a division of responsibility between males and females – men active outside the home, women active inside it – feminists condemn them as treating women unequally. It says that all previous cultures were obviously flawed and unfair.  Feminism seems to assume that in all these societies throughout all the ages, men used a combination of brute force and coercive institutions to keep women out of the public sphere, because they wanted to keep all the fun and the thrills to themselves.  (It’s never contemplated that men were motivated by anything other than self-interest nor that women’s preferences might have had anything to do with these arrangements.)

Feminism is divided within itself, but I think it’s safe to say that a feminist utopia is one where roles are entirely fluid and unconnected with gender.  Even our current culture, where women are active outside the home to an extent unprecedented in human history, is unsatisfying to feminists, who will say it ‘still has a long way to go.’  The only truly fair or equal society, imply the feminists, is one where women do what men do.

In this vein, feminists are appalled by the Catholic Church.  They have a list of grievances against it, but one argument, which they consider a slam-dunk, is to point to the fact that women aren’t allowed to be priests.  But here they entirely misunderstand the role of the Catholic priest.  In saying that women should be priests, they are motivated by a desire for temporal power, thinking that this is what a priest is all about.  Is he not the one who gives the homily in front of all those people and who administers the sacraments?  They notice the visible, active part of the priest’s life.  They fail to recognize that the priesthood is a life of service – priests serve the community of believers and must use themselves up in that way.  So those who truly have a priest’s heart, have a heart of service, and it is suspicious if someone who claims a desire to serve would demand to serve via method A instead of via method B.

But anyway, in its rush to obtain and enjoy all the things men seem to be enjoying, feminism forgets, and, in many cases, ridicules, all the things which women have done and used to enjoy.  The things which had previously occupied the majority of women’s time through the ages, are scoffed at by feminists as unimportant.  Give us real power, they demand. Don’t leave us behind in our homes to do these insignificant things: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing and handicrafts.  We want to shape the culture by leaving our homes and being in the public sphere (and we’ll do a better job of it too, goes the argument, because we’re women; we’re different.  Oops! We’re not different, we’re just the same!)  That’s what the leaders of the women’s movement said.

It continues today.  The women who work outside the home are viewed as strong.  Those who do not work outside the home are viewed as weak.

Indeed, there is no single English word that describes the woman who does not work outside the home.  So our language, which is capable of great precision, is left floundering here.  Previously, the word was “housewife” or “homemaker.”

But I never hear women use these words nowadays of course; to the modern ear, ‘homemaker’ and ‘housewife’ both sound really pathetic.  She might as well say, “I’m unemployed and unemployable.  I can’t compete in, or cope with, the real world, and I have no interest in socializing with other adults.  I prefer to hide in my home where my small dreams are satisfied by small things.  I earn no income; I am entirely dependent upon my husband.  And what do you do?”

So in describing herself, the homemaker will not refer to her husband at all (just imagine trying to justify being out of the workforce to assist your husband on the home front – unthinkable!) and will instead choose between basically two standard answers: 1) “I’m home with the children” in which case she indicates where she is, but it doesn’t sound like she’s doing anything, or 2) “I’m a stay-at-home mom,” in which case her main occupation is staying – kind of like a dish towel or a vase on a shelf.  And again, we know where she is.  Does the word ‘mom’ give the impression of demanding work or just a relationship?  That would of course depend on the listener, but more than anything, it also sounds like a state of being.

There are women who have home-based businesses, and this is viewed as better than ‘not working at all’ but it’s still looked at condescendingly (“Oh, good for you!”) unless this business is thriving and successful – yet even here, the effort and ability involved in achieving financial success is still underestimated and discounted; the success of home-based women is viewed as good luck.  And there are women who volunteer; this is also smiled at (“Oh, good for you!”) but not really admired by the average person.  Women who are at home because they choose to take care of an elderly relative instead of institutionalizing them, are pitied, because obviously, such women are ‘stuck at home.’  And women who are at home because they homeschool their children are in perhaps the most interesting position (probably they will not hear, “Oh, good for you!”). For such women, my advice would be to avoid saying, “I homeschool my children.” Instead I suggest you say, “I teach.”  This will impress people, because teachers rate as one of the most favorably-viewed members of society; they are ‘educating the leaders of tomorrow.’   But after that, I cannot help you further.  Make a quick exit, because if they ask you which grade or which subject you teach, the truth will surface: they’ll know you don’t work after all!

In these cases, women are making choices as to how they spend their time, just as the career-women are doing.  However, the feminist movement isn’t as ‘pro-choice’ as it seems, because those women who choose traditionally feminine roles are looked down upon, even though they are, in many cases, going against the current trends for women.  In reclaiming work at home as an acceptable way of spending one’s days, I could argue that they are ‘pioneers’ in the same way that some of the early suffragettes are seen.  They swim upstream.  Meanwhile, work outside the home, especially in male-dominated professions, is looked upon as a sign of strength, talent, and resourcefulness.

Chesterton noticed how outside work is equated with bravery.  He wrote the following section in the context of women advocating for the right to vote (as if this were a human right essential to happiness and not a social construction applicable only in democracies).  He said that people would sometimes say that women should be allowed to vote (suffrage) because they’ve proven their bravery outside the home:

I am puzzled . . . when I hear, as we often hear just now, somebody saying that he was formerly opposed to Female Suffrage but has been converted to it by the courage and patriotism shown by women in nursing and similar war work . . . [F]rom what benighted dens can these people have crawled, that they did not know that women are brave?  What horrible sort of women have they known all their lives?  Where do they come from?  Or, what is a still more apposite question, where do they think they came from?  Do they think they fell from the moon, or were really found under cabbage-leaves, or brought over the sea by storks? . . . Should we, any of us, be here at all if women were not brave?  Are we not all trophies of that war and triumph?  Does not every man stand on the earth like a graven statue as the monument of the valour of a woman?

– K. Chesterton, The Prudery of the Feminists, January 25, 1917

His point is that women are naturally brave; they don’t need to prove that they are by becoming career women. Anyone who does not know that women are brave is clueless, is his point.

I like it when the uniqueness of women is acknowledged.  For this reason, I find it fascinating to hear about those scientific or psychological studies that prove, again, how different males are from females, even in the womb.

Yet despite the growing science proving the physiological differences between males and females, feminism pushes on, and wants to ensure that little girls enjoy math and science as much as the boys.  If there are more boys than girls excelling in these things, the theory goes, then something is wrong with the system.  This problem (because, obviously, it’s a problem), they say, must be remedied!

Feminism complains when girls are not allowed into boys’ clubs or sports teams, and women are pursuing previously-male sports like never before.  I suspect part of the appeal is that these sports are seen as ‘tough’ and that’s what everyone wants to be nowadays.  HelpfulOne surprised me by telling me about the increasing popularity of martial arts and similar sports among women; more women are entering these sports and more people are watching them.  I guess it fits with the modern mindset.

It does seem rather silly to me when women aim for toughness.  Exercise is one thing, but toughness, well, I don’t know.  After all, the outside of a woman’s body, even when made up of many large and well-trained muscles, or covered from head to toe in macho gear, is still a woman’s body.  Beefier muscles and masculine clothing, as tough as they seem to the woman flaunting them, do not alter the passive physiology of the woman’s body.  A woman’s strength isn’t on the outside!  It’s on the inside, of course, tucked away and hidden from view like the housewife.  You know what I’m talking about.  Since time began, a woman’s ability to conceive and bear a child has been the most awe-inspiring aspect of the female body, and it has always intimidated those men whose motives are less than honourable.  Such men go to some lengths to thwart the reproductive ability of a woman’s body, which they find scary.  In their desire to quash this amazing capacity, such men resemble feminists who promote ‘women’s reproductive rights,’ i.e., contraception and abortion.  (And, irony of ironies, abortion is so often used to prevent the birth of girls.  An ultrasound is done, the baby is found to be a girl, and an abortion follows.  The advocates of women’s reproductive rights don’t want to think about this.)

But moving on to something far less significant, but interestingly symbolic, I also blame feminism for subconsciously encouraging some parents to choose male names for their newborn daughters.  And perhaps it’s not even subconscious; my friend chose male names for her daughters, having heard that girls with male names academically outperform girls with female names.  It means that the parents of boys have to think twice before choosing a name which might soon become a girls’ name.  An internet search shows that “some of today’s hippest names are those which were 100% boys’ names.”  Do you like the letter A?  Then here are some choices: Addison, Adrian, Aidan, Ainsley, Alex, Andy, Ari, Ashley, Ashton, Aspen, Aubrey, August, Austin, Avery.  If you like the letter ‘J,’ then here are some others: James, Jean, Jesse, Jordan, Jude, Jules, Julian.

And it doesn’t stop with male occupations, male sports and male names.  Feminism also involves chasing the perceived attributes of men: dominance, leadership, strength, risk-taking, bravery, and aggression, to name a few.  I am careful to say ‘perceived attributes’ because feminists forget all the male traits which function as a counter-balance to these other traits, such as self-sacrifice, protectiveness, sang-froid and loyalty, to name a few.  In other words, feminism, in considering what we women should want to be equal to, bases its wish-list on a caricature of a male, not a worthy male.   It holds up for emulation the unbalanced male, who is macho and domineering, instead of the restrained hero.  I like this quotation because I have found it to be true, especially in male-dominated professions: “Women do not find it difficult nowadays to behave like men, but they often find it extremely difficult to behave like gentlemen.” (Compton Mackenzie)

And the emulation of the wrong male traits affects male-female relations as well.   Nowadays a man does not have to be in love (or pretend to be) in order to attract a woman, doing all the chivalrous things that men used to do.  The tables have turned; these days we see women and even girls trying to outdo each other in displaying sexual prowess and desirability.  It’s almost as if all their hormones are way out of kilter (and I suppose with the prevalence of birth control, this isn’t too far from the truth), and women have exchanged their natural cyclical waves of estrogen and progesterone for a relentless tsunami of testosterone.   And it’s testosterone unrestrained by any sense of propriety – it’s considered fine to be openly lustful in speech and behaviour.  Women have sunk to imitating a foul-mouthed pervert; romance doesn’t enter into it.  At least, this is the talk; this is the act.  And it costs women a lot to play this part.  How ironic that in most cases, the woman is doing all this in order to find her Prince Charming who will love her as his one-and-only and treat her with love and dignity!  There’s something sadly desperate about all of it; women have forgotten their inherent worth.

And now, having written all of the above, I go to locate a quotation I once read from a document of the Catholic Church.  In the process of looking for it, I am surprised.  For example, I did not know, when starting this post, that the Catholic Church (and Chesterton for that matter) expressed concern about the masculinization of women.  It is always strange to dig through thought-tunnels, and find myself surfacing at the same place.

Here are three pertinent sections from Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter from 1988.  I like this first section because it shows that almost 30 years ago, the Church was concerned about the masculinization that I complain of today:

In our times the question of “women’s rights” has taken on new significance . . .[T]he rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words “He shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the “masculinization” of women. In the name of liberation from male “domination”, women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine “originality” . . . [I]f they take this path, women will not “reach fulfilment”, but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness. It is indeed an enormous richness . . . The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different.

Here’s a second excerpt, which I like it because it emphasizes the equality of men and women:

. . . Christ’s attitude to women confirms and clarifies . . .  the truth about the equality of man and woman . . . [B]oth of them . . . are created in the image and likeness of God . . .

And here’s a third excerpt, which I like because it uses the word “strength” when talking about women, which is what I was thinking about when I began this post a few days ago:

The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way . . .

A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting, strong because of the fact that God “entrusts the human being to her” . . .  This awareness and this fundamental vocation speak to women of the dignity which they receive from God himself, and this makes them “strong” and strengthens their vocation.

Thus the “perfect woman” (cf. Prov 31:10) becomes an irreplaceable support and source of spiritual strength for other people, who perceive the great energies of her spirit. These “perfect women” are owed much by their families, and sometimes by whole nations.

So, I return to my question, “What’s the opposite of a feminist?” My reason for asking was partly because I felt like I was the opposite of a feminist, but I didn’t know whether society even had a label for me and for other people who thought the same way.   Would I be a ‘masculinist’?  Would I be a misogynist, i.e., a hater of women?  How can that be, if I am a woman myself?!

The internet tells me that the opposite is an anti-feminist.  Great.  So I’m a female who opposes femaleness?  After all, the word “feminism,” is based on the Latin word for woman (‘femina’).  It has struck me as a shame that the word feminism is so tied to the women’s movement, which, as I said, uses men as its gold standard.

I don’t want to be an ‘anti-feminist’ because that’s just a negation.  It says what I am opposed to, but not what I’m in favour of.  It reminds me of the tendency to think of Catholics as being opposed to such-and-such, while forgetting that they’re in favour of the opposite thing, which is part of a bigger picture. 

The only answer that I got, when I first posed this question about a year ago, was from HelpfulOne, who suggested, “Maybe it’s someone who has a correct understanding of the relations between men and women?” I thought this was an incisive reply, especially on the spur of the moment.  And look at what I found early this morning on Wikipedia!  It’s called New Feminism, and it’s based on all the good things that the Catholic Church said about women (and men).   I didn’t know there was such a thing until 10 minutes ago, but I’m ready to sign up!  And now I know what to call myself.

I’m a (new) feminist after all!

Post 30

A Strong Man: Reflections on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

Last week I attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.  I like going to plays and movies, but you might not believe me if you were to hear me talk afterwards, because I have a lot of criticisms.  A few days ago, I began sorting through these criticisms in the context of a new blog post.

But then the day before yesterday, I attended a talk where the topic was penance.  The priest said that when Vatican II removed some of the requirements for fasting, this was not because penance was unimportant, but rather, because penance is best done voluntarily, and not out of a sense of compulsion.  Unfortunately, the effect was that penance isn’t thought about nearly as much.  He had us imagine something: what if, for one year, all the Catholics in the world gave up, as penance, the practice of complaining?

Indeed – what a positive change that would make!

As soon as he said this, my mind immediately went to the blog post which you are reading now, and which was still a work-in-progress when I heard him speak. I wondered: is it okay to discuss my issues regarding the Coriolanus performance, or should I keep any negative thoughts to myself?

Hmm.

There’s something so dignified about a composed silence.  I can picture it now: there I am gliding gracefully out the theatre with a smile on my face, radiating contentment – not a single emphatic word passes my lips. The placid exterior would betray no hint of the thoughts ricocheting around in my head.

Mind you, the priest did say that there was an exception about complaining when you’re trying to instruct or educate.  Do I get to use that exception to say what I thought about the Coriolanus performance?  I asked DiligentOne yesterday morning about it, and I think she’s letting me off the hook, because she said that discussing any topic can have the appearance of complaining, but that’s not the end of the matter.  She gave me an analogy about cleaning and reorganizing a drawer.  She said, “First, it has to get messy as you take everything out and spread it all over – this may appear as complaining to some degree, but the problem does have to be spelled out.”  She continued: “Then you put things back into the drawer in order – you talk about it and put the problem in its true perspective and shed light on a solution, or you show a new perspective.”

Hey, I like that!

Thank you, DiligentOne.

So then, now that we’ve gotten that issue out of the way, why don’t you pull up a chair? I’m dying to tell you about a play that I saw.

So I read this Coriolanus play before heading out the door (and I even brought a copy of the script with me, as odd as that is) partly because I wanted to come to my own conclusions about what Shakespeare was saying before seeing someone else’s interpretation.  I was looking forward to the show as I settled into my seat.

And you know, it was so nice to be out with family and friends, wearing shoes that matched my new purse, that I found myself in a forgiving mood even with respect to costumes.  Nowadays almost every Shakespearean play is done in modern clothing. (Doing a modern adaptation is considered a fresh idea, even though everybody everywhere does it regularly.  Besides, it’s a lot cheaper.) This time they were all wearing khaki clothing sprayed with sort of a black metallic substance.  True, it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between the Volscian soldiers and the Roman mob, but as long as you had your script with you, you were okay.  Otherwise, you better notice that when they donned sunglasses and a hat, they were Volscians, and if they took them off, they were the Roman mob.   Or perhaps it was the other way around.

If they held sticks, that meant they were Roman soldiers, except for the times when this meant that they were Volscian soldiers or an angry mob.  Some had blackened faces most of the time, which might have represented something.  Almost everyone looked like gang members all of the time, but the consul (the bad guys) looked like mafia members.  The women who were not being Roman mob members or soldiers were wearing gray power suits with high heels.  They had their hair slicked back and looked every inch the corporate warrior.

But anyway, it was a pleasant evening, and the show was outside in a multi-acre park, so I was also in a forgiving mood with respect to the set and props.  I’ve gotten used to these sets that don’t change for the whole two hours, and the black cubes and rectangles which mean something to someone.  The actors move them around, and we’re supposed to notice that cubes which used to be parallel to the stage are now perpendicular to the stage, which CHANGES THINGS ENTIRELY.  “Aha!” we are supposed to say, “Well, now we’re obviously outside the city walls!” and then, “Aha! Now we’re at the Volscian headquarters!”  The actors sometimes sit on the cubes, which means that the cubes are probably chairs, and sometimes the actors stand on the cubes, which means that they’re probably not chairs.

One time I saw a production of A Tale of Two Cities that used a lot of rope.  I wasn’t familiar with the story so I couldn’t figure out what on earth the first scene was about.   A lot of actors were lying on their backs all over the stage while other people crawled around them.  I thought it was an ocean scene, and the people were representing waves or something like that.  I was probably about two-thirds through the show when I figured out that the first scene was about grave robbers and those horizontal people were corpses.

I suppose minimalism has its place, but I don’t think theatre sets are that place – at least, not to the extent that we see it nowadays. The nature of theatre means that sets will already be rather bare-bones; we don’t have to make them even more so.  The set should support and serve the actors and the script, by providing the context for the story.   Nowadays we have the opposite: the actors and the script are at the service of the set, which is coyly playing the game, “Guess what I am.”  Instead of the set illuminating the text, the text and actors explain the set.  The audience members watch the show but part of their brain is engaged with figuring out what that rope-chain-ladder-hoop-tower thing is.  Who says that a fleshed-out set is distracting and a minimalist set isn’t?  Confusion is distracting.  The audience members won’t admit that they don’t know what that contraption over there is, because they think maybe they should know what it is or, more commonly nowadays, what it symbolizes.   Meanwhile the actors have been imagining that this cube is a gorgeous throne for so long that they forget that it looks like a cube to the rest of us.   This approach is supposed to be stylish, I know, but I suspect that there’s another element: as a designer, it’s hard to be earnest and give it your best shot when you feel the gaze of those who are cynical, so as a self-preservation tactic, you go to the other extreme: everything is vague and undefined.  All the responsibility is put back onto the audience to ‘get it’ – if they don’t, it’s their lack of imagination, and not the designer’s lack of effort or ability. 

But believe it or not, I wasn’t thinking too critically about all this as I watched it. After all, it was a lovely July evening and I was out on the town, and I really like being out on the town.

So if I didn’t complain about the sets, and I didn’t complain about the costumes, and I even accepted much of the abridgement of the play, then perhaps you think I gracefully glided out of that theatre?

“Pah!” said the thirteenth fairy, as she opened that drawer and started pulling everything out, spreading the mess all over the place.

Let me begin by saying that Coriolanus is about a war hero.  He’s not a politician, and he doesn’t know how to play those political games – or, probably more accurately – doesn’t want to play them.  He says what’s on his mind.  He’ll say that the mob is fickle and cowardly, rather than win them over with smooth words.  He is complex, because some say he’s proud (and sure enough, he’s capable of getting his pride wounded) yet on the other hand, he can’t stand it when his mother brags about him, and he squirms when people heap praise on him for his valiant deeds.

When he gets furious and vows to destroy Rome for its maltreatment and ingratitude towards him, it seems like nothing and nobody will be able to stop him.  However, when his wife, mother and son arrive to plead with him, he relents and abandons his plan of revenge.

The father-type character in the play is named Menenius.  He’s a wise and dignified older man who loves Coriolanus like a son.  He refers to himself as “thy old father Menenius” and when he emotionally begs Coriolanus to spare Rome, he says, “O, my son, my son, thou art preparing a fire for us.”  After stubbornly refusing to hear Menenius, Coriolanus nevertheless says afterwards: “This last old man / Whom with a cracked heart I have sent to Rome / Loved me above the measure of a father / Nay godded me indeed.”  (Act 5, Scene 2)

But the production that I saw last Tuesday altered the Menenius character so drastically that instead of a father figure, we got a loud-mouthed friend.  We got a Menenius who was comical, rough and overbearing instead of dignified.  This Menenius used physical humour, such as grabbing his abdomen with both hands and shaking it.  Why did we get a character who seemed witty but not wise, who showed no fatherly tendencies, and who never seemed weak or sympathetic?

Something which was so obvious in the script had disappeared.  The lines were mostly there, but the presentation and the delivery meant that Menenius was altered beyond recognition, and we lost the father figure.  Instead, we got someone who was clever and yet similar in every other way to Homer Simpson.  (Nowadays it seems that most fathers portrayed in the mass media are dense and useless; one can only guess at the effects of our culture’s ridicule of fatherhood.)

Any strength that Menenius had was very external.  The actor had a commanding stage presence and he was blustery, loud, and abrupt.  He often had the last word in arguments, but these lines came across as witty and condescending, not as thoughtful and intelligent. It didn’t help that he had the same basic outfit as the bad guys.

I guess it’s how we understand strength nowadays.  It’s always sort of an active thing: you are strong because you are the clanging cymbal, you are a go-getter and you go out and change the world.  You are like Julius Caesar: you came, you saw, you conquered.  You are getting things done, you are busy.  The world knows you’re good because they saw your picture in a magazine with the poor of Africa.  But when you’re not out doing good works, you show your strength in defeating your competitor in business, in sports, in politics, in argument.  I exaggerate, but you understand my point.

Is it any wonder that women are encouraged to ‘get out there’ into the ‘real world’ where they can ‘make a difference’?  Strength is understood entirely as an external thing.  Real influence is something tangible, and so any other way of influencing, shaping and guiding destinies is forgotten or laughed off as well-intentioned, but basically pointless.  On this view, a group of cloistered nuns would be just taking up space, yet I’ve heard that our archbishop refers to the local convent of Carmelite nuns as the powerhouse of the archdiocese.

And along these lines, the strength that was exhibited by the mother of Coriolanus in this production was very obvious and used like a blunt instrument.  She was dominant, loud and quick with her answers.  When she argued, she won.

The pivotal section of dialogue in the play, where the mother begs her son to change his mind, was not presented as a touching, emotional scene.  It was basically a power struggle, with Coriolanus quickly vanquished.  It all makes sense.  When strength is conceived as an external thing, as one person against another, then there’s a winner and a loser.  In this case, Coriolanus lost.  He wanted one thing, but his mother wanted another, and she was stronger, so she won.  The end.  By the time that dialogue was finished, the mother had emerged as the undisputed victor.  She stared down the audience and strutted offstage in her high heels. The fact that Coriolanus was soon killed by his enemy was anti-climactic, because we had already watched the hero being decimated by his mother.  Aufidius the enemy destroyed the body, but the mother had killed his spirit.

The wife meanwhile, was made to look like a helpless wimp, with no real purpose.  In the original script, Coriolanus proclaims the incredible power of wordless gentleness.  When his wife curtsies to him, he cries, “What is that curtsy worth? Or those dove’s eyes which can make gods forsworn?  I melt, and am not of stronger earth than others.” But lines such as these didn’t have any weight in this production, because instead of highlighting the feminine version of strength, this production always glorified the masculine version.

It’s not how I would have done it.  Yeah, nobody asked me, but if they had, I would have told them.

It’s because the very words of the script show a lot more depth than that.  Shakespeare was a playwright interested in exploring the big issues.  (The evidence that he was Catholic is quite considerable, and that would explain a lot.)  I don’t think this play’s climax is all about a power struggle, in the form of an argument between mother and son.  That isn’t particularly engaging or meaningful, and although you may perhaps get a winner and a loser out of an argument, you’ll never get any heroes.  Who do you cheer for at the end of the day: the steamroller mother or the flattened son?  You can pretend Shakespeare was exploring the psychology of mother-son issues, but that’s kind of a modern way to find a deeper meaning, and it becomes quite strange quite quickly.

I return to the issue of strength, as it was one that interested Shakespeare in this play.  When is Coriolanus strongest?  Was he strong when he disdained the people and didn’t care what they thought of him?  Perhaps.  Was he strong when he single-handedly defeated the town?  Physically, definitely.  Was he strong when he went to rejoin and assist his commander after he had already fought his own significant battle?  Indeed, he was, and he showed loyalty too.  Was he strong when he chose to avenge himself on his home city, in wounded pride, or was he strong when he overcame his desire for revenge and allowed the pleas of his family to change his heart?

The best of stories go beyond the external displays of strength.  The internal struggles are the toughest.

Here Coriolanus was really stuck: on the one hand, he wanted to avenge his honour and on the other hand, he felt pulled to show compassion.  Look at what Coriolanus’ enemy says: “I am glad thou has set thy mercy and thy honour / At difference in thee.”  He is saying that the real fight is going on inside Coriolanus (and he’s going to take advantage of that)!  Mercy fights honour.  And Coriolanus himself exclaims, “It is no little thing to make / Mine eyes to sweat compassion.”  A man who shows compassion is a good man.  A man who shows compassion when he wants revenge is a great man.

And isn’t this the Christian story?  You know: the story of a God who, instead of taking revenge on humanity, extends mercy.  This mercy involves the death of God himself, something too strange to fully understand.  And so I argue now for something which occurred to me only ten minutes ago: is it ridiculous to suppose that this Christian playwright was presenting the life of this pre-Christian man as one which followed the sacrificial pattern of Christ’s life?

Coriolanus chooses to show mercy, the people are spared, and he has died an ignoble death.  The last line of the play (omitted, you will not be surprised, in the performance that I saw) was supposed to be, “He shall have a noble memory.”  Returning to the words of Menenius quoted above, Shakespeare says that the father considers Coriolanus to be even better than a son; he considers him, or treated him like, a god.

And come to think of it, maybe this is how everything fits together.  The fickleness of the mob is a large theme here, as it is in the story of Christ’s passion.  The following lines, which were also omitted from the performance which I saw, prove how at first the crowds loved Coriolanus.  They are unmistakably a reference to Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem, when the crowds loved Jesus:

The dumb men throng to see him, and the blind / To hear him speak.  Matrons flung gloves, / Ladies and maids their scarves and handkerchiefs, / Upon him as he passed.  The nobles bended / As to Jove’s statue . . .”

 – William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, Act 2, Scene 2)

And if this interpretation is correct, then the loss of the father figure is an even worse problem than it seemed when I first considered it.  It means we lose the voice of the Father; we lose the voice of the one who says, “This is my son; listen to him.”

Yes, I think that this deeper meaning may very well be what Shakespeare intended here.  Coriolanus may be a story about a man who, like Christ, chose mercy instead of his own honour, who chose compassion instead of revenge.

There.  Now I feel better.

Now I can close the drawer and glide out of the room with a smile on my face.

Post 29

Chesterton vs. Cornford:
Reflections on “The Fat White Woman Speaks”

Sometimes we’re so shocked by someone’s comments that we are left speechless – it’s only later that we think of a fitting reply.  But if we think of that checkmate answer right away, do we say it?  Nancy Astor says to Winston Churchill: “If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee!” and he replies, “And if I were your husband, I would drink it.”

You have to pity those with razor-sharp wit – how much self-restraint they must exercise to keep silent at such times!  The choice retort is so often at the tip of their tongue, yet they allow good manners and charity to rule the moment, and they say something gentler and less witty instead.  St. Josemaria Escriva sometimes referred to the ‘sharp remark’ that ‘went unsaid’ as a real mortification.  It’s something that he himself would know about very well.

Chesterton was constantly in debates, and although he could have easily attacked his opponents personally, he was always a gentleman, and confined himself to logical debate.  So I found it fascinating to read a poem where he’s quite biting; you can tell he was angry.  But, of course, before showing you his work, I must give you the poem that provoked him in the first place:

To a Fat Lady seen from the Train (1910)
by Frances Cornford

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

As it happens, Frances Cornford’s grandfather was Charles Darwin.  She was the recipient of a poetry prize, but I’m not a fan of her work, because in general I find it to be bitter and bleak, and because she makes rhymes like this: “With what attentive courtesy he bent/ Over his instrument.” (This is from her poem about a guitarist, but it sounds wrong to me.  Did IN-stru-ment actually used to be pronounced in-stru-MENT?)

Here is Chesterton’s reply – some have called it a parody, but it seems to me to have more in common with a defence brief:

The Fat White Woman Speaks (1933)
by G. K. Chesterton

Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves and such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

So there you have it.  To me, it’s a perfect reply.  He chose to write as the woman, and in so doing, strikes me as a worthy advocate.  An advocate gives words to those who are wordless, lending a voice to those who need one.  Chesterton didn’t use the triolet here (though he used it elsewhere), and I’m glad; most poems with that structure seem lackluster, at least in English.  Maybe they’re better in French.

But there’s even more to his poem than that, which would make for fun blogging.  Where do I begin?  And what about the idea of keeping this post under the 1000-word mark as I had mentioned in my last post?   Hmm.  I’m already at 610 words, so perhaps I should quit while I’m ahead.  In that case, I wouldn’t talk about:

  • the modern prejudice against those who ‘ruin their health’ by smoking or by being inactive, and
  • the Catholic attitude towards food and wine and other ‘indulgences’ and how this stands in contrast to the puritanical religions – and here I’d be tempted to mention that episode on the Simpsons about ‘Catholic heaven,’ and
  • our lack of knowledge about those we observe – in particular, how we fail to understand the context of their actions and their intentions, and the fundamental importance of our intentions; and, closely tied to this,
  • the method by which Chesterton reframes the context of this poem, and
  • the gravity of the insult, ‘nobody loves you,’ and
  • the role played by the articles “a” and “the” in the two poems, and
  • labels in general, and how certain classes are identified pejoratively – for example, ‘dead white men.’

Alternatively, I could go ahead with these topics, and you can sneak out at any time; I’ll hardly notice.

Okay, so let’s start with modern prejudices.  There was a time when cigarette smoking was really quite popular; nowadays it’s far less common.  Of course, I’m glad that fewer people do it, because the tobacco companies put a lot more than tobacco into their products – they lace them with chemical compounds to increase the addictiveness and so on – but I think that in the name of health, a lot of people were made to feel needlessly guilty.  I say this as someone who never smoked.

The first change was that smoking was banned in most indoor workplaces – so smokers went outside on their coffee breaks (on cold days you’d see them huddled near doorways).  Later, the rules changed so they could not smoke within 15 meters of the building’s entrance, and nowadays, I see that smoking is sometimes prohibited over the entire property area of a public building.  Meanwhile, car engines are spewing toxic fumes all over the place.

But anyway, as the anti-smoking campaign gained momentum, the smokers found themselves increasingly marginalized.  Naturally, more and more people quit.  But those who couldn’t quit were often embarrassed to admit that they smoked, for fear of being judged.  And for a while now, people have had less sympathy for those with lung cancer than any other type of cancer.  VeraciousOne mentioned just a few weeks ago that lung cancer patients are remarkably meek and quiet. When I was confused as to why the type of cancer would make a difference, she said, “They were smokers.”  So then I understood: these people blame themselves for their predicament, and they know that the general sentiment is unsympathetic towards them.  I find that sad.  After all, isn’t it the case that all of us are making or have made choices which adversely affect our health?  I think the whole issue is rather messy – we have varying levels of knowledge and varying levels of control over our environments, and our own behaviour, for that matter.  And when it comes to knowledge, there are powerful interest groups, such as pharmaceutical companies and food processors, who would like to keep the general public in the dark.  Rather than admit the horrible effects of sugar, Coca-Cola wants you to think it’s all about how much you exercise.

Years ago I was absolutely shocked by something in Healthy Women, Healthy Lives. This book discusses findings from the Nurses’ Health Study, “the longest-running and largest prospective observational study of women’s health questions . . . currently includes more than 120,000 women who have been participants for more than two decades.”  This study found that the contraceptive pill was associated with numerous health problems, including breast cancer:

The use of birth control pills moderately increases the risk of breast cancer in those women who are currently using them.  In the Nurses’ Health Study, we found that women who were currently taking the pill had a 50 percent increase in risk compared to women who had never used the pill.  Moreover, how long a woman had been on the pill did not seem to change the results . . .

[Then they jumped outside the Nurses’ study to mention other data.]

Although the pill seems to slightly increase breast cancer risk in current users, it also has many benefits.  In addition to preventing unwanted pregnancy, it lowers the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers.  Also, when women use the pill, it is during a time in life when their absolute risk of breast cancer is low, so even though a 50 percent increase in risk is substantial, it will actually result in only a few extra women developing breast cancer who otherwise would not have.

I found this really alarming, and this section of the book was presented in such a confusing way that I had to re-read it several times.  After stating the startling findings from the Nurses’ study, the authors distract the reader by quickly mentioning data from elsewhere.  Are they frightened of what their own study proved?  They seem to be, because their language is all over the place: in one sentence, they call the risk ‘moderate,’ but soon afterwards, they call it ‘slight’ and then finally, “substantial.”  Well, which is it?  And what about this: “only a few extra women”?  What kind of approach is that?

These authors argue that even though the pill increases the risk of cancer, it’s important to focus on the pill’s advantages.  They thereby suggest that many women (and girls, let’s be honest) would still choose to use the pill if they knew the risks.  But I wonder. How would the popularity of this contraceptive be affected? This study is unique in the world in its comprehensiveness, and it identifies a very significant connection; what would happen if this information were better publicized, the way the risks of smoking were publicized?

And I wonder whether these authors would follow the same reasoning, and extend the same liberal attitude to smokers, who also have their reasons for their choices?  They also don’t all get lung cancer.

I somehow doubt they would, because the attitude towards smokers nowadays (at least in North America) has reached the point where there’s no defence; it’s considered as bad as torturing cats.  On Thursday I was talking to a woman who said that when she posted her online-dating wish list, she initially stipulated that he had to be a non-smoker.  I bet that’s a common requirement.  But later, she realized that a man’s character was more important, so she altered her wish list to focus on certain values.  She mentioned kindness and reliability.  Sure enough, she’s married now, and her husband does smoke, but she sees the bigger picture of who he actually is.  And this makes me think of DiligentOne, who never complained about her husband’s use of chewing tobacco (he later quit on his own initiative).  And that reminds me of someone who wondered whether it was okay to smoke while praying.  The good man who answered (was it Fulton Sheen?) said that he wasn’t sure, but certainly it was fine to pray while smoking!  But anyway, in its aggressive approach to smokers, it seems that our society displays confusion about what behaviours it should be shaming.

Similarly, wearing fur is now proof that you’re cruel and really clueless. I always feel quite conspicuous when wearing mine to the organic grocery store, where I buy bacon and sausages, shopping beside those who are vegan.  I know wearing fur is considered ‘wrong.’  If I were wearing fake fur, made from plastic, the ‘soy’ version of fur, then that would be okay.

The modern world, which considers itself so tolerant now that it’s non-religious, continues to come up with its own list of taboos, mostly based on current health notions.  And so society’s values go all over the place like fashions.  Those denominations which try to keep up with the times by throwing out their traditions and doctrines become nothing more than social clubs. Did I mention that a local church is called “The Enjoy Life Church”?  That’s basically what it comes to.  The other day CharitableOne knew I’d be astounded to hear that ‘sitting is the new smoking.’  And if you know how negatively smoking (and smokers) is considered, you’d know that this means that people who sit excessively are being ‘bad’ – they wreck their health, which is, of course, an unpardonable crime.   Shame on them!  Take away their chairs!  Remove their couches!  Strap Fitbits to their wrists and graph their steps!  Slather them with sunscreen!  No wait – that’s a different rule.

And as for you, I hope you’re standing while you read this.  They say sitting is the new smoking, you know. (And when it comes to morals, white is the new black.)  I’m sitting as I reach 1984 words. 

So anyway, there’s already a prejudice against those who are overweight, the perception being that they’re not doing what they should be doing to take care of their health.  Certainly the poet Frances Cornford used the word “fat” pejoratively.  As for Chesterton, he said that he didn’t mind being called fat – he said that if he were not fat, he’d be taken seriously, which in itself is interesting.  He put his finger on another truth: people with certain body types (overweight or short) are not given as much credence as those who are thinner and taller.

However, I’m sure that he wasn’t impressed by Cornford labelling her subject a “fat white woman” because it was intended as an insult.  Doesn’t it remind you of the modern disparagement, “dead white men,” which is often used to condemn the rich western heritage of art, music and literature?  Ironically, although it’s a phrase used by people who deplore discrimination, it’s a really discriminatory phrase, since it disqualifies peoples’ contributions on the basis of their date of their death, their gender and their race.  I recently came across an attack on the institution of marriage; someone called it ‘paternalistic.’  And that was basically the beginning and end of the attack – just that word, because nowadays that has a sufficiently negative flavour to it.  I thought about it afterwards – what did she mean, paternalistic?  Too fatherly?  I suspect she probably meant that it was too male, and of course, that’s nearly an insult nowadays too.  But I must ask, as I pass the 2000 word mark, that if it is true that marriage is such a male institution, then why is it that women seem more eager to enter into it than men?  Please don’t tell me that these women have ‘bought into a lie.’  Give them more credit than that.

Moving along, Chesterton’s poem points out that we really don’t know anything about the context of other peoples’ lives. I’ve written recently that people have whole landscapes inside of them, and the thing is that these landscapes are hidden from the rest of the world. We can’t see why people do this or that.  We see the actions, but we can’t see the motivation.  I came across the idea that everyone makes internal sense.  In other words, if you knew what they had been through, and what their internal landscape was, then you’d see how their latest action makes a lot more sense and is a lot less ridiculous or evil than it appeared.

And at the end of the day, it’s our intentions that really matter.  Do we want the best for the other?  Do we wish them well?  Even if we mess things up in our lives and in our relations with others, the main thing is that we’re trying:

It is the [Catholic] thesis that there are no bad things, but only bad uses of things.  If you will, there are no bad things but only bad thoughts, and especially bad intentions.  Only Calvinists can really believe that hell is paved with good intentions.  That is exactly the one thing it cannot be paved with.

-G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, Chapter 4

And I really liked the section in Jacques Philippe’s book about good will, but I can’t get that quotation just yet because I’ve lent that book out.  (VigilantOne warns when you lend a book, you never get it back, which is of course an exaggeration, but it’s true they don’t all come back.)

In his poem, Chesterton points out that Cornford is clueless as to context and intention.  The woman walks through the field wearing gloves; Cornford says it’s a waste of an opportunity, but Chesterton says it could even be about romance: the man who loves her, and who liked to affectionately call her his ‘Old Dutch’ (duchess/wife), is waiting for her at the edge of that same field.  He loves to see her wearing “nice white gloves.” With this defence, with this alternate context and intention, Chesterton explains the gloves and silences the cruel phrase “whom nobody loves.”

He also can’t resist pointing out that Cornford has a far worse appreciation of this field than does the woman she attacks.  After all, the title of Cornford’s poem shows that she’s in a train (probably sitting).  Notice how the dueling poets differ in their use of articles.  Chesterton says that Cornford races through the field in “a” train (for Cornford it’s “the” train), and that Cornford is being hypocritical of “the” woman who walks through it (for Cornford she’s “a” woman).  For Chesterton, the objects are referred to using “a” (i.e., one of many) while people are referred to using “the” (i.e., particular, special).  Chesterton wouldn’t be like the authors of that medical book, who said, “only a few extra women.”

But before we condemn Cornford utterly, we must admit that we all come to conclusions about each other without knowing all the facts.  We guess at motives based on our past experiences and our mental data banks of human behaviour, and we so often get it quite wrong.  I like the quotation about how we need to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, from St. Josemaria Escriva, I think, but now I’m feeling too lazy to go and find it, and besides, I’m over 2800 words and I still haven’t mentioned the Simpson episode.

It was JustOne who told me about it years ago, before everything was online, yet even without seeing it, I thought it was funny.  You see, Catholicism has a reputation for saying ‘no,’ too much, but it all depends on the context of the times.  Liberal times accuse it of being unduly restrictive, and stricter times accuse it of being too indulgent, of saying ‘yes’ too much.   Jesus noted that some people called him a drunkard.  I’d say Catholicism walks the middle road, always locating that sweet spot in the middle, a place of equanimity and balance.  In contrast, many of the Protestant faiths have prohibitions on liquor and dancing – perhaps Cornford’s Puritan background coloured her views on eating and body size too.  The Catholic approach to liquor (and dancing, for that matter) has always struck me as wholesome and happy, something like, “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them” as Chesterton says.  The Simpson clip is here.

3170 words.  More than three times longer than I planned, and my new longest post.  I need a smoke.

Post 28

What’s the Magic Word?
Reflections on Prayer as Unmannered Asking

In some ways, the inarticulate infant is the best ‘asker’ the world has ever known.  A baby’s sobs are not as high on the decibel count as they seem, but they have a way of affecting us really quickly.  I heard of a study where a recording of a baby’s cries was played and people were asked to estimate the length of time the baby was crying.  The estimates were way too high – people thought the recording was a lot longer than it was.  There’s a reason people dread sitting next to a baby on an airplane – that cry is, well, uniquely effective at pushing our buttons, especially at close range, which is where it often is. (And once you add the visuals of the red face, flailing arms and tears spilling everywhere, it’s even more effective!) You could call it evolution: it’s a cry perfected through the ages in order to get results.  The quiet babies didn’t survive – at least that’s how I understand the application of the theory.  Survival of the Loudest.

Anyway, when this infant becomes a toddler, the methods are a little different: ‘Papa! Papa! Papa! Papa!’  ‘Mama! Mama! Mama!’  These requests are simple and spontaneous and not particularly polite either.  As a matter of fact, they are often complaints more than requests.  “Hungry!” we said when we were toddlers, or “Milk!” or “Up!”  But the incessant, repetitious pleas are indisputably effective.

As the toddler gets better at talking, it’s a top priority for parents to get these requests under control.  “What’s the magic word?” say the parents.  “Please” says the child.  “And now what do you say?” “Thank you” says the child.  My mother’s first language wasn’t English, so I never received the lesson about using “May I?” instead of “Can I?” but a lot of children learn that too.

In any case, as we get older, we internalize the rules of polite asking.   As it turns out, there are many unwritten rules.  And for the most part, that’s okay.  All the politics of asking, in general, have the effect of keeping our day-to-day relations more peaceful.  But it’s complicated; personal pride gets mixed in here too, of course, because asking suggests weakness.  And it’s interesting how some people get really good at asking, and know exactly how to spin their requests and get all the doors opened for them.   I liked this quotation: “You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.” (Albert Camus)

And aside from charm, there are other ways of asking which are quite artful.  The Socratic method is education based on asking, and our litigation system is built on calculated asking.  By the time we’re adults, our asking has certainly changed from that bald-faced demand for a glass of water that we made when we were a meter tall.

And I guess what I’m wondering is whether our grownup, sophisticated rules of asking make us less capable of praying. After all, prayer is a way of asking that breaks some fairly basic rules.  Consider what we’re supposed to do, when it comes to prayer:

Ask for gifts: A young child will ask his parents for everything and anything.  He’s not shy.  He doesn’t say to himself, ‘well, my mother knows perfectly well that I would like a puppy, so there’s no point in asking;’ he just goes ahead and asks, again.  The little girl will ask to have cookies for breakfast and will ask you to carry her all around the house, until finally your arms fall off.

Contrast this with adults; we know better than to ask for gifts.  A woman won’t demand signs of affection, but this doesn’t mean that she or the relationship has somehow progressed ‘beyond’ such things – it’s too bad that many men don’t realize the secret power of well-timed flowers or cards!  Perhaps such men don’t realize it because they themselves have little interest in birthdays, and their male friends also don’t make a fuss about them.  It’s so different for women – most of them keep track of such dates in order to act upon them; they know that forgetfulness of another woman’s birthday might have consequences.  And so you can see the problem with the male-female difference in approach: a woman knows when St. Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day is just around the corner, but the man is just coasting along, blissfully ignorant of the upcoming relationship test.  Hopefully he has programmed a reminder into his phone so that he can wake up before the day arrives!  Indeed, for many men, the calendar is a minefield of unspoken expectations.

So consider how different it is with prayer.  If we believe, then we believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful being, who already knows what we want and what we need.  He is not Santa Claus who needs a list, surely?  So how odd it is to make requests to someone who already knows everything!  Christ even said God knows what we need before we say it.

Yet isn’t this child-like asking precisely what we are taught to do?  Jesus says that if people, who are as flawed as we are, are capable of giving good gifts, then “how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”  Notice how it says “to those who ask him.”  So in the case of prayer, we’re actually supposed to ask for gifts.

When you look at the gospel stories, you’ll find a catalogue of all the artless and clumsy (childlike) ways of asking – sure, some people were careful and very respectful, but it seems to me that they were in the minority.  Story after story show people being reckless and wild and (literally) pushy in their asking.  Short Zaccheus climbed a tree to get a better view, the woman with the hemorrhage reached and touched Christ’s garment, and the four buddies removed part of the roof so that they could lower their friend down right in front of Christ’s nose. Then there was the blind man who cried out, which prompted those nearby to tell him to please settle down (which made him even louder, feisty fellow).

Constantly the people surrounded Jesus and asked for his intervention.  They were often really bold.  And Jesus was never critical of this needy behaviour; he never complained of it; he had compassion.  But he did complain about those who didn’t ask; the people in his home town, for example, thought they had him all figured out and were pretty dismissive.  They didn’t have much interest in him and did not come asking, and so nothing really happened for them.  Asking is valuable because it shows faith, and faith is, for whatever reason, the precondition for a miracle, usually.   I say ‘usually’ because I am thinking about this story, which recently hit me as if I had never heard it before:

Jesus [referring to the man’s son]: How long has he had this?

Man: From childhood.  And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.

Jesus: If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.

Man [immediately crying out]: I believe; help my unbelief!

– Mark 9: 21-24

I like a lot of things about this passage, but I especially noticed the way Jesus repeats the man’s words back to him, showing him that he is doubting: “If you can!”  I wonder if Jesus said it like this: “if you can!” or like this: “if you can!”  Then the man’s response is so moving and so true-to-life – I can just picture the scene.  He knows what he’s supposed to say to Jesus in order to obtain help for his son and in front of all these people (“I believe!”), but he’s honest too, and he can’t help but exclaim as well, “Help my unbelief!”

The point is, God wants us to ask for his gifts.  He waits for that; it’s the way it’s supposed to go.  Even Jesus made requests.  The point is to at least ask.  But if you insist on being more ‘mature’ about it, then you’re still supposed to ask, but then add this at the end: “nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

As long as we remember that we’re asking for a gift, all will be well.  It’s when we act like the Pharisee in the temple, who thought he was so good that he deserved it, or the elder son in the prodigal son story, who thought he was so good that he deserved it, that we’re in dangerous waters.

Ask for the small things too:  Another thing we learn in life is that we’re not supposed to bother people about the little things.  Be sensible, and save your requests for the times when you really need help.  If you pester people when the need is small, then they’ll start ignoring your requests, or – even worse – you. The tale of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” had a moral, of course, but was the moral that you mustn’t request help on false pretenses or was the moral that you mustn’t request help until there’s an emergency?  We sometimes get the message that you really shouldn’t bother other people unless it’s of wolf-level significance, which perhaps explains a man’s reluctance to ask for directions. The last thing you want to do is cash in your goodwill needlessly.  Wait until you have a biggie, because then it’s okay, maybe.

Yet with prayer it’s just the opposite.  We’re supposed to pray about everything, and not just about the emergencies.  That typical behaviour, to pray only when we’re really stuck (no atheists in the trenches), isn’t ideal.  We’re supposed to strengthen our relationship with God by bringing all aspects of our lives to him in prayer.  There’s no request that’s too small.  In fact, I think God delights in giving us these tiny tokens of his love.  And when we look at the prayer life of a child, it’s full of cute requests.  But God will strengthen this budding faith by bending down to hear and answer a disproportionate number of such requests, even if they seem insignificant to adults: like getting the right roll of the dice or finding a lost marble.  If it’s a big deal to the child, it’s a big deal to him.  But even when, as children or adults, we know something is not really important in the universal scheme of things, he will often answer with a surprise.  I like the story about how St. Teresa of Avila was gardening in the heat and she was complaining to God about the scorching sun; she was so astonished because then a cloud came and covered it up.  And which saint was it who was longing for asparagus like his mother used to make?  Suddenly he saw a little bundle of it on the rock beside him.  Sometimes we say, “God has a sense of humour” – yes he does; he made it.

And in addition to strengthening the relationship, praying about all the different aspects of our life will have the effect of making us bring these areas into greater accordance with his will.  We are more likely to mess up the areas of our lives that we think don’t have spiritual significance.  If we’re going to be true Christians, then it’s actually wrong to compartmentalize our life into spiritual and non-spiritual zones.  Do we think that God cares that we go to church, but that he doesn’t care how we drive there and back?  He cares about everyone and everything.  (This is why a Christian will always bring his religion into the public arena; his values should permeate his whole life.)

Skip the line: We also learn that we can’t or shouldn’t approach those who are ‘above us’ in the pecking order.  We learn pretty early on that you run the risk of humiliation and shunning if you don’t correctly direct or phrase your request.  Approach those who are ‘in charge’ at your own risk.   When you are in grade ten, don’t expect that someone in grade twelve will have any time for you.  And it goes beyond high school; in the ‘real world,’ boundaries are based less on age than on job titles.  The executive is behind closed doors and layers of staff members.  Perhaps if you ingratiate yourself to his secretary, you will be able to have your request considered.  (For this reason, those in power can easily become gradually more conceited and arrogant, just because they are so used to having people fawn on them and approach them with such delicacy.  It messes with the brain!  I guess that’s why saints warn it’s safer to be the servant than the master.  And to go on a tangent from a tangent, I suspect that those people who are the ‘prize’ on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette will never recover from the imprint of that experience!)  We’re supposed to take our place at the back of the line.

But anyway (where was I?), we bring this notion into our prayer life, because we may have a sense that we aren’t really in a position to ask God for anything because we’re not ‘good enough.’  It’s kind of like St. Peter saying to Jesus, “Leave me, for I am a sinful man.”  Plus there’s a notion of inconsistency – how can we approach God when we’ve neglected him all this time?  We’re not even on good terms with his secretary!  But here again, Christianity emphasizes that everyone has ready access to God, and as a matter of fact, the more sinful we are, the more we are ‘qualified’ to have his ear.  It’s the sinners who get a ‘Skip the Line’ pass. After all, he said, “I came to call sinners.”  In fact, the better we think we are, the more in danger we are – then we’re the Pharisee in the parable, who said, “I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector.  I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.”  No – it was the tax-collector who got it right, when he said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other . . .” (Luke 18:9-14)

In the end, Christianity is not a religion where the only thing we can do is stand in awe, and bow very low, fearing to pronounce his name.  It’s a religion about relationship with a three-person (even God is in relationship!) God.  He has demonstrated his love for us in the person of Christ, and he’s not done yet.  He desires to show that love to each of us, but he’s not pushy.  He waits for us to ask, to give him a chance to show us that love.  So let’s set aside our grownup reluctance and our grownup complexity, and behave like unmannered children.  Let’s be the little child who runs into the grand hall, past all the stoic diplomats and guards, and flings himself into the king’s arms.  Let’s be simple and trusting, and tell him what’s really on our heart.

Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.  But Jesus called them to him, saying “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Luke 18:15-17

 

[My longest post – so far.  Next time I’ll aim for under 1000 words, in order to ‘facilitate consumption’]

Post 27

Addicted to Statistics:
Reflections on Increasing Blog Readership

So the truth is, I don’t actually know how to post any of my posts.  I write my own stuff, of course, and I have opinions about the appearance of things too, but when it comes to anything the slightest bit technical, well, that’s a place where I don’t want to go.  You have heard how a horse will stop at the edge of a cliff when it senses danger and refuse to go any further?  That’s me when it comes to technology.  I love how SympatheticOne put it: “I am roadkill on the Information Super-Highway.”

I don’t know how to change my words into the WordPress format where certain things are <strong> and certain things are <em> and then </em>.  Instead, I do my documents in Word and then I email them to EfficientOne who translates them from English into HTML and makes WordPress happy.

So it’s probably no surprise that I also didn’t know how to check my statistics nor how to see if anyone was subscribing to the blog.  I wasn’t all that curious about these things either, being convinced that I was probably writing to myself.  I had submitted a link to my blog to one Catholic site and sent links to only a smattering of people.  But just recently, I got curious about these things and I asked EfficientOne to show me how to see them.

Well, this is very interesting!  I see that I’m not alone; I see that you’re reading, along with other Americans, Romanians, Poles and a bunch of people from other countries.  Hello!  I wish I could meet you!

There are three effects of seeing your statistics for the first time:

  1. You’re happy that people have enough interest in the blog to come back once in a while,
  2. You’re surprised – “How on earth did these people find my blog in the first place?” “Who has time to read blogs on a regular basis?” and,
  3. You start to care about your statistics.

It’s this last aspect that I’ve been puzzling over.

Is it good for me to think about my statistics?   And connected to that, to what extent should I try to improve them by publicizing my blog?

I have always disliked the work of self-promotion, whether it’s the promotion of a professional service or an artistic endeavor.  Some people like sales and marketing, but I don’t.  And unfortunately, the way life works is that so many professions and businesses require you to ‘drum up business’ in order to be able to do what you’ve learned to do.   You can’t just start fixing teeth; you need patients.  You can’t just start medical research; you need a grant.  You need clients before you can litigate and customers before you can work as a plumber. So then the marketing begins, and how many professionals have unhappily realized that, whether they like it or not, they need to throw themselves wholeheartedly into issues of sales and marketing!

I think the same thing happens to many bloggers.  They start writing and they enjoy it but their statistics show them that they’re the only one reading what they’ve written.  They get concerned, and try to figure out how to change this.  They begin to self-promote, using all the ways that they know of: Twitter, Facebook, etc.  Soon, just as much time is spent marketing as is spent writing in the first place!

I have looked into how to promote my blog, with the idea that I probably should, and I see that I am doing everything wrong.  In the first place, my posts are too long for the modern attention span and pace of life.  Mind you, this is something I knew even before I read any articles, but now I have the terminology to describe what I should do: I am supposed to ‘format my blog posts to facilitate consumption’ and I should ‘structure my content so that it can be consumed quickly.’  Blogs should be written so that people can ‘snack’ on them while they quickly check their mobile device.

Beyond that, I am supposed to have many links in each of my posts, linking to other posts that I have written even though they are in the same blog.  For some reason, if I make my readers swim in circles all over my blog, that’s better.   I am supposed to set things up so that you can’t see more than the first few lines of any post; it’s better if I require you to click, “Read More . . .” because that reduces a blog’s ‘bounce rate.’  I am supposed to have photos with each post.  I should give you a Site Map.  I should ‘leverage my blog’s real estate,’ by having at least one sidebar, so that while you’re reading the post, you’ll notice the nifty distraction on the side, and you’ll start clicking on it too. Basically, I am supposed to bombard you with data inside the blog so that you can’t stop clicking. Even links that take you completely outside the blog are good for my statistics too, from what I can tell.  Click, click and keep clicking.  Of course, it’s blog-popularity-suicide to not have a comment section, because comment sections will keep readers on the site even longer, even though most comment sections of blogs are mainly (I know, not entirely), ‘Great post!  Really enjoyed it!’ once the blogger has pre-screened and deleted all the blog spam and the nasty remarks.   The point is that I’m basically supposed to keep all readers on the blog for as long as possible, and keep them clicking.  And that’s just the site design.

But the advice gets worse, because I also came across the idea that went like this: you may think that you are saying what you want to say, and you may think that blogging is about “lovingly crafting each post,” (do I detect a sneer?) but the practical reality is that you must think about what your readers want, and write the kind of content that they want.  So instead of thinking what I think, and writing what I think, I’m supposed to figure out what you want me to think, and how you want me to think about it, and then think and write like that.  I am supposed to know – or quickly find out – what your “hot buttons” are and create a “marketing persona” to understand your “needs and priorities.”  I should evaluate my statistics and notice which types of posts are the most popular and which generate the most comments, and then write more just like that.

It reminds me of my school days, when I would write precisely what the instructor wanted to hear, and I wasn’t the only one.  All over the world, students are using their brain cells not to figure out the subject, but to figure out what the teacher or professor’s opinions are.  You never learn to develop and defend your own ideas because you’re so busy analyzing someone else’s and figuring out how you’re going to gather them together, rearrange them, season them, garnish them and then serve them back to the professor as an entirely new dish: voila!  (Yes I know that’s supposed to have an accent but I’m not good with my symbols either.)  It also reminds me of the Catholic priests who are so petrified of alienating their worldly parishioners that they never tell them the truth about what the Church teaches, so they wind up talking in such generalities that the homilies don’t influence anyone’s behaviour.  As a matter of fact, it’s those priests who boldly preach the real message who are able to change hearts.

And as for knowing your audience, I’m wondering whether my readers have anything in common with each other which is so easily traceable or lump-togetherable in the first place.  Are you all Catholic?  Are you all religious?  (All questions on a blog that doesn’t take comments are rhetorical, right?)  I kind of hope you’re not, because I’ve always been interested in engaging with those with active minds who are good-willed and interested in thinking about bigger things, regardless of religious background.   For this reason, I liked how Chesterton began his biography of St. Francis.  He said that he was writing to a secular audience, the “ordinary modern outsider and enquirer,” which is what he himself used to be:

This is the only controversial condition that I shall here assume; that I am dealing with the sympathetic outsider . . . A materialist may not care whether the inconsistencies are reconciled or not.  A Catholic may not see any inconsistencies to reconcile.  But I am here addressing the ordinary modern man, sympathetic but skeptical . . .

G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi, Chapter 1

And if that’s the kind of person I’m thinking of too, then where do I start?  Where are these people?  Are you all hanging out at the same bar?  Do you all wear the same kind of cologne or use the same toaster oven?  According to the experts, I better find out!  I better create a “social media persona” (not the same as the “marketing persona”) so that I can figure out ‘where you congregate and interact on social media.’  That’s the first step – once I know that, I should go to these places myself and entice you to my blog.  One suggestion is to go and interact on these forums or on these blogs by leaving supportive comments for a while, and then casually mention that I have my own blog and here’s the link, by the way.

And that’s just the beginning.  I am supposed to tweet three or four times a day (after all, as they point out, the readers are in different time zones) when I have written a new post, telling you that I have written a new post.  And – this one I think is the best of all – I am supposed to go on Facebook and ‘like’ my own posts!

Sigh.  I’m already exhausted.  But there’s more.

I am supposed to stay aware of ‘what my competitors are doing.’  I didn’t realize I had competitors.  If they have a new way to promote their blog, I should keep up by doing the same thing.  One website declares that ‘being famous is the new rich.’  I am supposed to aim for fame.  Yeah, I’m going to be this really famous mostly-anonymous person.

So I wonder.  If I believe that my message is good, then do I have an obligation to promote it?  You know, in sort of an evangelical sense?  After all, I must admit that if people like Fr. Robert Barron didn’t work to get his message out, then I might never have found the things that he has produced.  And for that matter, so many of the good products and books that I enjoy have come into my hands due to promotional work being done, and being done well by those whose talents lie in that direction.  I’m also aware of the notion that you can’t sit back and wait for good things to happen without effort.   So initially, I thought I should hold my nose and try to do this, you know, as sort of the yucky side of blogging.  But on the other hand . . .

The fact is, this isn’t my livelihood.  It’s an avocation (I just learned that word, so I’m happy to use it), and to be totally honest, it’s something which I am enjoying even more than I thought I would (I’m ‘into it’) and which (therefore) takes more time than I thought it would.  Am I to increase the amount of time spent on it by devoting additional hours to the sub-project of maximizing my readership?  And as for the notion of spreading a good message, well, that’s kind of tricky, but isn’t it the case that I can’t control the ultimate effectiveness of anything good that I try to do anyway?  Mother Teresa said that God calls us to be faithful, but not necessarily to be successful.   If I go as far as I can go, based on my abilities and available time, then certainly that’s enough.

And then there’s the advice of Chesterton.  Have I ever mentioned that I really like Chesterton?  He was a journalist.  In his autobiography, completed a few weeks before his death, he talks about his success:

On the whole, I think I owe my success (as the millionaires say) to having listened respectfully and rather bashfully to the very best advice, given by all the best journalists who had achieved the best sort of success in journalism; and then going away and doing the exact opposite.  For what they all told me was that the secret of success in journalism was to study the particular journal and write what was suitable to it.  And, partly by accident and ignorance and partly through the real rabid certainties of youth, I cannot remember that I ever wrote any article that was at all suitable to any paper.

On the contrary, I think I became sort of a comic success by contrast.  I have a notion that the real advice I could give to a young journalist, now that I am myself an old journalist, is simply this: to write an article for the Sporting Times and another for the Church Times, and put them into the wrong envelopes . . .

G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter 8

 

Of course, Chesterton’s success derived from more than this – it didn’t hurt that he was brilliant and that he could separate what was true from what was false.  We don’t know the names of all the advice-givers that talked to Chesterton, but now it’s Chesterton’s voice and not theirs that thunders down through the years, becoming more popular with each passing year.  (And I’m not saying I’m like Chesterton either; I’m smart enough to know when others are light years ahead of me.)

So anyway, I’ve learned that a blogger is often more than a blogger; they’re often also salespeople, who are thinking (more than you’d ever know) about their target audience.  I understand this; after doing the work of writing an article or an essay and choosing pretty photographs or whatever, it’s natural to want a reader.  And having access to statistics heightens this preoccupation.  In the short time that I’ve had access to statistics, I’ve been mesmerized by them too.  These statistics are fascinating, and they are as powerful as any other addiction, because they seem to quantify, with charts and numbers, how interesting or appreciated you are.

Accordingly, between the time of beginning this article and finishing it, I have asked EfficientOne to hide the statistics for MinedGems somewhere where I can’t find them.   The deal is that I have to deliberately request to see them, and he’ll reveal them, but I won’t ask for them often, if at all.  I know that I can’t trust myself to have easy access to them and not peek.  Like any addiction, you’re only in control when you start; after that, you find yourself drawn like a moth to the flame.  So I asked him to put them up on a high shelf out of reach for me.  A few moments later, he emailed me: “Please try now.”  So I went to the Dashboard and attempted to check my stats.  Guess what?  I couldn’t find them.

Post 26

Damaged Goods:
Reflections on the Four Ways Language has Deteriorated in the Modern Culture

If every language is shaped by the culture that uses it, then it would be bad news for English and other languages if we are living in a “culture of death,” as Pope John Paul II named it in Evangelium Vitae.  A culture of death will do damage to whatever is true, good and beautiful already existing in that culture.  One asset and expression of a culture is its language.  In the language we will find the heritage and history of that culture.

Every culture has a ‘voice,’ a way that it sounds.  My premise is that the modern voice is irreverent, disrespectful, lewd and inexact.  And, speaking of inexact, I’m aware that generalizations are always sensational, as Chesterton says.  For everything that I say, there are many exceptions.  But here I go anyway.

Irreverent

The other day I read, “The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of all prayers . . . This prayer teaches us not only to ask for things, but also in what order we should desire them” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, as quoted in Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matt. 6: 1-18).  I don’t think I had come across that idea of the sequence of this prayer being important before, but here it is, and it’s St. Thomas Aquinas.  So, in the pole position is the request is that God’s name be respected as holy: “hallowed be thy name.” That’s just like the Commandment to not use God’s name without reason: “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.”

Previously (recently, even), in keeping with our culture’s Judeo-Christian roots, nobody mentioned God or Jesus in an offhand and unconscious manner.  To do so was in extremely bad taste.  A whole pile of substitute expressions (which now seem quaint), like ‘Jeepers Creepers’ and ‘Jiminy Crickets’ and ‘Holy Cow’ were coined expressly to avoid saying what should and could not be said.   But when things started to change, they changed almost overnight, and “Oh my God” entered the world of prime time television, to be imitated by families.   Nowadays, even children will text “OMG!”

I know that those who use this expression are not trying to be irreverent, and it must seem extreme to argue that this ‘ordinary’ expression is so problematic, but if I could change one thing about our current culture’s use of language, I would change this.  Even if we deny that there is a God who requires our respect, then let us at least be polite to those around us who are trying to practice their religion, and not pointlessly do what is expressly forbidden by the Jewish and Christian faiths.  Consider that in the Jewish faith, God’s name is never even spoken.  The Catholic documents respect this and will use the unpronounceable designation “YHWH.”  Yet the modern culture, instead of simply avoiding or ignoring God’s name, uses it all the time, but only in the way which is expressly prohibited!  Sadly, we use our gift of language and the tools that we have in order to offend him.  Chesterton describes one of his poems which “conceived the scoffer as begging God to give him eyes and lips and a tongue that he might mock the giver of them.”  (Autobiography, Chapter 4)

Disrespectful

And speaking of politeness, the modern discourse has become noticeably ruder. EquitableOne points out that the format of internet discussions – you cannot see the face of the other – can create a situation in which ill-intent is presumed where it doesn’t exist, and the hostility escalates.  The anonymity provided by the internet has an impact, in the same way that normally-considerate people will behave rudely when driving.  In any case, if you go to the comment section of an online newspaper article or a popular YouTube video, then you don’t have to scroll down very far before you’ll find examples of extremely hostile and vulgar language.  But even outside the internet, in the approach of newspaper editorials and popular radio commentators, there is a marked coarsening of speech.  The less-educated tend to use the blunt instruments (expletives, profanities and one-word attacks, such as ‘srsly?’) to attack the people and ideas that they dislike, whereas the educated pride themselves on the cleverness of their sharper tools (sarcasm, sneering and belittling).  This second group is more articulate, but nevertheless usually still avoids the heart of the argument and instead ‘scores points’ by quibbling about details and discrediting their opponent.  SincereOne says that the combative style is a way of drawing attention to the speaker and increasing the number of viewers, who are always interested in a fight.  Chesterton observed that genuine argument was becoming rarer – how much more so today!  Even our humour has changed.  “It is striking, for example, to see how humor in the media is less and less the humor of tenderness and compassion, and is instead the humor of derision.” (Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, Chapter 1).

Lewd

Previous generations were flesh and blood too, and had all the same natural impulses that we have today, but they did not have a one-track mind, or speak as if they did.  It was considered in bad taste to speak of such things casually, and the written language reflected this.  But nowadays even when you go to pay for your groceries, you’ll see that the text on the front of the magazines is about as explicit as could be – or so it seems.  With each passing month, the magazines go a step further, competing for readers who do not protest as everything goes to the next level.  The music industry offers us a cornucopia of new slang words, but they’re all about the same thing: money, drugs and human anatomy.   And since a person’s willingness to use vulgar words is taken as a sign of virility, candour and creative wit, some of these slang words enter the mainstream and degrade the language a little further.  Even the government jumps on board, to show how ‘culturally relevant’ it is too.  The billboard campaign, “Crotches kill,” aims to dissuade people from looking at their phones while driving, and the public library’s tote bags proclaim: “Library lovers never go to bed alone.”  Chesterton wrote that in the pagan era, every “innocent and natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex:”

What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole, was that the whole world was coloured by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions; by natural passions becoming unnatural passions.  Thus the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex.  For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping.  The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant.  There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication.  The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology . . .

– G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi, Chapter Two

St. Josemaria Escriva advises:

Never talk of impure things or events, not even to deplore them.  Look, it’s a subject that sticks more than tar.  Change the conversation, or if that’s not possible, continue, but speaking of the need and beauty of holy purity – a virtue of the men who know what their souls are worth.

The Way, no. 131

How lovely it would be, if as a society, we could “change the conversation”!  After all, in the encyclical, Pope John Paul II wrote, “The trivialization of sexuality is among the principal factors which have led to contempt for new life.”

Inexact

It used to be that the written language was written, and not typed.  The slower speed meant that more thought and effort inevitably went into the process.  And since language is expressed thought, more thought can be only a good thing.  Now we write, but we don’t think as much, or as well.  We grab the first convenient word that roughly represents what we mean, and we hit ‘send.’

Chesterton writes that every technological improvement has its disadvantages:

Thus, I would say, having even then a tendency to moralise along such lines, every mechanical improvement brings a new problem with it.  I do not demand faith in the fable, but I have not been discouraged in the moral, by seeing motoring lead to massacre, aviation destroy cities and machines increase unemployment.

G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter 5

In the case of Facebook, texting, tweeting, and even email, there has been a huge cost in terms of our language.  We have dumbed down our language tremendously, by reusing the same simple words so often.  It’s a heavy price to pay for the speed and efficiency that we idolize so much.  We’ve gone from precise, well-chosen words to mass-produced language that is one-size-fits-all.  We’ve forgotten how it feels to search for and find that perfect word, because we don’t do it anymore; we can’t be bothered.  It’s all about getting that message sent fast.  We’ve consequently lost so many words, and with them, the ideas that they represented.

When you consider the popular phrases in our culture, you can see the dumbing down effect quite clearly: “It’s not about you,” “get with it,” “new normal,” “my bad,” “he’s not that into you,” “get out of here!”  These phrases catch on because they’re easy and fast, and we start using them without even realizing it.  One blogger speculated that bloggers aren’t to blame, as much as Facebook users, for the deterioration of the English language because “bloggers are usually really into writing.”  I missed her meaning initially, so I went back to examine the sentence.  The use of the preposition ‘into’ here – is it the verb? – is another example of the increasing vagueness.  I’m not saying that it’s sinful to use these phrases, of course, and they can serve a different purpose, but certainly, it’s not an improvement in the English language.   Indeed, if you were to try to translate these phrases into another language, you’d find that they are conveying more of a mood than a precise idea.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s that unclarity that comes from the use of jargon.    Chesterton mentioned how Churchill was very clear when talking about something trivial, but if the subject “had been a sensible question about a super-tax, he would have adopted, however genially, a fencing sort of swordsmanship . . . he was very public, as public men go; but they all seem to become hazier as they mount higher.  It is the young and unknown who have decisive doctrines and sharply declared intentions.  (Autobiography, Chapter 5) And indeed, hazy language is used to hide the truth.  One thing I love about Catholicism is that you can always find out exactly what the Church’s position is on important issues; the words may be difficult, but they are precise – almost scientifically so.

Jargon, on the other hand, is maddening.  Give me any day the unintentional misspellings or grammatical errors that we all make rather than this intentional confusion!  There are so many important but meaningless ‘catch phrases’ which are intended to give you the impression that serious work and thought are happening, but you are not more informed by the time you finish deciphering their code.  Here’s an excerpt from a Canadian (Manitoba) document which attempts to describe what students will learn in ‘Language Arts’: “Combine Ideas (1.2.3.): Structure and restructure ideas to extend current understanding and to broaden personal perspectives of the world.”  What?  Or how about this: “Express Preferences (1.1.4): Discuss with peers preferences for texts (including books) and genres by particular writers, artists, storytellers, and filmmakers.”  (The fact that they must mention that Language Arts will include books – or, to be more exact, a chat about which books the student liked – is particularly telling.)   In any case, jargon is maddening and suspicious, and just another way of saying ‘blah blah blah.’  Matthew Arnold, English essayist and poet said: “Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can.  That is the only secret of style.” 

Conclusion

“Walk as children of light … and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph 5:8, 10-11). In our present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death”, there is need to develop a deep critical sense, capable of discerning true values and authentic needs.

Evangelium Vitae (March 25, 1995)

In sum, any language is a treasure, but it’s not the kind of thing you can put into a museum.  It’s like a mist or a cloud that follows us around, and it adapts.  When we pollute our culture, the language deteriorates. In turn, we breathe the atmosphere that we’ve created – we hear our own ‘voice’ in our ears and it affects us too, causing a further change in us.

I have found it discouraging to observe the English language lose its beauty, and to shrink in its collection of words (words represent truths, and with the loss of words, we lose valuable pieces of truth) and so naturally I looked around: “Who or what will rescue our language?  What will prevent the further degradation which seems inevitable?”  And initially, I thought I found the answer: in my experience of those who have immigrated to Canada, and in my very limited interactions with non-native speakers in foreign countries, I found language that was not encumbered by these negative traits.  But now I am told, and I concede, that the problem is more complicated than that, as other nations unfortunately face the same struggles that we face.  “With men this is impossible . . .” (Matt. 19:26)

So I turned to the Church’s encyclical which started the phrase “culture of death” in the first place (Evangelium Vitae).  I looked for the message of hope, and of course, it was there – in abundance, and the very last few words of the whole encyclical talk of “resolutely” building, “together with all people of good will, the civilization of truth and love, to the praise and glory of God, the Creator and lover of life.”

The civilization of truth and love will be a beautiful one.  And this passage indicates that anything that is done by “people of good will” in order to live good and upright lives will have the effect of building up such a civilization.  And from that civilization will flow all the proofs of health, including language (and art and music and so on) which is noble and dignified.

In the midst of all this thinking about language, I had managed to forget that another name for Jesus is “the Word:”

“Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

                                Revelations 21:5