Strangers and Friends

I’m afraid that I have fallen prey to the rampant cynicism of this age despite my attempts to avoid it. A member of neither political party in America (I have been a member of both in my voting aged lifetime) I cannot bear to witness the blind party loyalty and slavish ideology put forth by members of each. Friends of mine on both sides of the aisle refuse to consider for a moment that their party’s position on an issue may be wrong simply because to admit being wrong is to admit a failure and their pride simply won’t allow that. Compromise is impossible, yet they’re the first to complain about gridlock in our nation’s seat of government. For the past month our headlines have been a litany of government sins. But to these people it seems that sins exist only in Christians or Christian churches. Their religion, the religion of government, is good, kind, benevolent and true; therefore it is not capable of committing sins. This, too, is pride lacking wisdom. T.S. Eliot writes in his Four Quartets:

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

Humility and wisdom. Yeah, I don’t see a lot of these two around either. And as I point that out I would like to also state that there are three fingers pointing back at me as I do so.

I have been reading The Death of Christian Culture by John Senior. Senior was one of the men at Kansas University in the 1970s responsible for the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program that I wrote about a few months ago and a brilliant professor. The paragraph below leaped off the page at me late last week as I grew more and more disillusioned with media of all kinds: television, newspapers, social media and even this blog. On page 38 Senior writes:

The motive force of Modernism is, as the name suggests, the perpetual urge for the new—not the real, not the true, not the ideal, not even the evil, not the power or the glory or the lust, but all these things for the sake of the new. Cut off from reality by “four hundred years of criticism and doubt,” the Modernist, insisting on the new, very quickly exhausts the contents of his memory and proceeds to invent an artificial one. The image—that is, what the “imagination” produces—substitutes for Being. To the Realist, an image must necessarily be of something; and the something can be understood in terms of ideas and feelings. The Modernist, cut off from reality, has nothing but the image, nothing but the mental sensation. … The Realist asks, “What is the image of?” For art holds the mirror up to nature. The Modernist, a worshipper of Baal in more than one way, replies, “There is nothing but the image.” He (she) is a worshipper of images.

The Illusion of Imagery
Tom Hoopes recently compared social media to the world of Jay Gatsby and his creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Think about what social communication does: It opens big noisy rooms where everyone pretends to know each other but no one really does. None of us were invited—most of us were simply brought along (to borrow a Fitzgerald character’s phrase). We are strangers and friends at the same time. Our conversations are at once too intimate and too superficial; too specific and too random.

[…]

On Facebook, it’s best not to get too deep. It’s best not to be too real. It’s best to stick to the shimmering surface of life. It’s best to be a beautiful fool.

I know people who preach tolerance while being intolerant of other points of view and declare other views as being intolerant. It’s a vicious circle, and one that only they can win as they long ago declared themselves the arbiters of tolerance. If you attempt to engage them contrary to their position the common response is “Haven’t you ever heard of humor or recognize sarcasm?” I’m well aware of both, thank you very much, as I have used the former several times and been a purveyor of the latter for far too long. But theirs is a cop out; a way to avoid making a hard stand on an issue to avoid the accusation of (ironically) intolerance.

No humility. No wisdom. Nothing matters unless you disagree with the politically orthodox position-of-the-moment and its false imagery.

In War and Peace Leo Tolstoy defined Freethinkers as “those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking; where it is absent, discussion is apt to become worse than useless.”

mirror_reflection-talkHere is the crux of why I’ve given up discussing any issue of the day with most people who claim to be freethinkers or open minded. The fact of the matter is that they are neither of the two. No matter how much they label themselves as such they have convinced themselves that they are right and there can be no deviation from the popularly held belief or position. Sadly many of them haven’t even thought the issue through. It is enough for them to be considered one of the “cool kids” and hold the popular position and have the power that position provides in bullying those who may disagree. We are still fighting the old fights waged on the playgrounds of our youth. The bullies remain, though their ranks have swelled, and they spend much time talking to the beautiful fool reflected in their mirror. They who cannot bear to hear the truth try to silence those who speak it. As for me I feel it’s better to meet in the catacombs with authenticity than in the cathedrals with a lie.

Jesus said that “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” To become like little children is not easy for a people as laden with pride as we are. We are children, no doubt. Children distracted by the shiny baubles of social media and wanting to be counted among the in-crowd. But we lack the humility and simplicity of the child who would enter heaven.

It is because of this unseriousness in these serious times that I find I lack the clarity of mind necessary to write. I have struggled like never before to come up with something…anything…that I feel worthy of sharing that isn’t cynical or worse: patronizing. I’ve created more than a few new blogs and before making them public shut them down. I’ve struggled for a theme or a direction. I’ve stared at the empty screen after drinking a glass of bourbon or wine. (I’ve never drank to excess for the sake of creating.) I’ve retreated into the nourishment of family, close, personal friends and my books. But even within their pages solace is not easily found. There instead lies a nagging sense of an abdication of responsibility. There are days when I fear going off the deep end like Harrison Ford’s character Allie Fox in the 1986 movie The Mosquito Coast, though I’m not quite ready to sell my house and move my family to the jungles of Central America. Yet.

Last week while looking through my Facebook profile I came to the Notes I had written. It wasn’t all that long ago that my friends and I used to write and exchange several such notes but I can’t recall the last time anyone did. Around the time that the Facebook smartphone app was introduced they seemed to die. Prior to the smartphone app comments were more common, too, but now they are minimal and we’ve reduced ourselves to a “like” here and there. Tapping the screen once is easier than tapping the virtual keyboard and expressing ourselves. What I noticed when reading my notes was that a few short years ago I wrote with a lot of clarity (and brevity!) that I seem to have lost today.

I’m sorry for being so negative. I don’t like that I am, but the past year has shown me that we are simply not a serious nation anymore. There can be no nation without community. We are instead a nation of empty symbolism that allows us to disregard the feelings of others, our impact in their lives, disdain suffering of any kind and remove “friends” by checking a box. The symbolism may be empty, but in the process we’ve also emptied our souls. In regards to my past optimism on that front I am in what St. Ignatius would call an period of extended spiritual desolation: an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil. We are assaulted by all sorts of doubts, bombarded by temptations, and mired in self-preoccupations. We are excessively restless and anxious and feel cut off from others. Such feelings, in Ignatius’s words, “move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love. (source)

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It is in the interest of brevity that I have decided to break this post in to two parts. I will finish in a few days by writing about what Chesterton called the “First Principle of Democracy”, about authentic friendship, summer vacations, and finish with some more thoughts from St. Ignatius.

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2 thoughts on “Strangers and Friends

  1. I hear you. Loud and clear. I think labels in themselves send out a message of exclusion, even “open-minded.” It is not easy to stay positive… I often am not. I recently read an article that somewhat (loosely) reminds me of this post, about what one learns about other nations and their own when they leave it. Particularly if you’re from the United States. I think the author nails a few things right on, though I certainly don’t agree with everything he states… What he says, however, states well why I feel destined to be an ex-pat someday. http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/10-things-most-americans-dont-know-about-america/.

    Also, your thoughts about how Christ wanted us to become like little children brings to mind a post I’ve been meaning to write for years, about how kids are the same everywhere, no matter their nation, no matter their nation’s wars. They just want love, and love the world around them, and they see it with such bright eyes. It’s no wonder Christ wanted us to be like them.

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    • Hi Jess. I find it difficult to disagree with most of what he said. His point #4 really resonated with me as I’ve experienced this, and I REALLY want to ride in the Thai taxi described in #6. 🙂

      I wrote this two days ago and each day during lunch have messed around with it, rewriting, and would never post it because I was afraid of coming off as too much of a scold. I did in the end soften it a little so it wasn’t an unhinged rant, but I stand by what I wrote. It’s like the guy in your link says: we are self-possessed. As I write we’re dazzled by the imagery of ourselves that we create and reveal to the rest of the world. Today we can carry around in the palm of our hand a device that connects us to the rest of the world and to the greatest libraries, music and art that has been created since the dawn of time. And what do we choose to do with it? Post pictures of the LOL Cat.

      And please please PLEASE write that article on children. You are so right about them.

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