Monday, August 21, 2006

Pounding Sand

Athenae started it! (She of the superfluous vowels).

I have many things to add, but not in any coherent order. One observation, though, is on this whole question of "meaning" and "meaninglessness." That's a favored pursuit of many social critics, from T.S. Eliot:

"What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars.
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together,
But every sone would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions."

to the crisis in Iraq:

Haider Ali communes with God through his CD player.

That is how he listens to the lectures of Shiite imams these days, for he rarely sets foot in a mosque anymore.

Even on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath, he prefers to pray at home, kneeling on a rug in a room adorned with posters of green-robed Shiite martyrs slain centuries ago.

“We’d go a lot to mosque before, but it’s too dangerous now,” Mr. Ali, 42, said as he watched his 9-year-old son stack boxes in his downtown convenience store. “Now, you feel a little empty inside.”

Across central Iraq, more and more Iraqis associate the neighborhood mosque, the cornerstone of life in the Muslim world, with the Kalashnikov rather than the Koran.

Exploding sectarian violence has undermined the mosque’s traditional role as a gathering place, further unraveling the country’s communal fabric. Mosque attendance has plummeted, according to clerics and government officials, as tens of thousands of Iraqis like Mr. Ali choose to pray at home out of safety concerns. Gatherings at Friday Prayer are sometimes one-tenth the size of what they once were, and parents no longer send their children to mosques for spiritual lessons.

As a result, sales of CD’s with religious lectures have boomed, while satellite channels showing bombastic clerics are more popular than ever.

The decline in mosque attendance is a noticeable reversal of a trend that began right after the American invasion of 2003, when religious freedom flowered and worshipers, especially long-oppressed Shiites, flocked to mosques.

Now, however, mosques have become a frequent flash point in the widening Sunni-versus-Shiite warfare.
The reality of the spiritual and communal cost of that war is just now being realized. How do we quantify that? On what spread sheet do we assess it? By what body count do we measure it? With what metric do we guage it? Does it have any meaning at all?

Sociologists like Robert Wuthnow will insist it does; but sociologists deal with abstractions like human motivation, and speak in generalities which can be reflected in statistics, hard numbers which somehow make the situation real and tangible and, in some way, something we can respond to, if only to use science in our condemnation of "them," "those people" who are always our problem. Vague and glittering generalities dressed up as established verities. That is, to the critic, the domain of sociology. But I am no critic of sociology; I don't know enough about it to criticize it. Instead, I use it, as I was trained in seminary to do, to decide that this picture may well be right:

An awful lot of people, good people, nice people, people living what you'd call normal lives, are just sort of ambling around trying to figure out what the fuck they're doing here... ...They're miserable in a low-level kind of way, quiet desperation and all, and church isn't doing it for them, and drugs are too destructive, and most of them aren't living the lives they wanted to live.
Even easier, I can just go with Thoreau over 100 years ago: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Even then it was apparent to the New England naturalist that the American Dream was a chimeraical object.

But is meaning truly what we are looking for? Sociologists say yes. It's where we find it, and the energy we'll expend on it, that's the issue. Athenae is clearly committed to her cause, and just as clearly frustrated that other people don't seem to be as committed as she is. It's a problem every seminary student faces leaving seminary with a heart full of idealism and a head full of biblical and scholarly knowledge: why aren't the people in the pews as excited about this as I am? Why don't they care about the same things I do? Why am I willing to sacrifice to make the church a place of meaning and belonging, and most people just want it to mean something they can belong to? Who's wrong: me, or them?

Dangerous question. A lot of this goes back to the Industrial Revolution, actually. Once we no longer had to depend solely on agriculture in human society, God was easily displaced (today the weather is still capricious, but the machine does just what we expect it to do) and meaning supposedly came from our own existence (the insistence on the primacy and later, supremacy, of the individual made this understanding inevitable. Existentialism is the logical outcome of Romanticism.). Suckled on a creed outworn:

They wait for that kind of leadership, and even when they seem to have found it they say, maybe next time, when the time is right, when I'm ready, when the world is ready, when something so horrific I can't ignore it any more jolts me out of this Barcalounger and onto my feet, then I'll follow. Then I'll act.
And we're back to Thoreau's observation. Or maybe Alfred Bester's, from The Stars My Destination. Maybe the driven ones, the leaders, think they have to be in charge, and the rest of us just let them. Maybe we're waiting for someone to tell us to take control, to make them, the leaders, the masters, the ones who take charge, let us make the decisions about our own lives.

Mabye. Except I'm not so sure we are. I'm not so sure so many people really are looking for such ultimate meaning in their lives or otherwise, don't bother me. I'm not so sure everyone is waiting for the wake-up call that makes their existence worthwhile, meaningful, "self-actualized," as the modern vocabulary has it. For instance, this isn't the 1960's that I remember:

It had everything to do with a hunger in suburbia for the kind of purpose their parents had as young people in the 1960s, the kind of purpose America had when it was led by real men and not hucksters and thieves.
Lyndon Johnson could give Karl Rove master classes on political hucksterism, as could Richard Nixon. J. Edgar Hoover was the scariest man in government right up until the day he died, and even afterwards, for quite a while. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't lionized even after his assassination; he was vilified, he was caricatured, he was despised for his anti-war stance and he died supporting a labor action for fair wages, not because he integrated a lunch counter. People had dogs set on them, fire hoses trained on them, bullies in police uniforms beating them near to death; "inner cities" (the first time I ever heard that phrase) were burning, riots were so prevalent some said in 1970 that the country was lucky it didn't split up in revolution in 1968. Yippies and SDS and Weathermen and Vietnam and Kent State: the '60's and early '70's were an unrelenting drumbeat of violence and racial tension and fear and hatred and if anybody thought they were going to change the world, most likely they thought they would burn it down or blow it up, but it was gonna end in a bloodbath, not a new millenium, a thousand year reign of peace and love and pot-smoking.

That's all looking backward, long after the dust has settled, and any view about the past that thinks that's how it was is not longing for meaning, it's just dumb wishful thinking, it's just plain ignorance.

Which is not to attribute those sins to Athenae; but if we're gonna talk truth to power, let's talk truth. There was never a unifying call: Kennedy's call didn't reach Martin Luther King. Kennedy wanted nothing to do with the civil rights movement King envisioned. He was part of the crowd urging King to "go slow." Johnson was pushed into it; he was smart enough to see where the parade was going, and Southern enough to understand the justice issues involved, and he did the right thing. But he didn't unify anybody. The violence provoked by King's non-violent movement had to be lived through to be believed; it's almost impossible to understand it without experiencing the racism that was then so strong (and is now so hidden) in American society. Hoover spent so much time investigating King it took the Church Committee to finally uncover everything he had on the minister, and how he tried to use it. King didn't unify, he scared people. Malcolm X advocated violent change. The Black Panthers were seen as thugs and gang members long before that term took on the connotation it has today. They all wanted what King wanted, at least. But they weren't unified behind him. The country wasn't unified in its opposition to Vietnam, it nearly broke apart over it, and in ways far more deep, far more public, and far more meaningful, than a contested primary in Connecticut.

It has, in other words, never been better than this. Life has never had more meaning than it does now, things have never made more sense than they do now. It wasn't that Bush had a golden opportunity to make things better after 9/11 and he squandered it. The only opportunity Bush had was to make wise policy decisions, to boldly and intelligently guide the ship of state. And this he completely and even resolutely failed to do, but then, given his history, his past, his life, what could we expect? Sure we bought into the jingoism masquerading as patriotism, and our willful ignorance of the world and what we call the "Middle East" and our ever-renewed faith in violence led us charging into war, but, you know what? That's what human beings do.

This is who we are. This is what we expect of our "nation." This is what being a country means. People from Neil Young to Atrios still argue we were right to invade Afghanistan, and aver that anything that went wrong in that war was the result of the "distraction" of Iraq, as if more troops or more reports on CNN or FoxNews or by the New York Times would have made a difference in the invasion and occupation of a third-world country that no outside power has been able to control in centuries. This is us; this is what we do. We have met the enemy. Look in a mirror. The whole effort is dreams and delusions. And we never quite get away from Thoreau, do we?

His objection was to the industrialization of New England. He lamented the loss of peace and quiet brought to his retreat on Walden Pond by the faraway train whistle, a sound we now remember nostalgically as a part of a pastoral past we'll never know again, a simpler time when people rode the rails instead of dashing "to and fro in motor cars./Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere." The loss of meaning is tied intimately to the changes we have eagerly embraced, nay, sought out, by way of technology. And when we have lost meaning, replacing it with what we are assured is the better life, yet somehow none of the improvements seems spiritually fulfilling, quite finally bring about the "self-actualization" we are told we all long for, then we say the church or the politicians or even the bloggers have let us down, and we'll just wait here for someone to come along and lead us.

Or "they" will: the mass of people leading lives of quiet desperation will. Meanwhile, their desperation is driving us, the concerned ones, slowly mad with despair and anger, with trying to figure out just what's wrong and why "they" are like that, why "they" elected Bush over Gore, or Bush over Kerry, or listen to Bush at all and give him even enough votes to fudge the rest and claim another victory.

So that's maybe the worst of it. Pundits and politicians taken in by Bush's blather would have to admit they wanted to feel good about themselves more than they wanted 2,500 American soldiers to live.
In the end, that's what it comes down to. But we all want to feel good about ourselves. We all want to join the group that gives us a sense of meaning and belonging, and few of us want to join the group that requires a sacrifice for meaning and belonging. It's simply the way we are. Like electricity, we follow the path of least resistance, and we call our anger, our despair, our sense of helplessness against the tides of history or forces of war in nations, our sacrifice. We want to take away all meaning, and then replace it solely on our terms. And I'm not indicting Athenae, here, just speaking to the same subject from my own observations. "They" are not some species of animal or human in which I have no part, share no character, bear no resemblance. "They" are me, and we just disagree on what is most important. And when we say "They" fail to provide meaning to us, or "they" fail to take up the responsibility of seeking meaning, or accepting meaning, or even trying to make meaning in their own lives, we are lying to ourselves. We are failing to remember that in a convex surface, objects are closer than they appear; and everything we see, is seen through our own eyes. And too often what we see, is a reflection.

Which image is right, in the end? The self-important person who only has to reach out his hand to pluck the grapes, and worries about his life's ultimate meaning? Or the mother working two jobs, just trying to get by, too tired to even be concerned with her "self-actualization"? Are people, indeed, "drinking the sand"? I don't quite see it. Yes, there is a need for meaning, and for spiritual meaning, in human life. Disassemble the Iraqis ability to attend mosgue, and you haven't made them more rational, you have undercut their identity, truncated their humanity. Maybe John Cheever and John Updike and Raymond Carver are right, and those people aren't so different from one another after all. And we aren't so different from Haider Ali. We want our lives; we want our places to pray, or not pray, as we are moved. We don't want a life of violence; but then, maybe, we should stop visiting that on others, stop even thinking that violence is sometimes a solution, is viable as a rallying cry, makes sense in some situation some time, this time, the very next time.

It doesn't. It's about as effective as pounding sand. What life have we if we have not life together? And what does "together" mean, if it doesn't include all of humanity, in an increasingly intertwined, "global village" of a world? We all want to feel good about ourselves. But if Donne was right, and "no man is an island," perhaps no man includes no woman, too; and no child; includes everyone, everywhere. Which is no real solution; not in the real world. But there are worse sins you could commit, than to love your enemy.

Far worse; like to not even try. What kind of meaning would that give your life, to just try, every day, day after day?

Update: courtesy where courtesy is due: Hecate's response to Athenae's post.

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