Tuesday, September 22, 2009

From Your Grieving Friend

Hello, dear friends. Months have passed since my last post. I have been silent for a reason, resisting sharing my opinions of the health care debate – that we even need to debate this is a little odoriferous to me – we should have long ago joined the family of compassionate, civilized nations that offer either single payer or a hybrid public/nonprofit option. Illness should never be a weapon, although it has been used as such by Western Man for a very long time. A society that derives huge profits off the suffering of others does not sit well with my soul. It reminds me of the blankets infected with small pox that were given to our Native brothers and sisters. A preexisting condition. Which is to say, I’ve been grieving. If you’ve ever seen a dog grieve, you will know that she slinks into her corner, rests her head on her paws and falls into an observant silence.

It’s a humbling thing, this social racket. Long ago, back in the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, the right accused my generation of being self-interested, that we were refusing to fight in Vietnam because we were cowards and wanted fun, not danger. Like all accusations in a politically polarized climate, this one had its elements of truth. In a New York Times interview with Donald Trump back in the ‘nineties, the rich man stated that he could not be bothered with Vietnam because it might interfere with his financial ambitions. “Let other people do the fighting,” he said. The conservatives in the days of the Draft saw serving ones country as an unbreakable part of the social contract. The liberals saw the war in Vietnam as unjust. These ideas are not equivalent, although they were taken to be at the time. Now history has revealed a third thread: that when a social contract is all about death, greed, murder, defoliation and drugs, when it uses people to fuel an idea – in this case protection of a capitalist way of life – the social contract itself ceases to look very good. For those who believe that we can get where we need to go if we only banish religion, let Vietnam serve as a reminder. Vietnam was a crusade and there was nothing religious about it.

Meanwhile we who are a social species withdraw into our shells and wonder why we are so unhappy.

As many of you know, I have been deeply formed by the work of C.S. Lewis. Lewis insisted that Imagination, not pragmatism, held the key to life’s most persistent and difficult questions. The children who enter Narnia leave a world of school, security and safety to encounter life’s real dangers and in facing them, become real themselves. Implicit here is the idea that our so-called “real world” may in fact be the fantasy, (and the world in which I grew up felt rather grotesquely made up). Another idea, less explicit but no less real, is that too much insulation from risk only turns people into bullies. Such was certainly Lewis’ boyhood experience. For all his being one of the most educated men of his generation, Lewis hated school. British schools were notorious for their bullies. Britain before World War I was also a superpower. Perhaps there is a correlation between bullies and superpowers, because the people I know worry about bullying quite as much as C.S. Lewis did. America is nothing if not a superpower and we spend billions each year to protect ourselves from risk. One of the unintended consequences of refusing to fight in Vietnam is that an entire generation believed it was entirely possible to insulate itself from risk, or in the case of extreme athletes and mountain climbers, to carefully control and orchestrate where risk is going to happen. In Narnia, C.S. Lewis charted a middle way. It is a very different thing, he says, to fight for what you love than to be canon fodder in some else’s army.

In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, upon whom World War I left an indelible mark, I’ve been in a conversation with myth as a way of imagining myself out of the grief I feel over what is happening to our nation. Myth has the uncanny ability to suggest that there is much more to life than the pundits are telling us. From the standpoint of myth, the fact that our real world is continuing to fracture into warring factions and reductionist views screaming slogans at one another is a very bad sign.

You know what I mean. Everyone has his own cause that must prevail over all the others. The environment will have to wait until we’ve fixed the economy. The economy cannot bear the costs of reforming and improving our health care system. We can’t worry about civil rights or torture when there’s a war on. Or – let’s score one for the mothers of my native Berkeley – fat people are really the problem and we can save humanity through diet and exercise.

During my months of silence, I have steeped myself in the stories of another age of social breakdown: the end of Roman Britain and the descent into the so-called Dark Ages. I say Dark Ages reservedly, because recent evidence, and my own readings of the time during seminary suggest that this age was anything but dark. Or if they were dark, it was the darkness of germination. “A sower went out and scattered seed,” says one of the stories they loved back then.

These early legends speak deeply to our present dilemma: what happens when very different cultures and outlooks meet? What happens when everything you’ve taken for granted falls apart? How does a brilliant tradition survive when another brilliant tradition seeks to erase it from the memory of all time?

How are we going to live?

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