Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Eternity vs. The Moment

I'm not sure why I'm getting into busting Rick Warren's chops over The Purpose-Driven Life. I think part of it is that he's carefully articulating the Christian vision that dominated my world-view when I was young, and I'm getting some psychological release from seeing my way through it. Part of it also is just having my arguments at the ready, the next time I have to deal with that perspective.

Warren talks about seeing one's life from the perspective of the eternal -- meaning, realizing that how you live your life is going to put you in Heaven or Hell. He maintains, in traditional Christian form, that if you believe in eternity, you must believe that your actions have eternal consequences, and therefore everything you do is that much more important. Supposedly, this gives the Christian a perspective that make moral righteousness self-evident -- why get hung up on fame and fortune, when they have nothing to do with eternity? And, conversely, the non-believer is released from all moral obligations: might as well sin now, since there are no long-term consequences.

This kind of thinking seems quite consistent and sensible from the Christian perspective, and absolutely silly once you step over the line to the other perspective. To someone who doesn't believe in an afterlife, the Christian who is doggedly pursuing virtue for his heavenly reward is not virtuous at all. He has merely transformed his greed for worldly fame and fortune into a greed for otherworldly fame and fortune. He is still primarily acting with his self in mind.

In contrast, someone who does not believe in an afterlife but still does the right thing -- is that not much more miraculous? They have surrendered to God's will, not because they think it's going to get them a bigger jacuzzi in Heaven, but because they love God, and only because they love God. Not believing in an afterlife doesn't make you weigh the merits of your actions any less. In fact, you value them that much more, because these are the only moments you get. The believers can be careless with their moments, because they think they have an eternity of moments to enjoy . . . but the true non-believer makes every moment count.

Again, none of this proves that there isn't an afterlife. It just seems to me that one does not need to posit an afterlife to believe in morality and virtue.

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Perfectly imperfect

In The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren invokes the notion of "God's plan." In his notion of purpose, every person was made to fit into God's purpose, and therefore every individual person was uniquely, specifically designed with a particular end in mind. From this point of view, nothing is an accident, everything is the way it is for a reason, and that reason is ultimately God's plan. And, by extension, we can conclude that everything about ourselves is specifically, uniquely designed to fill an exact need.

The problem with this point of view is that (like a lot of things about God, including his existence) it is quite unfalsifiable. Absolutely anything can happen, and we can shrug our shoulders and say, "I guess God intended it to be that way." If we cannot discern any meaning or purpose in the events that happen, we can always conclude that God's purpose is hidden from us -- his designs are too vast or too suble to be discerned by mere mortals at a given point in time.

But that very position immediately undermines the whole premise of Warren's book -- namely, that we can discern our individual purpose by mere observation of our selves and the world. If we cannot discern God's purpose in the big picture, how can we discern his purpose for our individual lives?

Warren answers the question by making it bite its own tail. The purpose of the world is God's love for us. "I was made for God's purpose, and God's purpose is . . . ME!" So now the question of the meaning of the universe gets collapsed back down to human size again. We can answer the question of the meaning of the universe by discerning the meaning of the single individual life. I have meaning because I am part of a meaningful universe. The universe is meaningful because I am its purpose. Tautology, anyone?

None of this means that Warren is necessarily wrong. It is entirely possible, as Kierkegaard maintained, that the purpose of the universe is played out in the individual, not in the Hegelian grand sweep of history. But it seems to me that Warren has not succeeded in adding anything new to the picture.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Good and the Unique

My thinking about meaning and purpose has an overemphasis on uniqueness. I would like to be able to do something special and unique, something unlike anything else, something no one else has done. In science it's relatively easy to find that kind of thing because, by definition, science is about learning things no one else knew before. Art has similar aspirations. Few artists are interested in just painting pretty pictures; they want to make something new, and they want that newness to ripple out from themselves and affect others.

This all sounds good on paper, and yet in the real world it is remarkable rare. Most scientists and artists are not the ground-breakers they would like to be. They are more like ants in the ant-mound, struggling to carry their one little bit of leaf back to the hive. Collectively the scientific enterprise is managing to do good things, but the individual's contributions are relatively modest. I can speak less authoritatively about the artists, but I imagine they are having an even harder time of it.

And what of the millions of others, who aren't even within shooting distance of a claim to uniqueness? What about the bus drivers, the warehouse workers, the office administrators, and and everyone who "gets things done?" Their aspirations seem a lot more realistic: to do good. Built a good product. Deliver a good service. Be a good employee. It's not dramatic, but it would be truly snooty, not to say naive, to believe that it's not a real good.

But how many people go through life saying, "I was put on this planet by God Almighty to stack boxes" ? Not many. Which leads me to the conclusion: either not many people are thinking about meaning and purpose (at least the way I think about it) or they are finding their meaning elsewhere. Or maybe they are looking for meaning and not finding it and living miserable meaningless lives. All three options seem quite plausible. Judging from the sales of The Purpose-Driven Life, I think there are lot more people hungry for it than you might first guess. So what's the answer?


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Fair Play

I played hookey from work and took Aidan to the N.C. State Fair this afternoon. He was so excited to go. Even as we were pulling out of the driveway he said, "I think this is the happiest I've been since we moved here." I enjoy the Fair, too, in a weird, dissociated way. The food is good, and when it's not covered over in flashing lights and noise and closer to it's agricultural roots, it's even interesting.

The carnies always give me the creeps. There's something about the people who work fairgrounds that is off. Not the food vendors, they tend to be just-folks -- but the barkers and the ride operators . . . ugh. Men in their twenties who are so dissolute that they look like they're forty. Men who really are in their forties who have the same tough, leathery skin and glittery-glass look in their eye that I see in the homeless panhandlers. All of them with a studied pitch in their voice, full of urgency but no genuine fun. Thankfully Aidan seems oblivious to it; he just wants to throw darts and break balloons. I was glad that he looked over all the plush and plastic trash they gave away for prizes and found nothing at all he thought worth claiming. "Don't you want your prize?" they'd ask. He just had a blank look on his face, as if to say, "That's a prize?"

Five is a good age for the Fair. At five you can still enjoy yourself watching pig races, and eating a snow cone or cotton candy has an air of magic about it. And thankfully, the most interesting things to Aidan are still the least commercial. We spent a long time watching a blacksmith turn an old horseshoe into an ornately twisted hoof-pick, and after that we just sat by the lake and watched the geese feasting on apple-peelings from one of the vendors.

He knew his limit, too. "I think, after we see the animals, we should go home," he told me, as the sky was just beginning to get dark. They cranked up the lights on all the rides just as we were hiking back to the car, and it is a wondrous site to see ferris wheels in the semi-dark, neon mandalas towering against the sky. There is nothing important at a Fair, and I suppose that's just the point -- it's a conscious celebration of the superfluous.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

NPR Smackdown

I heard Steve Innskeep interviewing Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) this morning, and I must say I was impressed. Not with Emanuel -- he was an ass. It was Innskeep who really commanded my respect. It's not often that I find myself punching my fist in the air during an NPR interview and making appreciative "oof" sounds. Innskeep kept asking hard questions -- "why have the Democrats had a hard time defining themselves? Is the Democratic anger a good thing?" -- and Emanuel just kept dodging the question. It wasn't even an artful State Department-style evasion, where they \make it sound like they're answering the question without saying anything. He just dissed the question -- "I totally disagree with the premise of that question" -- and moved on to pounding his talking points (which, frankly, sound emptier than ever).

But Steve didn't let up, and refused to take this evasion laying down. At one point Emanuel tried to interrupt Innskeep's question -- "Steve-Steve-Steve-Steve-Steve-Steve-Steve..." -- and God bless Innskeep but he kept going and didn't let that blowhard steamroller him. And, not only that, he moved on to do some pummelling of his own. He actually managed to silence Emanuel briefly with a salvo of critiques: "What about the people who feel like the Democrats have been too accommodating of the administration? who let him get away with too much? Or, I'll even go on to say, feel like they've been sold out by the Democrative Party for the last ten years?"

Normally I have to tune into the BBC to hear this kind of scuffle -- the Brits' political coverage is played more like rugby compared to our football -- but Innskeep was in fine form. A shout-out to my brother Steve, word.


40 Days to Thinner Theology

I started listening to Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life today while I was driving to Charlotte. It's one of those critical-mass books, something that you wind up reading because everyone else is reading it. I couldn't work in the "help-people-find-their-purpose" business without having read it. (Yes, I suppose I could use a little help in that line myself, but my expectations were fairly low.)

I liked how Warren sets up the book as a forty-day spiritual journey. It makes sense to not only write the book, but tell the readers how you want them to read it. It takes a mere book and structures it as an experience. I was nodding right along until I got a gentle pitch for my Purpose-Driven notebook, and my Purpose-Driven card deck of Bible verses. For a moment there, I almost forgot I was partaking of a franchise.

Still, I feel this moral obligation to respect the author's intent; I always feel like an author deserves a chance to pull off whatever effect they're going for, and I feel like I might ruin it for myself if I don't surrender to the work and let it do what it wants to do to me. That's why I hate abridgements and never skip ahead in a book unless I've lost all respect for it. So I will play along with the chapter-a-day thing and see what happens. I had done essentially the same thing with Thich Nhat Hanh's Old Path, White Clouds and found it to be very effective.

I liked how Warren cuts to the chase: "It's not about you." He cuts through a lot of self-help pablum very quickly by emphasizing that self-centeredness is doomed when it comes to finding meaning, and just for that I think he's a good healthy dose of perspective for our society.

I was also somewhat startled to hear an essentially fundamentalist Protestant talk so freely about the virtues and limitations of various translations of the Bible. When I was growing up in a Southern Baptist tradition, talking about translations was a serious faux pas; you never did anything to suggest that what we were reading was anything other than the unadulterated Word of God. It's a little refreshing for someone to say, "Gee, I think this translation says this idea a little better than that one," without it being an argument about "poetry" or a stylistic matter of taste. It's nice, in other words, for someone to take the ideas of the Bible seriously, rather than merely cleaving to some knuckle-headed literalism.

I was also somewhat surprised at how smart someone can sound when they make naked appeals to Biblical authority. "Philosophy? Mere guesswork! Self-inquiry? Useless navel-gazing! Want to know God's purpose for you? Just ask God!" After years and years of taking it for granted that finding meaning was a difficult and uncetain process, I had forgotten how seductive it can be for someone to say, "I have the answer, right here." No wonder he sells so many books.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Subversive Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

I remember, when I was in elementary school, we had some regular story-reading. Or, at least, I assume it was regular, but I don't remember enough of it to know for sure. Either I don't remember much, or it didn't happen much, because the only two books I ever remember us reading was E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

I remember that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle must have been unusual and rare, because none of the other kids had ever heard of it, and the old teacher who was reading it to us was reading it with a fondness that could only have come from many long years of use. The stories were funny, moralistic in a peculiar way, and always memorable. They almost always involved a child with some bad habit or character flaw -- lying, forgetfulness, bad table manners, etc. -- and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's unusual cure for the condition. I remembered a story where a little girl hated to take baths . . . and so Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle let her go without a bath for so long that dirt caked to her skin and her parents planted radish plants in her.

I never gave those old stories much thought until I had kids of my own, and suddenly they were putting me on the spot to "tell a story." Now, telling a story to a five-year-old is a especially challenging feat, because finding something of appropriate theme and length is extremely hard. I never much cared for the classic fairy-tales and couldn't bring myself to tell them; besides, Disney had already ruined them. But my other stocks of fantastic stories had thematic limitations: mythology has some initial promise, except that adult themes of violence, treachery, adultery, and more violence was woven into almost all of them. And so, after telling a much-doctored version of the Illiad and snippets of Tolkein, I found myself telling a few Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories from memory.

Oh, they were a hit. Something about them had stopping power for the five-year-old set. We sent off for a few of the books, and they became instant favorites. But what struck me most was how much I was enjoying them. They mixed in some subtle jokes for the parents, the way "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" used to do.

But, even more interestingly, they were quite subversive for their time. They were written in the late 1940's, in a time when conformity and discipline were highly prized and not even a whiff of the 1960's freedom was anywhere to be found. And yet, here was Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle in her upside-down house, with a chandalier on the floor (how trippy is that?). Her relationship to children is based on (gasp) genuine respect and gentleness, and her cures are largely (can it be?) letting children discover the natural consequences of their actions. Her style is so much in the realm of Attachment Parenting and Non-Violent Communication that I can think of no better portrayal . . . and yet she was conceived sixty years ago.

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