This morning we have a valuable lesson about perspective and doing what we can. Reposted from The Yellow Times.
Learning to live with George, Dick and John
John Brand, D.Min., J.D.
Admittedly, it will not be easy living with this triumvirate—Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft. Thomas Malthus in “An Essay on the Principles of Population,” written in 1789, makes this astute observation: “The greatest talents have been frequently misapplied and have produced evil proportionate to the extent of their power. Both reason and revelation seem to assure us that such minds will be condemned to eternal death, but while on earth, these vicious instruments performed their part in the great mass of impressions, by the disgust and abhorrence which they excited.”
Of course, we cannot wait until God’s judgment balances the account. We have to live with present evil deeds. Wherever one looks, wrongdoing in proportion to assumed power is everywhere.
One stares with dismay at the intent to destruct the environment for the sake of perpetuating the insanity of an economy driven by oil. One looks with consternation at the limitation of Civil Liberties under the guise of protecting our Vaterland. One is horrified by unilateral decision-making, in a world getting smaller and smaller every day, under the pretense of preempting the Axis of Evil. With an assumed self-righteousness that the triumvirate is God’s anointed, the agenda of aggression and suppression reaches into every corner of the land.
How do we learn to live with such iniquity?
Of course, as long as we can, speak out and dare to hope that reasonable men and women will stem this juggernaut. But what if removing this leader turns out to be more difficult? Like Caesar, drunk with power, the new emperor will place himself upon the throne. Like Napoleon, this American Emperor will wrest the crown from whatever ecclesiastical authority is willing to proclaim his rule by divine right, and himself will place the crown upon his own head.
Conventional attitudes and views of life will no longer provide an umbrella providing shelter from the storm. I wish I had a Three-Step Program or even one of seven steps or a dozen steps. Then I could bottle my nostrum, buy TV time, hawk my cure-all, and make a nifty profit. Alas, my antidote does not permit such an easy regimen.
The suggestion I am making will require some basic reorientation of the perception of life. I do not even know whether the order in which I list my ideas is the correct arrangement. Maybe the last idea should come first? Who knows?
One has to find ways to psychologically live on Alpine heights. One can no longer live in the lowlands where inane slogans are chanted from political platforms, clerical pulpits, in the marketplace, and in beer halls. One cannot allow to be swept away by the destructive whirlwinds of propaganda. One cannot let the foul miasma rising from entrapping swamps becloud one’s mind.
To withstand the onslaught, one priority is to see the element of time in a new dimension. We cannot live solely in the “here and now.” Our lives are driven by events of the moment. The sound of the ticking of never to be recovered fleeting seconds deafens our ears. The vanishing of each day, nevermore to be recaptured, fills us with an existential void. The passing hours make us frantic. I do not negate the importance of the precise measuring of time. Meetings must take place as scheduled. Furthermore on a profound level – though mostly unconscious – for most of us – every ticking of the clock means we are that much closer to our own death.
However, in facing and meeting the unbearable lightness of being there is a big “however”!
The ancient Greeks might have understood this better than we do. They had two very distinct words for what we call time. There is “chronos.” This suggests the passing of time. The word chronometer, actually another word for watch, measures the ticking of the seconds. We cannot deny the reality of chronos. Yet, there is a profound understanding that passing seconds are just one dimension of time. Chronos takes place within the framework of “Kyros.” A Norse Edda has a beautiful story illustrating Kyros.
In the Northland there is a rock 1,000 miles high, 1,000 miles wide, and 1,000 miles deep. Once every 1,000 years a sparrow comes to sharpen its beak. When by the erosive action of that little bird sharpening its beak the entire rock shall have been worn away, one fleeting second of eternity shall have passed. Of course, there is one substantive problem with this illustration. Kyros never passes away. While it is true that time, as we know it, began when our universe came into existence and shall cease when in about four to six billion years when the earth shall vanish, nevertheless there was sometimes akin to time before and after time. I know that is somewhat esoteric. But how shall we survive the triumvirate if we don’t place their doings and misdoings into a larger perspective? How am I to survive if I do not have a larger perspective of the frustrations, the hurts, the agonies of these seconds?
Wittgenstein made it all very clear to me. In “Tractacus” 6.4311, he writes, “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration, but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.” Conventional thinking simply extends chronos into another dimension. It does not radically change it.
If we believe in an afterlife we hope to leave this world for one with golden gates, heavenly harps, mansions, and a reunion with our loved ones. Much of the image of life to come is merely a continuation of this life in more pleasant surroundings. If we are not that lucky and are consigned to spend eternity in hell, we will find ourselves continuing the same mess we know now. Of course we will suffer even more. Chained to rocks in a subterranean hell, we will be hotter than hell while devils smack the daylights out of us. There is even no hope of death to release us. Forever we shall taste the horrors of this life raised to the cube. Timelessness seems to offer a more rational response.
Timelessness brings freedom known to but few. Wittgenstein suggests that timelessness is the ability to live in the moment. Living in the moment breaks the shackles of both past and future. There is no sense of guilt, of sorrow, of pain, or even of joy, of laughter, of pleasure. To live in the moment is to have no expectations, no anticipation of anything in the future. The past does not drag us down with memories. The future does not impose its hopes upon us. We are free to savor this moment.
In this moment there can be neither destructive disappointment nor euphoric elation. We are free from the tyrant of chronos. The triumvirate may destroy what we hold dear. The unexpected may cloud our skies. But this moment belongs to us. This moment we taste the freedom of existence. Each moment of the presence is but a moment embracing whatever was before time and includes whatever there will be after time. In this existential moment we can laugh at the evil seeking to destroy us.
I know this is pretty heavy stuff. But to allow yourself to live in the usual dimension of time means that the bastards will get you.
Another way of dealing with the one-dimensional destructive influences of our times is to make every waking moment count. How is this done? There may be myriads of other ways. For me, however, I have found that doing random acts of kindness fills my existence with a sense of pleasure and meaning. I see a tired man going from house to house leaving pamphlets on every door. The Texas sun is beating down.
I go to the refrigerator, get a can of soda, and take it to him. His expression of profound gratitude pales into insignificance compared to the joy I receive. He may be a drunkard, a dope addict, or a lost soul. What do I care? For a moment, I have placed a smile on his face. Neither Notre Dame de Paris, nor Mahler’s Titan Symphony can validate my life any more than the smile of a grateful human being.
I am in a restaurant. Next to me is a young couple with two children. The little boy and girl are well behaved and I hear them say “Thank you” and “Please.” Upon getting up, I turn to the Father and say, “You and your wife are to be congratulated for raising such well-mannered, pleasant children.” The smiles on the parent’s faces fill my existential moment with joy. Neither Rembrandt’s “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” nor Shakespeare’s Sonnets can affirm my life more profoundly.
I do not recommend the following unless you are obviously an old goat like I am. I see a lone woman having coffee at my favorite hangout, LaMadeleine in Austin, Texas. I say, “You are a very attractive young lady,” or, “Your hair is beautiful,” or, “What a lovely smile you have.”
My batting average is 1,000. I do not linger. I seek no conversation. The smile, the “thank you,” the nod of the head, fills my moment with profound joy.
But the test of my advocacy of showing kindness and compassion for suffering fellow human beings is best told in the story of Father Maximilian Kolbe. On May 28, 1941, Father Kolbe was sent to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Prisoner #16,670. In August of that year, a prisoner escaped. As punishment and deterrent for future escapees, SS Officer Fritsch chose 10 men from Cell Block 14A to be executed.
Sgt. Francis Gajowniczek, married and a father, was one of those selected to die. The Sgt. was overcome and sobbed loudly. Suddenly, there was a commotion in the ranks. Father Kolbe stepped forward and offered his life in exchange for Sgt. Gajowniczek. His request was granted. Father Kolbe was executed with a shot of carbolic acid . . . Timelessness.
By now you have perceived the fact that each of these two steps is a paradox. We live in time but time has to be transcended. We live in hate but hate has to be transcended. Paradox seems to be the essence of human.
It is precisely in the following point that the greatest difference between the triumvirate’s self-understanding and our own essence can be seen. Life is always becoming. Life is always changing. Becoming and changing are wisdom. Life is not being. Life is not absolute. “Being” and “absolute” are just other ways of saying that you are dead. Being and absoluteness are mere knowledge. Men never kill for the sake of wisdom. However, they butcher each other over if they believe their knowledge is superior to someone else’s.
The triumvirate is essentially a group of dead men. They believe they have all the answers to life because they think they know it all. They attempt to force all systems and all humans into their mold of knowledge. They believe that all knowledge has already been revealed.
Their hubris is seen in their frozen faces. They iterative the same old mantras: “gas and oil; what’s good for corporate America is good for all Americans; free enterprise will solve all problems.” Being steeped in knowledge but not in wisdom, the gangrene of inadequate knowledge has already begun to deaden the life-blood of our society. Unless stopped, gangrene will cause death of the entire organism.
In the effort to survive, we have to become wise – we have to grow and continue to breathe in the pure air of change and development. Nietzsche said something to the effect that “if it doesn’t kill me, it won’t hurt me.” I only disagree with him in one aspect.
I say that even if you kill me, you cannot hurt me. To live in timelessness removes the fear of death and the belief that death is our great enemy. And how far is it from the point of declaring someone an enemy combatant because he had a few pounds of nuclear materials on hand to the point of declaring someone an enemy combatant because his or her ideas attack those who profess to have knowledge? It is not a long distance.
And there may be one more paradox needed for survival. While being serious about life, we must also be able to think just how comical we are. Many of the very ridiculous aspects of our lives result from dire tragedy. Is there anything as comical as Kenneth Lay going to church and telling reporters to leave him alone so he can worship his god? I won’t even dignify that remark by refusing to write Kenny’s god with a capital G.
One must laugh when our President stated upon being elected that he would be the President of all the people, and then appoints a religious fanatic to be our Attorney General. His domestic agenda revolves around his understanding of Christianity. Now that’s a gas! Before we laugh too loudly at those antics, we need to realize that our own lives contain polarities and paradoxes. When we discover those, we can have a good laugh at ourselves and realize in what a pickle we find ourselves.
If, perchance, all of that is too complex and too far out, I can help you to live with George and Dick and John by directing you to the insights of Diderot, in “Rameau’s Nephew.” He concludes that the only joys in life are:
1. The physical intake of food and drink.
2. The pleasures of the bed, and
3. A good daily evacuation of the bowels.
Of course, even this counsel is subject to change. Permit me to say a personal word. At my age, my taste buds are pretty well shot. Whether you place a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a well-aged, marbleized Kansas City prime on my plate makes little difference. After having had about 100 radioactive pellets inserted into my cancerous prostate gland, the #2 joy on Diderot’s list is more a memory than a present pleasure.
That leaves #3. It is a daily ritual devoutly to be appreciated. With the daily ingestion of three (3) figs imported from Greece, I shall be able to survive the present triumvirate and live out the remainder of my days with the assurance that all is well that ends well.
John Brand is a Purple Heart, Combat Infantry veteran of World War II. He received his Juris Doctor degree at Northwestern University and a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry at Southern Methodist University. He served as a Methodist minister for 19 years, was Vice President, Birkman & Associates, Industrial Psychologists, and concluded his career as Director, Organizational and Human Resources, Warren-King Enterprises, an independent oil and gas company. He is the author of “Shaking the Foundations.”
More from the Yellow Times