I pulled two items a few days ago from my filing cabinets — call them “Thing 1” and “Thing 2.” They are separated by a span of 30 years. They are two dots directly connected by a long and more or less horizontal straight line. There is no arc. Thing 1 coming up after this.
My cabinets house a vast “diary of a mad optimist.” Yes, for the cynics, I am an optimist. Mad — at a lot of things for sure — but always hopeful. Being a realist too, I have been hopeful, if not expectant, that thinking, listening, and writing carefully to unpack and face, unfiltered by any lens, the implications of what we thought we “knew,” and then behaving accordingly, might give humanity not just a better chance of keeping themselves alive but justify the effort. I thought such things would make life more worth living than doing this.
After feeling pains in our eyes, we announce with “humanitarian” pride that we are bothered by “the optics,” the sight, mind you—of refugee children torn from their mother’s arms, screaming and crying, as they are held in chain-link cages and sent to Wisconsin while the mothers are deported to the hell they fled. The sight is what bothers us. The reality, if we can arrange to not see it, not so much—especially after we build that big, beautiful Wall to block the view. And because it sounds “deep” that “perception is more important than reality,” we believe it—and believe it “strongly” because it “worked” for a Barbie doll in stilettos—my god! She is rich! She won! And read her awesome book: The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Life and Work. My, what strength! By all appearances, no weakness there! A true winner, living the American Dream!
Whatever we can get ourselves to believe, and believe strongly, and say “with strength,” we believe we must therefore know—at least think we know—and can all the more easily get others to believe we know. When we speak with strength, those who believe perception trumps reality will surely feel we know, for winning their credulity is all that matters, for when we have their vote, and soon their money, we’ve got just about everything. And we can don a jacket that reads on the back for the world (not the wearer) to see: “I really don’t care. Do you?” Then, jet off to “see” in a show of concern the sufferings of little children. But …
What if all my library cards amount to a Royal Flush, and trump, in reality, the Trump Card whose face value I assess in this essay as being worthy of a flush, bigly? What if, despite perception, the more important reality should be this: The principal occupation of 98% of the human brain is to frantically shop around (or rummage about) for a new pair of shades for the remaining 2% of it: blackout blinds for the feint-of-heart, the scared, the scarred, the scalawag, the xenophobe, the autocrat, and the comfortably ignorant bigot alike. With such a sunscreen to block all light on anything that may hurt the eyes outside the private temple of the Church of Self, one’s body can be gainfully employed, Duty-Free of taxing responsibility. No photos! No video! No fake journalists! CNN: you are the worst! The press is the Enemy of the People. Thus one can then do their job, any job, he or she would, in their shade, be “humbled, honored, and privileged” to execute: From managing a cigarette factory, speaking for a President, dismantling the EPA, scheduling trains to Auschwitz, or acting as head of ICE. If asked, “But is the job you are doing humane?” He or she may stutter … uh … and stutter more … uh … until they find the Romans 13 roller shade and their voice: “What kind of insulting question is that? I believe it’s the law. My job is to enforce the law, and, by God, if we are going to have a country, we need laws, I am going to enforce the laws. That is what I am going to do.”
Thus even Aristophanes knew how a sausage vender could rise to a Tyrant’s Everest on his own petards with the help of banners, hats, and the throngs who do not read books because propaganda and beer are more … exciting and relaxing for basking in the schadenfreude. The Greeks knew this: Beware the man who would sell you anything—from an AR-15 to Fentanyl, from steaks to vodka, from a degree from his own university to a MAGA hat made in China, from a condo —- to himself as a candidate to command the power of a military and economy unknown in the history of humanity. Who is this sausage vender? How would it be wrong to answer: A bankrupt casino mafia don in elf’s clothing and golf shoes, a man rich enough to buy a porn’s star’s body (while his wife gives birth to his son) and then believe he could buy her silence because he believes when you’re rich, you can do anything, even grab a country by the pussy. As the Greeks might say: A man who would sell you anything is a man who would do so because he has already sold out of everything worth having: his own soul.
Sometimes, in my heart-sick desperation, I fear that nearly half of America has bowed to the psychopath we have collectively created in our own image, needful to relieve ourselves of the burden of our own guilt, from the weight of our daily responsibility: to bear the pain or shame of the thoughtful brain, of “thinking what we do.” Because Knowledge entails the Responsibility its possession thrusts upon us, in our weakness and fear we have sought an out and forked over our brains and consciousness to the perception of a stronger and more brazen man’s Will to Power. Obviously he knows better what to do than I! We have bought the hook that a wealthy man is a “successful” man, that a successful man is a “smart man,” that a smart man is a wise man and is thus a “true leader” of people, and that such a man cannot be bought—nor already sold out. We believe that a man without shame has nothing to be ashamed of, and in his shameless presence find our refreshment. We have bought that hook because he has sold it to us—in the abject poverty of our critical intelligence.
The pursuit of knowledge is a too-difficult proposition, for as knowledge grows in complexity and relevance, so does its burden on our sleep and behavior. Faith instead will do, and by calling it “knowledge by faith” we turn the trick of unloading our brain to lighten our step, and thus we go … sailing. I am sorry to say that, among others, certainly the “evangelicals” (“knowing by faith” their “prosperity gospel”) have, in their bliss-born ignorance, rendered themselves blind to the implications of what they have done. They have bowed to a liar, a thief, a clown, and offered to him, this Golden Cow, the last shard of their souls as a burnt offering.
May I say I saw this was coming, knew this was coming, and have suffered every moment since a certain student’s essay was handed to me and the year it took me to unpack the blackened box of its ashen implications.
Let me close these opening remarks with this. Three minutes ago I was sent this message from a dear friend: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work. But neither are you free to abandon it.” (The Talmud)
To my friend: Yes, Laura. That is my work, my life. In that light, I stand until I cannot, and I will say and do what I must, as we each must find our place to make the big picture more bearable to look upon.
These are my old notes on a fellow teacher’s assignment, a sample student essay, and my own written response after reading it.
[Journal Entry: October 29, 1989]
A colleague of mine, when teaching his Writing 101 classes, has made a regular practice of having each of his students, college freshmen and sophomores, write an essay on the subject of “The Three Passions that Rule My Life.” The inspirational model of the assignment is Bertrand Russell’s prologue to his three-volume autobiography (the first volume of which was published in 1967):
What I Have Lived For
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and the unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy─ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness─that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I have sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upwards toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.
The students of Writing 101 were to read these words, and with all due thought and consideration, pen their own. More than a year ago [ed. note: the winter of 1988], Julian showed me a few representative samples of these student essays (with their authors’ names appropriately and carefully inked out), suspecting that I might find their words of some interest. This is what one young male (in his early twenties) had to say:
The Easy Life
I want a successful life, a life of ease with only a few thorns, a life of leisure with little pain. In light of this I have created many more passions such as a search for education, a desire for wealth, and a need for health.
I seek an education to earn money with. An easy life starts with hard days at school. Some may get lucky and win the lottery while others may be happy living off low wages but I want the most money for my abilities. An education will not increase my intelligence but it will improve the chances of employment in a high paying position that is not only easy on the body but also challenging to the mind.
I desire wealth because it will buy me a better life. People often say money cannot buy happiness, but I will be happy when I have the money to buy everything I want. I can only be content in a big house full of spicy food and comfortable furnishings, a garage with a nice new car and expensive snow skis.
I need to be healthy to live a better life. I want to live long enough to enjoy the fruits of my labor. All the money in the world would do me no good if I were not vigorous enough to spend it. I want to be in good shape while spending my money, instead of spending it on an expensive sick bed or giving it away to some doctor who can spend it on something more gratifying.
Perhaps those of us who are not teachers, and not acquainted with the thoughts of contemporary college students, might read this as satire, black humor or clever jest, for the alternative is nearly impossible to believe. How is it possible for this human being to put into words the substance of his own soul and not cringe at the picture he has painted of himself? How can he not shudder at the cold vacuum at the heart of this narcissistic portrait of utter self-absorption? How can Russell’s words fall, without resonance, indeed, without effect, upon his ears?
How? Because not once in this student’s career has he been challenged, compelled to examine his own beliefs and values. Not once has he been asked to spell out the logical implications and presuppositions of his own words, least of all on the printed page. He has been allowed to grow and flourish (or merely get older), protected from perceiving the material, social, and ethical consequences of his own thoughts and behavior. He has been taught self-esteem, at the expense of self-consciousness. His beliefs and feelings have been “respected,” and have festered, unexamined, unanalyzed, uncriticized by teachers who have been trained to do everything except challenge him to open his mind to his fellow human beings and to the world that gave him birth and now sustains his life.
Pictured here, in this student’s essay, is a man, a child, no, a worm, whose first words are “I want,” and who then proceeds to equate a successful life, which he “wants,” with “a life of ease,” which he also wants, while remaining utterly incapable of seeing the contradiction. Here is a person whose first passion is the avoidance of pain. And whose pain? His own. He feels no other. Here is a human who seeks, above all, leisure for himself. He mentions no friends or family, perhaps because he has none, or perhaps because he takes them for granted and does not notice; nor does he mention the rest of humanity, perhaps because he doesn’t wish to draw attention to the reality that his leisure is a function of other people’s labor.
Being pragmatic, he seeks devices by which he might achieve his leisure. The first device he finds is money. He would consider himself “lucky” to win the lottery, but, being a realist, is aware that this is improbable. An education seems a better bet. An education for him is a tool with which he intends to “get money.” Other tools would do, but they could get him into trouble, if not jail, jeopardizing his dream of future leisure. And if education didn’t work as a tool to get money, it would not be relevant to any of his concerns, for learning about the world, past and present, outside the periphery of his own flesh, is merely his contingent instrument for acquiring the easy life.
In his view, the easy life begins unfortunately with hard days at school, empty days devoid of the excitement of finding profound answers to his questions, for he has no questions, least of all questions his school could ever answer, or even help to answer. Education will increase his chances of obtaining a high paying “position” (a job does not interest him). He believes this because this is what his parents and teachers have told him. They have told him that he must pay attention in school because what he is being taught might one day be of use to him. Thus he has learned that what is not of use to him is not worthy of his attention.
The position he seeks in life is not only easy on the body but challenging to the mind. Challenges to the mind, he has heard, are good things. Challenges to his body are things with which he is more familiar and finds them difficult, and now knows he does not want them. It does not occur to him to suspect that challenges to the mind might be equally difficult and therefore incompatible with the easy life he values most. This possibility would be a challenge to his mind, and no doubt he has failed, for that reason, to consider it.
Being a doctor is of no value, except insofar as it enables one to buy hard goods and real estate. The services of a doctor mean nothing, for if our young man should become ill and need them, he would have to “give money away” to him, “some doctor” who would take that money and spend it on something more gratifying. This would be a bad thing, for giving money away and getting no self-gratification in return would be tantamount to an act of generosity. He wants his health, therefore, lest he be deprived of the pleasures of spending money, and be made jealous of doctors who would take his money, buy nice new cars, expensive snow skis, and houses full of spicy food.
But should he ever go to school to become a doctor himself, it would be, of course, to obtain the most money for his abilities, chief of which would be the ability to do anything for a buck, including performing the super-human task of enduring at least 10 years of medical training for an occupation he disdains as unworthy of being paid.
This man desires wealth because it will buy him a better life. Better lives, for this person, are on a par with commodities purchased, rather than worlds constructed by our own human hands, minds, and hearts.
This man will be happy when he has the money to buy everything he wants. His wants and needs are fused as one in his mind. And money, instead of being a medium of exchange of value for value, is merely the incarnation, the material embodiment of the power by which he will have others produce what he will consume.
He can only be content in a big house, built by the labor of others who have accepted those challenges to the body which he has rejected, a house full of spicy foods─foods planted, cultivated, harvested, processed, cooked, and served by the efforts of others, spicy food to satiate his sensitive and discriminating Epicurean palate. It will be a house full of comfortable furnishings obtained by money, instead of work. In his house, he must have a garage with a nice new car and expensive snow skis. The car must be new, rather than functional and efficient, else the wrong message might be conveyed to the neighbors who he believes, perhaps rightly, share his aspirations. The skis must be “expensive,” else his peers will be unimpressed. His house will be full, full of everything─except other human beings. For here is the human being whose concern for future generations has utterly terminated with not merely his own, but himself.
Our student, an archetype of the late twentieth century, has written little, but implied much in the interstices of his words. Our student, it seems, has not yet discovered the mirror into which he could gaze upon the face of his own soul. Should the day arrive when he finds it, he shall hear, with Russell, the cries of pain of a soul in famine, reverberating in his heart, and we too shall suffer with him, and be sorry for him. Yet he lives, for now, making a mockery of what human life should be.