Christianity is the only religion that has foreseen its own failure. This prescience is known as the apocalypse. Indeed, it is in the apocalyptic texts that the word of God is most forceful, repudiating mistakes that are entirely the fault of humans, who are less and less inclined to acknowledge the mechanisms of their violence. The longer we persist in our error, the stronger God’s voice will emerge from the devastation.
—Rene Girard. On War and Apocalypse.
Speak up, destiny, speak up! Destiny always seems decades away, but suddenly it's not decades away; it's right now. But maybe destiny is always right now, right here, right this very instant, maybe.
―Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz
I had a coworker who once told me about a friend of his. This friend had been an engineer of some kind, a very rational type. Sadly this friend had had a stroke and afterward, his language skills were greatly diminished. He couldn’t say much, but he did tend to repeat one thing. He would make a sweeping gesture to indicate the world around him and say, “All of it…wrong.” My coworker, who is far more comfortable with being around machines than people, interpreted this to mean that his friend was commenting on how badly designed everything is. Yes, maybe that’s it.
I will offer a different view of the matter. Given the friend’s loss of language, it is likely that the stroke caused damage to the left hemisphere (LH) of his brain. The LH is generally associated with language and a kind of narrow calculative rationality. My own take, really of no diagnostic value, is that finally freed of his engineering mindset he was able to take the world in as a whole. In so doing, he could now see the world as it is, and not as an assemblage of discrete parts to be disassembled and re-engineered. Despite the loss of much of his language skills, he was still able to report what he saw, however minimally. And what he saw was that everything was wrong.
Of course, I don’t know at all if that’s what actually happened. But the story, however it might be interpreted, resonates with me nonetheless. It speaks to the fact that as many of us look around us at the world we’ve made, with all its material abundance and technological marvels, it is clear that something has gone amiss. But what is it, exactly? It isn’t difficult to make the case that we have never had it better. Or so we are told. This sense of things being out of joint is something that I myself have felt from a very young age, and, as an adult, have never been fully able to shake. In fact, this has only grown over time. Of course, you might say, the world has always been a mess. What is so different now? You know, other than everything?
I won’t bore you with a list of our current ills. But if you have been paying attention to where we have been heading—speeding, really—where we are now already arriving, I find it difficult to come to any other conclusion, i.e., All of it…wrong. The modern project—and its simultaneous destroyer and philosophical extension, postmodernism—is radically changing us in ways that are increasingly so radical and so utterly deranged that what we are seeing before us amounts to nothing more than the suicide of humanity. This suicide amounts to either the destruction of human beings by replacing them with some genetic/technological successor, or our complete destruction—full stop—due to geopolitical competition and/or economic and ecological collapse.
In this sense, it is becoming increasingly difficult for me not to see our current civilization as anything other than a lie, and a sociopathic one at that. For as quickly as our crises mount and grow, so does our inability to alter our course. Be that as it may, it remains comfortable for us, at least for now. Many of us live in such unprecedented material prosperity that long-dead kings could only have dreamed of having. The stability of which seems to be getting more than a little shaky with every passing day. As I have written before, past a certain point, comfort only makes us weak, and eventually sick, even if medical technology can extend our diminished state for decades. One that for many of us is increasingly drained of meaning or joy. A strange bargain if there ever was one. We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men
That we are all entirely dependent on this civilizational deceit in order to simply continue to exist is exactly the opposite of comforting. It means you have to at least pretend to go along with it all, however crazy it becomes. Better yet, for many, it is far easier to just simply go along as if what is happening could be anything other than progressiveand benevolent. So much of what is occurring is disturbingly congruent with our ideologically liberal priors, that it is hard to object now. To object at this point is to acknowledge that we have been on the wrong track for decades, centuries even. What possibly could be the alternative? What would I need to give up to find a different way? It isn’t a simple or easy reality to face. I know I have tended to temper my rhetoric so that I am able to remain within the bounds of acceptable discourse, not wanting to seem too crazy in my criticism of the modern world. How does one do all that given that we are a civilization that seems all-in on committing suicide, in one form or another, and calling it progress?
When, in talking with others, I have inched closer to actually saying all this plainly I have often found myself pulling up short of the mark. I will tend to joke that I am planning to order from Amazon my bell and sandwich board proclaiming, “Repent. The End is Nigh!”. We all might then nervously laugh. But ya know, maybe the kooks weren’t so far from the truth after all. Does saying that disqualify me from participating in reasonable discourse? Does “reasonable discourse”, as currently conceived and officially circumscribed, even matter all that much at this point? What could I possibly say—or could anyone say, for the matter—that might actually change the trajectory we are on? As long as we are comfortably distracted and well-fed, why risk losing that? And maybe, it isn’t all that bad after all. Utopia beckons.
We are so beholden to the framework that has caused our unfolding catastrophe that any solution, so-called, will simply be a further application of the problem itself. Even if we think we can see the deep causes of it all, we too have been formed by those very same forces. It then becomes one giant closed loop that seems perpetually oh-so-close to finding a resolution. One more book, one more article, one more video of commentary, and the narrow corridor out of the wasteland will be found. Call it the Moses Complex. I have caused myself many sleepless nights, and a generalized, and at times significant increase in my anxiety levels trying to think my way out of the disaster we have caused ourselves. But thinking that is a fantasy.
There is an odd kind of relief that comes from being defeated utterly. At that point, one can relinquish all pretense of having an effective response. I don’t have a solution to what is unfolding before us, nor am I ever likely to have one. Nor will anyone else, for that matter. I would love to be wrong. I don’t think this is necessarily a counsel of despair, but rather a declaration of freedom. It is foolish and perhaps hubristic to think that we can stop what is coming. We are far too committed to it to turn away from it now. But I can open myself up to all that can transform my life right here and now. I can let go of all the illusions of comfort and stability, control and security, ambition and esteem, and on and on. I can begin to focus more intently on what is ultimately of importance and let go, finally, of so much I have held onto which is utterly trivial.
Lately, I have been meditating on Psalm 46. As the nations rage and kingdoms totter, as the earth itself begins seemingly to give way, I can be still and know, that all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well. Yes, this is an act of faith, a leap out of the void and into the Abyss. But from there I have the opportunity to live in the way I could have been living all along. If we are indeed facing calamity I can choose to live on the other side of it right now. Regardless, I don't have to live as they tell me to live chasing empty pleasures and ideological phantoms. Maybe I have learned at least that much.
Whatever time I have left, or that any of us do, is precious and should not be thrown away in distraction and trivia. Even in an age such as ours, I don't have to hold onto the delusions under which I have labored for so long. I can let go of my regrets and failures and personal disasters. These only hinder the way forward. More radically, I can choose to love everyone and everything, as best I can, in the way that Christ has taught us. I can even love that I was born and came of age in an upside-down time such as this. An age that has deliberately overturned the simple good and perennial truth of being human to chase after its deranged utopia. One that will never, needless to say, ever arrive.
Instead, I can live like all of it—and I mean every little bit of it—is right, beautiful, and good. Even with a heart of stone, I can love everyone I meet, as best I am able. I can do so even in the face of every looming disaster, even unto the very moment of the Apocalypse itself, rockets streaking across the sky. Because that’s a life worth living, and more importantly it is exactly the truth.
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CHAPTER FIFTY-NINE "Return love for great hatred," said the Ancient Sage "Reward bitterness with care. Repay enmity with virtue Requite injury with kindness." And the Way, when He became flesh, said: "Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who spitefully use you." One who is still affected by human judgments does not yet have perfect love, Such as when one loves the good and hates the evil person. Perfect love does not split up the one nature of people According to their various dispositions, But ever looking steadfastly at this one original nature, Made in the image of the Way, It loves all people equally. It is good to them, and forebearing, And puts up with what they do. It does no think evil but rather suffers for them. In this manner also did the Way, Manifesting His love, Suffer for all people equally, His friends and His enemies, Granting to all equally His gift-- His hope-- Which they may receive or reject According to own determination Hieromonk Damascene. Christ the Eternal Tao.
I am hardly an expert, needless to say. I am basing all this on my reading of Iain Mcgilchrist.
T.S. Eliot. The Hollow Men.
We are the hollow men We are the stuffed men Leaning together Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! Our dried voices, when We whisper together Are quiet and meaningless As wind in dry grass Or rats' feet over broken glass In our dry cellar
Maybe progress doesn’t mean what we think it means. And either way, maybe progress isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
Liberal of both the left and right.
It’s far too late for that, Leahy, you might be saying to yourself.
The Man Watching By Rainer Maria Rilke I can tell by the way the trees beat, after so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes that a storm is coming, and I hear the far-off fields say things I can't bear without a friend, I can't love without a sister. The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on across the woods and across time, and the world looks as if it had no age: the landscape, like a line in the psalm book, is seriousness and weight and eternity. What we choose to fight is so tiny! What fights with us is so great. If only we would let ourselves be dominated as things do by some immense storm, we would become strong too, and not need names. When we win it's with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small. What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us. I mean the Angel who appeared to the wrestlers of the Old Testament: when the wrestlers' sinews grew long like metal strings, he felt them under his fingers like chords of deep music. Whoever was beaten by this Angel (who often simply declined the fight) went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh hand, that kneaded him as if to change his shape. Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings. --Translated by Robert Bly
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
This is Dame Julian of Norwich, of course. I am currently reading her Showings. It will likely take me some time to come to terms with what she is saying. But it seems profound to me, at least that which I have understood. She too lived in a time of plagues and natural disaster. She has a lot to teach us, I think.
there's some hope in an increasing number of people reaching this point of acceptance beyond despair... some of my favorite thinkers (Kingsnorth, Hine, Eisenstein, etc.) have all being echoing similar sentiments recently. God willing, there is enough momentum to take us past the point of terror and into something—if not happier—at least more determined.
it might be too late to patch the hole in the hull; maybe there's still time to launch the lifeboats effectively, if we keep our wits about us.
This piece resonates, Jack. It's a relief when someone just admits how bad/scary/intractable the problems are. And yes, most of the time I can tell that people don't want to -- or aren't able to-- hear that and so must act more optimistically to be socially tolerable.
It feels like a sort of stretching. This learning to love more deeply and more patiently. I still think that getting out to some farm land makes sense in a very practical way for our family but it seems no doors have opened yet. The one that appeared perfect was snatched up by a full price bid. We have also been needed here by extended family. I feel a sense like you describe that it doesn't matter if we never actualize this idea of a getaway. Maybe the hour is too late for any such efforts. The real tragedy would be if I failed in my opportunities for loving. I have failed in these many times, in fact. This is the project.
Thanks to Girard I realized how much I have allowed myself resentment for the extremely wealthy who are moving into my town and gentrifying it. I see that I must love them. This is a huge change. love them while refusing to join in their lifestyle and their culture. No dark corners where resentment is allowed. No scapegoating.