Sunday, September 29, 2013

Isolation, Anonymity, And Acceptance: A Sunday Rumination

The Internet is a marvelous thing, a facilitation of interpersonal communication unprecedented in its power and scope. We can connect near-effortlessly with persons of every land and clime, exchange all manner of information and ideas with them, and return whenever we wish to the total isolation and anonymity of our homes. We need sacrifice none of our comforts or conveniences. We need not extend ourselves in any objective or enduring way.

Well, yes, there are some good things about it, too.

Sociologist Robert Nisbet fretted that the impersonal mechanisms we use to deal with one another, most particularly our markets, might be "too efficient for life on a human scale." When I first encountered that sentiment, I dismissed it in the fashion of the Omniscient Youth: He who knows everything he wants to know, and disdains leavening by actual experience of the world. No doubt you've encountered one or two such. They seem to be everywhere, these days.

Yet Professor Nisbet had an important point. Our impersonal mechanisms are ubiquitous and undemanding. They ask little to nothing of their users, except (in some cases) for a monthly service fee. We come to them as individuals and retreat from them the same way...usually, unchanged.

As one who has become, late in life, a writer of fiction and a student of Mankind generally, that thought disturbs me more greatly than I can say. Yet I, a natural isolate, have found myself caught in the toils of the very mechanisms it describes.

Granted that too much personal involvement with others can be worse than none at all. Privacy, independent thought, and independent action are all important. Though the thought can be chilling, each of us must stand before God alone. More, each of us is required to acknowledge that fact. There's no admission to the afterlife without facing one's Particular Judgment. To imagine that we can wipe our crimes from the record by collectivizing them -- effectively laying the onus off onto others' shoulders -- is to abandon the core premise of Christianity, and therefore to deny Christ Himself.

But we are not in this world to stand alone. Indeed, we cannot. The perfect isolate, the "lone wolf," sooner or later finds that he has rejected not merely his fellows but all of Mankind's wisdom and norms. Isolation leads to anonymity -- the loss of one's relative or social identity -- and thence to anomie: the condition in which all the regulatory influences of immersion in a larger society have vanished.

So what's an isolate by preference, acutely uncomfortable when surrounded by strangers, to do?

The isolate's central problem is his reluctance to accept others as others: as persons of differing preferences, powers, and peculiarities. No two human beings are completely different, of course. Yet the tendency toward isolation invariably emphasizes differences above commonalities, with accompanying fear or distaste. For some, it's a matter of differences in convictions; for others, it's a disdain for others' habits and eccentricities; for still others, it's all about style. Any of these can rise to eclipse the useful commonalities one might discover in a random acquaintance, were one willing and able to overlook the divergences.

Surely some differences are unbridgeable or practically so. Moral differences -- Smith perceiving Jones as evil -- are of that sort. So are some kinds of allergies, physical or intellectual. But these are marginal cases, applicable to a small fraction of the encounters we experience.

But to accept the other is to commit to the proposition that there's enough commonality there to make tolerance possible, and perhaps intimacy at a later time. What makes that proposition, and the costs one will incur by acting on it, a good bet?

You already know the answer, don't you, Gentle Reader?

Strangely yet consistently, the people with whom I interact regularly are isolates as well. At work, play, or home, those in my proximity all prefer to keep to themselves, just as I do. Some of us are perceptibly unhappy and unhealthy; others appear to function perfectly well. The reasons demand elucidation.

For my part, I maintain emotional equilibrium through work -- specifically, my fiction -- and faith -- my faith in God, in the New Covenant of Christ, and in the indispensable Catholic premise that He does not make junk. A man can convert himself to living wreckage, but no man starts out that way. Even those who've embraced dissolution and depravity can be rescued, if they're willing to allow it. Salvation has been offered to every man who lives; we need only humble ourselves sufficiently to accept it.

The point of my writing, in large measure, is the promulgation of that postulate, especially to those who've deemed themselves either too good or too bad to accept others. My best audience, for whom I can do the most, is they who are as isolated as I, whether by preference or by happenstance. That's why everything I write concerns itself with freedom, or Christianity, or love, or most often some combination of the three.

When I write, I shed my anonymity.
When I'm read, I'm no longer alone.

Have a snippet from Freedom's Fury, the novel that will cap off the Spooner Federation saga:

    Ernie pocketed the list of required lab instruments and went to the docking hatch to depart. Althea turned to Claire Albermayer and said, “I like to suit up and go outside to watch arrivals and departures. It’s pretty safe. Care to join me?”
    Albermayer’s brow furrowed momentarily. She nodded, and the two of them made their way through the surface tunnel to the sally port.
    Outside, when their feet were planted on the surface of the Relic, Althea murmured, “Put an arm around me.”
    Albermayer hesitated, then complied. Althea snaked her right arm around the bioengineer’s waist and pulled her as closely against her side as she could manage without deforming the life-support tubules that ran the length of their pressure suits.
    They watched in silence as Freedom’s Promise uncoupled itself from the docking port, pushed itself to a safe distance from the Relic with its directional jets, and ignited its space drive. Their eyes tracked the violet plume of the spaceplane’s anaerobic engine as it dwindled and vanished from sight.
    Albermayer made to release Althea and return to the sally port. Althea tightened her grip minutely, and the bioengineer thought better of it. They remained on the outer surface, gazing down at the blue-green glory of Hope, for several minutes more.
    “I miss home,” Althea said.
    “How long have you been away?” Albermayer replied.
    “Too long. All told, about ten years, with interruptions.”
    “I don’t think I could bear that.”
    Althea smiled faintly. “I had work to do that had to be done here.” And elsewhere. “Work no one else could possibly do. I’m sure you know how strong a compulsion that can be. You’re a worker bee too.”
    Albermayer nodded.
    She’s not an ice queen after all.
    I’ve put the future of Mankind in her hands. I have to know who she is. What she loves. What she’d die to protect.
    “May I ask a personal question, Claire?”
    “Go ahead.”
    “Do you have someone special?”
    The bioengineer looked at her quizzically. “No. Why do you ask?”
    “Just curious. How long has it been?”
    “ know. Since there was someone special.”
    Albermayer was slow to reply.
    “There’s never been anyone like that for me, Althea.”
    “What? Are you serious?”
    Albermayer nodded.
    “But you’ were in school with my grandfather Armand!”
    “Yes, I was.”
    “And you’ve never had a lover?”
    Another long pause.
    “I have no sex drive, Althea.” The words were drier than the dust between the stars. “I never have. I could never see the point of an intimate involvement, so I never formed one. I severely doubt one would have lasted.” Albermayer’s slight smile spoke of an isolation beyond Althea’s ken. She squeezed Althea gently, making the pumps in Althea’s suit whine. “This is the closest I’ve been to another person in more than a century.”
    “Dear God.”
    Albermayer cocked an eyebrow. “You’re a believer?”
    Althea nodded. “You’re not?”
    Albermayer shook her head.
    “There’s something missing from me, Althea. At least, my parents thought so. I hear other people talk about their emotional attachments—I hear the passion in your voice when you speak of your husband, and in Nora’s when she talks of hers—and it’s like a glimpse into the mind of an alien species. I’ve never felt anything like that for anyone.
    “I’ve been courted a few times. My suitors couldn’t decide what to make of my non-responsiveness. For my part, I never grasped their interest, what attracted them to me sufficiently to justify their efforts. I was always made slightly uncomfortable by that sort of attention, as if I were being told that something was expected of me that I simply couldn’t deliver.”
     “What about...your parents?”
    Albermayer shook her head again. “I appreciated their contributions to my welfare and upbringing. I always have and always will. But it’s not the sort of filial affection and attachment others experience. At least, it doesn’t sound like it when I hear them speak of their families.
    “Your grandmother approached me, long ago, with one of her little books. She said reading it could benefit me immeasurably, so I did. Some of the stories were interesting, but I couldn’t see the point in most of them. Especially the long one near the middle, about the itinerant preacher who let his enemies execute him.” Albermayer frowned. “You really believe that those things actually happened?”
    “Well,” Althea temporized, “let’s say I’m working on it.”
    The bioengineer shook her head again. “I couldn’t accept it. It was just too counter-intuitive.”
    Althea started to reply, clamped her lips together.
    She has no one and wants no one. I’m crazy-mad in love with Martin and addicted to my home and kin, but I deliberately separated myself from all of them for three years. Which of us is the alien?
    “I must say, though,” Albermayer said, surprising her, “this is rather pleasant.”
    “You mean our holding each other?”
    “Yes. I’m sure you only had my safety in mind, though.”
    I’m not.
    “If we were absolutely positive that the nanites are gone from my system,” Althea said, “I could show you something much nicer.”
    Claire Albermayer’s smile turned warm and knowing.
    “I know what you mean, Althea. I’ve been there and done that, as they say. I remember it clearly. It isn’t necessary to do it again.”
    Althea colored and looked away.
    Maybe it is, babe. For more reasons than you know.
    “Should we go back inside?” Albermayer said.
    “Yeah,” Althea husked. “Let’s do that.”

Althea Morelon is the highest child of her race, gifted from birth with unique powers of body and mind to which no other human being has ever come near. She could well have become a complete isolate, disdainful of others for their inferiority and resolved to make her way entirely alone. She did not. She consciously loves and accepts love. Her life is rich in love and its fulfillments, as you'll already know if you've read Freedom's Scion.. I designed her that way.

Yet I did not expect the scene above to emerge from my fingers. It shocked me both while and after I wrote it. I knew Claire full well, of course; I designed her, too. But I did not realize until she had done it that Althea would see in Claire an isolate to be rescued from isolation, for Claire's own good and the good of all that lives and will live.

Don't misconstrue: it was a good shock. In the scene above, all of Althea's drives and passions came clear to me, her creator, at last. It was then that I knew I'd designed a hero worthy to succeed her grandfather Armand, to deliver many millions from the most abysmal sort of bondage, and to thwart the forces that would attempt to transform her into something she would hate. (You'll have to wait for the completed novel to get the rest of that story.)

Ultimately, Althea is why I write: to provide others with heroes. Paragons. Figures worthy of admiration and emulation. In doing so, I connect with my readers. I provide them with what they want and need. In showing them a superlative figure who chooses to serve others with her gifts rather than remain aloof from them, I break my own isolation, at least for a little while, and offer them the chance to break theirs -- to unite with me, however briefly and vicariously, through a common love.

Yet the ultimate Hero is not of my creation. In Him, we who believe are united even while remaining distinct. We constitute the Mystical Body of Christ -- and in that Body there is acceptance by, of, and for all.

Something has called to us all of our days
Whispering of glory and glorious ways
Someone has reached from an infinite space
Found in our hearts the most secretive place
Planted a vision though not clearly seen
For mankind is fallen, mankind is fallen
Mankind is fallen

There is a yearning in every heart
Reminding us all who we were from the start
Destined for more than our earthly estate
Heaven may beckon though we're doomed to wait
And so we may search for what truth we can find
For mankind is fallen

There is a dragon as real as can be
Conquered mankind with the fruit of the tree
And he sees the truth of who we're meant to be

Searching for someone that calls from above
A hero to follow, who worthy of love
Has risen from death and then rolled back the stone
Holds high the sword and then urges us on
To put down the dragon we've served all along
For mankind is fallen

[Schendel and Babb / Glass Hammer, "Heroes and Dragons," from the album Lex Rex]

Even a lifelong isolate can persuade himself to accept others, if he has the assurance that those others are already one with him in the Mystical Body of Christ. For that sort of oneness preserves our unique identities as well: the sort of seeming paradox that only God could resolve. Indeed, He sent His Son to travel, preach, suffer, and die among us as only a hero would -- and then to rise from the dead in a pellucid demonstration of His Authority, to demonstrate and resolve it.

Therein is found an isolate's ultimate relief from existential anonymity, and from the rejection of existence that proceeds from it.

May God bless and keep you all.

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