Sunday, June 2, 2019

Why Go On? A Sunday Rumination

     I hadn’t planned to write one of these today, but something happened just before Mass that’s forced it on me. Indeed, it’s practically pulling an essay out of me.

     Please be patient, as I expect this will take a more circuitous route than my usual – and my usual is pretty damned pretzelly.

     Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. – Martin Sheen’s voice-over the opening of Apocalypse Now

     The recent completion and release of The Wise and the Mad has had all the usual consequences:

  • A sense of completion;
  • Personal exhaustion;
  • Low, slow sales;
  • No reviews;
  • The inevitable question: “Why do I bother?”

     I’ve been asking myself that question regularly for many years, both over my fiction and my blogging. I’d imagine many other writers suffer exactly this sort of self-doubt. Difficult, sustained labor, we seem to sense from some internal source, “should” produce significant consequences. But there’s my favorite word again! “Should” has no referent in objective reality. Events are governed by Nature’s own laws, none of which we know with absolute accuracy, precision, or confidence. Apparently there is no natural law to the effect that great effort shall bring great results, no matter how often nor how ardently we “should” about it.

     I ask myself “Why do I bother;” I get the usual answer (i.e., none); and I go back to work. And it occurred to me in my pew, which no others dare to approach while I am its occupant, that the question I “should” address is why that sequence, rather than the failure of my writing to achieve anything vaguely resembling success, is so reliable.

     It’s just what I do…and that’s also the only possible answer to that “Why do I bother” question.

     Strange that a man can live sixty-seven years and not trip over that one, eh?

     All my life I’ve opposed every form of fatalism. I’ve refused to accept that we are limited by anything except natural law, which includes our common human natures. Man’s will is free. Man’s scope for the formation of goals and plans for achieving them is huge. Man’s capacities are great, though not unbounded. By and large, we can do what we set out to do, provided it’s not forbidden by the laws of physics…which, I must repeat, we don’t know in their exactitude.

     Yet there are many things we do, not because it’s the right approach to our current, highest priority goal, but because it’s just what we do. Sometimes “what I do” is inapplicable to the problem or obstacle before one…yet we do it anyway. And sometimes it can be startlingly effective:

Nika Boronina: What are you going to do?
Agent 47: What I do.

[From Hitman]

     Writing, both fiction and nonfiction, is just what I do. I can’t seem to give it up, and for the past two hours I’ve been seriously wondering why.

     You may have noticed that on the dedications page of my books always appears the phrase:

To the greater glory of God.

     That’s another item in the “just what I do” basket, along with writing, making bad puns, and buying one of every kind of power tool I encounter, the need for one (or lack thereof) notwithstanding. But in this case I do it consciously. I know why I do it. I also know that, in the exact, objective sense, nothing any human being could do would make the smallest difference to the actual glory of God.

     Man’s achievements praise and glorify God to other men. That is, what we achieve, if directed toward a worthy and constructive end, can increase others’ perception and appreciation of God’s glory as it has been instantiated in Man, who (after all) is made in His image. God Himself is not affected.

     It is my hope that what I write evokes that kind of appreciation. It’s good for you. It takes you out of yourself, however briefly, and into a special mental realm in which Man’s distinctive power – the ability to form and reason with abstractions – hints at the infinite love and benevolence of Him who made us what we are. Quite frankly, I have no other reason for writing fiction. Certainly I have no financial one! (My current rate of remuneration for it is well below $0.10 per labor hour.)

     I get that sense of appreciation when I read the works of intelligent, skilled writers of every description. It’s what I most hope to do for others. It’s the variety of service to others I’m best equipped to perform. (Which is not to say that I’m terribly good at it; just that I’m worse at everything else.)

     These days all my fiction has at least some tangential relevance to Christianity, Christian belief, and my own particular home among the denominations, the Catholic Church. The reason is simple: to whatever extent I can, I seek to promote Christianity as a great and good thing, and Catholicism, properly understood, as its best articulation. I am appalled by secularists’ flip dismissals of the causal connections between the decline of Christianity in Western society and the advance of every kind of discord, dissolution, and destruction.

     I know that my efforts have not garnered much return. That awareness sometimes pains me. It gets me asking myself “Why do I bother?” The answer is always the same: It’s what I do. Nothing else of which I’m capable is nearly as worth doing.

     Yes, it’s a choice. I could have chosen the path of a Nock or a Mencken. That is, I could merely hold myself above it all. I could write “for the Remnant” as Nock did, or for the chuckles to be had from mocking the “booboisie,” as Mencken did. That’s not my way.

     I go on because I must do what I can, as little as it may be, to stem the tides. Were I to hold myself apart, my life would have no value. I would have no reason to go on. Anyway, it’s what I do.

     A man – that is, a male human being; I shan’t speak for women at this juncture – must have a mission. Without one, he has no reason to go on. It’s a big part of the reason so many retirees just drift away, cut loose from relevance, and lapse into death

     Captain Willard wanted a mission but was unable to choose one for himself. That’s in the nature of an army; everyone except the commanders must wait upon the commanders’ orders. Agent 47 chose his own mission, and was gratified that his particular, highly developed talent for homicide was perfectly suited to its fulfillment. Most of us fall somewhere between the poles those two fictional characters occupy.

     What keeps you going, Gentle Reader? Would you say you have a mission? If so, do you know whence it came? Does it chafe you, or are you content with it? And pardon me for asking, but how well would you say you’re doing at it?

     May God bless and keep you all.


jabrwok said...

My "mission" is, in my humble opinion, determined by my evolutionary history: to survive, both as an individual and as a link in the chain of my lineage. I've failed, thus far, in the latter expression of that mission. That is, I've failed to reproduce and thus my survival imperative ends when I die. I'm hardly unique in this though, so while it certainly doesn't make me happy, it no longer inclines me towards despair.

As a man, the possibility, however remote, remains that I will successfully sow my seed at some point. I don't worry too much about it anymore (at almost-50 years of age, the likelihood declines more and more all the time). Apart from the phenomenal function of Life (survival by reproduction), I have been reasonably successful at the individual function of life; survival-by-not-dying.

Insofar as I have a *personal* mission, apart from my "mission" as a living organism, it's only to remain comfortable and mostly self-reliant. A bit shallow perhaps, but reasonably achievable. I've neither the aptitude nor the ambition for greatness, so I'll just keep on, keeping on, until I fall apart.

That's enough for me.

Amy Bowersox said...

For what it's worth, Fran, it's my belief that when we create it is one of the highest aspects that we as humans can evoke, because it brings us closer to God, the Ultimate Creator. You create novels; I create software; others create visual art, or music, or films, or TV shows, or what have you. It even extends to the most basic form of creation, or rather pro-creation: two people joining in creating a new life, and nurturing it into yet another person, yet another potential small-c creator, reflecting the large-C Creator.

No matter what the outcome, you are doing God's work. "To the Greater Glory of God," indeed.

JWM said...

I had a conversation about the sense of mission this last New Year's Eve. How did six months slide away so fast? I was talking to Yoshio Nakamura, a WWII veteran, and artist of some renown here in So Cal. Yoshio was telling me about a woman who has taken upon herself the task of organizing and cataloguing all of his work. She told him that she felt it was part of her Mission in the context of her membership in the Mormon church.
The coincidence involved here is significant. I was friends with a local artist here in the Southland. He was an incredible talent, and a mad genius in the true sense of the word. Pete Hampton's Mission was to save the Whittier Hills with his artwork and shows. He died sick, broke, and alone this last year. I was the last of his friends to keep contact with him.
I and a couple of his friends helped his family square away his belongings. I received my own Mission in the process. I have for the duration, possession of Pete's entire body of work. Everything. I am photographing and cataloguing Pete Hampton's life's work. It's a huge job, but I just have "The Voice" telling me that it must be done, and I am the one chosen to do it. I too am blogging. The Lost Canyon Project has been on line since last November, ten months now. (link on my nic) So far I have less than 2000 page views. Not exactly a hot item on the interwebs. Does it matter? Will I achieve any success? Will the world ever recognize Pete's work? The same cluster of questions and doubts are always there. But The Voice. The Voice just whispers, "Continue. Have faith."
What else can we do?