Saturday, May 9, 2020

People Of Hope

     Yes, your Curmudgeon is in one of those moods again. You don’t have to read this. If you do anyway, you’ve been warned. I make no excuses for the sentiments I express here.

     If you’re still young – say, under 35 – learning about what will come upon you as the years accumulate will dismay you. A lot of this stuff is seldom discussed where “the young’uns” would hear it. I once wondered why. No longer.

     I’ll cut right to the chase: Unless you’re one of a very fortunate very few, you’re going to get tired. Worse, you’re going to stay tired. But it won’t be an entirely physical phenomenon. It will derive in equal measure from what you have seen, learned, and cannot forget.

     Most of life is about confronting and coping with the same problems, over and over. This is one of the central elements of what has been called the “tragic vision:” the great problems are eternal. We can’t solve them; we can only apply temporary measures that will allow us to go on a little further. It is so because of our natures as individual, temporal beings: creatures with independent existences and consciousnesses, who must cope with existence under the veil of time.

     You’ll do your best, but no one’s best is sufficient to “solve” the “problem” of temporal existence. This is one of the lessons the years confer on the receptive.

     Despite the connotations of the phrase, the “tragic vision” is not a sorrowful one. It’s simply realistic: it takes the world as it is rather than demanding some more favorable set of laws and conditions and insisting that they be so. Philip K. Dick understood this:

     “If you were me, and your wife were sick, desperately so, with no hope of recovery, would you leave her? Or would you stay with her, even if you had traveled ten years into the future and knew for an absolute certainty that the damage to her brain could never be reversed? And staying with her would mean—”
     “I can see what you mean, sir,” the cab broke in. “It would mean no other life for you beyond caring for her.”
     “That’s right,” Eric said.
     “I’d stay with her,” the cab decided.
     “Because,” the cab said, “life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon her would be to say, I can’t endure reality as such. I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.”

     Sometimes we anticipate pain and sorrow. They may be avoidable, with the right planning and preparation. But sometimes we can see the course of our future well enough to know that they’re inescapable. What then? Give up, lie down on the tracks, and wait for the train?

     Of course not. We do our best with the time and resources we have. We cope. Coping is the quintessential human skill. It gets us from one instant to the next. Tragedy may lie in our future; indeed, in at least one sense, it’s inescapable for everyone. But tomorrow is not a reason to forsake today and what we can do with it. It never has been.

     This is another of the lessons the years confer on the receptive.

     Christians have been called “the people of hope.” There’s a depth to that phrase. What do we hope for? On what grounds? Is it sufficient to justify our faith? Should we conclude that we’ve been deceived about it all, what then?

     The essence of Christian hope lies in our belief that God is good. In contrast, pre-Christian, pagan religions often assumed malevolence from their gods. They equated divine power with sadism, for is the world not filled with hazards and horrors? Don’t we suffer terribly in this life, only to die a little while afterward? Given the conditions of life in the centuries before Christ, it becomes possible to understand how such beliefs could find adherents.

     But note this: those pagans did not kill themselves. Neither did they wait passively for their “fate,” however conceived, to overtake them. Their vision of Ultimate Reality, though dark, was not sufficient to get them to stop coping. They worked, produced, loved, mated, had children and raised them as best they could, and went on, day after day, coping, coping, coping…

     Our hope is conscious. The pagans’ hope was unexpressed. Yet the virtue involved is the same.

     The lesson here is obscure, but imperative.

     “Suppose it was even as you think,” he went on, even more gently. “Suppose that all you say was a fact, and that our Elders were but greedy tyrants, ourselves abandoned here by their selfish will and set to fulfill a false and prideful purpose. No.” Jamethon’s voice rose. “Let me attest as if it were only for myself. Suppose that you could give me proof that all our Elders lied, that our very Covenant was false. Suppose that you could prove to me”—his face lifted to mine and his voice drove at me—“that all was perversion and falsehood, and nowhere among the Chosen, not even in the house of my father, was there faith or hope! If you could prove to me that no miracle could save me, that no soul stood with me, and that opposed were all the legions of the universe, still I, I alone, Mr. Olyn, would go forward as I have been commanded, to the end of the universe, to the culmination of eternity. For without my faith I am but common earth. But with my faith, there is no power can stay me!”

     [Gordon R. Dickson, Soldier, Ask Not]

     That early novel of Dickson’s presents the reader with the “Splinter World” of Harmony, populated by “Friendlies:” extremely devout members of a harshly ascetic, quasi-Christian faith. Their world is poor, which appears to be consistent with their asceticism. Yet they need purchasing power that will allow them to trade with other worlds. To earn that inter-world purchasing power, they export their one and only merchandisable good: their men, as mercenary soldiers.

     Seems a bit contradictory for an ascetic faith, doesn’t it? Dickson makes it work, through the person of his character Jamethon Black, quoted above. For Jamethon knows, as few persons of our world seem to know, that faith is essential to human existence. We cannot live decent lives without faith: in particular, the faith that the universe makes sense and that through study, thought, and effort one’s difficulties can be overcome at least for the moment.

     Everything we believe but cannot prove or disprove is an article of faith. Our confidence in our “knowledge” is an expression of an underlying faith: that the universe is governed by laws we can learn and exploit. Without that faith, men would not have begun to study the phenomena around them for the patterns that indicate the existence of such laws.

     Our seldom-expressed faith in the lawfulness of reality is what makes it possible for us to go on: to age in hope.

     Faith and hope are two of the three virtues called the eternal verities. And indeed, in the lives of men they are demonstrably eternal. Even the hardcore atheist has a faith; he simply doesn’t call it that. They who lack all faith and hope commit suicide, consciously or otherwise.

     But there is a third theological virtue yet to be addressed. In our modern argot it’s usually called “love.” While that word is not wholly inexact, it has connotations that obscure the value at issue: that of charity.

     “Charity” is not confined to the giving of one’s money, goods, and effort to others. The full meaning is that of the Latin word caritas: caring or concern, especially for the well-being of others.

     Charity, like hope, would not be possible without faith. In this case, the faith in question is the faith that others’ condition, whether material, moral, or spiritual, can be conserved and improved. We hope for it because we have faith that it’s possible. We act on it because we know, as has been said many times in other contexts, that “hope is not a strategy.” And note: only very rarely does the charitable man falter in his charity just because in some instance it has failed to do as he hoped.

     Yet in our era, charitable works seem to fail more often than they succeed. Most recipients of material charity act as if they’re owed. (Not to put too sharp an edge on it, they’re not.) Many recipients of moral or spiritual charity act insulted: “How dare you counsel me?” Seldom is there an enduring improvement in the recipient. And to add insult to injury there are always some who preach a gospel of despair: that “things have always been this way and always will be.” You’re licked before you start, so why start?

     Why indeed?

     Longtime readers already know how circuitous I can be. Today is one of those days. At any rate, we return at last to the theme of the opening segment.

     Coping – doing your best with the circumstances reality presents you – is what tires you out. Nor does it matter whether you get the results you hoped for from your coping technique. Your non-physical tiredness, which has been called being “world-weary,” arises from failure: yours, those around you, and others far away for whom you had harbored some hope.

     Most of what men attempt eventuates in failure. Yet failure seldom extinguishes hope. Our faith that there is still a possibility of improvement drives us onward. What does it matter how many times we’ve failed? Here is a fresh opportunity; why not seize it?

     To spurn such opportunities is the admission that one’s faith in an orderly universe whose difficulties can be mastered has lapsed. Yes, some do lose that faith, even permanently. But we don’t often hear of them afterward, except in obituary columns.

     With age comes an accumulation of failures: one’s own, those of others in one’s circle, and those of others more distant. We’ve seen a lot of failures: far more numerous than successes. The cumulative impact makes us world-weary…which is really just another way of saying experienced.

     But in our several, ever more enfeebled ways, we go on. We keep hoping, and therefore trying. Because to surrender would be to betray our faith.

     You see, it’s not just Christians who are people of hope. It’s every man who refuses to surrender to his weariness, insists that he has not been defeated, and continues to do his best to cope, driven by the conviction, which in the nature of such things is neither provable nor disprovable and is therefore an article of faith, that there is still a chance that things can be better.

     Be well.


Pascal said...

Darn. By the title of today's post long time readers might think you'd permitted an archist or some-such to arise in your Spooner's World. But your content didn't even make a pun of it.

Fortunately you provided much to reinvigorate a least one heart that retains much hope.


Many years ago, back when I was a full-on atheist, I almost committed suicide - over a particular young woman for whom I was head over heels. As you might surmise, my attraction was not reciprocated.

As I stood at the bridge thinking "Just a few seconds to climb over the fence and jump" I realized that even if in agony, life was better than oblivion. Though I didn't know it, Hashem saved my life that day by giving me that thought.

My wife is a depressive. She takes a very high dose of antidepressants and even so - and especially given the current situation - cannot fathom how I go on, even smile and laugh.

I have faith. Strong faith. More importantly, I trust Hashem implicitly.

Being past the date where I'm sure I'm closer to the end of my life than the beginning, I have occasionally thought about my memorial. And while I still lean towards a line from a psalm, "The Heavens declare the glory of G-d, the Firmament shows His handiwork" I find myself leaning towards a line from Job: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him".