Archive for February, 2010

The Sea of Holes

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Have you ever tried to imagine a world without evil? One of the things that gets in the way is that you first have to define just what evil is, and that is a very slippery thing indeed.

Does evil require intention? One of the things I was taught as a young Catholic was that major sinning requires knowing that you are doing something bad. That’s why if I kill a man for the sport of it, it’s evil, but if a lion kills a man for the sport of it, it’s still bad, but it’s not evil. So what about other animal actions. Anybody that has had much contact with dogs and cats knows that they can be taught that some things are bad to do, but that knowing they are not supposed to do something doesn’t necessarily stop them from doing it; especially when their owners aren’t around, and especially, especially if they’re upset about their owners not being around. So when these animals do bad things with the intent of punishing their owners, are they being evil?

And one thing I really don’t want to get into is the notion of how far down the spectrum of human intelligence does someone have to drop before they lose the capacity to do evil. And what about sociopaths? Does it matter that they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong even though they know that the rest of us think what they’re doing is wrong?

The world is a messy muddy place. Sometimes trying to define things is just an exercise in frustration.

I brought my musings to God and asked him if he could clear things up. He told me that my problem was that I wanted language to be something more than the imperfect representation of thought that it is. He told me that language is a vast bag filled with all sorts of pegs, round ones, square ones, triangular ones, and reality is a sea of round holes. He told me that I would just have to accept that some pegs can never be properly fitted to their holes. But you know, I think I’ll still keep on trying. I may not find a perfect fit, but I may find a better one.

Modesty Plays

Friday, February 19th, 2010

The winter Olympics are going and I’m not watching. Not for any reason having to do with the Olympics, I’m just not set up to watch TV in my house and I’m not interested enough to find alternate means. But the Olympics have gotten me to thinking about competitions in general, and so they’ve come up when I’ve been talking with God.

But there are other competitions that I do pay attention to, and one of those is the Academy Awards. There’s been a lot made of the winner’s speeches for a number of years now, basically boiling down to making the winners keep it short so they can keep the ceremony down to a reasonable runtime while still being entertaining. One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about the Oscars is that the Academy winners don’t tend to spend a lot of time thanking God and Jesus for everything in their lives, like professional athletes tend to do. That may or may not be because they’re trying to keep it short, but either way, I appreciate it.

What God did point out to me is that the people who thank Jesus for their success a lot of the time are doing it because they think it portrays humility. They think it’s modest to credit their accomplishments to someone other than themselves. Here’s the thing about that though, it’s hogwash. God doesn’t take sides in our petty little competitions and she wants you to know that by trying to give her credit, you’re saying to all the other equally deserving, hard working individuals that still haven’t been able to make it, that their sacrifices just weren’t good enough, that their faith just wasn’t strong enough. It’s unthinking at best and at it’s worst it’s downright mean.

So just for the record, you can still be humble, and you can still be modest, without having God to pin your success on. Just admit that even though you worked hard and put in the hours of effort and sacrifice, you know that there was still a lot of luck involved in getting you where you are. And if you’re someone like a recent U.S. President, someone who, as they say, was born on third base but thinks he hit a triple, well, one of the hardest things for you to actually accomplish just may be some real modesty. Try putting some effort into that.

Plum Pudding Day

Friday, February 12th, 2010

A good friend of mine read what God and I discussed last time about how we find ways to mark out special birthdays in our lives and wondered about the way we mark out special days during the year. I decided that was an interesting enough area that I took some time out to talk to God about that.

The first thing that God told me is that for any stretch longer than from one meal to the next we’ve had a long history of looking for points to celebrate, or at least to mark the passage of time. We break up our lives into mini-epochs, from child, to teenager, to adult, to middle age, and on from there. We break up our days into mornings, afternoons, evenings and nights. We break up the year into twelve months, the day into twelve hours and the night into another twelve hours. The months have their weeks and the weeks have days and ends. Time may get us all eventually but we hack and slice it every chance we get along the way.

So what about our annual events? Why do we celebrate those days we mark out on our calendars? Well some of it, like I said is more or less just to break up the year. We mark the transitions from one season to the next, we have our fertility festivals come the Spring, we vacation in the Summer, we practice facing death when Autumn comes around and in the midst of Winter we oversee the death of one year and the birth of the next. I understand all that and I told God as much, but I asked her what about all those smaller events? What about St. Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day and Groundhog’s Day and Black History Month and Gay Pride Parades? What about our birthdays and anniversaries, and Veteran’s Day and on and on?

Well, it turns out that the truth of it is quite simple. We just like to party. All those big celebrations? They were once small and were celebrated by just a few people, but they caught on, they made it big. And the people that came up with the idea of celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday (hey, that’s today!) just wanted another excuse to party, and they hope you’ll join them. And if enough people do, well it could get to be as big as Memorial Day, and if it doesn’t? Well, we like to have small parties too. Sometimes we want a celebration that’s a little more personal, that’s a little less crowded, and that’s where the birthdays and anniversaries come in. And months with five Saturdays, we should all celebrate the fifth Saturday of any month that has one, because after all, life is short.

Older and Sometimes Wiser

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Any ritual that’s been around since before we were born seems like it’s always been and will always be, yet they come and go, they change without us ever really seeing it. Birthdays can be a good occasion to see this in action. Birthdays lend themselves to rituals, both big and small. We celebrate every year, but some years we celebrate more than others.

As a society we’ve agreed on some of the birthdays to celebrate big, we’ve almost agreed on others, and we can get downright random on still more. When we start out, every birthday is a big deal. One year, two years, three years, these are still grand milestones, celebrated with almost the same fervor that they were in the days when a child often didn’t make it till age five. So then what ages beyond that? Well, to the kids it’s still a big deal to become a teenager, at least in English speaking countries. In the United States we celebrate the mostly adulthood of eighteen and the full adulthood of twenty-one. And Jack Benny fans get to celebrate being thirty-nine. And celebrate it again, and again.

While we were talking about this, God assured me that the linguistic pattern of numbers ending in “teen” being so close to the ages at which we march our way through puberty is actually less of a coincidence than it might seem, but I don’t know if I’m buying it. In any event, many cultures celebrate a transition from child to at least approximately some form of adulthood at an age that corresponds to puberty. We have Sweet Sixteens, and Confirmations, and Bar Mitzvahs, and Quinceaneras. I imagine that in primitive societies, where we weren’t so desperate to keep our development hidden away in layers of clothes, such celebrations were actually tied to developmental milestones rather than specific years, but we’re oh too sophisticated now to actually admit, as a society, that we notice when boy’s voices change or when girl’s chests expand, or when hair begins to sprout, well, almost anywhere.

We still find ways, though, to celebrate the transitions themselves, the things we do because we’re ready rather than because it’s time. The rite of passage to adulthood used to be the transition from short pants to long pants, now it’s when we stop eating off of the kids’ menu.