Where there is no vision, the people perish:
but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
- Proverbs 29:18
Well, it’s been a long year, hasn’t it? This will most likely be my last substantive post of the year, no I’m not quitting, I’m going to be with my family for Christmas, and probably won’t get much written. Jess will be taking over here, I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.
But this year, in a way, I want to call it a malaise, or sort of a mass depression, or something I can’t quite define. But it’s not, is it? It’s much more like the ship of state has been dismasted and is sitting broadside to the storm and the last compass washed over the side with the last wave. And we’re frantically trying to get a sea-anchor rigged before we founder. That’s closer, isn’t it.
This is not an anti-Obama rant. Yes, I feel much the same as most of you but, he’s not the cause, merely a symptom.
But I see the signs all about me. We’re more emphatically patriotic than we have ever been, we’re incredibly caring about our troops (the ‘grunts’, not the leadership). The other day, Lee Wishing, writing in Catholic Lane described going to a Buffalo v Jets game. Here’s a bit of it.
We took our seats in the upper deck. Again, omnipresent drunkenness. I spoke with a happy young couple with glazed-over eyes throughout the game. Another pleasant young couple cheering for the Jets was comfortably numb for four quarters. A few sections away, an inebriated young man slid down the wall at the end of the upper deck and fell backward 40 feet to the lower level. His employer fired him the following day after seeing the viral replay. Later in the game, another disturbance broke out. A man with the bloodiest face I’ve ever seen emerged from the crowd escorted by Bills security [...]
There was one moment that reminded me of the old days. At the beginning of the game, members of the military unrolled an American flag that covered the entire football field and everyone stood to sing the National Anthem respectfully, almost reverently.
Later, the Buffalo Bills cheerleaders, the Jills, performed a dance number wearing military boots, camouflage pants, and skintight black shirts. They ended the routine doing a split and saluting the crowd. The fans went wild for this contemporary sexualized patriotic display. It was as if Beyoncé was about to appear and do a USO show. But still, it was a form of patriotism and my mind flashed back to the flag-waving guys in the back of the truck. Was there a connection, a common thread? Although the Bills were victorious, the day was defined by youthful drunkenness and patriotism. But was there more underlying this unsettling culture?
Was the excessive drinking an expression of hopelessness and a desperate search for happiness? Maybe. On the other hand, was the patriotism an expression of hope in something bigger than oneself – community and country? I think it was.
Here’s the rest
I’ve seen that too. It’s like so many of the young are desperately searching for something to believe in, and settling on America as the best choice on offer. That’s not a bad choice, I think, but blind, drunken longing isn’t going to be enough. America was built by men and women who worked hard long hours for not much, other than the hope that it would be better for their kids. And it always has been, till now.
So has life suddenly turned into a zero-sum game, or have we forgotten something?
I’ve occasionally said that one of my very favorite bloggers is Cassandra of Villainous Company, the reason is that she is a great, perceptive writer. Like many of us who have reached 50 or so, it seems to her that we now live in a different country than the one we grew up in. We have trouble getting our bearings sometimes, it’s like somebody has stolen all the landmarks we built our lives on. Here’s part of one of her posts
But clearly the boys did look neat and clean – at least some of the time. In nearly every photograph their hair is freshly cut and combed, with a neat part on the side. That’s not too surprising; I cut their hair myself every two weeks. It was easier to remember how to even out a cowlick or coax each boy’s locks into subservience to my maternal will if I didn’t allow their hair to grow too long or too uneven. But it wasn’t just the hair. In each photo their outfits are carefully coordinated. Quite a few photos show them in coat and tie, a snazzy set of suspenders or, (when they were very small) those old fashioned rompers and a pair of leather, hard soled English sandals.
That’s when it hit me: it’s not that I was particularly neat or my children particularly well groomed or dressed. You can see the same thing looking back at photos of the ’50s and ’60s in any public place. The men are dressed in suits, the women all wear stockings. Many have gloves and hats. Change happened gradually, but over the years it became harder and harder to find little boys’ suits, leather shoes, the well tailored clothes we saved for months in order to buy and proudly sported at restaurants, airports, even baseball games. No one, nowadays, bronzes their baby’s first set of Nike sneakers. They are nothing like the white leather baby shoes that required so much polishing to keep them free of the dreaded black smudges that earned disapproving looks from old ladies. [...]
For there is no shame in being needy anymore. We have destigmatized failure. When we make poor choices it’s never our fault. We were just unlucky. Prosperity is something we take for granted in a way our parents and grandparents, who came of age in a time before Social Security, 401Ks, Medicare/Medicaid and unemployment insurance were never able to. How dare the bank repossess “our” houses simply because we cannot afford to pay the mortgage note? Why isn’t someone doing something to allow us to keep what’s rightfully ours?
Uncertainty – the fear that our carefully constructed worlds could so easily collapse; that we were on the ascending path but could fall just as swiftly as we had risen; that in an instant everything we had might be swept away – is, I think, what lay behind what I saw in those old photos. To keep uncertainty at bay we dressed up, put our best feet forward, struggled to be better than our natures dictated. We did these things to assuage the knowledge that nothing in life is guaranteed: not health, not wealth, not happiness. Without a safety net, constant effort was required to keep the human race on the upward path from savagery and want to civilization and affluence and with every instinct in our being we continually reaffirmed and celebrated the importance of being successful. Because the opposite of success was failure, and failure was shameful. It could also be disastrous.
Prosperity and abundance were things we didn’t take for granted the way we do now. It was all a question of expectations. We wanted wealth and security but didn’t expect these things. After all, success in those days was still an aspiration. A hope, not a birthright.
I can’t help wondering if the growing disconnect between decision and consequence; our bloated sense of entitlement and inflated expectation is not behind many of the things I’ve been reading lately: Gerard’s sense of diminishment.
Instapunk’s despair and loss of faith?
Their essays reminded me of something I read long ago. An essay written by a dear friend about the danger of misplaced expectations: [...]
Now, at 50, I look back with the knowledge that I have taken those first few steps along the downward path. It seems funny to me now, all those years of wishing, hoping, struggling to reach some far off goal. To improve myself. During the election I listened to Barack and Michelle Obama and I realized that there is a vast gulf between what they believe – their expectations – and mine. I grew up in a different America: one in which failure was always a possibility but in which there was also the promise of abundance beyond my wildest dreams. In many ways that is the world we live in now. Our homes, cars, electronic devices are newer, faster, cheaper, and more fully functional than anything I dreamed of back then.
What disturbed me about their words was the realization that they viewed struggling and uncertainty as the Enemy. Whereas I viewed those things as the means to an end; goads that made me uncomfortable but also provided the impetus to propel me from my present state into a far better existence. They made me dissatisfied but also gave me hope that tomorrow would be better than today.
I think Instapunk touched on an interesting thought in his essay. The God I grew up with was a demanding God. We were taught that man is sinful by nature and that only by constant struggle can we hope to transcend our lower selves. That was the essence and the meaning of life: constant struggle to overcome; to improve; to adapt and conquer. And that struggle – the source of our present prosperity and security – is precisely what many of us seek to eliminate.
Their God is a non-judgmental, multicultural God. He sets forth no immutable laws, draws no bright lines between Good and Evil. And to a large extent even conservatives have bought into this seductive trap. We don’t want to be judgmental of others. But more importantly we don’t really want to find ourselves wanting. We have forgotten the purpose of discomfort, of shame, of having to deal with the disapprobation of others.
Read it all, please
And I wonder if that isn’t the key. When we make it impossible to catastrophically fail, do we also make it impossible to succeed? I suspect we do, and yet none of us want anyone to fail. Nor does God wish to see anyone go to Hell. But we, like Him, believe, or say we do, in free will. And part of that is that we can live up to something, or not. We can, in theory tear down the goalposts, but we will always remember where they stood, won’t we?
And I think we know, that if you can’t fail, you can’t succeed, so there’s nothing really to believe in. So we might as well get drunk and enjoy the game.