Friday, January 06, 2006

Random Philosophical/Picture Friday

Warning: This post will contain of several tenuously connected, not entirely thought out ideas, so if that's not your cup of trendy, yuppie, self-satisfied $4 tea, then you might want to bow out here. Or not. Whatever, geez.

These thoughts have been going around and around in my head like a punch-drunk dog chasing his own three tails for about 2 weeks now, essentially since we got to the west coast for Christmas. And now, as I sit here trying to think of the best way to express them, I'm not sure if they even make sense. But when has that ever stopped me before, right? So I'll fire both barrels and see what happens.

Here's my thesis. I think that most of our current societal malaise, or petty immigration arguments, our ambivalence towards our neighbors, our rampant consumption and worship of material goods all comes down to our (and by our, I mean the human race's, not just American/Western, though we have about reached the pinnacle here in the US) proclivity to seek comfort above all else, which in turn leads us to aggressively and insatiably seek to increase and defend our territory.

Sometimes it seems as though we hold our own comfort as the ultimate good in the universe. We want freedom from hunger, from want, from danger, from not having more than our neighbors, and in so seeking we force ourselves to worship at the altar of "how do I feel today? Am I satisfied with my current state, or could I be more comfortable?" thinking. All of our time is spent desiring something new, something that will make our lives easier, or more efficient, or more relaxing or whatever. And then, through this constant effort, we train ourselves never to be satisfied. We trap ourselves in a downward spiral of greed and resentment and vanity that is hard, nigh on to impossible to break free from.

What finally crystallized this thought in my head was a simple piece of construction paraphernalia that I saw yesterday while walking through Philadelphia. It was a concrete highway divider. You know the ones. They're about, oh, 8 feet long, three feet high and can be set in rows as temporary lane dividers. Anyway, this one was sitting alone, several yards away from where all the others were neatly lined up. On it was written the word "remove." And this brought that visceral feeling of being tied to a heavy weight of selfishness that is pulling me further and further down the spiral into sociopathy, total absorption in the self. How can we remove it? You can't just pick it up and toss it away, it's too heavy! Is it as simple and quick as untying the rope from your ankles? I doubt it. I think it is a slow, slow process. One in which we need to take our chisel and hammer and relentlessly and unceasingly fight against that weight. Not just soften up the edges a bit so that when our weight hits others on the spiral we don't hurt them quite as much, but to instead pummel it down to nothing, until we're free of that anchor. Now, I have my doubts that any of us, especially me, can ever truly be free of that weight, at least entirely, but I'm trying because if there's one thing I don't need it's a stress induced ulcer.

And look at where these weights are pulling us? Further and further into ourselves, away from human contact. We're learning to become completely self contained, with no need for or respect for others. We view others as competition, something standing in the way of our finally, finally getting that last thing we wanted and really being happy. Or maybe we just see them as getting in our way. They slow us down for three seconds on the metro escalator by not walking! They don't block the intersection and we miss a light! They buy the last copy of that DVD we really wanted! They're out to get us!

Do you see where this lead? The more we seek our comfort, our stuff, the more we get pulled into this awful, myopic worldview in which we become convinced that everyone is trying to stop you from achieving whatever it is you want. And in some cases this attitude is celebrated. It's the AMERICAN thing to do! It's self-reliance! It's independent! It reminds me of the Washington Examiner hander-outer-guy that stands at the top of the Metro Center escalator every morning. On the day before Christmas Eve his attention grabbing line wasn't "Spread the Christmas Spirit everybody!" No. It was "don't let anyone steal you joy!" Because that is what we've become worried about. Other people stealing from us, from using us, from taking advantage of us. And it makes me sad that I see that attitude so strongly in myself.

This attitude, this defensiveness brings me back to my thesis (you probably thought I'd never get back to that, didn't you?) in that I see most of our societal ills being caused by this selfishness and defending of our territory. We want to defend our nice, quiet neighborhoods against the encroachment of "those damn Mexicans." Why? Because they make us uncomfortable. They might live with 15 people in a three bedroom house. They might play loud oompah music. They just don't fit into our nice little corner of suburbia. We never talk to strangers because, well what if they try to rob us? What if they talk and talk and talk and take up all my reading time? What if they say something that offends me? I could go on and on and on with more examples of how I see our constant territorial warfare affecting our humdrum quotidian lives. But I won't, because I'm trying to be more positive, really I am.

I am a Christian (take that for what you will) and part of my particular worldview insists that I see the Kingdom of God in the world today, no matter how woeful things seem sometimes. So maybe the heavy rock analogy isn't a good one. Maybe (and this is where the picture at the top comes in) it's more like we're each in a room with one big window that looks out onto the windows of everyone else all lit by the beautiful sunshine of Christ. We can all see each other and communicate and share because we are united through God. This is what the Kingdom looks like to me; God and our neighbors are involved in every part of it. However, as time goes on, we see that other people are looking into our window, so we turn the shade-closer thingy so that a little less light can get in, I mean, we don't want to give up all our territory, right? It's good to have a little of "my own" space that's just for me and not for God or man, right? What if they tried to learn my secrets! And we keep progressively closing it more as we become more and more paranoid of "the others" until the shades are all the way closed. Maybe we even eventually forget that the shades were ever open. Maybe we even break of the shade-closer/opener thingy and throw it away. We try to seal ourselves off from each other. We try to seal ourselves off from God. And I believe we can seal ourselves off, irreversibly from each other. We can become so self-obsessed that we will never come back into community with others. But we can't do that with God. No matter how tightly we close those shades, light will still seep through the cracks between the slats, will still sneak in around the edges...


kate said...

A few thoughts (and/or questions):
It was like you were reading very words from my mind when you said we treat each other like obstacles. I think this every darned day that I navigate the Metro system.
Question: Did this start rolling around in your head when you flew back West because a) it's not as bad (or noticeable) there, or b) you had some time off to think?
Our culture of consumerism and relentless, inescapable advertising is all built on the premise of creating need. I am not shocking anyone with that revelation, I know. But have you noticed that, recently, the ads seem to be even more along the lines of, "You DESERVE this." Not suggestion, but speaking straight to YOU, the hard-working, underappreciated person. "If you buy our product, you will get the pampering/protection/good time that you truly deserve!"
I love the photo tie-in. Most excellent stuff, man.

Israel said...

Schuyler... you say what I think many of us have only thought. And you say it the way I would have said it if I had my thoughts together... especially this part: "They slow us down for three seconds on the metro escalator by not walking! They don't block the intersection and we miss a light! They buy the last copy of that DVD we really wanted! Those bastards! They're out to get us!" ... so... I'm wondering, with such a small inspiration as a "concrete highway divider" what if we actually joined Relational Tithe? -- -- I haven't because I felt like it might be too much sacrifice)... but what if we started small by getting to know people who think like us? Or maybe you're already involved? They seem like a group more interested in "living simply that others may simply live."

Israel said...

and something I've been thinking about as I teach the kids on Sunday... why are we worth being role models? Will the children we impact remember us as a great culture of business and efficiency AND compassion or the ruthlessness of our "survival of the fittest" social darwinist philosophy? What will Eli, Elizabeth, Lizzy, Ethan, John, Lily and Nicky
remember about us when we're gone?

I think Johnny Cash sets a good goal in line with your posting
"I wear the black for those who never read, Or listened to the words that Jesus said, About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me."
Johnny Cash - Man in Black

Mike said...

This post is stuck in my head.

Great, compelling stuff, my man. Thanks.