Sunday, March 22, 2015

My Sister


If there's a God, and God is good, and God is all-powerful, then why do so many innocent people suffer?  


Chris VinsonhalerIt's not an original question, and I don't have an original answer.  The best and most complete answer comes from Job, which can be summarized thus: you don't know.  Unless you were there when the world was made and you can make thunderstorms and you're in charge of mountain-goats and such, you have no way of knowing why things happen the way they do, and no basis to criticize or defend them.

But at least part of the answer - and it's insufficient, but it's something - is without suffering, we'd never learn compassion, patience, and gratitude.  We wouldn't learn about love.

Recently my sister Chris went down to visit our Uncle Charles and Aunt Betty Ann.  By "down," I mean down.  Chris lives in Iowa City and they live in Pensacola.  She drove the whole way.  (Yes, she is insane.)  She'd driven down for other purposes beside that; nevertheless, she'd made a special side-trip just to see them.

My uncle and aunt are in a very bad situation.  I won't go into how bad, but it is bad.  My siblings, cousins, and I love them dearly and are working to see to it they are as safe, happy, and comfortable as can be arranged.  (Don't worry, they will never see this blog.)

Anyway, Chris drove down to help with some light packing - they'd recently moved into assisted living - and just have a general visit, but while she was there, Aunt Betty Ann had to be hospitalized.

Uncle Charles couldn't go to the hospital with her, owing to a painful and debilitating foot condition, so Chris, naturally, went with her.  My aunt, I should also mention, has Alzheimer's.

I won't go into details about the hospital stay, but you can imagine how frightening and confusing it was for Aunt Betty Ann, to be in a hospital, unable to fully grasp her situation, without the man she's lived with most of her eighty-odd years.  So Chris did the simple and logical thing.  (My eyes well up even as I write this.)  She stayed with her.  She stayed with her seventy-two hours straight.

At one point Aunt Betty Ann said, "Charlie doesn't love me."  This is a calamity.  Whatever else can be said of Charles and Betty Ann, they are devoted to each other.  Chris explained that of course Charles loves her, but was unable to come to her because of his feet.  Then Chris asked her, "Does Charles love you?"  And Aunt Betty Ann said, "Yes."
And Chris kept asking that question at intervals over the next three days.  You'd have to know Chris to know the playful, pestering way she'd have done it.  Sometimes she probably asked in a high squeaky voice like a mouse.  Sometimes she'd ask twelve times in a row in rapid succession.  Then she'd wait an hour or two, and ask again.  She'd ask first thing when Aunt Betty Ann woke up.  She'd say, "I'm going to the vending machine, do you want something and does Charlie love you?"  And every time, Aunt Betty Ann would say, "Yes.  Yes, he does."  The questioning would pass from mildly annoying, to infuriating, clean through to hilarious, and Chris would be such a nuisance about it, after a while you'd have to laugh, but the message would be sent home, even through my sweet aunt's addled mind.

Maybe love and compassion aren't quite compensation enough for the terrible suffering people go through to learn about them, but maybe they are.  Because right now I love my sister more than I ever have before.

No, that's not true.

I've always loved her this much, but I've never known it so clearly.  It hurts to know it this clearly.

We suffer but there is something it teaches us.  Do others love us?  Do we love them?  Yes, they do.  Yes, we do.  Yes.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Sudoku Curve

The point at which a problem reaches such complexity, it becomes simple.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Persecuted for Righteousness' Sake

 The Bible says blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.  I know what that's like, boy-o; I get persecuted for the sake of righteousness every day just about.  Like, I just about can't turn around without someone persecuting me.  And I'm like, "This is because I'm righteous, isn't it?"

Like, take the other day.  I was in line at the grocery store and the cashier gives me a snooty look and says "Ten items or less."  And all along, I was being perfectly righteous.  Bacon, lettuce, and tomato should clearly be counted as just one item.  And anything that's zero-calorie shouldn't be counted at all.  And what about the other customer behind me, the one who gave me the stink-eye when I swerved in front of her in line?  She had a dozen eggs.  But nobody said a peep about that, oh no!  When you're righteous the way I am, that's the sort of hypocrisy you have to put up with.

Another incident, same store - as I'm concerned, they should rename that store, Persecute-R-Us - the cashier's like, "Are you going to buy that or just read it?"  This was pure-d, straight-up persecution, and I was being righteous as the day is long.  I would never buy a magazine like that, I mean, ugh, how un-righteous can you get?  But I had to read it, especially with provocative headlines like Kim Kardashian butt-implant updates.

And then, as I was leaving the store another customer persecuted me with his middle finger because I'd taken up two parking places with my Camry.  Once again, I was perfectly righteous.  I'd just gotten my car detailed and I sure didn't want some careless lout dinging it in the parking lot.  It may be only a Camry, but in my righteousness, I look after it like a Lexus.  As the Bible says, "tie up thine ox but let not the camel knoweth what thy right hand is doing."  Oxen and camels were pretty much Camrys of the Old Testament, so you can see, I pretty much know my scripture backwards and forwards.

It's all a part of being righteous.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Love and the Cambrian Explosion

When certain trilobites began developing eye-spots,
it was a game-changer.
Long, long ago, sea critters moved around aimlessly, from time to time bumping into each other.  If they bumped into something edible, they ate it, and if they bumped into something predatory, it ate them.  The situation remained pretty much unaltered for two billion years, but then about five hundred million years ago, certain trilobites developed eye spots.

This changed everything.

All of a sudden - and by "sudden" I mean twenty million years - trilobites could see where they were heading.  If they were heading to something yummy, they sped up; if they were heading toward something that would eat them, they changed course.  Naturally, this innovation put tremendous evolutionary pressure on all the other organisms to adapt.  Many of them did not - four mass extinctions occurred during the Cambrian period - but the creatures that did adapt evolved with astounding rapidity, and in the next half-billion years gave rise to the enormous profusion and diversity of life we see around us today.

The thing I want to point out is that trilobites did not "invent light."  Light had been there all along; trilobites merely learned how to see it.  Along the way, organisms developed other senses, too, but again - except in the case of hallucinations or mirages - they only sense what already exists.  When someone's baking cookies, there really are cookie molecules free floating in the air that get up in your nostrils and trigger olfactory sensors.  Your ear doesn't make music; sound-waves make a Rube-Goldberg mechanism bang together in your ear so you know when Merle Haggard sings about his mamma.  A nearby set of tubes functions like a spirit-level designed by aliens, signalling you if you're standing upright, falling over, or spinning around.  But you really are upright, toppling, or spinning whether you know it or not - the cochlea is just your body's way of letting you know.

What if it's the same with love?

What if love is something pre-existent in the universe and had been there even before the trilobites - like light or sound-waves?  Maybe all of the biological apparatus of love - the glands and hormones and autonomic responses - are elaborate sensory organs - what else could they be? - that allow us to perceive a phenomenon just as real as cookie molecules or gravity.  

A parent has a relationship to its offspring whether it knows it or not, and an organism has a relationship to its mate.  Many creatures, most even, don't perceive this relationship.  Spiders will eat their mates and offspring, too, given the chance, just as some sharks will eat their fellow sharks: but maybe this is no different than a sightless fish bumping into the walls of its underwater cave.

We all have relationships to our parents, siblings, mates, and offspring.  We have a relationship to all creatures of the same kind: ie, human beings.  We have a further relationship - because life evolved from a common ancestor - to all life: that which lived before, is living now, and has not come into being.  And because life emerged from insensate matter, we have a relationship to that, too: to the stars and distant galaxies, to quasars and quarks and muons.  

That relationship is love, and it has been there the whole time.  We've only recently begun learning to see it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Gratitude

I'll be honest with you (I always am) I don't get near enough appreciation for all the stuff I do.  Really.  I should be showered with effusive thanks twenty-four-seven by everyone around me.  I mean it.  This is not on account of all the swell stuff I've done recently - although I'm owed a pretty hefty slab of thank-yous for that, too - I'm talking about back-payments on my manifold kindnesses since childhood that have gone completely unacknowledged or at best have gotten a grudging "thanks."

And I'm not even factoring in interest.  I mean, forget about that.  If you had to pay compound interest on all the gratitude you owed me, it would be impossible just trying to calculate it.  Frankly, the debt of gratitude is so enormous in the first place, you'll never be able to pay it back, so I'm actually depreciating it.  I'm knocking the price down just to make it easier on you.  To make it manageable.

You're welcome.

See, that's the kind of selfless thing I do all the time, and for which I get no recognition.

"Thank you."

Is that so hard to say?  And that's all I really want.  For a sincere, heartfelt, "Thank you," repeated over and over - with unflagging sincerity and heartfeltness - until I'm satisfied you've paid me back in gratitude from the bottom of your heart for whatever kind or typically unselfish thing I've done.

And then the next morning, I want you to think about what a nice person I am, and I want you to thank me all over again just for being me.

Is that so much to ask?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Marshmallows and Self-Discipline

In a university study, children were presented with a dilemma: given a great big marshmallow on a plate, would they choose to eat it now, or would they be willing to wait and get two marshmallows in five minutes.  Only a few children were able to wait, most ate the marshmallow right away.  In the follow-up study, all the kids who ate the marshmallow right away ended up working for the kids who waited.

Not only were the wait-to-eat types financially more successful, they had better marriages, better health, and were happier than the eat-right-aways.  Self-discipline is clearly a valuable resource, and, thankfully, other studies show you can develop it even if by inclination, you're an eat-the-marshmallow-now type.

I think self-discipline does more for us than train us to be able to defer gratification - although this is very important.  You get a lot more satisfaction from something that was earned than something that was received.  Two marshmallows gained as a reward for waiting taste a lot better than one marshmallow that was just there on the plate.  In other words, not only are the payoffs bigger for self-discipline, we enjoy them more.  There's also a matter of contrast; if life is just a succession of one yummy marshmallow after another, our joy will begin to pale.  It's only by knowing we can't always have a marshmallow - even if it's by our own choice - that lets us savor the marshmallow when it finally comes around.

In Ancient Sparta, boys were taken from their parents at an early age, given one garment a year, and deliberately underfed.  I would never suggest raising children this way, but at least you can be sure grown Spartans were not inclined to bellyache about having to wait in line or being cut off in traffic.  They might slice you from nave to chaps, but they wouldn't waste time complaining about it.  Complaining is for people who've decided to be unhappy about something but lack the resources to do anything about it.

This is what strikes me troubling about 21st Century culture: it gives us no built-in opportunities to develop self-discipline, just the opposite.  If you're bored waiting for the next marshmallow, whip out the iphone and amuse yourself.  If you want something, get on the computer - chances are, you're on it right now anyway - and order it with a mouse-click.  It'll be there tomorrow.  Soon, thanks to Amazon drones, it'll be there even faster.  (Amazon calls its delivery service, "fulfillment."  Am I the only one who finds this disturbing?)  If real-life struggles are too tough, too complex, or too long-lasting to bother with, retreat into a video game, and you can conquer earth five times in an afternoon.

In short, we live in a world that promises instant gratification.  This observation is nothing new, but there's something really creepy about the way mass culture markets it.  In an early smart-phone commercial a desultory man sits moping on a rooftop as the announcer talks about life's lessons in disappointment.  In the background we see imaginative animated characters - such as a goofy blue-skinned critter with long eye-stalks - vanish one by one, symbolizing, I suppose, the death of our childhood dreams.  But then the grown-up is presented with a smartphone and a big smile replaces his expression of dissatisfaction as he begins surfing the internet or whatever he's doing.  The soundtrack strikes up "The Candyman" and two blue eye-stalks peep over the rooftop to watch.

The commercial is promising us, essentially, not just that the phone will make our lives better, but that it will transform the rest of our lives into candy: according to the song, one of the Candyman's recipes is taking a sunrise and "covering it in chocolate."  Eww.

Don't misunderstand, I love my iPhone, but there's something insidious about it, it and the rest of the our wonderful material comforts.  The world can be marshmallow, marshmallow, marshmallow if we let it, without the toughening experiences that are not merely part of life but an essential part of happiness.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Play in One Scene

CREW MEMBER ONE: Don't look now, but I think we're being followed by a big whale.

CREW MEMBER TWO: Actually, I think that's just a great fish.

CREW MEMBER TWO: No, that's definitely a whale.  Look at the size of it.

CREW MEMBER TWO: Fish get pretty big, too.  Especially if it's a great fish.  What do you think, Jonah?  Is that a fish or a whale?

JONAH: (Coughs nervously) I don't see anything.

CREW MEMBER ONE: It doesn't matter if it's a whale or a fish.  It's twice the size of our boat, and it's following us!

CREW MEMBER TWO: It's definitely a great fish.

CREW MEMBER ONE: We've got to do something.

CREW MEMBER THREE: Someone call the captain.

CAPTAIN: Avast ye, did someone call me?

CREW MEMBER ONE: The ship is being followed by a whale.

CAPTAIN: Are you sure that be a whale?  It look like a great fish to me.  Arr.

CREW MEMBER TWO: Told you.

CREW MEMBER ONE: The question is, what are we going to do about it?

CREW MEMBER THREE: Maybe we should throw all the luggage overboard.

JONAH: I really think you're all making a big deal out of nothing.  I'm sure if we just ignore it, it'll go away.

CAPTAIN: And why would we throw out the luggage for?  Arr?

CREW MEMBER TWO: If it eats it, it'll prove it's a fish because whales can't eat luggage.

CREW MEMBER THREE: Actually, I was thinking it would make us go faster.  Lighten the ballast and all that.  That's what you call it, right?  Ballast?

CAPTAIN: Aye, matey, that be a good idea.  Avast with the luggage!

JONAH: I don't think that's a good --

CAPTAIN: Here goes the American Touristor.  Over ye go!

(SPLASH)

CREW MEMBER THREE: Good Lord!  It ate the suitcase!

CREW MEMBER TWO: That definitely proves it's a fish.

CREW MEMBER ONE: It's not necessarily a baleen whale.  You didn't think of that, did you?

CAPTAIN: Here goes the Samsonite!  Arr!

(SPLASH)

JONAH: Stop.

CREW MEMBER THREE: It ate that, too!

CAPTAIN: I'll grab another suitcase!  Arr.  Where be that Travelpro?

JONAH: Stop.  This isn't necessary.

(SPLASH)

CAPTAIN: That was me overnight case.

CREW MEMBER THREE: It ate that, too!  And it's not slowing down!  It's gaining on us!

CREW MEMBER ONE: We're going to be eaten by a whale!

CREW MEMBER TWO: We're going to be eaten by a great fish!

CAPTAIN: Step lively, me hearties!  Get the Eagle Creek, Tumi, and Delsey!  Over the side with 'em!

(SPLASH, SPLASH, SPLASH)

JONAH: Stop, stop!  Everyone just stop for a second!

CAPTAIN: We be in the midst of a nautical emergency, me hearty.  We don't have time for any landlubber prattle.

JONAH: The whale's after me.

CREW MEMBER THREE: What?

CREW MEMBER TWO: What?

CAPTAIN: Arr.  What?

CREW MEMBER TWO: I'm pretty sure it's a great fish.

JONAH: The fact is, I'm on the run from God Almighty.  Clearly he's the one who sent that whale or whatever it is.  The only way to get it off our tails is for me to go over the side myself.

CREW MEMBER THREE: Wait - Don't -

(SPLASH)

CREW MEMBER: What a brave act of self-sacrifice.

CAPTAIN: There he goes, to the bottom of the sea.  Arr.

CREW MEMBER TWO: The fish didn't eat him.

CREW MEMBER ONE: It was a whale.

WHALE OR POSSIBLY GREAT FISH: Please don't throw any more people at me.  I'm only following you boat because I like the taste of luggage.  Do you have any more Samsonite?