Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Where Does Belief Come From?

Why do we believe the things we do?  A complex question, but one I enjoy thinking about.  There used to be a series on NPR called "This I Believe."  Random people would record a 2-minute statement of what they believed: love rules the world, nature heals, education is (or is not) all it's cracked up to be.  That sort of thing.  Not necessarily religious belief, but something you carry with you in your core.

I used to know someone who was accused of preferring things to people.  Knowing that person, I'd have to agree.  "These fragments I have shored against my ruin" seems to encapsulate his attitude toward his possessions.  Margaret Thatcher once said, there's no such thing as "society."  I've always thought of her as an Ayn Rand sort of person, who puts the individual above all else.  Sometimes it's an activity that shapes a life.  My brother is an artist and has been since he was two years old, perhaps earlier.  He's 75 now, and he is still and always has been a painter.  Making art is the way he sees the world.  And, of course, there are those for whom religion is central.  I have come to believe that religious feeling is simply another way of seeing the world.  Religion, art, music, politics, literature, public service, acquisitiveness, the need to control, the need to submit (not a complete list)--all provide angles of vision that shape whatever belief system we may have.  This kind of belief, like personality, is not something we choose.  It is who we are.  That is why logic is often insufficient, persuasion ineffective, and true conversion rare.

An Islamic fundamentalist intent on restoring the caliphate, had he been born in Alabama, would no doubt be a foot-washing Baptist.  It is our minds that matter, far more than the message.  Belief comes from within; then we find rationalizations to support it.  Everything we think is an attempt to wrench the world into the shape we already see.  So what do I believe?

When I was a young child, I overheard the adults talking about the Hungarian Revolution.  I had no idea where Hungary was or what the people were revolting against, but I picked up enough to know that innocent people were suffering.  I wanted to do something to help--collect clothes to send them, anything.  I didn't, of course, but I thought a lot about it.

My parents used to take us to Youngstown, Ohio, just over the border from Pennsylvania, where we lived, to go shopping in the big department stores there.  Getting downtown meant driving through a poor, African-American neighborhood.  The streets were so unlovely I could not understand how anyone could live there.  I remember once passing an old man who was waiting at a stoplight to cross the street.  He looked so sad.  The image of this poor old man, bowed with the weight of years and who knows what sorrows, pierced me like a shard of glass.  Our car moved on and left him behind, still standing in the same place.

When I was in the eighth grade, a poor family was burned out of their house just before Christmas.  I rounded up some friends, and we all bought gifts for the children.  My dad drove us to their rundown neighborhood, a place I never went otherwise, and we delivered the packages.  What I remember is an empty room with bare floors, a worried woman who stood in a doorway and spoke not at all, and a toddler, dressed only in a diaper, running about barefoot.  The emptiness was like the inside of a bell. 

The sadness in other people's lives is something I have always been aware of.  I don't remember a time when I didn't know that I was lucky and many others were not.  How could I be happy, knowing that so many were broken and alone?  I still ask myself the same question.  This all sounds rather depressing, and it is.  So how do I manage not to drown in the pity I constantly feel?

There are two things I base my life on: love and beauty.  To me, love means giving comfort, nurturing, supporting, and encouraging another person(s).  Lacking a human being, I would need a pet to care for.  I'm sure most people would feel the same way, or say they do, but I can never know if others feel what I feel.  I believe in MY feelings.  I don't have to do anything to feel these emotions any more than a believer has to do anything to believe in a religion.  My core--and I say this not to boast but simply to describe--is empathy.  It is natural for me to put myself in another's shoes and feel what I would feel in their situation.  When my teenage children went through break-ups, my heart was broken as well.  When my grandson wants his "lamby," I want him to have it.  If I cherished something, wouldn't I want to hold onto it too?  I don't always act in accordance with my own deepest values, but when I don't I feel tremendously guilty.  Shame is what you feel when you are caught by others doing something amiss.  It is related to embarrassment.  Guilt is your judgment of yourself, and for me that is far more unforgiving.  I am not religious, but when the Bible says that of faith, hope, and love the greatest of these is love, I have no trouble agreeing at all.

Love is my connection to other people; beauty is my connection to the world.  A melting Mozart aria, the clarity of a Bach fugue, the lushness of a Beethoven symphony are all enough to push me toward the sublime.  The paintings of Monet, the poems of W. H. Auden, a beautiful garden take me places I can't get to on my own.  I prefer a panorama to a pinpoint, an ennobling idea to an ideology, a wilderness to an urban grid.  I believe people are more important than ideas, philosophies, religions, ideologies, abstractions of any kind.  I believe justice is conditional and truth elusive.  If I had to choose one philosopher, it would be J.S. Mill.  If I had my life to live over, I'd do things differently, but I'm glad I don't, because I want to be right here, right now, right where I am.  If it's the past that got me here, then of course I wouldn't change it, pain and all.  I hope it doesn't sound cruel to say it, but I wouldn't be so happy if I weren't so aware of the unhappiness that lies just off-shore of every life.  Virgil wrote of "the tears in things."  I believe he would understand what I am talking about.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I Think I Just Figured it Out

How do some politicians get away with it and others not?  Gingrich is a skunk who cheated on two wives.  McCain's record is nearly as colorful.  Bill Clinton made a mess of things and is today one of the world's great humanitarians.  Texting, groping, lying, cheating--it seems as if it's almost inevitable these days for pols to self-destruct when their libido and sense of power get in bed together.  Now Anthony Weiner goes down (so to speak).  I felt sorry for him at first, because I figured he had been only a little bit bad.  I still feel sorry for him, but I think he's been very, very bad.  How excruciating to be humiliated in such a public way.  How devastating to carry the guilty knowledge that he himself caused all this.  And his poor wife.  What a terrible position he's put her in. 

Absolutely no one can or should try to tell her what to do or how to respond.  Donald Trump is an ass for going on TV and scolding her for sticking with her job in Europe while all this blew up.  It's none of his business, and it's none of mine either.  But I want to go on record as saying I see this debacle as both a disaster and an opportunity.  Something was clearly awry in Weiner's head; now he has a chance to face his demons and figure out how to live the rest of his life.  Is it possible that this is somehow what he wanted deep down all along? 

What disturbs me almost as much as Weiner's peccadillos is the obloquy heaped upon him by the public.  Is there anyone else besides me who feels sorry for the poor schmuck?  I don't defend or accuse him, but if I were in his shoes, my heart would be broken.  That seems pretty much punishment enough to me.

Am I being selective about whom I direct my sympathy toward?  Perhaps.  I admit that I get more upset with the politicians I don't like than with the politicians I do like or am indifferent to.  Weiner would fall in the latter category.  All I know is, morality is not one-size-fits-all.  Consenting adults should be free to do whatever they want; we are only obligated to those closest to us.  Private matters should be left alone by everyone not immediately involved.  And I have a question?  If all these women (Weiner's online pals, Clinton's dishy side-dishes, etc.) were so outraged, why did they write back, stay in the room, answer the phone?  Surely, they bear some responsibility as well.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What Was He Thinking?

I stand by my defense of poor Anthony Weiner (below), but I feel I must add a post script.  I don't know what possessed the Congressman to expose himself to the world in such a flagrant manner, but I'm told that when this sort of thing comes to light, it is because at some level the perpetrator (for lack of a better term) actually wants to be caught.  It's difficult to believe that such recklessness is mere accident.  One tweet, maybe.  But a pattern of contacting strange women and saying sexual things to them is neither healthy nor wise. 

I feel sorry for Mr. Weiner, more sorry for his wife.  I hope they can repair the damage and continue their lives together.  I hope the public can set the scandal aside and focus on the work the man has done and may yet do.  I hope Mr. Weiner has learned that risking marriage and family is not worth a few minutes titillation.  People stumble.  Sometimes they fall.  Let's not kick him while he's down.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What Is It With These Men?

And so another up-and-coming politician bites the dust of sexual misbehavior.  Poor Anthony Weiner.  Move over Clinton, Gingrich, Sanford, and don't forget all the ministers of the gospel who have taken the plunge into hypocrisy.  For what it's worth, here's my take on this latest Washington misfortune.

I have always believed that those who read great literature have the best education in human nature possible.  One of the truly great American novels, "The Scarlet Letter," is but one example of how society fails in its judgment of what most Americans would call a sinner, Hester Prynne.  Hawthorne presents the community of Salem, MA, as the arbiter of convention, religion, and decency, but he gives us a negative example.  The good citizens of Salem are vicious in their rectitude, unmerciful toward the human need for love, and cruel in their punishment of a young woman whose only "sin" is to be caught in a loveless marriage that traps her spirit and degrades her soul.  It is she, the wearer of the scarlet letter, who is the only virtuous character in the entire novel.  Her lover, a minister, who should stand by her, rejects her in favor of his God, a demanding, punitive force that works through Salem's townspeople, who enjoy the deliciousness of punishment as much as they detest mercy and tolerance.

In the recent NYRB Stephen Greenblatt compares Milton's "Paradise Lost" to Wagner's "Die Walkure."  Without going into his whole, very cogent argument, let me draw out what I believe is one of his most important points.  Both artists create a world wherein humans choose human love over transcendence into the sublime.  Both Milton and Wagner emphasize the loneliness of God/Wotan, whose power and unmatched status isolate them utterly.  Their isolation is their agony, and it lasts forever.  Humans who choose earthly love escape their loneliness, if only for a time.  It is clear in both works that, while being thrown out of heaven or denied Valhalla is tragic, living without connection to other human beings is worse.  (Who is more lonely than a tyrant?)

Both Milton and Wagner consider self-love the origin of mature love.  Most psychologists would agree.  Ourselves reflected back to us is what we most want to see.  Isn't this what loneliness is?  The desire to be known by another as well as you know yourself?  This impossible need drives man like the furies.  Laws and customs prevail not because they reflect what people do, but what they so often don't do.  Otherwise, we would need no laws.  When a couple promise to be faithful to one another, the promise is serious precisely because it is difficult to keep, so difficult that we need to stand up before the community and commit ourselves to a choice, not an inevitability.

I believe that Anthony Weiner does love his wife and is a good man.  I don't know him, but he's a friend of Jon Stewart, and for me that's a good recommendation.  So far as I know, he did not sleep with any of his online contacts, which makes him, I suppose, technically innocent.  But the question is not one of innocence or guilt; it is a matter of private thought.  Thank god we are not mind-readers.  Our thoughts are our own, and we are accountable to no one for them.  The most terrifying thing to me about totalitarian systems is their invasion of the mind.  Mr. Weiner, I believe, was indulging in a bit of make-believe and obviously never intended it to see the light of day.  I had a professor in graduate school who once said you know you haven't really lived if, when you find a note on your desk that says "all is discovered", the only thing you do is chuck  it in the wastebasket.

American society in the 21st century is as blinkered and puritanical as 17th c. Salem.  We recoil--with delight--when the mighty are brought low.  If we can stand in judgment, perhaps we won't be judged ourselves.  If we proclaim the supremacy of virtue, maybe our own peccadillos will never be brought to light.  (Newt, are you listening?)  It feels so good to see another righteously punished, and I suspect this feeling is a mixture of envy and revenge, neither of which is laudable.  Why should an intelligent, compassionate, loving young woman be humiliated and shunned simply because she brought life into the world through a loving act?  Why should a congressman be vilified because in the middle of the night he felt a universal, existential loneliness and reached out to another mind for a moment's tenuous connection?  Oscar Wilde said that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.  Another fine aphorism is, never presume to understand a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.

What Mr. Weiner did is embarrassing.  No, he shouldn't have done it.  But he was flirting with danger, no more.  A man who deceives his wife and children over a long period of time, who condemns others for doing the same, who believes that apologizing for an act is as good as never having done it, is a whole different kettle of fish.  The French have their mores.  When the prime minister's illegitimate children appear at his gravesite and no one blinks, it is clear that French society has found an accommodation to the frailty of man.  This sort of thing goes against the American grain, perhaps for good reason.  If we go back to what I said earlier about the highest form of love being mature, mutual connection with another soul, not because nature dropped an anvil on our head and rendered us helpless, but because such a relation requires a choice forged in our deepest selves, then love is more sacred than prayer.  It is also nobody else's business.  We should feel sorry for the hapless Mr. Weiner and remember that we all have our secrets.  He deserves our commiseration, not our condemnation.  He owes his wife an explanation and undoubtedly a lengthy apology; he does not owe the rest of us the destruction of his career.

So what is the difference between Newt Gingrich, who cheated on two wives, one of whom had cancer, and Anthony Weiner who took some embarrassing photographs of himself--not anyone else, mind you, himself?  Mr. Weiner has that deer in the headlights look of stunned amazement.  His apparent lack of affect is presumably an effort not to break down in sobs before the cameras as he sees his life and career slipping inexorably away.  Newt, on the other hand, puffs himself up like a bantam, tosses off a cursory apology, and blames "the pressures of work," thus trying to blame his own conscientiousness for his own tawdry behavior.  One is a poor slob; the other is a pompous ass.  One has critics baying for his resignation; the other throws his hat in the Presidential ring, and no one chokes on it.  Who is really to blame here?  I suggest that, as with the good men and women of Hawthorne's Salem, the real evil is in our own hearts.