Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mark Twain's Anaconda Don't Want None: Musings on Free Will

"In the course of my reading I had come across a case where, many years ago, some hunters on the Great Plains organized a buffalo hunt for the entertainment of an English earl.  They had charming sport.  They killed seventy-two of those great animals; and ate part of one of them and left the seventy-one to rot.  In order to determine the difference between an anaconda and an earl (if any) I caused seven young calves to be turned into the anaconda's cage.  The grateful reptile immediately crushed one of them and swallowed it, then lay back satisfied.  It showed no further interest in the calves, and no disposition to harm them.  I tried this experiment with other anacondas; always with the same result.  The fact stood proven that the difference between an earl and an anaconda is that the earl is cruel and the anaconda isn't."  ~Mark Twain, "The Damned Human Race"

We are the cruelest creatures alive. We have all the knowledge we need to be kind and compassionate and yet we throw it out the window.  Animals can hurt others, but they don't have the full knowledge and thus the accountability that we do.  For them, everything is instinct.  They "don't want none" of the irrational, cruel things we stubbornly choose just because we can.  How terrifying and marvelous that we have that power to choose.  Our mistakes are catastrophic because we mean them.  They are deliberate.  And our love is exquisitely beautiful because we mean that, too.  We love being able to choose.  In fact, our very identity is tied to this ability and threatened when our liberty is trampled on.  We all want to avoid the mainstream enough to retain our sense of individuality and dignity.

Being stereotyped or told to conform makes us feel unloved, like our unique beauty is invisible.  We want to be seen, and loved as we are, not told we are inadequate because we don't match some ideal.  Freedom to choose, individuality, and love are three concepts that are essential to one another.  To love, there must be an individual to love and you must be able to choose this individual as opposed to any other.  To say "I do"  to one man or one woman in marriage is thrilling, special, meaningful only because you're saying "I don't" to millions  of others. There's nothing romantic or exciting about the last two people on earth hooking up because options are nonexistent.  Choice, the risk of rejecting many things for the sake of one, is what makes love beautiful. 

Despite its beauty, however, free will makes people uncomfortable. Some people claim that we only have the illusion of choice and that everything we do is predetermined by our circumstances.  I reject that idea for the same reason they embrace it: because it's easy and non-threatening.  People are afraid of being responsible for their slips into cruelty, afraid of the fact that their decisions can be both meaningful and irreversible.  They don't want none of the consequences of being a discerning human being and imagine that they're all like Mark Twain's anacondas- ruled by instinct. But the skeptics, the godless who want to silence their guilt aren't the only ones afraid of free will.

The believers are terrified of it.  They see that it's the weak link in their faith: no one likes thinking that God made us free to screw up His universe and hurt each other whenever we feel like it- which is unfortunately very frequently.  No one likes the thought that if they keep messing up they could go to hell, or that their non-believing friends could go to hell.  Fear of free will creates in the Christian a desperation to convert every person he knows.

And this same awful, beautiful free will always blows up in his desperate face.  His endeavors fail because everyone he meets can choose not to listen, reminding him that conversion has to be from the heart to be authentic, and that love requires choice.  So he throws up his hands and bemoans his inability to force-feed the fear of God into the heathens around him who are feasting on evil.  Right?

Wrong.  Wrong, wrong, wrong, he's doing it wrong.  Nobody in their right mind likes that guy.  He'd know he's doing it wrong if he actually looked at the God he believes in, the God who is the only one who's given me any idea of how to live with the reality of my crazy wonderful frightening free will.

 God cared.  He made humanity and cared what we did and what we thought.  Why? Because he chose to.  He could have made us to amuse Him, but he felt like making us capable of love.  Saint Augustine thought that was crazy.  He asked God "What am I to Thee that Thou demandest my love, and, if I give it not, art wroth with me, and threatenest me with grievous woes? (Confessions Book I)" See, the madness of it all is that by choosing to love us and to make us capable of loving Him, the God of ultimate power made himself vulnerable. He gave us the power to make decisions that mean something; the power to say "I do" or "I don't,"  the power to fall for Him like He fell for us or to reject and hurt Him.  He has a heart that is not afraid of rejection because it understands true love.  He thinks we are worth the risk.

If love means choosing something, there has to be a different choice, a wrong choice.  God had to give us an option besides Himself.  That's why He created Hell, not because he's vindictive and delights in tormenting and scaring the crap out of us.  The reality of Hell rips His heart out.  But He was willing to allow it because real love takes sacrifice.  He offered us Hell so that our choices could be real, could actually mean something- even if they mean we don't want Him.  That pierces His heart, but the pain is worth just the possibility of us loving Him.  It is to God "better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

So those Christians who think the Church has gone too soft and doesn't talk about Hell enough?  If they're trying to scare people out of freely choosing God, I couldn't disagree more.  If anything, I think we don't talk about suffering as a component of God's love enough.  God loves us in that suspenseful, nerve-racking, painful but worth every second of it kind of a way.  That's what we're failing to express, that's what those who reject God don't yet understand.  Fear is the enemy of love, not the will of God.  That's not how he treats His children.  He doesn't threaten, He teaches.  He doesn't want mindless submission, He wants us informed and in love.  He wants us to know what we're choosing. 

The more I realize this, the more I am convinced I need to abandon any methods of changing the world that involve cornering people or threatening their freedom.  I am in love with my God and so I choose to write about Him and make His truth available to the world in a new way.  I choose to follow the path His Church has laid out for me because I know He desires my ultimate good and teaches only what will help me.  But I hope everyone who reads my blog questions my writing and reaches conclusions freely.  To conquer fear and attain love, you have to think your own thoughts and make your own decisions.   And I'm pretty sure God agrees with me on that.  Otherwise, he would have made you a brainless anaconda or something. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sleeping With the Enemy: How to Wake Up for 2015

Hey, 2015.  I'm glad you're here.  I hope you're going to be wonderful.  I hope you change me.  I couldn't come up with a resolution because there are so many things I want to do better and so little time to do them. Also, I recently read this:"People don’t change because they decide to be better. If that happened, then New Year’s Resolutions would work. People decide to change because they elevate their loves." ~David Brooks

  I think my resolutions usually turn out badly because I keep looking towards myself, thinking I can decide to be better.  How am I supposed to grow stronger by trying to achieve greatness through my own strength?  It's not at all logical.  It's like trying to pull a car out of a swamp using the power of...the car that's stuck in the swamp.  I need an outside force in order to move.   And if  I'm not doing this life thing alone, I have to stop acting like it.  Pride is the first thing that has to go.  For me, pride always creates fear because deep down I know I will eventually collapse on my own.  Pride turns me into the worst version of myself; the weak and cowering one.  That is not who I choose to be.  Pope Francis says "Man is not fully himself until he is beyond himself." I need something to love that is beyond me. So how can I elevate my loves this year?  That has been my new question.

The best answer I have so far is this: do what wakes you upDo things that get you out of your routine, your comfort zone, that bubble that is the version of yourself that is centered on you.  Reawaken your taste for the higher things; develop your sense of wonderIn Fides et Ratio, JPII said "Without wonder, men and women would lapse into deadening routine and little by little would become incapable of a life which is genuinely personal."   Half the time when I mess up at life or lose my hope, it's not deliberate; it's because I wasn't aware.  I just sort of fall asleep and the enemy sneaks in and takes over before I realize it.  I'm just floating through life reactively.  Instead, I want to follow this motto:

Have you ever had a day, or even just a moment, when you're aware of everything?  Usually it happens when I encounter beauty, like if I'm out hiking or something and see a stunning view.  Suddenly this longing wells up in me and at the same time every breath I take and every ray of sunlight and every sound is about five times more pronounced than usual.  I'm there.  Other things that wake me up include striking lines from books, really great music...or my church.  Every time I attend Mass I can love God, but the beauty of Emmanuel my home parish with its shining altar and stained glass windows elevates my love.  It makes it easier to contemplate, fills me with wonder, whispers "Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you." (Isaiah 60:1) Beauty is one of the most powerful agents that wakes us up.  Its power is what made Fr. Nathan Cromly tell me to "Eat chocolate and listen to Bach!" for Lent.  Beauty and our appreciation for it are being stolen from us.  We have so many shallow engagements and practical technologies that overpower it.  We don't spend as much time going outside or being creative or simply sitting still, hushed, looking for it.  So this year I want to challenge you to seek out beauty.  Look at art, listen to music, work on your creative projects be it writing or photography or songwriting or anything else that fills you with wonder. 

I promise it's not a waste of time.  It will elevate your love for God.  Why?  First of all, you get to know Him and His beauty better by appreciating His work in a deeper way.  Second of all, good art is actually prayer; it's trying to touch God, a shot in the dark at the Mystery.  If you don't know how to pray, or how to elevate your current prayer life, start there.  I have this theory that God is always listening, especially when we are honestly expressing ourselves.  That's why I think "Day N' Nite" by Kid Cudi is a prayer, as messy and unpolished a one as it might be.  I think maybe even better than Chris Tomlin trying to figure out what rhymes besides "fire" and "desire" and putting it to the same 4 chords is Kendrick Lamar in the middle of the night pouring out his doubts and fears, rapping about how he's torn between smoking kush and reading Corinthians- and ending up somewhere in between. God loves authenticity.  So my second challenge is to be more fearlessly blunt in your prayers, even if they're messier that way.  Telling the truth allows you to be individual, to say what you are.  Then, He can work with you.  Lies are what will obscure you, say what you are not, and  steal your individuality.  Truth is beautiful, freeing. Honesty and vulnerability will elevate your love- it has for me. Writing my heart out, using my writing to expose my fears and doubts and dismantle them publicly has brought me closer to God and to my friends. 

 My friends.  Gosh, I love you guys.  You people are part of what wakes me up.  I encounter God through your loyalty, courage, and kindness.  You are agents of His grace, pulling me out of my swampy moments in life with your smiles, your humor, your support, and your prayers.  You remind me of His beauty and wonder because I see it in your faces and your actions.  Thank you.  Keep daring to love the people God places in your life harder, deeper.  That's my third and final challenge for you in the new year.  To love others, to seek God's beauty in them and to show it to them is probably the most elevating thing anyone could ever do.  All true love reflects God, and he will make it grow into something the world has no power to break.  So elevate your love for others to the boldest level it's ever reached.  With God, you have nothing to fear. 

I'm praying for all of you.  It's 2015 and we are awake

The Forgiveness Myth

I do not enjoy forgiving people because it makes me feel like a doormat. I would honestly rather get all Carrie Underwood/Miranda Lambert up...