Monday, December 2, 2019

If It Feels Good?

In the early chapters of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde puts the following sentiment on the lips of one his chief characters, Lord Henry Wotton:
The aim of life is self-development...People are afraid of themselves, nowadays...The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion--these are the two things that govern us.    
...The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.  Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.
Sentiments like this always give me pause, mainly because they contradict my personal observation and experience. They also oppose both Orthodox Christian teaching and what I have gathered from a wider study of Philosophy and Religion. They present the opportunity to stress test my beliefs, which I always welcome.

Wotton strikingly accuses religion of scaring us into supplanting what is natural and good with an unnatural, restrictive and suppressed mode of life:  It was the invention of God, he posits, that made people afraid to give in to their desires.

However, a careful a study of "godless" religions, e.g., Zen Buddhism, shows a strong emphasis on checking the desires, of not letting passions govern us. In the long run, there is a catastrophic consequence for the person who is overrun by her desires.

Science, too, tells us that habitually giving in to impulses generally leads us down a dark road. Excessive sexual stimulation, over-eating, excessive processed sugar in the diet, etc. all contribute to the slow exhaustion and destruction of the body. In many cases, the consequence is non-infectious disease, e.g., diabetes and/or heart disease.  There are the mental health repercussions linked to compulsive porn consumption to consider, as well.

To Oscar Wilde's credit, the consequences of a life devoted to vanity and self-indulgence are colorfully and dramatically shown as the story unfolds.

William Irvine puts it well in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy:
Indeed, pursuing pleasure, Seneca warns, is like pursuing a wild beast: On being captured, it can turn on us and tear us to pieces. Or, changing the metaphor a bit, he tells us that intense pleasures, when captured by us, become our captors, meaning that the more pleasures a man captures, "the more masters will he have to serve."
Consider too, the words of Lamar Odom, expressed in his memoir, From Darkness to Light: 
I could not handle the lethal cocktail of the spotlight, addiction, a diminishing career and infidelity.  Oh, did I mention the paranoia, anxiety, depression … I couldn’t keep my [sexual desires in check] or the coke out of my nose. 
My point is not that all pleasure is bad (it certainly is not), nor that self-denial for its own sake is a worthy end.

Rather, I hope we each take pause before accepting the thesis that a life abandoned to unchecked pleasure is "the good life," and that God is merely an invention that stands in the way to that life.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

But, Who Will Be There?

RECENTLY, a group of friends and I had a really good discussion about the importance of “being there” for our friends. A friend is both available and approachable, ready to listen compassionately and offer thoughtful advice.

No doubt, these are marks of true friendship, especially in our era of ubiquitous “friends.”

However, this morning I read something from St. Neilos which gave me pause:
How, then, do they rashly take upon themselves the direction and cure of others, when as yet they have not cured their own passions (1), and when they cannot lead others to victory, since they have not yet gained the victory for themselves? First we must struggle against our own passions, watching and keeping in mind the course of the battle; and then on the basis of personal experience we can advise others about this warfare, and render victory easier for them by describing the tactics beforehand (2).
So, as critical as it is for us to “be there” for our friends, we must ask an important question: Who, exactly, is it that is “there” for my friend? The quality of the “who” that I bring dictates the quality of my listening, the quality of my advice.

Training partners Mo Farah and Galen Rupp
pushed one another to Olympic gold and silver, respectively. 
That is, the value of my friendship depends on the quality of the person that I offer.

When, with God’s help, I work on myself, it is for my self initially. But it seems to me that this “work” is ultimately for all those whom God puts in my way.

Happy New Year.

(1)The “passions” are harmful and destructive impulses (e.g., hot anger, hatred, the rush to judgment).

(2) St. Neilos. “Ascetic Discourse.” The Philokalia

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Scars of Old Men

I ASK that you set aside, for a moment, your opinions about Donald Trump's policies and what they are doing for (or to) our country. 

There is something we can learn from his life, and for that matter, from Bill Clinton's, Elliot Spitzer's, John Edwards' and the lives countless other prominent men whose passions overtook them, overshadowed their gifts, and obscured their legacies. 

King David pleads, 
Speaking Truth to Power: Nathan confronts David
Cleanse me from my secret faults 
Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; 
Let them not have dominion over me. 
Then I shall be blameless, 
And I shall be innocent of great transgression (1).

Eerily prophetic, when we consider the crazy chain of events set in motion by his burning lust (2).  

When secret passions, lusts and weaknesses are festering, we can mask them, perhaps for a time. However, as we age from 15 to 35 to 75, the inner weaknesses ("secret faults") become second-nature, evolving into brazen ("presumptuous") sins. These passions and lusts take deeper root. 

Things start to unravel pretty quickly once you're older and weaker and the seeds of passion are well-rooted. 

Whatever good you may wish to have accomplished in the world is compromised and obscured. How many remember that Elliot Spitzer heroically stood against Wall Street corruption (3), that John Edwards was a champion of the poor (4), that Bill Clinton has a vision for a better world, and that Donald Trump has a vision for a great and prosperous America? 

Were these older men thinking of these greater objectives -- or even of their very families -- when caught in the grip of passion and lust? Did they even have the power, at that point, to do so? 

Whatever you may think of Stormy Daniels or Monica Lewinski, they each managed to sidetrack and, at times, completely dominate the full attention and concern of the President of the United States.

Call me another name, guy. Please!
Daniels had a purported billionaire and the most powerful man in the free world, sitting hunched over a little screen bickering and embarrassing himself over Twitter. She had, momentarily at least, completely pwned (5) him.

I am not judging him. I am a grown man. I know better than to pass judgment on another grown man. Rather, I am trying to learn from the life of a person decades older than I am.
I see that the smallest crack in my integrity can develop gradually over time into a wide, gaping hole. The smallest passion (anger, lust, greed), unattended to, can evolve into the biggest disaster of my life. It is uncomfortable for those close to me to consider these words, to understand their weight and to imagine the possibilities they suggest. But they are grown ups, too, after all.
WHEN DONALD TRUMP WAS A YOUNG MAN, he was famously brash and proud of his sexual prowess and his power over himself and others.

But consider him now: older, weaker, always on the defense, being publicly mocked by a woman for his lack of virility.
It is useless and ignorant to judge him or anyone else. But, it doesn't hurt to do a kind of exercise where you look at a person like that and think "Gee, if I don't watch myself, am I staring deep into my future? Something like it?"

It does not hurt to think of the worst case scenario. As I get older and weaker, do I face a future of being increasingly subject to and controlled by fear, anger, paranoia, and lust? Will I, like many older men, have collected many skeletons in my closet so that I have become skilled in the art of deception and defensiveness, always ready to reflexively attack critics with both fists up?

Or, will I be light and joyful, open and free?

WE TEASE people when they stack their plate too high and can't finish their food, saying, "It looks like your eyes are bigger than your stomach." But, on a more serious level, what happens as we age?Will the appetite for junk food exceed and overwhelm the body's ability to handle it in the quantities I have grown used to over 20, 30, 50 years? What happens as lusts and passions slowly bloom? What happens when the young, self-righteous Sunday School teacher evolves into a boring, lonely old lady? Can she even identify the roadmap to a life or warmth and laughter, attracting the sincere friendship of others?  What happens when a man's hot temper slowly and permanently surpasses his ability to intimidate and harm, and he finds himself a weak, angry little fool? What happens when his sexual passions outstrip a weakened body's ability to satisfy them? There is a reason that the proverbial "creepy old man" is perhaps the most pathetic archetype in our culture.

Yes, life is complex and is not easily reduced to such archetypes. But they do provide a strong hint. 
We all have little bugs rattling around in our system: anger, desire, lust, greed, ignorance, hatred, judgmentalism. For each of us the exact cocktail is different. At the very least, we should make an effort not to feed them. That way, the seeds don't grow into giant monsters which, eventually, can't be hidden in a closet of secrecy.The scars of others," wrote St. Jerome, "should teach us caution" (6).
_____________(1) Psalm 19:12
(2) 2 Samuel 11-12(3) "Remember the Sheriff?"New York Magazine. November 2, 2008(4) John Edwards: 'My Faith Came Roaring Back.'(5) No, not a typo. Look it up. (6) Letter 54