Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ambivalence, Money, and Evil

Whenever we face issues of any complexity, especially those involving strong feelings, we are bound to feel ambivalent. We have mixed feelings about our own bodies and sexuality, about pleasure in general, about love and marriage and God and death and, especially, money.

I was reminded of this from a recent article by Sarah Payne Stuart in The New Yorker. She talks about growing up in New England, in Concord, Mass., a town with strong Calvinist roots, where those who have wealth must look as if they don't. Their big homes must be in the fashionable part of town, she says, yet the owners must claim that they really can't afford to live there. There is in New England a "deep respect for the money it loathes."

Stuart escaped from Concord, where the women spend their lives saving money, mending their own swimsuits and never touching their guest towels. I remember a few of my wealthier relatives in St. Louis spending money for European tours and cars yet skimping on the heating in winter. I was always puzzled by such behavior. Whether its origins are necessarily in Calvinism is doubtful; it seems that we are ambivalent about money, generally.

In the course of her otherwise revealing article, Stuart makes one common error: she says she heard plenty in Concord about "money as the root of all evil."

In fact, the line (from the opening of Paul's first epistle to Timothy in the New Testament) says, "the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil," in a good, modern translation. Or as Chaucer's Pardoner says in the Canterbury Tales, quoting the Latin scripture, "Radix malorum est cupiditas."

But "cupiditas" for the medieval theologian does not mean money; the Bible does not say that money is evil but that our attitude toward it can lead to evil. Avarice or greed, the excessive love of money and what it can buy, is a form of spiritual death--a point made dramatic clear in the story the Pardoner tells about three revelers who set out to eradicate Death and end up killing themselves over a pot of gold.

At issue is selfishness, which is the broader meaning underlying avarice: we care so much about ourselves and our own pleasures that we ignore others, failing to love anyone but ourselves and thus failing as citizens of the community. Love is life-giving; selfishness is cold-hearted and deathly. This theme is found in much great literature, most particularly in Dante. See the icy lake in which Lucifer is encased at the bottom of Hell.

No wonder we are ambivalent about money, even if we quote 1 Timothy 6:10 correctly. Money can be used for good, selfless purposes, as Bill Gates and other philanthropists show, or it can lead, as it did for those women in Concord, to shrivelled lives and hearts. It has a power to change us, often not for the best. It is no wonder that those on the spiritual path are advised to cultivate a poverty of spirit--no matter how many investments they have. It is always the attitude we have toward material things that matters.

To say that the money is the source of evil is to simplify the meaning of evil, which resides in and emerges from within us.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

In Praise of Cats

Last week, an item from "Animal Planet" about what were called "Cats from Hell" hit the internet, with stories about violent cats who can break up relationships. Bad news always gets the headlines.

Just days before I received an email from an amazing cat who blogs; he is named Nikita, and his writing is clear and well edited--better, in fact, than that of some of my past students. Not at all violent, he was writing to thank me for my book, Writing with Cats, which his "owner" had bought on Amazon. I wrote back to say that, although his was the first feline email I ever received, I knew that two cats in Kent, England serve as editors of the Mewsletter (, published by a talented author named Pauline Dewberry. Like Nikita, I know that Sam and Ollie, the assistant editors, forge relationships; they don't break them up.

As my book indicates,nothing about cats surprises me. Although they serve writers, I believe, chiefly as sources of inspiration, setting just the right contemplative mood, they are also active in many good ways, ways that the mainstream media ignores. A few write, and many do good deeds.

Did you know that a cat has served for the past 15 years as major of Talkeetha, Alaska (pop. 900)? His name is Stubbs and he is said by the citizenry to be the best mayor they have had. (What this says about politics is open to discussion.) In 2006, Fred became a famous feline by assisting the NYPD and Brooklyn District Attorney's office. Tama is the name of the feline station master at Kinokawa, Japan. And what about Faith, the London cat who received a silver medal for bravery during the blitz?

A quick look at Wikipedia turned up a lot of information new to me since my research ten years ago, such as another literary cat, Sockington, who is known for his posts on Twitter. And the late Dewey, the library cat of Spencer, Iowa, the subject of a best-seller.

In England, the cat Brutus visits the Morrisons supermarket every day near Chester and has nearly a thousand followers on Facebook. Oscar, the hospice cat, is noted for is uncanny ability to predict which patients will die.

Prominent cats have lived in the White House, at No. 10 Downing St., even in the Vatican. Several have inherited millions of dollars. Several have been international travelers. You can read Christopher Wren's book about Henrietta, The Cat Who Covered the World or books by Cleveland Amory, among many others. Mathilda, a beautiful white Persian, always presides over the Algonquin Hotel in New York, the famous literary haunt.

Many, of course, many have been inspirational companions to writers as diverse as T. S. Eliot, Hemingway, Dickens, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Jack Kerouac, Samuel Johnson, Raymond Chandler, H. G. Wells, Winston Churchill, Victor Hugo, D. H. Lawrence and Colette, who once said: "Time spent with a cat is never wasted."

Let the wisdom of that memorable statement silence the cat-haters out there, always a minority in the population, people like Napoleon, who hated anything he could not control; and let's put an end to the unfortunate news stories of bad cats. If you are a cat person--and who would read all this if they were not?--check out for more on the amazing world of felines.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What makes a good memoir?

My friend Ned, a regular contributor to this blog, thanks to his many thoughtful comments, suggested that I say something about what makes a good memoir. A big order; here goes.

Having edited a friend's story of his life in America as an immigrant who still loves his native land, and having read two memorable books in the past year or so, I can say that all three, though widely different, are, above all, honest and interesting. They hold the readers' interest because something happens: they go beyond being a simple, chronological narrative that focuses on the individual writer.

First, my friend's immigrant narrative, was written mainly for his family; but people like me, outsiders to his life, can find many life lessons here, including fascinating insights about Americans vis a vis Europeans as well as humorous cultural differences. What might seem like a family story of limited interest becomes a narrative that many readers will enjoy; they will see, when it is published, that what is personal is often universal.

My second example is "Bread of Angels," an amazing narrative of an American, a single young woman, Stephanie Saldana, who journeyed to Damascus alone in the middle of the Iraq war to learn Arabic and found herself also in the Syrian desert undergoing a dark night of the soul. As my review in America mentioned, the book reads like a novel. It is filled with faith and despair and love; a lot happens. The style is often poetic and memorable. The author chooses her words and crafts her sentences carefully so that, as a writing teacher, I can take pleasure not only in the vicarious experiences of someone in that dangerous part of the world but in the craft of writing.

So a memoir has to be well written. In the case of the late Tony Judt, whose final book, The Memory Chalet, this is taken for granted; he was an internationally known writer and gifted stylist. The book was produced in extremis, while the British historian was enduring the horrors of Lou Gehrig's disease, which meant that he had to dictate most or all of it since he gradually lost control of his muscles.

He planned and completed a series of separate episodes, 25 in all, loosely connected, and written at various times before his death nearly two years ago. It is an unusual memoir, with a candid but dispassionate account of his illness, yet filled with Judt's remembered experiences in many places, being happy.

This last example of a memoir is, like the man himself, distinctive, unconventional, showing that there are no rules about what form a memoir takes. My friend's narrative is a traditional, chronological account of his life; Saldana's is limited to one short period in a young life; Judt's is a series of memories, witty and unsentimental, a record of a brilliant life and career.

In all case, the readers encounter voices alive with enthusiasm. The writers undergo changes, both good and bad, and share their journeys with the reader in clear, often poetic prose. In their stories, something happens--many things, in fact--which hold the reader's interest.

The distinction between fiction and non-fiction gets somewhat blurred in good memoirs, it seems to me. Saldana's is a good example, not that I accuse her of fictionalizing her life, but in selecting the episodes and describing the people she met, she is, like all writers, re-imagining and re-inventing the past. Doesn't every writer do this?

I could go on about the genre of autobiography, from St. Augustine on down, and how the story of the self from A to B is always addressed to more than the self who is the subject; it's as if the writer-self is creating himself in words. And to talk about such personal writing is to raise the question of the audience and the fact that, as my Jesuit professor Walter J. Ong convincingly showed, every audience is a fiction. We imagine our readers just as we imagine our literary selves.

No wonder writing is a challenge; it remains in part a mystery, as words and sentences take on a life of their own and recount, in the case of memoir, nothing less than a human story.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Public Selfishness

I recently wrote about a young man using his cell phone, loudly, while exercising in the fitness center near me, a place where some awareness of other people should be taken for granted. This guy ignored the needs of others to satisfy his own desire to have a long, private conversation in a public place.

It does not take much imagination to apply this selfishness to the rancor over public policy, especially in the health care debate. Sometimes a simple word like "selfishness" sums up the underlying attitude of those who say, "I have health care and I don't feel responsible for those who don't."

In what many insist is a "Christian nation" that also happens to be the richest on the planet, 45,000 Americans die each year because they lack access to health care. Fifty-million of our fellow citizens lack health insurance and must rely on emergency rooms if they want to avoid dying in case of a medical crisis.

Arguments about health care can and have been made about government intrusion and expanding government control, and many disagree with the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare. Some feel strongly that they are being forced to purchase a product against their will. I can understand this point of view because I, too, value individual freedom.

But, as I have earlier stated, individual freedom without concern for the common good, for the whole of society of which each of us is a part, is a very limited view of the issues involved. Most people do not see, or want to see, what all major religions teach: that individual freedoms must always be balanced against the needs of others.

Greg Garrett recently made this point, using the Gospels as evidence (his book is Faithful Citizenship). He quotes Martin Luther King, on the last night of his life: faithful citizenship requires a "dangerous unselfishness."

King learned the hard way how dangerous his cause was; so did Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who stood up to Hitler and was executed.

President Obama has often addressed the importance of the common good, often to deaf ears. In his latest State of the Union address, he asked us to imagine what our country would be like if it were founded NOT on absolute concern for individual freedoms but on concern for everyone. This perspective, which has so much in common with the Judaeo-Christian tradition of social justice based on the common good, is often overlooked or misinterpreted as a kind of government dictatorship ("socialism").

Obama and his people must do more to explain how the ACA (health care act) helps rather than harms us as a people. He must continue to invoke Lincoln and others who spoke of the better angels of our nature, which tell us that it may be easier and more comfortable and more logical to act in our own interest, but we are all part of something greater than ourselves. It is called America.

In the 1820s, Alexis de Tocqueville was worried that the extreme individualism of the new American democracy might sap "the virtues of public life." Since then the debate has raged between those who insist that public policy must guarantee the voters' self-interest and those who uphold the legal and moral obligation each citizen has to help his neighbor.

As a recent debate in the New York Times letters column indicates, we in America have become conditioned to think politically in terms of "me" whereas democracy requires that we recognize that we are all in this together.

As Paul L. Nevins writes, what J. K. Galbraith observed fifty years ago--the existence of "private affluence and public squalor"--has grown worse. And the inability of politicians to address this social injustice is leading us deeper and deeper into a malaise: selfishness is, whether we want to admit it or not, the cause of America's political and economic problems.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Needs and Wants

While cleaning out our house of the countless things we do not want and probably never needed, like towels embroidered with dancing cats, coffee mugs printed with witty sayings, and other non-essentials (motivated by our church's annual rummage sale for the benefit of Haiti), I happened to see a blog by Matthew Boudway, "How Much is Enough?"

And I began to think about the argument he outlines from a new book by R. and E. Skidelsky, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life. Their thesis seems to be important and controversial, certainly among Romneyites: that in most parts of the developed world, the basis for a good life already exists and that the endless pursuit of economic growth puts the good life, however defined, forever out of reach because we are constantly striving for more.

Is there no end to the constant pursuit of more wealth? A radical question. I think of the multi-million dollar annual salaries of Wall Street bankers and other CEOs; I think of the insatiability built into our modern economy whereby what we have is never enough since stores keep luring us to want more. And so we buy more. We are constantly been pressured to want more and more, and the person who has only one TV or computer or car, who lives a life without toxic acquisitiveness, is thought odd.

The authors use Aristotle, Keynes, and many others to develop their ethical approach to capitalism. J. M. Keynes, who in the thirties, predicted that per capita income would make working almost obsolete in a hundred years, has been proved wrong. It is taken for granted today in the first world, at least, that the pursuit of wealth is good, necessary, and an end in itself. It is assumed that such a pursuit has to do with happiness. Faust, in the legendary story, assumed that the total satisfaction of his every desire was worth the loss of his soul. He lost his deal with the devil.

The Skidelskys suggest that we need a corrective to modern economics, a shared understanding of what wealth is for--as well as agreement about what the good life means. If I compare the restless energy with which most Americans are always trying to satisfy their wants, not just their needs, with those in Haiti who will benefit from this month's rummage sale of our cast-off surplus items, I wonder which group has greater inner peace and contentment.

Are we not capable of controlling our insatiable needs for more gadgets? Do we need seven kinds of cereal in a household of four people? Do we need all those vacations, or are we so worn out from working to gain more income to pay for all the stuff we don't really need that getting away is the only thing that will give us peace of mind?

I look forward to reading the book since it promises from the reviews to raise important questions about our economy that we seldom ask: Is it the goal of modern life to satisfy our wants to the utmost with the least effort, as a classic economic theorist once said? Does a successful life mean merely an active, productive life, one that produces profit? If so, what about leisure and contemplation?

The questions raised here deal with so much that is basic, including how we define happiness, what a just society looks like vs. individual acquisition, and why we don't chose to limit our wants to our needs. Maybe we already have what we need but are not using it very well. Is endless growth and acquisition, rather than redistribution to those with real needs, the path we want to stay on?

I doubt if anyone running for office in this election year will raise such unpopular questions.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Civility Revisited

Above the steady beat of the treadmills and exercise bikes, above the music and the whirring of two fans, above the other sounds, human and mechanical, of the fitness center where I was trying to exercise yesterday, I could not escape the loud voice of a man on his cell phone, talking non-stop. Perhaps the volume of his conversation, which lasted more than fifteen minutes, as documented by my treadmill monitor, was due to the competing sounds around him. Maybe he thought that it was too hot for him to go outside for his call or, more likely, that doing two things at once made good sense.

In any case, he was in violation of the center's policies. When the manager finally went over and gently suggested something about not talking so much, the man, a big guy in his late twenties, kept on talking, telling his listender about the many great restaurants he liked in various cities, as if I and my fellow patrons were non-existent, as if the policies were for others. He showed no awareness of the center as a public place where private conversations are inappropriate.

I was not about to confront this guy, who was built like a linebacker, but I wanted to tell him that civility--something increasingly lacking in our time--means some awareness that others have the right to have their own privacy respected. That he was not exercising on a desert island. But he would have seen me as an old crank.

As I plodded away on my treadmill, before finally giving up in disgust, I recalled having recently written about the lack of communal awareness so apparent in our culture, as evidenced in the ongoing health care debate. The common good is, for more and more people, never considered: only the individual's freedom, needs, problems, and tastes. Yet reasonable thinkers know that restraints on individual freedom are often necessary for the good of the whole society to function.

What is apparent on the moral and political level is also seen in everyday life, in what Christopher Lasch once called The Culture of Narcissism. He first published that book in 1978; he is no longer around. I wonder what he would say about the way the social media (texting, I-pods, etc.) and the cell phone (in use even when some people drive) have exacerbated the social problems he isolated, the culture of "Me first." Which is now quite often "Me Only." If Lasch were to re-issue his book, he could call it "The Culture of Hypernarcissism."

Rabbi Hillel said long ago: "If I don't think of myself, who will? Yet if I think only of myself, who am I?" Without such a balance, we are doomed.

The young guy talking on the treadmill has never heard of this, or if he has, he has dismissed it, since he apparently thinks only of himself. Very sad. We all suffer--not just those of us in the fitness center.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

No Man (or Woman) is an Island

John Donne wrote the famous words, "No man is an island, entire of itself..." We are all, he said, involved when the bell tolls for one individual; each death touches us because we are involved in mankind. (Meditation XVII)

This is not a sentimental bit of poetry from the early 1600s; he truly believed in the greater good, the unity of believers of which he was a part known as Christendom.

Our multicultural world has replaced Western Christendom, but the idea that we are all in this together, in the same boat, as the cliche has it, remains valid. Obama has spoken of this many times, yet no amount of speeches will convince some people to examine their radical individualism, which I see as a great social evil.

Although I hate to bring up the health care debate, it provides a salient example: nearly every day, I encounter a posting or letter to the editor which says, in effect, "I have good health insurance and I don't want to hear any more about government brainwashing." Or "socialism." They resent a health-care plan for everyone because they don't want to be reminded of their obligation to be part of a whole greater than their own individual world.

There may be many valid objections to Obamacare; what concerns me is the dismissal of the moral obligation to care for those whose lack of insurance costs us all in the end, financially as well as morally.

The conservative political agenda seems to be all about the individual, his or her rights and freedoms, which are guaranteed by the Constitution; but as Robert Bellah and others have long noted, respect for individual rights must be balanced by a concern for the common good. The whole (nation) is only as strong as its parts (citizens).

"A man alone is in bad company," Jacques Cousteau once said: this is not a religious sentiment. The isolated individual, cut off from family and community, lacking love in the broad sense in which Dante meant it when he connected love and justice in his Comedy, is prone to do evil: consider the loners out there and the violence that we often learn about too late. Read the powerful novel by Russell Banks, Affliction to see how male violence in particular destroys.

Life is not all about me, as our consumer culture keeps preaching; it's about us. Is it too late for our diverse, multicultural society to re-learn this essential lesson?