October 29, 2008


Being at Home with Our Homelessness: Why we're happier knowing our happiness is inseparable from our misery. (Peter Augustine Lawler, October 27, 2008, Culture 11)

According to Alexis de Tocqueville (writing in the 1830s), the Americans have characteristically never made the error of believing either Locke or Darwin teaches the whole truth. The Americans’ religion, most of all, causes them not to understand themselves as merely self-interested individuals or playthings of some impersonal process. The Americans, semi-consciously, reconcile individual liberty and personal happiness by understanding themselves in different ways at different times. They understand themselves as free individuals insofar as they restlessly work in pursuit of the material conditions of happiness, but they find happiness by using what they’ve acquired as parents, children, friends, citizens, creatures, and as men and women (as opposed to abstracted or sexless individuals). It’s as religious, familial, and political beings, Tocqueville explains, that the Americans are happy. Tocqueville’s fear was that the Americans’ restless pursuit would erode, over time, the Americans’ experience of the real point of that pursuit.

It’s surely true that most Americans experience themselves much more consistently as free individuals today than in Tocqueville’s time. Our pursuits of egalitarian justice and prosperity have been turned enduring friendships into networking alliances, scattered families, and disconnected people from the binding, dutiful experience of being parts of communities. Americans are no longer united by the affirmation of a common religious morality.

The American desire to combine individual liberty with social happiness has tended to seem to become much more self-indulgent. We want all the warmth and emotional security of family without any of its suffocating demands or constraints. We want the benefits of faith and patriotism without really subordinating ourselves to God and country as dutiful creatures or citizens. And so we’re easily suckered by self-help books that say that happiness is compatible with individual autonomy, and that my relations with others won’t suffer when I focus on my own happiness in the right “12 step” way.

We Americans don’t listen to the Freudians who claim that we’re not even supposed to be happy, that we have no choice but to subordinate our personal enjoyment to the reality that we need to live in civilization. The theorist of our Sixties — Herbert Marcuse — told us that Freud used to be right, but not anymore. Technology’s conquest of scarcity means that there’s no long any need for repression, and we’re all free for the art of living the happy or polymorphously erotic life. Our libertarians even tell us that the conquest of scarcity opens us to an unlimited menu of choice concerning individual happiness. More than ever, it seems that anyone who isn’t happy can only blame himself.

But the truth is that we now have an especially hard time choosing what will make us happy. We don’t want to be lonely, but we don’t want love to turn us into suckers. We’re all too aware that it would be dangerous for us to feel to securely happy; my anxiety reminds me that other people are unreliable and nature doesn’t care about me at all. Studies show that people who are somewhat depressed predicted the future better than those who are happy and well adjusted.

We, naturally enough, want the benefits without the burdens of being happy. We expect way too much from far too little from ourselves, and so, in some ways, we’re more lonely and whiny than ever. But that conclusion doesn’t seem completely fair: the downside of freeing ourselves from nature, to some extent, is that each particular life seems more contingent on more on his or hers own than ever. Life is easier or happier because we have more, but it’s tougher or more anxious because each of us is all too aware of the insecurity of what we have. We certainly not self-indulgent in the sense of living carefree in the moment; we’re stuck with being more obsessed with our individual futures than ever. We don’t experience ourselves as living in a time when scarcity has been conquered; we moved, more than ever, by the scarcity of time. [...]

The Christian thinker Pascal criticized the modern pursuit of happiness at its very beginning. We’re really diverting ourselves from what we really know. Modern restlessness — the frenzied conquest of nature — is, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed, best explained by our modern inability to live well with our mortality or to articulate the truth about our misery without God. If we were born only to happy, Solzhenitysn explained, we wouldn’t have been born to die. That doesn’t mean we weren’t born to happy, but we can only be happy by assuming the responsibilities that accompany what we can’t help but know. Darwin and Marx, whatever their differences, both have nothing to say about the distinctive and dignified experiences of the only being open to the truth about his or her own being. We are the only animal, as Tocqueville and Pascal say, who can experience him- or herself as existing contingently and momentary between two abysses.

The modern error, from the perspective of both the premodern philosophers and the Christians, is the belief that we haven’t been given the inner resources to live well with what we know. The being open to the truth couldn’t be either a mind or a body, but a rational, relational, conscious (which means knowing with others), willful, and loving being. The erotic being who wonders, Percy explains, necessarily wanders — or is to some extent alienated from the rest of natural existence. The joys of knowing and loving are inseparable from our alienation. That means there’s a natural explanation for both our singular joy and intractable alienation: We human animals have been given natural, personal capabilities not given to the other animals.

It makes us happier to be able to understand why human happiness is inseparable from human misery in this world. We can see — even from the perspective of happiness — why it’s better to be a dislocated human than a contented chimp. We have every reason to be grateful for who we are, and, contrary to Hobbes and Locke, we should be all about living well with — rather than incessantly negating — what we’ve been given by nature. There’s a natural foundation for personal significance — personal love and freedom — that opens us to the possibility of a personal God.

Human happiness may depend on being “at home with our homelessness.”

When we moved this Summer I had 70 crates of books and, sadly, about 65 remain packed until we can have book shelves built. Within the unpacked crates is my copy of Mr. Lawler's fine book Homeless and At Home in America, which I'd read but not yet reviewed. He's one of our very favorite essayists and if you check the links we've collected you'll see why.

Reading this essay and the one below, by Mitchell Kalpakgian, seems an especially god remedy to the angst and agita of the current election. Someone is going to be sorely disappointed on Tuesday--either you or the guy next to you--and it seems not unlikely to be us religious conservatives.

If this should prove to be the case, it is possible to see why people of faith might feel estranged from a country that has elected the most pro-Death president in its history. Recall how Robert P. George and the First Things symposium declared democracy at an end in 1996, because of the way the Court was ignoring fundamental human liberty in favor of the culture of death. And it will indeed be vitally important for conservatives to gird up their loins and fight an administration and congress that may well seek to reverse the progress we've made out of the abyss over recent years. But, at the same time, we need only look to the derangement of the Left over the last 8 to 14 (to 28?) years in order to see what we must avoid.

While it is an entirely predictable effect of the Rationalist condition that the Left should be discombobulated by the failure of reality to conform to the apparent power of their ideas, just look at all of the good that their breakdown has prevented them from even noticing, nevermind celebrating. Despite the current correction, American and global wealth is at undreamt of high levels. The academic performance of even those students we had the lowest expectations of is improving and the entire nation is dedicated to improving it further. Abortion is down. Homelessness is down. Life expectancies are rising and from record high rates. Almost uniquely within the developed world we have a rising population. We have transformed health care in Africa. We have, either directly or indirectly, contributed to the liberation of or liberalization in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Liberia, Sudan, Libya, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Haiti, Indonesia, Mongolia, India, Georgia, Kosovo, etc., etc., etc....all of this coming within two decades of our having left the Soviet Empire in the dustbin of history. And on and on. But because these things have not been achieved in accord with the vision they have of how they should have been done--and by whom--the Left has alternately moped and raged its way across a decade. One of the most noticeable aspects of what has been a pretty good run for America and the world has been the miserableness of the Left.

It is incumbent on the Right to avoid such a fate. After all, our theology doesn't afford us the "luxury" of imagining that the world must yield to our wants and wishes. When we consider ourselves to be estranged from our lives just because they aren't going exactly as we'd like them to we are, in some sense, denying Creation. And were to snarl and snipe our way through an Obama presidency we would be elevating Caesar above God in ways that ought to shame us.

Even setting aside the fact that Bill Clinton's 90s were themselves a rather good stretch and that we have ample reason to be hopeful that the coming years will be good for America and the world as well, it is a threshhold mistake for us to follow the Left in believing that life can not be good just because we think the political results are bad. Though we can never rest in a society that hasn't yet recognized the truth that Cardinal Egan speaks below, neither can we slip into the slough of despond when we recognize the truth that Mr. Lawler reminds us of:

[T]he other view [of Americanization] is the view of Chesterton, which is: America is a home for the homeless, that the great thing about America is the romance of the citizen – everyone can find a home here. The amazing thing is that all you have to do to become an American is agree with a certain doctrine. So Chesterton compares America to the Catholic church. Any race, gender, whatever, class, background, make no difference, as long as you accept the
doctrine. That’s the Catholic view, and that’s also the American view – race, gender, whatever, don’t make any difference, as long as you accept the doctrine. So there’s something profoundly at-home about Americans because Americans begin with the premise of the irreplaceable, personal significance of every human being.

In other words, America is based on a very corny view of the Declaration of Independence that’s basically consistent with Thomism and all that. So in a certain way what saves America from utter relativism is this doctrine. And so you look at America carefully and the Americans who are most at home are the ones who believe this doctrine is compatible with their religion, and so they’re particularly at home because they’re at home with their homelessness. That is, they’re at home as citizens while recognizing that citizenship doesn’t
capture everything they are. And so it turns out that the best Dads, the best citizens, the people who have the most kids and the most stable family life in America are the ones who take citizenship seriously and who take their religion seriously. So from a certain point of view this book shows that there’s some truth to Heidegger,
some truth to Chesterton, but the view that Christianity is incompatible with patriotism – Christians are always resident aliens and all that – this does seem to be very out-of-touch with the reality of America.

If it is natural for those who don't genuinely believe in American ideals to be easily alienated, it is thoroughly unnatural for we who believe devoutly to succumb to similar despair. What, after all, is an unwelcome election result or an inept politician or even an unfortunate law or two in comparison to your family, your friends, your neighbors, your community, your relationship with God?

I had two people tell me remarkably similar stories this weekend abut being at social events and having people launch into tirades about religion or conservatives or both. One had a friend say: "I'm sure I'm offending you, but...." To which they responded, bewildered: "What? But you don't care?" We can pity the folk who behave (misbehave) in this manner, but we must not react by aping them. The impulse to vent must be subordinated to the values of friendship, citizenship, comity, and, yes, love. Where it is inexplicable to the Bright that anyone could differ with them, it is doctrine to us that people will disagree, even on the most fundamental issues. Where it is unimaginable to them that Reason could have yielded up an erroneous answer, it is obvious to us that Fallen Man is prone to mistake, oneself no less than another. Where they seem to think that spilling enough bile will act as a solvent to disagreements, we know such divisions to be part of the human predicament and the proper response to be an attempt at understanding, not an intellectual bludgeoning.

I've been absurdly fortunate in life and not at all unfortunate in politics. My first vote was cast for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and since then my preference has prevailed more often than not. But in 1992 we were living in Chicago and I walked out of the polling place facing the seemingly dire prospect that, despite my vote, Bill Clinton, Carol Mosely-Braun, and Dan Rostenkowski would be announced as winners later that night. Woe the Republic, eh? Well, last night our eldest asked what the best decade of the 20th Century was. And there's really only one honest response to that question: the 1990s.

A good many of us may feel a tad homeless as we walk out of the polling place on Tuesday, but we'll emerge into the sunlight (or snow here) very much at home. And there's every possibility that we'll be more at home in the months and years to come than those who vote differently. America is rather more resilient than we're prone to imagine in our darkest moments and politics means rather less than we're wont to recognize in the midst of a campaign. Think about what truly matters and be happy. Life is awfully good.

The Theology of Pleasure (Mitchell Kalpakgian, October 2008, New Oxford Review)

The experience of the goodness of the natural pleasures of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, as well as the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional pleasures of the soul, reveals God as the Author of inexhaustible joy who created man for happiness in all its fullness, inspiring man to sing with David in Psalm 23, "Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows."

A man wakes in the morning and enjoys the exercise of walking, jogging, or biking, experiencing the beauty of the day, the serenity of dawn. He returns home to refresh his body with a bath or shower and then proceeds to regale himself with the tastes and smells of a hearty breakfast. These preparations of the body provide energy and strength to perform the day's work, whether it is using one's body or mind, skill, or other talents in performing labors of duty or love. In the midst of daily toil, human interaction -- conversation, laughter -- can punctuate the day and lift the spirits. The noon meal offers a different selection of foods to nourish the body and soul, offering the anticipation of a new pleasure, perhaps in the company of congenial friends who add the liveliness of mirth to the relish of the meal. As the afternoon hours follow, the end of the workday awaits with its accompanying rewards: a clear conscience in doing an honest day's labor, relaxation at home, or recreation in the pursuit of a favorite hobby. Looking forward to dinner with the entire family at home offers the best of company, and perhaps one's favorite meal. The pleasure of conversation with a spouse, the enjoyment of playing with children, the delight of hearing one's favorite music, the stimulation of a good book, and maybe the surprise of a friendly letter in the day's mail add to the various joys of the day and provide a sense of the fullness of happiness that is possible on the best of days. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, "No man can live without pleasure," and God, in His infinite goodness, has created a world with plentiful sources of joy and happiness for all people.

In the course of a year, a person may enjoy the varied pleasures of the four seasons -- from skating, skiing, and snowboarding in winter to fishing, swimming, and boating in summer. Each year brings its festive holidays and religious celebrations. Birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, weddings, and baptisms also fill the calendar with commemorative social occasions that rejoice the spirit and keep one in love with life. This multiplicity of pleasures during the various stages of the year illustrates the truth that life always offers some special joy to look forward to.

A life of happiness is not only the enjoyment of the present moment but also the anticipation of some later source of joy that awaits its proper time. The child who revels in play, the young couple who fall in love, the parents who rejoice in the births of their children, the grandparents who behold the happiness of their children's children -- the goodness of life is experienced in the fullness of our time. God in His wisdom prepares His gifts of pleasure according to the seasons of life and according to the stages of man. As Solomon observes, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven" (Eccl. 3:1). God does not leave man empty-handed as he progresses through life, but always provides occasions of hope in familiar pleasures and newfound joys. [...]

Spiritual pleasures as well accompany intellectual and aesthetic pleasures. The quintessence of spiritual happiness is the enjoyment of peace, the peace that Christ offers when He utters, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you" (Jn. 14:27). As St. Augustine writes in his Confessions, "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you." Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ also explains the way to true peace: "True peace of heart can be found only by resisting the passions, not by yielding to them," and "True peace dwells only in the heart of the humble." This peace that passes all understanding comes only to he who prepares his heart and soul to receive God: "Christ will come to you, and impart his consolations to you if you prepare a worthy dwelling for him in your heart." Just as the bride adorns and beautifies herself in anticipation of the coming of the bridegroom, the soul too must purify itself and possess a clean and contrite heart to welcome the visitation of the Divine Spouse. The soul as bride prepares itself by controlling the passions, by exerting patience in enduring adversities, and by cultivating humility, recollection, silence, and purity of heart. As Christ speaks to the disciple in à Kempis's spiritual masterpiece, "My peace is with the humble and gentle of heart, and depends on great patience." The soul that retains the virtue of faith believes that God will keep His promises just as the bride awaits her bridegroom; she trusts his word and her heart leaps at the sound of his voice. Christ too always comes if the soul believes and trusts: "Where is your faith? Stand firm, and persevere. Be courageous and patient, and help will come to you in due time. Wait patiently for Me, and I myself will come and heal you."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 29, 2008 12:00 AM
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