Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Bitter Psalmist

The Psalms are sometimes described as comforting--recommended to those wrestling with dark nights of the soul. Reading over the past few days' Lenten Psalms, I'm afraid that any general recommendation of this kind strikes me as careless. For every Psalm 23, with its shepherding Lord leading us beside still waters, there is a Psalm 35, with its bargaining voice bitterly begging the Lord to put enemies to shame and violence in return for the promise of later praise. "Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me! Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers . . . ." The psalmist's resentment is matched only by self-righteousness: "But as for me, when they were sick, I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting. I prayed with head bowed on my bosom, as though I grieved for a friend or a brother; I went about as one who laments for a mother, bowed down and in mourning."

As material for worship, I do not claim insight into how to handle such a text. But reflection on this public confession of anger, weakness, and desperation did make me think about an apparent paradox of our broadly self-disclosing culture. That we have such a culture should be obvious to anyone who has a social media account, or anyone who has heard a politician or celebrity criticized not so much for engaging in shameful behavior, but for being unwilling to "share" with the public her feelings about such behavior. On the one hand, we make extensive demands on people to unveil their inner lives. We do so both in our relation to public figures and in our friendships and intimate relationships. Nietzsche diagnoses this tendency as another kind of bargaining: "People who give us their complete trust believe that they therefore have a right to our own. This conclusion is false: rights are not won by gifts."

On the other hand, we often have very little patience for disclosures when they are offered. We require public confessions to end with expressions of renewed self-resolve ("I'm just excited to move on to the next phase of my life") or the kinds of promises that are almost impossible to keep ("I'm just so sorry I let down my fans, and I will never let that happen again.") Of course, that we have such requirements does not mean that we always want people to satisfy them, which would take away the fun of excoriating those who fail to do so. Indeed, one suspects that the opportunity for such judgments may be the real good sought by far too many hearers of confessions, both public and private.

The illusion of public openness encourages forgetfulness of one of Christ's most pervasive messages--that we have no standing on which to judge the hearts of others. It is so, so easy to forget.

I should know better. Having been painfully shy since I was a very small child, I had the blessing of turning painfully awkward in adolescence and being the subject of psychological and, less often,  physical bullying. Being a false master of instrumental reasoning even back then, I decided to stop looking so awkward as quickly as possible, and set about reading and applying the relevant tomes. My reward for this, since it did nothing, of course, about my natural shyness, was that my new high school classmates decided that I must be a horrible snob. They had no way of knowing that I was really a nerd in hiding.

As an adult, a bout with a chronic but invisible illness showed me how quick people can be to attribute any failings to motives that are easily available to them, when they have no access to the real ones. Pain that is not seen cannot explain impatience with colleagues or struggles in relationships, and people will fill in what they cannot explain.

These are relatively easy examples to share, but I am not claiming to be self-disclosing. The point is--I should know. But I forget. Indeed, this tendency is perhaps the besetting sin of shy people: we are constantly presuming to understand other people's reactions to us, as if we are uniquely capable of seeing disdain in the face of others.

Any such presumption fails profoundly to respect the differences between persons as well as the vexed problems of self-knowledge. None of us either owns or fully understands a single human being--least of all ourselves. The presumption that we can, and that we can make judgments on the basis of such knowledge, results in some of the subtlest and therefore most painful forms of cruelty available to otherwise civilized people.

Any confession of pain or weakness therefore demands the utmost compassion. We cannot purge our discourse of "offensive" language, since the number of offenses is infinite. But we can take seriously, and charitably, claims that one has indeed been offended, even if the source of that offense has been a source of joy for us. The practices and institutions that nourish one person always have the potential to wound someone else. That is how human power works.

So I will endeavor to be grateful to the psalmist, who had the courage to record resentment, despair, and unabashed demandingness of God. This courage enables us to speak these feelings aloud, under the protection of corporate recitation of scripture. And they can perhaps remind us that those beings of otherness to whom we pass the peace may truly be in need of it. As are we.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

On Plump Berries and Cruel Winters: Some Reflections on the Truths and Lies of Hedonism

"Why does everyone desire pleasure? We might think it is because everyone also aims at being alive." (Aristotle)

If it makes sense to speak of the expertise of a culture, and if our culture is expert at anything, it may appear that it must be expert at the pursuit of pleasure. In addition to all the traditional bases of sensual gratification--food, sex, mind-altering substances--we spend much of our time inventing new ones. Poor Aristotle never knew the joys of millions of musical pieces available at the touch of a button, or yelping one's way through a foreign city in search of exotic delights, or luxuriating in awe-inspiring cinematography. And I'm pretty sure that he never tried Scotch.

But if Aristotle is right--and on this I think he is--that desiring pleasure is essential to life, then we are all linked by this single interest, with one another, with our fellow citizens of whatever origin, and even with ancient Greek philosophers. Wouldn't it be reasonable, then, to evaluate our options, public and private, by considering how much pleasure they produce?

This simple logic is the logic of one form of utilitarianism. Its very simplicity holds out the promise for easy-decision making, fairness, and harmony among humankind, but unfortunately, it has a fatal flaw.

Our pleasures are not static. And they are not all equal, even when it comes to their capacity to sustain pleasure.

Indulge me in two examples. Sometime in the mid-aughts, I decided that it might be time to reconsider the eating habits that had just barely gotten me through part of my first three decades on earth, but which promised to make later middle age little fun indeed. I honestly don't remember what I was in the habit of eating for breakfast at this time, or even if I ate breakfast at all. But what would have sounded lovely to me, had I the time to prepare it, would have been a homemade buttermilk biscuit, with plenty of butter tucked inside of it to melt on the spot. But I soon learned that in the new, healthier language I was speaking, just a teaspoon of that butter would cost me as much as a whole cup of blueberries, or even more strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries.

I started eating a lot of berries. And I fell in love with them.

This was not a wholly new love, and it took little work to achieve. I had picked berries in Southern summers as a child, and I knew the joys of eating them straight off the vine or bush. But I had never before appreciated the way in which they pair beautifully with any number of other foods, the way in which they seem to capture the fire and the consolation of the sun, or the way in which they have what I called, in a whimsical moment, "plump beauty."

That biscuit with melted butter still sounds good to me, but there is now no way that I would choose it over a bowl of fresh berries.

The second case was more difficult. I have been running since my junior year in college, almost twenty years now. And for most of those two decades it has been a chore. Sometimes the chore has been rewarding: during a long struggle with chronic pain, the discovery that I could still run brought me a moment of exultation during a very dark time. But it has long been primarily duty that has forced me out the door.

Then, one day last year, I found myself in the park near my house in Southwestern Pennsylvania, slogging up the beginnings of the difficult hill that ends my running route, smiling. Somehow, gradually, this had become not just a duty, but a pleasure. I can say something about the nature of that pleasure--how it relates to the intimate connection with nature that one finds at certain odd hours of the day, how it arises from the playfulness of feeling one's body move rhythmically, how it sets one's thoughts free to wander in directionless yet productive patterns. But none of this would be sufficient. This pleasure is its own feeling, not to be defined in terms of other goods. And it is this pleasure that now takes away (at least most of) the resentment that I would otherwise feel at leaving the house when the wind chill is in the single (sometimes negative) digits, as it has been so often lately.

The intensity of both of these pleasures was a new discovery for me. How much more impoverished, then, are we choosing to make our lives, when we take our given pleasures to be determinative? Or when we focus on pleasures that everyone can share innately, because that seems easy or more marketable? Or when we take those pleasures simply for what they are in their most childish form, for much the same reason? No mature adult approaches the table with the same tastes that she had as a child or even adolescent; why would we approach music, art, reading, or even sex that way? We cannot truly be experts at pleasure if we assume that everyone is born with the relevant expertise. On such a paradigm, "expertise" becomes what Thomas Hobbes would call insignificant speech.

Aristotle knew this, of course. He goes on to discuss the way in which the activities we love will determine which pleasures we seek, and how pleasure will loop back onto those activities, reinforcing our love even more. Some of these activities promise short bursts of pleasure, some produce quick pleasure followed by enduring pain, and some offer sustained, joyful satisfaction. The path to the latter may be arduous, but the determined hedonist cannot be deterred by such inconveniences, when there is so much promise of plump beauty at the finish.