I have been asked to deliver a sermon to the Unitarian Universalist Church my family attends at some point in the near future. I think this message--or some variation of it--is what I'm going to use.
I still don't know what to make of mankind, or 'manunkind' as e.e. cummings called us. George Carlin correctly identified the twin poles in our nature when he called his second book 'Napalm and Silly Putty'. On the one hand, we are capable of great levity, leisure, and gentle innocence. On the other, we have made chemicals that can burn the skin off of young children, and sear the lungs of anyone who breathes it.
Let's dispense with gods right from the start: we are alone here. Thankfully. We are condemned to freedom, as Sartre proclaimed, and there could be no fairer business. So this world is really what we make it, and oh, what we have made it.
We have in the U.S. a social system that turns human beings into appendages of the means of production, strips from them their ability to see in themselves and their fellow mean that we are all 'ends unto ourself', and prevents us from self actualizing. Capitalism is a great and vicious machine that must always be moving, and it is fueled by the churning out of alienated human bodies.
On the other hand, look at the human response to this calamitous system: we have social workers, faith groups, and individuals compelled by pity to treat their fellow man--their fellow sufferers as Schopenhauer would put it--with great kindness. It is moving to see the activity of human hands motivated by human hearts that have managed to pry themselves from the sheer requirements of surviving in this law of the jungle society we inhabity. I am constantly touched by a decency that seems to reside somewhere beneath the loads of paperwork, dirty laundry, and self flagellation that piles itself up on top of the typical American spirit. I see it daily in the work I do at the shelter I work at. The little old lady who makes sure our tables always have fresh flowers on them. The volunteers who come into our shelter during the winter to take care of the feet of our residents and give them new shoes. The children who come in to help their parents serve meals, who put smiles on many life-hardened faces. I am an unwavering atheist, but I have been touched by the various faith groups who have come into our shelter in various capacities to lift the spirits and the standard of living for our residents.
Let me go back to Schopenhauer for a minute. I feel like I'm in danger of over-quoting this excerpt, but it really has moved me and stayed with me. It has moved me so much in fact, that I named my Chihuahua after the great pessimistic philosopher, which--if you know what Schopenhauer's relationship with dogs was--is not the backhanded compliment it may seem to be.
"The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instil in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? From this point of view one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur sir, but fellow sufferer, compagnon de misereres. However strange this may sound, it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forebearance, and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes."Amen and amen. We are all born into this world screaming and frightened, naked and dependant. We die as alone as we do together, and as Hamlet observes in the graveyard, the worms feed upon the corpses of kings and popes as easily as they do those of peasants. In between, we make choices, choices which have been limited for us by our genetics, or circumstances, and the degree to which we accept and internalize our social conventions and taboos. We are a superstitious species, and we cling to certainty and treat inquiry as something of an extreme sport.
We kill one another. We leave 'the least among us' to die, to remain unsupported, to roll the stone of their lives forever up and down the mountainside. We leave our potential untapped, we fail to truly see each other, to love each other, to embrace each other. We take our angers and frustration out on the people we love the most.
But we also make love. We dance, we help, we create art. We listen. We share. We do things 'for the hell of it', which is the best reason of all to do anything. We are patient. We are kind. We practice "tolerance, forebearance, and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes".
We're not far out of the trees, and death is an inconvenient book end. If anything, that obelisk that stands at the end of each of our individual book shelves (I like to imagine that some of our shelves are composed of cook books, some photography, some literature, some pulp, some technical and instructional manuals, and some vast collections of pornography), should spur us on to do something, even if that something is only to read faster.
I don't know what to do with these different manifestations of the animal called man. I can see both seeds--the napalm and the silly putty--in my own character. I can feel them both very fully at different times, and at different times can take solace in both.
I wish I could end this piece on a more declarative note, but above all in my writing, I aim for honesty. So let's stop here.
CROSS POSTED AT EVERYTHING IN THE MEDICINE CABINET HAS EXPIRED.