Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Simplify, Simplify

(Continued from previous post)

But despite the grave flaws in Thoreau's philosophy, there are precious nuggets of sound doctrine and timeless truth in his writings. Take, for example, his favorite motto, "Simplify, simplify," a message that the bewilderingly complex modern world would do well to heed. Most of us, most of the time are far too busy for our own good. Allow me to quote from the biography of Thoreau in the book I am reading: "He believed that civilization creates artificial needs, that luxuries become necessities, that men hurry forward in a feverish existence until they lose all purpose in life." (Roy J. DeFerrari et al, ed., American Literature, Seton Press, 1998) Isn't this true of us today? We work so hard for so many years just to make a profit so that we can buy more and more material things that we want, and as a result our whole goal in life becomes to satisfy our never-ending whims and desires. This vicious circle leads to weariness and feelings of emptiness and unhappiness, even to the point where "life is not worth living." The successful billionaire CEO materialist finds to his bitter disappointment that his life has no meaning. Why? Because God created us for more than just material things. He designed our lives for a spiritual purpose, and therefore only spiritual goods--love of God and love of neighbor--can make us truly happy on earth.

But how do we love God? One way we can do this is to enjoy the gifts He has given us, such as the beauty of nature. Thoreau was correct in his appreciation for this gift, which moved him to build a small home amid natural surroundings. I wouldn't recommend living perpetually in the wild as Thoreau did, and most of us couldn't even if we wanted to. However, we can all take a little time now and then to enjoy some natural beauty, and often we don't have to go far from home to find it. It might be a fishing trip to a nearby lake, a nature trail hike, a vacation to a national park or even a birdwatching session in your own backyard. Whatever it is, an experience of God's creation always leaves us with a sense of awe and wonder; it refreshes our spirit; and it refocuses our attention on what matters most in life. We come to realize the truth that God's creation is more important and meaningful than our handheld video games or the milion and one things we can do with our iPhone. Man-made products should improve, complement and enhance our lives, not turn into replacements for what God has made.

One way we can love our neighbor is by sharing some of our excess money and goods with those who are less fortunate. This is where charitable and humanitarian agencies, cordially despised by Thoreau, come in. From the local food pantry to diocesan relief programs to the Missionaries of Charity and Catholic Relief Services to the Boy and Girl Scouts, Red Cross, other Christian charities and even nonreligious organizations such as the Relay for Life, charitable institutions play a very important role in society. They enable those who have everything they need and then some to help those who lack even the basic necessities. Furthermore, many for-profit corporations are now donating a share of their income to programs that benefit people in the poorest parts of the globe. The key to loving your neighbor in this way is to realize that you do not need everything you have or wish to have, and then you find yourself free to give some of that to another person. If instead of unlimited greed and materialism we learned to set limits for ourselves and be content with less, our human civilization would be very different and our world would be a much happier place.

A tantalizing glimpse of this next best thing to paradise on earth is available in the award-winning film Into Great Silence. This intrepid two-hour masterpiece from German film director Philip Groning takes you inside a cloistered Carthusian monastery situated high in the French Alps. The monks who inhabit this enclosure live according to the most strict rule for a Catholic religious order in the world, which demands rigorous lives of prayer, work and contemplation, with conversation virtually prohibited altogether and no CD players, radio, TV or visitors. Yet in spite of their "stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life" (Thoreau), the monks are happy, as evidenced by their laughter during Sunday recreation and their playful games in the winter snow. Why? Because the monks possess spiritual treasure in their exalted love of God and neighbor. Moreover, the movie itself is almost exclusively a succession of candid scenes as it contains no music, no digital special effects, no discernible plot, no explanations of mysterious scenes, almost no dialogue and, as the title suggests, a bare minimum of sound. Yet this film somehow managed to pack theaters across Europe and also has enjoyed significant popularity in the United States. Why? For the same reason the monks are happy: because materialism has failed to satisfy people even in the modern age, leaving them empty and hungry for spiritual goods. Into Great Silence is truly a feast for the spirit that satisfies their hunger.

In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life such as the clouds and
storms and quicksands and thousand and one items to be allowed for, that a man
has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port
at all, by dead reckoning; and he must be a great calculator indeed who
succeeds. Simplify, simplify. --Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, September 10, 2009

...Such As Literature

After four posts about my book and three about health care reform, it's a pleasure to introduce a new subject to my blog, that of literature. Last night, I was browsing through an old collection of American literature when I came upon some selections from Henry David Thoreau. This unusual writer offers a good example of what happens when a person overreacts to one extreme by swinging to the other. Thoreau was painfully aware of the evils of his day in social institutions, politics, and American society in general, but his response was to withdraw from society altogether and become a hermit on the shore of Walden Pond. This reaction was based on Thoreau's own pessimistic philosophy of life and his excessive distrust of human nature. Human nature is indeed weak, but Thoreau went so far as to assert that no human organization or group was of any value or could contribute any real benefit to humanity.

Such a cynical view is incompatible with Christianity. The Christian believes that Jesus, by the power of his Cross and Resurrection, has adopted us as his sons and daughters and shared with us the power of His Grace, so that we can build a society of true love and faithful service to one another. While the Christian fully realizes that human nature is still weakened due to the effects of original sin, and that these effects have led and will always lead to disorders in society, he hears the voice of God constantly calling him to participate in society precisely to remedy the evils that are present there. We each have a responsibility to work for the common good and for the reform and strengthening of social and civic institutions so they can better fulfill their missions.

Now, I'd like to point out that Thoreau's reaction of abandoning society to its wickedness is fundamentally different from when a person chooses to enter a cloistered convent or a monastery. The Christian who follows God's call to religious life is not turning his back on the cruel world and sardonically wishing it good luck. On the contrary, he is convinced that he and his fellow members of the religious community can do the world even more good by a life of prayer and sacrifice than if they were out in the world. Then a mysterious thing happens. The closer they come to God, the closer monks and nuns are spiritually to all their brothers and sisters outside. And God works through their prayers to bring spiritual blessings to people all over the world.

(To be continued)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Just A Footnote, And Then On To Other Things

I'd like to add a brief footnote to my previous post about the U.S. health care debacle. In this article, I explained that the massive public scrutiny being given to our government's health care reform effort is due to the Obama administration's agenda to increase federal funding of and expand public access to abortion. This is certainly a major reason for this scrutiny, as a result of the fine public awareness efforts of Cardinal Justin Rigali and our Catholic bishops. However, I neglected to fully account for the massive public opposition to President Obama's health care plan expressed at town hall meetings across the country in recent weeks. The foremost reason why Americans are rejecting the health care bills is that they would have to pay for them--and right now, they can't even afford to pay their existing taxes.

We Americans don't want a system of socialized medicine. Yet our Democratic representatives in the House, Senate and White House have been attempting to build just such a system by marketing it to us as "reform" of the current system. However, the American people are not fools. They understand that a government-run health care system costs money. The hundreds of millions and billions of dollars that federal health care would cost is going to have to come from somewhere. Where will it come from if not from the pockets of the American people and their children and grandchildren? In the long run, the only way to support any new federal government program is through tax increases. The economy is on eggshells as it is. If the Obama administration dares to raise taxes on the American people, the economy will grind to a halt.

Of course, many Americans have fortunately wised up to the fact that Democrats (before elections) routinely talk about lowering taxes, and then (after election) break those promises and raise taxes. I would like to ask President Obama: Where is the tax cut you promised for 95 percent of working families? Before election, then-Senator Obama remarked that "the folks out on Main Street" need a hand, and government should extend them a hand with a stimulus package. That much-vaunted stimulus package appears to have instead been a temporary stimulus for Wall Street. Sorry, but I and most other Americans would rather have the government extend us a real, true helping hand--not the greedy open hand of Uncle Sam, but a hand in the form of generous and permanent tax cuts.

One year ago, then-Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin said:
We do need tax relief and Barack Obama even supported increasing taxes as
late as last year [2007] for those families making only $42,000 a year. That's a
lot of middle income average American families to increase taxes on them. I
think that is the way to kill jobs and to continue to harm our economy.

I couldn't agree more, and I think this statement rings even truer now.

Americans in general are opposed to abortion, but they are more strongly opposed to any expansion of it, and they are overwhelmingly against it when it is to be funded with their own hard-earned tax dollars.

My next post will be about a different topic--I promise!