The reins of our brains

If you’re used to thinking of sin in terms of “culpability,” as specific and deliberate deeds, then focusing on thoughts can seem impossibly small. But if you think in terms of soul-sickness, of sin as a systemic corruption that marches on to death, then it makes sense to go to the root. That’s what a surgeon would do. We might wish that our faith would instead keep us happy and comfortable, but it’s when the surgeon says, “All we can do is keep her comfortable” that you’re really in trouble.

(Frederica Matthewes-Green, Welcome to the Orthodox Church, page 202)

One of the reasons I think Calvinism is a “good place to be from” is that Calvinist Tipsy realized that sin ran deeper than specific and deliberate deeds. It also ran into thoughtlessness, cluelessness, clouded intellects and even sin’s epiphenomenon of “social friction,” as when Paul and Barnabas had a falling out over John Mark.

But when I read “as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” I mis-translated it into “in any sustained battle between the imagination and the will, the imagination will eventually win.” I got that from C.S. Lewis, I believe. And I do believe it’s true. But the underlying attitude was “as a man thinketh in his heart, so does he deeds sooner or later.” That was the only way thoughts really mattered, thought Calvinist Tipsy. (Maybe I was just a lousy Calvinist.)

One of the reasons I think Orthodoxy is the place to abide is that it knows sin is “soul-sickness … a systemic corruption that marches on to death,” and that thoughts per se matter tremendously.

Some days, though, I wonder if I have reflexively taken guarding my thoughts a little too far.

I have been under the impression that cable and satellite Television had destroyed Television as one of our commonalities — one of the things you can safely broach at the “water cooler” (these days, the office Keurig machine) with a colleague you don’t know well enough to really open up to. The method of destruction: today’s twenty-person office dispersing at 5 pm and going home to watch 20 different, personally-interesting narrowcasts, as opposed to yesterday’s office going home to watch Cronkite and then Dallas — the drama or the Cowboys football team.

And I worried that, neither network TV nor the shopping mall (destroyed by Amazon) being a suitable agora any more, we were left bereft of even crappy commercial glue to hold us together.

But having “done lunch” with colleagues recently, it now seems as if there may have emerged certain “cable shows” that “everyone is watching,” contrary to my impression. I use the term “cable show” loosely; for all I know, they are Netflix or Amazon original content, viewed over an internet stream rather than cable TV. I can’t tell you the name of any of these current shows. I don’t watch them. The cultural allusions are lost on me.

It’s tempting to feel smug about that instead of thinking de gustibus non est disputandum, but what if

[p]urity . . . is not the one thing needful; and it is better that a life should contract many a dirt-mark, than forfeit usefulness in its efforts to remain unspotted[?]

(William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)  Should I risk being slimed by violence, sex, cynicism or whatever else might assault my imagination, all for solidarity’s sake?

Could I even pull it off, or would I sound like some Aspie trying to make small-talk? Am I an Aspie?

I spend orders of magnitude more time online than on television. I try to avoid both the repulsive and the seductive. Good luck with avoiding seductive on the internet, which is free because “you are the product,” and seduction is the whole point of “free.” But there’s Regular-Seductive (Hammacher-Schlemmer, The Grommet, Amazon, Apple) and then there’s Succubus-Seductive (sorry, I know they’re there, but wouldn’t name them if I could).

Heck, I generally stay away from even the more violent professional sports. It doesn’t seem right to enjoy men trying to knock each other unconscious, for instance.

Is that a virtue, or at least a para-virtue, or am I just being a prig?

One thing I can assure you: I’m not doing it so that I can virtue-signal “Oh, I wouldn’t know about that” when some pop culture topic comes up. Been there, done that, and felt pretty bad about it.

I really kind of wish I could understand what my compadres are watching. It seems benign enough. They are nice people, after all.

But then I see stuff like this (warning: page loads very slowly, but the link was valid Thursday) and this, and I wonder “where did that come from?!” The moral majority apparently is dead. Very dead.

One example of “moral issues” in a Gallup poll is birth control:

One of the six issues showing virtually no change is birth control. Opinions on this issue have been highly permissive since Gallup first asked about it in 2012, ranging between 89% and 91% finding it acceptable.

One of my liberalish Facebook friends wondered not only why the heavy focus on sex, but why birth control was even surveyed. But while I grok her question (I’m surprised it might be as low as 89%) I know enough history to know that 90 years ago, there was virtual Christian unanimity against birth control. It may say more about us, and about our susceptibility to Succubus-Seductive cultural shifts, that such a high proportion of us find the question itself jarring.

I’m open to argument on many things. But I don’t like bad notions insinuating their way into my head through back channels. So I’m careful about to whom I hand the reins of my brain. (As an Orthodox Christian, I should say “nous” instead of “brain,” but darned if I could rhyme that.)

Given my level of trust in the purveyors of popular media, I’d rather eat at the Ptomaine Café or get tattooed by troglodytes with dull needles than watch TV dramas, sitcoms and such with less than full, critical attention at all moments. And that (“Look! A squirrel!”) …

Where was I? Oh, yeah: that just isn’t likely to happen.

So I don’t think my parsimonious viewing habits are likely to change unless, by sheer force of will (and perhaps some technological reminders), I resume watching Major League Baseball as retirement (not quite here yet) frees up my afternoons.

They don’t have Hootchi-Cootchie Cheerleaders in MLB, do they?

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Escape from ennui

[A]s James Baldwin put it, Americans were “afflicted by the world’s highest standard of living and what is probably the world’s most bewilderingly empty way of life.”

(Pankaj Mishra, America, From Exceptionalism to Nihilism) That quote was new to me, though the thought was not. My “standing advice” at the end of each blog episode includes these:

The consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness. Lord Jonathon Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain.

I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilisation, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to. W.H. Auden, 1966.

Then I also read this today:

While the news waves groan with stories about “America’s Opioid Epidemic” you may discern that there is little effort to actually understand what’s behind it, namely, the fact that life in the United States has become unspeakably depressing, empty, and purposeless for a large class of citizens.

… None of the news reports or “studies” done about opioid addiction will challenge or even mention the deadly logic of Wal Mart and operations like it that systematically destroyed local retail economies (and the lives entailed in them.) The news media would have you believe that we still value “bargain shopping” above all other social dynamics. In the end, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

(James Howard Kunstler)

But one of the odd blogs I find irresistible is Granola Shotgun. “Johnny” populates his blog with loads of photos and sparse commentary. Most recent:

At the end of my first year at university I was approached by an engineering student who asked if he could be my room mate next year. We didn’t know each other particularly well and didn’t have much in common, but he seemed harmless enough. I shrugged. Sure. We went our separate ways over the summer and in September he appeared at my door. After a few months of successfully sharing accommodations I asked him why he came to me when most guys in his situation would have gone in a very different direction. He explained.

The average college freshman tends to have an adolescent understanding of what a good independent life might be like. Young men are motivated by peculiar impulses and the siren song of the frat house calls. Beer. Parties. Girls. Sports cars. The prestige of hanging out with rich kids, athletes, and really popular older guys. He said that was usually a big mistake. The furniture is made of plastic milk crates. The place smells like a locker room. People eat ramen and cold day old pizza out of the box. They wear flip flops in the shower because no one has ever cleaned the bathroom. Ever. And when you bring a girl home there are a dozen bigger richer guys with fancier cars than you hovering around. You sit there trying to get your romance on with posters of naked women taped to the walls next to a collection of empty bottles. And you pay extra for all this… It’s just not a great situation.

Then he made a sweeping motion with his hand indicating our apartment. A pleasing mixture of antiques and modern pieces. Smells like lemons. When he brings a girl home I’m in the kitchen cooking brisket and home made bread. Soft lighting. Ella Fitzgerald is playing in the background. No competition. And it’s cheaper. For him, doing the unorthodox and socially uncomfortable thing was just… rational. [Yup. That sounds like an engineer’s approach to the world. Tipsy]

Back to Springfield. Steve [and Liz Shultis] took a version of the same strategy. He and his family live in a gracious four story French Second Empire mansion. The place is huge and everywhere you look there’s a level of detail and quality you can’t find in any home built today. There’s a legal apartment on the lower level that they use as a guest suite.  I looked up the address on a real estate listing site and he paid less for this house than many people spend on their cars. His family has a quality of life and a degree of financial freedom that none of his suburban piers (sic) can comprehend.

Most people load themselves up with massive amounts of debt in order to live the way they believe they’re supposed to. You wouldn’t want to put your kids in a substandard urban school with the wrong element. You wouldn’t want to buy a house that never appreciated in value. You wouldn’t want to have to explain to your friends, family, and co-workers that you live in a slum with poor black people and Puerto Ricans. And where do you park?! It’s so much “better” to soak yourself in debt to buy your way in to the thing you believe you can’t live without.

Pretty dry without the pictures, I’ll admit. But go check the original, The Springfield Strategy. That four story French Second Empire mansion is pretty amazing. Sample:

From their own blog, it appears that Steve & Liz (perhaps Steve and his ex) actually did raise children, now adults, in that urban environment, though the children are not visible or mentioned in Johnny’s story.

I don’t want to romanticize, let alone make a panacea of, a good, walkable and sociable living environment, but it appears (scroll on down the long page) that the urban dwellers of Springfield, Massachusetts may have escaped some aspects of the “bewilderingly empty way of life.”

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.