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.

Sunday, 7/10/16

I’m numb. I don’t think I’m alone.

The police shootings. The police shot. Too little time to think things through. Life to live. Family to visit.

The Facebook mêmes and (especially) the Tweets ring false and partisan. Maybe “tribal” is a better word. They don’t help make sense of it. Not really.

Then this luminous essay arrives from two blocks away from the Dallas police shootings. I already shared it on social media, commending it strongly. But then I re-read it and need to excerpt and comment a bit.

In a piece that generally doesn’t single out anyone for shame, this stuck out:

Each of the major presidential candidates is so divisive that it’s a blessing neither of them chose to visit. It’s also very sad: presidential election opponents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, even George W. Bush and Al Gore, could have (and probably would have) changed their plans and made an appearance in Dallas, after the worst strike against law enforcement in more than 100 years. This year, neither of the candidates has any place preaching healing or unity.

That’s a tragic benchmark.

The real split, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn knew, runs not between parties, races or religions. It’s the line that divides the human heart itself …

How bizarre it is to see a violent rampage on a monitor and recognize all the street signs, landmarks, storefronts … because all of it is still happening just two blocks down the street. When I finally walked the dog, my super warned me to make it brief: “There’s a least one active shooter still at large.” Uh, yeah, we made it brief.

… [U]ltimately, it isn’t the conflict between one group and another that causes chaos. In a lily-white society like 1930s Germany, or an all-black republic like 1990s Rwanda, we will still find sufficient divisions to make us hate each other, if that’s where our hearts incline. And incline there they will, if we don’t push back continually against the powerful currents that otherwise sweep us along — the world, the flesh and the devil.

The real split, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn knew, runs not between parties, races or religions. It’s the line that divides the human heart itself, between what we’re inclined to do because it is easy and obvious, and what our conscience tells us instead.

Every last little piece of the social chaos that feeds the crime that draws the cops, who fear for their lives and sometimes panic with tragic results, was born on the wrong side of that line ….

We cannot stay on the right side of Solzhenitsyn’s line. Not by ourselves. What unites us is our helplessness, our absolute need for Grace, which only comes in one color — the deep, rich red that flowed from the Cross.

Thank you, John Zmirak, and thank you Paul Cella for calling it to my attention.

* * * * *

“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Fear and Scorn

The cypress is green in both summer and winter …
Beware … of two sins: fearing sinners and scorning sinners. For your greenness will vanish like the greenness of a willow … And your humility will become arrogance. And sinners will call your their namesakes.
You who are righteous: sin is weakness, and to be afraid of sinners is to be afraid of weaklings. A sinner is terrified of the dead righteous man within himself, and twice as terrified of a living righteous man outside himself.

You who are righteous, sin is a sickness, and to despise sinners is to scorn the sick. He who gives of His own health to the sick, multiplies his own health. Scorning sinners undermines the health of one who is healthy.
Sin sits at the table of those who are afrid to sit at the table of a sinner. Sin enters the home of those who are afraid to enter the home of a sinner. Whoever turns back from his way, in order to avoid meeting a sinner, returns home laden with sin.

O compassionate Heavenly Mother of God, protect all those who have set out on the way of righteousness, lest they fear sinners and lest they scorn sinners.
Lest their fear make them God-betrayers, and lest their scorning of sinners make them manslayers.
Lest their quasi-righteousness be merely a pinnacle, from which they will fall even further downward to their destruction.

St. Nicolai Velemirovich, Prayers by the Lake, Prayer LXXX