His senses are deluged by a million inputs. Ninty-three million miles away, the sun blasts away at him with a fury unimaginable. Ninty-three feet away a woman in a T-shirt with an illegible logo walks a dog roughly the same color as that sun. A mile away a throng of parents cheer their children on a baseball field. No doubt someone is rounding third and will find themselves the hero of the game. A few hundred feet away scores upon scores of birds chirp away, driven by their own libidos, seeking partners, claiming territory, fending off invaders in a raucous calliope of twittering. A biker arrives from a ride, legs strong and sinewy. He dismounts and knocks confidently on his lover’s door. She smiles and they embrace. He confidently strolls inside. Another man walks a pair of dogs. Was a single animal not companion enough or did he inherit the pet of his new-found mate? A woman arrives home from work, struggling to carry in her groceries. It’s a pity she has no one to help her. The dusky evening is caressed by human chatter. Somewhere, people are talking. Suddenly a couple appears, walking hand in hand. They make their way through the twittering birds, the waning sunshine, oblivious to everything but the other’s hand in their own. The clouds glide along unconcerned. The trees to the west claw at the last remnants of the sunset.
The birds, the people, they all might as well be as far away as the sunset. Ninty-three million miles away or a few feet, it makes no difference. His heart swells with love, yearning to break free and embrace all of mankind. He longs to have someone to care for and share his world with. He looks out on the world and wonders why he has earned such a spot. Why the rest of humanity is cut off from him by an invisible wall. Why no matter which way he turns his nose bumps into an invisible barrier not of his making and beyond his understanding. Why is someone who is so capable of love and caring so incapable of being loved or cared about? The clouds drift by without compassion. The couple returns from their walk to taunt him with their closeness. Neighbors return home, exchanging the pleasantries of friendship, “yeah, right, dickweed!”, “you can suck it!”
He is amazed at how these phrases can denote friendship. They are not his way. He must always be polite, respectful. Perhaps this is the wall that separates him from them. If not this, then perhaps he merely thinks too deeply. Instead of gazing skyward at the million, winking stars that slide in and out from behind the remnants of the dusk’s clouds he needs to focus on the earth between his feet and remain firmly grounded there. No, no, perhaps he is too focused on the earth between his feet and needs to look out and about more. Show more interest in those around him, push himself gently into their lives, contribute to their happiness in some way. But no, that is too aggressive; he must wait quietly for fate to work its magic. He must not push lest people think him desperate.
Indeed, the simplest truth may be simply that some things are meant to be and some things are not. Some fish are meant to swim in the midst of huge and varied schools while some are meant to live remote and solitary lives. If they’re lucky, they find at least one other to share their lives before they leave this world. The true measure of a man has little to do with the company he keeps. Often it is those who have no one to love who are the most capable of loving. It is the fish in the solitary bowl who most needs a companion.
Is there any more intimidating entity in the entire cosmos than a blank sheet of paper? That big, white expanse is laying there staring up at you with all its potential just oozing off at the corners. What appears on that paper next relies entirely on your skill as a poet, an author, a commentator, an artist. Properly addressed, that paper could become the greatest work of literature that the human race has ever seen. It could, at your hand, become the most delightful work of art yet known to mankind. The very problems of humanity could melt away in rapturous applause and universal adulation if only you could find the RIGHT thing to put on that FUCKING PIECE OF BLANK PAPER!
But of course you don’t. You prattle on endlessly about lost loves or loves most fervently hoped for or the bit of undercooked sausage that you had for dinner that might later turn into a tapeworm. You’ll scribble indolently for a few moments, realize that the proportions of the head and the torso just aren’t QUITE right and then resign yourself to imperfection and toss your work into the trash. What was such potential mere minutes ago is now nothing more than an angular heap of folds of paper. If you’re extremely lucky, perhaps the parabola which your work traces between your hand and the trash can will be deemed elegant by the gods of aesthetics. But even if that is so it doesn’t really matter.
It’s not the gods who are really important. Those Olympian icons of heavenly perfection are irrelevant. No, what’s really important, what really drives us to spill the results of our imperfect, randomly-firing synapses onto that piece of paper, to spoil all that potential is, in fact, the thoughts of a million other imperfect, randomly-firing synapses. All art, all acts of creation are fundamentally acts of narcissism. We spill out our words and our pictures not to please the gods, not to achieve perfection, not to solve the world’s problems but to bring ourselves into the worlds of more people. Whether we write, or draw, or sing, we do it so that we don’t feel quite so tiny, so small, so insignificant. Every person who knows we exist makes us just the tiniest bit bigger.
So in a way, each work of mankind is about success; and each work of mankind is about failure. We succeed in that we expand our worlds just ever so slightly by each life that we touch. We fail in that what we create, what we call into existence at our bidding is so much less than the potential of what we started out with. Though one may write a million words on a million pages, though one may surpass Shakespeare and Dickens and Tolstoy if one works at it long enough and hard enough, whatever one writes will pale in comparison to the potential of what could have been, what might have been on that blank sheet of paper.
In Genesis chapter 22, God commands Abraham, who had no small difficulty having a child at all, to take his son Isaac to the top of a mountain and slit his throat. Abraham doesn’t ask why and no doubt it wouldn’t have done him any good to have asked anyway. God always has his –reasons-. Luckily for Isaac, God sent an angel at the last minute to stop the sacrifice but it still begs the question of WHY you would put someone through such an ordeal. Especially someone who has been as faithful as Abraham.
A few short millennia later I’m watching the morning news and who should grace my vision but a poor child in a wheelchair. She’s the victim of a debilitating condition that will probably take her life before she reaches adulthood. As the reporter is talking to her she pipes up that she’s not sad that she’s this way. God made her this way –for a reason-. Again, here’s the Christian God with his undisclosed –reasons-. What POSSSIBLE justification could there be for purposefully allowing a child to suffer in this way? What chain of causal events could be so beneficial to the world that it would justify a human soul trapped for an entire lifetime in a fragile and decaying body this way? I’m sure that God has his –reasons-.
It endlessly amazes me that we hold the character of God up to such different standards than we apply to ourselves. If a mad scientist came to us and said that he could improve the world in some unspecified way if he were just allowed to inject 10 children with drugs that would cripple them for life, would we let him? Perhaps we would if those were children from some other country since we seem to put a much lower value on those but 10 random American children? Would we? Of course we wouldn’t. There would be rioting in the streets. Would there be any reason that could be given? Would we cripple 10 children to save 100? To save 1000? To feed every starving person in Africa? To educate every ignorant yokel in Appalachia to the point that they could actually spell Appalachia? I doubt it. There is no reason, no objective, that would be good enough to satisfy our combined moral outrage. Yet when God, in his –infinite- wisdom, strikes down a child for no discernable reason we all just nod and say, -he has his reasons-.
No, what it really boils down to is that we don’t understand it and, like every other facet of religion, we rely on the perceived –wisdom- of God as a comfort for our outrage. Truth is, there’s no excuse for it. If God really pulls this shit for some reason then he’s a jerk. Plain and simple. It’s much easier for us to simply shrug it off and say that we can’t –possibly- understand God ‘cuz we’re just too frickin’ stoopid but that if we did then we’d all nod and make the same sad decision ourselves.
Is the alternative hypothesis to this really so horrible? Say for a moment that God exists but that he doesn’t bother himself with every meaningless triviality in the cosmos. Sure, he’s helping NFL receivers catch touchdown passes but he’s not intimately involved in the exact reproductive configuration of every pair of Kentucky cousins who choose to settle down and bring up some yungins. As a consequence, mistakes happen. Chromosomes get lost or shuffled around and defects in the system crop up from time to time but on the whole the human species manages to procreate just fine. Under this system God is not a jerk so much as he is merely careless. Perhaps he just hadn’t yet had his morning coffee. I don’t know about you but I’d much prefer to live with someone who’s a bit of a grump and a smidge careless before he (or she) has had their morning coffee than with someone who clearly has it out for me and has omnipotence to back it up.
In pouring over The Literary Digest over the past few months, one of the things that strikes me is just how little and yet how much things change over the years. Take, for example, this political cartoon from the November 1911 edition:
In it, we see President Taft depicted as a fat, round ball being rolled about in a maze. Most certainly he was our heftiest President but did he deserve this kind of abuse? It’s one thing to make fun of Bush because he can’t pronounce simple words but if we had a fat president today or one with any sort of impairment at all would we be so gratuitous about it? More to the point perhaps, would such a man even stand a chance in our more connected age? Remember, this was in a time before television and radio.
It’s also amusing to note just how far women have come in the past 100 years. This is the time of the suffragette, remember and such comments as “twelve women cannot be counted upon to agree about anything” are rife in the press. Any paper today making this claim would find itself the object of more than a bit of negative press. Even more amusing is the topics about which the press seems to concern itself. Note at the bottom of the first column in the page referred to above that there’s “cause for alarm” because the women on the jury were allowed to keep their hats on. The continuation of the complaint indicating that a man on such a mixed jury of would be “lucky to retain his scalp” because of all the hatpins in use in the jury box. Ladies, you have come a long way since 1911.
By far the best part of these old publications is the “Science and Invention” section. I’m relatively certain that the “open-air” telescope idea never quite made it off the ground. The article on railway sanitation is an eye-opening one. We tend to forget, I think, in our concern over greenhouse gases just how dirty a prospect traveling was a mere 100 years ago. The article following that one must make any modern photographer smile. This was a day even before film when photographs were taken on photographic plates with the standard size being 4 inches by 5. The section goes on to talk about the reclassification of spiders, advances in farming and a few other random topics.
One of the most amusing aspects of the Digest is it’s advertising. Since its primary audience was the exceptionally rich most of its ads are thus appropriately targeted. Your grandparents probably recalled the ubiquitous Victrola:
But you’d probably have to go back to your great-grandparents to find anyone who ever drove a Haynes (built in Kokomo, Indiana):
But many of these products are still around more or less in their original form…
But you wouldn’t see some of these on the back of Better Homes and Gardens, that’s for sure…
Those interested can read the entire issue of the magazine in digital format on my Picassa page.