At the end of the bar, I saw old Mason Snyder sitting in his semi-usual ruminating funk, so I decided to slide my beer down there to here him out and see if we could repair the world a bit together.
After asking why the long face, Mase said, “Last week, I saw a study that broke down the average life expectancy in all the States and the spot with the longest living residents–at 85 years–was in some Colorado ski resort area, while the shortest are in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, where on average, people there can expect to live to age 67,” Mase said.
“Beyond the obvious disparity, is that what’s pissing you off so much?” I asked.
Mase had a long pull on his Bud, took a deep breath and said, “I saw some news bunny ask if the lives of Oglala Lakota County residents there were so short there because they died of boredom out there in the high plains.”
“Uh oh,” I said, knowing the righteous wrath coming in three, two,….
“Yeah, honey, the type of boredom that sets in where you have no prospects to change your life from the grinding poverty of being members of families who’ve essentially been prisoners of war for a century and a half. The type of boredom that drives people to drink and drug themselves into oblivion because they lost the home version of the Manifest Destiny game show. The type of boredom that causes kids on the Pine Ridge Reservation to kill themselves at a ridiculously high rate,” Mase said in his indignant and borderline angry tone when he talked about the treatment of America’s native people.
“That’s pretty tragic,” I said, feeling both sad and guilty watching Mase, who was of mixed Navaho and German heritage, take another gulp of his beer and the breath to go on.
“Oh, and by the way, Miss Talking Hairdo, that average life expectancy was for the whole of Oglala Lakota County, where the numbers just a few years ago for Pine Ridge Reservation residents only were 52 years for women and fuckin’ 48 for men– 48 years of age and done,” Mase said, spun on his stool and stalked out the bar entrance.
“What the hell was Big Chief Bottom-of-the-Bottle going on about?” Charlie the bartender asked me in the wake of Mase’s diatribe on the mistreatment of red folks by the sorry-ass Great White (absentee) Father over the years.
“C’mon we’re as guilty as any White Americans in not doing enough–or anything–to help these fellow Americans live better, safer, healthier lives,” I said in my own Mase-stoked righteously indignant tone.
“Yeah, well you tell him for me if he–and you, for that matter–expects to get his firewater in my joint anymore, he’d better keep it down or, better yet, take his whiny shit to some liberal fern bar, ’cause us real Americans don’t want to hear it,” Charlie said, flipping the channel from the fifth inning in Cleveland of another one-sided Mets matinee loss over to Fox News Channel.
In the four-year history of TheBeZine, this is the most significant edition.All of our concerns – peace, environmental sustainability, human rights, freedom of expression – depend on a more equal distribution of wealth, on making sure no one goes hungry and on breaking-down barriers to employment, healthcare, education and racial and gender equity.
This pyramid (courtesy of Wikipedia) reveals that:
half of the world’s wealth belongs to the top 1%,
top 10% of adults hold 85%, while the bottom 90% hold the remaining 15% of the world’s total wealth,
top 30% of adults hold 97% of the total wealth.
We’re all cognizant of that profile, but if you feel you’re sitting pretty and you’re not at risk, you’re employed, educated and middle class after all, you’d be well-advised to reconsider. The middle class is now – and has been for some time – dramatically challenged to find work, to acquire jobs that are fairly paid, offer stability and reasonable hours, and in the U.S., enable them to send their children to college.
The implications of a concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the oligarchs and mega-corporations, are horrendous. Not the least is the undermining of democracy. Those who vote for and support the oligarchs because they think that’s where their security lies are victims of propaganda and bound for disappointment. The shadow of catastrophe (not too strong a word) that hangs over us is not due to the poor or the “other” who doesn’t look like us, worship the same God, or speak the same language, but to the 1%. Huxley was disconcertingly prescient.
This month our core team and guest contributors create a picture that beckons and behoves us to abandon stereotypes and propaganda about the poor, to recognize slave labor in its most absolute terms (human trafficking and prison labor) and more subtly in the conditions faced by workers at almost all levels of the corporate pyramid. We are called to ethically source the products we buy, to study our history, to bravely speak out against injustice and stupidity and, by implication, to shine a light on best-practices, those programs, services and unofficial efforts in your city/town, region or country that are helping and that can easily be implemented anywhere in the world. (You can share these with everyone via our Facebook discussion group.)
Beginning with Juli’s impassioned editorial, The Exponential Demise of Our Well-being, and moving to our BeAttitudes: John Anstie’s powerful Dictators and Desperadoes … Delegation and Democracy; Corina Ravenscraft’s and Trace Lara Hentz’ thoughtful invitations to awareness; Phillip T. Stephens on prison injustice; Sue Dreamwalker’s encouragement to see the homeless as fully human (and she connects us with homeless poets and artists in England); and Joe Hesch’s honest exploration of self, we are called to responsibly participate in history.
We present a memoir from Renee Espriu and a short story from Joe Hesch this month. These are followed by yet another stellar poetry collection from poets around the world, including work by core-team members: Charles W. Martin and John Anstie.
New to our pages, a warm welcome to: Juli [Juxtaposed], Sue Dreamwalker, Michael Odiah, Evelyn Augusto, Michele Riedele, Irene Emmanuel and bogpan. We welcome work from among our previous and regular contributors: Paul Brookes, Trace Lara Hentz, Renee Espriu, Sonja Benskin Mescher, Denise Fletcher, Phillip T. Stephens, R.S. Chappell, Rob Cullen and Mark Heathcote.
In the spirit of peace, love (respect) and community
and on behalf of The Bardo Group Beguines, Jamie Dedes, Founding and Managing Editor, The BeZine
HUNGER, POVERTY and THE WORKING CLASS AS SLAVE LABOR
How to read this issue of THE BeZINE:
Click HERE to read the entire magazine by scrolling, or
You can read each piece individually by clicking the links in the Table of Contents.
To learn more about our guests contributors, please link HERE.
To learn more about our core team members, please link HERE.
By this point in the 2016 presidential campaign, it has become something of a cliché to compare the candidacies of both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and all the turmoil, often violent, surrounding the former’s campaign rallies, to the spawning of the monster in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Progressives and people to the left side of the political spectrum sometimes joke that such comparisons actually insult Frankenstein’s monster. But by concentrating exclusively on Trump and Cruz and the perennial freak show of the lunatic right, the comparison misses the larger point that the real Frankenstein monster – the monster that ultimately gestated Trump, Cruz, the Great Recession, and their attendant pathologies– is contemporary capitalism itself. I emphasize contemporary capitalism deliberately, because the adjective “contemporary” is absolutely critical: the capitalism to which we have all-too-rapidly become accustomed is not capitalism as it existed in the few Administrations immediately following the Second World War. That capitalism – roughly speaking, the capitalism of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson years – was, comparatively speaking, a “kinder, gentler capitalism” than the system fortuitously denoted by the “c-word” today. To paraphrase an advertising slogan: This is not your parents’ capitalism.
Now, before we go any farther and commit the criminal offense of misdemeanor sociology by over-idealizing what those years were like, I should back up a step or two and acknowledge that, no, the largesse of those supposed halcyon days by no means included everyone. Yes, the middle class was growing … but mostly the white, male, heterosexual middle class. Yes, home ownership was burgeoning … but mostly only for white, heterosexual families (and also in large measure because of the GI Bill to assist veterans, a measure a hard-right GOP Congress might well refuse to fund today, for fear of nurturing a “culture of dependency”). (The term “homosexual family” would have been considered as oxymoronic as “two-sided triangle”.) Yes, Dinah Shore sang her theme song – which I am old enough to remember – “See … the … U … SA in your Chev … ro-let … “ But you had to be able to afford a Chevy, which many people in that ostensible golden age of the American economy could not. This was also the time of the germinating civil rights movement; the schoolchild “duck-and-cover” time when we believed that the Nation could be annihilated in a half-hour – and when, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it nearly was; when schools were segregated … as Gov. Orval Faubus vowed they always would be in Arkansas; when registering black people to vote could be, in some cases was, worth your life, etc., etc., etc. But, that said, the fact remains that for some Americans – by no means all, but for a number unprecedented in world history – the middle class was, not just growing, but thriving … so much so that, in our optimism, we even coined a phrase for the coming of Camelot and the Kennedy era: “the Soaring Sixties”. Remember that?
So what happened? I like to think of it in terms of an analogy with biological evolution. A Reader’s Digest-condensed version of biological evolution, basically the skeleton of Darwin’s original theory, the first edition of which was published in 1859, says that as changes occur in an organism’s phenotype via random mutations in its genotype, the environment acts on the resulting mutated organism to determine whether the organism lives or dies. (Darwin had only the crudest conception — something called “pangenesis,” long since discredited — of how mutations originate.) It’s like a vast, jaw-droppingly complex, planet-spanning figure-skating competition: organisms “skate” their “program”, mutations included, and the environment acts as the panel of judges, determining which organisms survive and which do not … survival being defined as the ability to survive long enough to reproduce and thus pass on the adaptation to their descendants. But as the environment changes over time, the “judging criteria” that determine the fate of each species likewise change: mutations that were once advantageous or neutral may become disadvantageous – the technical term is “maladaptive” – under the new environmental regime. Perhaps the classical example of this process is the meteor strike on the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, that resulted in basically a “nuclear winter” due to the debris thrown up by the impact reflecting sunlight back into space and thus cooling the planet. Dinosaurs, being huge lizards which had no ability to regulate their body temperature, and which had been around for over 150 million years, suddenly found themselves in the midst of a catastrophe. Because the earth became colder – and there were other changes because of the meteor – the evolutionary niche once occupied by cold-blooded dinosaurs came to be occupied by mammals, which do have the ability to regulate their body temperature independently of the environment. Result: the dinosaurs died off; mammals – including humans about 64 million-plus years later – survived.
OK … now back to capitalism … Societies – in particular, societies’ economies and the underlying technological infrastructure – evolve, too. And the process is intriguingly similar to biological evolution in response to a changing environment. The “figure skating competition” here, however, is between forms of socio-economic organization – what Marx called “the mode of production” – and the overall technological environment in which production takes place – what Marx called “the means of production”, with the “mode” playing the part of the skater and the “means” playing the part of the judges. (Again, the same caution: this is a Reader’s Digest-condensed synopsis.) Conservatives spill ‘way, ‘way too much ink pooh-pooh-ing Marx’s theory of the materialist dialectic of history – by which, Marx says at one point, he “stood Hegel on his [Hegel’s] head” – and ‘way, ‘way too little ink acknowledging the keen insights that, despite the undisputed oversimplifications of Marxist theory, lie at the heart of Marx’s basic paradigm. An example might clarify matters. In the Middle Ages, the production of goods was carried on according to what we today would call a “cottage industry” paradigm. A wainwright – a carriage-maker – would typically start with raw materials, fabricate the various parts of the carriage, put those parts together into higher- and higher-level assemblies, and finally put those assemblies together into a finished carriage – and, in the process, maintain exclusive control over the entire manufacturing process from start to finish, “touching” the entire carriage at each stage as it was being built. Working with the wainwright would be some young men – always men – who would serve apprenticeships as “wainwrights-in-training”. Furthermore, a master craftsman usually developed a close personal relationship with his apprentices, journeymen, etc., and the group often even lived together. As the “junior wainwrights” were trained, the supervising craftsman and the local wainwright guild would observe their progress and together determine what stage each trainee / “intern” was at: apprentice, journeyman, etc., all the way up to master craftsman – at which point the once-apprentice could become an independent craftsman in his own right, authorized to hire his own apprentices and teach them, whereupon the cycle would repeat.
Then came the factory movement from the middle 1700s on, the reasons of which are too complex to even synopsize here. Suffice to say that the factory movement eventuated from advances in technology that enabled the manufacturing process to be broken down into rather naturally occurring, small, easily identifiable, discrete stages, each of which could be physically isolated from the other inside an immense building – called a “manufactory,” later abbreviated to just “factory” – where a given worker, or more likely a cadre of several dozen workers, performed the same discrete sub-task, and passed the results on to other cadres of workers who would perform subsequent sub-tasks. In Marxist language, the “means” of production underwent a tectonic change. Now, instead of working on an entire product, each worker in the factory dealt with only a small, discrete task, and often had no idea how that one discrete task fit into the manufacture of the end-product. Furthermore, the idea of craftsmanship became quaint … then ceased to have any meaning altogether: there is no sense of craftsmanship in the fabrication of a mere “sub-widget”. Over time, and a rather historically brief time, at that, workers became mere fungible ciphers: if worker A and worker B fabricate the same type of widget X, then they are interchangeable; and given the simplicity of the discrete tasks, either can be trained to fabricate widget Y. The workers became strangers to the end-product, and, unlike a century before, strangers to one another. In Marxist language, the “mode” of production underwent a tectonic change. Our hypothetical wainwright building a carriage from start to finish with the help of his apprentices and journeymen became as obsolete as the post-meteor dinosaurs – and for essentially the same reason: the craftsman, like the dinosaur, was adapted to an obsolete environment. In the brave new world of the factory environment, mere physical dexterity – the ability to rapidly build sub-widgets – will win out over craftsmanship every time.
But the crowning humiliation came when the factory movement, leveraging advancing technology, gradually substituted machines for human workers altogether. In some meaningful sense, human beings became quite literally worthless in many contexts. What supplanted the value of workers was the value of capital, i.e., the money necessary to buy land and equipment, build factories, buy raw materials, and in general “jump start” the entire manufacturing enterprise. The cost associated with the workers themselves was relatively minimal: defined as the minimum wage necessary to enable a worker to subsist and to reproduce, so as to engender other workers to feed into the system. (The factory movement routinely employed children whose age was expressed in single digits.) Because workers could not afford the costs of transportation to and from their jobs, this also meant that workers had to move from the countryside, where most of the “cottage industry” work had been done prior to the factory movement, into great cities where they could be close to their jobs, usually congregating into vast, vast slums whose appalling misery has been so well documented in the novels of Charles Dickens, giving rise to scenes of human degradation that bear comparison only to conurbations of nightmare like today’s Mogadishu. It is this “para-Hegelian” dialectic between “means” and “mode” that drove the evolution of history, argued Marx. No wonder Romantic poets of the late 1700s and early 1800s like William Blake wrote of “the dark, satanic mills of Wolverhampton” and of the hellish filth-scapes of Whitechapel and the East End. No wonder the Luddite sect, with its hostility to any and all forms of technology, became increasingly popular. No wonder French workers, for fear of being displaced by machines, threw their wooden shoes (sabot, in French) into the cogs and gears of the machines … thus coining the word “sabotage”. As it is in biology, so also it is in socio-economics: evolution does not forgive.
So in many ways, the London of Charles Dickens is the tangible embodiment and vindication of Karl Marx: the means of production – factories leveraging technology so as to use human workers, if at all, only as flesh-and-blood machines – and the mode of production – wage-slavery intensified to a lyrical pitch through the massive urbanization of labor. All in the service of Capital. Now multiply the single example of London by all the great cities of Europe – their name is “Legion,” for they are many – and the sense of moral crisis becomes almost tangible. Two questions end up being begged: (1) how the hell did matters come to such a pass back then? and (2) why is the present so much like the past to such an unsettling extent? I would suggest that at least the outlines of an answer begin to emerge if we consider two factors we usually do not associate with each other: biological evolution and the European Enlightenment.
It’s important to remember a critical fact about the evolution of our species: it’s about survival. Or, to be strictly precise, evolution is about surviving long enough to reproduce. Furthermore, given the short life-spans (on geologically and cosmically significant time-scales) of our species, homo sapiens sapiens, the type of survival toward which evolution is biased is short-term survival. Evolution — evolution alone and unaided by human intentions — is “concerned” with the long-fanged beast hiding behind that rock over there, not the long-fanged beast hiding behind other rocks elsewhere farther away. Evolution certainly has long-term consequences, but these are worked out in billions upon billions of particular, discrete, short-term instances. In an odd kind of way, evolution is like that verse in II Corinthians 6:2: “Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation”. For evolution, now — or perhaps 5 minutes or perhaps an hour from now — is all that counts. An organism that dies right now never reproduces, and thus falls out of the evolutionary stream.
As paradoxical as it may sound, given the time-scales involved, evolution is actually the ultimate in short-term thinking. So we should not be surprised that humans are biased, down to the deepest sub-basement of our neuroanatomy, toward similar short-term thinking. We are evolutionarily predisposed to think in terms of the next 5 minutes or 5 hours. That is the consequence of the way the human brain evolved. Evolution tends to be very parsimonious: it throws almost nothing away. (Most of the DNA in the human genome is so-called “junk” DNA: perhaps functional, even vital, at one time, it has since been superseded and no longer “does anything” — but was never discarded.) So as the brain evolved from reptiles to mammals to primates, the earlier parts of the brain were, not discarded, but built upon, rather like a medieval castle or manor house. “Evolution” and “efficiency” both start with the letter “e”, but the similarity ends there. (The conservative parsimony of biological evolution, by the way, poses a sticky problem for advocates of intelligent design: whatever Designer exists must have a severe hoarding fetish if S/He preserves so much “junk”.) Those archaic parts of the brain — less accurately but more descriptively called the “reptile brain” — are collectively called the “limbic system”, and include structures like the amygdala that do primitive, “fight or flight” processing of the emotions that demand instantaneous, reflexive, very-short-term responses, i.e. responses, like dropping a match when it burns your finger-tips, that do not require conscious thinking. Comparatively primitive structures like the amygdala reflect evolution’s “assessment” that stopping to think can sometimes be fatal — and therefore maladaptive
What does all this have to do with capitalism, both old and new? Well, if you stop to reflect on the fact that, at least in capitalist economies, the economic system is an arrestingly faithful analog of a biosphere, complete with “nature red in tooth and claw” survival for competition, the answer should be obvious. Because of the emphasis on competition and survival in the marketplace, the evolution that occurs in capitalist economies is no more predisposed to long-term thinking than the evolution that occurs in biospheres. The natural and “naive” tendency of all capitalist economies is to concentrate on today’s profit and tomorrow’s or next quarter’s bottom line, and if that means the growth of slums, the pollution of the natural environment, and social pathologies that can only be restrained and contained by the application of brute force, then … well …the Devil take the hindmost.
But the limbic system was not the only part of the brain to evolve. Human beings also developed a cerebral cortex — the part of the brain that, loosely and qualitatively speaking, deals with abstract thought and therefore, most importantly, with long-term planning. With only an amygdala and its associated structures, human beings would still be capable of pursuing their self-interest. But only with a cerebral cortex are we capable of pursuing our enlightenedself-interest. But like any powerful instrument — a car, a computer, a nuclear reactor, etc. — there is the issue of learning how to use it. Much of human history could be written in terms of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back process of humans learning how to use the cerebral cortex. And we are still very much in the process of learning how to use it. One of the most critical, make-or-break steps in Westerners’ learning how to use this awesomely powerful instrument was the European Enlightenment that began in the middle 1600s and that continues today. Much of human history between the fall of Rome and the end of the 30 Years War in 1648 consisted of religious zealotry placed at the service of the amygdala and the limbic system. But because of the rediscovery of the classical world, the efflorescence of science, and in consequence a renewed confidence in the powers of the autonomous human intellect and rationality, Europeans gradually — it was a very near thing — discovered how to agree to disagree and live with their differences instead of slaughtering one another over them.
It would be literally impossible to overestimate the importance of this discovery. The fact that Europe, with all its faults, is not a late-Bronze-Age wasteland today is because, over time, the principles of the Enlightenment — tolerance of differences, the concept of inalienable human rights, the unique value of human beings, the idea that governments and economies should work for human beings instead of the other way around, that it is legitimate to circumscribe the behavior of the few for the good of the many, etc., etc., etc. — came to dominate the culture in terms of its rhetoric … and gradually in terms of its behavior. Anyone who watches the news or even reads a newsmagazine occasionally or peeks at internet blogs now and again will be convinced that there is still an enormous amount of work to do to put these principles into practice. But even a casual acquaintance with history will reveal that we have come a long way. As Dr. King once said, quoting an old slave hymn, “We ain’t what we ought to be, and we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God we ain’t what was”.
So what conservatives miss in their critique of government “meddling” in the economy, e.g., their oft-avowed (though never fulfilled) pledge to abolish the EPA and like agencies, etc., is that the whole sweep of human civilization since humans descended from the trees and emigrated from east-central Africa has been to escape from, to transcend, Nature, and to temper and moderate Nature’s brutality, not to slavishly replicate it in our social and economic relations. “Nature red in tooth and claw” is fine if you are the “apex predator” who benefits from such an arrangement, so it is no accident that the farther up the affluence scale you go, the more intense becomes the hostility to government regulation: if the game is already rigged in your favor, you will naturally be reluctant to change the rules of the game. But one of the benefits of the Enlightenment was a renewed confidence in humans’ ability to critique such arrangements and to perform tasks of autonomous moral reasoning, and thus establish a rational basis for altruism, for care for the weak, for the support of the disadvantaged — and thus to hedge about the otherwise-unrestrained cut-throat competition in the capitalist jungle with limits that ensure human life, human survival, and human dignity — values of which pure and unadulterated Nature is ignorant. Hence the abolitionist movement in 1850s England. Hence efforts to alleviate the suffering of the workers in the slums of London. Hence the abolition of poor houses and debtors’ prisons. All were examples of “big government meddling,” and yet all were rooted in the Enlightenment-backed consensus that, while human beings emerged and originated from Nature, we are not bound to take up permanent residence there.
Capitalism can be and has been — and very often still is — a good and healthy and liberating thing. But capitalism is morally defensible only as long as, and to the extent that, human beings are in charge of capital for the good of the entire human community … never vice versa.
It was tough. TOUGH! If I could I would nominate everyone who has contributed, but there were constraints on the types of submissions, dates of publication, and number of nominations editors can submit. So, here we are … The BeZine Best of Net nominations for June 2017 – July 2018.
I think of her often. I only met her that once, but she brought with her a voice from God that has never left me. Her heart was the first bloom of that warm spring.
I was teaching at the diocesan seminary. It was spring, time of renewal, but mostly it brought unbearable heat in the provinces of Mindanao. So I decided to escape the oven-like classroom and had everyone bring a chair under the ancient tree that seemed to preside over the whole front yard. Just as a really lively discussion on prayer began, I noticed her walking on the road beyond the fence. She was small, with a filthy flowered dress frayed at the edges and stained just about everywhere. Her hair hadn’t met a brush in months, yet she walk with a regal calm and serenity. As she got to the open gate, she turned.
I groaned inwardly. It seemed like every day people came to beg, to ask for money, food, medicine. Sometimes with that “help keep their dignity” idea, we’d ask them to help rake leaves, but that often backfired and they got annoyed demanding what they wanted, often waving a reproaching finger in our faces, telling us that we are supposed to be like Jesus and give. And now, just as I had a wonderful discussion on prayer going, we would be once again interrupted by a beggar asking for a handout.
Then I immediately felt guilty. So as if to redeem myself from my unspoken lack of goodness, I interrupted the class discussion and told the seminarians that an older woman was coming, probably to ask for food or help, but that in spite of her being so dirty and messy, they should stand when she arrives, do “mano po”, the typical Filipino greeting of respect where you take the hand of the elder and touch it to your forehead, and call her “Tita” (Auntie). Ah, it looked like I was back to being the wise holy man I was supposed to be…but it was just me still treading water.
The woman came right up to where I stood, totally disrupting the class like I knew she would. She was even dirtier up close, mud on her face and her sandaled feet black. The ever obedient seminarians (or make that “usually obedient”) stood politely, blessed her and mumbled pleasantries calling her “tita”.
She began in Cebuano, “Father, I was walking by and saw you teaching the boys under this big shade tree. And I had this idea, so I came in.”
To myself I figured I knew the “idea”, a good place to ask for help. But she seemed so sweet, I suddenly thought of volunteering to get her something from the kitchen myself…being that holy and wise person I thought I was. Yes, yes, I would make up for all those negative thoughts about her by being of personal service!! Gee, what a guy!!
Then she dug deep into her pocket, as it was an endless cavern, and finally pulled out a kind of moldy rag and then opened it slowly, as if the British Crown Jewels were inside. There appeared an old 20 peso bill, only a little cleaner than she. She continued her story, “When I saw you there, teaching these boys about God, how to love God and be faithful…well, I thought, you know what…I want to buy them a snack. So here.” And she shyly handed me the 20 pesos, somehow not fully able to look me in the eyes.
I took the filthy bill and suddenly didn’t know what to do. This woman came to give, to share, to help, to encourage…She turned to leave, and I asked her to stay and have snacks with us. She smiled serenely, with the kind of peace that comes from knowing you live in God’s heart, and turned and left. All the boys just looked at me blankly. 20 pesos wasn’t, of course, enough to have snacks for the class. It’s about 50 cents in the US. But I decided to go to my office and get money and have the guys buy something from the little store across the way. If Auntie wanted us to have snacks, that’s exactly what we’d do. I told the guys I’d be right back…but in fact I was a little longer than expected. I had to wash my face so they wouldn’t see how hard I had been crying once I was out of sight.
I never saw her again, but she remains one of the finest teachers I’ve ever had, and a voice of God that has never been silenced. It was spring, and a part of me was reborn.
Recently, I read dragonkatet’s piece on “Perfection and Creation.” This got me to ruminating on the nature of perfection. In the United Methodist Church, clergy wannabe’s are required to answer the question, “Are you going on to perfection in this lifetime?” And the expected answer is “yes!”
I had heard a rumor in seminary by Dr. Jack Olive that perhaps our understanding of perfection is different than the understanding that early theologians and philosophers had. And that John Wesley turned to Eastern Orthodox wisdom in an effort to better understand perfection. That appealed to me because perfection seems so unattainable. What if there is a different way?
Corina got me thinking about all of this again! Is perfection unattainable? Is perfection only attributable to the Divine? What is up with this kind of pressure we put on ourselves? And as with everything, the truth is that our understanding has drastically changed over time. Which leaves us free to define perfection in a way that leads to greater life.
The Greek concept is where it all begins for western cultures. That word was “teleos.” In many cases, this word is understood to be completeness rather than the common understanding of perfection—“without flaw.”
Aristotle defines three meanings of perfection:
That which is complete.
That which is so good that nothing can be found better.
That which has attained its purpose.
Thomas Aquinas goes on to give perfection a dual-fold meaning: That which is perfect in itself (its substance) andwhen it perfectly suits its purpose.
Other philosophers and theologians have defined perfection to be:
Plato and Parmenides thought that the world was perfect. That it had perfect shape and motion (spherical/circular). The world is perfect, God is not. Attributing perfection, an intellectual concept of humanity, to the Divine, was a heresy.
However, later came the pantheist Stoics who attributed perfection to the Divine. Why? Because the Divine was equivalent with the world. Here, we are just one short step away from the modern idea that only the Divine is perfect and that we all suffer from an inability to be complete in our own bodies and to find and fulfill our purpose. Eventually, Aristotle’s First Cause and Christianity’s Creator became comingled in theology. Although perfection was still not attributed to the Divine as perfection was believed to be finite.
In the 9th century, philosopher Paschasius Radbertus said that “Everything is the more perfect, the more it resembles God.” But still, God was not perfect because of the finiteness ascribed to the concept of perfection. It is Rene Descartes who introduces perfection as applied to the Divine as he introduces the “perfections of God.” However, Descartes also states that “existence itself is perfection.” They may just have been going through a confusion of perfections!
The concept of perfection has undergone great changes throughout human history. “Nothing in the world is perfect”, to “Everything is perfect”; and from “Perfection is not an attribute of God”, to “Perfection is an attribute of God.” (Tatarkiewicz, “Ontological and Theological Perfection,” Dialetics and Humanism, vol. VIII, no. 1 (winter 1981), p. 192.)
Perhaps it is time to render a definition of perfection that lifts us up and allows us to achieve completeness and fulfill our purpose. In Christianity, we often go back to “The Greatest Commandment.” That is “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” We then focus on the loving God part and then sometimes the loving your neighbor part but totally neglect the implied love yourself part. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When we love ourselves, we can achieve completeness, find and fulfill a purpose! Artists gotta art. Preachers gotta preach. Poets gotta poem. Architects gotta design. Caretakers gotta care. And so on. Of course, within all of this is the tension between what we want and what we have. There are limits and sometimes part of loving is setting aside the dream and doing the chore. But that is still part of purpose. And it is still part of perfection.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, totally subscribes to the “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” approach to perfection. He writes,
O grant that nothing in my soul May dwell, but thy pure love alone! O may thy love possess me whole, My joy, my treasure, and my crown ! Strange fires far from my heart remove; My every act, word, thought, be love!
I never heard that any one objected to this. And indeed who can object? Is not this the language, not only of every believer, but of every one that is truly awakened? But what have I wrote, to this day, which is either stronger or plainer? John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection
Perfection is living life in such a way that “every act, word, thought, be love!” Easy peasy.
Perhaps living a life where everything is derived from love is not so easy. But it is something that I can ascribe to, and with practice, grow into. So perhaps perfection is the process that leads to a complete life fulfilled in acts of love–love that leads to justice, mercy, and humility.
The months have been busy with storytelling– dusting off old stories, rehearsing new ones, attending to related business correspondence. Last week I was pressed for time, polishing a story for its public debut, when I heard a little thump. I peeked through the French doors onto the deck. A tiny olive gray creature, scarcely bigger than a hummingbird, lay stunned and shivering where it fell after flying into the glass.
It was a male Golden-crowned Kinglet, with a bright orange and gold crown. They favor coniferous forest; this one was likely nesting in the grove of cedar, hemlock, and Douglas Fir in our backyard. Kinglets are monogamous, and raise two broods each season. As soon as the first nestlings can fly, Mama Bird lays another batch. While she protects the new eggs, Papa feeds up to ten fledglings until they can take care of themselves. Good Daddy!
Perhaps the little bird was an adolescent, driving too fast on his first solo flight, or maybe he was an exhausted frantic father trying to feed his hungry brood. Birds are delicate, and often die of stress. Not wanting to frighten it, I didn’t open the door, but I kept watch through the glass for neighborhood cats and hungry crows. What would happen, I wondered, to the fledglings if their Papa died? How might his mate manage as a single parent when the next brood hatched?
As The Bard said, all the world is a stage. Everywhere tiny dramas–life and death performances–are played out. Most will never be witnessed or even imagined, completely lost in the big picture. Or worse, they will be observed by cold and uncaring eyes.
On my deck, in city streets, in our wealthy country, and all over the world, baby birds are not the only creatures who slip between the cracks, with no voice, and no champion to speak out for them or watch over them.
I turned for an instant to check the clock. When I looked again, the little bird was gone. My eyes stung with tears of relief. Someone looking through the glass onto my deck would see only a few bird droppings, but to me it’s a reminder that life can get messy. Not everyone has a safety net. Not every story has a happy ending. Sometimes we can only look helplessly through the glass at the world’s suffering. But sometimes it falls within our power to change the world, one tiny story at a time.
Something to think about.
All words and images c2013 Naomi Baltuck
NAOMI BALTUCK ~ is a Contributing Editor and Resident Storyteller here at Bardo. She is a world-traveler and an award-winning writer, photographer, and story-teller whose works of fiction and nonfiction are available through Amazon HERE. Naomi presents her wonderful photo-stories – always interesting and rich with meaning and humor – at Writing Between the Lines, Life from the Writer’s POV. She also conducts workshops such as Peace Porridge (multicultural stories to promote cooperation, goodwill, and peaceful coexistence), Whispers in the Graveyard (a spellbinding array of haunting and mysterious stories), Tandem Tales, Traveling Light Around the World, and others. For more on her programs visit Naomi Baltuck.com