Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/23/2010

If I were a great, no—even ordinary, thinker, this might go somewhere besides to the platitudinous

When one needs to write simply because one needs to write (hypergraphia, habit, or monumental ego), ideas crash together that make no sense to the writer or to any possible reader.

Three for today:

• “I view with alarm this tendency toward isolationistic totalitarianism…”
• “And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes.’”
• “Do you think Social Security is unconstitutional?”

To begin, the third:

Last semester one of my students, after I made a joke about my incipient eligibility to draw Social Security, asked me with all the earnestness only a conservative 19-year-old can muster (remember, my university proudly announces on its website that it’s the home of the George W. Bush Library), “Do you think Social Security is unconstitutional?”

Never having had much truck with rich, privileged conservatives, I had never thought such a thought, much less said it out loud. I joked, “I suppose it is, but let’s see the Supreme Court try to dismantle it!”

How many times does one have to regret her words before she learns not to make jokes of serious matters?

In high school, a friend from my church was in the “elocution” club (Dictionary.com: “the study and practice of oral delivery, including the control of both voice and gesture”—today it’s “oral communication,” a component of first-year-writing programs that no one takes seriously). My closest friends and I thought it was a silly activity for students who couldn’t do much else; they memorized passages from writings by other people and recited them with great passion and eloquence, a pointless exercise.

My church friend’s favorite passage began, “I view with alarm this isolationistic tendency toward totalitarianism.” Or was it “this totalitarian tendency toward isolationism?” David would deliver the line as Franklin Roosevelt. This was during the 1,000 days of Camelot, and making jokes about the then resident of the White House who had become—after our parents were horrified by his election—our hero was simply unthinkable.

“Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!” During the heady but awful days of the anti-war movement of the ‘60s, the rector of my little church preached a sermon on these words of Jesus. I remember because it was the first time I heard the church agree with what we rabble-rousers were doing. I remember other sermons of his; he was the best “elocutionist” I have ever known.

Social Security. Isolationistic totalitarianism. The things that make for peace. It’s going to take a neat trick of rhetoric to bring these disparate ideas together.

Anyone as old as I am who does not understand that it’s all a grand illusion, the end of life is the end of life, when it’s over it’s over (whether or not the fat lady sings), is an idiot. (Oh, get a life!) The idiocy is the belief that what one does matters. Self importance is ridiculous. Nothing anyone can do will change anything.

Whether or not a student in one of my classes does her homework—or discovers anything useful about writing or thinking—is of no consequence to her or to anyone else. She will end up as dead as you will. I have it on good authority:

          Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
               What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?
          One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh:
               but the earth abideth for ever. (Ecclesiastes 1:2 ff; KJV)

Eugene H. Peterson, in The Message, translates this passage,

          Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]
               There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
          What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
               a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
          One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
               but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old planet earth.

My student asks: Do you believe Social Security is unconstitutional? I ask: Do you believe it matters if half the people in America are starving to death or sick and can’t take care of themselves or absolutely alone in the world and craving a modicum of human interaction? Does Social Security prevent starvation, cure illness, or bring people together? All is smoke, nothing but smoke, there’s nothing to anything.

Is isolationist totalitarianism a bad thing? Soap bubbles of soap bubbles, all is soap bubbles and striving after wind (a college professor’s translation). What difference does any isolation or totalitarianism make?

Do we have any reason to know the things that make for peace? Vanity of vanity; all is vanity. What profit do we have for all our labor under the sun? I sound like a bitter, anti-social, faithless old man.

My writing over the last four months may well show that’s what I’m turning into. All is wind. The writer of Ecclesiastes thought “the earth abideth for ever.” We know (anyone not bollixed up in a pathetic belief about creation happening in six days knows) that isn’t true. Meteorites falling from space, fragments of exploded planets, prove that. Six billion years is not forever.

My answers to my questions, I fear, is that all of these things do matter. The Quester’s age old question applies: “What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?” The profit is simple. That “a man” have some satisfaction, some peace and joy, or, as Thomas Jefferson graciously twisted John Locke’s phrase, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Right now, today (this, too will pass) I think this. We have life; that’s the given. Liberty is a totally unattainable goal (are you free from the tyranny of our government or from the “dysfunction” of your family?). The pursuit of happiness is all that’s left. A corporation cannot pursue happiness. A meteorite cannot pursue happiness. My cats can’t pursue happiness because they are happy a priori. All “men” exist for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Man alive! am I sounding sappy. I am grateful Jefferson understood “the pursuit of happiness” is not equal to, is much more important than, Locke’s “pursuit of property.” I have no idea what “happiness” one is supposed to pursue. If you’re a resident of Port au Prince today, your definition is much different than if you live in a penthouse on Madison Avenue. If you live in that penthouse, you may not know that your pursuit of happiness includes caring for and about the resident of Port au Prince. Or perhaps not.

One important aspect of my pursuit of happiness today is relearning to play the Bach Fugue in B Minor (BWV 544). One aspect.

This writing is a mystery to me. Part of my pursuit of happiness is getting this writing out of my system. I hope, if anyone reads this, they will not think I’ve turned into some sort of Epicurean.

No, my point is this, simply. Bombastic ideas expressed in bombastic language, provision for ourselves in old age, and the struggle for peace are worthy pursuits. But, when all is said and done, all is said and done. I don’t know about you, but as far as I can tell, the pursuit is all.

Eugene Peterson is a Christian, a scholar of Christianity, a believer. So we know he doesn’t believe, “One generation goes its way, the next one arrives, but nothing changes.” Or if he does believe it, that’s not the sum of his belief. It’s the sum of mine. All is wind. And writing. And playing the organ. And pursuing. Never finding, always pursuing. My “three for today” are my pursuit for today.

Seek and you shall find.

Probably not.

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