Because I Can

A comic I regularly read in order to maintain some semblance of sanity in this insane world gave me pause recently. One of the characters is bragging that he has a new app on his smart phone that flushes his toilet at home when he is not there. His friend asks why he would want to do that and he answers: “Because I can.”  Aside from being amusing, my friends, this is the technological imperative in a humorous vein. We do things without asking why simply because we can.

Strictly speaking, however, we aren’t doing much of anything. The character in the comic simply presses a button, as so many of us do to make things happen. And then we take pride in the fact that “WE” can do remarkable things. It’s not we at all, of course, but the device we hold in our hand that allows us to perform those minor miracles.

Gabriel Marcel, years ago, wrote of the pride folks feel when they see an airplane lift off into the clear sky, the sense of pride they have in seeing their fellow humans free themselves once again from the pull of gravity and take off into the great beyond. He warned us that there is something seriously wrong with this pride we feel. Again, we feel pride in seeing something someone else has done, not we ourselves — though even the pride we feel in our own accomplishments can be problematic.

In fact, pride has always been a problem. It was so for the Greeks who warned about an excess of pride, or hubris as it was called. There was a certain appropriateness in feeling the pride of being a Greek, of course — after all as such we are not “barbarians” (the name they used to refer to everyone else). But anything beyond that, anything in excess of the allotted amount, if you will, leads inexorably to tragedy. This was the point of the Greek plays that showed us again and again what happens when humans begin to think they are gods. There are things we can do as humans and there are things we cannot do — and things we should not do; we need to continue to remind ourselves what those limits are.

The Christian religion also had problems with pride, listing it among the cardinal sins — not just an excess of pride, but any pride at all. After all, we are creatures of God and whatever pathetic accomplishments we might list on our résumé are ultimately the result of God’s powers and gifts. We can take no pride in doing anything we do because the good that we do is God working through us. We must, rather, become humble.

To be sure, the Christian proscription holds little sway these days, as indeed does the Christian religion itself. We have shown ourselves unwilling to answer to the Christian demands for sacrifice and vows of poverty and we are even less likely to refuse to allow that we don’t accomplish great things ourselves — or take pride in the work of other human beings: we are not about to pass along the credit for human accomplishments to an unknown force about Whom we have serious doubts.

But in refusing to take seriously the warnings about pride and about its possible excesses we flirt with disaster. This is especially true in this nuclear age and it is also true in our industrial age when we see the waters around us rising, islands in the Pacific disappearing, and the tundra and ice caps melting, yet we simply ignore those things because we are confident that somehow at some point some human being or other will figure out how to deal with the problem and it will go away.

I sometimes wonder if the success of the space program — which takes us all away from this earth, and even promises the possibility of travel to other planets — has not been one of the major factors in causing so many people to somehow debase the earth, to deny, or at the very least ignore, the awful things we are doing to the Mother us all. Like the man watching the plane lift off into the sky, we take pride in the fact that human beings are no longer “tied” to earth. Our collective chests swell with pride. The earth is simply one more satellite circumnavigating the sun and when it has become wasted we will simply colonize another planet either in this solar system or one not so very far away. The games we play and movies we flock to assure us that this is a possibility.

It seems preposterous, doesn’t it? But I do wonder — just as I do wonder how so many people can ignore the fact of climate change and blindly assume that somehow it can be fixed. After all, we are humans and there is nothing we cannot do if we put our minds to it! There’s that pride, my friends, there lies the germ of tragedy. The Greeks knew.

Overconfident

How often have we witnessed the following scenario in sports? Our team is on a winning streak and have been playing well, winning seven out of the last nine games. They are starting to believe in themselves and their confidence is high. Today they play a team with a losing record they have beaten five times already this year.  No sweat! This is a piece of cake. We have our “ace” pitcher going for us, he is pitching well, and he has beaten this team three times already this year. In addition, the opposing pitcher is known to give up home runs and our team has been hitting homers at a record pace. As I said. Piece of cake.

Only the cake is spoiled by the fact that the other team wins in the bottom of the ninth inning by a “walk-off” single scoring a man from second base for the winning run. Our team hit only one home run and our ace pitcher had a bad day. Another one got away.

The gods on Mount Olympus are watching with broad grins on their collective faces. This is, for them, just another example of humans’ over-confidence. The Greeks called it “hubris,” but the name is less important than the fact that another sports team has been hoist by its own petard. The team that should have had a cake-walk fell on its face and slinks to the locker room to shower, make excuses, and forget the loss over a beer or two. Or three.

This scene is not all fiction, of course, though the team will not be mentioned in order not to embarrass the Minnesota Twins. But the point is that this sort of thing happens on a regular basis in sports and yet we fail to see the broader implications. I am here to point them out.

They have to do with the smug self-assurance that seems to infect those “winners” in power who see only success in imagining conflict with other nations they regard as their inferiors. After all, we have the weapons, including nuclear weapons, and armed forces around the globe waiting for orders to attack. No one is as sure of themselves as we are and the swagger is visible as is the sound of the bloat and rhetoric that spews from the mouths of our leader(s) as swords are rattled and chests puffed out.

The Athenians had the same sort of swagger when they sent the major part of their remaining forces to do battle with Sparta and her allies in Sicily toward the end of the very long, protracted Peloponnesian war. Thucydides described it for us in detail, as he lived through it, and he saw it as a tragedy, just like the tragedies the Greeks loved to sit and watch and agonize over in the theaters. One more example of hubris, one more victim of over-confidence, or excessive pride. But, surely, tragedies happen on the stage and in books. Not in real life? Right? Wrong.

We see it every day in our sports teams, and the results are predictable. In fact when I was watching the hype prior to the game described above I sensed that my team was about to lose. And they did. “Pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall,” according to Proverbs. And yet we ignore this truth when we look around outside the sports arenas because, perhaps, we lack critical acumen and are ourselves caught up in the hype and fail to realize that the swagger on the international stage by those in power can only result in one thing: tragedy. Losing a baseball game is no big deal. War is a very big deal. And given today’s advanced technology and the stupidity of those who push the buttons, no one will win the next one.

Moira

When Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, the Greeks witnessing the event on the stage as depicted by Sophocles knew that there would be retribution. The act of marrying his mother is, as we would say, “unnatural.” In the Greek view it was a violation of what they called “Moira.” Since Oedipus was a great king, his actions resulted in cosmic imbalance (that’s right, cosmic imbalance). Things had to be set right. So while the folks sitting in the theater were horrified by what Oedipus did, they were even more concerned about how he would be punished — because he most assuredly would be punished. It was essential that the cosmic balance be restored and the only way that could possibly happen was if Oedipus were punished. It mattered not that he didn’t know his father was the man he killed on the road and the woman he subsequently married was his mother. It didn’t even matter that he fathered children by her. What mattered was that he committed a terrible wrong and it had to be set right.

Fundamentally the same notion of restoring cosmic harmony can be found in a number of Eastern religions in the notion of “karma.” It can be found in such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shintoism, and Ching Hai, among others. It is a common thread running through both Eastern and Western thought for many hundreds of years. We still hear today the trite notion the “what goes around comes around.” As it happens, this is a faint echo of the deep-seated notion that wrongs will inevitably be punished.

For the Greeks, of course, the wrong resulted from hubris, excessive pride — not pride, per se, but excessive pride. A certain amount of pride was expected of a Greek: after all, he was a Greek and not a barbarian! But excessive pride was the essence of tragedy for the Greeks and it could be exhibited by an entire city and the results would be the same: the wrong must be set right to restore cosmic balance. Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens which was lost by Athens, a tragedy according to the historian brought about as a result of excessive arrogance and pride on the part of the Athenian leaders resulting in a series of tactical blunders. Oedipus, of course, exhibited hubris because he ignored oracular warnings and arrogantly proceeded as though he were in control of his own destiny. No one is in control of his destiny, according to the ancients, not even the most powerful of men and women. Not even the gods: Moira was beyond even them.

We, of course, know better (!) We are certain that we are free and control our own destiny. And despite our lip service to karma, we don’t really take seriously the notion that wrongs will be punished — not by the courts, not by the gods, or even by powers beyond the gods, as the Greeks saw it. We know better.

Or do we? We might take a page from these ancient books of wisdom and think about hubris. There can be no question that as a nation we are arrogant and suffer from excessive (unwarranted) pride. We insist that we know how others should live their lives. And if they choose not to live the way we think they should, we feel justified in sending drones deep into their world, or fighter planes with powerful weapons designed to “take out” the enemy (and numberless innocent people cataloged as “collateral damage”). Further, in the name of “jobs” we continue to assault the earth and insist that she bend to our will and yield up all her treasure. Time will tell whether jobs are more important than stewardship of the earth, or whether we are right and everyone else is wrong — or whether the ancients were right all along and at some point cosmic balance must be restored.

Yesterday’s News

Despite Tiger Woods’ most recent meltdown at the Pro-Am tournament in Pebble Beach, where he failed to make up a mere four shots to two unknown golfers, the media haven’t figured out that the man is yesterday’s news. In the interview after the tournament, Tiger bemoaned his poor putting and, once again, failed to give credit to the man who leap-frogged over him and the two men above him to come from six strokes behind to win the tournament — Phil Mickelson, who doesn’t seem to be caught up in the Tiger mystique. But Tiger’s name continues to draw interest and followers by the thousands and when he shows up at a golf tournament the TV producers drool because it translates into large numbers and makes the sponsors happy. But the man has had his day.

When Woods fails to deliver, as he has done repeatedly since his much-publicized breakup with his wife — resulting in world-wide tabloid exposure and the inevitable whispering behind the hand upon his appearance in a room — there is considerable talk about his putting, or his stroke, or his caddy, or his equipment. But none of these things will explain the fall from great heights that describe this man’s golfing career. His ego lies in tatters beneath his feet; he will need help putting it together again. His problem lies between his ears and no one seems to want to talk about that.

I am not a trained psychologist, but common sense tells me that a man who has been told all his life that he can do no wrong, that he can walk on water, and who seems to be doing precisely that every time he strides down a golf course in his red shirt on Sunday, when such a man suddenly and rudely runs head-on into the reality that he is none of these things, his psyche must be severely damaged. When his psyche takes such a thorough thrashing, no adjustment in his golf swing can possibly rebuild the self-concept that has taken more than thirty years and repeated success to build up. The man no longer believes in his own invincibility. He is learning what happens to a man when he begins to realize that he is not larger than life.

The Greeks learned over the years by trial and error that hubris leads inevitably to punishment. Buddhist philosophy likes to talk about karma and it is more or less the same idea, present punishment for past wrongs. When we begin to think we are gods, we will undoubtedly learn that we have feet of clay. Tiger Woods is learning that lesson and until or unless he takes steps to remedy the damage to his psyche, there will be no more major victories on the PGA circuit, I predict. There may be small wins, but the big ones will elude him as long as the ghosts of his past mistakes continue to whisper in his ear as he leans over the three-foot putt. The man’s problems are not mechanical, they are psychological. Even I can see that from where I sit.

But the news media will continue to pick at the carcass because there is still a large public that still believes the man can return to the heights he once commanded, or because they have a maudlin interest in seeing a man suffer for his sins — like elbowing one’s way to the front of the crowd at a traffic accident. But whatever the motivation, ESPN, the Golf Channel, and the major networks that televise golfing events will continue to hope the man shows up and makes the cut. It’s good for business. But I don’t see it happening.

In the end, the lesson Tiger should take away from  all this is the one we should all contemplate as individuals and as nations: none of us is invincible, and precisely when we think we are we had better prepare ourselves for a fall.