Here And There

I only remember a few things from my trip to the Beyond when last I was there. To begin with I noted that those who were There (and are no  longer Here) were simply doing the things they really wanted to do when they were Here. The Beyond is simply an eternity of doing that which we want to do. It’s a reward that, for many, turns out to be punishment.

So I vividly remember the flurry of activity among those who had been interested in so many things before they went There. Their curiosity and imagination were insatiable and in the Beyond they were always busy finishing projects they had long wanted to complete before they went There, searching hither and yon for answers to the mysteries that surrounded them, curious to know as much as possible and finally getting answers. Philosophers and theologians collected in groups listening to one another seeking the truth about those things that had long puzzled them Here. The scientists were busy conducting experiments that they knew would lead them to a deeper understanding of the puzzles that had confounded them Before. The artists and musicians were busy creating works of inestimable beauty and when finished sharing those works with others of like mind who were able to appreciate what they had done and applaud their efforts. Thespians were acting out the parts they craved while they were Here. All seemed very happy and fulfilled.

Those who were focused on petty things while Here were doomed to remain focused on petty things There. I recall vividly the throngs of people walking barefoot on scorching hot sand from which rising waves of heat could be seen; they hopped from one foot to another, bent over looking for gold coins and gold chains which they either placed around their necks or in the leather pouches at their sides which grew heavier and heavier as they went along, making their movement more and more difficult and the heat from the sand more and more unbearable — with no water for relief. Their attention was on the ground, the scalding hot sand beneath their feet suggesting the heat of the earth they left Before while denying that it was in fact growing hotter each day while the aquifers dried up. Their attention Then, as now, was on the growth of their wealth which they identified with happiness. Above all else, they were alone.

One figure especially stood out. I was astonished to see him because he’s still Here and hasn’t gone There yet. But apparently they have the ability to show us what is certain to be the case in the near future and this was simply one of the more impressive examples. While the others around him were thin and wore tattered clothing this one had very small hands, a permanent frown, was overweight, and wore a crown of gold to accompany the dozens of gold chains that were hot to the touch and dragged his head down until his body was almost doubled up. He was holding an electronic device in his hand and his attention wavered from looking at the ground for more gold and playing with the device in his hand. He couldn’t seem to leave it alone! But this is what he wanted. It is what they all wanted.  Now they were learning a lesson — a lesson which would go on forever.

In the distance, beyond the scalding hot sands I could barely hear the faint sounds of very loud music in a closed arena. There were also bright lights constantly flashing on and off that I could see through the windows — even at a distance. I heard from one of the people I was able to talk with that the arena was full of people who were being entertained though many were holding their heads and complained of excruciating headaches. They would remain there forever.

Those who loved other people while Here were surrounded by those they loved and admired who shared in their joys and even their struggles — because there had to be some struggles, even There, or those who were There would never fully appreciate the many moments of satisfaction that came with being with those they wanted above all else to be with and doing those things they most enjoyed doing. They seemed to be unaware of themselves while so many of the others I saw were oblivious to others and to most of what was around them.

The key here is that those I saw were simply doing what they wanted to do. If their wants were shallow Here, they were shallow There. And they would pursue those shallow goals forever. If their interests were varied while Here they would be so There.

(With apologies to Dante and his Divine Comedy.)

Mean What You Say!

I was watching ESPN’s “Sports Center” yesterday morning and found one of the topics especially interesting. The four regulars were asking a sports guru off-site what he thought about the fact that the University of Richmond has suspended five baseball players for playing “Fantasy Football.” This game is regarded by both the NCAA and by the University as a form of gambling because it involves the winning and losing of money. The guru, and later the four talking heads, insisted that this punishment was a case of overkill. The KIDS (the words emphasized by the guru) were just having fun and if the NCAA and the University want them to stop gambling they should pay them for playing baseball instead of encouraging them to gamble in order to make more money (!).

As you can see from they brief synopsis, the discussion frequently went off-topic. The guru had a difficult time staying on-point; his mind jumped around like spit on a hot griddle. But I daresay he was paid well for his appearance. In any event, I tend to agree that all Division I NCAA athletes should be paid and then use some of that money to pay for their education if they want one. I have been saying this in print for years. But that was not the issue. Nor was the issue whether the rule made any sense.  The issue was whether or not those five players should have been punished for gambling. The answer — despite the unanimous opinion of the well-paid people on “Sports Center” — is a resounding YES! They should be punished.

Why?

Because there is a rule at the University and coming down from on high from the NCAA — king of all intercollegiate sports — that gambling is a no-no. It’s against the rules. The rules are clearly set out and the students, we must assume, were told ahead of time that they were not to become involved, no matter how innocent it may seem and whether or not we agree that “Fantasy Football” is gambling (which I think it is, by the way). In a word, if they broke the rules then they should be punished. Otherwise the rules mean nothing. And it seems to be coming to this, doesn’t it? It’s a cultural problem. We draw lines in the sand — at home, at work, in college, wherever — and then we are busy doing something else when the kids cross that line; we then redraw it somewhere else. It’s small wonder the kids lose all respect for authority and seem to be in a fog much of the time. And, recall, according to Christopher Lasch, this loss of respect for authority is at the heart of our narcissistic culture.

When I worked as a camp counsellor for five summers in Maine many years ago the camp director (who was a wise man indeed) told us at the initial meeting: “if you tell the kids you are going to punish them for doing something wrong, you must do so. If you threaten to kill them if they don’t stop fighting, then you must kill them!” Obviously he wasn’t urging its to kill the kids. (Or was he??) He just wanted to make a point: mean what you say*. I took that to heart as a counsellor and later as a parent — and as a teacher. If I made rules for those people to follow I expected them to follow them. And in the case of  my kids whom I loved dearly or good students who had a legitimate excuse for turning in a late term paper, believe me it hurt me to penalize them, which I did anyway. I suppose it’s what they call “tough love,” but whatever they call it, it makes perfect sense and the fact that five people on television all agree that those baseball players should not have been punished simply attests to the sad demise of basic ethics from which those glued to the television take way the wrong sort of message.

Now, if only the punishments made sense and were consistently applied it would be easier to make my case. The talking heads seemed to be more disturbed about the seriousness of the punishment than the punishment itself and with that I agree. The rules should be clear, consistent, and consistently applied to the stars on the team or the kids in the living room watching R rated movies after being told not to do so. And the punishment should fit the crime. But to say that those who break the rules should not be punished is simply wrong-headed.

 

*And as Alice learned in Wonderland, this is not the same thing as “say what you mean.” But perhaps that is a topic for another time.

The Tenth Circle

At the risk of disturbing Dante’s magnificent architectonic  which allows only nine circles in Hell — nine being the perfect number, since when multiplied by any other number the integers always add up to nine, and being the product of 3 X 3 (three representing the Trinity, of course) — I would suggest that if he were alive today he might want to allow for a tenth circle.

To review (there will be a short test next period), Dante places the treacherous against kith and kin, folks like Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, in the pit of hell which is not a fiery pit, but a frozen wasteland. It is frozen because it is as far away from God as is possible in Dante’s geocentric universe. Some of the sinners’ heads are barely above the ice and close enough together that each person’s head is being gnawed upon by his neighbor. Some are twisted beyond recognition in the frozen ice. Others cry and their tears freeze against their cheeks. All are beyond redemption because they love only themselves and they never repented their sins.

In the tenth circle, which we can now imagine to be below the frozen wasteland, there are spaces reserved for modern-day sinners — folks like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and their loyal supporters; and, of course,those among us who promote hatred and trade on the fears of frightened and ignorant people in order to increase their political power and prestige. We can also see the immensely wealthy who are blinded by their greed and can see only the huge bags of gold that are just out of reach. Even when they manage to drag their way to one of the bags, others appear just beyond and they spend all their time and energy seeking more and more. They are desperately in need of water, but there is none, because their own activities have dried up the lakes and ponds that we can see in the background, whips of dust being stirred up by brief winds that do not cool. Not that these men need the gold. It won’t do them any good in Hell. But they want it just the same. It is an uncontrolled urge and Dante was very hard on those among us who cannot control their urges.

Now, Dante allowed for the greedy and avaricious a circle much higher in his scheme, but these men are not only greedy, they are greedy at a time when there is widespread starvation and the planet is in danger of irreparable harm from the determined attempts of men such as these to line their pockets no matter the cost. And they are more than treacherous since their greed tends to the destruction not only of their country but also of our world. Thus, they must share the tenth circle with those who pile lie upon lie in order to have their way and who spread hatred and fear wherever they go. But, then, it’s not a small circle. There is plenty of room for growing numbers of folks who share the worldview of these stunted and purblind men.

Dante’s Relevance

In a most interesting article in a learned journal not known for its interesting articles, author Rod Dreher bemoans the fact that he didn’t read Dante’s Inferno — or the rest of the Divine Comedy — until he was in middle age (as was Dante himself).

     Midway along the journey of our life

      I woke to find myself in some dark woods,

      For I had wandered off from the straight path.

So begins Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and into Paradise, as well as the story about a twenty-first century man who had also lost his way only to pick up Dante’s poem by accident and find himself captivated. What interested Dreher most were the chords struck by Dante that resound in today’s world and which should be heard by all college students, if not all who can read. And while it is sad to note that Dreher hadn’t read Dante’s poem until his mid-forties, it is refreshing to have him echo my conviction that the classics are relevant to today (which, indeed, is why they are regarded as “classics.”) But how can a poem written by a medieval Catholic speak to today’s students whose attention is entirely on themselves? That’s the question this article seeks to answer.

It is precisely the fixation of modern youth on themselves that one finds in the occupants of Dante’s Hell. To begin with, they all tell lies, and Dante is warned not to believe all he hears — which reminds me of Jameis Winston’s press conference where he said, with a straight face, “I’m not a ‘me’ person.” But more important, the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno are filled with thousands of passionate people who do not know how to love. The circles begin with love perverted, the love of a man for a woman that never rises above the level of lust, and ends, eight levels later, with those who either love only themselves or or betray those who love them, buried in ice up to their chins and condemned to remain frozen for eternity — as far from God’s love and warmth as possible. In between Dante finds those whose love degenerates into mere passion and is misdirected (they love money or fame, for example); they sin but fail to repent. And, indeed, it is the unwillingness of the sinners in Hell to repent that places them there instead of in Purgatory. As Dreher points out, “All the damned dwell in eternal punishment because they let their passions overrule their reason and were unrepentant.” Such as it is, their love was twisted and self-involved, and it dwarfed their reason which would, together with love properly felt,  have led them away from themselves and into the world of others who are also in need of love.

And thus we find the message that rings true today when folks are told to “let it all hang out.” As the author notes,

“This is countercultural, for we live in an individualistic, libertine, sensual culture in which satisfying desire is generally thought to be a primary good. . . . We live in a narcissistic, confessional culture in which speaking whatever is on your mind and in your heart is valorized as ‘honest’ and ‘courageous’ — just as calling lust love falsely ennobles it by dressing up egotism with fake moral grandeur. . .  All these damned souls suffer hellfire because they worshipped themselves and their own passions. In Dante egotism is the root of all evil.”

Furthermore, Dante’s sinners are unanimous in finding fault with others, never with themselves. They are very good at pointing fingers elsewhere and refusing to admit that theirs is the fault. The relevance of the ancient poem begins to become apparent.

Dreher takes the reader through several other circles, but in the end he notes, appropriately, that “Dante’s egoists suffering in Hell would be admired and even heroic figures in twenty-first century America” [Cue Jameis Winston, et al]. There is much for each of us to learn from this ancient poem written by a poet in his darkest hours — suffering exile from his family and from his beloved Florence as well. In the end, as Dreher concludes,

Dante shows us that you can just as easily go to Hell by loving good things in the wrong way as you can by loving the wrong things. It’s a subtle lesson, and a difficult lesson, and a lesson that is no less difficult to learn in the twenty-first century than it was in the fourteenth. But it’s still necessary to learn. Happy is the man who embraces this wisdom at any point in his life, but happier is the man who does so in his youth.”

It is sad that Dreher had to wait until his own mid-life crisis to read this remarkable poem. It is even sadder that very few will ever read it at all, though it is a bit of a stretch to think for a moment that even if today’s youth did read it they would see its relevance to their own lives. But it is certain that very few of them will read it at all if it is not required reading, which is even less likely in a culture that insists upon allowing everyone to find his or her own way — even at the risk of getting lost. Like Dante.

(Note: For those of us who don’t read Italian, I have found that John Ciardi’s translation is the most readable. Many are not.)

 

 

What Went Wrong?

According to a Yahoo News story, pundits around the country lost no time in seeking answers to the question of what went wrong with Mitt Romney’s attempt to buy himself a presidency. As the story tells us:

Seeking answers to why their presidential candidate lost the election, the first round of consensus on the right has focused on the Republican need to recalibrate its message to connect with the nation’s shifting voting demographics—or, at the very least, acknowledge that the country is changing.

The search for answers about What Went Wrong began almost immediately on election night, a signal that some had already been mulling the possibility of a loss for some time.

One of the people who was attempting to figure out what went “wrong” was Karl Rove who spent $300 million of his own hard-earned cash on a losing cause before losing it himself on Fox News on election night when he refused to allow that the Republicans had lost Ohio — while in the process of losing every “swing state” except North Carolina. And no one knows for sure how much the Koch brothers lost, but it’s a safe bet that it’s quite a bit more than Rove lost. What a shame.

But even more interesting is our insistence on knowing what is going to happen before it happens. Think of the millions of dollars ESPN collects from sponsors each year to pay its talking heads to tell viewers before sporting events who will win and who will lose. Indeed, ESPN has a segment called “Cold, Hard Facts” in which experts give their opinions about what will happen next weekend in the main sporting events of interest to viewers — showing that (a) we have no idea what a “fact” is and (b) confirming our penchant for knowing what will happen before it happens. In any event these experts are almost always wrong, but we listen to them anyway — and we join in over beer at the local watering-place knowing even less than they do and having even weaker grounds for our predictions. But why do we do it? Why don’t we simply enjoy the moment we are in and let the future work itself out?

In the fourth bolgia, or ditch, of the eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno, Virgil and Dante see a group of men whose heads are turned backwards on their bodies and who walk through eternity with their tears streaming from their eyes and down their backs and between their butt cheeks not knowing where they are going. They are the fortune-tellers. They are in the eighth of nine circles of Hell, in the circle of malice and fraud — deeper down in Hell than murderers and suicides. Dante was strictly orthodox and he was simply giving us (graphic) images of the punishment that his church taught was waiting for sinners. It is wrong for humans to try to tell the future because only God can know what is in store for us.

Of course, people like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers didn’t simply try to foresee the future, they attempted to force it to their will by contributing millions of dollars to the political candidates of their choice. Dante doesn’t place such people in his Inferno, but we can imagine these people in the fourth bolgia where they push a huge (gold) boulder up the side of the ditch only to have it roll back again as it nears the top — like Sisyphus. That seems appropriate.

Most of us reject this sort of thing in this enlightened age. We are way too sophisticated for that sort of superstitious nonsense: bodies walking through Hell with their heads on backwards or pushing boulders up the side of a ditch. How absurd! But the question remains: why do we not treasure the moment and let the future take care of itself? Why do we insist on knowing what will happen before it happens?  And what makes the obscenely wealthy among us think they can determine the future by simply writing a check? I do wonder.