When God closes a door…

…somewhere he opens a window. Postulant Maria, in The Sound of Music, claimed to have learned that adage from the Reverend Mother. I suspect that the line is a quip created by the scriptwriters Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The original proverb promises that when God closes one door, he opens another. Although that saying is not taken from the Bible, it is inferred by a reading of Acts 16:6-10 and II Corinthians 2:12-13.

About a year ago, a certain job became open, and the person who told me about the opening also said that he would recommend me for the position. He assured me that I am perfect for the job. The process is lengthy; a self-study had to be completed before the committee in charge of finding a new worker could gather nominations and try to find the best match. Around the end of December they published seven names that had been recommended to them and promised to gather biographical data and other suggestions from the parent organization.

Meanwhile I had all this time to learn more about the job and its location: to see what houses are for sale in the area, to check out stores and restaurants, to read about the community and its history, and get a sense of what people do there for fun. The Internet makes such research ridiculously easy.

At the end of March the committee had received requested information from the parent organization and promised to winnow the list to the most promising candidates, contact them, and arrange for interviews. Every time the phone rang in April and May my heart jumped, thinking, “This might be them.” Finally this week the committee published the three finalists they have selected for the position. My name was not on the list.

During these last two months, I was also recruited for a similar position closer to home. The biggest problem with this position is that they are not able to offer both a full-time salary and health insurance. They are seeking someone who is willing to work two jobs, and since I am currently working three jobs, they thought I might be willing to make the change. After I learned that my name was not on the first list, I agreed at least to talk with the men who strongly want me to take this part-time position.

Here is where it gets complicated. The parent organization for the one position I had hoped to be offered and the parent organization for the one position I have been offered are in parallel branches of the same larger entity. During a half-hour conversation about the part-time position, I was able to ask if my information had been requested from the head of the other branch. The answer was no. So, apparently, the branch head declined to obtain up-to-date information about me for the committee that was seeking to fill a position. It may have been a clerical error or something more sinister; the head of my branch knows nothing about me that would disqualify me for such a job, which is why he is trying so hard to persuade me to take the part-time position.

This part-time position is located an hour’s drive from where I live. I told them that the commute would be a problem. They hoped that I would keep the full-time job I have (with its health insurance and other benefits) and drive that hour once or twice a week to fulfill my part-time duties. I replied that I thought, in order to do my job well, I would need to live in the community. (I am performing a similar job while driving half an hour each way once or twice a week, and I think that is too great a distance.) Eventually, I placed before them something like Gideon’s fleece. If a full-time job can be found for me in or near the community, I am willing to move there and take both jobs, but the full-time job would have to be something comparable to the one I have now. I had already checked. There are no such openings in the area. But they are using what connections they have to check again.

As I see it, if the Lord wants me to take this part-time job, he will provide the full-time job nearby. Otherwise, he has a different plan for me and for that position. That different plan may involve me staying where I am for many more years. It may involve another opening at yet another place. It might even happen that the three finalists chosen at the first place I mentioned will all prove unsatisfactory or will all be unwilling to take the position. Wishing for such a thing to happen is having faith by virtue of the absurd (as Soren Kierkegaard would say). Yet, more than twenty years ago, I was offered a job after a similar committee had selected two finalists and then found itself to be dissatisfied with both.

Meanwhile, I accept with resignation (Kierkegaard again) that the door is closed. I continue to trust the Lord’s planning. And when I find the window he has opened, I will jump through and run as fast as I can. J.

 

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Who said that?

“Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet.” –Abraham Lincoln

At least I think Lincoln said it… I saw it on the Internet.

In a world of fake news and other misinformation, historical facts and quotes are as unreliable as any other information. Type the name of any famous person into Google, and among the results will be a page of quotes. But on most of those pages, the quotes will be listed without any source, and in some cases the creator of the site was misinformed. As a result, if you type a famous line into Google, you may see it attributed to any number of people. Google does not know everything—it links your search to other people’s assertions, and some of those assertions are wrong.

Often a profound or clever line from an obscure person is credited to a more famous person. In his book Funny People, Steve Allen provides a list of quips that he suggests were said by Groucho Marx. He then reveals that he, Steve Allen, was responsible for every one of them. He admits, though, that they sound funnier coming from Groucho. Many statements about liberty and the danger of government oppression have been attributed to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other founding fathers of the United States. In more than a few cases, the lines were written and attributed to them long after they had died.

Ancient figures, including Socrates and Cicero, are sometimes quoted as deploring the state of their times, with young people failing to respect their elders, social morals on the decline, and a general lack of trustworthiness among the population. The point of the citation is to show that these problems have always been around, but, alas, the quote is a recent invention and was never said by Socrates, Cicero, or any other ancient sage.

I’ve approached people quoting Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, and other religious people of note, asking them in which document they found their quote. They admitted that they didn’t know where it was written, but they thought so-and-so had written it. In the case of Kierkegaard, the speaker told an audience that Kierkegaard had described Christian worship as a performance in which we are the actors and God is the spectator. When I spoke privately with the speaker, he admitted that he didn’t know where Kierkegaard had written that line, and I suggested that the speaker was probably misinformed. Years later I came across something similar in one of Kierkegaard’s works, with an important difference: Kierkegaard was discussing, not Christian worship, but Christian good deeds, which is an entirely different matter altogether.

(“Which is an entirely different matter.”)

Quoting out of context is as bad as inventing or misattributing a quote. Graduation speeches and other motivational talks often refer to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” They speak to the last three lines of the poem: “Two roads diverged in the woods and I—I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” Such speeches suggest that Frost encourages us to be unique individuals, to dare to be different, to refuse to follow the crowd, and so on. Frost recommends no such thing in this poem. Given the title, the poem could easily be read as an expression of regret and not a suggestion that we all should take the road less traveled.

Read carefully the following paragraph taken from a book written a little more than one hundred years ago. The book is called The Life of Reason, and the paragraph is found on pages 82 and 83; the entire book is nearly 500 pages long. The paragraph is part of a chapter called “Flux and Constancy in Human Nature,” the last of ten chapters in the section of the book entitled, “Reason in Common Sense.” Here is the paragraph:

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends upon retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement; and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp.”

I cite this paragraph, not to agree with it—I particularly dislike the disparaging remarks about savages and barbarians—but to see if the third sentence jumped out at you as something familiar. Poor George Santayana, who is remembered for only one sentence (which yesterday I saw attributed to Edmund Burke—that started me down this road). Some years ago I heard the same sentence quoted by three different speakers at the dedication of a library building, and I doubt any of those speakers could have said who Santayana was, when and where he lived, and what he meant by that sentence. It fits on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker; hardly anyone would care to advertise the sentiment that most people are either too young or too old to learn.

Or, as Julius Caesar once said, “There’s hardly any point in speaking, when people are going to remember it wrong as soon as tomorrow dawns.” J.

Why does he do it?

Soren Kierkegaard describes a man who lived in a quiet neighborhood of Copenhagen. This man, a bookkeeper, was respected and well-lived, for he was kind, educated, generous, and particularly benevolent toward children. This man had one peculiar habit. Every day, between eleven o’clock and noon, he would pace the same path in the city streets. Any other hour of the day he would greet people and talk with them, but no one could interrupt his daily hour of pacing. Back and forth he would walk, an intent look in his eye, but completely unaware of the world around him. No one in his neighborhood knew how this habit began, but they tolerated it in him because he was so good to them the rest of the day.
A man like this lives in my neighborhood. Every Saturday, unless the weather is cold or raining, he paces back and forth in his yard. Like that man Kierkegaard describes, he walks back and forth without purpose for about an hour. Like Kierkegaard’s bookkeeper, he is courteous and kind the rest of the week. For this one hour, though, this man seems controlled by some thought no one else can know. No one dares to interrupt him as he paces. He moves back and forth, an intent look on his face, until the hour is over and he returns to normal.
I wonder about this man. I wonder what sort of obsession or compulsion causes him to pace in this way. Please understand, I am in no way mocking Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I have considerable sympathy for all who struggle with that problem, and I would not wish it on anyone. It seems possible to me that this man is dealing with that kind of issue in his life.
Otherwise, I wonder if that man is engaged in some religious pursuit. Once again, I have the highest respect for religion and would never mock it. It occurs to me that this man may be entranced in some sort of mediation that is meant to bring him closer to God or lift him to a higher level of consciousness.
I should think, though, that his meditation might be disturbed by the noisy lawnmower this man pushes in front of him as he paces.
Some reader might say, “OK, I see what you did there, J. Very funny to set us up with compulsive pacing and then tell us he is just mowing his lawn.” Before you assume that I wrote all this for the sake of a joke, consider that I am very serious about my question: Why does he do it? Why this obsession with a patch of grass that sends this poor man outside, week after week, to toil and labor in service of his lawn?
Yes, I cut my grass when it has gotten long enough to need cutting. I do not treat it as a religious ceremony, though, because I just try to get it done as quickly as possible, leaving time for more important things. If this man’s lawn maintenance is part of his religion, I envy his zeal. I wish I could serve my Lord as faithfully as he serves his lawn. If I could bring to my Christian living the kind of energy and determination shown by this man and others like him, I could truly be numbered among the saints.
If, however, this behavior is obsession or compulsion, I feel sorry for this man. To be in the chains of a habit that sends him out, every Saturday morning, to mow and trim and fertilize and tend his lawn, when he could be doing more important things, must be misery. I try to be kind to him whenever our paths cross, hoping my kindness can somehow compensate for this man’s unfortunate slavery to a patch of grass.
J. (originally posted May 5, 2015)

Christ in Genesis: the Sacrifice

Genesis 22 has inspired awe and horror in God’s people for many generations. Soren Kierkegaard wrote an entire book, Fear and Trembling, about this chapter. He makes the interesting point that any man today who dared to imitate Abraham and prepare to offer his son as a burnt offering would be stopped, arrested, tried, and convicted of a crime. Any statement that God had told him to do such a thing would be disregarded as an attempt to obtain a verdict of innocent on the grounds of insanity.

Kierkegaard overlooked the fact that Genesis 22 contains a picture of Jesus and his sacrifice. However, Kierkegaard correctly indicated that this account teaches more than the truth that we should give our best to God. Many teachers see only that lesson—Isaac was the best thing Abraham could offer to God, and God demanded that from him. A vast distance separates our requirement to give our best to God and God’s command to Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice.

How was Abraham capable of daring to obey such a command? “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac… He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-18). Abraham’s faith in the promise of the resurrection made him able to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son. If Abraham knew about the resurrection, he must also have known about the promised Savior. Perhaps Abraham even believed that his miracle son, Isaac, was the promised Savior, the blessing from his family for the entire world. Instead of recognizing Isaac as a picture of Jesus, Abraham may have thought that he was in the presence of his Redeemer in the person of his son.

So a father is prepared to accept—and even to cause—the death of his son for the good of the world. The son trusts his father and does not resist his father’s will. He even carries the wood to the place of sacrifice, as Jesus carried his own cross. Abraham is stopped just in time, because Isaac is not the Christ. He is only a picture of the Christ. A second picture of Jesus appears, a ram taking the place of Isaac as Jesus himself would take the place of Isaac in the future.

As they climbed the hill for the sacrifice, Isaac asked Abraham, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham must have gulped and sighed before he said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” When he said those words, Abraham expected Isaac to be the lamb, for God had provided Isaac by a miracle to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham’s words were made true when he provided a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. They were made more true when God provided his only-begotten Son to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Not only is Jesus depicted first by Isaac and then by the ram; he is also present at this near-sacrifice. He is the angel of the Lord who speaks to Abraham, repeating the promise that Abraham’s family would be a mighty nation and would provide a blessing for the entire world. Jesus himself fulfilled that promise when he suffered and died on the cross and when he rose to life again on the third day. His resurrection guarantees our resurrection and our eternal life. This promise of a resurrection strengthened Abraham to obey the command of God, and (as the letter to the Hebrews says) “figuratively speaking, he did receive him back”—on the third day from the command to sacrifice his son!

Where did this take place? “The land of Moriah… on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you,” God said (Genesis 22:2). This mountain of Moriah is mentioned again in II Chronicles 3:1, where we are told that Solomon built the house of the Lord on Mount Moriah. Moriah is one of the seven hills of Jerusalem, and the animal sacrifices (which, like Isaac, were pictures of Jesus) were offered to God in the Temple on Mount Moriah from the time of Solomon until the Babylonian Captivity, and again in the second Temple until the time of Jesus. Calvary may possibly be the very outcropping of Mount Moriah on which Isaac was nearly sacrificed. If not, we can be sure that the place where Father Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son and the place where God the Father accepted the sacrifice of his Son were very near each other. J.

Obsessive and compulsive reading

I am an obsessive and compulsive reader. Notice that I did not use the word “disorder.” There is nothing disordered about my reading. It does not interfere with my life, but in fact it enriches my life. All the same, I use my library in a way many people would find unnatural.

On any given day, I generally read from four or five books. (This does not include my daily Bible reading or any work-related reading.) In college, when I was taking four different classes and reading different kinds of material for each class, I was quite content. Now that I’m no longer in school, I continue my education, reading from an assortment of books that cover history, philosophy, theology, science, and literature. My mean average of books finished in a year is 120. (Yes, I keep track. My range since 2001 has been 91 to 176.)

As I start a book, I check how many pages it contains, and I calculate how many days I will be reading that book. A difficult book might hold me to twenty pages a day, an average book thirty pages a day, and an easy book forty or fifty pages a day. One of my coworkers has a husband who has the same habit. She has commented that she does not understand that habit—she reads to enjoy reading, and counting pages (in her opinion) lessens the enjoyment. Neither of us is able to explain to her why we count the number of pages we read in a day. We just do it.

In 2009 I arranged all my fiction books alphabetically by author and chronologically within the work of each author. I then started with Douglas Adams and began reading each book from beginning to end. Sometimes the jump from one author to the next is jarring—switching from Henry Miller to John Milton was recently quite a jolt. When I am finished with Milton, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is next. I’m looking forward to that book—I picked it up at a used book sale years ago and still haven’t gotten around to reading it. I’ve seen the movie more than once, and some of my daughters own copies of the book. One of them reads Gone with the Wind every year or so. This will be my first time.

If I like an author, I try to acquire all of his or her books. In my collection I have most of the books written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut. I also have impressive collections of books by Dave Barry, Soren Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, and Walker Percy. I have a copy of every book written by Richard Nixon, and I have about fifty books about Nixon, his presidency, and Watergate.

I have a shelf of books devoted to poetry and another devoted to drama. I have a shelf of books about King Arthur, ranging from fantasy works to historic investigations into the original Camelot.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he tried meditation, but every benefit promised by meditation, he gained from reading a book. I quite agree. After a stressful day at work, nothing is more relaxing than time to read. I might be obsessive and compulsive about my books, but that’s OK—they keep me sane. J.

Two paths

Two paths stand before each of us, and each of us much choose which path to walk. One is the path of pleasure, and the other is the path of virtue. The path of pleasure appears pleasant, even beautiful, and it is easy to travel, but it leads to destruction. The path of virtue appears unpleasant, and it is much harder to travel, but it leads to true joy and not to destruction.

I have just read an interesting discussion of these two paths, and no, the writer does not mention Robert Frost. The poem in which Frost chooses the path less traveled, “and that has made all the difference,” is beloved by graduation speakers. Yet Frost never says that he is glad he took the path less traveled. When the poem is read with a sense of regret, it makes equal sense. Frost was born too late, though, to be quoted by Soren Kierkegaard. In his monumental Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard mentions sermons he has heard about the paths of pleasure and virtue. Specifically, Kierkegaard mentions preachers who recommend the path of virtue and discuss its charms. “Little by little,” Kierkegaard says, they alter their description of virtue and its rewards, until finally it seems like lunacy to choose the path of pleasure, not only because it leads to destruction, but because the path of virtue is equally nice in every way. Kierkegaard scornfully refers to these preachers as a committee formed to beautify the path of virtue, planting flowers along the way.

I do not quote Kierkegaard merely to correct the “prosperity gospel” preachers, those who say that God wants his people to be wealthy, healthy, peaceful, and happy in this present sinful world. Correcting their mistakes with properly applied Scripture is as easy as fishing in the hatchery pond. Instead, I am noticing how often we all try to beautify the path of virtue. We convince ourselves that we feel better after doing something kind and helpful for another person; we tell ourselves that we would feel guilty after sinning and our sense of guilt would take away all the fun. We assure ourselves that the sacrifices we make for God are improving our lives, guaranteeing us contentment in the midst of sacrifice. (What kind of sacrifice is it, then, if it makes us happy?) We promise ourselves that God is going to smooth the way before us once he knows that we have chosen to honor him by walking the path of virtue rather than the path to pleasure.

Kierkegaard rightly says that the Bible promises no such things. Easy and wide is the path to destruction, but narrow is the road to eternal life. The gate also is narrow, and few find it. In another place, Jesus says that the road to virtue is so difficult that we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. The path of virtue requires nothing less than self-denial, self-sacrifice, and total faithfulness to the Lord.

Unfortunately, Kierkegaard stops at this point. He does not go on to say that we all, like sheep, have gone astray. As Paul wrote to the Romans, not one of us has faithfully traveled the path of virtue—we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Not only do we try to beautify the path of virtue; we convince ourselves that the path of virtue must be beautiful because the path we are traveling has all the surface splendor of the path of pleasure. Rather than confessing that we are on the wrong path, we honor ourselves by calling our way the path of virtue and by accusing others of being on the path of pleasure.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, Isaiah says, but the Lord has laid on our Redeemer the burden of us all. All sin and fall short of the glory of God, but all are saved by his grace. We have not denied ourselves, but Jesus denied himself for us. We have forgotten to carry our crosses, but Jesus carried his cross through Jerusalem to Golgotha. Like Christ’s disciples we have not followed our Shepherd when trouble arose. We have run in other directions; we have hidden from trouble; when challenged, we have denied our Lord. Yet he went alone to the cross so we could be redeemed. Alone, he paid the price for all our wandering and all our guilt. Alone, he walked the path of virtue so he could come back and take us to be with him. Our Shepherd has blazed a trail through the consequences of our guilt. Now his rod and staff comfort us, goodness and mercy accompany us every step of the way, and we will dwell in his house forever. J.

The muse: a femme fatale

Last month I attended a public lecture given by a local painter. Toward the end of his talk, he began to speak of the muse. Since ancient Greece, artists and creative people spoke of the Muses as spirits who guided them in their work. This painter did not have kind words for his muse. As well as I can remember, this is what he said: “The muse cares about the art, not about the artist. She will use him to produce art until he drops dead from exhaustion, and she does not care. At any whim she can cast him off and abandon him without a second thought. The muse is not the artist’s friend, because the artist is the tool of the muse.”

I may be embellishing his words a bit, but I have captured the essence of what he said. Few creative people are in love with their muse. Writers do not write because it’s fun to write—writers are driven to write. Painters and sculptors and others involved in the visual arts feel the same way. Musicians perform music, not as a hobby but as a compulsion. I have known many musicians. I have noticed that their feelings about people who dabble in music vary between amusement and scorn. If music is just a hobby—if music is not the only reason to go on living—then that amateur performer is not considered a true musician.

Every art is populated by starving artists. Only a few in each field reach the heights of fame and wealth. Most take on another job to support themselves while their hearts remain dedicated to their art. One of my musician friends made contact with the drummer who performed with Santana at Woodstock. The man still drums in small clubs for a pittance. With his immense talent and his minutes of fame, today he is a classic image of the starving artist.

Creative people often seem to have emotional problems of one kind or another. From severe mental illness to deep depression, artists seem prone to live unhappy lives. The suicide of an Ernest Hemingway or a Robin Williams reminds the rest of the world of the pain many artists carry inside themselves day and night. Who is to blame? Is it the fault of the muse that artists suffer? Can only those afflicted by pain supply the rest of the world with entertainment and with awe?

Soren Kierkegaard compared poets to the victims in ancient Sicily who were roasted to death in a hollow bull a king commanded an artist to devise. The screams of pain generated from within the bull by the victim sounded like music passing through the contraption. Reportedly, the designer of the Sicilian bull was the first victim to be tested in its flames.

Aristotle said something to the effect of “there is no great genius without a touch of madness.” He may have been thinking of Socrates, who was often considered to be mad. Socrates claimed to be inspired by a semi-divine spirit (the actual Greek word is “demon”) and would sometimes stop and stare into space, even in the middle of a conversation. Other wise people have compared the link between genius and madness to the link between roses and thorns.

Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, felt that creativity comes from being an outsider. He said that the mentally ill, along with Jews and homosexuals and other outsiders, are forced to see the world in a different way because they were made outsiders. When they describe the world which they see, they are discovered to be creative.

All this seems to say that the muse is a cruel mistress, a femme fatale, who uses the artist for her own ends without regard for the artist’s happiness, comfort, or even survival. Perhaps in a perfect world art can be produced painlessly, but we do not live in a perfect world. The burden of the artist, the driving force of the muse, is part of the reality of existence in this world. In the movie A League of Their Own, the manager is talking about baseball when he says, “Of course it’s not easy! If it were easy, everyone would do it.” What is true of baseball is true of art as well. J.

Ten books on a deserted island

A question is sometimes asked of celebrities, or among friends having a conversation. The question is, “If you were to spend the rest of your life alone on an island, what ten books would you want to have with you?” Since no one has actually asked me that question, I am free to change the rules. I will allow myself twelve books on my deserted island, because the Holy Bible and the hymnal are such obvious selections that they need no explanation. The following ten books are listed alphabetically by author.

  • Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights. I have been enchanted by this book from the first time I read it, which was a winter weekend while I was still in school. One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it contains not a single likeable character. Each of them, even the minor characters, is deeply flawed. Even the narrator of the story has more flaws than virtues in his weak yet self-centered approach to others. What is enjoyable about reading about flawed people? One tires of endless nobility and generosity in so many other books of this genre. Wuthering Heights is the truest novel of its time and setting of any I have yet discovered. Yet it also far surpasses all the later attempts to write novels of fiction that contained only believable storylines with no fantasy or mystery.
  • Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, fortunately printed in the same volume. This is one of eight books I read faithfully every summer of my childhood. (Perhaps someday I will blog about all eight.) In contrast to Wuthering Heights, the Alice stories depict a whimsical world of nonsense that is not quite nonsense, because it possesses its own inner sense. I would be sorry to spend the rest of my days without one childlike pleasure in my collection.
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot. Some years ago I began reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky because I thought I should, and this novel stood out as the gem of the collection. The title character is a simple-minded prince who wanders into the treacherous world of polite and refined society, yet survives all its traps, at least for a while. Many readers have tried to present the prince as a Christ-like character. I’m not sure that is true, but the story possesses a delightful view of Russian noble life in the nineteenth century that blends well with the world of the Brontes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Lewis Carroll.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Not one of my favorites the first time I read it, this novel has grown on me with repeated readings. It truly deserves to be considered “the Great American Novel,” because it depicts both sides of life in the America of its time, while also presenting timeless messages about wealth and about finding meaning in life (or failing to do so). I find it completely appropriate that Andy Kaufman chose to read this particular novel to his audiences at one point in his career, because so much of the novel reveals the difference between surface impressions and deeper realities.
  • Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls. If I was allowed to choose only Hemingway or only Fitzgerald for my library, I would go with Hemingway without hesitation. This is, no doubt, his greatest novel. I remember reading it late at night during a hot summer when I came home from work after midnight, not yet sleepy. The characters and settings of this book are as vivid and as believable as any I can remember from literature in general.
  • A Kierkegaard Anthology, edited by Robert Bretall. I could not spend the rest of my days without some Kierkegaard, and if I cannot have the complete collection with me, Bretall’s anthology is second-best. Kierkegaard is a thoughtful writer and surprisingly relevant to present-day topics. He is not easy to read, and is often misunderstood, but I find time spent reading his writing worth the effort.
  • Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind. If I’m to spend the rest of my life on this island, I want to have at least one book I have never read before. Ever since I read Moby Dick a few years ago, Gone With the Wind has been the “most important book I never read.” I’ve seen the movie a time or two, and other members of my family have read the book and enjoyed it, so I think I will include it in my collection.
  • Vladimir Nabakov, Pale Fire. Hemingway and Fitzgerald write well, but Nabakov paints with words; his artistry surpasses all other authors who write in English. This sublime writing is particularly amazing, because English was Nabakov’s third language, after Russian and French. Although he is most famous for writing Lolita, Nabakov’s best work is Pale Fire. He weaves several stories together by having one character write a thousand-line poem and having another write the Foreword and Commentary on the poem. The misunderstandings shown by the second character are both farcical and elegant. Nabakov creates a multi-layered work which remains readable and entertaining, unlike the cubist writing of James Joyce. “Chapman’s Homer” indeed!
  • Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book also works on several levels (Spoilers coming!!) as it combines a story of a father and son traveling cross-country by motorcycle, memories of a nervous breakdown, a history of western philosophy, and elements of eastern philosophy. Pirsig’s ability to weave these disparate elements into a satisfying novel not only make me want to read the novel again and again but also to study the philosophers he mentioned.
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five. If I had to choose between these masterpieces, I would go with Cat’s Cradle. Fortunately, a publisher has recently produced a several-volume set of Vonnegut’s novels, and these two works are in the same volume. Vonnegut’s work has been described as “dark humor.” He writes with a light touch, but he conveys deep thoughts. His style is perfect to lift the heaviness of some of the other works I have chosen.

I hope I am never stranded anywhere without my complete library—my follow-up list of honorable mentions would be longer than some of these books. But if I had to limit myself to just a few books, these are the ones I would choose. J.

Why does he do it?

Soren Kierkegaard describes a man who lived in a quiet neighborhood of Copenhagen. This man, a bookkeeper, was respected and well-lived, for he was kind, educated, generous, and particularly benevolent toward children. This man had one peculiar habit. Every day, between eleven o’clock and noon, he would pace the same path in the city streets. Any other hour of the day he would greet people and talk with them, but no one could interrupt his daily hour of pacing. Back and forth he would walk, an intent look in his eye, but completely unaware of the world around him. No one in his neighborhood knew how this habit began, but they tolerated it in him because he was so good to them the rest of the day.
A man like this lives in my neighborhood. Every Saturday, unless the weather is cold or raining, he paces back and forth in his yard. Like that man Kierkegaard describes, he walks back and forth without purpose for about an hour. Like Kierkegaard’s bookkeeper, he is courteous and kind the rest of the week. For this one hour, though, this man seems controlled by some thought no one else can know. No one dares to interrupt him as he paces. He moves back and forth, an intent look on his face, until the hour is over and he returns to normal.
I wonder about this man. I wonder what sort of obsession or compulsion causes him to pace in this way. Please understand, I am in no way mocking Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I have considerable sympathy for all who struggle with that problem, and I would not wish it on anyone. It seems possible to me that this man is dealing with that kind of issue in his life.
Otherwise, I wonder if that man is engaged in some religious pursuit. Once again, I have the highest respect for religion and would never mock it. It occurs to me that this man may be entranced in some sort of mediation that is meant to bring him closer to God or lift him to a higher level of consciousness.
It seems likely, though, that his meditation might be disturbed by the noisy lawnmower this man pushes in front of him as he paces.
Some reader might say, “OK, I see what you did there, J. Very funny to set us up with compulsive pacing and then tell us he is just mowing his lawn.” Before you assume that I wrote all this for the sake of a joke, consider that I am very serious about my question: Why does he do it? Why this obsession with a patch of grass that sends this poor man outside, week after week, to toil and labor in service of his lawn?
Yes, I cut my grass when it has gotten long enough to need cutting. I do not treat it as a religious ceremony, though, because I just try to get it done as quickly as possible, leaving time for more important things. If this man’s lawn maintenance is part of his religion, I envy his zeal. I wish I could serve my Lord as faithfully as he serves his lawn. If I could bring to my Christian living the kind of energy and determination shown by this man and others like him, I could truly be numbered among the saints.
If, however, this behavior is obsession or compulsion, I feel sorry for this man. To be in the chains of a habit that sends him out, every Saturday morning, to mow and trim and fertilize and tend his lawn, when he could be doing more important things, must be misery. I try to be kind to him whenever our paths cross, hoping my kindness can somehow compensate for this man’s unfortunate slavery to a patch of grass.
J.

Fame, creativity, and depression

One of the most shocking news items of 2014 was the suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams. How could a man so talented, so seemly full of laughter and joy, choose to end his life? It seemed that Robin Williams had it all: fame, money, and the love of millions of people. Yet Robin Williams was terribly sad. He spoke openly about his battles with depression. People in his life believed him and tried to help him. Health professionals took care of him. Somehow, one night, it was not enough. Depression won, and the world lost Robin Williams.

Many famous people publicly acknowledge their battles with depression. Are famous people more likely than the rest of us to be depressed? Probably not—we just hear more about their struggles because they are famous. The prevalence of depression among the famous is most likely about the same as its prevalence among the general population. Maybe famous people feel safer talking about problems that the rest of us prefer to keep hidden.

On the other hand, some observers have noticed a correlation between creativity and depression. Not that depression makes people creative—just the other way around; depression saps the ability to create and to communicate. But people who see themselves as outsiders, members of minority groups and others at the edge of society, frequently produce more art (music, literature, etc.) than the general population. These people often have a stronger sense of humor, which again seems to be fed by their perception of themselves as outsiders. If creativity and humor are evoked by estrangement from the world, by a sense of alienation, then a correlation between depression and creativity does not come as a surprise.

Soren Kierkegaard, in writings such as The Concept of Anxiety (also translated as The Concept of Dread) and The Sickness unto Death, seemed to suggest that depression is a normal reaction to the way things are in this world. By “the way things are,” I do not so much mean wars and poverty and crime, but rather the individual experience of sensing the difference between who I truly am and who I could be and ought to be. Satisfaction with that difference, Kierkegaard indicated, is worse than being depressed over the difference. Yet the chasm between who I am and who I should be is unbridgeable. The only sensible response to becoming aware of that difference, it would seem, is despair.

Of course, neither you nor I can experience another person’s emotions or can tell how another person truly feels inside. I do not know if my depression is like that of others or is unique. All I can do is to describe how I feel in the midst of an emotional trough. I wake up in the morning, and getting out of bed is a chore. Brushing my teeth is a chore. Taking a shower is a chore. I push myself to accomplish these chores, even though I cannot think of a good reason to do them. I drive to work, but I am not interested in the things I will do at work. The family might plan some entertainment together—a movie or a baseball game—and I go along to be a good sport, but I would rather sit alone at home. Worst of all, when I am driving, I imagine what it would be like to drive the car off the side of the bridge into the river. I can find no good reason not to do it. I am not looking forward to anything in the near future, or in the distant future. If a doctor told me that I had an advanced case of cancer and I could not be saved, I would take that as good news, not as bad news.

That is how I feel when I am depressed. I assume the feeling is similar for other people. But what causes this feeling of dismal despair? Depression, as far as I understand it, is a symptom with various causes. For that reason, the same solution is not effective for all people facing depression.

It seems that there is a genetic predisposition to depression; people from some families are more likely to experience depression than people from other families. Depression can be the result of chemical balances in the human body. It can be a response to current, on-going stresses; or it can be a response to events from long ago—sometimes events that are remembered, and sometimes events that are forgotten.

Some people can find relief from depression by getting proper nutrition, accompanied with enough sleep each night and enough exercise each day. Others take medicines that help to relieve depression. Others need therapy to discuss their current stresses and past problems with a therapist. Still others, including Kierkegaard, find solace in religion. Often several of these sources of relief are needed in combination. What works for one person does not work for the next person. Just because I swallowed a certain pill or attended a certain church and started feeling better, I cannot conclude that every person with depression should take that pill or go to that church.

Well-meaning people try to help. “Cheer up,” they say, “Things can’t be so bad.” They encourage the victim of depression to be busy doing other things, especially things that help other people. “Then you won’t have time to be depressed,” they say. Still another solution—one I tried for many years, until I accepted that it was not working—is to ignore the feelings of depression, do the right thing in spite of those feelings, and pay them no mind.

We all have bad days now and then. Depression is like a string of bad days. It is like a bad cloud that will not go away. It is like a trap with no hope of escape. Depression is a most dangerous symptom precisely because it robs its victims of hope, convincing them that things will never improve no matter what they do.

If you know these feelings, I hope you are finding help. If you have not looked for help—if, like me, you tried to fight your way through on your own—please take the next step. See a family doctor, to find out if your depression is a symptom of some physical problem. See a counselor to talk through your feelings and to track them back to their origin. Reach out for help, call out for help, and keep looking until you find help. You are worth it. And you can be happy again.

If you know someone who appears to be under that cloud, talk to that person. Listen to that person. Encourage that person to get professional help. He or she is worth it. And he or she can be happy again.

Thank you for reading.

J.