Thoughts Before the Dawn

What is Truth? Most people like to think they know what is true, especially in this present age: to each his (or her or zir) own.

But the Truth, when it does come to us, is often so strange, so unexpected, so disruptive, so offensive, so revealing that it causes one of several reactions.

A few recognize it immediately and drop everything they’re doing to know more. For them, it is life-changing.

Others accept it as one of many truths, adding it to their collection, gathered like so many coffee-table books, to be thumbed through from time to time and referred to at cocktail parties or play dates, unaware that it contradicts everything else they like to talk about.

Perhaps the great majority feign interest for a while but become distracted by the business of life. To them, the truth is an uncomfortable inconvenience, better left to another day, maybe another season in life. That is, until the next catastrophic event, when they try to remember what it was, but can’t quite recall.

Still others, however, are deeply troubled by it. They have one of two reactions, especially when the truth threatens to disrupt their lives, to interfere with what it is they think they know. They either scoff, deem it foolishness and wash their hands of it; or they seek to destroy it, and will stop at nothing until they do. 

No matter what, however, the Truth lives on forever, unchanged and unchanging, whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not, whether we pay it any mind.

Such is the story of Easter, the gospel Truth.

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Well Done, Nephew

My Dearest Wormwood,

You have, at long last, redeemed yourself in the eyes of your adoring uncle. I had all but lost hope, poppen. Your latest report pleases me, almost beyond words.

Of course, I haven’t forgotten your efforts to draw our patient out of his church, although it took far longer than it should have. Indeed, you have competently succeeded to convince him, despite the urging of the Enemy, that he needn’t bother to attend, or to observe any longer the ancient relics of tradition in his worship. He has finally come to realize that he is, as Our Father Below would have it, “a god unto himself.” He worships as he chooses nowadays, which usually is not at all. When he does worship, it is on his own terms. Well and good. We’ll take what we can get, at least for now. I commend you for that success.

However, let us focus on this pesky thing called “freedom,” which has always been a bit of a nuisance, and to which you have, at least until now, paid far too little attention. Yet, what a brilliant inspiration by your former preceptor, the inimitable Slubgob, who has managed to shut down the freedom of the entire world through fear, with the use of a tiny microbe. Magnificent. Even beyond limiting commerce and industry to the point where our patient is likely to suffer future deprivation, and perhaps even starvation (dare we imagine?), Slubgob has deftly convinced those in charge to shutter the churches, so these so-called Christians could not worship freely if they wanted to. If only he had taught you to be so resourceful. I do now expect you, my dear nephew, to make the most of the situation, before our patient comes to his senses. As I have said many times, never allow a good crisis to go to waste.

Fortunately for us, until the present our subject has used his freedom, such as it is, for his own selfish purposes, which has worked to our advantage in so many ways. Yet, these things can so easily get out of hand. It has always been of great concern to me that he would someday recognize that his quaint notion of liberty (which we would commonly refer to as “license”) hardly comports to the freedom offered by the Oppressor, who likes to think of himself as the author of freedom, yet demands that it only come through obedience to him, alone. Been there, done that, as they say. Such freedom is as much a self-contradiction as the notion of love. What utter nonsense; yet humans can be so gullible, as we know. 

Happily, our patient’s seemingly insatiable desire for freedom (which thankfully seemed to peak in the last century) has at last been exceeded by his desire for security, lately because of this new virus. Such has been our plan all along, as you know. We now have him enthralled. He has made his “choice,” as it were. Those in power, under the leadership of the High Command, will find him much more compliant today than in the past, I venture to posit. 

Meantime, I leave it to you to exploit the acute “social distancing” (what a delightful term) to which he has subjected himself at the behest of those in authority. You must take every opportunity to make it appear that this tactic of isolation is for his own good and for the good of others. Whatever you do, keep him mindful that he must remain in isolation from others, so he cannot possibly join with them to conduct the so-called higher “civic duty” (what idiocy) of caring for those in need and protecting those who are most vulnerable in society, et cetera. 

Again, I leave it to you, nephew. I look forward with great relish to your next report. I am quite sure that you do not wish to disappoint me again, Wormwood. Need I remind you what happened the last time? 

Your affectionate uncle,

//S: Screwtape

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Freedom is Not a Virtue

We Americans have come to think and live as though freedom is the ultimate human virtue to be achieved. In order to live a good life, one must seek to be free above all else. Free of constraint, free of oppression, free of judgments, free of hunger, free of fear, free of responsibility. Wouldn’t that be ideal? If only the whole world could be free. What’s wrong with that?

In our culture, freedom is valued as the key to happiness, unlocking the door to the well-lived life. We often are quick to celebrate our freedom as Americans, and even quicker to defer to our favorite Amendments that guarantee certain sacrosanct freedoms to us. We seem eager to invent new ones every decade or so.

At the same time, our shared reverence for freedom is at the root of every divisive issue facing us today, lately even to the point of threatening the unity of this nation of free people. Nobody can tell me what to do with my body. Nobody can tell me what to do with my guns. It’s a free country, isn’t it? 

If freedom is the key to our happiness, it’s not working. According to the latest World Happiness Report, published in March, the general happiness of Americans has declined steadily over the past 20 years. So, why are we becoming less happy? And why are we so divided against each other?

There are likely many causes. But, maybe—just maybe—one of them is that we’ve substituted freedom for virtue, though freedom is not a virtue at all. Nowhere does it appear among Aristotle’s list of virtues, for example. In the well-known book, Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses these timeless virtues, such as courage, temperance, generosity, honesty, patience, truth, trustworthiness, friendliness, and justice, as the means to happiness. He said we must acquire these virtues, among others, both as individuals and as a society, if we are to flourish as free people. They aren’t innate. They must be learned from others and practiced in moderation.

Aristotle wasn’t alone in his thinking. When Jesus mentioned freedom in his teachings about how we should live blessed (happy) lives, it was only in relation to the virtue of truth. “The truth shall set you free.” Perhaps we’ve lost sight of this wisdom, or forgotten it entirely. If so, we have strayed far from the thinking of those who established this nation, who relied heavily on these ideas as to how a free people should live.

Freedom is not a virtue, but a state of being. Of course, living in a free state, having the liberty to develop these virtues makes it easier to pursue the good life, the virtuous life—or “happiness,” as Aristotle defined it. Freedom is necessary but is not sufficient to living the good life. Further, it is certainly possible to live a good life and not be entirely free to do everything we please, as those who are soldiers, police, doctors, judges, teachers, ministers, athletes, and even most referees would attest. Politicians may be another matter entirely, however. Few are the virtuous in that camp. Diogenes and his lamp come to mind.

So, if we are to believe the wisdom of Aristotle, Jesus, and others, then the key to living a good life is not freedom, despite what appears to be popular opinion these days. Rather, it is developing the dozen or so virtues that lead to happiness. Living a good life, or the “pursuit of happiness” (to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s phrase) is our purpose—even our right—as human beings, according to the Declaration of Independence. If that is true, then it is not so much our freedom to which we should look to supply happiness, but the virtues that determine what we do with that freedom when we find ourselves rid of constraints, and most especially when nobody is watching—or governing—us.

Freedom, after all, is free of virtue. In itself, freedom can be as dangerous and vicious as it is beneficial and good. Freedom for the sake of freedom certainly can be destructive. Think about it. The evidence is everywhere, from Charlottesville to Portland, from Charleston to Las Vegas.

We tend to believe that freedom provides us protection and strength. It’s all good, right? In truth, however, the freer we become, the less secure and more vulnerable we are, though we might think otherwise.

Take a simple example. As kids, few things are more more freeing than having our own wheels. Most parents know the mixed feelings of joy, satisfaction, and abject fear of watching their child pedal a bicycle down the street out of sight for the first time to visit a friend. It is exhilarating, empowering, and essential to a child’s sense of self to experience such freedom.

Experiences like that are what motivate and animate us to grow as human beings. From such adventures on their own, children (and their parents) can develop the true virtues of courage, temperance, trustworthiness, pride, and friendliness, among others. 

But, a lot of bad things can happen out there, too, alone and out of sight. Freedom can be dangerous. 

So, mom and dad set limitations and boundaries to keep their children safe and secure. Don’t go beyond Maple Street. Ride with the traffic. Cross with the lights. Call when you get there. Be polite. Don’t overstay your welcome. Be home by suppertime. Even with this new-found freedom, the young children of good parents are never entirely free, are they?  As adults, in our romantic nostalgia for the lost freedom of our youth (we were happiest then, right?), we sometimes tend to forget that.

We all as children soon learn that we can ride our bikes (or skateboards) freely until we exceed the boundaries set by those who care about our safety and security. Staying within those boundaries, we learn and practice the virtues, like honesty, temperance, and trustworthiness. If we ignore those boundaries, we can quickly find ourselves in terrible trouble or danger, one way or another. True liberty comes when we learn to operate as freely as we can, within the established mores, rules, and laws that govern us. 

In other words, living the virtuous life.

Beneficent liberty, then, depends on our virtues, as individuals, as families, and as a society. Without those virtues, we can’t enjoy our freedom—at least, not for long. Freedom without virtue often becomes too excessive, too volatile, too dangerous; consequentially, the laws that govern us become more and more stringent. We eventually find the laws encroaching on our liberty. We become less and less happy, whether as children or adults. We start pointing our fingers at everyone else who is violating the law, regardless of our own propensity to do the same.

These days, the answer to every issue seems to be, “there oughta be a law.” What an odd notion for a free people. We have enough laws, don’t we? It is often said that we are a “nation of laws.” I hate that phrase. Chances are, that new law isn’t going to make any of us any happier. Except for the lawyers among us.

Perhaps James Madison, the main author of the Constitution of the United States, said it best: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

Americans seem quite unhappy these days, and there is a lot of talk about just who is to blame. It’s always tempting to blame somebody else–Them. But, who is really to blame? Have we Americans become less virtuous lately? 

If Madison was right, our freedoms, as well as our happiness, depend on the answer to that question—and ultimately what we as a people are willing to do about it.

Especially when nobody is watching.

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That Fence Hurts

Over the past year, I’ve lost two friends, both of whom I’ve liked and admired for over forty years. Neither of them died, though I mourn the loss of their friendship as much as I would have if that were so. They might as well be dead. They’ve both cut me off and refused to communicate with me, because I said something that offended them.

Now, I could have kept my mouth (keyboard) shut. Some would say I should have. I didn’t intend to offend either one, and tried very hard not to. I merely spoke the truth, as gently and gracefully as I could, in response to something they had said, to which I took exception. I simply offered a counterpoint, an alternative point of view.

Of course, social media has made us all hyper-sensitive. It’s too easy these days to cut other people off or out of our lives if they say or do something we don’t like. Much harder to do it face-to-face. But, that’s a subject for another day.

Sometimes, the truth really does hurt. However, I’ve found that what hurts more is sitting on the fence so long that I’ve grown numb. I can’t sit on that fence, trying my very best to avoid confrontation, any longer. It hurts too much.

Despite the best teachings of the modern world, which would have us value tolerance above all other virtues, we can’t escape the truth that, yes, Virginia, there really are wrong answers. The evidence of that simple truth is all around us, every day.

Echoing the wisdom of Aristotle, C. S. Lewis wrote: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. ” (The Screwtape Letters) That’s very true, too. Without courage, we cannot test any other virtue, even tolerance.

We must find it in ourselves to muster the courage to say what is on our minds, to utter the truth, to give voice to our convictions, regardless of the consequences. Though we may lose a few friends along the way now and then by doing so, our society depends on it. That’s the truth. We sit the fence at our own peril. Sooner or later, we’ll get so numb as to fall off, one way or the other, and likely will get hurt even worse.

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