"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, October 31, 2005

The creepiest horror


Since one nasty image per week is enough (OK, two, if you count Bishop Skylstad's visage), I include a more innocuous one for this Halloween post. That's just as well, because the images are hard to conjure and would be just as varied as individuals. Images of what? The scary stuff that's literally creeping up on us as a country.

I can only describe it by saying that an increasing number of Americans, perhaps even a majority by now, are convinced that it's all going to come crashing down on us before most of us are ready and while some of us are still, unfortunately, alive. "It" in this case is the American lifestyle and the "American dream" that putatively motivates it. Let's face it: the lifestyle of even the average American is unsustainable in the long run; and when the long run becomes the short run, the consequences will be horrific.

For one thing, we consistently spend and consume far more than we save and produce. We now depend on foreigners, largely Asian, to finance our budget and trade deficits. For another, only briefly could we be content with being, and acting as, the world's sole superpower. Now, as our military is already stretched to the limit, we confront not only violent Islamism but also a rising Chinese superpower and a European Union whose economy is already bigger than ours. Worse, our lifestyle depends not only on expanding debt and military superiority, neither of which are indefinitely sustainable, but on utilization of finite natural resources, chiefly oil and soil. Nobody knows when the world's oil will actually run out or become terribly expensive in virtue of demand and the difficulty of extraction; but it will someday, and sooner than most people will be prepared for. Nobody knows when the types of farming we do will exhaust the land; but someday they will, unless our methods and expectations change radically. In the meantime we are fatter than ever even as health care consumes an ever-growing portion of our Gross Domestic Product (last I read, it was 15% and climbing). We are engorged with materialism and the desire for a pain-free existence, like an overfed doe standing in the middle of the highway at night, oblivious to the speed and confused by the lights of the approaching danger.

The collision between dumb habit and harsh reality may come relatively suddenly, with a quick succession of wars and/or natural disasters; or we may just be ground into despair and chaos as everything becomes steadily more expensive and less secure. Probably some combination of all the above and then some. Nobody knows and it doesn't really matter. The truly creepy thing about all this is what the redoubtable Peggy Noonan recently pointed out: many of our smartest people know what's down the road and yet choose to do nothing about it, save to practice the high-tech equivalent of hunkering down in their nests. They can only "eat, drink, and be merry"—for tomorrow they will die, and it will only be their children or grandchildren who die sooner with less merriness beforehand. Business as usual is a lot less costly, now, than the effort to reform now—less costly even than the moral courage to make the dire necessity of reform as clear to everybody as it is to the cranks and killjoys we always have with us.

Noonan, of course, suggests that the heedlessness is due to helplessness: since nobody knows what to do to stop the coming trainwreck, they figure thay might as well get the gusto while they can. People do feel helpless, but I believe that sense is itself a sign of something spiritually deadly: what the Fathers and Doctors of the Church called acedia or the deadly sin of "sloth."

Coming from a family genetically prone to depression and anxiety, I have had to wrestle with this sin, sorely if only periodically, since puberty. 'Sloth' here does not primarily mean laziness, though it often causes lassitude; in essence, sloth is the deadly sin of yielding to the desire to give up. It is a refusal to engage reality at its core, and as such is both a cause and a consequence of despair. It's hard to measure moral responsibility for sloth in individuals inasmuch as it often results from clinical depression, which in turn involves bad brain chemistry whose persistence is not always caused or exacerbated by the effects of personal choices. But what we're dealing with in America today—at least among our √©lites—is the collective equivalent of sloth for which I believe the privileged are morally responsible. Those who "have" feel helpless because they are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to act, on their progeny's behalf, as reality calls for. One sign of that is that the birth rate for native-born Americans is now below replacement level—and the higher the income bracket, the lower the birth rate. Why sacrifice for progeny if one isn't even willing to replace oneself?

Which brings me round to another of my favorite themes: the contraceptive mentality. As sex gets steadily unmoored from procreation, people get more interested in the former and less in the latter. As lust accordingly displaces love, the marriage rate declines and the divorce rate keeps reaching new statistical peaks. That's what's happening in our society, and such is the clearest sign of the malady of our age. The desire to make self bigger, and sate it accordingly by reducing people and the earth to objects for untrammelled use, has become collectively so powerful that true love is seen as a mere ideal for the few fortunate enough not to have been made cynical by experience.

As Old Testament history has long since told us, only a big crash will make people humble enough to start over on a sounder footing. They will be "the faithful remnant." The crash will come and the remnant will respond as they should. That's the only reason I don't despair too. It's a story that's been told before. I suppose it's called 'faith'.
blog comments powered by Disqus