01 March 2014

The Edge of the Volcano

Note:  I have referred to Archy and Mehitabel in another, much earlier, blog.  They are the characters created by Don Marquis in 1916 for this daily column in the New York Evening Sun.  Archy is a cockroach, and Mehitabel is an alley cat.  Several books were published; the one with which I am most familiar is "The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel," published in 1940.

Archy the cockroach is a frustrated journalist who continually tries to type columns but cannot hit the shift key.  His good friend and "straight person" is Mehitabel, an alley cat.  In a 1927 column, Don Marquis' alter ego (Archy) writes a column entitled, "The Lesson of the Moth" (written in small case letters, of course).  Archy reflects with Mehitabel on why a moth would try so hard to immolate himself by flying into a light bulb or a flame.  There is a short philosophical discussion on what drives a person to end a life in a single moment of being happy or experiencing beauty.  In the end, the moth flies into a cigar lighter flame and is burned to a cinder.  Archy reflects, "i do not agree with him myself i would rather have half the happiness and twice the longevity."  In the next breath, however, he opines, "but at the same time i wish there was something i wanted as badly as he wanted to fry himself."

I am not quite sure why Archy and Mehitabel crossed my inner stage during this morning's contemplative time.  It has been that kind of week.  Marked by unusual conversations, revelations and insights, I have definitely been experiencing a process of further growth.  I have been both truly blessed and lovingly challenged in those conversations, e-mail exchanges and moments of deep reflection.

During one conversation, with a good friend over coffee, we did reflect on what drives a person to believe that a cause is worthy of strapping a bomb to his/her body and exploding it in a crowded marketplace filled with innocent folks.  Or, what was the internal disposition of a WW II Japanese fighter pilot who was willing to fly his plane into the side of a warship...hoping that his action would sink said vessel?  This led to a reflection on the general historical reality of human sacrifice for the sake of either appeasing a deity or furthering an ideology.  Yep, it's been that kind of week.

When something is bigger than we are...that is, more powerful, stronger, and threatening our way of life in a given moment...the "fail safe" or "fall back" position is to grasp for whatever is necessary to appease that threat or discharge it.  The title of this blog post, "The Edge of the Volcano," is one large threat that, historically has been met with trying to appease the "riled deity" by offering an appealing human sacrifice.  While the idea of human sacrifice for the sake of appeasement seems barbaric to us now; I want to submit that it does happen.  It just isn't so blatant.

Going to extremes is part of our current cultural milieu.  If something seems good, then a whole lot of it should be better.  A good meal should, of course, be substantial (e.g. did you know that the average American restaurant dinner plate is 1.5 times larger than almost anywhere else in the world?).  Going to extremes does, in fact, call for sacrifice.  We, like Mehitabel, gleefully hoist ourselves with our own petard.

When is sacrifice either righteous or needful?

I have a friend who lives in another southeasten state.  We graduated from college together.  We were, and are, good friends.  As the years have passed, we each have gone separate directions...diverged, as it were, into different ideological circles.  My friend recently expressed deepening concern over the events in the Ukraine...most especially the Russian troop movements that have now, it seems, encroached on Ukrainian territory in the Crimea region.  My friend opined that our response is probably laughable insomuch as we have announced a plan for reduction in active military personnel strength in the coming year.  We have also chosen to respond to Russia via strong words with cautionary rhetoric.

I get this.  I have a military background (my friend does not, btw) and know what goes into being on the front line...even in a cold war.  For my friend, more is better.  BUT, whose "more" is it.  Like trying to appease a perceived volcanic deity, it is someone else's son or daughter who gets taken to the edge of the volcano and thrust into the molten pit...so that the rest of us might continue to live within the comfort of our own lifestyle...at least as we perceive it.  We then call this "patriotism."  What we currently call patriotism is not the seminal definition.

Sorry folks, but I am not a politician, nor do I place much energy (or ultimate value) on ideologies.  Ultimately, sacrifice is a reflection of values.  If our values do not include, a) the sanctity of human life; b) the conviction that all of us carry the Imago Dei (the fullness of God); and, c) we contain the capacity for all things needful, sacrifice becomes a banal act of the ego at worst, or an act of prejudice/bigotry at the very best.  There is very little in between.

An action on my part that is willing to sacrifice even the momentary reputation of another person...so that I might appear better...is not very far from the same drive that made it necessary to offer the blood of human sacrifice on an altar to insure a good harvest.  No, I am not either overstating or being histrionic.  It is the same part of our being that initiates either of these actions.  It is simply a matter of degree.  And, like anything we call "sin," both incur the same ultimate damage...the expenditure of another for the sake of our self.

We are approaching the Christian season of Lent.  It begins with Ash Wednesday, on 5 March.  Another of my friends (living a bit closer to me, but also in southeast) recently suggested an alternative to the traditional "Lenten sacrifice."  It is traditional, in this season to give something up...ultimately to sacrifice something for the betterment of our interiority.  The focus is on cleaning up and renewing our interior life.  My friend suggested that, rather than doing what is traditional, how about focusing on what is external to us...taking on a discipline of giving away and engaging the world in new ways.

I think this is a great idea.  HOWEVER, I am keenly aware that doing something outwardly can, in some cases, be like strapping a bomb (petard) to ourselves and detonating it with the idea that it will surely help those in the vicinity of the explosion.    To wit, if we do not have our internal being balanced between banal acts of ego and the loving-kindness of the True Self (our soul), any exterior action will likely turn out to feel like the inquisition or a force-feeding to those to whom we are intending to reach out in altruistic care.

1.  Any sacrifice begins with (essentially) killing one's own ego.  This death isn't total, because we need the ego to engage the world.  But the ego is way too big...excessively big.  It is why we are in the political and socio-economic trouble we currently experience.  It is a factor of the human condition in general.  Only if sacrifice starts here will any true good ever be accomplished.  This is a process, mind you, not a single moment action.

2.  From where does our passion arise?  If it is in our true nature, then such passion is a vocation and related to divine love.  Any sacrifice from that place of being will bear ultimate good...no matter where it leads.  If it arises from an emotional reaction to a "cause," most likely it will lead to pain.  That pain will initially be at someone else's expense, but will assuredly boomerang, and we will ultimately have to own it.  BTW, moths don't generally fly into flames until they have completed their life-cycle and produced the next generation (a science moment here).

3.  Ideologies are simply constructs (you knew I would come back to this).  We have a cultural "filing cabinet" in which we try to label and place people and their thoughts/actions.  It varies from culture to culture and even from generation to generation.   Currently, we have a complex system of religious and political  labels that some are trying desperately to combine into a single way of categorizing our culture.  This is particularly dangerous, because it creates a duality (or a plurality) in which there are only good or bad; right or wrong; etc.  The insidious end to such is a clash in which one side tries to annihilate (sacrifice) the other for the sake of the perceived well-being of the ultimate "winner."  One doesn't have to fight a civil war for this to happen.  We are pretty much engaged in such a context in this country...fueled largely by big money and media.  Folks, it isn't that simple.  Most of us are not on that playing field...and that is exactly what it is.  I have experienced being sacrificed for the comfort level of others.  It is an insidious game.  It is time to wake up from this.

Perhaps the clarion of this Lenten season could be the synthesis of our loving of self in a healthy, balanced way and loving our neighbor...regardless of ideology or place in life.  What a shift that would make!

Love and blessings...


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