Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Fates are Kind

The last two days have seen much activity over at The Blogging of the President, with posts on the economy, the (new) assault on Fallujah, and the politics of NATO. Too much to summarize, except to say that with Bush re-selected, the US economy moves measurably toward the brink, Iraqi insurgents understand guerrilla warfare and we do not, and NATO joins the list of international institutions whose sole purpose (from the US point of view) is to facillitate the bullying of our former friends.

The disaster continues.

A disaster as large, as encompassing, as the destruction of the United States takes time--takes years. For over a decade we have been a "me-first" society, and now, a "me-only" society. I remember clearly, during the Reagan years, the famous comment by an investment banker that "greed is good." The comment was not surprising: After all, he was a swindler who was indicted for his crimes and nearly went to jail. What was surprising was that the comment was welcomed in the media as a new truism and accepted as such by the public: There was neither outrage nor outcry that he was denying either Christian moral teaching specifically or ethical principles generally. This in a nation increasingly considering itself to be Christian. That was some years ago, now. We did not come to this overnight.

The news this week has been going by very fast, but each new atrocity of justice, law, or humanity is just a small bit in the process of the larger collapse. And each conversation I have, each on-line petition I sign, each letter I write or e-mail I send is just a small moment in an onrushing stream of events. By next week it will be forgotten.

But the disaster will still be with us.

So the first thing is learning to live with this.

From time to time, I get up my nerve and visit Riverbend's blog Baghdad Burning to see what things are like in Iraq. I feel like a ghoul. But that's all right, because I know that our turn is coming--even though the details will be different--and it is good to try to get a sense of what lies ahead. Riverbend writes gracefully, and even her complaints are not really complaints, but appeals to a conscience that at one time we would have had, that even now we can remember--so that we are goaded into blustering words of self-righteous self-justification. She witnesses--even her complaints are a witnessing--and when she is not complaining her cool thoughts are like a clear pool of judgement.

But as she knows herself it is not enough. One can live for an hour, for a day, for a few days in the lucid terror of crystalline awareness, but hardly longer than that. One has to escape to somewhere else. For me this is personal: I know--I grew up knowing--what it is like to face the wrong end of a gun, and to have one's life in the hands of a psychopath. And now my country is in the hands of a psychopath, and it is all very familiar. The atrocities that do not get reported in our media--even as the rest of the world watches--are shocking, always shocking, but never surprising: What did we expect from someone who spent his childhood blowing up frogs for fun? Also familiar is the glass wall that separates me from those around me: When did we forget that blowing up frogs isn't normal (when I was a child we all knew that); that raping "suspects" for "information" is wrong (haven't we always known that)? The elephant in the livingroom is not just the GOP. Our own lies about how good everything is and how happy we are make us crazy.

A choice between craziness and fear is untenable. We need to escape from fear not into craziness, but to somewhere else. Where does Riverbend escape to? I may have missed that, or she may not have said. It's a bit private. But escape she does.

This past October 27th I went down into the bottomland of a local river to watch the lunar eclipse. Sheltered from streetlights by a cliff to the east and a woodland to the west, I had a clear, glare-free view of a dark, sparkling sky. To get to the river, I had to walk down a wooded path in filtered moonlight, and through a gate made by the arch of a half-fallen, living tree. Beyond the gate was the clearing, open to the sky. Downstream, back-lit trees glowed softly in sodium-yellow light, while around me silver light brought out the colors of the autumn leaves in Impressionistic pastel.

I waited. The shadow of the Earth fell across the Moon. In the deepening night the creatures of wood and river--birds, fish, frogs--fell silent. Reality separated into layers, like the filo pastry of a baklava. This was expected. So: Time came to a stop, and raced by, simultaneously. Many things happened, and nothing happened--Isn't it always like that? What are the conversations you wish you had had, would like to have? The friends you treasure, and regret. Sometimes it was sad, but mostly it was happy. All there at once. And then the light came up; I felt confidence in what was to come; and then newly arrived cirro-cumulus clouds glistened in the moonlight like rainbows to match the pastels on the ground. The woods remained silent. Desperately tired, I felt a fear as of wading into thoughts beyond my depth. It was time to leave. Walking out through the living gate of the bent tree I returned to the world.

In every situation there lies a host of possibilities, seen and unseen, and a set of limitations--of things that cannot be done. The possibilities lie in a tree of decisions, and each choice or happenstance is a movement along a branch of the tree--opening up some possibilities and closing off others. The Fates guard the tree, create its possibilities, and prune its branches.

Americans do not believe in the Fates--do not believe the Fates are real. That is no matter--the Fates absolutely do not care whether we believe in Them or not. They do not reward or punish. But disbelieving, Americans think that they are free of Their Iron Law--the Law of Consequences. This is not so: The Fates bind us to the Law whether or not we believe.

The thing is, by re-selecting Bush, we closed off the last escape route in this world that the Fates held out to us.

The ancient Greeks knew what we steadfastly refuse to believe: That actions have consequences, and that the Fates relentlessly--or kindly--return to us that which we create. I might have left out the word kindly--modern scholars of Greek consider the epithet "the kindly ones" a euphemism--but it's not. Its a reminder that the Fates are kind or cruel according to our own actions.

Kindly, the Fates held out a path which we might have taken, that--when I walked out of the woods in the pre-dawn morning of October 28th--I thought we would take. Now, only malign possibilities are left--but without the release of resignation, for they are not all equal. It is now our fate to wreste the lesser of the available disasters from the impending catastrophe.

I am not despairing, nor am I hopeful. Joy waits in the otherworld as clearly as a moonlit clearing that I can remember in vivid detail. In this world there is only what is.

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