Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Ownership of Things

Returning to the present day:

I bought a new car, the first new car I have ever owned. The old white rattle-trap was becoming unreliable. With so much long-distance driving these days I decided to buy a cheap, reliable, fuel-efficient new car. It is all those things, and it is also fun to drive.

The fact that I like my new black car is concerning. I never really liked the old white car; it was just a functional thing that got me from place to place. During this phase of my life in which I am often alone I find myself becoming attached to things. The fact that my new car fits my values of thrift and environmentalism only increases my sense of attachment.

I was told when I was younger, "Always care about people and use things, not vice-versa." I recall the Sisters of Charity I admired in Haiti. Their cheap flip-flops were the only things they owned in the entire world. They walked freely and joyfully in places where someone with a nice car and a wallet full of credit cards could never have been. Similarly there are places the old white junker could take me that my new black car doesn't go so comfortably. The beat up white car could be left in front of a homeless shelter or driven up these winding Tennessee hollers without the awkwardness that a shiny new car creates.

The fact is that the ownership of nice things isolates one from others. There are certain considerations you must take for your property, that makes you lonelier than before. It seems to me that extreme wealth must be the saddest place a person can be.

As a young and idealistic student, poverty was easy to achieve. Now an idealist with a family and responsibilities I find certain nice things seem unavoidable. I tell myself that these things are still tools I will use to do what I am called to do. But I cannot help but wonder if years from now I might find myself safe behind locked doors fretting over protecting my property from the very ones I had hoped to serve.

Monday, September 18, 2006

How to Live When the World Falls Apart

This is the last in a series of three posts from the months surrounding 9/11 five years ago. I wrote it in a gridbook after Thanksgiving. Every year for the last 5 years a group of my friends has met to celebrate that holiday together. The first Thanksgiving was in a secluded cabin in the mountains:

It was the day after Thanksgiving. We were all together beside a waterfall in West Virginia. The sky was gray and overcast. We were close enough that we could feel the thundering of the water beneath us. I was talking to Scharlie and Chris. We had been talking about living in community. I was telling them about the old electrical plant beside the river in Georgia. I telling them about the group of people I had known who were planning for Y2K and had considered buying the abandoned plant. “It was such a strong building in a secluded place; they thought it would be a good place to go if the world falls apart.”

Chris never moved except for stroking his beard with his long, thin fingers. His eyes never left the torrents beneath us. He said, “Everyone keeps looking for the world to fall apart. What no one seems to realize is that it already has.”

I thought about the recent death of David, about the bombing in New York and the war in Afghanistan, about the obnoxiously sentimental advertisements for Christmas shopping, about my love Joya and my hope for a life with her, about my beloved new niece Hadley who would grow up in front of a television, about my parents who had done nothing but fight recently, about that Thanksgiving in a tiny cabin with friends who I loved. I watched John and Brian jump from rock to rock over the roaring falls, calculating where I would have to jump into the water beneath me to save them if they slipped, wondering if it was possible to survive in those freezing rapids under the best circumstances. I was sure Chris was right. The world has fallen apart and no amount of hopefulness or flag-waving can undo what has already gone too far.

So what should one do when he lives in the waning of a great civilization? I am studying medicine. I hope to marry Joy someday. I hope to be a doctor for the poor in some rural town. I think I need to write –exactly what I should be writing I’m not sure. I need to pray and read the scriptures more. I need to eat less and get my large body more physical exertion. I need to visit my family more, before Joel and Emily’s daughter grows up. I need to tell my friends that I love them. I need to somehow keep myself from quitting medical school. I am growing old. I feel older than I really am. I think about all these things and wonder… Is this the right way to live at the end of the world? I don’t have the answers. I don’t even think I am up to the few tasks I have given myself.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Loss, 9/11, and David

David died of metastatic bone cancer just a few days after the September 11th bombings. All the grief over the killings will always be bound in my mind to the loss of David. I wrote this the day he died:

Dear David,

You died today at 6 am. I was planning to write you. I have always been planning to write you –ever since you gave me your address when you left. I hope you didn’t mind. We were never very close, but I wish I had a chance to tell you that I admired you. I remember that afternoon when I asked how the doctor’s visit had been. You told me that it was cancer. “Oh,” I said, “but not a serious cancer is it?"

“Very serious,” you replied. I was amazed that a 17-year-old could make such conversation without hesitation. You didn’t put on a false bravery either; you admitted to us that you were afraid. I would have been more afraid than you. I would have been angry if my future had withered just as I was reaching manhood.

I remember the last night you were at Covenant. You and the guys from the dorm came over to my house. We read poems. Your poem was beautiful. You wrote it long before you knew there was a cancer in your bones. You wrote about being lonely. You wrote about sitting alone when everyone else sat with friends. You wrote about being afraid to talk to girls. You wrote about your faith in God. I was amazed at you. I was amazed at
the peace you found in loneliness, and how grateful you were. You were grateful that the guys at Catacombs had made you feel welcome and loved. You were grateful for the three months you got to spend with us here. You were even grateful for the cancer that you couldn’t understand. We all just sat around the fire and laughed and read each others poetry. Before you left we all took a picture together. You didn’t smile. You didn’t frown. You just looked right at the camera while the rest of us clamored and grinned.

You faded suddenly. For the last two years all I heard was good news. You were feeling strong. Your chemotherapy was going well. And then suddenly one day all the news changed. You were dying. You had perhaps a month left. Fernando told me about seeing you. He said you looked weak, but as always you were kind and resilient. You said that you take it one day at a time. I wish I could have gone to see you. I wish I could have put my arm around you and said, “Courage. Take courage.” I wish that I had written you a letter. I planned to write someday just to let you know that you were in my thoughts and prayers, but you died too quickly.

I know you are at peace. You see the face of God. But I cannot help but feel angry for you. Angry that you went so early… angry that you will never fall in love, graduate from college, make love to a woman, have children. All the things I have in life anger me right now because you will never have them. Your death came at the time everyone was mourning for thousands of people who died in New York. They died in falling buildings, and the whole world cried for them and vowed revenge. You were dying too but no one noticed. You had no woman who loved you, no children, no close friends to mourn you. Due to the timing, your family’s mourning is likely lost in the national paranoia. I wonder if any of us at all will be thinking of you 10 years from now when we all have wives, children, and lives of our own? I am angry at myself that I never wrote you. You gave us all your address when you left. I was never a close friend, but did you have many close friends? I thought of you often, up north in some lonely oncology ward. You would have taken comfort in letters from one of your friends from college. And you might have shared your wisdom with me. I would have known how to mourn you better because I would have known you. But I was always too busy, always planning to write you later. Now you have died, and I am mourning that I did not know you. I realized long ago that you were wise and lonely. I should have been a friend to you. I think you needed friends. I hope that when I die, that I have friends. But you died too young, and we who are young forget too quickly… too quickly to hold on to a friend over 2 years of chemotherapy.

I wonder if you died alone. Was everyone who should have been focused on you too absorbed in the news of bombings and war? I hope no one told you about it. I hope you slipped away without the thought of the whole world—the world that needed the wisdom and kindness that you would not live to bestow—mourning thousands of dead New Yorkers, never knowing that you were dying alone or that you even ever lived. But you are no longer lonely, you know the presence of Jesus our Savior. I am the one who is lonely. I am here thinking of you and crying. Did I tell you that I cried when I heard you were dying? I had not cried in many years. I didn’t even cry when I heard about the thousands of innocents killed last week, but I cried for you. I cried that you died so young. I cried that I could never know you as I had wished I could two years ago when we spoke at my house.

I know that heaven is a better than here. I know that death does not have the final victory, but it is a chasm between us. You know longer have the possibilities of this life, the books you hoped to write, the women you longed for, the friends you needed, the wisdom you wanted to share. I must live my life better. You give me wisdom even in death. I will join you in death someday, and it will be better there, but for now I will live my life better. I will live and love better for all the life and loves you missed.

Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 Before and After

These are two pieces written before and after 9/11. It is not often that we are able to see our own darkest imaginings take place in the real world:

3/11/01 (Before)

I am sick of the TV, of the internet, of the radio, of the people I meet. I am sick of constantly being solicited for one thing or another. I am sick of the wealth-generating, mass-marketing juggernaut that has taken over our culture. I am sick of being reminded that working at the homeless clinic is advantageous because it will look good to residencies and make me feel proud of myself. I am sick of the idea that every interaction must boost my pleasure / entertainment / self-esteem / net-worth / sex-appeal / market value. Is there anything genuine left without a dollar amount attached?

Life / Love / Freedom / Faith / Sex / Anger / Fear / Happiness: all bought and sold like grade-D meat these days. Sure there are "some things money can't buy," we used to believe that. We told ourselves the world wouldn't affect us, but look at us now. Everybody's got their soul for sale to the highest bidder of money / pleasure / love / whatever. Nothing is genuine. Nothing is honest. Nothing is selfless.

I fear the best thing for us would be a humiliation and destruction. Perhaps a people as ruthless and narcissistic as ourselves will attack us... kill us by the thousands and rob us blind. As horrible as it sounds it may be the only way to save us from ourselves. We will never repair things ourselves (although we often say we will--and sell the idea for cheap thrills and votes) because we have become addicted to our own decay.

November 2001 (After)
*Written in the same page of my gribook as the above:

Exactly six months later to the day was one of the bloodiest days in our history. Ruthless people leveled our towers... and we watched on TV for shock entertainment. Then we created a war for an even bigger television event. Watching someone else's sons in the special forces risk their lives is even more exciting than seeing 3000 bankers and MBAs go down in a towering inferno!

We took the fact that evil men had targeted us as a sure sign of God's blessing on us. "God must approve of our selfishness. Gluttony and greed are now sure signs of freedom and virtue. Suddenly it is heroic to rescue our sacred economic prosperity by consuming even more luxuries. Send the special forces overseas to fight on television, and I'll do my duty by doing the Christmas shopping in my gas-guzzling SUV!"

We are not capable of justice or even sustained hatred. We only redouble our relentless pursuit of wealth and entertainment. We didn't even stop to think about examining our own souls. We seem to have forgotten that the terrorists only did what we had been longing to do in our own self-loathing. No instead we are now quite certain that divine justice has spoken in favor of our greedy pleasures.

If these last few months were unable to constrain us... I fear we are beyond saving. May God have mercy on our souls.