Merton Monday 09 – Of Buckets and Divisions

People who know nothing of God and whose lives are centered on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world. They try to become real by imposing themselves on other people, by appropriating for themselves some share of the limited supply of created goods and thus emphasizing the difference between themselves and the other men who have less than they, or nothing at all.

They can only conceive one way of becoming real: cutting themselves off from other people and building a barrier of contrast and distinction between themselves and other men. They do not know that reality is to be sought not in division but in unity, for we are “members one of another.”

The man who lives in division is not a person but only an “individual.”

I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get. Therefore you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something. And I am all the more something because you are nothing. And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me; at times this even helps me to forget the other men who have what I have not and who have taken what I was too slow to take and who have seized what was beyond my reach, who are praised as I cannot be praised and who live on my death. — New Seeds, Chapter 7

In response to passages like this one and many others in Merton’s work, I am left to simply raise a hand feebly and mumble, “Wow. Guilty.” One of the things I find most interesting about being confronted with a presentation like the one above is that these kinds of subjects remain true and convicting and applicable no matter how much I may learn, grow and mature. No matter how far I may come, I never arrive. That’s one of the great fascinations of a spiritual journey; it is never complete. You never arrive. You just keep climbing the ladder, and some days the rungs appear unsettlingly familiar to those you grasped long ago. The levels and flavors of things to overcome change, but the basic weaknesses within you remain the same: selfishness, pride, ego, stupidity, etc. They simply become more crafty and insidious. The enemy who lies within us is a very dynamic one; a chameleon who hides in the shadows of our souls, changing colors and forms as we ourselves grow and change. I am my own most formidable spiritual enemy, and sometimes I am astounded by how clever my foe can be. But I digress.

I picked this particular Merton quote in response to thoughts which go through my head whenever I receive an email with a certain basic slant, and I wrote the above paragraph because there are two edges to the sword of those thoughts. There is the side which wants to point the authors of said emails directly to Merton and admonish them in some way, and there is the side which re-reads the quote and pauses, mutters something about hypocrisy, and whispers to me to be content to remove the plank from my own eye. Having recognized my needs born of my own weaknesses, having reminded myself of them, I simply offer a few thoughts directed at all of us; myself at the head of the line.

The latest email wasn’t that bad; it had a certain charming simplicity to it, and I think what it did more than anything was to cause me to remember other emails I have received and I have personally found to be offensive. It probably isn’t fair, I admit, but I fall prey to the human propensity to lump things into buckets. “Oh, yeah, this idea/claim/gripe belongs in the <whatever subject> bucket, along with all the rest.” And of course this is a bad idea, because there are never enough buckets to fairly differentiate everything, so things get unreasonably categorized. This is, by the way, one of the core issues in religion, politics and the like. People each have only a few buckets in their minds, and the ideas of others get thrown into one of those buckets of muck based upon one small point. [e.g., “You’re pro-choice? So, then, you go in the liberal bucket! This means, to name a few things, that you are (necessarily by bucket-muck-association) a democratic, tree-hugging, anti-war, anti-gun, unpatriotic, gay-loving, pro-abortion, welfare-state, hybrid-driving, loose-living, immoral, anti-American, etc., etc.” or, to be fair: “You’re pro-life? So, then, you go in the conservative bucket! This means, to name a few things, that you are (necessarily by bucket-muck association) a republican, land-raping, pro-war, NRA-brainwashed, imperialistic, homophobic, misogynistic, rich-get-richer, gas-guzzler-driving, prudish, hypocritical, nationalistic, etc., etc.]. This is foolishness, but it’s about the best a lot of us seem to be able to do. For a long time I’ve been trying to create and manage more and more buckets in my thinking, so I reduce this problem, but of late I’m coming to the conclusion that buckets are simply a bad idea. Throw away the buckets. Throw away the categorizing that improperly associates one idea with another. Let each thing stand on its own, as a discrete item. Analyze it as it stands. Understand, one, that ideas can be held in a practically infinite set of combinations and understand, two, that the buckets are fictions anyway. This is the most maddening thing of all, and I don’t know why more people don’t realize it: there aren’t buckets that encapsulate what we believe they do. It’s all a bunch of make-believe, which has been allowed (encouraged, even) to evolve so that one, we don’t have to think hard about anything and, two, so politicians, pundits and related media types can manipulate us and get a rise out of us without having to work hard to earn their millions and/or achieve their maniacal power. (Deep breath). But, again, I digress.

So, where was I going with this? I’m not sure it matters because I seem to have derailed myself, but the email I received recently had a basic point, which was that the author has a job wherein he or she has to undergo random urine tests as a condition of employment. Author’s point being, how come people who are getting welfare checks don’t have to take urine tests and prove themselves drug free in order to get their checks? This is kind of a charming idea, and I admire its simplicity. I also like the fact that the author stated that he or she doesn’t mind for some of his or her check to go toward helping people who are down on their luck and are trying to get back on their feet. The author just doesn’t want a part of his or her paycheck going to people who don’t try to get back up, and instead choose to sit around doing drugs. Fair enough. I can see that.

But admittedly, there’s a bucket in my head that is doing a little jig and raising all kinds of tinny clatter over in a corner. Now, I’m not saying the recent email belongs in this bucket, and in fact I’m not placing it into this bucket. I’m just saying it’s close enough to make the bucket dance. The bucket holds emails about things like getting rid of politicians who vote for social security to be paid to aliens (which, by the way, seems to be reasonable under law since aliens pay social security), and the bucket holds news stories about things like people being irate over how some Katrina victims spent their federal aid money. The Katrina thing always puzzled me because, for example, there were complaints about money being spent on booze and tattoos. But I doubt the complainers would raise a stink if the spenders spent money they themselves
earned on booze and tattoos, so it couldn’t have been a simple moral issue concerning the evils of alcohol, skin and ink. And I have to think that at least some of the complainers don’t see anything wrong with spending their own money on their own martini lunches and a cocktail or two after work, nor their plastic surgery and designer clothes which are part of their concept of self-identity, so it couldn’t have been simply that “their” money was being used for these types of things. It must have been something else, and if I throw in the alien thing, what I’m left to conclude, in the plainest thinking, is that people don’t want their money to go to people who don’t meet their standards of what it means to be a properly behaving, properly reasoning, properly American person; whatever the heck “properly” means. The thing is, the alarm that goes off in my head when I receive emails or read news about this type of thing is that they are about some kind of division created by and between people, about what’s defined to be “proper” or “right” or what-have-you, and I worry because—although it is unavoidable and even necessary that we each draw our own lines in the sand in order to have meaningful direction in our life—once division starts, it is very hard to stop.

Suppose hypothetically that somebody were to decide that since I didn’t meet the requirements of their job, or match their moral or political views, that I shouldn’t get a handout when I need it. Suppose, in the reverse, I decided the same thing against them. Suppose I tell you that I’d love to help you out of your bind, but I’m not going to because I know you’re going to go out and buy a business suit, cologne and a razor, or make-up, a hairstyle and some new shoes so you can “look for a decent job?” Suppose I say that if you were really hurting, you’d forget about how you look, and get a job digging ditches or scooping poop until you could pay to make your own self look pretty? Or maybe I’d tell you that you’re getting nothing from me because all you’re going to do is go find a job digging ditches or scooping poop, and I’m not going to support somebody who has no self respect nor higher goals. Or maybe I’d tell you that I’d love to help you out, but I know you’re just going to go buy hot dogs and bleached white bread for your kids, so I’m saving my generosity for somebody who cares to provide decent food for their family. Suppose some guy or gal said, “Well, ya know, I have a super-top-secret government clearance. I have to get a lie-detector test every month, the feds watch my spending like a hawk, question every big thing I buy, snoop into my sex life, I can’t so much as carry a pocket knife to protect myself during the day, and generally I give up my freedom to take care of my family. Do you do that? Nope. So you had a job and you had to pee in a bottle once in a while? Big deal. Why should I help you, when all you had to do was meet the simple expedient of staying off drugs? Tell you what: you get yourself straight and moral with a work ethic like mine, show me that you’re willing to lay a little more on the line to be here in America, so that you deserve to get some of my money, and then we’ll talk?” Quite frankly, in this line of reasoning, eventually there isn’t a single one of us who deserves to get a penny from anyone. Once you make the first cut of division it’s really, really easy to start slicing and dicing until the pieces aren’t even big enough to see anymore.

I know. I’ve made an extreme—childish even—play. In cowardly defense I’ll say that it’s the last week of the semester and I’m totally cranked on caffeine. But the point is, the idea that “we” deserve what others do not is questionable and extreme—childish even—in and of itself. The very concept, the very inkling of it in our brain, is spiritually dangerous. I guess that’s my point, and now I actually remember where I was going with all of this. I said I’m working toward having no buckets. That isn’t entirely correct. I’m working toward having one bucket. (Anyway, to have one bucket is, effectively, the same thing as having no buckets.) When it all comes down to it, there is just one bucket, with a label on it that says, “FRAGILE: HUMANITY.” It holds everything, and we’re all in it together. We are all members of one another. Like it or not (and there’s plenty not to like), there’s no getting out of the bucket. The sooner we figure this out, the better it will be for all of us.

Oh. And one more thing, about the clattering bucket and the emails and the news stories. There’s something else that puzzles me. These emails and stories usually end up with something about America (a country which I happen to admire and love, by the way). They say something about how we need to fix the country, or if the country wasn’t so screwed up things like this wouldn’t happen, or this ain’t America no more. I think some of this is true; definitely, we need to fix some things. The role of drugs in the socio-economic matrix, for example, would be a good one. But, at the same time, the folks seem to be saying, at least implicitly, that if you refuse to contribute to a society, then you shouldn’t get to be fed by that society. I guess I wonder if they’re saying, in short, “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” I wonder, because I don’t recall this idea being stated in the our Constitution. (Sincerely, if it is, please tell me so I don’t remain ignorant.) The idea is, however, in the Soviet Constitution of 1936; it’s Lenin’s first principle of socialism. So, in which hard working, properly red-blooded American bucket does that belong?

I may be way off base with that last comment, but it seems to me that the great thing about America and Americans is that it and we help people even when people don’t deserve it. This may seem like a painful crock of muck to those of us who foot the bill, but I’m willing to accept it. Personally, I’ll pick an environment of blind grace and mercy over one of cold hard justice any day of the week. But that’s just me—I think Jesus was on to something there.

Thanks for indulging a bit of a rant. Now I need to gather up some sophomoric, embarrassing buckets in my head, and try to throw them out.

. . . now if I can just find my Starbucks mug . . .

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