Piffard, NY. In the vast majority of households with children today, there is a dynamic that runs roughly as follows: One of the parents, often but certainly not always the father, broaches the idea on a sunny day. Perhaps he does so recalling his own memories of a boyhood summer when clock-time seemed like a distant and silly thing associated with another silly thing: school. The idea? That the children should have a new bit of freedom to, say, ride their bikes a few miles to the town’s ice cream shop, or walk through the woods to the creek to look for minnows. This would get the kids out of his hair for a bit, he reasons, and would be a good experience for them, a necessary stage in growing up and, most importantly, it would be fun! The other parent expresses worry, however, because this new experience for young Hortense and Ignots involves risk: They don’t have maps, one of them could get a flat tire, or fall off the bike or, worse, in the creek. The parent who originally conceived and proposed this spreading-of-wings experience for the children then furthers his case a bit by saying that their tots, Tense and Iggy, need to grow up sometime, that there are band-aids for cuts and wet sneakers will dry out, etc. It goes back and forth a few more times along these lines and then the cautious parent drops the bomb:


This utterance probably goes back to prehistoric times when caveparents Goorbuuck and Frill batted around the pros and cons regarding young Gived and Juk’s springtime wish be left alone to go in the woods as they would like to look for dead animals whose hides they could then use to stretch over bones to make fairy houses. Goor and Frill’s back and forth, in this regard, sounded similar to today’s, yet there was a big difference in that most often it continued beyond the evocation of death (“BUT THEY COULD DIE!”). And this furtherance led to a prudential tempering of the first plan, while still allowing for a good dose of venturesomeness, meaning a little risk for the kids, which helped them grow up and also inoculated them a bit from fear and anxiety. In the absence of prudent risks, children are likely to grow up into anxiety-ridden adolescents. When they arrive at college, these anxieties lead them to sign up for a meeting with a mental health counselor, only to be told it will be months before they can get an appointment because everybody else is struggling with the same debilitating fears!

My apologies for these opening flights of fancy. Protracted COVIDfinement has my brain feeling a bit scrambled this morning, like the eggs my wife prepared for me, but thankfully not fried, like the eggs that I actually wanted. Close to 20 years experience in campus ministry, however, and nearly 25 as a parent, lead me to worry about this ever-expanding cult of safety and to nod in agreement with so much of sociologist Frank Furedi’s description of the “Paradox of our Safety Addiction.” He argues that “the zero risk mentality breeds a culture of anxiety and a hunger for authority,” as well as many other problems. And my addled brain is also recalling a distinction I once read about in The Haunted Inkwell: Art and our Future by Benedictine monk, Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman. This distinction regards the seminal calling for a Christian to live in a fashion he called “convex,” with a center outside ourselves, in a place which Rilke called “the Open”; a life that was freed from from a “covetous vision” of things; a life lived with a bit of “venturesomeness.” Hederman contrasted life lived in this creative, artistic, and expansive way with a life he described as “concave”; more isolated and devoid of venturesomeness and risk, with a center on the self and its preservation, like the modern day hikikomori.

I find it ironic, then, and illuminating, that cave men and women lived life in a relatively “convex’’ way and, for all our vaunted progress, we are becoming more and more risk averse, vexatiously “concave” (etymologically this means something like “hollow togetherness,” which has a really creepy, but, from a campus ministry perspective, diagnostically accurate feel to it, like “lonely in a crowd,” and like Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together.”)

Instead of Goorbuuck and Frill’s balanced “conversation” (which etymologically means “a turning among”) that went, prudentially, beyond the evocation of death, most modern facsimiles of conversations, which McLuhan described as “interfaces” (long before ZOOM, and defined as “a place of interaction between two systems”), stop at the left-brained, super scientifically true truism that, yes, the children could, theoretically, DIE (very much like Laura’s famous stock-car-driving lover in Ray Peterson’s, Petrarch-evoking, 1960 convex power ballad “Tell Laura I Love Her”).

Christopher Lasch set as the epigraph to his masterpiece The Minimal Self this quote from William James (d. 1910), the prophetic denunciator of the coming claustrophobic “block universe” of blind causation, seemingly devoid of free will, chance, or novelty, or what John Cowper Powys, scaling down a bit, would call the “womb-state” or “termite state”:

The entire modern deification of survival per se, survival returning to itself, survival naked and abstract, with the denial of any substantive excellence in what survives, except the capacity for more survival still, is surely the strangest intellectual stopping-place ever proposed by one man to another. (emphasis mine).

Scale up from the sad tale of Hortense and Ignots (who were not allowed to go to the ice cream parlor), to the size of, say, our states or our nation, and we get a fresh look, from psychologist William James’ perspective, at the strangeness, if nothing else, of the “intellectual stopping-place” posing, for many, as the totality of wisdom at this moment in time. Note that I want to focus on the strangeness, and I am not declaiming on the wrongness. I think seeing the strangeness can get us somewhere.

Or how about another fresh look at this “strangeness” in Swift’s prophetic chapter on Lemuel Gulliver’s trip to (no, not Lilliput!) the “floating island of Laputa,” prophetically replete with a technocratic government of scientific rationalists (or people subservient to them), and a great divide between these technocratic rulers and those that are ruled. The rulers on this floating island, because they are rationalists, are portrayed by Swift as lousy reasoners and therefore lousy rulers and also lousy men. It’s no wonder, then, that on that scientifically run island the men all seem to be what is called “Low T,” (presumably from too much time with numbers and beakers and too little time with dirt and tools), and the women, therefore, are constantly unhappy and leave the floating island for the other types of men “below.”

Ivan Illich (d. 2002)–whose urgently-need voice is explicated so well by David Cayley in terms of its relevance to the coronavirus–complements and furthers the insight of William James. In his books, but specifically in essays such as “Construction of a New Festish: Human Life” (found in his his collection of essays, In the Mirror of the Past) and “Brave new Biocracy: Healthcare From Womb to Tomb,” he describes the framework for the bait-and-switch (which large swaths of the Catholic church fell for like flies to ice cream), where The LIFE (Greek: zoe) which Jesus promised and gifted to us and said of it, “I AM”, was replaced with bios, “biological life,” a pseudo-substantive entity that can be scientifically managed by experts from “womb to tomb” (or “sperm to worm”). The fruits of such an exchange can be seen in the elderly person dying totally alone in a nursing home with no family members allowed to visit in person (the most naturally human thing to do) “because science,” as well as in that large, hydra-headed entity called “humanity” and its “life” expertly managed by the World Health Organization. In Cayley’s words,

He (Illich) thought that the (Christian) revelation in which he was rooted had been corrupted–the “life more abundant” that had been promised in the New Testament transformed into a human hegemony so total and so claustrophobic that no intimation from outside the system could disturb it. He believed that medicine had so far exceeded the threshold at which it might have eased and complemented the human condition that it was now threatening to abolish this condition altogether.

Strange, and it’s a creepy kind of strange too. And the key word for me in the passage is “claustrophobic.” Sounds like William James’s “block universe” and Powys’s “womb state.” In his work, Illich traced what he called ‘watersheds’ in medicine, and one that goes largely undiscussed, he noticed, is the watershed where medicine as a practice that originally enabled a more “convex,” healthy, and often longer life transmogrified into Medical Scientism, a sort of alternative religion with its own metaphysics and (cult)ure surrounding a fetish called “life.” In a presumed managerial stance, somehow above and not necessarily within this substance called “life,” we became like Laputians, so obsessed with bios, self-preservation, and the utility of things, as opposed to their sacramentality, that we need to be hit, like Laputians, with “flappers” to even see anything without reference to the self. Tell a Laputian man something so simply poetic as “a tree is more than a tree,” “bread is more than bread,” or “a woman is more than a woman” and their computer-like brain jams up. They want to respond, “Well, actually women are, like everyone, 99% composed of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus.” No wonder the women behaved as they did! Though they have gifts, “the Open” of Rilke is definitely not Laputians’ specialty.

In undergoing this transmogrification that Illich describes, we suffered something like an anthropological lobotomy. Our true nature and anthropology, as humans made in the image and likeness of God, is amphibious: as beings made of dust and spirit, we are meant to swim a bit in both the human and divine. Isolating us in just one of our environments leads to the opposite of human flourishing. We become cogs in a machine, or termites in a termite mound. It seems likely to me that this claustrophobia, writ both large and small, in a world severed from God and filled with loneliness, is what’s fundamentally behind the second pandemic, and this will only deepen the afflictions we are already suffering in the area of mental health!

(As an aside, and speaking of claustrophobia, what nobody seems to comment on regarding David Bentley Hart’s much discussed work on Apocatastasis, or universal salvation, is that it, in ushering everybody into the crowded stadium of the beatific vision, seems to evoke in some sensitive spirits only an inverse of universal damnation. In other words, to some personalities, even Hart’s progressive “universal salvation’’ can feel claustrophobic (“no escape for the blessed”), and look as engineered (theologically, in this case) and Brave New Worldy as “no respite for the damned.”)

Yesterday morning, I went to our local grocery store to get some salad greens for the monks at the Abbey where I work. In “normal times,” I’m there in the aisles several mornings a week. It used to be quiet and uncrowded, and I knew very well the few cashiers and produce-stockers that work the early morning shifts. Now daily, even in the early morning, it is crowded with people in masks as we all scurry around like mice looking for crumbs. People look at the next item on their list and, even if it’s something like “canned yellow beans,” they make a beeline to it with an urgency and competitiveness they learned from the toilet paper Olympics. Note well: This new habitus will be very hard to unlearn. Although there are now many check-out lines open even at 7 a.m., I ended up in a lane with one of my regulars (or am I her regular?). “Is that you, Mike?” she said, when I said “hi” to her by name. She then said, through her mask, “Boy, Mike, things aren’t like they were just a few weeks ago, are they?” That was it, and was all it took. Her phrase was so simple and so sacramental. Something descended on me and, between my three words in reply, “No they’re not!” I started to laugh and couldn’t stop. Nor could she. Sudden Glory! I couldn’t see much of her face through her mask but her eyes (which are, of course, more than eyes), were smiling. The laughter ran its course, which wasn’t a short one as the person 6 feet behind me showed the proper doctor-prescribed agitation, and she said, “Wow. That’s the best I’ve felt in weeks! I feel like I can breathe!”

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  1. Great essay. There’s something in one of Augusto Del Noce’s books about the folly (and danger) of coming to value life (bios) more than truth. You can do it at the personal level and at the societal level, but either way it eventually catches up with you.

    There’s a parallel here to what Richard Weaver said about private property in Ideas Have Consequences. Corporations were accumulating so much wealth based on a faulty understanding of private property that it was serving to undercut the actual idea of privacy. In both cases a subtle but profound error subverts the very notion that is being put forward as fundamental.

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