The Last Dixie Cup

28 02 2011

A long line of predecessors passes before it, alike living and dying in the same story.  Within the column that hangs beside the water cooler is a long stack of waxed paper cups, Dixie cups, and within that stack is a single cup just like all of the others, awaiting its turn at fulfillment.  Its ancestors pass before it, each taking its turn.  Then, our selected Dixie cup emerges from its birthing canal, from whence it is filled, then drained, and then it is crumpled and tossed into the trash.  Even before it meets its demise, another cup is already waiting to take its place.  The story doesn’t end there.  Our little cup is then transported to Puente Hills Landfill, where it is buried and covered in a lovely layer of sod.

A long line of predecessors passes before him, alike living and dying in the same story.  His ancestors passed before him, each taking his turn at life.  Then, at the appointed time, our selected man emerges from the birthing canal into the world of the living.  He grows up; then he grows old, and then he dies.  Even before he meets his end, another child is already waiting to replace him.  His body is lovingly laid at Rose Hills Cemetery, where it is buried and then covered in a lovely layer of sod.

The biggest irony in all of this is that Rose Hills, the site of the man’s burial, is the exact same hill as Puente Hills, the site of the paper cup’s burial.  They’re two faces of the same hill.  The man and his trash will be buried side-by-side.  The only differences between the two are the oaks that grow on the landfill and the stone monuments that lay inert on the cemetery.  It’s not a very cheery comparison, but it’s definitely an effective way to clear the crowd at the water cooler and get them back to work.  “You see this cup,” I could say, “It tells the story of your life.”  The cheapness of the paper cup makes a very disturbing comparison with human life.

And then the paper cup dispenser runs out.  Someone removes the last cup, and it gives a little too easily.  He glances down and sees that he’s taken the last one.  He knows that he’d better hang on to this one if he ever wants to come back and get another drink, later in the day.  So, he writes his name on the side, and he places the little cup in an inconspicuous corner of the counter top, beside the microwave, behind the stack of loose paper towels.  This one little cup gets to experience a deviation in the pattern set before it.  Its life has been prolonged, because it has something that the previous cups did not.  The last cup has a little share of significance.  It’s not much, but it makes the last cup special.

Hollywood, over the years, has found a wide array of devices for destroying the Earth, whether by alien invasion, earthquakes, war, climate change and even robotic revolt.  They do this because it makes money.  That’s what interests people, the end of the world, because the last generation has something that all of the previous generations seemed to be missing.  The last generation has significance, and, deep down, many people in this world want that significance.  World religions have also profited from this tendency.  Either the world will end in fiery destruction, or it will transform into an everlasting paradise.  Either way spells the end of the world as we know it.  Nearly every world religion has some sense of eschatology, because everyone’s just dying to know how it all ends.

The quest for significance is just one of four basic motivators that drive humanity.  The first two, purpose and meaning, are divine in nature.  Only God can give them, and if he doesn’t exist, then they don’t exist.  The second two, significance and pleasure (alternatively pain), are like the bastard offspring of the previous two.  Where a sense of purpose is lost, significance takes the reins.  Where a pursuit of meaning is surrendered, the drive for pleasure takes hold.  Simple pleasure is shallow enough and not the subject of this post.  Here, we look closer at significance.

We achieve significance by doing or being something big or small, first or last, best or worst, brightest or darkest, and so on.  Whatever might motivate someone to write our names in a history book, even the history of the local chess club, such is significance, of a sort.  Significance is morally neutral.  It doesn’t need design, and it doesn’t heed the precepts of God.  It merely needs to be different.  Whether we go out in flames, or whether we all quietly freeze to death, if we are the last generation, then we have a certain significance, even though no one will be left to care.

We can see places in recent history where significance usurped purpose.  We know of televangelists who needed our money to fulfill a great purpose, but the greatness of that purpose was the real underlying drive.  Greatness is a matter of significance, not purpose.  A waxed paper cup fulfills its purpose by holding water for a few seconds, but it will never be great.  A gigantic prayer chapel reaching toward the heavens might be great, yet not really achieve a divine purpose.  The more we see a person striving for greatness, or any other manner of significance, the more we can be certain that such a person is losing or has lost hold of his sense of purpose.  Purpose is God’s design for your life, the ideal that he knows you ought to fulfill.  Purpose is often mundane.  It is usually not much different from everyone else’s purpose, and not at all different at its core.  The core of our purpose is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  How we elaborate that purpose is the only difference between us.

Significance hits close to home.  Everyone seeks it to some extent, just like we all pursue pleasures and avoid pain.  This is not abnormal or wrong.  We have these four motivators, purpose, meaning, significance and pleasure, and when we lose hold of all of them is when we stand at the brink of suicide.  A person can be drawn from that brink, at least initially, through as little as a promise of pleasure.  Sure, you can kill yourself, but let’s go get a hamburger and milkshake first; I’m starving.  In a longer turn of events, the end can be staved off with a bucket list, an assortment of things that one wants to do before one dies, like climb a tall mountain or skydive.  This is an appeal to significance.  But then we might see drug addicts killing themselves with every chemical they can get their hands on in search of pleasure, or we might see game addicts wasting hours upon hours of every day to maintain the highest score in an online game in their drive for significance.  When we see an overemphasis on one motivator, then we can be sure that another motivator is lost.

Purpose: we dispense.  We are filled.  We are drained.  We are destroyed.  We are buried.  It’s nothing glamorous.  It’s downright frightening.  We are scared of the death, but even more so, we are scared of our lack of significance.

But here’s the end of the matter.  We must first strive for our purpose, to love God passionately and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  God’s response to us follows our pursuit of our purpose.  His response is the meaning that we find in life, the message that we see him telling us in our lives, and the words he whispers to us through his spirit.  If we seek our purpose and we find our meaning, then the significance follows naturally after that.  We are more than a waxed paper cup, even though we share a similar destiny.  We have the significance of being made in the image of God, heirs to his promise, saved and chosen, drawn out from among the whole world to be his own.  After that, the pursuit of pleasure is easy.  He grants us the desires of our hearts.  The cherry on top really is just the cherry on top.  It’s just something that happens to taste nice.

Without God, though, the whole thing topples.  Without him, I really am no better than the cup I drink from, and I’m no better off, either.

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The Supralapsarian Dilemma

9 02 2011

“When the Boston Lighthouse was first built in 1716, the Massachusetts Bay Colony forbid the use of a lightning  rod for fear that such an instrument would be viewed by the powers of heaven as intent to interfere with divine strokes.  After the lighthouse was struck and damaged by lightning some 12 times in ten years, twice setting it on fire, a lightning rod was installed.  The justification was that a lighthouse, reaching skyward higher than any other structure, was too much of a temptation for the powers above.  Thereafter, the Boston Lighthouse suffered no serious injury due to lightning.” (Elinor De Wire, Guardians Of The Lights; Stories Of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers, 1995, p.108)

In their humble belief in the sovereignty of God, the authorities decided that every lightning strike was predestined by God and therefore should not be hindered by mortal man.  In their arrogant disbelief in the sovereignty of God, they determined that they were, as well as all of humanity, above and outside of that same power, even thinking that they were capable of hindering an act of God.  Why affix a lightning rod, when it might contradict the intentions of God?  They might as well have asked why they constructed a lighthouse at all, if human innovation against the forces of nature are a rebellion against God.  They neither considered that the lightning rod, as well as the lighthouse, were part of the same course of history, and that every last part of it, from beginning to end, was within his power.  Even the lighthouse keeper was a product of that destiny, moved to guide ships safely out to sea.

[fiction]

And somewhere out there the great cruise liner, the RMS Olympic, passed just close enough to glimpse the intermittent light from the lighthouse.  This massive ship, among the most advanced in its time, slowly chugged along the coast on its pleasure tour of the New England coast.  One might say that it was well-stocked with libations.  Perhaps it was too well-stocked, for a poor hapless passenger found himself in the unlikely position of examining the outer hull of the ship during a very rapid descent into the ocean, and, to make matters worse, the only ones to notice this event were a small collection of philosophers standing at the rail, pondering the significance of his fate.

They were five men of a society of thinkers who came to believe themselves to be merely fictional characters, whose destiny was predetermined by an all-powerful author of some sort.  They were the Authorians.  They were the only members of their society.  It is for this reason that the victim was especially unfortunate.  Had they been merely philosophers, we might fear that these thinkers would spend far too much time thinking about the problem, not doing enough about it until it was too late.  Being fatalists, they assured the demise of the intoxicated swimmer.

This group of five had been discussing the fine merits of their philosophy to one of their newest members, John Basques, who was, by virtue of his need to avert his attention elsewhere, the primary witness of the fall of the man.  The other heads did not turn until the splash was heard, and Basques’ eyes widened perceptibly.  Basques was a wiry little man badly in need of a wife, but his insufficiency in stature was generally unappealing to many women, and the remaining women were already taken or otherwise indisposed to marry him.  This had the effect of lending him far more time for the company of other men, and for a man like Basques, such men were usually either divorced or actively, though unwittingly, in pursuit of divorce.  Such clueless men have many opinions to offer, but little practical handiness around the house, what little time they spend there.  Doubtless, they thought themselves splendid husbands, though they could not understand why their wives were so upset at being left at home alone all evening, every evening, after being left home alone all day while these men were at work.  Needless to say, going on a cruise without their wives didn’t help much, either, but that would be beside the point.  The real point is that a man who had been aboard the ship was now in the water and swiftly trailing behind the ship.

“I say, that’s a bit of a trouble!” exclaimed Basques.  He started forward, when a hand grabbed him firmly by the arm.

“Never mind that,” said another of the group, a mustached man named Calvin Del.  “The hand of the author is at work, here.  You do not think that he would have fallen into the sea were it not his destiny.”

“His destiny?!” exclaimed Basques, “The author did not make him fall into the sea!  Don’t you take me for a fool.”

“John,” said Del to Basques, “It is not necessary to intervene.  Had it been the author’s will, then that man would have been saved anyway, or, better yet, not have fallen at all.”

Basques looked back and forth incredulously between the faces of the other four, noting their silent assent.  Destiny seemed a sturdy and decent thing when circumstances were fair, but calamity shook it to its core, and the proscription to interfere with that calamity made it utterly repugnant.  “You men are mad!” scolded Basques, “We’ll discuss this later, but I will not stand by and let a fellow person die under my passive watch.”  With that, he made haste for the ship’s bridge, running as fast as he could, yelling “Man overboard!  Man overboard!”  A security officer stopped him before he got there, promising to relay the information to the captain.  Painfully long moments passed by, until the guard emerged from the bridge and relayed a message from the captain.

“Captain says we can’t turn this behemoth around and retrace our line of travel.  Would take too long, and we’d likely as not miss our man.  By the time we got turned about, we’d not be in the same place any more.  We’d be going back the same direction, but we might pass by miles.  We’ll be dropping anchor and hailing the Coast Guard.  They can retrace our steps better than we can.  If they don’t find the poor soul by tomorrow, then we’ll continue on our way,” explained the guard.

“Poor soul!” exclaimed Basques, “I wish more could be done.”

The gentle rumble from the boilers ground to a low murmur, hardly impacting the momentum of the ship noticeably.  On deck, shuffleboard games continued, and objectless mafficking continued unabated.  No one noticed the lowering of the anchor.  The captain of the ship, an admirably concerned fellow with a trim white beard and ponytail, emerged from the helm, passing directly by Basques without acknowledgment, followed at the heels by two deck hands.  They made their way down to the deck, where they headed straight to the stern and out of sight.  Two other men stepped outside and gazed back in the direction from which the ship had come, and then they quickly disappeared back inside again.  Soft music that had been playing over the house speakers truncated, and someone announced the situation to the passengers.  All were instructed to return to their cabins promptly, where the floor managers would take role and attempt to discover the identity of the victim.  Even members of the crew were required to check-in.

By the time Basques reached his cabin, his roommate, Del, was already there, waiting.  The other members of the group waited by their open doorways, smoking cigars nervously.  Del eased the door to within an inch of closing, and said to Basques in a low voice, “Now, John, I know you’re only trying to be helpful, but surely you must understand that the will of the author predestines the fate of the whole world, and not just the handful of us who believe.  I know it’s hard to accept, but these things don’t escape the author’s design.”

Basques, still uncomprehending of the man’s utter insensitivity, stammered for a moment and then replied, “But Cal, my man, surely you did not expect me to do nothing?  I could not stand by and let a good and innocent man be left to die out there.  What kind of creed is it that commands us to do nothing?”

“It is not for us to decide who is good and who is evil, ” replied Del.

“Then I claim ignorance,” replied Basques.  “You seem to think the man condemned because he happened to fall into the drink.  You seem to have decided that the man is evil.  I, for one, don’t know.  I only know that he is one in need of saving.”

“Then let the author save him,” countered Del.

“Author or no author, I am duty-bound to serve my fellow man,” replied Basques.  “Now, I don’t know any more whether I like this ideal of ours that all things are under the design of a higher power.  Even so, I like to think that I am under no obligation to sit idly by and let disaster befall my neighbor.  Am I required to do absolutely nothing?  Why do I even bother to feed myself?  If I strike you in the nose, then was it by decree of the author?  Answer me now, because I’m tempted to find out.”

Del took an unconscious step backward.  “Now, John, we are the protagonists.  Not everyone is like us.  We did not fall overboard, because we are the primary characters in the plot.  We are the good guys.”

“Good!  Ha!  Fat lot of good you are!  You think you’re a good guy, because you stood around with your hands in your pockets and did nothing!  You think that the author smiles favorably upon you because nothing particularly bad has happened to you yet.  The cruise is still young, dear Cal.  Misfortune visits everyone, sooner or later.  When it comes knocking at your door, I hope, for your sake, that your neighbor does not ascribe to your beliefs.”  Basques was about to say more, but the floor manager appeared in the doorway and took their count.  Then they were free to leave, which they did, promptly.  The other members of the society were waiting for them outside.  One of them gave Del a questioning glance, and was returned with an evasive look.

“Let’s hit the galley for a bite to eat, shall we?” suggested the leader of the group.  The rest mumbled their assent.

Lunch was an awkward affair.  The members largely attempted polite conversation over the usual heady philosophical debate.  No one wanted to acknowledge the elephant in the room, who was Basques.  The leader of the group, a man named Martin Shirr, was about to say something, finally, when a uniformed officer invited himself to sit with them.  The sailor identified himself as Jacques, the first mate of the ship.  “Well,” he began, “The count has been finished.  A couple dozen passengers had to be tracked when they failed to show for roll call.  We finally narrowed down the list to a single individual, a man named Adam Boxer.  His wife, Dora, hasn’t been able to find him since the alert, and she’s worried about him.  He was a tall, skinny fellow in his forties, wearing a solid red polo shirt and white slacks.  Is this the man that you saw?”

“My memory is a little unclear on his attire, but I believe he looked something like that,” replied Basques.

“Well, then, gentlemen, I thank you for your help.  Hopefully we can find this man and be on with our journey shortly,” said the first mate, beginning to rise.

“Is there hope?” asked Basques, eagerly.

The sailor ran his fingers across his close-cropped head and replied, “Well, that remains to be seen.  The captain has, himself, left the ship on a dinghy to search for the man.”

“Left the ship!” exclaimed one of their party.

“Yes, well, he is a man of principle.  He would rather leave the entire ship at my command than leave a single lost soul adrift in the ocean.  I believe he will be out there for quite a while, unless he finds the victim,” explained the sailor, with a subtle pride.

Del looked at Shirr and mumbled, “Our fate is tied with that of an antagonist?”

“What?” begged the sailor, “By Jove, what are you talking about?  Who are you calling an antagonist?”

Shirr chose his words carefully, “Well, you see, sir, we are a philosophical group that believes our world is fated at the hand of an author, of sorts, one who exists in a higher sense than ourselves.  You might call him a god.  We call him an author, because we believe that our destiny, even our own choices, are at his mercy.”

The sailor rubbed his chin and replied, “Ah, I see.  So you have taken it upon yourselves as the heroes in this plot to help save a drowning man.”

There followed a moment of awkward silence.

“Ah, well, you see, sir,” struggled Shirr, “We believe that all things are under control, whether they be fortune or misfortune.  We do not normally presume to alter the fate as determined by one who knows better.”

The sailor had to think about it for a moment, before he replied, “So this is not a normal response for you?  Normally, you would have abandoned the man in need?”

“You might call him an antagonist, sir,” explained Shirr.

“And you are the protagonist?” exclaimed the sailor with delight.  “Why, however could you know that you are not the antagonist, while victim may actually be the protagonist?”

“Well,” explained Shirr, talking mostly to the table top, “We must examine ourselves carefully to determine if we might be among the chosen ones.”

“Take no care at all!” exclaimed the sailor.  “I wouldn’t choose you!  What kind of hero would not help a neighbor in need?  Bosh, man!  If I were like you, I would not need to steer the ship.  Let the author steer it, himself.  Surely there must be enough elect on a ship this size to warrant a safe journey, regardless.  This I’ve got to tell the captain!  Why, we’ve been going about this all wrong!  Why, we’ve been wasting hours at the helm, when we could be down here nipping at the bottle, chumming it up with old friends.  Let your author steer the ship.”  He let out a shameless laugh.  “No, I’ll tell you what.  Your destiny is in my hands, I’ll tell you.  You can move around on this ship all you like.  You are free to do as you choose, here, but I control the over-all destiny of your whole world…at least, until the captain gets back.  That’s destiny for you.  It’s all the destiny I know.  I don’t need a higher power to determine when I burp.  He can tell me when to die, but I’ll do as I choose until then.”  With that, he stood and left the room.

The group of five were inconsolable.  They were a meek bunch, not used to impolite words.  Shortly, they seemed to think that the author was calling them to pursue other ends, so they stood and wandered off by themselves.  Each was certain that he was the only one whose faith was shaken.  They were nearly apostate by sundown, as they anxiously awaited the return of the captain in his dinghy.

All eyes were astern in the darkening dusk.  Hope was nearly gone by the time that boat came abreast of the ship.  On deck were two sailors, the captain and a soaked man in a red shirt and soggy white slacks.  Greeting the victim was a flustered wife, accusing him of his drunkenness.  The victim replied that his wife was to blame for opening the bottle and tempting him to fall off of the wagon.  One would think that at the uncorking of that bottle all of the world’s evils were unleashed upon the world.  A man could hardly be blamed for drinking too much, and, having drunk too much, could hardly be blamed for sitting on a rail and falling overboard.  Even the witnesses claimed absolution from attempting rescue.  It would seem no one was to blame for their own actions.  All were victims of fate.

Basques turned to Del, on his left, and said, “Cal, I must leave the group.”

“Why?” replied the disheartened Del, “Your man survived.  He was not condemned by the author.”

“Yes, but he could have been.  Some are not so lucky, ” replied Basques, “I cannot accept an author like that.”  He began to walk away.

“I believe you are a protagonist,” said Del, to his back, “even if you do not believe it.  I am more certain of you than I am of myself.”

Basques paused, then replied over his shoulder, “Thank you, Cal.”

When Basques began to walk away again, Del called to him, “Oh, do reconsider, won’t you?  Surely you did foresee such a possibility as this?”

“Yes, I did, Cal,” said Basques, “but I was not ready for this.”

“Will you think it over.”

“I will, Cal.  I will.”  And then John Basques returned to his room.

I suppose I should mention that, although they were shockingly wrong in the application of their philosophy, they were also astoundingly correct, at least in principle.  For they were quite right.  They are, indeed, characters whose destiny is in the hands of an author.  They have found it easy to accept salvation by my word, but they would not have easily accepted failure by that word.  Basques would have been no less a protagonist had he failed.  His comrades correctly assumed that the man overboard was caused by the destiny of my choice, which is why they thought not to override it.  However, they incorrectly assumed that they were powerful enough to override that destiny at all.  They were not.  They generally did not see that their intervention was as much a part of their destiny as was the fall of the man the victim’s own destiny.  They did not see that being a protagonist had much less to do with things going right for them, than that they would respond rightly to the things that happened to them.

I suppose I could be blamed for having a man fall overboard, but I could also be credited for giving the man any life at all.  Anyway, this is my story, and I have every right to tell it as I see fit.

[/fiction]