Splitting Hares

26 10 2013

hareThe day that the hare moved into the area,  I was riding with my dad down the long driveway, with that long-legged Lepus trotting along ahead of us.  My dad grumbled something to the effect of, “There goes the neighborhood!”  By his reasoning, the presence of the faster species was a death sentence to the local rabbit population.  He wondered aloud to himself if maybe he should kill it while he still had the chance.  A rabbit was just a rabbit, to me.  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect I’m not the only person in the world who didn’t know the difference between the two.  There were simply long-legged rabbits and short-legged ones.  There were fast rabbits and even faster ones.  Until someone pointed out the differences and gave me a new word to call it by, I only saw one species.

My fellow bird watchers know what I mean.  Spend any time with someone who has never learned the names of different birds, and it becomes apparent that people who have not learned the species names cannot see the different species.  I was walking with my boss one day, and she pointed to a phoebe and asked me if it was a sparrow.  If you don’t know what they’re called, then all little birds are sparrows.  The differences that seem obvious to a bird watcher are insignificant to someone who doesn’t know one bird from another.  We’re not even talking about the differences between crows and ravens, assuming there are any.

Chinese people, Koreans, Japanese and Vietnamese are all vastly different from each other from their own point of view.  Just ask them, and they’ll tell you.  A white American can’t tell them apart:  they’re all Asians.  The differences between the nationalities seem ludicrously insignificant to the white American, even when those differences are pointed out.

So, on the one hand, while sparrows and phoebes might all seem the same to someone who only knows the name of one of them, Chinese and Japanese all seem the same to someone who has not learned to appreciate the differences, even with the categorization.  Differentiation, then, is a two-step process.  Without a new word to name the different thing, there is no grasping the existence of a different thing.  Even with the new word, there is no grasping that difference without a clear understanding of the distinction in the definition.  The general trend in our society, lately, is to eliminate these distinctions.  Smaller groups are getting lumped into larger ones, and words that used to have distinct meanings are becoming more synonymous.  The end result is that we are becoming less clear in our understanding of things in general, and we are less able to deal intelligently with life.

Eskimos were said to have had seven different words for snow.  I don’t know if they still do.  Westerners have largely civilized the native American.  We might be inclined to think of, possibly, several different textures for snow if we try hard enough.  To be honest, I don’t think I could distinguish between as many as seven.  Certainly, though, they would all be different versions of the same thing, to me.  To the Eskimo, they were seven different things.  This is not to say that they didn’t understand the fundamental connection between the different types, that they were all different forms of the same thing, but they saw greater significance in the difference.  The different types of snow were functionally different to them in ways that us southerners will never grasp.  When building a home requires a specific kind of snow, the type of snow is more than just a difference of how much the snowball hurts when it hits you.

We of the English-speaking variety have had a number of words lose their distinction lately.  Some of those words are less important, like the differences between idiots, morons and imbeciles (pre-politically correct terms later replaced, collectively by the term “retarded,” which, itself, became incorrect and was replaced by the word “developmentally challenged.”)  Most people can’t tell one term from another, and they’ve all become mere pejoratives, anyway.  Some of these words used to have more useful distinctions, however, and before we throw them forever into the smelting pot of synonymity, we might consider whether it will result in our understanding things, in general, less clearly.

Joy versus Happiness:

When I ask virtually anyone what the difference is between joy and happiness, I get a quizzical look in response.  Is there any real difference between the two?  Yet, if I ask what is the difference between depression and sadness, almost no one has trouble understanding the difference.  The reason is simply that our society is becoming better acquainted with sorrow than with joy.  Sadness is to depression what happiness is to joy.  A person can be happy but not have joy.  A person can have a moment of happiness but be depressed, overall.  Or, better yet, a person can be sad in the short run, but ultimately be joyful.  Hard as it is to understand, happy people commit suicide.  In fact, depressed people typically become quite happy once they decide to do the deed.  Joyful people never kill themselves.  Of all of the people I’ve asked, only Christians have demonstrated any grasp of the difference.  When I start to explain the difference, recognition shows on their face, and they tell me that they know what I mean.  Their joy is based on Heaven.  No matter how bad the temporary circumstances, the bigger picture is guaranteed to be bright.  A depressed person sees the opposite, that no matter how good the current circumstances, the bigger picture is always hopeless.  Some people, namely those who don’t believe in Heaven, would say that the distinction between joy and happiness is meaningless, but I would argue, why should we be more intimately knowledgeable about sadness than happiness?  We sell our joy by merging definitions.

Rights versus Entitlement:

I saw someone on a forum argue that something is a right when you like it, and it’s an entitlement when you don’t.  This ignorance is inexcusable.  Now, the terms are, lately, politically charged, so we’ll try to approach this as objectively as possible.  A right is something that you, yourself, should be permitted to do.  An entitlement is, strictly speaking, something that you should be able to have.  Because having a thing requires either getting it yourself or having someone get it for you, getting it yourself is more of a right, and true entitlement is about having others provide a thing for you.  At the outset, it would be tempting to say that rights can be good, but entitlement can never be good.  Conservatives often see it this way.  If having a thing requires making someone else provide it for me, then I would seem especially greedy to think I have a right to it.  Let’s think of it differently: if I pay cash for a new car, but I have to wait for it to be shipped from a lot in Arizona to a local lot in California, which I did recently, then I am entitled to that car.  I had a contractual agreement with the company.  If not the car, then I was at least entitled to a refund.  If someone makes me a promise in exchange for my services, then I am entitled to the fulfillment of that promise.  No conservative could argue with that.  Then, we can agree that some entitlements are acceptable.  Liberals, however, are more likely to blur the lines between rights and entitlement.  The previously mentioned forum poster did not know the difference between the two, which said everything about his political leanings.  He might say that he had a right to health care or a right to food, shelter and clothing.  He would have better said that he was entitled to health care, food, shelter and clothing.  No one was stopping him from getting those things for himself.  There was no dispute as to whether he had the right to pursue his health and happiness.  When he said that he had a right to it, what he meant was that he was entitled to it, not that he should be permitted to pursue it, but that he should get it somehow, even at the expense of others.

Personally, I’m not entirely certain that there really is such a thing as an inalienable right given to us by our creator, but only because of the fact that a man being mauled by a bear in the woods would not benefit from claiming those rights.  The bear wouldn’t understand it, and, if he could understand it would not agree with it, and God might not enforce it.  Rights really only exist within human interactions with each other.  Hence, it’s not so much a matter of my right to pursue something as it is your responsibility to let me pursue it.  In that case it comes back to one person’s expectation of another, but in a different way.  One person’s entitlement is another person’s responsibility to fulfill that entitlement.  Hence, responsibility comes into play in both cases.  Hence, the confusion.

Good versus Nice:

This one is a personal pet peeve of mine.  It’s probably the nastiest symptom of our degenerating society.  People equate being nice with being good.  The confusion of terms is so solid, now, that hardly anyone can extricate one term from the other, anymore.  War, for example, is one of the meanest things that humanity has ever committed.  Hence, all war is considered by some as the antithesis of good.  That being the case, such people are having a harder time saying that America’s involvement in World War II was a good thing, even though it meant stopping the Nazis and their ruthless murder of millions of innocent people.  We get the cliché, “War is not the answer,” because war is bad and peace is good.  War is bad, because war is not nice.  Peace is good because peace is nice.  Hence, all things nice automatically get the stamp of approval.  Spanking a child is not nice, therefore it is not good.  The child grows up to be a selfish whiny adult, but at least the parent was nice.  People in our world are incapable of imagining how a thing can be nice but not be good, or be nice and horribly evil.  Hence, the nicest thing to do with homosexuality is to condone it, and the nicest thing to do with bestiality is to condone it.  Therefore, accepting everyone’s lifestyle is good, and rejecting anyone’s lifestyle is bad, because it’s judgemental and not nice.

I wonder if the emergence of these ugly twisted pieces of metal that I find in public places, labelled as art, are the direct result of this trend.  Rejecting bad art is not nice, therefore accepting even the ugliest work of chaos is deemed good.  As a result, we get to look at ugly scrap metal instead of real art, with real beauty.  We cannot discriminate between good and bad art, because we cannot discriminate between good judgement and nice judgement.

Truth versus Fairness:

The fairest thing to do is to allow people to marry anyone, or anything, that they want, regardless of sex or species.  That’s the way things are currently heading.  It doesn’t really stop there.  The fact is, it’s fairer to let people marry or do anything that they want, at all.  If they want to flush a toilet and call it marriage, then that’s the fairest thing to do.  Get out the marriage license and file it with the county records department.  Repeat after me, “With this lever, I thee flush….”  If a man pulls up to a gas station and wants to fill his car with gas, then the fairest thing to do is to let him fill it with gas however he wants, even by sticking the nozzle up the tailpipe and squeezing the trigger.  If the pump has to be modified to make this possible, then we would write legislation mandating gas stations to provide pumps that are exhaust pipe compatible.  Never mind if the act results in the car catching on fire when the gasoline hits the catalytic converter.  Never mind if the act goes against both the design of the pump and the design of the car.  Never mind if it really serves no purpose.  The fairest thing is to let him do it, and to provide a way for him to do it, if that is his wish.  The same argument is being made about homosexuality.  It’s destructive.  It goes against the design of the machinery.  It really serves no purpose.  The fairest thing is to condone it.  The honest thing is to call it what it really is, which is vile nonsense.

The trend is, to each his own, and while it is fairer to allow all people to go their own way, there often is no effort to discern the truth of the matter, that some ways are beneficial and meaningful, and others are destructive and meaningless.  It’s one thing to let others be who they are, but it’s not the same as turning a blind eye to the reality of what they’ve chosen to become.

Excusing versus Forgiving:

When someone hurts us, we say that the Christian thing to do is to forgive that person.  That’s true, in word, but sometimes people make the mistake of excusing the evil deed, thinking that they’ve done a virtuous thing in doing so.  We can blame it on his upbringing or his troubled past.  We can delve into the dark depths of his troubled psyche to understand what drove him to hurt us.  If it brings us to vow not to retaliate, then that is forgiveness, but not if we come to it by denying that a wrong was committed in the first place.  Extreme forgiveness is often mistakenly thought of as so completely overlooking a person’s misdeeds as to say it never happened, or that it was completely understandable.  It’s not really forgiveness.  If we excuse the deed, then we say that it’s okay, because he only acted that way because of some underlying factors.  The person is no longer an actor on the stage of life.  The person becomes just one more domino in the chain reaction of cause and effect, not a perpetrator to be held accountable for his actions, but a victim, or just a medium through which a chain of events happened to pass.  The bad deed becomes nothing more than an unlucky circumstance.  There is no longer anything to forgive, because no evil has been committed.  We become nothing but unfortunate victims to the cruelty of blind fate.

Hence, it is only possible to excuse a misdeed or to forgive it, but it is not possible to do both.  Yet, too many people equate one with the other.  They think that they are forgiving when they are really excusing.  Excusing sin involves no forgiveness at all.

Righteousness versus Self-Righteousness:

There are three types of people in modern society.  There are those who comprise the vast majority, those who occasionally act out of malice or playful indiscretion, but who are, essentially, good people.  Then there are those people who, unlike the rest of us, generally prefer to act badly by default.  We can feel free to scorn these individuals.  Then, there are the self-righteous people, who are unwilling to accept any sin, and who arrange their own lives to avoid these indiscretions at all cost.

I hope you disagree with all of this.  Non-religious people never use the word “righteous” in any meaningful way.  There was a brief time when it was used by some as a byword, like “cool” or “groovy,” but secular individuals never use the word, except to compound it into the term “self-righteous.”  When asked to distinguish between righteousness and self-righteousness, about the best that they do to explain is that righteousness is really being good, while self-righteousness is only thinking you’re good and condemning everyone who’s not as good as you, which makes you really bad.  Having said that, the closest that they can come to defining righteousness is equating it with being nice (not saying that anyone else is being unrighteous), and doing your own thing without hurting anyone else, which is just another way of being nice.  Their use of terminology blows the cover off of their lie.  They never use the word, because they don’t believe in the concept, in reality, that true righteousness is real and something worth striving for.

Christians are most often the victims of the term “self-righteous,” but Christians are the inventors of the term.  We, acknowledging our own inability to define and achieve righteousness, created the term of self-righteousness to identify those people who invent their own standard and attempt to, and sometimes even succeed in, achieving that standard.  What they achieve is not really righteous, nor is it particularly lofty.  About all it does is make them arrogant.  Hence, the secularist has the right idea in thinking that self-righteousness causes haughtiness.  However, the secularist has no concept of righteousness, the pursuit of God’s standard of righteousness, which no human can fulfill by his or her own power but can, with God’s help, develop habits in that direction.  The secularist has no concept of that, therefore all righteousness is self-righteousness.  There is no distinction between the two for someone who doesn’t understand their meaning.

One might argue, what’s wrong with pursuing a higher standard than one’s self?  Why not strive for something better?  Why should the pursuit of excellence be an insult?  One might argue that if faulty humans define righteousness for themselves, then the end result is not that humans will better themselves to reach it, but that the standard will be lowered to where people already are.  No one need aspire to anything better.  If you say you’re there, then you’re already there.  We’re all a bunch of dirty pigs rolling around in the same sty and the same mud.  The one who tries to leave, who takes a bath, makes the others feel dirty.  No matter how vile the deed or foolish the thought, if everyone else is doing it and thinking it, then it feels normal.  If even one person calls it what it is, he upsets the apple cart and makes us hate him.  If he strives for something better, then we insult him.  If he actually succeeds at it (Heaven forbid), we punish him.  If he starts to change the status quo, bringing others to his way of thinking, changing the definition of “normal,” then we kill him.


Losing Face

26 10 2009

facesIt was the springtime of hope, when the curtain of despair was promising to lift.  A near decade of depression was on its last leg.  I found myself sitting on a short wall, enjoying the warmth of the morning sun on my back as the sparrows chattered wildly in a nearby hedge.  It was a great day to be alive, and I thought nothing could spoil it.  As fate would have it, along came one of those people I call by the title of Hostage Taker (but never to the person’s face), for whom conversation is a performance art, requiring nothing more than herself and an inanimate telephone pole.  Such people never seem to notice or care whether the person with whom they are speaking is actually engaging in the conversation.  If one wanted to be left alone, such people would continue prattling heedlessly.

On this day, my self-appointed hostage taker was otherwise known as Anna.  She was a rather energetic individual with an overzealous enthusiasm for all things positive.  On her first day at college, she was probably the most noticeable person in the chapel service, bouncing and singing with more force than anyone else.  Being the cynical, negative person that I was, I looked upon this as odd, at best, or downright silly, at worst.  See, for the previous nine years, I had developed this theory that, deep down inside, all people in the world were really just miserable unhappy wretches.  I wondered if more people might be apt to kill themselves if the process weren’t so horrible.  Now, of course there were people who seemed happy.  To the people who were only occasionally happy, I attributed a temporary case of serendipity.  The others, I figured, were complete frauds.  Deep inside the heart of every person I imagined a gnawing hungry angst.  It didn’t help that a friend had scolded me for being unhappy and insisted that I act happy to make other people feel good.  She was the daughter of a rather important political figure, so I chalk it up to her warped upbringing.

This Anna, though, was a different case, altogether.  Her perspective was that God wanted all Christians to be ecstatically happy, mostly to the point of apoplexy.  Non-Christians were supposed to look at us and see our joy and want to be just like us.  I didn’t say a word for the entire conversation, hoping that she would leave me to my sun and sparrows.  Okay, so I have a stoic disposition, even when I’m happy.  I’ve been in a state of bliss, only to have someone ask me what’s wrong.  So, I don’t wear my emotions on my sleeve.  Even so, I felt rather insulted that she would imply that I looked downcast, or that I should fake it and act happy.

“…so even when I’m sad, I put on a happy face, because God rewards a cheerful person, and pretty soon he’ll make me happy inside, too.”

And in the meantime, you tell a lie to the world with your face.  See, there are more ways to lie than with direct verbal contradictions of truth.  In fact, there are more ways to lie than with words.  I don’t know anyplace in the Bible that says that God will make us insanely happy all of the time, or that we should trick the world into thinking we’re happy.  The Bible does, however, tell us not to lie.  Jesus didn’t dance for joy on the mount of olives as he waited for his execution.  He wept and wailed, and he probably gave himself a degree of  heart failure while he was at it.  He was a man of sorrows, visiting a fallen world.

The world does not need to see another smiling face.  It needs to see the truth.  The truth is that, while I haven’t met an unbeliever who could adequately differentiate between joy and happiness, I haven’t met a Christian who couldn’t.  I have been sad, yet felt the abiding joy of the Lord.  There’s a distinct difference.  The joy goes deeper.  Yet, we are all occasionally sad.  To be otherwise is to be insensitive and uncaring.  It is to be a pretentious fraud.  Once people get wind of the idea that the smile is just a façade, then there is nothing stopping the imaginations of the despairing from believing, as I did, that all people are really miserable, if the truth be told.  Prove yourself a liar, and everything you do will be suspect.

But, why lie?  Do we have this notion that God instills an overflowing happiness in everyone who puts their faith in Christ?  If this is true, then we don’t need to lie with our faces.  If this is false, then we need to change our doctrine.  But the individual doubts himself.  An individual woman looks at her mundane state of existence and thinks that she has fallen short, having failed to achieve that bliss.  The smile is the bandage that covers the gaping wound of which she is so ashamed.  In that respect, Anna was trying to help me, like telling a man that the zipper on his fly is down, or that he has toothpaste stuck in the corner of his mouth.  My unenthusiastic demeanor was showing.  I was letting slip my failure as a Christian.

Now, the most ironic thing happened just a few days later.  Anna awoke one morning with a palsy in her face.  The entire left side of her face went limp as a wet rag.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I would be in a state of uncontrolled panic if that ever happened to me.  Without a doubt, this would be a test of her resolve to put on a happy face, even in times of trouble.  She declared with half a smile that God would heal her.  She was determined to stay happy and trust God.  While half of her face lied, the other half, the one that no longer worked, told the truth.  One side had a foolish grin, and the other side was the picture of despair.  We were sitting at a table in the college cafeteria, and everyone at that table froze in the middle of eating to stare at the half-happy half-sad face.  It was very disturbing.  Anna let loose with a sigh, like the truth was bottled up inside her and the pressure had to be released.

In the days that followed, she slowly lost her resolve.  As time marched on, the two sides of her face began to match each other.  She had lost face.  I can only imagine what it must have been like, waking up each morning to that discouraging image in the mirror.  She couldn’t even fool herself with a forced smile.  The one trying event had come that she could not smile her way through.  Slowly, she was learning to express an honest emotion.  God had not decreed that all Christians be happy all of the time, but he had stated that we must be honest.

I was told at an early age that God uses adversity to teach us his ways.  Consequently, I tried, or thought I tried, to learn and understand these things so as to avoid the impending trouble.  I know that he has used hardship to teach me, and I can see clearly how he used it to teach Anna.  We science students, especially those of the pre-med disposition, looked upon her as a case study.  Though I was not around to see her recover from her ailment, I do believe that she probably recovered fully in a month or two.

From then on, I decided that I would never, unless posing for a picture, and maybe not even then, fake a smile.  I want the world to see me happy, but, more importantly, I want to be honest, and I want to actually be happy.  Incidentally, I consider my life to be a very pleasant experience, over-all.

At the moment, I am happy.  I could use an apple fritter and a cup of coffee, but otherwise, I’m doing just fine.