Sunday, November 03, 2013

It concentrates the mind wonderfully

[Yes, yes, I know, sorry. My excuse is that my home internet went kaput this week and I spent the whole time lurching from wi fi point to wi fi point, the office in the City, other people's sofas, cafes, to try to find a place to get my work done. Also, Church; it was All Saints this week, which is a Holy Day of O. in there were friends here all week from Yoosah, so there was a lot of running about in Rome, backing and forthing and camping on sofas in town, and not a lot of lesiured fooling-about-on-the-internet time that normally fuels blogging. But the Telecom Italia guy came over yesterday (at nine in the morning on a Saturday! I was so shocked at the appearance of a fix-it guy on a weekend, that I let him in to look at the modem, despite being dressed only in PJs and cardie.)... anyway. Here we are, back again. And with probably a few lurkers and freeloaders shaken off, so that's good.]
This from our friend John Zmirak reminds me of the note in a Christmas card (yes, I have friends who still do that) from a dear friend in Vancouver, just before Christmas 1999: "Merry Christmas, and remember, when the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, it won't be the end of the world. Just Saturday."

Those of you in your 20s and up might remember Y2K. I know a Catholic author who is still trying to finish all the canned food he stockpiled, and unload the rural compound he bought “to be prepared.” A part of me was afraid straight through Jan. 1, 2000, that all the Russian missiles would accidentally fire at once. When it didn’t happen, as all the folks around me at the New Year’s eve party in Greenwich Village (I too wanted to be prepared) chanted “We’re still alive!” they seemed a tad … disappointed at the dawn of just one more frog-flippin’ day.

There have been a number of apocalyptic predictions since then. I have another friend who was absolutely convinced that history was going to conclude (with appropriate celestial fanfare) some time in the winter of 2012. I responded, "But we've been told we don't know the day or the hour." He said, "Yes, but He never said anything about the month or the year, did He?"

For what it's worth, I don't think Millennial Fever is a strictly religious urge. I think it has more to to with psychology. I think the modern industrialised world has become a very alienating place. People don't know their role, they don't know what they're supposed to do, what their obligations are. Since the Cultural Revolutions of the last 50 years, they don't know how to organise their lives towards happiness, or even what happiness is. And they are utterly overwhelmed by the scale of the world's problems. They feel small and crowded out, their real lives insignificant and sometimes morally and psychologically chaotic.

The apocalypse, whether it's environmental cataclysm, zombies or the Final Trump and Shout and the descent of the Celestial Judge, is at least a definitive answer to the horrible and unanswerable question, "What are we supposed to do?"

In an apocalypse, the confusion is over: if there are zombies to kill, we know how to do that, and if there are sins to repent of, we know how to do that too. It represents clarity in a world where all is fog and ambiguity. The apocalypse, as the saying goes, concentrates the mind wonderfully.

What seems to be inarguable, however, is that culturally we are sinking to a rather low point.

It's a funny paradox, isn't it, because of course in material terms, more of us are what previous generations wold have thought of as fabulously wealthy than there have been human beings in all the history of the world. And we're this fantastically wealthy without really having had to do anything to acquire it. We just happen to be alive in the right countries, right now, where fantastically wealthy is "normal". For the great majority of human beings who have ever lived, the act of flicking a switch to turn on a light, or turning on a tap and having hot water come out, would be utterly astonishing.

My grandmother, born in 1903, had a high-tech job, at the age of 17, as an operator for the telephone company. When she was in her 80s, we had a very hard time explaining to her the function of an answering machine, a device that is now so obsolete that young people would also not have any idea how to operate it. Things in the material world, are moving along.

(The Telecom Italia guy chided me for plugging my antique rotary-dial phone into the phone jack in the wall. He said it was interrupting the internet signal. I argued that it worked, and was useful when I lost my cell phone in the sofa cushions. We compromised and he gave me a splitter that allowed me to plug the phone in when I wanted to dial out. He took a look at my non-smart flip-phone that didn't get Facebook, and shook his head sadly that one so young could be such a hopeless luddite.)

I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and we were poor. My mother rarely had a job, my father had flown the coop and government handouts were not then what they are now. We mostly lived in little apartments built into the tops of old houses that had not yet seen the gentling hand of posh renovations. We had a television, and I think it was colour, but often no central heating. I remember the wood stove in the sitting room and the friend who faithfully brought over a weekly box of Pres-to Logs which I would cut into big sawdust cookies for easier burning. The gas heater in the kitchen was grubby and gave my mother chronic bronchitis and the heat in my bedroom came from either the hot water bottle or the electric blanket. (To this day, I cannot sleep in a warm room, and keep the windows open all year round.)

In those days, and in that remote part of the world, it was very rare to travel, and no one we knew other than my relatively wealthy grandparents, ever visited Europe. Trips to the US and Mexico were not unheard of, but expensive and rare. I remember when my mother went to a great deal of trouble and expense to take me to Seattle to see the Treasures of King Tut traveling exhibit in 1978. She said it was unlikely that I would ever get to Egypt to see them again, and this was a chance not to be missed. I have never forgotten it.

But in those days, such "poverty" was relatively normal. A lot of people didn't have cars. A lot of people had party lines on their phones because it was cheaper than getting a private line. Lots of people in Victoria, as in the Old Country, had apartments without central heat. We didn't think of TV as any kind of necessity. We knew the difference between necessities and luxuries. Most people, to be sure, were better off than we were, but only because at that time and for a very brief window, divorce and "family breakdown" were also relatively rare.

And the majority of people who were better off than us, weren't really that much better off. My mother's best friend, another single mother, never had a TV, and her two children, my earliest childhood friends, would come over eagerly after school with me to watch cartoons. Being "poor" was more or less normal, and even my comparatively wealthy friends had parents who grew up after the Wars in England, so there was no snobbery at play. Life wasn't about stuff.

My mother struggled, to be sure, but she felt it a great deal more than I did. Apart from some envy of the material security of some of my school friends, I was very happy as a child. I liked music and we had records and a record player. I wanted books, and there were books. I wanted to go explore the beach, and the beach was there. I liked to collect Nature Things, and it was all out there for the looking.

I had read a lot about life in the middle ages and in the ancient world. I went through a long Greece and Egypt phase, and I was pretty keen on the Bible stories my mother read to me. I read 19th century novels and knew that electric light and hot water out of the tap were new and wondrous things. My mother was involved in the hippie movement and was majoring in marine biology in Uni, so we knew that the "ecology" was being endangered by all the cars and industrial effluent, and it was not really a good thing to have too much stuff.

Maybe this is part of why I was finally able, faster than some, to figure out on my own that the Pursuit of Stuff and the Pursuit of Happiness were not the same thing.

Maybe we want the end of the world, maybe the apocalypse is all the rage on TV lately, because we all get it, to some degree. We are all starting to feel suffocated by The Stuff. Mentally clogged up by all the pointless information. Maybe there's something appealing about a Great Cleansing that we can't avoid, and that will throw us back into having to deal with The Real and the Here and the Now. Our stuff, our distractions, have insulated us, isolated us from The Real. But whether consciously or no, we all know that Only The Real Counts.

Perhaps we all just wish that one morning, we will wake up to find that God has snuck in, in the middle of the night, cleaned up our rooms for us, got the breakfast on and is calling us to get up and come live in the Real for a change. Maybe we all subconsciously want for the time of dreaming our opiate-dreams in front of the TV or the internet to be over and gone forever.


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