Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Way to Love Anything

In Chesterton's famous collection of short essays, "Tremendous Trifles," there is one essay entitled "The Advantages of Having One Leg." In it, he makes the astonishing assertion that, to really appreciate something, we have to isolate it, separate it, and learn what it is like to do without it; in his case, he was contemplating the fact that, with one sprained leg, he had only one good foot to stand on; this inconvenience of having only one leg made him truly appreciate the gift of having two, and contemplate what a miraculous thing a leg actually is. He summed this up when he wrote: "The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost."

I have been contemplating this idea, too, as a mild inconvenience has forced me to go without my glasses for a week. Nearly everyone must have wished at one time or another to step inside a painting, and I have been granted a privilege that approaches quite near to that imagined experience! Because my astigmatism is blessedly mild, the awe-inspiring effect of going without my glasses is to make the world around me take on the softest of watercolor tones and the smoothness of an impressionist pastel. Harsh delineations are blurred and lights emit a fuller glow. The defects of all around me, from flowers to food, from faces to feet, are smoothed and glossed over as if by an invisible hand that removed all displeasing marks from my view. Whoever thought that looking at life through rose-colored glasses was wrong obviously never tried looking at life through no glasses at all.

However, that primary effect has been followed up by a more profound one. Feeling as though I were living in an impressionist painting may give the world beautiful softness; but it has made me realize that I miss those stronger distinctions; seeing words look slightly wobbly on a page makes me miss the strong, dark, straight lines I used to read with my glasses. Perhaps blurred faces might be, to an impressionist's eye, more beautiful than faces whose every flaw and detail was clearly traced; but looking at the blurry faces of my family across the room makes me long for the time when I could see their faces sharpened and clarified through my glasses. I cannot help wishing for a clearer--even if that means harsher--world. It is the distinctions that give all around me shape and form; it is the lines, laws, and boundaries that make my world a detailed and three-dimensional reality, and not a watercolor or pastel painting. The way to love our limits is to realize they may be lost. I realized that this feeling is akin to another I've felt when treated to bad modern theology; absent of all clarity and definitiveness, it ends up leaving only a vague and fuzzy impression--much like a bad impressionist painting. It has no clear shapes, no outline of reality; only splotches of blurry color. The result is not to make me love the bad theology; it makes me love that which is lost: the absent good theology, the very marks of which are clarity and definition.

At the end of "The Advantages of Having One Leg," Chesterton wrote: "This world and all our powers in it are far more awful and beautiful than even we know until some accident reminds us. If you wish to perceive that limitless felicity, limit yourself if only for a moment. If you wish to realise how fearfully and wonderfully God's image is made, stand on one leg. If you want to realise the splendid vision of all visible things--wink the other eye."
Or, I might suggest, take off your glasses.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your observations, Rose-in-Faith, and they reminded me of another GKC quote, "Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere."

Clare Marie-Therese Duroc said...

Great post!

Old Fashioned Liberal said...

Yes, it was. Your astigimatism must be worse than mine.

Mapaz said...

I agree, great post! And I completely understand you. When I forget my glasses I miss clear lines so much!

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

Too late (or perhaps too early) for your "Note Book Contest," I wrote this in a Chestertonian mood 20 years ago. I did not intend it as a parody but as an homage. The ideas are his: I merely applied them to present circumstances.

Charity for the Poor Versus Charity for the Rich

[In 1994, Republicans and Democrats in Congress passed the Welfare Reform Act, which punished the poor for their insolvency by slicing up the safety net; in 2006, in another show of bipartisanship, Congress revised the Bankruptcy Law, making it more difficult for middle class Ameicans to get out of the spiral of debt that leads to poverty; and now, the same cabal is about to reward the richest of the rich for their cupidity by handing them each his own golden parachute and get-out-of-jail card. Dumping the poor saved American taxpayers $18 billion. Bailing out Wall Street will cost them more than a trillion. How can we explain this disposition to help the rich in distress but not the poor? Why is it a national emergency when the very rich are threatened with becoming merely rich but a day of jubilee when the poor were plunged into even more grinding poverty? An essay I wrote 20 years ago might help to shed some light on that question though it addressed another which is still topical. It was published in The New York Tribune, which was resurrected for a few years in the 1980s only to suffer the same fate as The New York Sun, which announced today that it would cease publication.]

By: Manuel A. Tellechea
The New York Tribune
Commentary Section, p. 9
October 21, 1988

A judge in New York upheld recently the right of beggars to beg, which decision he must have arrived at by the commendable expedient of taking the dictionary as his law book. His ruling, however, has proved very unpopular among the well-fed majority that believe it is better for a man to starve than to beg. The argument is again put forward which has for decades been used against casual charity: "Don't give a man a rope, but teach him how to hang himself," or something to that effect. This is not a conservative position and it certainly forms no part of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which exalts charity above all virtues. Its father is Herbert Spencer and it dates to the 19th century. Its common name is social Darwinism, or modern (as opposed to classical) liberalism.

Marxists also opposed casual charity because they thought that it would postpone that glorious day when the masses would rise against their oppressors. When the Marxists became the oppressors the continued to oppose it because they hoped that a starving people wouldn't have the strength to rise in the morning let alone rise in arms. In our time, however, there are no ideological positions on alms giving: revolutionaries no longer oppose it (having given up on the poor as the engine of revolution) and neither do capitalists (having no fear of them as such, either). Only the social Darwinists still publicly object to casual charity and their pseudo-science has been embraced by the general population. In the end, it is always the most savage and inhumane perspective that prevails in human relations.

Social Darwinists are always asking themselves if the poor are "deserving," but invariably the poor are always deserving unless one looks on their poverty as a well-deserved punishment. If we set out to divide the rich into the deserving rich and the undeserving rich, I should not think that we would find all the rich deserving. Yet no one would think to deprive the undeserving rich of the protection which society accords their wealth, but the social Darwinists would deny to the "undeserving" poor -- that is, to as many of the poor as possible -- all claims to society's protection (society here defined as society, not government). The benefits that society accords the rich are not dealt out according to need, but, rather, in proportion to the absence of need. With the rich we can never be too liberal:

The daughter of a rich acquaintance is marrying. Naturally, we will have to buy a gift. We must be reasonable, but reasonable not by our lights but theirs. In other words, we must be unreasonable. Our present -- let us say a porcelain cabbage -- is received with kindness and spotted some years hence being used as a doorstop. We will never be as extravagant again; nor need we worry about future baptisms or weddings. We have paid our homage to the rich. We have given from our relative needs to those who have no needs which we can satisfy. We have done no good, but who will say that we have done ill?

A porcelain cabbage is an innocuous thing, or so we may suppose. But, as G.K. Chesterton observed, "to give any present worth calling a present is to give power; to give power is to give liberty; to give liberty is to give potential sin." In a fit of pique a jealous wife may break that stony head of cabbage on the head of her stoned husband. Or dear papa may stub his gouty toe on a curious green doorstop and never cross that threshold again, causing dark days to descend thereupon. Surely such thoughts never enter our minds when we are spending money on the rich. Then we assume as a matter of course that what is superfluous will also prove innocuous. It is only when we are given alms to the poor that we are asked to consider the possible adverse consequences of casual charity.

Let us ask ourselves: Are we really more solicitous of the beggar's welfare than the rich man's? Surely not, since we never think to fulfill the expectations which the poor have of us. We do not give to the poor to commend ourselves to them but that we might command them. We never rise to charity, we stoop to charity. If the beggar in the gutter does not use our quarter to turn his life around, we think ourselves ill-used and say so. Yet no indignity that the millionaire's daughter may heap on our cabbage will ever move us to remonstrance. We have quite surrendered our cabbage and all claims to it. That portion of our estate we have transferred voluntarily and in perpetuity. But not the beggar's miserable quarter. Of him and of our quarter we are and will always be guardian and executor. So it is that cautious philanthropists are now distributing two-bit vouchers redeemable for food at specified locales -- a scheme which hopes to make charity safe again for the poor. As compared to, say, school vouchers, these vouchers do not increase personal choice and hence liberty, but restrict if not altogether eliminate it. It is debatable which is the more demeaning: to regard the beggar as an adult responsible for his poverty, or as a child able to take responsibility for nothing, not even a quarter.

But although we do not trust him to be responsible for himself neither do we wish to be responsible for him. It is far easier to suppose that our quarter will ruin the beggar than the want of a quarter. But it is just as difficult to ruin oneself on a quarter as it is to save oneself with a quarter. At best our quarters may provide the beggar with a temporary reprise from his suffering. At worst, they will leave him unaffected in the gutter.

When we made our present to the rich man's daughter, we never asked ourselves if she needed it, for we knew for a fact she did not. But when we see someone whose need is patent, we stop to debate whether that need is real! Money is never said to harm the rich who do not need it. Money harms only the poor who desperately want for it. Yet how can that which is said to be harmless in very great quantities prove fatal in a very small dose? Ill may come of charity, but ill may come of anything; and of anything more likely than charity.

Social Darwinists believe that to give money to beggars rewards idleness and encourages alcoholism. It is alleged that the poor are poor because they will not work. If laziness always and invariably resulted in poverty, the widows of rich men would all be poor. Wealth is often something that just happens to you, and poverty is apt to happen to you far more commonly than wealth. The idle rich are idle because they are rich; they are not rich because they are idle. No more than the poor are poor because they are idle: the poor are idle because they are poor.

The antidote to casual charity is the apprehension that the beggar aspires only to be a drunkard and that by withholding our quarter we shall save him from becoming one. Temperance was never enforced for the rich even when it was the law, but we are still trying to force it down the throats of the poor. If the clubman can drink to intensify his pleasure, why shouldn't the grubman drink to mitigate his sorrows. The drunk in the gutter will never run down a pedestrian nor knock down a hydrant. He is no threat to limb or property. He is a nuisance, but not a menace. Social drinkers are the menace, not unsocial drinkers. And the people that social drinkers most often menace are unsocial drinkers: nothing so easy for a drunk in a car to flatten as a drunk staggering across a road.

Beggars are unsocial drinkers because we will not allow them to be social drinkers. If the bishop in his palace feels faint, we do not begrudge him a glass of brandy bought with the alms of the faithful. He has cares, we suppose. And weaknesses, we are sure. But if the beggar in the gutter is cold and hungry as beggars in gutters are wont to be, we are encouraged to deny him alms for fear that he will betake himself to the warmth of the public house (certainly no private house would receive him), and for the price of a glass of beer, banish his griefs for a while and allay his hunger with the stale offerings of the bar or the leavings of more fortunate men, whose presence at such establishments evokes no comment or censure.