One Thousand Words or So

Who We Are

My friend Jessica once mentioned that God deals with individuals, but the devil doesn’t. Satan is content with anyone he can get claws into. It doesn’t matter who the person is, what he or she looks like, and names are unimportant. The devil is concerned with numbers. He wants quantity over quality; social justice over justice; identification based on race, religion, sex, or other labels vs. dignity inherent to being human.

Wise Jessica mentioning this was a turning point for me, and I find myself coming back to it a lot. Once again, it’s almost embarrassing, because it seems so obvious when you stop and think about it. But it’s the stopping and thinking about it: I had never done so.

Over on The Ruff Draft, I wrote more than once about the technique in literature described by the critical school of Russian Formalism as “defamiliarization.” I have a feeling that there is more to the official definition than I’ve considered in depth, but the general concept applies to all art, and I touched upon it yesterday. Because we become so used to seeing and hearing things communicated in certain ways, we need to get jarred out of our complacency to consider anything differently. Art is a great vehicle for this.

In more than one poem, Robert Frost writes about flowers that escaped the blade of a mower and how thankful he is that they have been saved for his eyes. How many of us have ever stopped to consider something so commonplace as wildflowers next to newly mown grass? More than once I’ve taken pictures of dishes drying in the sun in the rack next to the kitchen sink, a scene I encounter every day, but capturing it with my camera makes me see more: the ridges on a glass or the detail in the flowers on a plate.

In Picture Perfect Practice, Roberto Valenzuela fills many of the pages with exercises for training the eye to pick out elements that can make for stunning photographs. In the chapter on patterns and repetitions, he writes, “A break in a pattern is distracting, because your brain is quick to notice these disruptions for your own survival.” I like that he acknowledges the reality of our human origins. Prehistoric man inhabited a dangerous world, but God equipped humans with physical mechanisms that gave them a fighting chance at survival. Those mechanisms have not gone away, even though our lives are nothing like they were hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of years ago. It is important to recognize this, because we cannot just wish away the realities of biology. They will have their way with us, no matter what kind of stories we make up, and if we want to do more than merely survive, we need to take into account how these biological realities come into play.

Jordan B. Peterson is just the latest in a string of guides to human nature that I’ve encountered, but Sigrid Undset is, too. Valenzuela, Gregory Wolfe, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Flannery O’Connor. The list could on and on. Peterson, though, dives in deeply, going back as far as he can to find origins, revelations, and patterns that explain how we humans have always worked, and always will work.

The other night, I re-watched a video of a talk Peterson delivered in 2008. The subject? The Difference between Tragedy and Evil. It is fascinating. He begins with this: “The nature of a human being is such that it consists of the confrontation with the bounded finite with the unbounded infinite.” In other words, since there is no way of knowing all there is to know, we are faced with the infinite (unexplored territory) on a daily basis, and since the finite cannot encompass the infinite, the infinite always overwhelms the finite. This means that suffering is central to human existence. We cannot escape it, because controlling every variable is an impossibility. Does our society recognize this? Apparently not.

We try to eliminate suffering at every turn: policing words that might hurt someone’s feelings, making laws based on make-believe premises, throwing more and more money and regulations at scientific research that promises to end cancer, extend life, eliminate death. And when these goals cannot be achieved? We eliminate the suffering patient instead. When that’s not possible, we try to wipe out anything and anyone that reminds us that forces we do not understand or control can ruin everything in five seconds or less.

Peterson tells us that tragedy is merely a revelation of our vulnerability; therefore, it can’t be regarded as evil. It’s simply a condition of existence. In other words, you can’t blame God for the bad things that happen in this world. God gave us free will. We choose our attitudes and actions, and every single one comes with consequences.

How does evil differ from tragedy? Peterson recognizes evil by its lack of necessity and its volunteerism. He says that the aesthetic of evil is aimed at dehumanization and destruction of the ideal and revenge against the conditions of existence itself. Arrogance and resentment are at the roots of evil in individuals.

Let’s play word association for a moment. What word always follows on the heels of “arrogance”? For me, it’s “pride.” Did you get the same answer?

C.S. Lewis calls pride “spiritual cancer,” and points out that other vices come from the devil working through human nature, but pride comes directly from hell, with no starting point in human nature. I’ve read Lewis’s Mere Christianity before, but I don’t remember this, and I’ll need time for it to sink in.

As usual, I’ve followed a roundabout path, but I’d like to head back to the beginning and share some words from Magnificat that introduce Psalm 98:

What is so new about the promised “mountain of the Lord” is not that the wolf and the lamb are both there, but that the wolf remains a wolf and a lamb a lamb, and yet they dwell together without harm or hurt in God’s kingdom. Under God’s rule, conversion and obedience do not mean the loss of identity but the discovery of the true identity as one in Christ.

God never asks us to become someone we’re not. Knowing this earlier in life could have saved me a lot of heartache.

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