Tripartiite Jesus


I watch and think and learn, every day.  It’s how I have become what I am.  Recently \I was presiding, as I often do, over the library’s bookstore.  I love doing this, because the store is a lovely reading room.  Customers, some days, are infrequent because the store is ‘way in the back, as opposed to most libraries where it’s near the front door.  The customers are often themselves interesting, and I have become friends with quite a few.

At that particular time, on my reading docket were several books I really want to absorb:   Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, a book about Einstein’s struggle, literally to his death, against Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (to me, the height of irony), and Diana Athill’s Somewhere Near the End.  I felt as though I had no business  attempting a memoir before I knew what these books held.

Unfortunately, instead of chasing either my reading or writing goals, I found myself engaged more and more in “the ponders,” which happened to me one day in the bookstore.  I kept having small epiphanies (or mini-strokes).  I thought of them as the fluorescence of the lifetime investment my culture has made in me.  So much seemed to be coming together.  I have wondered what to call it:  harmonic convergence?  Synthesis?  Coalescing?  How about coagulating, since I am old?

Sometimes I then feel like the Ancient Mariner.  I have something to say, but no wedding guest to shag to tell my tale to.  I wished to perform in my role as a garrulous old man, as is, I insist, my right.  But today, into the bookstore came someone I hoped to victimize – a woman with the appearance of an old hippie.  I did ask her permission, and then told her the bronze rule (Do unto others, etc., ‘til they return nasty for nice.  Then, smack ‘em between the eyes.  Its corollary is “trick me once…”)

The idea I’d intended to talk about was an enhancement:   the Quixote syndrome.  There is a personality type for which psychiatrists have another name that I have forgotten.  I am one.  These are people who are so convinced of a moral position, and of its importance, that they act in spite of any bad consequences they may foresee.  They may be unbalanced, or insane – hence the name, which doesn’t allow for any grandiose preening:  Quixote, the man who tilts against windmills.

The hippie thought she saw where I was going, finished my argument for me with ideas that were not actually my own – a straw man of her making – and then told me I was a jerk for thinking those thoughts.  (A straw man is an ideal target for this treatment.)  She said my ideas led to war, to which she was opposed; and that she preferred to try to be like Jesus.  Having “put me in my place,” she stalked out lest I should have the audacity to respond.

So I thought some more.  I wondered if she were the disciple of any recognizable ideology.  It seems to me that ideologues are usually lazy.  They find a set of ideas they generally like, and then it becomes like a snap-on tool.  They snap out their innate moral core, and snap in a one-size-fits-all rule set.  I conceived of that replacement as a destructive moral virus – it surreptitiously sneaks in and takes over.  From that point on all ethical questions receive the answer in the rule:  “1462  Marriage is between a man and a woman.  There.  Now shut up.”  (“Whew.  That was easy.  No more squirming with each new moral complexity.”)

The issue of gays’ treatment is special to me.  I knew someone when I was thirteen – a nice guy, a little fey perhaps – at that time in my life when tragedy really knocks you down.  He killed himself, I guessed in self-hatred, because he had been raised a Baptist:  the same predicament that Ted Haggard recently responded to so pathetically.  I have ever since paid close attention to gays’ plight, now and in the past.  It’s one of the things that makes me ashamed of my species.  That issue was settled for me a long time ago.  I’ll just say I think we’ve had the academic wherewithal to understand these people the whole time, but have not had the courage – or maybe sufficient empathy.  When the symbolic Jesus weeps, why does he weep?  For this too, as well as all the rest.

One question I would have liked to ask my old hippie was which Jesus she wanted to emulate.  There are three, I think – the compassionate one (the one with whom I feel an affinity), the fanatic (a Quixote, to whom I am also kin – the Jesus among the moneychangers), and the one who thought himself supernatural.  (I’m not sure he himself actually took this one seriously at all.  His story is so encrusted with the products of others’ wishful thinking that it may simply be too late to get at the historical Jesus effectively.  Anyhow, as George Burns said, or should have said if he didn’t, in the movie “God,” “From here on you’re on your own.”  But I digress.)

And this question:  If Otto Frank could somehow have saved his daughters from the Shoah through a violent act, should he instead have “turned the other cheek”?  Anyone who would answer “yes” to that question would simply be a moral cripple, and would be guilty of an ethical mortal sin – the failure of imagination to fully explore the consequences of beliefs we may consider.  I’m pretty fond of pacifism, but it has its limits.  (This much Einstein was able to see.)

If we are to preserve our species for much longer, I think it’s this ability among others – an exquisite imaginative sensitivity – we must cultivate.

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