Thursday, June 21, 2007

Chickin Soop

I’m about half way through the second of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. There about now about half a million different versions, the whole thing busting out into a ridiculously overblown franchise. There is Chicken Soup for the Graduate’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul, and so on ad infinitum ad nauseam.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, CSFTS books contain short stories, usually no more than a few pages long. They are by design inspirational, uplifting, and intended to help you spend time thinking about how much goodness life contains. They are meant to act as an antidote to the dominant media themes of death, destruction, perversion and greed and worry. To some extent, I believe they do that. I do find myself meditating on the stories, moved by them and I do believe that spending a few minutes a day reading such stories is helpful to the heart.

I must say, however, that there is a strong tendency toward sentimentalism. Some of the stories make me feel not so much choked up as fighting down the gag reflex. And a particularly strong theme in this book is death. Episode after episode of people that said “I love you” to someone just before they died – or didn’t. Kids dying. Adults dying. Cancer. Car crashes. Heart attacks. At a certain point I just started to think that the editors seem to have a rather operatic view of the world. Pathos. Pathos. Pathos. Everything, even the smallest act carries life and death import.

At first, I rejected that. The world is not so much of a drama as that. The mundane is mundane, Most of life just toodles along, punctuated occassionally by brief moments of high drama.

As I considered this, I then realized that I was wrong and the editors actually were right – sentimentality and all (I hate it when that happens). Everything really is a life and death struggle. Life is so short and death so certain that what we make of this brief shining moment determines the value of the life. At the end, it is the sum of these moments that will leave our mark on the world. It is cliché but so what. The truth is that for so much of the world, drama is all there is. Peace is the abberation. Death and destruction is at the door, banging to come in. I cannot afford to be casual, or death will conquer me before I die.

I mock the press analysis of “presidential legacy,” for they speak as if legacy were something that can be created out of nothing in the last 18 months of a president’s tenure. Yet if I am not seeking full engagement with the life that is in me and around me right now, I am making the same mistake. I cannot wait until just before I die to create my legacy. In fact, I may right now be in my last moments. This is no reason to panic, but it is a reason to get serious and get to work. It is a life or death matter.

Why am I here? What good can I do right now? What is really the MOST important thing? To get these answers wrong, or to fail to answer them at all is to die too early. We mistake activity for life. We confuse movement for vitality and noise for breath. It is not a matter of our existence, it is a matter of our direction.

The Bard referred to cowards thusly:

Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant only die but once.

I prefer to die once, and to die well. Children with cancer and orphaned babies remind me of real courage. There are many poor bastards who discover their valiant nature when someone simply cared enough to touch them. Yeah, I’ve read one too many stories of people who were about to commit suicide, but changed their minds because some modestly valiant person was unexpectedly kind to them. At the same time, I hope that I can also be one of those valiant ones. It is much better than being a coward.

It pisses me off that CSFTS helped me to see this a bit more clearly. One likes to get one’s great flashes of insight from much more important books like Moby Dick, A Critique of Pure Reason, or at least maybe King Lear. I guess you can’t pick and choose where your lessons come from.


kokomo said...

Death is nothing;
But to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.

~ Napoleon

Anonymous said...

You need to be on my porch smoking a pipe, drinking an oatmeal stout while talking about this stuff. I'm glad to read it on the blog, but it makes me miss to companionship. I'll just have to make sure to light up before reading. Cheers, Ron Jung

Anonymous said...

I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy. Doubt meets disbelief and disbelief tries to push it out. But disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier. Doubt does away with it with little trouble. You become anxious. Reason comes to do battle for you. You are reassured. Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapons technology. But, to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable victories, reason is laid low. You feel yourself weakening, wavering. Your anxiety becomes dread.

Fear next turns fully to your body, which is already aware that something terribly wrong is going on. Already your lungs have flown away like a bird and your guts have slithered away like a snake. Now your tongue drops dead like an opossum, while your jaw begins to gallop on the spot. Your ears go deaf. Your muscles begin to shiver as if they had malaria and your knees to shake as though they were dancing. Your heart strains too hard, while your sphincter relaxes too much. And so with the rest of your body. Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.

Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you've defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.

The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you. ~ Chapter 56, Life of Pi