Helping my unbelief

But how sneaky of me, really, to adopt the tone and manner of conviction simply for rhetorical effect. How duplicitous. That woman on the next bar stool, would she have looked so impressed if I had added the caveat that full disclosure would have demanded? “Please be advised that taking anything I say at face value may be hazardous to your sense of trust.” Ordinary human decency requires that we leave people’s prejudices largely intact, much of the time. Break this rule too regularly and you will find yourself shunned – take it from me. And the belief in a one-to-one correspondence between word and thing, between signifier and signified – well, you can call it naive if you want to. But try finding an American who doesn’t cling to it. The people who don’t say what they mean and mean what they say, they’re the ones that have brought us all these high taxes and unwed mothers and new mini malls where that trout stream used to be. Politicians, lawyers, bigshots. Middle managers. Liberals. People who talk out of both sides of their mouths, until even they don’t know what they mean. People like me.

This morning I’m thinking how nice it would be to adopt a manageable number of real, unequivocal beliefs. For example:
I believe that there is no such thing as a bad hug. I believe that every prisoner should be given a puppy or a kitten to care for. I believe that shit happens. I believe that someday we will understand, and that when we understand, we will choose to do good. I believe that dirt under the fingernails is a sign of virtue. I believe that people should strive to be as healthy and happy as possible. I believe that everybody is special. There! That wasn’t so hard to write, now, was it?

Ah, but immediately I begin casting about for exceptions. A hug can be unwelcome, poorly executed, or even exploitative. Who says that puppies and kittens really deserve to live behind prison walls? Shit doesn’t just happen – you have to eat something, your digestive system needs to be in good working order, and figuratively speaking, some people just go through life without ever experiencing a rained-out picnic or a broken promise. It stands to reason: there are six billion people in the world. A small fraction must manage to beat the odds.

And so it goes with the rest of the list: “understand” how, to what extent? And for something to be freely chosen, refusal must remain a strong possibility. Therefore, the world will most likely always have so-called evil. And therefore, how can you prove that this isn’t in fact the best of all possible worlds? Without the possibility of wrongdoing, the even more palpable evil of unthinking obedience would destroy any possibility for true goodness, would it not?

One may have dirt under one’s fingernails from working long hours at menial, soul-destroying jobs. Some dirt gets under the skin after a while, until the only way one can feel clean again is to come into work some fine morning cradling a shotgun in one’s freshly scrubbed arms.

Health and happiness? So much is a matter of outlook. And so much necessary work depends on those who are willing to suffer privation. Some may need to sacrifice their own happiness merely to preserve the possibility of happiness for others. Nor can we resolve the issue by claiming simply that each person must seek an appropriate balance between acceptance and renunciation. Where’s the outrage, as Bob Dole used to say with such badly feigned conviction? What ever happened to the notion of a call, of an unhealed wound in the healer’s heart?

Everybody special? Hardly. And the sooner we can purge ourselves of this pernicious notion, the sooner we might be able to see the spark of divinity that shines in every child’s eyes. Fire is fire. From a strictly scientific point of view, this stand-in for Whatever doesn’t even have substantial existence: things burn. “Fire” is a highly imprecise term for the phenomenon of combustion, a chemical process closely resembling oxidation and metabolism. Rust is a slow fire. Heartburn is a medical condition. And this ache in my belly, this burning in my gut, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the tunes I choose to sing.


Then God sent a raven which scratched the ground
in order to show how to hide
the nakedness of his brother.
“Alas, the woe,” said he, “that I could not be
even like the raven and hide
the nakedness of my brother,”
and was filled with remorse.

Al-Qur’an 5:31 (Ahmed Ali, tr., Princeton University Press, 1984)

The ground cries out against me. Everywhere I step, the tiny and opportunistic seeds of invasive weeds fall from the soles of my boots. My breath is corrupt; the kiss of friendship can doom nine out of ten members of an uncontacted tribe. My hugs are fatal, brother raven. You would do well to keep your distance. When you leave this leaky ark to find dry land, don’t look back.

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