I Have Seen The Light; the last editorial I wrote for The Dahlonega Nugget, with new added commentary

“Pick me. I’m your daisy.”
Doc Holiday
from Tombstone
There are many advantages to being completely out of touch with reality, out of one’s mind, cartwheeling through space and time by means of a warped imagination. One is that my dreams are far more vivid and striking than a normal person’s – so vivid and striking as to inspire within me the belief at times that I have been granted the gift of prophecy or some such. Of course, this belief is delusional, but at times I still wonder.
Take the other night: I’d stayed up too late after spending another shiftless day eating government cheese and sponging off of your tax money, using my food stamps to buy Delmonico steaks and several nice bottles of MD 20/20 to wash it all down with. I think I’d watched a New Star Trek marathon on the Sci-Fi channel and was contemplating shaving my head so I’d look like Patrick Stewart as, to my mind, his character on that show is second only to Tartuffe in terms of fictional personages I aim to emulate.
But the capper, I think, was the fact I’d just finished flipping through Voltaire’s Candide backwards.
Anyway, I fell into a deep slumber and during that slumber I felt a strange sensation, akin to someone removing bandages from my eyes; and then, all at once, I saw The Truth. The Truth, it turned out, wasn’t something terribly complex, not hidden at all – in fact, I’d been hiding it from myself in my long search for it. And The Truth was: I am wrong about everything I suspected about the world just as most people have always told me.
I found myself standing on a high mountain looking out over the bright and shining world and could see, for the first time in my life, absolutely nothing was wrong in that world with the way things are. My so-called “utopianism” was suddenly reduced to ashes in the burning light of Reality that is, evidently, already utopian. I had just stubbornly refused to see it for 40 years.
I saw, in the streets of the cities and towns, poor people working 18 hours a day for very little money and no benefits and no vacations, and something became apparent – they were happy with that; no, more: they should be happy with that. That is fair and just. They and everyone else thought it right for them to labor from dawn to dawn; they did not feel that they needed healthcare or that their employers or the community had any responsibility for such things. They were proud of the fact that they were working like slaves and paid barely enough to live in virtual poverty.
They were proud that, in the State of Georgia as of this year, 1 of every 5 children lives in poverty and, probably, few of them will ever escape it. I realized that these children enjoy the fact that their parents, since both parents must work to even survive, are rarely home and, when home, are tired and often irritable, being under the financial, physical, and mental stresses they actually revel in.
I realized that it is okay for us to say we value families so long as we don’t actually do anything to make it possible for families to live in a manner they can have their priorities straight. Because, in Truth, it was my priorities that were wrong in the first place: I thought the first tasks of a family were to love one another, raise the children, spend time teaching them how to do things and how to tell right from wrong.
No, in this perfect world, the main job of a family is to serve its role in the economy, make money at all costs for investors and, maybe, enough for the people working to get by. The second job of a family is to raise warm bodies to replace the parents when those workers become old and can’t function anymore. Any other responsibilities and expectations probably come just after buying a new X-Box and making certain the satellite dish bill is paid.
I saw all at once that poverty was not the evil I’d grown to think it might be. No – it builds character; it narrows one’s attention; it brings one closer to God and country. If anyone in this perfect world is burdened, it is the wealthy: they have so many terrible decisions to make and so much genuine work to do, deciding how best to create jobs for the poor and how best to take care of the less fortunate. From my vantage point atop the high mountain of my dream I could see for the first time all the rich had always, from the beginnings of the world, spent many a long hour of their lives completely lost in the service of others. And they did it so quietly, no one noticed! My idea they ought to be taxed to insure the public good suddenly seemed punishing and wicked.
No, the poor are only doing themselves a great favor by making profits for the wealthy while receiving little in return. By allowing the owners to take a significant part of what they make, their lives become much simpler and easy to manage, especially when they do not receive raises to keep up with the rising price of fuel and goods and education and healthcare. Cars cost a lot to manage – if the poor can’t make enough to maintain them, they can walk 20 or 30 miles to work each day here in rural areas. And that improves health, so who needs healthcare? And since poor working people can afford fewer groceries as prices rise and wages remain flat, they will all start living off tomatoes grown in flower pots or home gardens, and that, I realized, is pure health food.
As for education, well, how much does one need to mop a floor or do service jobs? “Hi, may I help you?” is easier and cheaper to teach than differential calculus. Reading and writing – after mom and dad teach you how to read Cat in the Hat and sign your name (sort of), what more does one want or need? In fact, it is dangerous to teach the young (or old) to read anything beyond “See Spot run” because, inevitably they’re going to wind up trying to read the classics or Cervantes or Swift or Voltaire or the Founding Fathers or histories or philosophers or Faulkner or Orwell. God forbid, they may read The Beats or Hunter Thompson, too.
Their pure minds will become polluted. They will ask too many questions, they may even move on from signing their name to expressing their own thoughts in words, and just look at the damage that causes. People that write and draw and whatever, when they aren’t aiming to only make a few bucks, have a nasty habit of saying or showing things good people would rather left unsaid and covered over.
After all, why do you think Plato didn’t want the poets hanging out in his perfect city depicted in The Republic? He says they lie; maybe it’s more like they don’t sing the official version of the news. And in our perfect world, the official news is the only real news, and you find it on the Fox Channel.
And I saw, from that wonderful peak, that there were no people in authority who did not deserve to occupy the fine offices they sit in. Didn’t the Bible say, according to some interpreters (the only correct ones), that those in authority are chosen to be there by God Himself? Who am I to question God, then? From King Herod to Attila the Hun, from Richard M. Nixon to George W. Bush, a leader is a leader and is supposed to be there, no matter how they came to power or what they do with it.
A person at any level of authority can do no wrong in this best of all possible worlds, whether that person is a parent, a boss, a high school assistant principal, a principal, a school superintendent, a cop, a county commissioner, a legislator, a judge, a governor, a vice president or president. By definition, they are always right, otherwise they would not hold their office as given to them by God; they are right even when they are wrong. And the more wrong they are, the more I learned in my dream I am supposed to scream they are right.
Why, the world might fall apart if we acknowledged authorities can be in error or may have no business in their offices. We’d have to rethink a lot of things, beginning with this belief God gives the thumbs up to all leaders and supports all or any of their decisions. To do that, we’d have to question the interpreters of scripture who gave us this story; and to do that, we’d have to believe that some people who claim to speak on behalf of the Almighty might really just be speaking on behalf of some worldly power they happen to like or want something from. But, in this perfect world, to think such a thing is so cynical and bitter that I realized it was one of the sources of my problems in the waking world that kept me blindfolded and unaware of The Truth.
I saw that, in the dungeons of our nation, that what we were doing with war prisoners wasn’t really torture. In the perfect world, when the leaders hire lawyers to redefine things, the things themselves really change, too. (After all, we redefined ketchup to be a vegetable in school lunchrooms and, lo, it became a vegetable — but only in lunchrooms.)
I saw that letting loose attack dogs on prisoners, rape, beatings with metal flashlights, kicking people’s ribs in, playing metal music on loudspeakers 24 hours a day while leaving the lights on in a cell for the same time for weeks, drowning, even killing – once upon a time, for centuries, we’d have called that torture. Now it’s called “lawful interrogation techniques” even though the purpose of an interrogation is to elicit intelligence and it has been proven one gets little trustworthy intelligence by means of such techniques. But again, that is not the right attitude. My so very wrong inclination is to see in these things, not interrogation, but vengeance, out of control anger, sadism, dehumanization of captor and captive. But all of that is foolishness on my part, as I realized in my dream.
I saw that abduction isn’t abduction if we call it “extreme rendition.” I saw a P.O.W. isn’t a P.O.W. if we call him an “Enemy Combatant.” They aren’t even people if we call them “Enemy Combatant.” I saw we like the Geneva Conventions when they apply to everyone except us and, when the Supreme Court discovers they actually do apply to us, I saw that we can fix that by changing the law and changing definitions.
I saw that the Constitution can be suspended by the will of the president and we can be spied on without anyone overseeing the administrative branch, all with just a few words from a lawyer. I learned, in the space of one night to see how amazingly magical an Ivy League lawyer is, changing everything from ketchup to the Constitution with a little memo. This world, the perfect world I have denied and fought so long, is better than a Harry Potter novel.
And it was revealed to me that, since everything is just as it should be and must be, there’s no more reason to vote or even pay attention to my representatives – God is evidently moving them all around so they don’t need my interference in the process. They don’t need the prying eyes of the press, either, whether the paper be a large one or small. In the best of all possible worlds, this one, our world, the role of a newspaper is to try to act as cheerleader to businesses, attract tourism, print the police blotter, have some sports reporting, run ads and sales papers, maybe a column about how somebody’s Southern grandmammy cooked taters and beans in grease while putting on mascara and how men like to whittle while lyin’, and that’s about it.
In a perfect local newspaper: a bad play never happens within reporting distance and poor acting does not occur; no one ever sings off key in a musical; there are never too many musicals in one year; the art that gets reported on is mainly folk art or faux impressionism (anything with country themes or flowers), and it’s all good stuff, on the level of Michaelangelo (though you can’t show HIS pornography in the paper – he created nude figures and put them in churches of all places).
There is no boring music in the local scene and all venues are affordable, no matter how high the price. There are no expensive places to eat that really aren’t all that enjoyable, such that one might find oneself much more comfortable eating a sundae at the Dairy Queen with all that cash left over had one decided not to go. Newspapers aren’t supposed to say anything critical of anything. They’re just one long advertisement.
What we absolutely don’t want in the perfect world are complainers. Complainers about politics, ethics, culture – people with a different point of view different from the majority. Everyone ought to be in the majority – or pretend they are by smiling and remaining silent. That’s what helps keep the best of all worlds perfect; that bit of The Truth stood out starkly as I dreamed.
I heard a voice behind me, turned and saw a large crack in the ground with stairs going down, so I followed them to see more of the perfect paradise I really live in. Down, down I went into the gloom, but soon I realized the air was filled with smoke and moans and firelight flickered luridly on the dark walls. “Kid, down here,” came the voice. I looked down to see an old, pudgy man with a balding head and pug nose – he could’ve been Socrates or my first philosophy professor, Dr. Severins, I’m not certain.
He was sitting back against a rock drinking wine from a big cup and he seemed tired.
“Take my advice and don’t ask any questions.” His voice was slurred. “The world is like it is; it’s always been like it is; it’ll always be like it is. I tried to ask questions and look where it got me: Hades. You’re just wasting your time with all of this writing and philosophy crap. Where’s it getting you or anyone else? Why don’t you write something for the paper about how your Southern grandmammy cooked beans and taters in grease while applying mascara? I bet you’d make a fortune. And, son, that’s what it’s all about – m-o-n-e-y.
“Oh no!” I said. “This can’t be real! It’s a nightmare!”
And sure enough, it was. So I woke up and wrote it all down, just because I am foolish and don’t seem to be able to shake the habit. Plus my grandmammies didn’t wear mascara.
Originally written and printed in The Dahlonega Nugget Newspaper, August 2006, one issue prior to my being banned.Richard Van Ingram

[Explanatory note for context, 31 May 2015:

The previous two issues, I caught Hell from two of the rightest right-wing conservative Republicans in the county; a Mr. Tom Brown and the other one I think had the last name Martin, but I’m unsure.

Mr. Brown was an amature weekly writer of the most hateful, threatening bullshit I have ever read.  He did this by long letters to the editor so he did not have to publish a photo or stand up and be counted — as all bullies, he was a coward.

He did not wish to have his little reality disturbed by the likes of me or anyone even vaguely centrist in viewpoint, and, oh boy, was I leftist, loud, and critical.  His polar opposite.  After years of personal attacks in the paper, cheerleaded and praised by all “right thinking citizens,” the idiot attacked my parents and accused them of being welfare cheats and other things.  Anything written with another colored crayon would still have smelled as brown.

Well, the little old fascist caught it from people who normally supported him as my father and mother had worked every day in their lives, never accepted government support, ever, even when they qualified for it, and were respected by the community.  Brown had no idea who my parents were.  They were not of the same political persuasion as me, for one thing, and they had done things for people in the county their whole lives.

That counter-attack by his own pissed Brown off.  I was working three jobs at the time and, once about every two or three months, turning in these freelance columns to the local paper for ten bucks a pop and all the abuse and bullying I could handle, to boot.  No, I was not on welfare, no I did not waste anyone’s time.  I worked for public mental health, for the local university as a part-time adjunct instructor at night teaching future soldiers — and veterans — ethics, and part time teaching Introduction to Philosophy for the Distance Learning program at the University of Georgia in Athens.

I advertised my work as much as my parents did, which is to say, not at all.   Unless you knew me, and few did, you had no notion of my life, my vast number of relatives, nothing.

The other moron decided to mock me, a satirist, by writing an dim-witted, poorly executed “satire” about me and my beliefs, neither of which he grasped.  He was laboring under the belief I got my ideas from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I never watched, and was essentially a communist, which I’m not, and a purveyor of utopian schemes, which is laughable if one understood how pessimistic I usually am.

Unbeknownst to me, the editor/publisher, printed a form to vote on what needed to be jettisoned from the paper.  Mr. Brown, et alii, got their wish — 25 votes gave the editor/publisher cover to get rid of my columns forevermore — that in spite of published letters after the fact from respected members of the community taking up for me and at least 35 people mailing in support letters or showing up in person to protest.  And they continued to do so for years, at their own initiative, even after it was moot.

Mr. Brown, meanwhile, spent the next bit of time occasionally trying to get me fired from mental health (his narrow little mind could not conceive that I actually am a philosopher and was in the employee of the university system).  He did this, by someone’s report back to me, going around to people whose relatives I served and encouraging them to complain to my bosses.  For all I know, he did so himself.  Four years later, I was gone, either way.

And I moved far Westward (like old Doc Holiday who was born, raised, and practiced in my mother’s hometown of Hahira, GA.), leaving Dahlonega, Georgia, and the entire mess to someone else, should anyone have the gall and imagination to criticize and fix it.  Few have.

I’m writing this just to set the historical record straight from my end.  I never have, fully.  I had the premonition when I wrote this article, the last, that my time was short for all manner of reasons.  It took no prophet to decipher what was about to happen, even though the editor/publisher never warned me nor e-mailed me, nor gave me any notice after the fact I was no longer welcome.  I found out by reading the paper, like everyone else.  Bad form.

Then I wrote my farewell letter to the readership of the paper (published in this blog last week), and that was that.  Afterwards, in ’06, I began writing essays online in earnest, on and off, and went back to being completely ignored by my fellows and peers; I lost “friends”  – there were people that had spoken to me in public while writing that stopped doing so after my “fall.”  There were even people who spoke to me in private that stopped, stopped inviting me over, stopped associating with me at all.

And so, I learned that even minor fame (or infamy), like fortune, is fickle  and pointless.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vexation and vanity,” saith the Preacher.

And so it is.

~RVI

FOOL_RWS_Tarot_00_Fool

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A Meditation on Capitalism

It’s just heartbreaking
I should have known that it would let me down
It’s just a mind aching
I used to dream about this town

It was a sight to see
The place to be,
Where the living is easy
And the kicks can always be found

It’s such a shame about it
I used to think that it would feel so good
But who’s to blame about it
So many creeps in Hollywood

I’m in this dumb motel
Near the ‘Taco Bell’
Without a hope in hell
I can’t believe that I’m still around

Ain’t nothin new in my life today
Ain’t nothing true it’s all gone away

I’ve had too much cryin’, seen too much grief
I’m sick of tryin’ it’s beyond belief
I’m tired of talking on the telephone
They’re trying to tell me that they’re not at home….

SUPERTRAMP

from “GONE HOLLYWOOD”

Breakfast In America

There’s the events that get on you and then there’s the events that become you, become a part of you.  You can wash the first sort off eventually, but the latter won’t be leaving short of carving the meat off your bones and grinding the bones to molecules — and the history of it will remain forever.

History remains even after we forget and are forgotten.

I learned long ago, that though my dramas and comedies are everything to me, that is because I am housed within them — and no one else.  The players in my reality, at best, inhabit their own worlds on the periphery of mine just as by reading this I become a minor, and brief, visitor for a moment on the outskirts of yours.

They and the world are not me — they do not live my existence thus my dramas and comedies are not as intense or are nothing to them at all.

Should I leave anything behind for you, it will be an impersonal idea that might, eventually, be incorporated into your beliefs and, thus, become a lens through which you interpret reality — but then it will be your belief, part of a constellation of such that is yours, not mine.  Not subjectively, but perspectively.

Be careful which theories you take in and believe.  Those become part of who you are and make you who you are by motivating your vital faith and judgment.  Show care for who you are.

But my ideas and beliefs arise in the course of my comedic drama that is my living.  Just as yours do.  We do not share the same experience and thoughts and dreams, but our lives as humans does have a similar constitution and structure, abstractly.  We are not wholly alien one to the other — each of us is, as Ortega y Gasset taught, an “alter ego” — another “I.”

Or, as the Stoics of old taught, we are each a spark off the Fire, lights from Light, brothers and sisters all for all our individual and cultural differences, each due respect, each due care, mercy, justice, each due many things or the right to pursue our destinies with a measure of due freedom.

Authoritarianism, capitalism, fascism, racism, even communism when it becomes totalitarian and departs from its democratic socialist roots and becomes purely materialistic in every way — all these “isms” are ideas, theories, invented by humans, imperfect humans.   And they become matters of faith every bit as much dogmatic and oppressive as any religion at its worst.

Some ideas are so deeply flawed that to put them into effect in any way will inevitably lead to the destruction of one’s brothers and sisters who instantaneously are redefined as wholly “other.”  Some will do this by inspiring direct action and violence in some form, such as fascism and communism did in the 20th c.  and capitalism at times still does and has since the 18th-19th c.

Authoritarianism and American capitalism, now approaching laissez-faire levels of libertarianism again, also do violence to those caught within their grip by substituting materialist values for ethical virtues, materialistic myths and aspirations for spiritual aspects and the psyche of humans, control and repression for free inquiry and doubt (the mother of all questioning, seeking).

Rather than the gulag or the firing squad, we find ourselves almost literally ignored to death and marginalized by poverty or ostracism if we stand apart from the dominant system and seek something better, even if we have no notion at the start of our search what would be “better” — only that this way is not conducive to a good human life, a life of living together while, at the same time, being ourselves.

Where and when I live, the system is designed, by default, to crush one’s existence and assimilate one into the mass aimed primarily at the production of capital by any means and protecting those who have amassed a great deal of it.  We are sold glittering lies and promised fame and glory if we “cooperate” and work hard; and most of us, in spite of our original dreams, our vocations — our destinies, our particular call from Fate — wind up selling out in order to merely survive, to have insurance, food, a place to live, a small measure of stability, the possibility of not experiencing our final years in utter poverty and misery.

We are enslaved and we enslave ourselves to an economy elevated to the status of a god.  Moloch walks amongst us in these days, Pluto-Hades bringing Hell to Earth and he has many priests and priestesses to see his work is done, his commands are spread – by commercialism, consumerism, by television, by internet, by technology, and, if necessary, by the barrel of the gun.

An idea — capitalism — that was to serve humans for the betterment of human life has taken on a life of its own, using us to keep itself functioning and growing; what Georg Simmel would have called the “more-than-life.”  Every other “ism” did the same and largely failed or had to be combatted by means of literal weapons and war — but capitalism is far too devious to be abolished by war.  It lives off war, profits by death as well as by the enslavement of the living.  It commodifies everything and everyone, and if it cannot appropriate the values of life, it opposes them, creates a shining substitute, or renders the opportunity to actualize such nearly impossible.

Revolution is too late, always was,  and is led by the power-hungry or the foolish, the “true believers,” the dogmatists who, themselves, promise an impossible shining future “at some point” far-off in the imaginary future to the desperate, who are cannon fodder.

This thing run amok will not be combatted by blowing oneself up, worse ideas, past “isms” that were stillborn or never deserved to see light of day, religious extremism and enthusiasms, or any similar self-destructive nonsense.

We must reform ourselves, as humans, and learn whom to become, the right people to be, and begin to take off the chains of corrupting beliefs  we voluntarily submit to.  This is a process that will take decades and decades of labor, education, and example by taking on and bearing burdens, responsibilities, and we must do it by choice, not any other way.  Slowly, deviously perhaps, we must slip the chains of restraint and enslavement around the capitalist beast and make it do what it was designed to do: serve human needs, values, lives — actual humans, not abstractions.

This is a great work with much detail to be filled in, not merely by me (who am I alone), but by you and as many of us as are capable of using and employing our creativity, our imaginations.  This state of affairs was imagined into being; it can only be undone by imagining it into a different form.  Theories, ideas, beliefs serve us and are for the good of all humans — not the reverse.

So, there you have my thoughts fore this day.  Make of them what you will.  It’s your choice.

It was always, and always will be, your choice.

31 May 2015

Richard Van Ingram

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The Dangers of Second Hand Thought

At first I wrote because I thought that would make it happen,
but it didn’t.
So then I wrote about it not happening,
and it still didn’t happen.
After that I wrote that it would never happen,
and nothing happened.
Now I write because, when I write,
that is it happening.
“A Dream”
Richard Van Ingram 

Life rises up like a tremendous black wave full of hidden things, treasures and treacheries, opportunities and disappointments, and it crashes around us, rises up and crashes again and again. We are, from the span between our arrival and departure, caught in this relentless crash and flow, and by our effort or failure to exert ourselves, by the cooperation, hindrance, or indifference of others, by good or poor fortune signified by what circumstances we are handed – from all of this we salvage ourselves, create who we are.

Our lives are not handed to us ready-made. We are offered roles to step into and society does demand we fulfil these in stereotypical fashions. Mediocrity and unimaginativeness are wide-spread mainly because people do not realize they have choices about what roles they assume or about how to perform them; we do not often think about what values we might devote ourselves to — or question — and how we might put them into effect, intellectually, morally, aesthetically.

Many of us do not understand that our lives need not entirely consist of what anonymous forces demand – my life could be more of an adventure than it is when I just get in line to do what “everyone else” is doing.

How many of us started our lives with a dream, a dream of a future we would like to inhabit, a dream of someone we wanted to be or things we truly wanted to do? Perhaps the dream was unrealistic in some way, but dreams are like that; they are ideal and ideals are by definition not “real” in the same way most things are. To make a dream “real” means adjusting it to our circumstances and then using it to change the circumstance as much as possible.

But the acid of daily existence often consumes a dream. Little by little we find it weakening, fading. We begin setting it on a mental shelf where it becomes dusty, covered by the cobwebs of passing days as our time becomes filled with taking on the roles society and the economy demands we occupy in order to “make a living,” “gain status,” “fit in.”

The years pass. When nostalgic or sad, maybe we pick up the dull remnant of a dream and polish it, wistfully imagine we might actually pursue it. Maybe we’re convinced we are pursuing it. But it has ossified, become fossilized, something no more effective than any other dead thing we keep on the shadowy shelf of plans that failed to materialize.

Or, in the course of actually pursuing our dream, perhaps we became sidetracked for other reasons. Maybe there were crises, turmoil, personal disasters that wore us down. Maybe there was abuse or illness. Maybe we weren’t the right race or from the correct strata of society. Perhaps no one would help us or see the value in our pursuits and, instead, they demanded we do things that pleased them or seemed less threatening – perhaps we were just ignored and our pleas went out of our mouths like breath in winter, freezing on the air to drop groundward before anyone’s ear cared to listen.

Maybe our schools were geared to destroy dreams and replace them with the far more practical plans of a society that needed workers in other areas. Maybe, hopeless or careless, we drowned our disappointment with the first of too many drinks, pills, with the heavy perfume of marijuana, tabs of acid; maybe we began to spike crank or heroin and traded our life for death-in-life.

Maybe our religion became so obsessed with the End of the World it offered little consistent guidance and assistance; or maybe our religion became so obsessed with gaining power and influence in this world it forgot about everyone and everything else.

Maybe, in the face of all these things and what they are, our hearts shattered and from this wound we bled the black tar of cynicism that coated our souls – we gave up and no longer care, and we believe anyone who does so is a fool.

Once we had a dream and now we do not. Once we had hope and the future appeared as something worthwhile — now it appears as another day full of chores or something to desperately fill with novelties and amusements or to be washed down with chemicals to dull our bereavement.

The crash and flow of the black wave washes around us and pushes us over, sucks us down, strikes us from the left and the right; it comes on incessantly as a question: “What will you do now?” And though my life does not come ready-made, I must decide to what degree I will relinquish my creativity, give up, accept ready-made answers without attempting to use my own mind and soul to seek who I should become.

I must decide daily whether I will attempt to live my dreams or whether I will refuse to try and begin to accept, without thinking, “someone else’s” solution to the great mystery of my existence.

I must decide – face life and all that it is or fall to sleep, go beneath the wave, go where the pointless current pulls me.

I keep thinking of Bob Dylan’s words from the song “All Along the Watchtower:” I think of them often:

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

The hour is perpetually late when we are talking about life and how to live it; our daily task is to learn for ourselves what things are truly worth, our lives most of all.

Originally written and published 2004.

Richard Van Ingram

FOOL_RWS_Tarot_00_Fool

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End of Semester Letter, May 2015

At the end of a semester teaching one of my philosophy or ethics/applied ethics courses, I write a letter to my students — something for them to remember our class by, to sum up the whole point of our endeavors and what I attempted to share.  Sometimes the whole class reads the e-mail; sometimes one person does.  It’s for whoever decides to pay attention to it — 20 people, 10 people, 1 person, no one.

I don’t share this out of pride — hardly.  I’m simply sharing it — make of it what you will, if anything.  Perhaps these words are for you, too; perhaps not.  C’est la vie.

“Students, scholars, decent people,

“I write a final sort of essay to you — a letter, really — in the last bit of class and it’s that time. Mixed feelings predominate in me as I will miss you and always wonder whether I did a good job. But Epictetus would tell me I did what I could and the quality of it is up to you to judge, make use of, or not.

“I’m sending you out into a very strange world — not to fear, I live here, too, just as you do, only as an older person with more experience and a rather odd outlook on reality. You have, will, and will continue to develop your own outlook and have your own lives and work out how best to live and work ethically.

“Or not. It is always your choice — but your choices are, in the end, also your responsibility.

“You are who you choose to become, you are what you choose, value, assent to, dissent from. Never sell yourselves cheaply. Maintain enough integrity to walk out of a bad situation before colluding in it. Show care for your lives and others.

“You can do little about circumstances — the reality you are faced with dealing with; you can and should choose to influence the circumstances for the better — if not you, who will do so? Do not fear taking on the burdens you can and improving what you can; in so doing, you improve yourself and the lives of others.

“Each of you is irreplaceable. Never forget that and take it seriously. Remember you are good people learning how to be better people, better at being people, which is a life’s work. There is someone each of you is supposed to be — each of you is a gift to the world. I do not know what you will accomplish and what you will improve — but I have faith you will do your work, both in your jobs but especially in life.

‘ “Become who you are.” Pindar

“Live up to who you are, make yourselves fully real as you live — strive to meet the challenge that is yourself and never, never let the judgement of the careless, the foolish, the prejudiced affect you deeply and stop you. You have all overcome challenges to get where you are;you will face more and perhaps worse. You are up to it. Do not give in and try as hard as you can so, at the end of the day, you can look yourselves in the mirror and say, in all honesty, “I did the best I could.” That is all anyone can ask of you and all you can expect from yourselves.

“You have a mission here in this world — search it out and do it. No other person can perform your mission — not me, not your friends, not even Deity can do it: That is why the mission was granted to you and you alone. You never work alone, but you alone must do your work.

“I will miss you all. Feel free to speak to me any time you are inclined. It would be my honor, truly.

“May fortune be with you and, if not, may you learn to make the best of what you must deal with. You have the capacity and resilience, every last one of you.

“Sincerely,

“Mr. Ingram”

28 May 2015

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A Meditation on Truth (updated and amended 27 May 2015)

“In the beginning was the Word….”
The Gospel of St. John the Divine

Truth arises in an interaction between ourselves and others, whether or not those others are living or dead. We interact with the dead through an encounter with their memory and the artifacts they have left, their values, their culture. We interact with the living in a similar fashion. Whether the exchange is between those present or not present, the process is the same: we interpret what others have offered, we respond, and then our companions respond in return.

Every response contains a question, one that desires from each of us our thoughtfulness, a search of our depths, then a response of our own, a response that itself is as much a question as an offering. Together we share our thoughts and anguish, honor and bear witness to others’ gifts.

This is full participation in a culture.

Christianity offers a way to think about this. Jesus said: where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am in the midst of them. What is the name of Christ? Besides the unknowable and ineffable Name, St. John tells us that “in the beginning was the Logos” – logos in Greek being “word,” but also “reason” and “meaning.” [It was a concept of the Stoics, long pre-dating John or Christianity, that the Divine is called Logos — the reason and meaning permeating the Cosmos.]

To speak the word is to give the reason and meaning of something; so God the Ineffable Father eternally speaking the Word is giving the Reason and Meaning of all reasons and meanings. The sacred breath of His speech is the Holy Spirit [the Shekinah – God In Our Midst, the feminine aspect of Deity] who is life and unfettered creativity; the Word bears this creativity and comes as an Eternal Gift, a standing invitation for intimate discussion with God and with one another.

The Logos is “true light from true light” as truth is always a light that unifies and brings forth what was lost in the darkness of ignorance and nothingness – the Divine Logos is simultaneously like a word and like a light; and our souls are reflections of that Light and reverberations from that Word. Each of us comes into the world as a reflection of the blazing Divine Face and as a living message, a message each of us is to deliver through our lives and struggles with meaninglessness. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable, and special word we were sent here to share with others; and others have their messages we are meant to hear and hold dear.

We were meant to speak with one another, share our creativity with one another, attend to one another and truly consider what is shared. We were not meant to shout at one another, to ignore one another. We were not meant to simply assume we know who we are and what it is we are supposed to be doing; we are not supposed to ever see ourselves or truth in this world as finished and static – we and truth are an activity, an activity that requires everyone else. Truth is no one’s property. We are the property of truth, each of us being unfolded in the ongoing conversation of culture, the conversation in the midst of which truth arises and dwells, granting us meaning.

A culture is a gift, one which makes us truly human. Without culture, we become less than animals, for without care for one another, without tradition, without a living connection to our shared past and its joyous and painful lessons we are rootless and pointless beings. We quickly descend to savagery when the hard-won truths that represent the long advance from barbarism are cast aside and our favor granted to power, technology, material wealth.

These three things, tools in themselves, cannot provide us guidance. They are the very things that require guidance to be used correctly, which is to say, moderately. In themselves they are meaningless – they open paths without foresight, they do not scout ahead to look for danger, they do not ask others for insight, especially not those long gone beneath the earth.

In our day, it has fallen to us to watch as power, technology, and the lust for material wealth attempt to replace the dialogue of culture. It has fallen to us to stand stupefied while societies convulse, precious values and truths, our orienting constellations, difficult enough to perceive, obscured by gleaming superficialities on display like bayonets in the starlight.

The perpetual conversation that asks us each to be citizens of the world, children of one Father, has been given over to experts and specialists, locked away in libraries and museums few visit, sometimes spoken of from pulpits, sometimes lectured about in classrooms, sometimes present on canvas, in cloth, in stone, in music, in poetry. We should be thankful for those who preserve and transmit the wisdom of the past and try to add to it; but is that conversation for most a living reality, a reality that informs their lives?

The world demands of most people that they work constantly, often for little in return, to support those few who have devoted their entire existences to the exercise of power, the accumulation of material wealth, and those who think technology is a fair replacement for the pursuit of truth – as if technology were a force capable of mysteriously creating truly human values.

We are being left with pseudo-values – created without a conversation, without a dialogue with the past, without a dialogue with our neighbors, without dialogues across cultures, without a dialogue with our own souls, without a dialogue with future generations about what it is we intend to leave, or not leave, them.

We have makeshift “truths” created without a conversation with the Living God: This is the mess of pottage that has been offered us in return for a birthright more magnificent than the crown of a king.

We are left with “talk” – not the sacred interchange that brings meaning and reason, but empty words that encrust it, words meant to obscure the beautiful hidden depths that open when we truly question, when we listen, when we dare to discover and share that wonderful message that is, in the end, ourselves.

Originally written 2005.

Richard Van Ingram

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No, Not Closing the Blog, Just Wandering Down an Ambiguous Memory Lane

THE FAREWELL LETTER TO THE DAHLONEGA NUGGET, 10 October 2006

Dear Editor,

One cannot be deprived of that which is not his.  So taught the great Stoic Epictetus following the example of Socrates.  That philosopher said no one can truly harm the good person because we can deprive people of anything we wish except one thing: their integrity, their dignity.

No, I am not a good person, but usually I do try.  I make some effort most days to avoid harming others in thought, word and deed while attempting to care for them for the right reasons.  I fail, but mostly I try.  I am no great example like Socrates or Epictetus.

However, I have met some truly good, caring, and kind people here in Lumpkin County and I have been honored to be introduced to many of them because of my columns.  I have enjoyed this aspect of writing very much.  And to those who wrote me, I cherish every piece of mail I have ever received and saved them all.  If I did not write back, it was only due to speechlessness or from a feeling I’d only ruin something if I spoke.

Thank you to both my friends and the gracious strangers who came to my defense, who wrote e-mails or notes on my behalf or on behalf of the principle that a minority opinion ought not be silenced by a majority vote.  But the people and the editor have spoken: my work is no longer welcome here.

I had a column for 5 and a half years and in it I said pretty much what I wished.  I represent an unpopular position, an uncommon perspective on ideas and politics many here evidently find threatening and see no value in tolerating further.  Certainly not enough to allow a fool to have his say once every several weeks.  To my mind, this direction implies a poor future for this community.  But, then again, this country as a whole has turned mean – why would Dahlonega be any different?

Losing the column doesn’t deprive me of anything truly mine so it’s childish to mourn it.  When a person like me can no longer sell his wares, he ties up his meager bundle, shakes the dust off his boots, and moves on.  So, into my bundle go my imagination, insight, suspicions, my smile, my heart, my mind.  And my pens and paper.  These are of no service to Dahlonega’s institutions or the people at large – they will find their home elsewhere.

That’s the best I can do given the circumstances.  That and say good-bye.

Richard Van Ingram

FOOL_RWS_Tarot_00_Fool

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Integrity and the Damnation of Money; or, I Didn’t Sign On For This

I see my future shuffling
A shakey step at a time
I got no choice but careful
Thank God I’ve done my crime
The tools I see on tv
Can’t stand it when they fake
A prick’s a prick at any age
Why give one a break?

I wanna live a little bit longer
I wanna live a little bit longer
I wanna live a little bit longer
I wanna live live live live live

The soul is in the eyeball
For anyone to see
I’m better than a Pepsi
I’m cooler than MTV
I’m hotter than California
I’m cheaper than a gram
I’m deeper thar the shit I’m in
An’ I don’t really give a damn

I wanna live a little bit longer
I wanna live a little bit longer now
I wanna live a little bit longer
I wanna live live live live live….

Iggy Pop

“I Wanna Live” from the album NAUGHTY LITTLE DOGGY

Let’s face it.  as non-materialistic as I am, the rest of the world I live in is not and it will not bend to adapt to me or anyone else.  I do not do things that make money — not much, at any rate — and I owe a great big student loan with an extortionist’s level of fees added on to jack the price up so high I can’t repay it.

I’ve had periods of disability because of my illness, which I will not rehash as it is boring. (Just read other posts on the blog if you’re interested.)  I’m just coming off being underemployed at an abusive work situation at a used book store, of all places, and now I am an adjunct philosophy instructor again.  Which pays about the same amount but at least is satisfying and somewhat appreciative of my abilities, such as they might be.

But before that, from about June of 2009 till October 2012, I grew increasingly depressed until I couldn’t leave the house or even stay awake most of the day.  I lived off my modest retirement until that ran out, then my wife supported me, which I am ashamed of — and she largely still does as I hardly make an adult’s living and here I am pushing 50.

I nearly died twice in one year — once of an abscessed tooth that went haywire and then of pancreatitis brought on by out of control diabetes and triglycerides that made my blood about the thickness of mucilage.  That one put me in the hospital for a month, about a week of it in the ICU, and my kidneys almost failed.

Fun times.  Had to be fed through a tube for about three months and was on insulin awhile.  And then there was and continue to be the specialists and the drugs, added to my meds for bipolar disorder.  None of this was free nor is it free, and I went back into therapy a couple of weeks ago to boot — insurance may or may not reimburse some of that.

But being chronically ill in America is not only a full-time job in itself, it requires a couple of full-time jobs to pay for as none of this free and no one really cares if you die or live under a bridge mumbling to yourself — and the cops might lock you up for that.  And legal services cost money, too, or maybe you get a public defender with a case overload who just plea bargains your insane ass into a few years in prison.

And no one cares about that, either, so long as you are out of sight, in an overpacked prison run by gangs and rapists and murderers who would literally screw an old man like me to death.

That’s the worst case scenario, I guess.  It’s not a fantasy — it happens to mentally ill people where I live all the time if they can’t get their meds, work, pay their bills, and wind up homeless.

But back to the financial “shit I’m in” all because education in America isn’t free, either, or even subsidized much anymore.  Had it been, I’d have a PhD in philosophy and actually might be making enough money to pay those damn loans off.  I might not, too — and I don’t live in that world and, as previously stated, no one’s changing the rules of the game to suit me.  People like me don’t make the rules or even influence them in America; people with money do, corporations with money do, banks do, and they have lobbyists to get their legislation written.  Thus, I can’t even go bankrupt on a student loan debt — they’re eternal.

We have people here who molest children.  There’s a statute of limitations on molestation charges — if you don’t report the incident within seven (7) years, the perpetrator goes scot free even if you have incontrovertible evidence of the deed.  There is no statute of limitation on my student loans, however.  I committed the crime of trying to earn my Phd in Philosophy and was struck down by bipolar disorder, my son’s premature birth, a divorce, homelessness, and then I worked a part-time job as a van driver for years (at minimum wage, which was pretty damn minimal back then).  Hell, I barely had enough to buy groceries or by a hamburger out once in awhile.  Eventually, after a friend let me sleep on his couch for nearly a year, I got up enough cash from a cousin to get an affordable one room apartment.

And so on.

I couldn’t plan one day to the next, much less repay the $20,000 that has bloomed into $40,500 since 1994.  Later, I took care of and paid the bills for two other chronically ill family members and myself, wrote an occasional newspaper column for ten ($10.00) dollars a pop every couple of months and held down three jobs besides, a total of 80 hours a week.  I slept three hours a night on average for years, caught catnaps on breaks.  And, and, and.

I hustled for my family and I don’t regret any of it.  That’s what one is supposed to do and I’d do the whole thing over again, gladly.  I even paid some back on the loan, had  and have my income tax returns confiscated — haven’t seen one in years.  Don’t care.  “Don’t really give a damn,” as the man sang.

I continued my education on my own, continued to read, write essays, apply what I learned, became an adjunct instructor part-time for two universities at night.  I still learn, I still teach myself, and teaching others causes me to learn new things and exposes me to new perspectives, new situations provided by my students — they are invaluable to me and teach me so very much each month.

Now the collection agency in the employment of the Bank that bought my loans is going to garnish 15% of my meager wages — a lawyer friend of mine (who cares for me for some reason far more than I dreamed) volunteered, pro bono, to help argue my case to see if I can’t at least get a reduction in the payment as almost all my money goes to my own medical expenses with a little left over for gas, food, and some nicotine gum to keep me off the cigarettes.  Staying off cigarettes keeps our insurance from going up by $1,500 a year.

That help I will be eternally thankful for — it is a light in the darkness, even if it doesn’t succeed.  I can’t ever repay it properly.

All I want to do is live a little longer in some sort of peace with myself.  I want to be creative, I want to teach philosophy and live philosophy.  I want to write and keep my two websites up so I can share art and words and ideas with anyone at all who cares.  I want to make my comic books so that I can sell them cheaply to anyone who appreciates them — I’d give the damn things away for free if printing costs  weren’t an issue, and I like to see my “art” in print, not .pdf format.

A man out of time and place who never was very useful and never learned to be useful to anyone — that’s me in a nutshell.  Who in America needs an artist, or even a comix artist and writer?  A writer of essays — the dead art for people with attention spans longer than a gnat’s?  A philosopher — who in the hell needs a philosopher here in the land where people have abandoned the notion reason is a worthwhile enterprise and are even beginning to undercut their own faith in science?  The very science whose extraneous fruit is the technological paradise they live within that shields them from the onslaught of nature and plagues, that allows them to control and see things at long distances, that gives them their much vaunted military might?

Compared with all of that, well, I’m a microbe on a speck of dust floating in Grand Central Station: nothing and no one to be noticed at all.

Perhaps my little drama with the student loan debacle will turn out to be manageable.  Or not.  I can attempt to influence them and that is all.  It is in the hands of a collection agency that could really care less about my life or history or anything else — just “the money.”  The Dollar Almighty.

But people, I am deeper than the shit I’m in — and no collection agency or bank or government or even death can remove that reality.  I was here, I am here for the moment, and I may live a little longer yet and continue to do my work wherever I am, as useless as it is to this age.  That’s my calling, my vocation.  I can’t really do anything else and have integrity.

And life without integrity… well, as Socrates said, there are worse things than death, and that is one of them.  The worst of them.

25 May 2015

Richard Van Ingram

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How to Lose Friends and Influence No One (edited and updated)

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees–
Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.”
William Butler Yeats
From “Sailing to Byzantium

It was about 20 (now 36) years ago and she was this stunning girl at North Georgia College. Bright, happy, a good actress – of course I thought she was wonderful, wonderful to the point I joined the theater group as a set designer and eventually as an actor just to be near her. So there I was, on stage, acting the lead role in a play – me, terrified of speaking in crowds, tongue tied even in casual conversation, all just to get this girl’s attention. Which I did.

She consented to go out with me and like any young man getting a date with a woman he likes, I was electrified with anticipation. We both dressed up and went to Caruso’s on the square. A friend waitressing there had saved us a window table, and the golden light of the setting sun on the old buildings was bringing a perfect spring day to a gorgeous end; I couldn’t have asked for more from life at that moment.

I ordered chicken marsala and she had a pasta dish with alfredo sauce. Our conversation was of the type that transpires between young people getting to know one another – we talked about the theater, our common acquaintances, classes. I lied about my knowledge of ingredients in Italian food to impress her, desperate as I was for her approval and a chance at that all-important second date. We laughed, had a good time, no uncomfortable pauses in the talk.

And then we got to discussing what we were reading for pleasure.

I had gotten interested in the Platonic Dialogues in my World Lit class and had begun to read them on my own. Socrates, star of the dialogues, amazed and confounded me – still does, always will, I suspect. He didn’t care much for the sorts of things normal people did, like wealth, fame, power. Instead, he was obsessed with seemingly simple questions such as “Who am I?” and “What is the Good?”

It seems his friend went to the Delphic Oracle (Socrates lived in Athens, Greece c. 2,500 BC) and was presented with the same admonition everyone who consulted the Oracle was given: “Gnothai Seauton,” Know Thyself. And then the Oracle, meeting Socrates’s friend, said something she had never said before, namely that Socrates “is the wisest man in Athens.”

Yet this confounded everyone since it was well known that Socrates professed to know absolutely nothing. In fact, most of Plato’s dialogues present the figure of Socrates having conversations with various people who profess to be experts at this and that, and who claim to “know” what things like goodness, justice, truth, and beauty are; but little by little humble – and sly – Socrates shows them they really don’t know anything, that all they have are common opinions they’ve inherited without asking whether they’re really true or not.

These people, like most of us in similar situations, discover they are hard pressed to offer a rational account of what they really believe and why. Socrates does his work almost entirely by asking questions and pointing out where his companions contradict themselves or where they are assuming things they wouldn’t normally have noticed. And when each person arrives at the point where they have to admit their basic ignorance of the principles they once thought they knew so well, Socrates invites them to join him in the search for the truth about these matters, especially about Goodness and what it means to live a good life, since he, too, doesn’t know but is searching.

I told the young lady about all this the best I could, as enthusiastically as I could, and expected old Socrates and his method to hold her as enthralled as they did me. Nothing of the sort. As I revealed the story of someone I thought marvelous and holy, the look on her face grew increasingly sour until, at last, she interjected and said that “this Socrates guy” sounded “like an asshole.” Then she added the kicker: “Who in the world would want to be like that?”

Oh, at that instant I learned just how deeply one’s heart can sink. I continued to act interested in this girl, but it was just that – an act. The glorious nimbus of perfection my heart had projected onto her was gone; she no longer seemed divine, but common. She had insulted Socrates, and worse, she had lightly dismissed this odd activity called “philosophy” I had so recently become aware of. It seemed that, in my dark, silly, and stumbling way, I had chosen, at least in that instance, to “love Wisdom” rather than someone or something of this world.

It was then I dimly realized that to pursue truth (the real thing, not merely rhetoric or power), or to even want to do something so bizarre as pursue it, immediately throws one outside the brunt of humanity. It lands one in the outer darkness where only fools voluntarily wander around in search of a bare glimpse of a far off, unseeable Light. A treasure worth more than gold, guns, glory, …or girls, but one which will get you nowhere with any of them.

I pretended to listen to her conversation. I bought her New York-style cheesecake and coffee, took her back to the dorms and said good night.

There was no second date.

Some 20 (now 36) years have passed now and I, as a serious student and practitioner of the vile and aggravating art of philosophy, have learned to be more patient and less judgmental with those who find dear old Socrates and his tradition mysterious, dangerous, or just a plain waste of time. When I write a column for The Nugget [the local newspaper that dismissed me in 2006 for writing those vile, philosophical columns, upsetting the right-wingers], what I mainly aim to do is introduce a philosophical perspective on contemporary issues and explore the theoretical assumptions being made by decision makers and normal citizens. I go wherever I think truth lies and I share what I find as best as I am able in the space graciously given me; but being a philosopher, I have no wisdom, I only love wisdom, and as Socrates said, we love what we lack. I am a mass of imperfections – hence, I love Perfection.

My columns are usually more of an invitation to civilized discourse than a final pronouncement, though I pronounce things as clearly and strongly as I feel confident. Over the past two and a half years of writing here, my hope has been, above all, to have set a good example and to invite my readers to lay down their everyday beliefs and trade them in for a few moments of wonder.

I pray my voice has, in its own weak way, tempted some to look up from the everyday to the “monuments of unageing intellect.” For the rest, as I claim to be nothing much more than a fool stumbling around in the darkness, maybe I have been entertaining. If not, I promise I’ll try harder next time.

Originally written and published in 2004; updated and edited 24 May 2015.

Richard Van Ingram

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There is Always Hope

This world is a mysterious place. In some ways it remains as mysterious for us as it ever was for our most distant ancestors when, looking on a sunset, they first realized the fearful reality of the coming night; or the first time they saw one of their own die and, unlike the animals, experienced awe and confusion, feelings that led them to seek something beyond the seeming finality of the grave.Thousands of years of wonder have yet to escape the magic circle that tells us, in this world, there is no light without darkness. 

 

But, conversely, there is no darkness without light. Yes, the sun sets, but when night comes on she is arrayed with smoldering jewelry. Yes, we die, but even in death all peoples collectively have believed that something, somehow, slips through Death’s bony grasp.In the Orthodox Church, there is an icon called “The Descent into Hell.” In this image, the Christ, dead and in the tomb, walks down into the deepest, most hopeless place in existence, the place of no light whatsoever, and He Who Is Light illuminates the darkness, breaks the Gates of Hell and frees the souls of the damned. Even where there should be or could be no light, the Light yet shines and defies the final judgement of negation – if only we would seek it out.

 

It is all too easy in this world to see the blackness, not because it is not real, but because it is only too real. In some times and places, darkness – willful ignorance, hatred, selfishness, want, violence – sits high on the throne of men’s hearts.

Disasters occur regularly; the earth shakes and within a couple of hours nearly 200,000 people are destroyed, precious people each with his or her life, stories, dreams, families, all every bit as important as yours and mine.
Diseases come and mercilessly ravage our bodies, caring no more for our plans, loves, good or bad deeds than the earthquake that silences thousands in the blink of an eye.

Parents and other adults do terrible, unspeakable things to children and those children pay an unimaginable, nearly unbearable price their entire lives; and in some cases the price becomes unbearable and is paid for with the very life of someone so miserable they cannot dream of taking another step.

And on the path of a “normal” life, there are the scattered ten thousand things that prick our flesh and cut our feet, the broken hearts, rusted dreams, the thorny insults and small injustices, the everyday demands that weigh us down and sometimes leave us unable to do little more than eat, work, and sleep.

Sometimes it seems as if there will be no tomorrow and if there is, it will only be a gray repetition of today. We feel overpowered, insignificant; we feel like giving in – or giving up.

So, some, in despair, say these things happen because there is no God and the world is an absurdity within which we are no more important than dust on the pointless breeze; and many others see in disasters, large and small, the Sword of Judgement of an Angry God, a Wrathful God, a deity like Thor or Zeus, gods of storms, senders of destruction and punishments on sinful, foolish mortals, mortals incapable of anything but sin and foolishness.
But hope demands a different answer. I will give you the words of a far wiser man than myself: “No dispensations of God’s Providence, no suffering or bereavement is a messenger of wrath; none of its circumstances are indications of God’s Anger. He is incapable of Anger; higher above any such feelings than the distant stars above the earth.” And: “We have faith in the Infinite; faith in God’s Infinite Love; and it is that faith that must save us.” (Albert Pike, Morals and Dogma of the Scottish Rite)

 
We who are called to it must put our faith in the God Who descended into the depths, ripped the keys of Hell and Death from the illegitimate hands of Darkness, shattered and trod underfoot the proud Gates of Hades and extended mercy where no mercy dwelled. We must do this not out of some selfish desire to avoid a Hell that is already conquered, but so that this Light in the Darkness might be kindled within us, and we, in our own quiet way, can work to shatter the lesser Gates in our own hearts, the hearts of men, and in the blinded, hopeless world.

 
We are called to a lifelong struggle that, to the casual observer, may appear to be next to nothing or even a foolish exercise in futility. We may find ourselves, within the unknown drama of our own lives, standing with our backs to the wall like the small army of hundreds facing the 10,000 murderous beasts in Tolkein’s “The Two Towers;” and yet, as Aragorn says when told they will not live out the night – “There is always hope.”

Ours is an age of violence, horror, and fear, an age that wishes to solve all questions by violent means. We call ourselves “brave” while pitilessly lashing out at anyone or anything daring to disturb our anaesthetized dreams of buying cheap, selling dear, living in a state of eternal entertainment.

It is no accident that we are asked to buy into the idea of an “Ownership Society” and not a “Virtue Society.” One cannot remain miserly, merciless, and self-aggrandizing while simultaneously trying to practice virtue. There is no virtue corresponding to being “free” to ignore the needs of others, being “free” from doing the good, or being “free” to silently turn away as one’s community falls to pieces and suffering increases.

Justice and mercy are far superior in value than liberty – liberty without justice and mercy to guide it goes blind and is inevitably a destructive force. It is a light remade into darkness.

We are told there is a Light that illuminates and orients all humans, simply awaiting our desire to be oriented; and there is a divine spark quietly smoldering at our secret core, a reflection of the Eternal, Perfect Light of Goodness, Beauty, Truth. We are never abandoned, even when all others abandon us, even when our days turn evil and we are all tempted to accept whatever misfortune we have been thrown into… even when people die and our bodies are eaten by diseases or people mistreat one another or our lives are slashed by the ten thousand things.

There is always Hope – even when there is no hope.

Originally written February 2008

Richard Van Ingram

Postscript 2015:

I am no longer a Christian in any orthodox sense.  I cannot believe Jesus, the human, was an incarnation of the Ineffable Deity.  Jesus was a rabbi, a Jew, and he lived and taught as a Jew and died as one as well, never rejecting his Judaism. No Jewish person believes Ha Shem could become a finite human or that a human – a creature – should be worshipped.  Jesus never taught anyone to pray to him or worship him — he taught us to pray to “Our Father” — our Father, his, yours, and mine.  I am a panentheist, not a pantheist — there’s your term for the day, reader.  Go look it up.

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Farewell to a Stranger

“Mothaim thu cogarnai (I hear you whispering)
Mothaim thu le comhairle (I hear your advice)
Thought I knew it all
No easy way…
How can we know what the book of life holds
For us all”
Maire Brennan
“No Easy Way”

Sometimes in this world we are fortunate enough to be touched and guided by certain people who appear at the time and place we need them. They give us strength in times of trouble, words when our own fail, a genuine laugh when all we have reason for is tears. Such people are special both to ourselves and to the world. They give something more precious than blood.

We often know these people in our families and in the circle of our friends, within our churches, in our communities. But some of these people we really don’t know at all – we know their works and something of their lives because they are now dead (or famous) and have left behind something meaningful: poems, books, art, ideas and beliefs, an example of how to live.

Life often strands us on islands where actual, physical people who assist the soul, inspire, and point the way are few and far in between, and in those moments the poems, books, art, ideas and beliefs, and examples of those who have left some evidence of their passing are the very things that carry us through loneliness and despair. There may come times in the life of the mind when those we do not know become more real than many of the people we deal with from day to day.

When I was about 14, through circumstances which are of no interest, I accidentally inherited a book called “The Great Shark Hunt.” Allow me to paint a sketch of my life as a 14 year-old when this book fell into my hands. I was very odd, fit in with no group in high school, so by default fell in with a small circle of people who lived on the outskirts of acceptable behavior. I didn’t fit with them either, but at least they were not judgmental. I did not get along with my parents very well. The church I was raised in did not satisfy my spiritual needs. Public school in general seemed more of an exercise in warehousing young people until they were of legal age and could be shipped out to work minimum wage jobs than an institution devoted to teaching anything of importance.

At the age of 14 I had pretty much given up on school as I felt school had given up on me. This, I understand now, was childish but, as I was 14, I was a child and lacked steady guidance. There were a few very good teachers who worked hard with me, so I did well in science and history, for example, but the rest of it became a burden as it consisted mainly of rote learning taught by bored people who would rather have been doing something else.

My grades fell and I did not care. In fact, there were only three things I cared much for at the age of 14 (if you don’t count girls): reading, writing, and drawing. I read everything I could lay hands on. The quality did not matter, nor the subject matter; it was all fair game. As a consequence of having no conception of quality, however, my writing and my drawings both were amateurish. The need to “improve” never occurred to me as I thought my creations were completely perfect as they fell out of the end of my pen or pencil.

So I lived in a world where I indiscriminately consumed huge quantities of writing, made things, and floated in the fantasy that as long as I did these things I was immune to the reality of my home and school life. I was special. I would get out of school at the first opportunity, run away, and be recognized somewhere for being the great artist I so obviously was.

Then I read “The Great Shark Hunt.”

It was by a man called Hunter S. Thompson and consisted in a great number of articles he had written for various publications, wild, weird articles written in a style unlike anything I had ever read before. Things with titles like “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Things where he or a character named Raoul Duke, who were supposed to be reporting on events or people like normal reporters, suddenly shifted gears and started writing about how they ruined the assignments, or about their extremely personal opinions of the subject matter. Or mixed into the stories events which had to be exaggerations or complete fiction. In other words, he shattered the standard conception of what a “reporter” and a “writer” were supposed to do and remade them into something creative, insightful, daring, personal.

I did not understand this book. I did not understand this book for a very long time and I read and re-read it again and again. But one thing that settled on my shoulders immediately was the weight of the conviction that, compared to Thompson’s work, my own writing was silly, immature trash. Even writing under the influence of illegal substances or in a manic tear, Hunter Thompson was writing things employing something I came to understand was a high, though peculiar, standard. He worked at writing as all good artists do with their pursuits – he labored at it to the point one could no longer see the effort when one read the product; it all just flowed like a river, with calm spots, destructive and dangerous rapids, and waterfalls each occurring naturally as the stories unfolded.

I learned more about writing from that one book, read again and again during high school, than I ever learned in any class. Thompson made me want to be a better writer on all levels, from choice of subject matter to style, from use of imagination to technical ability. I did not want to imitate him in the sort of writing I did or in following his lifestyle as being, in his own words, “a dangerous dope fiend.” In fact, I avoided hard drugs and did little experimentation in that area on the basis of the reports Thompson so often sent back from the land of hallucinogens and speed – he’d been to that place and explored it so well I felt no need to copy him.

Thompson’s challenge to me was to become my own person, develop my own eyes, hone my abilities, to be fearless when all others are terrified to speak their minds. He became, for that lonely 14 year-old, a companion who helped me begin the process of inheriting something like taste and discernment.

Over the years, I read most of his books, each encounter assisting me to improve my skills as a writer and in seeing the hypocrisy and idiocy that so often motivates the puffed up people who spend their lives worming their way into seats of power. And he did it all with a sense of humor that few American writers this century have even come close to approximating.

He also became for that 14 year-old one of the few voices that said it was alright to be different from others, that being weird, a “freak,” was a badge of honor, not something to hang one’s head about; and most importantly he was one of the people who taught me that the world is a bigger, stranger place, full of more opportunities than my limited experiences up to that point had shown me. He was one of the reasons I calmed myself down and got serious about getting out of high school with a diploma so I could move on to college, learn about the things I was not being taught.

That was 25 years ago, and for 25 years the writings of Hunter S. Thompson helped me through some very rough times, inspired me, and still challenge me.

On 20 February of this year, Hunter Thompson shot himself in the head, committing suicide at the age of 67. He was at the top of his career, influential, had a good family and a happy marriage. He was in pain from hip replacement and back surgery, but not unbearably so. But in his usual manner, he made a wild, nearly inexplicable choice and decided to die. Unfortunately, he will not be around to write about the aftermath of this choice.

I read an editorial in The Boston Globe that called Thompson’s death “selfish” and the inevitable end product of the life of a “dope fiend.” The writer compared Thompson’s choice to the brave struggle and suffering of Pope John Paul II through his disease and, of course, Hunter S. Thompson was weighed in the balance and found wanting.

What I didn’t hear was any sympathy for what might run through the mind of a person who has reached the point where he believes it is better to die than to live. What I also didn’t hear in that editorial was any recognition that His Holiness John Paul II does not support the war in Iraq for nearly exactly the same reasons Hunter S. Thompson did not support it in his writings – in other words, perhaps there are similarities between people like John Paul and Thompson should one care to really look.

I learned a long time ago that a writer can take any subject and bend it in any direction he wishes, make people see all sorts of things in a person or event that may or may not be there. The editorialist for The Globe did that – turned Hunter S. Thompson’s death into a morality play where the person who lived the unconventional life pays for it in the end and is to be judged scum of the earth. The lesson: do not follow in his footsteps, he was an evil man.

Well, gentle reader, I just did the same thing. I presented you with Hunter S. Thompson as one of my heroes and I suggested to you what meaning he had within my life – value not as a two dimensional “dope fiend” of erratic habits to be imitated or shunned, but as a political commentator, a damn fine writer with a rare gift for satire and parody, and as someone who, in dark places, was a light for me in many ways.

God sends light and hope and inspiration in the strangest of disguises so that it reaches many, even those who might otherwise not pay attention. Hunter S. Thompson was a gift to me from God when I needed one and when I would have refused to accept it in any other form. Thompson would have laughed at this as he was a vituperative atheist. But he believes now, I am sure, and I pray he understands that in this bizarre world sometimes we not only entertain angels unawares, but that we may be, each of us, angels to someone, angels sent on a mission we may not even understand.

Written and published february 2005

Richard Van Ingram

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