A comment from a reader called Brother Sean, in response to the “Advice For A Weary Ghost” post:
I’ve been reading nearly everything you write on TAC since finding your coverage of sexual abuse and cover-ups among the Catholic Hierarchy in mid-August, but have never commented or written to you. It seems you read and approve all comments before they post, so that’s why I’m writing this as a letter. It is a commentary on two of your very recent posts that leads into my own mini-autobiography/manifesto.
The promise from the Universe, the deal I was offered by 1990’s-2000’s liberalism, is aptly summarized by Anthony Kennedy’s baptism of Existentialism as The American Philosophy in his Casey opinion, which self-same authority he quotes in his Planned Parenthood vs. Casey opinion. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The Universe had begun to offer unlimited pregnancy-free sex via the birth control pill, and we happily accepted this deal. But the Universe didn’t keep up its end of the bargain, and guys kept on knocking up the ladies when they were hoping not to. Anthony Kennedy stepped up and let us know that the Universe would be held to its promise, for we have trusted in it up to this point, and some unwanted fetuses will not stand in the way of the promise.
This blessing of self-definition turned out to be the curse of responsibility for meaning-construction (as you expound upon at great length in your article on Pitirim Sorokin, “The Culture War Neutron Bomb”). In the name of freedom, we denied the Incarnation of the One Logos, unaware of that denial’s concomitant task: the unique re-logosification of each material being.
By the grace of God, I was prevented from shaking hands with the end of the 20th Century. I am the same age as Haunted (from “Advice for a Weary Ghost”), so I presume she drank from the cultural watering hole I describe. In that time, we Americans, old and young, thought the Universe made this deal with each of us: follow your heart, it knows what’s best for you; seek your own desires, but y’know, be nice about it; dream big, chase the dream; but don’t forget to be spontaneous! Put on the hiking boots of achievement, pack the granola of creativity, passion, and originality, climb the mountain of don’t-do-drugs until you reach the peak of stay-in-school; from that peak you take a short leap onto the smooth plateau of independent-happy-life, where you live out the rest of your days in bliss!
Haunted discovered recently, at age 35, that there is neither peak nor plateau, for the path just keeps going up; and she has more than an inkling that she didn’t pack the right supplies for making the hike; but worst of all, she can no longer be convinced that she even set out to climb the right mountain. She encountered dread and wrote to a magazine advice column about it. That’s probably better than how most of us handle dread, actually. (It’s certainly better than how the teenagers answer nowadays: “I don’t feel comfortable with myself, I must be . . . Transgender! That explains it! Society constructed a role for me that I don’t really fit! My body doesn’t match my heart! I’ve figured it out and now I’m going to be happy forever!”)
Though the misty specter of future fear is less distinct than the concrete weight of dread, the life Haunted describes living is the summary, summation, and consummation, of the future life I feared for myself during my adolescence. I was gifted with intelligence and wealthy-enough, involved parents. But I was not ambitious. I did not “apply myself,” as they say. If I had been much, much more ambitious, audacious, and altruistic back then, perhaps I would have done something the world recognizes as amazing by now. Perhaps I would have taken a similar road to that of reality but become a Monsignor by now! But given the reality of my late-adolescent priorities, emotions, ideas about life, and habits (both virtues and vices), the scenario of adding to me super-abundant ambition is tantamount to a substantial change, i.e., it wouldn’t even be the same “me” anymore.
What’s plausible, though, what could have been different but still “me,” is that I could have convinced myself of a lie about really loving something that I just sorta liked for a month or two and rashly committed to it, mustered up just a little more drive, or will-powered my way through some difficult decisions to get off the couch and into the books, out of the pub and into a career, out of games and into relationships. But that would have been the danger zone for me. That would have meant trusting in the promise of the age. I would have had to accept the premise that effort and sacrifice would be rewarded with not only respectability but also soul-deep satisfaction. If some kind of Me+Effort took hold 15-20 years ago, he would not have discovered a cure for Parkinson’s or brought lasting civility to our body politic; he would have been the male version of Haunted, implicitly reassuring himself “this middle-management job is the one that will finally fulfill me,” “this modicum of joy is worth sacrificing for,” “this band I’m playing drums in now has some great songs that could get on the radio,” “this simulacrum of identity gives my life meaning.” I can only hope that I would have figured out the lie by 35!
“God writes straight with crooked lines” might be the most overused line in amateur Christian peer-counseling. And it just so happens to be true. My lack of ambition, audacity and altruism, by temperament and action, were not good in themselves; I won’t claim virtuous humility as the cause. They were crooked lines. These crooked lines are a Cross: thinking something’s wrong with me; seeing peers move on without me through college and into the corporate or artistic workforce. Other people made the deal and it looks like it’s working out for them; why didn’t I shake hands with the Universe?
God spared me, through my own apparent deficiencies, from living according to the lie; by living it I would have been ever-tempted to believe it so as to justify my living it. As a man in my mid-twenties not committed to fulfilling my end of the deal with the Universe, not committed to any specific lie, a real love for Truth was able to well up in me. And this battling for Truth has led me, by Divine Providence, into the Catholic Seminary! At a moment where nothing could be more valuable in the Hierarchy of the Church than sacrificial commitment to the Truth, God has been silently and diligently preparing me for 20 years to be that exact little gift to his Bride.
God took the crooked lines of my youth to write a story where my heroism is tested in battle against the very deal I was too lazy and fearful to take. And that battle, the battle against the lie about the Universe’s promises, fills me with a passion I never knew. To live for Truth? Yes! To fight the illusion of the liberal promise of freedom and happiness? Yes! To fight every lie, big and small? Yes! Yes! A thousand times, Yes! Watch me, Universe, as I ignore your outstretched hand, and stand against you on the shoulders of Solzhenitsyn and Havel! Watch me, gathering reinforcements from Spe Salvi, repeating to myself “the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity!” Hear me exclaim with Captain Jean-Luc Picard, “there are FOUR LIGHTS!”
sincerely yours and abundantly blessed,