Essays in Idleness


The misery of life

The chief “cause” of the misery in life, is the refusal to face death, with equanimity.

Now, everyone knows that death must be faced, sooner or later; and a surprisingly large minority remain happy, even during their periods of trial and pain. I am not inclined to doubt those people, for I have met several whom I found quite “real.” In other cases, such as, unfortunately, in mine, equanimity in the face of death is a pose, merely.

I worry: that this pose may slip, when it is put to the test. And if (God help me), I should live through the test, my panic and shrieking and hysteria would prove most embarrassing. Better to face death than to have to face that.

Death is fearsome, to some and perhaps to any in a moment of disequilibrium; but it is also exciting. My father, for instance, told me several times, at long intervals, that he looked forward to death. All his “reading” (of books, and being) had confirmed the existence of an afterlife, and he wondered about what went on there. He did not speculate, but heard speculations; he was not religious, but by nature not irreligious either. He was simply open to a new experience, and instinctively welcoming. I have found this quality to be rare.

For papa was a happy man, who never expressed regrets, even in prospect for the apparent loss of his past, that might accompany biological retirement. He was not given to nostalgia, and did not collect things, except as he found them useful. In fact this healthy attitude seems to have flourished in his family, for his brothers and sisters are (or were) also quite cheerful in the face of death. Much in their lives we would generally account as miserable, but it did not touch them.

Papa went to his death benignly smiling, his curiosity about events around him undiminished by dysfunctions of his brain, and whatever drugs the doctors were putting into him during his concluding pneumonia. He had a remarkable mind, but had trained himself to do without anything that was taken away.

Except, he had an explosive temper, and his way of restoring happiness and contentment was to let it erupt. (His contemporaries did not realize that he could not hold a grudge; this is how he launched grudges into interstellar space.)

As he explained: misery is a choice.

National distancing

While, judging from the configuration of his tables and chairs, Vladimir Putin is an adept practitioner of “social distancing,” he seems unable to extend the practice to politics and diplomacy. The catastrophe in Ukraine would, for instance, never have occurred had he ordered his military to keep at least six feet (two metres) away from the Ukrainian border; and also not to project shells and missiles over it.

This last is an important detail. I myself like to keep some social distance from my neighbours — here in Parkdale — but have made it my strict policy never to hurl rocks or other trajectiles at them, or at their pets; even when they tempt me.

National distancing is a concept perhaps as venerable as social distancing, and as useful to public health and longevity. Its modern rules, norms, and standards were established in the two treaties of Westphalia, that concluded the Thirty Years’ War; but instinctively the more civilized peoples understood the principle beforehand.

Where a comprehensible sovereignty exists, it is not for the powers within one nation to interfere with those in another. Instead, they must content themselves with squawking, and expressions of disgust. For, “mind your own business” is a workable rule of thumb for individuals and nations alike.

It is a problem when nations grow large and aggressive: usually by failing to observe the proprieties of national distancing over time. Russia, the successor regime to the Soviet Union, which succeeded the Tsars, and so forth to the Mongols, has been one of the most disagreeable transgressors over the last millennia or more, and little countries have had need to form alliances against it.

My own subscription to the division of that incomparably bloated state into eighty-five constituent ethnic pieces, plus a dozen or so nominally Russian-speaking ones, plus whatever can be melted out of Siberia, I have placed on the record. It strikes me that the former Jewish Autonomous Oblast, somewhere near the Amur River in the wilderness beyond the Chinese province of Heilungkiang, would make an appropriate successor state to the “Rossiyan” federation. Stalin’s administrative creation was a wasteland and Gulag for imprisoning Jews, but he never sent that many, and surely they have all got away by now, leaving space to put Stalinists.

The same principle might work in the United States, which even when it had a Civil War, conducted it on too large a scale. The controversy about the country’s abortion laws could surely benefit from distancing, and if the country were divided into at least fifty fully sovereign states, I daresay the violent rages would smooth over. Let New York continue to be ruled by savages, and California by worse; but let South Dakota promise not to invade them. Let Florida be freed of Disneyland.

Indeed, that was the original scheme of the American Constitution: a (growing) number of quite independent states, gathered in one practical alliance against the meddlesome nations of Europe. Each could have its own laws on, say, abortion.

Leaking sensations

The wartime saying, “Loose lips sink ships,” has apparently been reversed in the present generation, where the ships sink, first. Indiscreet talk, from politicians and the press corps, follows in due course. Much has been made, persistently, in the mass-market news, of these “leaking” stories.

In the chief one this past week, a Supreme Court clerk, or other irresponsible person, took it upon himself to publish the draft of a decision overturning Roe v. Wade. This would begin to erase it from the American consciousness a few dozen news cycles earlier, and allow us to spin from violence and pointless rioting to mere persiflage more quickly.

Meanwhile, the American “intelligence community” (a purposeful contradiction of terms) boasts that it helped the Ukrainians locate, and therefore sink, the Moskva into the depths of the Black Sea; and also to pick off a dozen or so of the Russian generals, in land warring.

This was bound to annoy the Russian invaders very much, for they had already tired of American interference in their military stunts. And as some journalists “believe” that Putin is a madman, they expect him to retaliate with nuclear weapons. Then, because the other governments of the world are ruled by madmen, too (except for the several Fennoscandiyan nations which are ruled by madwomen), we’ll be flinging the missiles back and forth, until everyone is incinerated.

It is not so serious a fate as we might imagine, however; for the planet has recovered from numerous such extinction events; one every few million years. Who knows that another should not be welcomed, if we are to evolve a truly intelligent species? I have sometimes wondered if the evolutionary progression, thus far, is laughably incomplete.

And anyway, what does it matter? The current environment will likely succumb to global warming, according to the most impassioned climate prognosticators. Many of these self-appointed experts give, at best, ten years to our sporting life, before our sun-baked retirement.

Limiting our consideration to historical time, or to what has actually been recorded with dates (i.e. not the full geological record, which is vague and irrelevant), these ten lost years represent a tiny fraction — less than one percent — of the whole duration. We are excitable indeed, if we allow ourselves to become upset about such a relatively minor loss — especially as the great majority of the human race (persons ever born) are dead already; and many of those who happen to be still alive are quite old.

The barking of NATO

Pope Francis has given us of his opinion that the “barking of NATO at the door of Russia” may have led to the invasion of Ukraine — which he otherwise disapproves as being too violent. Other countries, by which we usually read the United States, were the ultimate cause of the conflagration, as we understand they are in all contemporary wars in the Middle East, Africa, &c. Perhaps the Far East too, for if Red China finds the time is ripe to physically molest Taiwan, an American provocation will be mentioned at the heart of it. For we can assume that such an explanation will be coming from Beijing, just as canine barking was first condemned in Moscow.

Nevertheless, he advises his Russian Orthodox rank equivalent to avoid transmigration. Patriarch Kirill “cannot turn himself into Putin’s altar boy,” our Holy Father said, with his latest diminution of altar boys.

It is hard to remain on the same page of this strange Argentine hymn book. It takes for granted much that, through the years, anti-Western and anti-Christian, Communist propaganda, told us all to take for granted.

But I was cured of this influence, very early; for as a little boy in Lahore, Pakistan, when my father seemed mortally ill, and my mama without any income, I was presented with a big bag of Smarties by some mysterious American visitors. Generous souls, they had taken upon themselves to rescue us; and their belief that I would share the Smarties with my (sweet) little sister was a touching indication of their guilelessness.

The result was that I became a convinced Neoconservative at the age of five or six, though it would take a few years longer to become a full Reactionary.

The variation of my own political opinions (and some of my religious affectations, too) from that of the current pope might be presented in this way. As I argue, paradoxically in his defence, he makes enough sense that I can see he is wrong. But then, I’m sure the evolution of his views began in a comparable way, with irrefutable facts, like Smarties.

In my evolved view, the West is, or was by its settled, historical habit, Christian and formatively Catholic. Even those who, through the centuries, abandoned the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, and tried to throw her off, are still tied to her by nearly invisible strands. We have been trying to leave for three or four centuries, longer in some places, but note that transmigration is not easily achieved.

Our habitual subscription to demonstrable truth and political freedom (rather like Americans) comes with this. One might almost say it involves the capacity to call certain alternative points-of-view, “nonsense,” or something worse. For this is among many concepts that cannot be translated into the tongues of foreign pagans, without the risk of converting them into (Catholic) Christians.