Of Lincoln, and the Country of my Birth

In Life as Lived on January 25, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Editor’s Note: What follows is a diary entry from 15 months ago assessing life at 33. It will be obvious that this was before Obama’s election, before indeed, he had become a household name, and from a time when the coming economic crisis was already fairly apparent. It should be noted that Sympathies is not a political blog, and this is not primarily a political piece. Still, it reflects a disquiet with the state of the world that, while I certainly don’t retract, has given way, at least temporarily, to a cautious optimism. In other words, for a variety of reasons, it is time for an updated assessment of matters both public and private, but before taking stock of where we are it is wise to recall where we have been. So, without further ado, here is a piece from the time capsule.

young-abe-lincolnIncreasingly, I feel a crisis coming, a point of decision that has been postponed far too long, avoided in fact because of a weakness of will. Either one is destined for action and achievement, or one is not…rather, either one makes the decision to act and to achieve, or one fails to summon the resolve and strength of will, all the while finding new reasons why this should be so.

Case in point: I am a reader and writer first, maybe a talker. What living there is for me lies in these realms; what achievement lies within my grasp ditto. But for a decade I have allowed the regular slide into lassitude to hinder forward movement. Fobbing off the notion that what is done at work is work enough is an unacceptable weakness. But are one’s lack of discipline and minor vices the cause or the symptom of the problem? The answer is the latter; the problem lies deeper. It lies in the character of the age.

People are born into all kinds of situations, situations which imprint their values and norms, their psychoses and their crusades, their taboos and unquestionables. I was born into nothing particular. Or rather, I was born a diffident, private intellectual into a mostly secular household without a governing ideology. Encouraged, but hardly pushed academically, it took me years to even figure out how to approach my potential, and all along the way I have been but infrequently challenged. Have I sought to avoid challenge–fearing that I would not measure up? This is possible. Have I created the conditions for mental atrophy? People have done great work in a variety of life situations–from the depths of debauchery; from the staidness and satiety of the suburban middle-class; from prisons and madhouses; from the gutter and from the palace. Context and daily company cannot be used as an excuse.

So, we come back to the age. Born bereft of religious certainties–into a family rooted in Catholicism but having taken a secular turn. Now, my parents have, apparently, turned back to the Church–and what underlies that re-conversion I can only guess at. Bereft of nationalism or racial hatred–and over time been forced to cease even identifying with the nation to which I was born. I’ll still take the perks–the passport for what it’s worth (less and less every year, it seems), but on just a simple level, though the American experiment has been far from a complete failure, there is really nothing that I can in good conscience bind myself to there anymore. More on this in a moment.

Bereft of a mission or a calling–though this is not the fault of the age. We make our own callings, ascribing them to the divine in order to sanctify and harden them–a promise made to God is less easily betrayed than one made to oneself, it appears. Certainly, my promises to myself have proved fragile enough, and maybe that’s the point. Lacking a commitment to make something of myself worth talking about, a broken promise is just another marker of mediocrity. And mediocrity is what I detest most in myself. Madness and derangement, these can be explained away–possession, chemical imbalance, rogue genetics, bad fucking luck. But mediocrity is chosen, and then perpetually excused.

I have been reading in the Atlantic Monthly about Lincoln’s depression (“melancholy”), which is of great interest for a thousand reasons. “An original theological thinker, Lincoln discounted the idea, common among evangelicals, that sin could be wiped out through confession or repentance. Rather, he believed {…} ‘that God could not forgive; that punishment has to follow sin’. {…} But unlike the Calvinists, who disclaimed any possibility of grace for human beings not chosen for that fate, Lincoln did see a chance for improvement {…} Just as a child learns to pull his hand from a fire, people can learn when they are doing something that is not in accord with the wider, unseen order.” The italics are my own. I wouldn’t care to even begin to characterize the “wider, unseen order,” much less speak about God’s role in it, but I know nonetheless the feeling of being out of alignment with it. I know, more precisely, the feeling of being out of alignment with the vision of myself that I have in my head–someone of greater patience, greater focus, greater practical empathy and attention to the needs of others, greater dignity.

For the first time today, I really got Lincoln. I believe that he believed that God had a plan for him, and that, despite his doubts on this and every possible subject, it was his duty to summon the will to carry out that plan. This makes me sad–I don’t know that God has a plan for me, don’t believe in God, particularly, and, sadly I don’t believe in America. Whatever there was in Lincoln’s day that made belief possible, is no more. From a certain angle, every country looks sick, but America today is as sick as they come–truly deranged and perverse in its popular culture and tropes, massively ignorant, heedlessly, needlessly arrogant, fearful and paranoid. Americans, deep in their gut, in their reptilian brain, know the run is over and that a fall is coming. They know it from looking at the ugliness of the American soul as reflected by a deranged and hateful administration; they know it, if they know any history, from history–which tells us beyond any doubt that the top dog doesn’t remain on top (and they know that increasingly we are violating Dylan’s reminder “you better be nice to the right people on the way up/ cause sooner or later you’re gonna meet them coming down”); most of all they know it from the economic disquiet that afflicts them, and that cannot but be seen as presaging a hurricane. But, no one knows when the decisive blow will fall, and from where, and in our uncertainty we allow our leaders’ perversities to become our own and continue to enable the worst aspects of ourselves. Fear of the inevitable end, of the fall from grace that will reveal how little we deserved it to begin with, this fear allows us to imagine World War III, and maybe, somehow, to want it–just to get the bloody thing over with.

So, in a world so radically out of balance, in a century that has the potential to make the previous one look tame, it is all that I can do to try to live my life in balance, to try, in some small way get through life with grace and goodwill. Change starts at home–change can be willed. Just by writing the word, the will is activated.

  1. From an interview with Tolstoy recently republished here

    In the evening, after dinner, we forsook the thorny ground of politics, and Tolstoy began speaking of questions that affect him more nearly. Speaking of the choice of a profession, he said that a man’s mode of life is the resultant of the action of two opposing forces – his own effort to reach the ideal, and the inertia of his past.

    “There is a terrible saying of Kant’s,” he said, “a saying that for a long time I did not dare to accept, but which I now see to be true, to the effect that a man who does good merely from habit is not a good man.

    “But it is a fact. When we have reached one stage of goodness we dare not rest there, but must strive to reach a higher.”

  2. Great stuff!

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