Why we cannot bear to look upon suffering

In James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, he wrote: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

This is a startling diagnosis of how racism betrays a person’s own existential insecurity.

Extending beyond the issue of racism, there is this fascinating insight that another’s suffering can actually intimidate us because, in some ultimate sense, we know that it could just as well be us.

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Who might have a truth that you need?

There is a verse in the Book of Sirach that has always resonated with me profoundly that says, “If you see an intelligent person, rise early to visit him; let your foot wear out his doorstep.” (Sirach 6:36)

Likewise, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has been an example to me of applying this principle concretely.

When he was a university student, he decided to travel throughout America to meet the leading rabbis of the day. All of them insisted he had to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Upon requesting the meeting, Sacks was initially laughed at for his audacity. However, some days later he got a phone call informing him, “The Rebbe will see you on Thursday.”

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Jordan Peterson challenges us to have strength at funerals

This evening I finished reading Jordan Peterson’s latest book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.

In the last chapter, Rule XII: Be grateful in spite of your suffering, Peterson mentions that he has repeatedly suggested to his various audiences “that strength at the funeral of someone dear and close is a worthy goal” and he notes that “people have indicated to me that they took heart in desperate times as a consequence.”

After a worldwide book tour and many other public appearances, Peterson has had the opportunity to test and play with his ideas with many audiences. And it is interesting to read his thoughtful reflections based on his careful observation of the reactions of persons in the audience.

Earlier in the book, he mentions, as he has said elsewhere, that he sees people’s faces light up whenever he speaks about responsibility. Peterson is keenly aware that people have been raised with a greater emphasis on rights and the corresponding sense of entitlement that ensues with this focus. Yet, a sense of responsibility is what ennobles and fills persons with a sense of their proper dignity and capacity.

Accordingly, this challenge to have strength at funerals is an extension of his usual exhortation to responsibility.

He writes:

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Exile as a Living Death

A friend of mine recently shared with me about how the Roman poet Ovid described exile as a living death.

This friend has also written a splendid essay reflecting on her own experience of ostracization due to cancel culture in the light of the broader tradition of our civilization.

In it, she writes:

Yet, while I don’t mean to downplay the pain of the experience, this may also be the greatest blessing of exile: it is a social murder, a death within life, which forces us into confrontation with our own finitude. If the goal of philosophy is to learn how to die, then there is no better way to practice it. Stripped of all illusions and pretense, the petty dust of life can sometimes give way to a lucid clarity. In exile, we are made to remember our true homes, while we still have time make ourselves worthy of returning there.

This is one of the best pieces I have read on cancel culture and is an excellent example of empirical and existential political theory.

Go check out Caylan Ford’s piece “They Can’t Cancel Your Soul” in the American Mind by clicking here.

Painting: “Dante in Exile” by Domenico Peterlini

“Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.”

In his splendid essay “On the Meaning of Sunday,” Joseph Ratzinger wrote about how the early Christians would say, “Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.”

Take a look at how he describes this existential priority and what it means in the lives of those who hold to it:

“Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.” This is not a labored obedience to an ecclesiastical prescription considered as some external precept, but is instead the expression of an interior duty and, at the same time, of a personal decision. It refers to that which has become the supporting nucleus of one’s existence, of one’s entire being, and it documents what has become so important as to need to be fulfilled even in the case of danger of death, imparting as it does a real assurance and internal freedom. To those who so expressed themselves, it would have seemed manifestly absurd to guarantee survival and external tranquility for themselves at the price of the renunciation of this vital ground. […] For them it was not a question of a choice between one precept and another, but rather of a choice between all that gave meaning and consistency to life and a life devoid of meaning.

I often think about this passage when reflecting on contemporary Christians who risk their lives to go to church in countries where there is severe persecution and repression.

There is indeed something luminous in the witness of those who would risk their lives to affirm the values that make life altogether precious in the first place.

It is a profound and potentially orienting question to contemplate: What is it in our lives without which our survival has no value?

Photo: Maronite Church in Kfar Baram in northern Israel in summer 2017

Worth Doing Badly

Tonight I am remembering the oft-cited G.K. Chesterton quotation, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

It is seems to me that some of the things I find particularly worth doing and so that remain worth doing, even badly, are: studying new languages, attempting new skills, and learning more about cultural and religious traditions.

In the clip above, I was on a coffee plantation tour in Mexico when I stopped to attempt to make tortillas.

As you can see, it went rather badly.

As you can also see, I was smiling quite a lot and found it worth doing.

What is it about certain things that make them worthwhile even if we are not excellent at them?

In one of his letters, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

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Who exactly am I?

This evening I watched the film “The Father” – a drama that follows an elderly man’s experience of dementia.

The film is masterfully done and its artfulness consists in the way in which the disorientation and confusion of memory loss is simulated for the viewer.

Take a look at the trailer:

This film caused me to wonder: Why do Alzheimer’s and dementia happen specifically? I don’t mean biologically and physiologically, but rather existentially. What does it mean for humans to be the kinds of beings who, at the end of a long, successful, flourishing life can sincerely ask, “Who are you?” and “Who am I?”

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To the Tomb of a Teacher

On this date in 2008, Mieczysław Albert Maria Krąpiec OP, passed away.

I learned about this man as I gradually also learned how to pronounce his name.

This Polish priest-professor was a former rector of my university and is considered the founder of the Lublin Philosophical School – the most notable proponent of whom became Karol Wojtyła/Pope John Paul II.

It was in my very first week of classes that a professor of mine named Fr. Maryiniarczk spoke in an earnest yet convivial manner about this tradition saying, “The Lublin Philosophical School prepared, amid a very harsh time, an understanding of the human person and of reality. We aim to continue in this tradition of realistic philosophy. Metaphysics is concerned with discovering the content of being, not a conception of being and not merely a definition of concepts. We do not try to grasp a theory of man, but rather to understand man himself. This is part of what is meant by the approach called existential Thomism – an integration of truth and experience in our lives.”

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Seeing that we will die

Josef Pieper is truly one of the most wonderful (i.e., actually filled-with-wonder) philosophers of the twentieth century. Just when I thought that I had read most of his works, I discovered that he wrote a book entitled Death and Immortality. A huge thanks to St. Augustine’s Press for translating and publishing Pieper’s works and I especially look forward to reading the recently published parts two and three of Pieper’s three-part autobiography.

Today I want to share with you a marvelous section on Rembrandt in “The Vocabulary of Death” chapter of Pieper’s Death and Immortality book.

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Those best prepared for death

The other day, Fr. Mike Schmitz released this video, “The Key to a Happy Death” in which he shares that a student recently asked him, “In your experience, have you found that people who live a long and fulfilling life are more prepared, or better prepared to die–that they’re able to let go of their life more easily?”

And to this, he answered no.

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