31 Jan 2014
Robert Frost wondered, more than 90 years ago, whether the world would end in fire or in ice. (With a name like Frost, though, can we trust him to be impartial?) Records for cold temperatures in New England that were old in Frost’s day have already been broken this season, while other parts of the country, in the grip of even more extreme freezing, anticipate within a few months another long hot summer of drought. Some insist that this is merely natural variation, nothing that we should worry about, or at least nothing that we can alter. A growing number, though, fear that this is a harbinger of our fate, and that we have something to do with it. This thought underlies much of the angst of our time. “This is way the world ends,” wrote T. S. Eliot, who also mused on “frost and fire.”
Me? I think our world will die neither in fire nor in ice, but rather of cupcakes – or perhaps a combination of cupcakes, designer jeans, killer apps and, well, just more cool stuff generally. In other words, it’s not the terrible, obvious threats that will do us in, but instead the things that bring us pleasure, even joy. It’s the things we take pride in, the fruits of our creativity and industry, that pose the greatest threat. They are good things in themselves, and often beautiful, too.
At some level we know this, of course. The saying, “too much of good thing,” captures the idea in a vague sort of way. And it’s not just because having ever more of these good, and true and beautiful things implies the consumption of scarce resources and the increasing combustion of hydrocarbons, although this is surely a problem, too. The issue is rather a moral one. It is, in other words, pertinent to us as individuals right now, every day, as we make our decisions, not merely in relation to some distant future where there may or may not be consequences.
The point is this: we are not taught how to balance, how to value and relatively weigh, in any sort of healthy order, these good, true and beautiful things. When given the chance, we simply want more. And we want more because we are encouraged, exhorted, enticed and tempted to want more.
This may be the collective psychosis of our age, the disease that is the inescapable consequence of free-market capitalism. Pope Francis seems to think so, and in his remarkable apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, he accurately labeled it “obsession.”
The most ancient myths of our culture sound a cautionary note about such disconnected, imbalanced pursuit of anything, even something valuable in itself. King Midas, in one of the best known of those stories, sought and received the power to turn everything he touched to gold – the symbol of every glittering attraction. He died socially isolated of starvation. He had accidentally touched and gilded his daughter and also discovered that you can’t eat 24-carat bread.
The Greek word pharmakon, from which we get pharmacy and pharmacology, meant for the ancients both “cure” and “poison.” It all depends upon how you use the potion. “Use good things in a wisely ordered way and in moderation” is the distilled message we can still faintly detect, if we listen, from our long-extinct, intellectual ancestors.
Pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful in a sustainable, life-affirming way, rather than in an obsessive, unexamined way, is the object of the spiritual life. In the Christian tradition, this path is not one of deprivation and sadness. On the contrary. Jesus, our Master in this work, said that he came that we may have life, and have it in abundance (John 10:10), and that we should ask freely for what we need, such that our joy may be complete (John 14:24).
Through meditation, we move beyond the ephemeral distractions, the tug of obsessive pursuits, to discover this divine space of freedom and abundance within. John Main taught that through the regular practice of meditation we learn to distinguish what is superficially attractive from what is the source of authentic joy.