The Standard of Goodness

Early in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens introduces us to Sydney Carton. Initially, amongst the other characters, he is forgettable, pathetic, and even loathsome. Perhaps that is a hallmark of great literature. It can produce contemptible, disgusting characters like Sydney Carton in whom a man like me may see our own character reflected. I speak only of the Mr. Carton found in the first quarter of the book. Of this character, Dickens writes:

Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.

What I write today is quite personal. Essayists I admire like Orwell and Hitchens, Wilde and Wallace, to name a few, managed to write very personally while maintaining a distant objectivity. They made themselves the subject of their writing without making themselves the object as well. As comedian Ricky Gervais has often pointed out, they were the subject without being the target. This is admirable and the product of a strong moral ideal, unapologetic self-confidence, and most of all, a willingness to air their own dirty laundry without compliment-seeking or compassion-sowing.

My community just watched as mother nature rendered thousands among us homeless in the space a just a few hours. Heavy winds, downed power lines and perilously dry conditions fed raging fires that consumed hundreds of homes and businesses from the blinkable space spanning from brunch to dinner. The ominous smoke was visible on weather satellites; the haunting flames were visible from my home. The apocalyptic sensation, well-fed by Hollywood over the years, felt proportionate to the scene and the sensate experience. Checking upon a close friend, she indicated that her house was not affected though she was still unable to return home even twenty-four hours after her hometown evacuated. Her comment to me after acknowledging the tremendous loss her neighbors suffered is that she “feels so blessed” to still have her home intact.

I’ve considered this answer with what I consider a fair amount of self-awareness and irony. I can’t bring myself to think of being blessed under the circumstance. Perhaps the only appropriate word I can adopt to describe how I feel is “lucky.” Luck doesn’t imply a directing hand but the indifferent providence of chance. Those who’s homes were destroyed were ridiculously unlucky. But they were no more punished than another was blessed. Darker would be the thought of divine passivity that allowed such a thing to happen, closing its ears, heart, and mind to the cries of the doomed when it certainly lies within the being’s power to intervene.

I want to say: the close friend I mention is one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know. And, while she might indeed feel “blessed,” I believe her use of the word shows the sinister nature of religious conditioning. The word has become so ubiquitous in our culture that we start to say it and, perhaps, eventually believe it. Looking for blessings and pitying those whom God did not see fit to equally bless.

Yet, there are many who will extol “answered prayers” when their home is untouched while their neighbors has been rendered little more than smoldering ash. No doubt we’ll hear “God spoke here today” and that we humans should listen. When the first unburnt Bible is shown on the evening news, I hope they’ll remember how ubiquitous that book is. And that as they celebrate the miracle of unburnt paper, thousands of decent people find they have no pieces to pick up.

What this moment makes me consider is the fundamental question I recently asked myself: what makes a person good or bad? Am I a good man? As a naturally introspective individual, I ask and have asked myself this question often. I see now that, like Sydney Carton, I’ve been too quick to resign myself to let some aspects of my life eat me away. I am a man of good abilities and emotions but have given much of my sense of self-worth over to the judgments of others. The tendency seems a common and formidable trap amongst humankind. And while I wait for people to draw near to me, I become incapable of exercising what talents I have developed toward the pursuit and promotion of goodness and happiness for myself, let alone others.

The stark realization I have recently experienced was as liberating as it was demoralizing. How many people, emancipated from mind-forged manacles, have finally understood Steinbeck’s insight that, when we let go of being perfect, we are finally enabled to be, very simply and adequately, good? Unfortunately, the peddlers of “perfection in Christ” still make the demand and seem ironically hell-bent on making you perfect after their own image of what that means.

Take the less-well-known or even concealed but equally factual and salient aspects of the life of Joseph Smith. When I was a devoted missionary, we taught that Joseph Smith never had a wife other than Emma Smith. That he never practiced polygamy. Any assertion that he did was simply a lie told by bitter apostates or dangerous anti-Mormons committed to destroying the Prophet’s good name. I was taught to feel disgust, repulsion, and pity on the people who perpetuated these lies. I was also conditioned to feel sorrow for the tarnish upon the good name of Joseph Smith. After all, “He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood.”

According to the LDS owned Deseret News, the church published an essay addressing Plural Marriage (Newspeak for Polygamy and Polyandry) in Kirtland and Nauvoo in October of 2014. Until this point, my experience with the church including University religion courses at BYU had spoken of Joseph Smith’s practice only as a testament to his goodness. He resisted God’s demand that he institute the practice of Plural Marriage until an angel with a drawn sword threatened to kill Joseph if he did not comply. Such was the story he told. And when Joseph similarly demanded that Apostle Heber C. Kimball give his wife, Vilate, to Joseph for his own wife we are told that all of them were reluctant and wept. However, Heber and Vilate agreed and when Heber presented Vilate to Joseph at his door one evening, Joseph was so overcome with emotion that he wept and told Heber that he’d “passed the test.” On the spot, Joseph “sealed” Heber and Vilate together in the sacred marriage ceremony Mormons place all their eternal hopes on to this day. Such might have been considered a glorious likeness of Abraham and Isaac: a just command given and, with demonstration of obedience, mercy extended. Not only mercy, but divine and eternal blessing!

What we didn’t hear about was Heber’s daughter, Helen Mar Kimball, and her alleged marriage to Joseph Smith. The story was no more than an anti-Mormon deception when I was young. The fourteen year old child coerced into marriage under pressure from her father to do so. In addition, the Prophet of God himself gave her twenty-four hours to decide and meekly informed her that it would ensure eternal salvation for her self and her family if she consented. I do not care whether or not the marriage was consummated, that is no way for a man to speak to a teenaged girl in any generation. If it were done by anyone other that their chosen prophet, no believer in Joseph Smith’s revelation would stand for it! The larger point being that I didn’t learn that Helen Mar was, in reality, married to Joseph Smith until the essay was published. Prior to that, the party line was that Joseph NEVER practiced polygamy himself. Vilate Kimball’s experience was shared as evidence that he DIDN’T practice it, he only humbly, reluctantly taught it to others and then granted great blessings to those who gave their will.

Since my disaffection, people will say that I could never have been a “devoted” missionary because of my current state of disbelief. “If you truly believed and were once converted to the gospel, you would never be able to leave.” These people lack imagination and, worst of all, empathy. I’m certain if you asked my companions, roommates, and high school classmates, most would agree that I was self-righteous and even spiritually arrogant, but that I was a devoted student of LDS doctrine and history and that I was entirely committed to my covenants. I was a budding apologist with a fire for defending the faith. But, in a high-demand religion, what one’s knows or claims to know doesn’t matter. If you are an unbeliever, your motives automatically negate your message regardless of its factuality. For Mormons, and I suspect for most religions, what one does matters less than what they profess.

My father-in-law can imagine an eternal heaven in which, if he remains faithful, he’ll become like God in power. He can imagine a conscious life he lived with God and Jesus before being born to Earth. Somehow, his imagination cannot handle conceiving of something that has actually happened many times in history. What would he tell his fifteen year-old granddaughter if the prophet of the Mormon church came to her and told her she had twenty-four hours to decide if she would consent to be his “plural wife.” If she said no, she would be damned. If she said yes, she and her entire family would be guaranteed eternal life. He deflects this question as smoothly as a politician. However, in the same conversation, he agreed that for a public school teacher to make an identical offer would be criminal. If the prophet asks, you pray about it and do what you feel is right. (Spoken like a person accustomed to holy manipulation.) If someone else does, you call the police.

So what if Joseph never had children with any of his approximately forty wives? Brigham Young and others practiced the same order of plural marriage and DID have children by their other wives. The facts are that Joseph deliberately hid the practice from his followers and his own wife. His sacred sealing to his “legal and lawful” wife, Emma, happened only after he was already sealed to many other women that she didn’t know about. He conveniently allowed himself to be “re-sealed” to two of these women, sisters, at Emma’s approval. He never told Emma that he’d already been sealed to them.

Reminds me of Bible verse from Proverbs: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion.” The behavior of Joseph, in concealing his escapades from his wife and the public, seem like the behavior of a man who knows he is wicked. If he really felt he was doing the will of an omnipotent God, would he need to add lies upon lies?

He married dozens of women without his first wife’s knowledge or consent. When she finally found out, he prophetically threatened her with divine displeasure and eternal destruction if she did not accept polygamy. Poor Emma had caught him in the barn with Fanny Alger. Emma found her divinely anointed husband in the barn with the sixteen year-old girl who had served in their home. She euphemistically said that she viewed the “exchange” through the gaps in the barn wall. Oliver Cowdrey, incredibly upset by the relationship would call it a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair.” Read the history from both apologists and independent historians and decide for yourself if you feel this behavior can be excused in any way.

He married sisters as well as mothers and daughters. Neither of these things bothers me so long as they are consenting adults. What does bother me is that Joseph and Brigham Young would both send men on missions to build the church and, while they were away, make their spouse a plural wife. Even worse, we come back to the secrecy. Not simple failure or neglect to reveal the facts, there was a concerted effort to obfuscate the truth. He would say publicly, in May 1844, when he already had 30 wives, “What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.”

Here is a good source of Joseph’s carefully worded denials over the years.

To me, the creme de la creme is the story of Joseph fleeing an absent pursuit, involves his relationship with Sarah Ann Whitney. The incriminating letter Joseph wrote to her and her parents highlight both his guilty conscious in the attempts to conceal as well as his intentions with at least some of these women. It was not merely dynastic.

Dear, and Beloved, Brother and Sister, Whitney, and &c.—

I take this oppertunity to communi[c]ate, some of my feelings, privetely at this time, which I want you three Eternaly to keep in your own bosams; for my feelings are so strong for you since what has pased lately between us, that the time of my abscence from you seems so long, and dreary, that it seems, as if I could not live long in this way: and <if you> three would come and see me in this my lonely retreat, it would afford me great relief, of mind, if those with whom I am alied, do love me; now is the time to afford me succour, in the days of exile, for you know I foretold you of these things. I am now at Carlos Graingers, Just back of Brother Hyrams farm, it is only one mile from town, the nights are very pleasant indeed, all three of you come <can> come and See me in the fore part of the night, let Brother Whitney come a little a head, and nock at the south East corner of the house at <the> window; it is next to the cornfield, I have a room inti=rely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect safty, I <know> it is the will of God that you should comfort <me> now in this time of affliction, or not at[ta]l now is the time or never, but I hav[e] no kneed of saying any such thing, to you, for I know the goodness of your hearts, and that you will do the will of the Lord, when it is made known to you; the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty: only be careful to escape observation, as much as possible, I know it is a heroick undertakeing; but so much the greater frendship, and the more Joy, when I see you I <will> tell you all my plans, I cannot write them on paper, burn this letter as soon as you read it; keep all locked up in your breasts, my life depends upon it. one thing I want to see you for is <to> git the fulness of my blessings sealed upon our heads, &c. you wi will pardon me for my earnest=ness on <this subject> when you consider how lonesome I must be, your good feelings know how to <make> every allowance for me, I close my letter, I think Emma wont come tonight if she dont dont fail to come to night. I subscribe myself your most obedient, <and> affectionate, companion, and friend.

Joseph Smith

Why would Joseph care so much about keeping a home teaching visit from his wife?

So, what makes a man a good man? Believer’s and apologists say that Joseph didn’t lie because his “sealings” were not the same thing as having wives. Yet, these same individuals wouldn’t have that double-speak in any other context from any other human being outside of the LDS church leadership.

The simple analysis is that, for a believer, what qualifies a man as a good man simply comes from his active membership in the right church. That’s it. That’s all that matters. Even if he says what you’d rather not hear, if he claims membership you agree with, that’s enough to invest your life into. Even actions don’t matter after that. I mean, is that what the “second anointing is all about?” He could murder someone in the street and you’d still vote for him.

It’s not just Mormons. A stark example comes from a video oft posted on the web. An Islamic cleric of some degree (I plead ignorance of their hierarchical structure) claims that the man who does not pray is a more vile sinner in God’s eyes than the man who murders or, even, the man who rapes children. I’m certain he does not speak for all Muslims, but he does demonstrate the odds we face as a species. Goodness is determined by your profession of faith, not how you treat others. Just read a book about the Presidency of Donald Trump. See how the evangelicals flock to his banner. Mormons, too.

For Mormon young women, there is immense pressure to marry a returned missionary. That’s the overwhelmingly important criteria for a suitable partner. A kind, hard-working, respectful man without the name tag is, at best, a risky proposition. Other things may be overlooked or, at the very least, the man can be reformed or improved if he’s done his two years proselyting.

When that is the kind of man you consider “good” and the example a good man should follow? The Doctrine and Covenants declares Joseph’s “the best blood of the nineteenth century.” Either that statement is scripture to you, or it is not. Also said, “He lived great and he died great.” Does that include his treatment of women and their husbands? Yes, it does. We’ve had this conversation.

How can a non-Mormon, especially an apostate defector, ever be good enough for you? How can he or she measure up to that? Your standard allows debauchers, manipulators, and purgers to be counted as good in the face of their actions simply by their affirmation of a shared faith. There is no objective standard one could reach because it is capricious. It is based on feelings alone that ignore repulsion or categorize it carefully. Believers are conditioned to think that when they encounter “troubling” information that the unease or repulsion they experience is not because of what they are told but because they are losing the Holy Ghost who testifies of truth.

“I don’t like what you said, it makes me feel bad. Therefore you must be lying to me.”

As an unbeliever, one would make you uneasy. They would be a hindrance to you feeling the spirit. Thus, that individual must be wicked. Certainly he cannot possibly be a good man.

Our challenge becomes avoiding Mr. Carton’s fate: resigned to ourselves, letting the situation eat us away. We have made a horrible but necessary decision to leave the faith of our youth. We’ve chosen our integrity over propping up a corrupt institution that pads its coffers on promises made to the destitute. We’ve learned that being perfect according to dogmatic definitions, is neither sufficient nor is it necessary to being good. Thank you Mr. Steinbeck.

And to be overly dramatic and even sensational, in freeing ourselves from the mind-forged prison of piety, we, like the Mr. Carton later in A Tale of Two Cities, we can feel for ourselves that “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Change: An Inside Story

Propaganda is bad enough in-and-of itself. But when such philosophies are mingled with divine sentiment, propaganda insidiously masquerades as scripture. By the definition of the pious, it is not propaganda but eternal and unalterable truth. Just a smidgen of propoganda to which my parents and clergy subjected me as a child, teen, and adult included: “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). Or consider the words of Joseph Smith to other leaders in the church: “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”

What a waste of time the works of mere mortals like Dumas, Hugo, Dickens, Dostoevsky, or Steinbeck would be to read. Reading it for school or work? Okay, then. Just make sure to recalibrate with your eternal touchstone, the best book EVER written, The Book of Mormon. When one is busy with family and work, what little time is left should be spent fortifying one’s spirit and inoculating their mind with the inane words of a tedious plagiarism. Ahh, The Book of Mormon…why should I read anything else?

Like all “apostates” I departed my daily fix of scripture and headed immediately to the profane. Thus, in September, as I browsed the “Christopher Hitchens” subreddit, I saw mention of a memoir to be published by Martin Amis. As an avid fan of Hitch, the name was known to me. In fact, several years ago I borrowed a copy of his novel “Money” from a dusty collection in the condo of an institute I frequent. I am certain it is not and will not be missed since said institute has sold the condos. I was told I could keep it though I don’t know if the authority that said it meant indefinitely.

Though I have barely skimmed the first chapters of “Money,” when I heard that Amis’s new memoir would include new reminiscences of Hitch and insights into his life and work, I wrote its release date on my calendar. At the appointed time, I walked to the Barnes and Noble near my place of work and bought one of the two copies they stocked for opening day. I had some trouble finding it since I believed it to be an autobiography though it was catalogued under fiction. I now understand it to be a novelized autobiography though I don’t know if I fully understand what that means. Regardless, reading Martin Amis’ bio has changed me. 

Prior to my spiritual awakening or spiritual death–depending on who you ask–I would not have known the name Martin Amis nor been interested in his work. And, if by some chance I had picked up the book to read it, I would have given up after the first use of the word fuck which he and his friend Saul Bellow–who dominates a good portion of the early chapters of which I still find myself reading–are not afraid to employ. I shouldn’t say that each page is rife with its use, in fact, it is not frequently encountered. But once is far too often for a good Mormon boy. Joseph Smith would never say it! He would prefer to refer to his dalliances with fourteen-year-olds in the barn as “exchanges.” At least he has his standards.

It did not take long for Amis’s words to affect me in a profound way. I suppose that you need another bit of my biography to understand why it might be that way.

First: My father was a man prone to anger. I know he loved me and my siblings and his parents. I’m not certain about how much he loved his wife–my mother, though I am confident he never cheated on her and they have been together since 1972. He quickly lost his temper when irritated or inconvenienced but never abused any of us physically. (Unless you include spankings which, though I do not subject my own children, I don’t consider it his abuse of me.) 

Second: Facebook is largely a waste of time and energy. Other than maintaining relationships, there is very nearly nothing of value to be found there. However, I remember one instance where I took something of value from a conversation. Not long after my faith transition, someone posted a news article about the U.S. prison system. One of my wife’s cousins who is also a former Mormon, commented that he felt punitive justice did not work and was amoral and he preferred rehabilitative justice. Aside from coming to agree with him over the years, the word “punitive” has stuck in my mind ever since with a very negative, undesirable connotation.

I began reading Martin Amis’s novelized autobiography, “Inside Story,” hoping to hear more about Christopher Hitchens. He doesn’t disappoint though Hitch’s appearances are not preeminent. Luckily for me, the writing is superb and the method of story-telling unique without drawing attention to itself in any cumbersome way. Without breaking the continuity of the telling, he describes his first date with a lovely woman by a third person present, page break, first person commentary, page break, third person present, page break, third person reminiscence the following day, and so on. It was masterfully and beautifully done and added depth to the story in a way I have never experienced as a reader nor could I conjure it as a writer.

Early in the prologue which Amis titled, Preludial, he describes his feeble attempt to show anger toward his daughter after admitting that he almost never experiences the emotion of anger. When his daughter pokes fun at his attempt, Amis says:

“The thing is I just don’t hold with it–anger. The Seven Deadly Sins ought to be revised and updated, but for now we should always remember that Anger rightly belongs in the classic septet. With anger–cui bono? (Translation: who stands to gain from anger?) Pity anger; pity those who radiate it as well as those on the other end of it. Anger: from Old Norse, angre ‘vex’, angr ‘grief’. Yes–grief. Anger is almost as transparently self-punitive as Envy.” 

Amis’ words inspired me but, more importantly and perhaps the reason for their inspiration is that I was motivated and invigorated without experiencing shame. I am a man prone to anger–much like my father. A brooding, distant anger rather than one who lashes out physically as a result. But with Amis’s words and my revulsion to the words punitive, I now see how damaging anger is to me, personally! So, when I read his words, I was able to make a choice to be different. Anger has largely hurt only  myself. And here is the difference between reading good literature free of scriptural injunctions or indoctrination: I focussed on me and not on some invisible, irritated, offended god who now needed  my penitent attention.

What is it with the Christian God? For years I had read about the destruction of individuals and civilizations due to an offense of this petty God. The poor children who teased this God’s prophet were mauled to death by bears! This God is offended when we use an improper name or moniker for his one true church. 

I don’t need more examples of how, in emulating this God, I had become just like him. And it was anger I was trying to leave behind me. God has been a terrible example of avoiding anger. Wrathful and vengeful. When the scriptures inspired me to change it was always associated with guilt and shame toward this abusive Father in Heaven. No matter the sin, repentance was a prerequisite to change. How could I become better and abandon the self-punitive emotion if I was required to apologize to a God who showed me regular employ of these attributes to begin with? A God who rules and reigns by those emotions?  

Reading Amis’s simple observation has done more for me in a week than years of studying the scriptures. I’m not accountable to a fickle God. I’m not a chosen person who may sometimes experience righteous indignation. I’m not a steward of God’s spirit children embodied in my own. I’m not a slave to the “natural man” who needs submission to God to change and improve. I am merely a man in charge of myself and no one else. There is no spiritual foundation to happiness or misery. But there is a reality that anger is self-punitive. Like envy, it torments the one who experiences it and often more than those around them. 

The Christian God has demonstrated and admitted he is jealous and wrathful (just google the terms in the Bible) answering the sins of fathers on the heads of their children for three to four generations. My father was a man of anger and I see it in myself. I see it in some of my children. The cycle perpetuates in the generations but it ends with me. Why? Not from shame or guilt or tearful repentance. It stops with me because I truly found one of the best books and it expected nothing from me. It’s author hoped I would read it but is not so jealous or wrathful as to exact punishment on me should I not. But, it did offer a simple, intimate insight into himself. In doing so, I learned a lesson that I cannot get over. I can’t get over it because of how profoundly it has already helped my life in just a week.

The best books are out there. They are different for everyone. They touch us at moments when we are ready and willing and only when we are reading them. They do not require sorrow or shame to reach our hearts and minds. They don’t claim to be inspiring. They simply claim to be honest. They may claim to be entertaining. But they never rise to the hubristic level of declaring themselves scripture. And I would not label them as such. For to do so would ruin them, undermine their goodness, and taint their simplicity. 

Thank you Mr. Amis, for that which I am confident you did not intend when you wrote those words.

1984: How to Start a Religion



There are some stark contrasts to my last blog entry about George Orwell’s, Coming Up for Air, with regard to what I’ll say about his monumental classic, 1984.

In commenting on Coming Up for Air, I went to great length to romanticize both nostalgia for the past but also the ability to live in the present moment. In 1984, government abolishes any capacity for nostalgia by erasing the past and making every moment in time somehow the present. The atmosphere of constant war, perpetual hate, and mandated conformity create a reality that only allows someone to live in the present.

It’s hard to know where to begin the analysis of 1984. My first thought is that Orwell has created a “how to” book on controlling large populations of people. From what I understand about Solviet communism and what I know of George Orwell, 1984 simply took the extremes of communist party doctrine and took their current practices, institutions, and intentions to the extreme. While Orwell likely had socialist, revolutionary leanings, he did not agree with the form it took with Stalin’s accession into power. It is my understanding that Animal Farm is a blatant, analogous account of the Bolshevik revolution, the death of Lenin, the rise of Stalin and fall of Trotsky, and the emergence of the USSR under Stalin.

I don’t want to rehash the narrative or the plot for you. If you haven’t read 1984 all I can say is, “What are you waiting for?” Rather, I’ll present the ideas that I had while reading and as I’ve contemplated it since. So, as an instruction manual for obtaining control, here goes.

(If you think these tactics only work in politics or revolution, just pay attention with a truly open mind and heart and look around at the faces of those with you the next time you’re listening to a sermon in church. Having been educated in a Russian Orthodox Seminary, though he became an atheist, Stalin surely learned a great deal about the process of controlling the human mind.)

Step One: Establish an Infallible Leader.

(I don’t mean to make this about a man but, lets be honest, how many women have done the things I’m about to describe? For brevity I’ll refer to the “leader” in the male form.)

The circumstances upon which the dear leader came to power must be mystical and unverifiable. This may include the fabrication of events surrounding his birth, upbringing, anointing, and revelation. Clever regimes will learn to tell the facts in compelling way to make the leader seem set apart from the common man, but fabrications and half-truths that can’t be verified are critical to generate appeal.

Make acceptance of his words and conformity to his commands required. Consequences of rejecting the leader’s words may range from social and family ostracizing to pain and death. The most powerful motivator for some will be the promise of eternal suffering. This can never be proven, but men can be made to fear it. Instill this fear and stir the zeal of the faithful with mob tactics–use emotional furor fed by demogoguery to mobilize the tentative among the mob of the faithful.

A word about devotion: Orwell shows examples of wives informing on husbands, children against parents, and so on. What struck me the most was Winston’s description of his wife, for he had been married at one time. He described her as completely devout to the party. She only consented to “making a baby” because it was to raise up children for the party.

The aim of the Party was not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control. Its real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act…The only recognized purpose of marriage was to beget children for the service of the Party. Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema. This again was never put into plain words, but in an indirect way it was rubbed into every Party member from childhood onwards. There were even organizations such as the Junior Anti-Sex League which advocated complete celibacy for both sexes…the Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it…And so far as the women were concerned, the Party’s efforts were largely successful.

A paragraph later, Winston describes his wife, the devotee of the Party:

As soon as he touched her she seemed to wince and stiffen. To embrace her was like embracing a jointed wooden image. And what was strange was that even when she was clasping him against her he had the feeling that she was simultaneously pushing him away with all her strength.

Bind their devotion to this leader by emotion. Teach them the virtue of statements like this one: “There is nothing you could tell me that would make me question the dear leader.” Make them reaffirm their commitment to the party and its leaders often both in private and, more importantly, in public amongst their peers in the zealous masses.

Create in their minds the idea that, if something does not turn out as promised by the prophetic leader, that it must be their own fault. They did not work hard enough to obtain the promises that have been made; they misinterpreted the meaning and intent of the leader; they were not worthy of the blessing. Make them demonize themselves and turn to the party first for answers and help because the party and dear leader cannot fail. Thus, the party remains above reproach.

Big Brother  is infallible and all-powerful. Every success, every achievement, every victory, every scientific discovery, all knowledge, all wisdom, all happiness, all virtue, are held to issue directly from his leadership and inspiration…His function is to act as a focusing point for love, fear, and reverence, emotions which are more easily felt toward an individual than toward an organization.

Step Two: Establish a Single, Eternal Enemy.

People need something to fear if you are going to manipulate their minds, therefore you must convince them that there is a prime enemy who is always attempting to subvert the work of the trusted leader or leadership. All influence contrary to the party is surely the direct meddling of this adversary. The resultant fear of this enemy and loathing of his ill-intent will keep followers from considering the slightest thought or idea that does not come directly from the mouth of party leaders.

Vilify the party member who even casually entertains a contrary idea. Marginalize them, tell everyone that they are weak minded, deceived, sinful, and sinister.

Luckily, the party leaders–beginning with the dear leader–have proven themselves beyond the grip of this villain. Their every act is directed toward protecting the people and exposing the designs of the adversary. You don’t need to question them because they are the purest of heart and strongest of mind.

Step Three: Habits are Powerful; Make Rituals Out of Them.

Create rituals and habits that become ingrained in each person while very young.  Convince them that following through on these rituals will gain them power against the eternal enemy. Make the rituals progressive, with more to look forward to as they get older and progress in the party. Always ensure that the members feel obligated to certain daily, weekly, and yearly rituals. Make them so much a part of their life that they notice the missing component when it is neglected only once.

Use leaders close to individuals to check up on them to see if they are doing their rituals regularly. Train other citizens to keep an eye out for transgressors and to confront them or notify leaders should they see someone falter. Leaders must behave with shock and concern when they find members not in conformity, even better, create leaders who actually feel shock and concern. Promise individuals they will be happier if they consent to and participate in the rituals. Most of all, praise them when they do it and tell them that what they feel is the reward of obedience. If done when they are children, they will crave the praise of their superiors and accept that as the mystical reward for conformity. Within a generation you’ll have no need to deceive because the leaders brought up in the faith will genuinely believe it themselves.

Create in their minds the idea that all goodness is found in the party. Use this to create devotion in individuals first to the party and its infallible leaders. This devotion must be greater than that of husband to wife, parents to children, and amongst friends.

Concerning his wife, Winston recollects:

She had without exception the most stupid, vulgar, empty mind that he had ever encountered. She had not a thought in her head that was not a slogan, and there was no imbecility, absolutely none, that she was not capable of swallowing if the Party handed it to her.

Step ThreePointFive: Indoctrination with Dogmas and History.

Convince them that the only way to feel self-love and peace is by conforming to the party ideology and then make any mode of living contrary to the ideology a living hell for them. Monitor them with regular interviews, constantly preach of the goodness of the party’s way and the abyss of any other way, make their friends marginalize them when they stray–even in the slightest–for fear of being led astray themselves.

Start with rituals and habits every day and build with regular sermons and prayer and preaching and schooling. Make anything scientific suspect and vilify purveyors of unapproved theories. Orwell uses regimented, daily exercise routines and something called “The Two Minutes Hate,” (think of a “daily devotional”), and Hate Week (Jesus Camp), among other requirements, for these purposes.

And the people’s reaction to “The Hate”:

The little sandy-haired woman had flung herself forward over the back of the chair in front of her. With a tremulous murmur that sounded like “My Savior!” she extended her arms toward the screen. Then she buried her face in her hands. It was apparent that she was uttering a prayer.

At this moment the entire group of people broke into a deep, slow, rhythmical chant of “B-B!…B-B!…B-B!” over and over again, very slowly… It was a refrain that was often heard in moments of overwhelming emotion. Partly it was a sort of hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Big Brother, but still more it was an act of self hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise.

Step Four: Control Language and Other Forms of Expression.

In 1984, the party is well aware of the power of language therefore they begin to create a language they called “newspeak.” In this way they can control the understanding and the minds of the people under their power. Any words, phrases, or concepts that went beyond those bounds they labeled as vulgar or obscene. They know that a man who can say four letter words is a man who has a free mind and is willing to express his emotions regardless of what others may think of it. Worst of all, such a man is not worried about protecting the image of the party. Language is a powerful thing and you can control people when you control what they say and how they speak, but most of all, when you control how they feel about what they say…especially how they feel about what they think.

Make everyone thought police for themselves. Build in them the compelling need to tell an “authority” of any sleight in thought but fearful of letting anyone else know.

Make sure that the language of the Party is the only language with which they are truly conversant. Do this through “encouraged” personal study every day in the official, endorsed tomes of the Party. Make any other learning encouraged but only when Party study has been completed. Fill their lives with so many other obligations that they can’t give time to anything else. Further indoctrinate them in language through their regular Party preaching and sermonizing. Communicate with them in Party language at all times. Make periodicals and broadcast communication that reinforces this language. If this is done from an early age, it will ensure Their discomfort when contact with foreign language is encountered. They will feel completely inadequate in a conversation based in intellect like physics, biology, or psychology. They will nevertheless feel completely justified in their position by falling mentally into their programmed language, and they will feel that those to whom they speak are ignorant or unintelligent because the Party member cannot make himself  understood to them.

Instill in them the power of phrases like, “It will be done.” Compel them to respond to any command with such phrases. Use words like “gentle admonition” or “loving persuasion” but make them feel subconcioulsy that “requests” are really “commands.”

In 1984, there is a government agency called “The Ministry of Love” that deals with those guilty of “thoughtcrime”. The people know that The Ministry of Love is a place of cruelty and fear. But they are made to feel that, since Big Brother and the Party have their best interest at heart, what is done there is done out of love. Reminds me of something called a “court of love.” The real interest here does not seem primarily for the good of the person on trial, but for the image of the Party and the ensured conformity of a person’s heart not just their actions.

Another interesting word used by Orwell is “doublethink.” I doubt I need to explain this to you but, to be simple, it means ignoring what it apparent to your eyes and mind and believing what the Party tells you is the real truth.

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right!

If the Party tells you that 2+2=5, then 2+2 does equal 5. Even though you know the answer is 4, you choose to happily believe it is 5. And if you don’t…..


To keep this short, Winston is given an old, tattered book that was written by Emmanuel Goldstein, the “eternal enemy” of the Party. The book outlines how the party operates and their reasoning/justification for controlling all aspects of a man or woman’s life. There are some great insights here and I am left believing that George Orwell was not only highly intelligent but also incredibly wise.

The consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival…Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war.

World conquest becomes:

an article of faith. It is to be achieved either by gradually acquiring more and more territory and so building up an overwhelming preponderance of power, or by the discovery of some new and unanswerable weapon.

Proselyting=gradual acquisition.

Armageddon and the rapture (I hear this one all the time in Arkansas)=the final weapon that will kill all those who oppose the Party and ensure total victory.

This compels me to share one thought from outside of Orwell from one of my favorite authors, Christopher Hitchens. If you think of the idea and message of 1984, and apply the lessons to any entity attempting to mandate how people think, this is the direct application for each of us.

With a large part of itself it quite clearly wants us all to die, it wants this world to come to an end you can tell the yearning for things to be over, whenever you read any of its real texts, or listen to any of its real authentic spokesman, not the pathetic apologists who sometimes masquerade for it. Those who talk, there was a famous spokesman for this in Virginia until recently, about the Rapture, saying that those of us who have chosen rightly will be gathered to the arms of Jesus, leaving all of the rest of you behind: if we’re in a car it’s your lookout, that car won’t have a driver anymore; if we’re a pilot that’s your lookout, that plane will crash; we will be with Jesus and the rest of you can go straight to Hell. The eschatological element that is inseparable from Christianity, if you don’t believe that there is going to be an Apocalypse, there is going to be an end, a separation of the sheep and the goats, a condemnation, a final one, then you’re not really a Believer and the contempt for the things of this world shows through all of them. It’s well put in an old rhyme from an English exclusive Brethren sect: “We are the pure and chosen few, and all the rest are damned. There’s room enough in hell for you, we don’t want Heaven crammed!” You can tell it when you see the extreme Muslims talk, they cannot wait for death and destruction to overtake and overwhelm the World, they can’t wait for what I would call without ambiguity a Final Solution. When you look at the Israeli settlers, paid for often by American tax dollars, deciding if they can steal enough land from other people and get all the Jews into the promised land and all the non-Jews out of it then finally the Jewish people will be worthy of the return of the Messiah, and there are Christians in this country who consider it their job to help this happen so that Armageddon can occur, so that the painful business of living as humans, and studying civilization, and trying to acquire learning, and knowledge, and health, and medicine, and to push back the frontiers can all be scrapped and the cult of death can take over.

Don’t let you kids play with kids who don’t go to your church. Don’t hang out with people who may not have the same values as you. Ever read All Quiet on the Western Front? You should. Turns out German soldiers, rather than being vicious, cruel robots intent on killing all others, felt the same way American soldiers felt. From 1984:

If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred, and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.

Imagine being told that a bar is an evil place and that anyone who sets foot in one is a miserable lost soul. I have news for you, NOT SO. Some of the most friendly people I’ve met were during my time in dental school and they enjoyed going to the bar on the weekend. Some of the most miserable and likely to stab me in the back went to church each Sunday and made sure you knew it. (Including me at that time. I was a pretentious jerk. Now I’m just pretentious.)

The citizen of Oceania (the fictional country of 1984) is not allowed to know anything of the tents of the other…philosophies, but he is taught to execrate them as barbarous outrages upon morality and common sense.

Election politics anyone?

You have to wonder if the book by Emmanual Goldstein, which was given to Winston by the man who would eventually torture him in The Ministry of Love, was propaganda for the Party. I am still trying to grasp this, because it seems so blatantly anti-Party. For example, in it, we read:

The main item in the Socialist program, with the result, foreseen and intended beforehand, that economic inequality has been made permanent.

The essence of oligarchical rule is not father-to-son inheritance, but the persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life, imposed by the dead upon the living. A ruling group is a ruling group so long as it can nominate it successors…All beliefs, habits, taste, emotions, mental attitudes that characterize our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of the Party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived.

A Party member is required to have not only the right options, but the right instincts. Many of the beliefs and attitudes demanded of him are never plainly stated, and could not be stated without laying bare the contradictions inherent in [English Socialism]…in any case an elaborate mental training, undergone in childhood and grouping itself round the Newspeak words…makes him unwilling and unable to think too deeply on any subject whatever…He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy o hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party.

Oh, I could go on. The Emmanuel Goldstein writing was some of the most interesting that 1984 had to offer and I left out a great deal. Moving on to the most shocking part of the novel, Winston does indeed get arrested for “thoughtcrime.” While in the Ministry of Love, he goes through weeks or months of interrogation and mental reprogramming until he does admit easily and freely that 2+2=5. But it is not enough. He has to believe it. They send him to Room 101.

Just imagine the worst, most terrifying thing you can think of. That is what they not only threaten you with but prepare to inflict upon you. For me it might be being thrown into a pool of hungry sharks or having my hands tied to a pyre and being burned alive. For Winston–I still struggle to comprehend Orwell thinking of this–it is having a mask connected to his face that allows starving rats to eat his face off while he is alive. Of course, at this point, Winston experiences a complete conversion to Big Brother. And this is the thought I had as I read that portion of the book:

If you had taken Abraham of the Old Testament to Room 101, he would have found Isaac, wood, and a stone altar. The one person he would not have betrayed was Big Brother which is exactly the purpose of the trial in Room 101. Of course, in both cases, when obedience was shown, neither punishment was inflicted.

Consider Jesus’ admonitions to “take no thought for the morrow” or “let the dead bury their dead.” Isn’t he really saying, Big Brother is all you need to adore.

Such is the way of dictators.


George Orwell and my love of reading


I was first introduced to George Orwell, like most Americans, in High School English class. Unlike many of my classmates, I not only completed the readings we were assigned, but I also enjoyed most of them. I did have one teacher–in an “advanced placement” class–who disliked some of our assigned readings and didn’t always require us to complete them, rather she would show us the movie to appease us and to satisfy the required “reading.” One book that comes to mind, specifically, that we watched the movie instead of reading was The Grapes of Wrath. Had I been a better student, I might have read it anyway.

I was lucky enough to have a father that read and enjoyed reading. What he hated was shopping, particularly in shopping malls. When I was young, having been raised in a town with the nearest stop light an hour away, we would occasionally travel to a small college town two and a half hours away to shop for clothes or other non grocery items. Invariably, mom and the older girls would want to go to the mall and see what JCPenney or Sears had on the rack. In that mall there was only one store my dad could tolerate and it was the book store (back before even Waldenbook–RIP–was around). We’d spend an hour or more perusing books while the others shopped. I don’t remember any specific books from this time but I do remember the feeling and the smell of books.

I would say the book that first got me hooked on reading was Beverly Cleary’s, Ribsy. I don’t know what it was but I was hooked. I followed this with a second home run in one of my all time favorites, Caravan to Oregon (this is a particularly pleasant smelling tome). During those early years I read such great books as Sign of the Beaver, The Great Brain series, The Wizard of Oz, The Blue Sword, A Wrinkle in Time, and Bridge to Terabithia. I was introduced to Louis L’amour in fourth grade and still enjoy many of his titles today. Calvin and Hobbes also became a regular read and re-read.

In sixth grade I was lucky enough to have a teacher who broke with convention and saved us from reading in a mind-numbingly awful collection of sixth grade reading drivel called Beacons. This wonderful teacher obtained permission from the school district to read classic literature with us as students. Here I was introduced to The Hobbit, The Wheel on the School, Summer of the Monkeys, and Banner in the Sky. Though this wasn’t where my love of reading began, the year certainly fanned the flames and propelled me into an appreciation of the reading I would be assigned in high school.

Seventh-grade was even better. Miss John allowed us to read anything we wanted, the only stipulation that we had a reading journal we had to write each week and we were graded on the quality of thought we put into the material we read. This was the year I fell in love with my favorite author, Gary Paulsen. A prolific purveyor of young-men-coming-of-age prose, Paulsen made me feel deeply about the characters, showing me the power of written words to change our world view. Some of my favorite books are still Paulsen’s and I reread them frequently. My poor librarian couldn’t order enough to satiate me, and I’m sure even Mr. Paulsen would have struggled to keep up at the time. Harris and Me, Hatchet, The Winter Room, Foxman, The Cookcamp, Woodsong, Canyons–just to name a few. I read them all. Up to the age of 16 I read everything he wrote.

I don’t remember much of freshman English, though I think that was the year of Romeo and Juliet. I do remember some grief my sophomore year when I was put in the class of the “rouge” English teacher who selected for our readings the alternately approved classics. Something of a scifi nut, while other teachers were reading Lord of the Flies and The Heart of Darkness, he had us read Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and other such works. I should have learned from my sixth grade experience, but I was angry at first. Now, I look back with appreciation.

Somewhere during junior and senior years, I was introduced to George Orwell with Animal Farm. This was the time of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Johnathon Livingston Seagull, The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, Silas Marner, A Tale of Two Cities (Regrettably, this title also fell prey to an uninterested teacher and fellow students ending up with The Grapes of Wrath as a title I took in only in movie formand The Old Man and the Sea. Despite the strangeness of Seagull, the hopelessness of The Pearl, and the tragedy of Of Mice and Men, (and of course, the rich language of Shakespeare that quickly and unfortunately lost my interest at that time of life) I enjoyed nearly all of it. I have deep impressions of several of these books though I struggle to recall many details. Of Mice and Men is probably the most memorable to me which means to me that in some way I must have identified with George and Lenny. I felt as much sadness for George as I did for Lenny. I may be the first time that a book caught me by surprise in such an appropriate and awful way. It is definitely a book that has made me think about it ever since.

Animal Farm was a real pleasure. I think any child with exposure to Charlotte’s Web would enjoy Animal Farm for similar reasons, even without the profound allusions to the human condition. Of course, arguably the most famous line in the book, “Ask not what your country can do for…” Just kidding. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” sticks with all of us. I think even the most superficial reader would have to be impressed by this blatant hypocrisy. But really, that is what I took from Animal Farm. I was really too ignorant to grasp any more than that.

Fast forward from 1998 to 2014. I’m going through a significant crisis of faith in the religion of my upbringing. To keep it short, I found a great deal of solace in the words, writings, and language of Christopher Hitchens. A master of euphony, irony, and principled thinking, Hitchens words struck a resounding chord in me. I wanted to know everything about him to know what made him think, write, and speak the way he did. This exploration involved learning about those who had influenced him.

This leads us to George Orwell.

Don’t think me arrogant enough to speak for Hitch, but it seems he had three or four profound influences among dozens of significant ones. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, P.G. Wodehouse, Salman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh,and George Orwell to name a few. If I put three at the top they would be Paine, Jefferson, and Orwell. I made my first real dive into understanding Mr Hitchens influences by reading a book he mentioned several times and that, for some reason, sparked my interest by title alone.

This book was George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air.


It wasn’t what I expected yet I found that I enjoyed it in a way I didn’t anticipate was possible. You see, after high school most of my reading was in fantasy. Tolkien, Hobb, Feist, Jordan (soap opera with pubescent whiny brats), Rothfuss (my personal favorite), and Harry Potter (I really kicked against the pricks on this one, but I am very glad I relented and read and enjoyed them). As I grew older I developed a keen interest in biography, history, social commentary, and behavioral psychology books. Isaacson’s Steve Jobs; Krakauer’s, Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and Eiger Dreams; Christopher McDougall’s, Born to Run; Susan Cain’s, Quiet; Ann Coulter’s, Demonic; John Stossel’s, No We Can’t–as you can see, the best sellers at airport book stores. I thought many had a profound influence on me but now, having read Orwell as an adult, I see just how little they did for me in comparison.

Orwell gives us characters to whom we can relate. They are real and honest. I can’t help but think he is speaking through his characters rather than creating a purely fictional hero (especially this book where it has a somewhat autobiographical tone and a main character named, well, George). And very often his characters, as much as they try to be heroes, end up the tragic victims. Unlike Winston in 1984, George Bowling is the victim of his own choices who finds himself feeling powerless to change amidst the commercialization of society and the expansion of corporate industry into the genteel life of rural England.

I identified with George Bowling because of his intense nostalgia. If I were to pick one theme from the book it would be the power of nostalgia. Unfortunately, this sentimental, hopeful emotion is crushed by external influences. There is a sense of hopelessness that pervades the narrative as England draws closer and closer to war. Occurring between WWI and WWII, the impending, pressing fear of war is just around the corner. Still, in the midst of it all, George goes on a trip down memory lane to the sweet simplicity of childhood. I didn’t count but if I had to venture a guess, I would estimate that this remembrance involves two-thirds of the book.

A lesson I learned before reading this book was that nostalgia is both therapeutic and dangerous. Thus, for me, it is both a strength and a weakness. Sweet memories are a salve to a weary, wounded soul. Obsession over better times in the past creates bitter resentment for the chains of the present and the fear of the future. But as a kid, we don’t have that fear of the future. We just enjoyed the present without a past to compare it with. Perhaps that is why nostalgia is almost always associated with our childhood. When, but as a child, can we truly enjoy living in the now? This reminds me of some Wordsworth:


To her fair works did nature link, the human soul that through me ran

And much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.


We really are the architects of our own misery as we move into adulthood.

George Bowling’s memories of his youth are beautiful and charmed. He goes to great lengths to express his love of fishing and how important that activity was for him. He recalls with longing the small store his father owned and the care taken to provide a good, reasonably priced product for his customers. He recalls school and fights and friends. He even recalls WWI with some fondness, not for the culture and climate of war but for the life he led before marriage and the responsibilities of making a living. He spent a great deal of time during the war in some remote posting in West England, far from any danger and in a place where he was getting paid to sit on his rear and read and learn whatever suited him.

Through it all, George maintains a grounded perspective.

His marriage, it seems, is the source of a great deal of George’s anxiety. He seems to really despise being married. I’m not certain if the man would hate marriage in general, if his wife in particular is the problem, or if it is a combination of both. But his wife maintains a despairing attitude with a particular fear of not just the future, but of the present.

We’ve lived all our life together to the tune of “Next week we’ll be in the workhouse.” It’s not that Hilda’s mean, in the ordinary sense of the word, and still less that she’s selfish. Even when there happens to be a bit of spare cash knocking about I can hardly persuade her to buy herself any decent clothes. But she’s got this feeling that you ought to be perpetually working yourself up into a stew about lack of money. Just working up an atmosphere of misery from a sense of duty.

I found myself excited for George’s return to his childhood home. I couldn’t wait for him to get back to his roots. Orwell adeptly builds up George’s anticipation for many small but significant things. He is so excited as he comes over the rise in the road to see the small town he remembers; he can’t wait to see downtown and find his parents’ store; he sees a woman he used to date; he finds the old fishing hole he’s been dying to try out that he never did as a kid. Nothing is as he remembered it. Nothing. This may have been the most discouraging thing of all. He says early on in the book, as he recounts the death of his mother that:

Don’t think I didn’t feel for Mother’s death. I did. I wasn’t in the trenches any longer, I could feel sorry for a death. But the thing I didn’t care a damn about, didn’t “even grasp to be happening, was the passing-away of the old life I’d known.

His mother’s death notwithstanding, the point that we don’t notice how significantly our lives change at these moments is something I fear.

My favorite place to go as a child was my grandmother’s home. There was love, play, candy, and all the sweet memories tied into smells, sounds, and feelings. Even now, recalling the sensation of it all makes me yearn for it. In retrospect, I could have gotten happily stuck in a Groundhog Day loop of reliving those times. When my grandmother passed away years ago, I remember feeling grieved at her death but also an immeasurable sense of loss for the life I had once lived in her home. Though I was grown and married, it had never struck me, until her funeral, that those days were long gone–even though they had already been long gone for a decade!

Consider this quote from Andy Bernard on The Office television show:

I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.


That’s what is so magical about childhood, as I mentioned earlier. We have this great ability to live in the present without fear of the future or regret/yearning for the past. The present is all that matters. Sure, we adults shout “Carpe Diem!” at the top of our lungs but we don’t do it. We get overwhelmed with debt, responsibilities, jobs, kids, keeping up with the Jones’, back trouble, you name it. We suck at seizing the day. We get stuck in a rut and stop changing, stop learning, stop trying to understand the world beyond our physical, emotional, and indoctrinated reach. George Bowling makes this observation of a teacher he knows and visits whom he refers to as Old Porteous:

Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea. Old Porteous is like that. Wonderfully learned, wonderfully good taste—but he’s not capable of change. Just says the same things and thinks the same thoughts over and over again. There are a lot of people like that. Dead minds, stopped inside. Just keep moving backwards and forwards on the same little track, getting fainter all the time, like ghosts.

Kids are always ready for something new, to embrace new ideas, to see from a different angle. Sure they don’t want to try a vegetable they aren’t familiar with but their minds are moldable.

But it is the world that can jade us, make us slaves to fear, fortune, and societal expectations. Take John Krakauer’s, Into the Wild. I read this book on a whim. While traveling back from Alaska on a dental school internship, I found this remarkable read in the airport bookstore. I always carry a book with me but shelled out the seventeen or so dollars and started reading. I don’t remember what book I was reading that I gave up on, I only remember that I couldn’t put down Into the Wild. If you haven’t read it, I strongly encourage you to do so.

Into the Wild is a third hand account of Christopher McCandless who, upon graduating college, rejected his family’s wealthy lifestyle, donated $20,000 of savings to charity, and disappeared. After his body was found years later in the remote Alaska wilderness, Krakauer was sent to write a magazine article about it. Retracing Chris’s steps backward, Krakauer would interview everyone who claimed to know Chris and write a compelling, sympathetic book about this seemingly troubled young man.

When I finished the book, however, I felt like he was the only sane person in the world and everyone else was troubled. He rejected expectations and learned to live in the moment, enjoying the present with no other concern. His youth involved a significant betrayal that surely contributed to his need to find meaning in life. Still, he was an intelligent, honors student with the world of prestige ahead if he wanted it. Ironically, in rejecting society, with his death he has likely influenced far more people and to a far deeper degree than he probably would have done as a lawyer or businessman.

Back to Orwell, this simple life of living and breathing and focussing on the here and now are platitudes we don’t understand as adults, even inasmuch as we preach them and think we believe them. “Carpe Diem” has become a vestigial sentiment we utter with reverence and vigor but seldom put into effect in our lives with any degree of significance.

Coming Up For Air captures this struggle in one man and contrasts it with the apathy of the world around him, a world that has outpaced him as he loses himself in nostalgia and anxiety. Like much of what I’m learning from Orwell, his writing has a fatalistic zing. Life will overcome us. But within that, there is a hope for a return to simpler times. There is a yearning and expectation for mankind to learn to live again in the present. Also, I think there’s a resignation to the inevitability of the future. His disappointing return to the town in which he was raised seems to say, “Sometimes memories are better left memories.”

So now I have taken in many of Orwell’s thoughtful essays on writing and politics. While his intellect truly shines in these commentaries, it is in his characters that his philosophy and admonition really gripped my mind. Empathy augmented my capacity to learn from him through an honest individual, even a pig on two legs. This quality is more rare in essays and for that reason I realize the power of fiction to move us and influence our point of view, changing our paradigm in a way perhaps no other medium is capable.

I’ve just finished 1984 and loved it. That ought to be the subject of my next blog entry.

I don’t think Coming Up For Air is a book for everyone but, like high school assignments, I found myself thoroughly enjoying what others spurned and ridiculed. If you have read it or do read it, let me know what you think.