Surveying the Abyss

Those who know me best have little doubt: I am irrepressibly optimistic. Not naive, mind you — at least from my perspective — but whether by personality, disposition, or faith, I am wont to believe the best about people, and circumstances, and the future. I drive my wife nuts, she being of a decidedly more pessimistic bent.

But I must confess of late to a recurring sense of foreboding, about a great many things. Now, prognosticating about the future is a fool’s game, to be sure; a review of most any futurist’s predictions invariable shows a predictive rate substantially less than could be had by tossing a coin.

But I do have eyes, and ears, and over half a century of something one less circumspect might call “wisdom” — and a sense of the spiritual sharpened mostly by ignoring its promptings, with the invariable consequences. Wisdom, as they say, is gained by experience — and experience is gained by lack of wisdom.

In a world which incessantly rips its cultural chords at rock-concert levels, it is no small feat to listen to the still, small voice — and harder yet to distinguish it from the countless seductive whispers and wishes of life long lived in self-gratification and indulgence. Yet that voice ever quiet is nevertheless persistent — and it seems to be speaking with an urgency and clarity which is hard to dispel.

We are standing, I sense, at the edge of an abyss — and the earth beneath our feet is shifting and unstable.

We live in a society saturated with information. The paradox of this spectacle is that we no longer possess the ability to integrate and evaluate the information which assaults us from every direction. One moment the news ticker at the bottom of the screen shows some mind-numbing drop in the stock market; the next moment, we are enthralled with some bitch queen trying to kick the shins of his lesbian competitor on Project Runway. The news media jumps from the crisis of the second to the latest Hollywood dalliance, and from there to some hopeless hyped hysteria about global warming or the health scare of the week, providing no sense of perspective about which of these might be the more important.

So it behooves us to stand back; to turn off the TV, shut down the browser, put down the paper, turn off talk radio, and truly listen — not to the screeching banshees with their banal hysteria, but rather to that inner source, be it spirit, or soul, or mind, or the wisdom acquired by life’s experiences.

Take a moment, if you will, for a brief look around, surveying our 21st-century world. Let yourself absorb the panoramic view, all 360 degrees, not averting your eyes at things which are unsettling or fear-provoking.

Glance first dead ahead: we are in the midst of a financial meltdown. Of course, there have been many financial crises in the past, many “Black Fridays”, where years of accumulated wealth have disappeared almost in the twinkling of an eye. Yet our current crisis seems different. The past 50 years in the West, particularly in America, have brought about an extraordinary increase in wealth. This increase has only accelerated, although with periodic painful retractions, as the speed and complexity of our financial systems has increased exponentially. Derivatives, globalization, computer-driven investing, complex financial instruments and securities, have greatly increased both the profitability and the instability of financial systems. Even those who should understand these complex financial instruments and systems can be blindsided — as they were in our current credit crisis.

Much like a complex computer software program, its programmers understand how it should work, and make assumptions about the parameters — which, when when fed unexpected values, leads to catastrophic failure. Our financial wizards lost the ability — or more likely never had it — to control for every eventuality, including those which could cause catastrophic economic failure. We stare in amazement that seemingly no one anticipated our meltdown in mortgage equities; but our hope in and expectations of “experts” will invariably be dashed as system complexity and instability increases.

So now, glancing around, we look to government to save this from the “greed” of Wall Street — although we have long celebrated Wall Street’s greed as long as our profits and portfolio values were rising. It’s Wall Street’s job to be greedy — we have demanded it of them. So we look to government institutions never designed to moderate or correct such lightspeed instability — and are angry when we find them unable to intelligently address this implosion. Even in a perfect world, our elected leaders would have no more wisdom or ability to correct a highly complex and increasingly unstable economic system, where events half a world away can send your nation’s economy reeling in ways you could never have anticipated.

And this is no perfect world, by any measure.

For years we have tolerated incompetence, corruption, dishonesty — and yes, greed — in government while looking the other way. On those rare occasions when politicians have made principled stands, we have rewarded them with a firestorm of political assault, full-throated media ridicule and criticism, and enormous financial pressure from lobbyists pouring money into the pockets of those who purport to represent the people. We have elected a government of the people, in the most literal and disgraceful sense: we have elected, and kept in office, those who share our desire for self-gratification and materialistic acquisition at the expense of character, moral integrity, honesty, and prudence. The cesspool which is our current Congress is what we have reaped by our own actions — or perhaps more accurately, by our inaction. We have elected those politicians who are like us in every way — and we hate them for it. They are, after all, created in our own image.

Glance a bit in another direction and you will find a host of unsolvable problems of a magnitude as great or greater than our current credit crisis. Social Security and Medicare roar down the tracks toward a washed-out bridge, with no engineer at the throttle; massive budget deficits balloon as we pour trillions into a war that no one seems interested in fighting; trillions more pour forth in political favors and pork designed to maintain our corrupt politicians in their unchallengeable congressional seats. $700 billion in bailouts will seem chump change when our bills for this fecklessness come due.

Glance yet again, and watch a presidential election wherein we seem poised to elect a candidate without portfolio, with a long history of association with corrupt political machine pols and leftist bomb throwers, including those both rhetorical and literal. This is the Messiah to whom we look for the solutions to our increasingly intractable problems, setting aside all rational thought for the opiate optimism which sees salvation in smooth words and sage assurances. Indeed, we seem eager and ready to bring to fruition the revolution of the 60’s: with clenched fists thrust skyward, the age of peace, free love, drugs, irresponsibility, and emotional feel-good policies is upon us, based not on experience nor any understanding of human frailty and corruption, but rather on a blind idealistic utopianism.

Then glance around the world, where the Russian bear roars menacingly; where Iran races to nuclear capability while diplomats twiddle and dither, driven by a religious fascism which glorifies death as they bow down to the false prophet; where an increasingly impotent Israel is surrounded and threatened by massing forces zealous for its destruction; where China pursues a massive military buildup as it eyes Taiwan and Southeast Asia; where Korea cranks out nukes and missiles, selling them to the world’s most wicked regimes; where Europe is ludicrous in its impotence, ever seeking our protection when desperate while hating us ever the more; where the sun has finally set on the British Empire, leaving only a pathetic pandering jester where a mighty force for civilization and law once stood; where a thousand failed states are seething cauldrons of violence, and poverty, and hatred, engendering transnational terrorists now empowered by the same technology we hope will save us. The world, like its financial systems, is extraordinarily unstable, with powerful centrifugal forces breaking apart even once proud and powerful nation-states. The parched, cracked grasses await but a spark to start an inferno.

Then glance at culture (if you can stomach it), where the decadent is celebrated, where the good is ridiculed, where the satyr is worshiped, where no pillar of tradition may stand nor bulwark of morality may endure. Our media promulgate not truth but narrative, not fact but fabrication, a fully empowered propaganda machine entirely co-opted by postmodern secular culture and messianic politics.

And yet, here we sit, watching on our flat screens in full HD the celebration of androgynous eunuchs in staged competitions about who can create the prettiest dress or redesign the penthouse of some satyrical single, who long ago decided that life was about getting laid, leaving the emotional, physical, and social tab for someone else to pay. These are the individuals we celebrate and elevate with our eyes, our time, our adulation, our admiration, our money.

The extraordinary instability in the world cannot long endure — and I fear we are ill-prepared in the extreme for the abyss which will follow. We have raised generations to believe they are entitled to ease, wealth, and prosperity; we have taught them through our easy divorces and casual shack-ups that commitment only lasts as long as it feels good, and that love is all about sex; we have failed to provide any framework of character, morality, integrity, and perseverance upon which to rest when all we have taken for granted — the wealth, the comfort, the false security, the easy irresponsibility — crumbles to the ground.

It is long past time to get back to basics — to faith, to church, to principles, to relationships, to integrity. We are, I believe, about to be tested in a most difficult and frightening way — a darkness the likes of which we have not seen before, and may never see again. The provocation may be known, or unknown, be it nuclear terrorism, or some yet-unseen financial collapse; a cataclysmic natural disaster; or a butterfly in some unknown location flapping its wings and setting off a chain reaction which ignites the world in conflagration.

Of course, such prognostications may well be wrong; perhaps naive optimism would be the better course and certainly more pleasant to entertain. But as for me, it is time to focus: to look hard at my spiritual, financial, and relational assumptions, to tune out far more of a chaotic and decaying culture, to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best, while asking God to shine his light of conviction on my life to purify and strengthen it, and hopefully grow in some measure of wisdom. It is time to simplify, to prepare, to fast, to pray, to repent. It is time to stop spending on the frivolous and start giving more generously.

If you are a person of faith, it is time to dig in, hard, and quit playing games — your life may depend on it. If you are skeptical of such matters, consider: upon what will you lean when your world collapses? Will your considered indifference and intellectual smugness about us fools of faith save you? What will you do when all that matters to you is taken, and you are left, finally, profoundly alone with naught but that frightened face in the mirror?

I have slept for too long, as have all of us. It is time to fill the lamps with oil lest they be found empty when the bridegroom arrives.

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30 thoughts on “Surveying the Abyss

  1. That was an excellent piece, Doc. I was brought here by a link from Van der Leun’s site.

    I would like to answer your questions, though:

    If you are skeptical of such matters, consider: upon what will you lean when your world collapses?

    I will lean upon that which I have always leaned upon: Me. I have to be enough.

    Will your considered indifference and intellectual smugness about us fools of faith save you?

    Wrong target, Doc, but I understand the impulse. Yes, I’m an atheist (small “a”), but I am not an anti-theist. I respect the beliefs of those who hold them, but I am unable to hold them myself. It is, perhaps, a fault in me, not you, and I accept that. I just don’t have whatever it is that faith in an almighty or almighties requires. Some of us are just like that.

    What will you do when all that matters to you is taken, and you are left, finally, profoundly alone with naught but that frightened face in the mirror?

    I will go on. I will trust my neighbors, but verify. I will work, and I will survive and provide for my family as best as I am able.

    Because, in the end, there’s nothing else to be done, faith or not.

  2. Doc – beautiful.

    Kevin – well said. I have long been frustrated by the assumption by both sides of the faith coin that the other side is the worst kind of fool.

  3. The common strand that I see running through all of this, the personal and communal dissipation and the terrible flimsiness of our mutual daily routines, is the shocking absence of strength. I believe every ache and worry you cite here can be chalked up to weaknesses that have wrecked previous standards of sound thought and quiet sanity for a long time. Not only for a long time but with exponential ferocity as you note. It is as if projecting any kind of certitude is an affront to society’s increasingly superfluous and frenetic “norms”.

    Strength of character, resilience of the family and the spirit, and common sense– these have all been on the losing side of an enduring battle with the feeble temptations and tangents you name here. I think that the darkness, paradoxically, arrives when enough of us have found the strength to move from despondency to battle the everyday losses of decency, at some uncomfortable personal cost. On a larger scale, pressing on with that fight will see us facing that abyss that cares not what choice we make.

    Thank you for what you write and its power to elicit good things.

  4. My wife and I joined the Catholic Church after the murder-by-starvation in Florida of Terry Schiavo and the passing of John Paul the Great. I agree with you, and you too, Webutante about the testing and the anxiety. ELC, I have also come across lines from Eliot’s Choruses. (The “She” is the Church.) “She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts. They constantly try to escape, From the darkness outisde and within, By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” And reading in Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural this: “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” I worry about the drops of blood drawn with the knife, and the vacuum suction device. Bumper sticker…? “Oppose slavery? Don’t own one.” (From The Witherspoon Institute. Sorry for the long comment.)

  5. Doc:
    A beautiful commentary on today’s world and its citizens.

    I will rely solely upon God’s words to direct my paths.

    Remember Psalms 118.8..”It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man”.

    Take care…

  6. Hi Doc,

    My first visit to your blog was a dire one! But they’re words that need to be heard…and as someone who has grown up in the abyss, surrounded by a glut of too much information, most of it contradictory, pointless, or obsolete within 24 hours, I have a glimmer of good news. One gets sick of it. One hears the incessant echoing and recognizes the emptiness. One learns, gradually, to tune it out or turn it off and listen, as you say, “to that inner source, be it spirit, or soul, or mind, or the wisdom acquired by life’s experiences.” And having done that, we begin the climb from the abyss. And I am still optimistic enough to believe that this is a capacity we all have.

  7. Hi Dr Bob,

    I’m pretty busy like you these days, so I can’t explain all this right now. So I will just say that I disagree in general with your mood and points in this post. Here are the bullets:

    1) Things aren’t as bad now as they were in the past. This is especially true globally. In many ways, its also true in the US culturally. And I say that with much the same value system as you, though I have a completely different life history.

    2) In many ways the stock market plunge is a corrective, rather than a problem. It causes short term pain, but its a positive thing long term.

    3) The general path of this country is positive – economically and socially. Bad things exist, but they are improving in many ways.

    4) On one point we may agree, and that is Obama would be a bad choice. But it is really only a bad choice if he both is more leftist than he says he is (probably true), and he rules that way, and he manages to shut down the democratic process enough to stay in power indefinitely (the loss of our republic). That would be very bad, but has a very low probability, IMHO.

    Some time I hope to have the time to explain some of these things. Though I disagree with the tone of much of your letter, I still appreciate having it to read and think about.

    Thanks for your efforts on these things.

    James

  8. Doc, I agree so much with your post that, despite being a person of faith–often a very deep faith–I am truly frightened for us all.

    Jerry quoted Psalm 118:8, which expresses exactly the position I have had toward those who run for office–especially for national offices–since the election campaign of 2004. Given that I am in my 60’s, I clearly am a slow learner, at times.

    I place no hope in either man running for President of the U.S.A. But one of them does frighten me far more than the other, in part, because the one has the backing of the larger, more loudly vocal party. Politicians in all parties, major or minor, lie to us, however.

    Is there no one who will run for office on his or her merits, addressing real issues with plans, projected costs and identifiable resources? Must everyone succomb to the garbage pit of anything-to-get-elected?

    We have come so far, not only from the Judeo-Christian ethics that were, for so long in this country, considered the standard (even tho’ we couldn’t live up to them), but even from the Aristotelian demand that those who dare to speak in the public forum be men of *ethos*. It seems none can be trusted simply to tell the truth. The half-truths, gross distortions and outright lies do not help us, at all. They are destructive.

    I am trying to remember that, no matter who is elected, God will still be God, and He is still the ultimate victor. But the spiritual battle that is being waged, of which we can see and hear only glimpses, does seem to be heating up, and I share more and more the terror felt by the prophet Daniel.

    I, too, want to have enough oil to keep my lamps trimmed, although I’m not clear on what that means, in practical terms. I just want to be obedient to the Lord, no matter what.

  9. All these problems stem from an increasing tolerance for distortion and outright lying that we can see now even (especially) in our children. Tolerating lies for so long has led to a populace that doesn’t even know that there is objective truth and increasingly divorced and (up to now) insulated from reality. Reality will now collect its dues with interest….

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