Rational Fears

men at lunchFear comes in many forms. It also comes at many heights. This famous 1932 photograph shows eleven men—without safety harnesses—taking a lunch break during construction of the Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Simply looking at the picture of them leaning in various poses as they casually converse with one another is enough to send shivers up the spine of someone suffering from acrophobia.

I don’t personally have an “irrational fear of heights.” After all, I’ve enjoyed forays into the sky via the Eiffel Tower, the Tokyo Tower and the Space Needle in nearby Seattle. Still, I must confess that when I stand high above the earth on a piece of clear glass or acrylic that I do find it a bit disconcerting. It’s not as if I doubt the building is secure . . . but precisely what clear substance like that is worth trusting our lives to?

cracksIn fact, not long ago, a group of people were standing on just such a viewing panel when it began to crack. Two facts, it was new (opened in 2009) and it was on the 103rd floor of the Chicago building. The quaintly named “Ledge” was certified to 10,000 pounds, and it’s difficult to imagine the family standing on it, when it fractured, as exceeding that weight.

Let’s return for a moment to 1932. There’s a lesser known photo, taken the same day as the renowned image. It is even more disturbing. Check this out.

restThis shot was taken after the men had staged the lunch picture for the press. They were simply resting after eating, before returning to work.

Now, I appreciate rest as much as anyone, and far more than most. But, if I was on that steel girder, 840 feet above the pavement, I would be so hyper vigilant a tranquilizer dart couldn’t put me down.

That picture, frankly, scares me.

Fortunately, C.S. Lewis reminds us that there is nothing wrong with fear. Beyond sometimes protecting us from foolish risk-taking, the fear itself does not determine our reaction to it. In other words, a soldier can rightly be afraid on the battlefield, yet overcome that fear and do something heroic. Common men and women often surprise themselves when they overcome fear they might have thought would cripple them.

C.S. Lewis says it this way. “The act of cowardice is all that matters; the emotion of fear is, in itself, no sin” (The Screwtape Letters).

I’ve learned through the years that there is wisdom in learning about one’s own fears. Sometimes what we learn diminishes the fear. At other times, understanding our fears can prevent us from misattributing our emotions to another source.

For example, you might think you dislike a person who frequently invites you to share your thoughts with a group. When, in actuality, it might merely be your fear of public speaking, or your fear of having your ideas rejected that troubles you. Upon recognizing this, you might even grow to like the other person, seeing how they are confident that you have something of value to offer to the discussion.

Like every other fallen human being, I’m riddled with fears and buried under worries. It is beyond comprehension how God has manifested his love for us in his only begotten Son . . . truly we can cast all of our burdens onto his compassionate and willing shoulders.

In fact, it is during our darkest hours when, assailed by our personal terrors, we lean most upon his strength. Without a doubt, if severe unemployment has forced me to be one of those construction workers nearly a century ago, I would most definitely have been one praying man!

_____

P.S. – Oh, and if anyone is curious about the flask held by the construction worker on the right, I’m sure it only contained water and not some useless form of “liquid courage.”

Deadly Jobs

bad newsIt’s bad enough not liking your job . . . but being allergic to your chosen profession? That’s absolutely miserable.

And that’s what happened to one American journalist. Despite the myriads of new avenues for journalism, newspaper writing remains a primary context for the skill.

I actually earned my first degree in journalism. Editorial Journalism, via the University of Washington’s School of Communication. But I was never cut out to be a member of the Fourth Estate. (Ironically, I ended up belonging to the First Estate, but that’s another story.)

Journalism is a vocation important to the wellbeing of society. Good journalists are vital to society’s health. Those who spew vitriol, not so much.

Apparently a reporter for a Baltimore newspaper recently discovered—after thirty-eight years in the business, that he’s allergic to newspapers. Not their content, their composition. Specifically, he is allergic to pine resin which is used to make newsprint ink.

I assume he’s making a “quality of life” transition now to digital news sources.

Journalism is a broader field than many realize. Our first thought usually turns to newspaper “reporters.” We have often considered them to be objective relaters of events. Of course, complete objectivity is something that is beyond human grasp. Everyone approaches the “news” with their own biases and a worldview that shapes their perception of “facts.”

C.S. Lewis has a fun essay which touches on this. It’s called “Private Bates.”

We must get rid of our arrogant assumption that it is the masses who can be led by the nose. As far as I can make out, the shoe is on the other foot. The only people who are really the dupes of their favourite newspapers are the intelligentsia. It is they who read leading articles: the poor read the sporting news, which is mostly true.

I recall some debates back in my college days when others attempted to persuade me that objectivity was not only possible, it was the standard practice of reporters. That myth has long been exposed, and I try to be content with those who strive to be as fair as they can.

In a 1955 letter, C.S. Lewis is even more blunt than in the previously cited essay. He tells one of his regular correspondents, “I never read the papers. Why does anyone? They’re nearly all lies, and one has to wade thru’ such reams of verbiage and ‘write up’ to find out even what they’re saying.”

One reason journalism receives so little respect today is because people confuse reporting with editorializing. Reporting, of course, is just the facts. (Admittedly, even these are subjectively perceived.) Editorializing, on the other hand, is offering one’s unbridled opinion.

For the latter to masquerade as the former is criminal. But to accept the fact that honestly offered “opinion” is just that, is fine.

After all, one reason you’ve taken the time to read this post is because you appreciate reading gems from C.S. Lewis . . . and you don’t mind wading through the “opinionated” verbiage of this humble columnist to find it.

Lemming Legends

lemmingThe closest camaraderie I ever experienced in my life, was on the staff of the USAF Chaplain School. A sign of our esprit de corps was seen in the nicknames we gave one another. Mine was Lemming. (Not too dashing, I know, but read on and you’ll see why it was bestowed with affection and respect.)

Those of us who worked on “Air Staff” projects (for the Chief of Chaplains) were in the Resource Division. Probably because we were always rushing (scurrying?) around responding to emergencies, the other chaplains called us the “Resource Rats.” We were close indeed, and our energies and creativity was magnified by our synergy . . . just like the Inklings.

We embraced the label, and before we knew it each of us had been identified as a particular member of the rodent family. We had a rabbit, hamster, beaver, squirrel and fudged a bit with a ferret and a weasel. Among assorted other “rats,” I was nicknamed—you didn’t choose your identity, your friends awarded it to you—Lemming.

They called me Lemming because I had a unique duty on the team. One of my duties was to do a little bit of “ghostwriting” for the Chief of Chaplains. Some would consider it an honor, but trust me, due to the general for whom I wrote the first year, it was anything but.

Why a Lemming? Well, because whenever a tasking came down I would dutifully march off in obedience . . . even if it meant marching right off of a cliff. Like the humble Lemming, I accepted my fate, and made the best of it.

We all know their tragic story. When the Lemming burrows become overcrowded, a large number of them will sacrificially gather together and march to the sea. There, those who did not perish in catastrophic falls, nobly swim out to sea so that their relatives back in the warren can once again devote themselves to overpopulating their habitat.

I was proud of the appellation. I wore the name (literally, on the shirt logo pictured above) as a badge of honor. Until . . . until I discovered it was all based on a lie.

Lemmings, we have learned, do not suffer from periodic mass suicidal impulses. The common myth is based on an insidious 1958 “nature film” made by Disney. I have no idea why they would compromise their flawless reputation for scientific accuracy in their naturalist media, but in White Wilderness, they cast all integrity aside. (And now I know why C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were wary of the machinations and shadowy motives of Walt Disney Studios.)

With utter disregard to the reputation of these clever arctic creatures, the film showed (supposed) members of the Scandinavian clans eagerly casting themselves to their deaths. However, their bizarre behavior was manipulated by cinematic chicanery.

It turns out that not only did Disney pull the lemmings out of their normal habitat for filming—since they were too intelligent to voluntarily leap to their death, they were thrown off of the cliff from a modified turntable! Ghastly.

Learning that lemmings will not march knowingly (and stupidly) to their own demise has actually made me a bit prouder to bear the title. I mean, it’s one thing as a member of the armed forces to risk your life in the defense of your nation. It’s quite another to commit suicide because a general thought one of your commas was in the wrong place. But that’s a story for another day.

C.S. Lewis’ Bilingualism

csl bilingualHow many extremely intelligent and well educated people do you know . . . who can actually communicate with those of us possessing normal human intelligence?

That talent is a rarity.

And it is precisely what makes C.S. Lewis such an unusual man. He was brilliant. Yet he could communicate with the common person—even the child—just as easily as he conversed with his fellow university dons.

Lewis, of course, could comprehend a number of languages, so he was more than merely “bilingual.” But that is not exactly the sense in which I am using the word today. I mean it in the sense of my opening paragraphs. It is the ability to communicate (even with the same “language”) to distinctly different groups who would normally not be able to readily understand one another.

In an interview that appeared in Christianity Today, Detroit pastor Christopher Brooks was asked about the challenges of urban ministry.

How have you included both righteousness and justice in your setting?

I think about C.S. Lewis, who had the challenge of building the bridge between the culture of Oxford and Cambridge and the culture of the church. These cultures were worlds apart by his time, but he was bilingual, in a sense: able to speak the language of Oxford to the church and the language of the church to the intellectuals and naturalists.

One of the titles for ancient Roman priests that was adopted by their Christian successors is “pontifex.” It means “bridge-maker.” The Pontifex Maximus was, of course, referred to the greatest of these offices.

In light of Brooks’ words about Lewis as building bridges between elite academia and Christianity, I have added that dimension to my view of him. C.S. Lewis, Pontifex Maximus. (I doubt it would make him happy, so I’ll keep it under wraps . . . and probably never mention it again.) But I am genuinely happy about his skill in building these bridges of understanding.

Before signing off, a special treat. If you call someone who speaks two languages “bilingual,” and someone who speaks three “trilingual,” what do you call someone who only speaks one language? Why, an American, of course.

That joke would not be as funny if it were not so sadly true. While the rest of the world almost assumes that people know at least two languages, most Americans stumble their way through the study of a second language for two or three years and never develop a comfort level with it. But that’s a story for another day.

Civilized Savages

civilization-and-savageryWhat are the proper criteria for determining who is civilized? If you asked a score of people, you would probably end up with twenty different opinions.

In continuing my research about America’s first woman chaplain, I encountered an early American teaching resource that offered great insight into education during the early nineteenth century.

Some of it was quaint—“goats were made as profitable to the farmer as sheep.”

Some of it was insightful—“In America the Grecian architecture is prevailing, as it is better adapted than the Gothic to small buildings, and does not require splendid edifices to display its beauty.”

The text, Peter Parley’s Universal History, on the Basis of Geography, was used in schools and homes.

After finding confirmation of the point I was researching, I couldn’t resist skimming through the volume. Out of its myriad lessons, the one that got me thinking most seriously was a discussion of relative levels of civilization.

At the end of each lesson, several questions are posed. In this case:

Questions: What would you observe in traveling through other countries? What of people in a savage state? What of people in the barbarous state? What of people in the civilized state? What of people in the highest state of civilization?

Preceding these questions is the lesson proper, from which I now quote passages that correspond to the questions just listed.

In some countries the people live in huts built of mud or sticks, and subsist by hunting with bow and arrow. These are said to be in the savage state . . .

In some countries the people live in houses partly of stone and mud. They have few books, no churches or meeting-houses, and worship idols. . . . These are said to be in the barbarous state . . .

In some countries the inhabitants live in tolerable houses, and the rich have fine palaces. The people have many ingenious arts, but the schools are poor, and but a small portion are taught to read and write. . . . which may be called a civilized state.

In many parts of Europe, and in the United States, the people live in good houses; they have good furniture, many books, good schools, churches, meeting-houses, steamboats and railroads. These are in the highest state of civilization.

It appears that Peter Parley (the pseudonym of Samuel Griswold Goodrich) considered two factors to be the clearest measures of civilization—the quality of a society’s domiciles, and the access to learning and increase in literacy.

These are not inappropriate measures, although the latter dwarfs the former in significance.

I realize these lessons are intended for elementary education, so I don’t fault Goodrich for failing to address the subject from a more philosophical or mature angle. Nevertheless, I could not help wondering whether the societies that have attained the “highest state of civilization” are truly the least barbaric.

In some ways, the societies that have attained the loftiest technological levels might also be considered among the most savage.

I don’t have the time or inclination to pursue this thought any further in Mere Inkling, but I offer it to you. Some readers will agree that it merits reflections and others will consider it absurd.

Before moving on the Inklings, though, I wish to share a pertinent bit of wisdom from economist Thomas Sowell. “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

C.S. Lewis thought, and wrote, a great deal about civilization. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century there is a delightful remark, made in passing, that it is possible to retreat from civilization, once attained.

From the varied excellence of the fourteenth century to the work of the early sixteenth it is a history of decay; so that in turning from the Scotch poetry of the age to the English we pass from civilization to barbarism.

I end with a longer citation from C.S. Lewis which connects uniquely with the mindset with which Goodrich penned his textbook. Lewis also affirms true education, and the advancement of humanity towards that for which it was created, as the genuine mark of civilization.

One of the most dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century progressive optimism is the idea that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost. The normal state of humanity is barbarism, just as the normal surface of our planet is salt water. Land looms large in our imagination of the planet and civilization in our history books, only because sea and savagery are, to us, less interesting.

And if you press to know what I mean by civilization, I reply “Humanity,” by which I do not mean kindness so much as the realization of the human idea. Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end, and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes that potentiality for leisure, if you like for amateurishness, which is man’s prerogative.

You have noticed, I hope, that man is the only amateur animal; all the others are professionals. They have no leisure and do not desire it. When the cow has finished eating she chews the cud; when she has finished chewing she sleeps; when she has finished sleeping she eats again. She is a machine for turning grass into calves and milk—in other words, for producing more cows. The lion cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey. When God made the beasts dumb He saved the world from infinite boredom, for if they could speak they would all of them, all day, talk nothing but shop. (“Our English Syllabus”).

_____

An illustration from the book, which taught generations of Americans that the heirs of the Vikings were still a picturesque and virile people.

scandinavians

Really Creative Writing

father christmasWhen did you first learn how to express yourself creatively? Some of us were blessed with parents who recognized the importance of things like music, art and literature. Others, alas, were not.

Most readers of Mere Inkling like to dabble in writing themselves. Many are quite skilled, and disciplined enough to persist with the demanding task of regularly composing interesting pieces for their own online columns. Some, in fact, are quite accomplished and successful in their personal literary efforts.

Becoming a good, truly good, writer requires experience. One may be born with the innate ability to become a Shakespeare or a Hemingway, but the skills need to be sharpened through effort. Study often helps, but it can never replace the necessity of practice in honing our writing.

It seems to me that the sooner we begin the process of unbridling our imaginations, translating our visions into words, and writing it all down in a way that engages the imaginings of others, the better we can become.

Many of you, especially Europeans, will be familiar with a gaming product that arose in the United Kingdom. They are called Top Trumps, and the cards come in a wide variety of themes. One set that I own is Narnia, from which the image at the top of this page comes.

Tolkien fans will be delighted to learn they just reissued a Lord of the Rings set that comes in an amazing Eye of Sauron tin. You can learn more about that unique item here.

It was while thinking about my Narnia cards when I got the idea to see if there was an online mechanism for making one’s own playing cards. I was toying with the idea of fashioning a C.S. Lewis card to illustrate one of my posts.

I was actually searching online for a site where I could “create” such a card. I found several. Only later did I consider the irony of using that particular word.

For theologians, the word create bears profound significance. When it comes to the human activity of bringing together in some novel shape pre-existing images or ideas, it is not truly accurate. Lewis wrote about that in a 1943 letter to Sister Penelope.

‘Creation’ as applied to human authorship . . . seems to me an entirely misleading term. We . . . re-arrange elements He has provided. There is not a vestige of real creativity de novo in us. Try to imagine a new primary colour, a third sex, a fourth dimension, or even a monster which does not consist of bits of existing animals stuck together! Nothing happens.

And that surely is why our works (as you said) never mean to others quite what we intended: because we are re-combining elements made by Him and already containing His meanings. Because of those divine meanings in our materials it is impossible we should ever know the whole meaning of our own works, and the meaning we never intended may be the best and truest one.

Writing a book is much less like creation than it is like planting a garden or begetting a child: in all three cases we are only entering as one cause into a causal stream which works, so to speak, in its own way. I would not wish it to be otherwise.

Still, even though we are not true “creators,” it is enjoyable to rearrange the mundane elements (or words) of this life in fresh ways.

That’s one reason I was pleased to discover a website devoted to offering a “Trading Card Creator” hosted by the International Reading Association. It “gives students an alternative way to demonstrate their literacy knowledge and skill when writing about popular culture texts or real world examples.”
Why didn’t they have cool stuff like this when I was growing up? (If they did, I might be able to express myself better than by having to rely on phrases like “cool stuff.”)

Below you will find their website, along with a second option. I was thinking that my grandchildren might find it interesting to create a set of cards about our family tree. Their own sketches could be used for ancestors for whom we have no photograph. The comprehensive trading card creator maker offers a variety of templates, including for people, places, events and objects.

The template offered by the second site is generic enough that the cards can be produced in similar categories.

Unleash your imagination. And, after you’ve had some fun, consider sharing these links with a child you may know.

ReadWriteThink Trading Cards

Big Huge Labs Trading Cards

C.S. Lewis Card 3C.S. Lewis Card 2C.S. Lewis Card 1C.S. Lewis Card 4

Titles You Don’t Want

 

eyechartThe world’s oldest man just died—and I’m not looking forward to ever becoming one of his successors. I mean, I understand the sentiments of non-Christians who quip that any day on this side of the grass is a good one, but I would only be interested in staying around here that long if I still had a keen mind and good health.

I’m not sure most of the people who eventually earn those titles have either. This gentleman was 111, and in the picture of him receiving his Guinness certificate, he actually looks like he had already expired. I mean, no offense, just a statement of simple fact.

As for his state of mind, I’m a bit more optimistic. Apparently when asked a while ago how he had lived so long, he responded, “because I haven’t died yet.” Assuming that was tongue in cheek (I recognize that is merely an assumption), he had retained his sense of humor. A good sign.

I don’t think ultra-long longevity is all it’s cracked up to be. I remember my 92 year old grandmother (my only relative who lived to be “elderly”) telling me that she was ready to go to heaven. She was in a nursing home, but not in pain, and still witty.

She said, “Robbie, I’ll miss you and everyone who is still here, but if you live long enough, more of the people you love are already in heaven than remaining here.” She had been widowed for three decades. And, unbeknownst to us at the time, three of her four children would follow her within three years of her own passing.

I am not eager to die, of course. And, unlike Polycarp, the bishop of second-century Smyrna, I’m certainly not zealous about the possibility of someday being martyred.

Still, God-willing, when I’ve come to the end of my appointed days I will make that transition peacefully, as is appropriate for a child of God who has been blessed with a full life.

When death is seen as a dark end—a soundless void—it’s understandable that many would resist it to the “bitter” end. That theme has been common in literature and cinema.

In a comic light, a character on Parks and Recreation exhibits the desire to live as long as humanly possible. He exercises without pause and takes every vitamin that exists in horse-pill doses. Soon after Chris Traeger was introduced to the show, he shared his view of life:

I take care of my body above all else. Diet, exercise, supplements, positive thinking. Scientists believe that the first human being who will live 150 years has already been born. I believe I am that human being.

Humorous. And, a respectable goal perhaps, if not driven by deep fear.

I don’t share Traeger’s goal of being the first human to reach 150. Nor, as we considered at the outset of our discussion, do I long to gain the title of World’s Oldest Man.

And I take comfort that I find myself, once again, in the comfortable camp of C.S. Lewis. In his essay “Is Progress Possible?” Lewis wrote:

Progress means movement in a desired direction, and we do not all desire the same things for our species. In “Possible Worlds” Professor Haldane pictured a future in which Man, foreseeing that Earth would soon be uninhabitable, adapted himself for migration to Venus by drastically modifying his physiology and abandoning justice, pity and happiness.

The desire here is for mere survival. Now I care far more how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing goodness and happiness of individual lives. For the species, as for each man, mere longevity seems to me a contemptible ideal.

More important, we believe, is the quality than the quantity, of our lives.