Suffering For, Suffering With

It’s Independence Day: a time to celebrate life and liberty in these United States. We are blessed, even in these strange days, with much of the country under some form of quarantine, protests in our streets and ugly politics blaring from every screen and speaker. God continues to guide us with His providence, though we cannot see His ends.

One of the things I love about the Catholic Church is her defense of meaning. For example, not everyone distinguishes between liberty—freedom to do the good—and license—freedom to do whatever you want. That’s an important distinction with real outcomes for society: A culture that espouses liberty believes in good and evil, and facilitates the good—but a culture that embraces license ultimately finds no common ground, no good to support—so what happens when what I want conflicts with what you want? Continue reading

Gaudium et Tremendum*

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”—G. K. Chesterton

We ended yesterday with a boat and a bonfire. The last of the sun turned the clouds baby blue and perfect pink, touched with fire, a cosmic nursery for the birth of stars; the moon a nursemaid all in white, smiling down. The firepit crackled and popped in greeting on our return to the dock; the sky turned purple, then navy and black; breath of spent oak mingled with pipe smoke and marshmallow; laughter and explosions of sound and color in the skies: blues and greens and purples and whites, red rosettes high above the trees to mark love of freedom and the birth of a nation.

At last the mosquitoes drive us indoors, brave descendants of saints and patriots that we are, fleeing from pinpricks and the whine of tiny wings! Homespun strawberry ice cream, jokes and laughter until at last sleep calls too loudly to ignore despite the din. Continue reading

Book Break: Captivity and Freedom

I recently completed two biographies of great Americans, set roughly two hundred years apart. Both books tell stories of oppression, resistance, and the struggle for freedom. Both are great books, in very different ways. I’ll offer a few quick thoughts on each, but in short: read them!

American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll
by Bradley J. Birzer

American Cicero tells the story of the bastard son of a wealthy colonist who is sent abroad for a Jesuit education, is formally named his father’s heir, and returns home to Maryland to become one of the early advocates for independence from Britain and one of the foremost shapers of the fledgling American republic. If you aren’t a history buff, you may not know (and if you aren’t a Roman Catholic, you may be surprised to learn) that in his day, Charles Carroll was well educated and capable (not to mention from the wealthiest family in the colonies) and could neither vote nor serve in public office — because of his “papist”tendencies and “Romish” influences. He is also portrayed as a devout Englishman who nevertheless saw independence as a necessary fresh start for the English constitution and English law, which were being usurped and corrupted by the government elected to uphold them.

Carroll initially took the public stage by writing under a pen name in the newspapers of his home colony of Maryland (the most anti-Catholic of the lot in his day), earned the trust and admiration of Washington, Franklin, and others among the founders, and outlived them all — and relatively few have heard his name. Here is a man who, with all his money, couldn’t buy a vote (and would never have tried); who advocated against democracy and in favor of a republic based on his reading of history and the times; and who drew on the ancient Greeks and Romans and his own faith tradition, as well as contemporary thinkers, to propose limits on the power of both the government and the “mob” in order to preserve those rights. In my review of Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church, I asked if the author’s apparent preference for the monarchies of old was personal, or somehow tied to the Church — I think you can begin to see a sensible philosophical connection here, in Carroll’s dismay at the more populist, democratic leanings of some of his contemporaries. (This is not your high school’s American history!)

The author is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies, Professor of History and Director of the Hillsdale College Program in American Studies,  and is also the author of  J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth. Birzer tells the story as much as possible though Carroll’s own public writings and private letters, and this is an academic history, so it is not a breezy read.  Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this relatively unsung Founding Father. I enjoyed Birzer’s ability to connect Carroll’s thinking to his education and core values.  This book is well worth the effort!

For additional perspective on the book and the author, check out this interview with Ignatius Insight.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand

This is a true-life tale of Gumpian proportions: a young misfit from a working-class Italian family (complete with a doting mother and an impeccable older brother) graduates from thieving prankster to Olympic track star and meets Hitler in the 1936 Olympics. A gifted athlete (on track to be the first man to break the four-minute mile) has his athletic career cut short by World War II and becomes a bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific Theater, surviving a temperamental plane, numerous missions, and long odds while enjoying the celebrity of being both an athlete and an airman. A World War II veteran endures weeks adrift in a life raft with two wounded comrades, battling starvation and dehydration, sharks, madness, and occasional strafing, only to come ashore in Japanese territory and become a prisoner of war. A POW is singled out by the Japanese for his celebrity and made to endure physical, mental, and emotional tortures for more than two years of captivity. A survivor of Japanese prison camps returns home and marries a vibrant, blue-blooded beauty despite warning signs that the war has taken a psychological toll.

Any one of these story lines could make a novel or a movie in itself — the fact that all of them really happened to one man is almost too much to be believed. Louis “Louie” Zamperini is still alive, 96 years old and active decades after he should have been dead so many times. He comes from an earlier time when track stars and airmen were celebrities, and, like Norman Borlaug, is an unsung Great American who should help us redefine “hero.”

Louis Zamperini

This is not a book for the young or faint of heart — the treatment of POWs by the Japanese is brutal and horrifying, and the book includes scenes of inhumanity you may not soon forget. In this respect, it called to mind two other books I wrote about not long ago — James Clavell’s Shogun and Shusako Endo’s Silence. I recall past conversations with previous generations about how veterans of the World Wars came home and went about their lives, but veterans of later wars began to report emotional scars and psychological impacts. The implication, in some of these conversations, was that men have softened — but Unbroken makes a distinction, based on historical data, between the mental health of POWs in the European theater and POWs in the Pacific theater. This led me to ponder whether, in wars with Eastern cultures, Westerners are encounter philosophies with such different rules (or no rules at all) that we are, in fact, ill-equipped to deal with them.

The author, Laura Hillenbrand, does great work writing a biography you can’t put down, with a level of historic detail that does not diminish the readability of the book, but lets you know that she did her homework. Internet evidence suggests Louie Zamperini’s story may soon become a movie. Don’t wait for the movie — you’ll miss the chance for a fresh read of an exceptional book.

The Good Life

Jodi and I were talking the other day about making peace with what we have. She’s wanted a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood with more children the age of ours; I would like a bigger vehicle (like a Suburban) and think an Airstream like my sister’s would be great fun. Instead, this winter we’ll shoehorn a fifth child into a three-bedroom, mid-80s split-level and well-used Chrysler minivan…and when we want to camp, we’ll break out the tent.

Have we settled? In some sense, I suppose – but this new baby was a mutual decision and something the entire family wants more than a new house or car. Materially, we are fine with what we have.

Some folks want the best of everything, and in a free country, they are free to pursue it. As for me personally: I want to be left alone, to pursue my own version of happiness. I want a close, loving family; a good community; the freedom to worship God in the way we see fit. I want to hunt and fish when I can, to brew beer and to bake sourdough and to accidentally blow up my garage or make myself sick in the process. And I don’t need anyone to guarantee my medical care. I don’t need state-of-the-art treatment or extraordinary measures – I need a doctor I can trust and the ability to say “when.”

On this Independence Day, it occurs to me how blessed we are. It’s a wonderful thing to live in a country where all of these things are still possible: where Jodi and I can raise a Catholic family; choose a fifth child and not care about the gender; and do what we want with our money, our free time, and our health. It seems as though these things are at risk; that, like General Motors and AIG, our government has become both dysfunctional and “too big to fail” – and that regular folks are rapidly becoming, not the end, but the means. So today, let’s thank God that we live where we do, but recommit ourselves to the safeguarding the freedoms we celebrate – not state-run stability (which seems laughable during the current budget stalemate) but the risk and reward of happiness defined, pursued, and attained by we the people, as we see fit.

Pre-Election Rant-A-Day 2: The Pursuit of Happiness

Blogger’s Note: I’ve been absent a long time, partly because I’ve been crazy busy this fall, and partly because I’ve had a terribly long and curmudgeonly blog post brewing in my head for months, and no time to write it. So I’ve settled on the “Rant-A-Day” format. My intention is to post a portion of the aforementioned terribly long and curmudgeonly blog post, in rant form, each day until the election, at which point (hopefully) they amount to something. The first Pre-Election Rant-A-Day is here.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

— The Declaration of Independence

Notice that the Founding Fathers didn’t simply say happiness, but the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is not a right. Happiness is not something the government can secure and guarantee for its citizens, because A) many of us have vastly different and very personal definitions of the word, and B) true happiness requires hard internal work.

No, we are not guaranteed happiness, only the pursuit of it — the opportunity to run it down, grasp it with both hands, and hold on to it if we can. Opportunity makes sense as an inalienable right — in fact, you might consider those first two inalienable rights as the necessary components for the third:

Life + Liberty = Opportunity

In other words (broadly speaking), if you are alive and free to act according to your own inclinations, you have opportunity — including the opportunity to define happiness for yourself and pursue it. Whether or not you actually achieve happiness depends primarily on your definition of happiness and the effort you put into it.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. “Life,” for example, might be taken from you altogether, or complicated by physical, mental, or emotional circumstances that limit the opportunities available to you. And personal liberty must necessarily be limited at the point that it begins to infringe on the liberty of others. As a result, the opportunities available to pursue happiness may differ from person to person. In some cases, this will appear not to be fair.

“It’s not fair.” Three MORE insidious words that could be our downfall.

Harkening back to yesterday’s rant: if I can’t take credit for the blessings I was given as a boy (a cohesive family, a rural middle-class upbringing, and a solid education) because these things came about more or less independently of me &#151 or if the criminal in jail cannot be held responsible for his broken home, bad neighborhood, etc. &#151 then both he and I are left with our choices. How did we play the hand we were dealt?

Maybe life isn’t fair, insofar as we can’t all be right, all win the race, all have exactly the same opportunities and likelihood of success. But we are all free to make the best of what we’re given. What else is there? None of us knows what tomorrow holds. How can we ensure happiness for all &#151 or make anyone happy &#151 other than giving people a chance to stand on their own two feet? To fall and fall and rise again?

The pursuit is ours &#151 the race is ours to run &#151 which is why, when French students shut down a city to protest changes to an entitlement they haven’t earned, I thank God I live here and not there…until I hear the chants outside: We demand more jobs for more people with better pay and higher benefits, but don’t raise revenue and don’t cut costs or services. More accountability. Less administration. No one should struggle. No one should prosper.

Bulldoze the mountains to fill the valleys. How’s the view now?

Life, liberty, and opportunity. This is our inheritance. We should settle for nothing less, but we are entitled to nothing more, unless we earn it. Booker T. Washington once said, “Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him and to let him know that you trust him.” Did you catch that? Responsibility is a self-affirming, confidence-boosting gift. It’s the optimistic expectation that you’ll take what you’ve been given and make something of it. It’s forward-looking, hopeful &#151 and in a free society, fair.

Blogger’s Post-Script: This is not to say that we should not lift up those around us who need a hand &#151 but that is another rant entirely.