A nice woman with Americans for Prosperity knocked on my door the other day and asked me to take part in a survey.
I was in my regular work uniform – sweatpants and a tee shirt – and my house was a mess, so I was a little embarrassed, and frankly, miffed, but we ended up having quite an interesting chat. I don’t think she expected a woman in sweats with a dirty house to have so many opinions.
She had the presidential election on her mind, and a check list in her hand, and she asked me which issue I’m “most concerned about” as election season approaches. I’m pretty sure she wanted me to say The Economy – she was with Americans for Prosperity, after all – but I said The Wars. Because I’m absolutely obsessed with The Wars. I just can’t wrap my brain around the fact that we’re still doing this in The Year of Our Lord 2023. It seems insane to me. And it feels like we’re all part of some mass illusion that The Wars are normal – that war, itself, is normal. And that, too, seems insane to me – though, of course, history would beg to differ.
In an effort to sleep at night – which I don’t much – I’m trying very hard to distract myself from The Wars. It’s not even that difficult. I mean, I live in America, right? And I have The Internet.
Last week, there were all those wonderful Facebook photos of darling children in their Halloween costumes. I had such fun scrolling through them… until I remembered the children of Ukraine. And Israel. And the children of Gaza.
Next thing you know, I’m off to the NY Times website, where I’m reading the following:
Dr. Hussam Abu Safyia, director of the pediatric ward at Kamal Adwan Hospital, where many of the casualties from the Jabaliya strikes were taken, said the majority of the people arriving were children. Many were severely burned or were missing limbs.”
… “The children’s screams during surgeries can be heard from outside,” Dr. Abu Safyia said. “We are operating on people’s skulls without anesthesia.”
Not to worry, though. A large, stylish ad for The Crown interrupted my reading right about there and distracted me but good. Did you know the final season starts next week? Yay! Another great distraction. I love the actress playing Diana now, even though she’s way too tall and towers over the guy playing Charles (who, by the way, is all wrong for his part). It’s uncanny how she glances up, and sideways, from beneath her amazing eyelashes. Was Diana being shy when she did that, or flirtatious? Maybe both.
Speaking of shy flirts – my daughter and her friends at Clemson have been watching The Golden Bachelor, starring a sensitive gentleman named Gary who’s quite good-looking but cries a lot. Amelia and I watched a few episodes together when she was home for Fall Break, and now she keeps me updated regularly during our morning phone calls.
I find every iteration of The Bachelor exceptionally silly and deeply embarrassing, and that goes double for The Golden Bachelor. I know lots of folks love the show – I’m in the minority on this – but I just think people over 60 should know better than to get involved with such nonsense. “Older and wiser.” I’m a stickler about that.
So, I am contemptuous of The Golden Bachelor. But I can’t wait for Amelia’s weekly updates! They’re so amusing. And distracting.
And then there’s The Fall of the House of Usher on Netflix. It’s loosely based – and I mean very loosely – on a collection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and directed by Mike Flanagan, the guy who did The Haunting of Hill House and several other modern horror classics.
The first episode of ‘Usher’ was so ridiculous I almost stopped watching, but I really needed the distraction, so I stuck with it. It’s ghoulish, lurid, heavy-handed in its moralizing about the evils of wealth – a bit galling, considering the source – but lavishly produced and intriguing ’til the bitter end. The creators couldn’t resist throwing gratuitous contemporary political references into the final episode – there’s even one about “standing in the middle of 5th Avenue and shooting somebody” – thus diminishing its artistic power and potential for healing divisions, but Hollywood always falls for that temptation to preach. Gotta make sure half the country ends up feeling riled and reactionary instead of edified and enlightened. Never fails.
Why do I even let this stuff get to me anymore?
Because thinking about our endless petty squabbles here in the US is easier than thinking about The Wars. It’s a distraction, I suppose.
David Brooks had a good column in the Times yesterday, in which he asked, “How do you stay mentally healthy and spiritually whole in brutalizing times? How do you prevent yourself from becoming embittered, hate-filled, calloused over, suspicious and desensitized?”
I devoured that column like a starving child who just found a Snickers bar on the sidewalk.
According to Brooks, “Ancient wisdom has a formula to help us, which you might call skepticism of the head and audacity of the heart.”
When I read that phrase – skepticism of the head and audacity of the heart – I couldn’t help thinking of Jesus’ words to his disciples, recorded in Matthew, as he sends them out to do God’s work. He tells them to be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.”
Easy for you to say, Lord. I always found that commandment somewhat difficult to parse and even harder to obey. And yet, I journey on, slithering on my belly, tiny wings flapping.
Brooks reminds us that “breakdowns into barbarism” are the historic norm – not the exception – and that we postmoderns shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing we’re too enlightened for hatred to take over the public sphere. If I was living under that illusion most of my life, the last decade or so has surely awakened me to reality. And The Wars have slapped me in the face for good measure.
Near the end of his column, Brooks sums things up, saying, “I’m trying to describe a dual sensibility — becoming a person who learns humility and prudence from the Athenian tradition, but also audacity, emotional openness and care from the Jerusalem tradition. Can a single person possess both traits? This was the question Max Weber asked in his classic essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’: ‘How can warm passion and a cool sense of proportion be forged together in one and the same soul?’”
It is this dual sensibility we must pursue, says Brooks, if we want to stay sane in these brutalizing times.
“It’s a hard challenge that most of us will fail at most of the time. But I think it’s the only practical and effective way to proceed in times like these,” he writes.
Good advice, no doubt. But David Brooks is much more high-minded than I am, and far more optimistic. For me, it all comes down to distraction.
I think Gary, The Golden Bachelor, is choosing his “Forever Love” next week. Can’t wait for my update! Maybe I’ll even tune in.