Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reflections on Individualism

Individualism, if not rugged individualism, is the publicly dominant theme of today’s American ethos.  It goes beyond the apparent popularity of the Tea Party movement with its “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Let Freedom Ring” placards.  There is a common grumbling attitude of “I’m not gonna let anyone tell me what to do” that seems to be prevalent among those over fifty and certainly over sixty, especially if they are white, middle class and up.  Combine that with an affection for limited government at all levels, a dislike of taxes for any purpose that does not have an immediate selfish benefit, and a sense that “I’ve worked hard for what I have, no thanks to anyone else, and no one is going to take it from me,” and you have a recipe for social chaos.  
Put enough of those people on a relatively small ship for a month and it becomes a fascinating experiment in social psychology.   For one thing, none of them seemed to be aware of the irony of boldly asserting their self-sufficient individualism while living in the womb of a ship dedicated to anticipating and serving their every need in abundance and to perfection.   I was struck by some, a relative few, who assumed the mantle of entitlement, and, like lords of the manor, engaged with staff as if they were their downstairs servants.  We were amused by the lady who complained that having spent so much money for the trip she did not expect it to rain.  Another person demanded that the ship be smoothed out in rough seas, which, obviously, this captain did not know how to do.  A couple we called the Teutonic Duo issued their daily orders for the improved management of everything.  Getting into the swing of things, I pulled out my Garmin and said that I must rush to the bridge to let the captain know where we were and where we were headed.  Apparently there was no humor in that.

A far greater number acted out their Tea Party independence in another way.  Many of our stops required tendering into shore one boat at a time.  The ship had a well designed process for doing that quickly and efficiently.  Each person going ashore was assigned a ticket for a specific tender.  As soon as that tender was available, the ticket number was called over the P.A. so that its passengers could make their way to the  gangway on a lower deck.  General announcements asked that everyone wait in the theater, lounge or other public space until their number was called, and above all not to congregate in the stairways leading to the gangway.  Simple, right?  Simple unless enough people decide that they will not be told what to do by anyone, hold themselves exempt from rules they don’t like, and are determined to assume a place of advantage over everyone else.  Then, with stairways and the gangway clogged, the entire process grinds to a slow crawl of unhappy old people complaining that the crew does not know what they are doing.  It all worked out, and later in the day, after a few drinks, most everyone was happy again.
I suspect that among a majority of passengers there was a blind unawareness of the complex infrastructure, logistical planning and management required to make it all happen.  For me, it had metaphorical application to society as a whole, and the complexity of systems needed for modern society to work at all, and for the privileged to enjoy their privileges (I include myself among the privileged).  That is particularly true for a republican democracy such as ours with its emphasis on private enterprise as the national pivot point.  Individualism, rugged or otherwise, has a certain value and should not be dismissed, but it must live alongside of an equally strong appreciation for the role of community and cooperation.  That seems to be missing.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ocean Reflections

Friends wondered about our sanity, spending more than a month at sea with many days far from any port or land.  We loved it, but it might not be for everybody.  We were never bored with the scenery.  The ocean never looked the same, it was always changing.  Sometimes it looked like great slabs of steel grey slate carefully laid down and shimmering in the diffused light of a cloudy day.  The great Pacific swells or violent waves of an approaching storm dominated other days.  In between it looked like a calm lake on a warm summer day.  It’s the same with the sky.  Because one can see from horizon to horizon in every direction, hours can go by just watching fronts, storms, and sunny skies come and go.  
Standing near the bow, I watched flying fish scuttle away.  I’m told they “fly” to escape predators, and we must have looked like the biggest one in the ocean.  Now and then a bird would fly by.  What amazed us were not the frigates or albatross, but the small white birds furiously flapping to maintain altitude a few inches above the waves, maybe several hundred miles from their tiny atoll home.  One morning a grey tern of some kind cuddled on the deck next to my chair and seemed satisfied to stay there as long as I kept a respectable distance.  Being a bird watcher but not a bird namer has its disadvantages.
Mornings began early and in solitude on the fantail in silent meditation led by the words of the Daily Office.  A mile or more on the deck later on, and a good workout in the gym in the afternoon, left plenty of time for reading, visiting and enjoying superb lectures from the resident anthropologist, a retired professor from Chico State. 
At home I tend to let sundown slip by almost unnoticed, which is a shame because less than ten minutes away we could be on the side of one of the foothills watching magnificent sunsets on a horizon more than sixty miles away.  At sea it is all but impossible to ignore it, and with it I found myself daily saying the Phos Hilaron:
O gracious Light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
and to be glorified through all the world. 
I supposed what we enjoyed the most was that time slowed down to a crawl, a very delicious crawl, and that’s not bad.  We’ve been home a week, a week that has gone by in a flash.  Time has resumed its normal speed.

Friday, October 29, 2010

It's Slanderous

Returning home from a long hiatus to the onslaught of twenty-four hour news and political advertising, I discovered that our local political races have become infected with the same vitriolic, hate filled, viciousness of the national political scene.  For instance, a race between two highly qualified candidates for sheriff, both of the same party, has been fouled by daily letters to the editor competing with each other for who can write the most disgusting, ill informed and unverified accusations about one candidate or the other.  
In a community filled with churches, and with the dominant conservative political ethos strongly identifying itself as Christian, I wonder if it would be well to reflect on a reading from Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach).   I realize that the standard Protestant bible doesn't include Ecclesiasticus, so I’ve copied it below. The following is taken from the 28th chapter.
Curse the gossips and the double-tongued, for they destroy the peace of many. Slander has shaken many, and scattered them from nation to nation; it has destroyed strong cities, and overturned the houses of the great. Slander has driven virtuous women from their homes, and deprived them of the fruit of their toil. Those who pay heed to slander will not find rest, nor will they settle down in peace. 
The blow of a whip raises a welt, but a blow of the tongue crushes the bones. Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not as many as have fallen because of the tongue. Happy is the one who is protected from it, who has not been exposed to its anger, who has not borne its yoke, and has not been bound with its fetters. For its yoke is a yoke of iron, and its fetters are fetters of bronze; its death is an evil death, and Hades is preferable to it... 
...As you fence in your property with thorns, so make a door and a bolt for your mouth. As you lock up your silver and gold, so make balances and scales for your words. Take care not to err with your tongue, and fall victim to one lying in wait. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

An Astonishing Discovery

In the heated, polarized and none too intelligent rhetoric of the midterm elections, the cry has been heard that we must return to the kind of government provided for in the Constitution and intended by the Founding Fathers: a limited government of limited powers.  That brought to mind a couple of questions.  How many of those who angrily call for a return to the Constitution have read the Constitution?  How many know that the Founding Fathers hotly debated the proposed Constitution: some were in favor and some strongly opposed it?  If those who desire that the intent of the Founding Fathers be honored mean the ones who favored the new Constitution, have they read what they wrote?

The pro Constitution party, the Federalists, found their voice through the Federalist Papers, a series of essays that were the cooperative effort of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay written in the two years running up to the ratification of the Constitution in 1789.  Most of us read about the Federalist Papers back in high school.  We probably even read portions of them if we majored in history or political science in college.  But reading all of them?  Boring!  So I took them with me on our trip.  What fascinating reading.  A bit tedious at times, but I was taken by two things.  First, they had a clear and very modern understanding of political psychology, and an almost Calvinistic faith in the ability of human beings to screw up a good thing through their selfish shortsightedness.  For that reason, what they envisioned to be the product of this new Constitution creating a republican form of democracy was a strong and active national government capable of enacting and enforcing laws for the general welfare of the nation as a whole as well as raising the necessary revenues to make that happen.  
Dealing, as they did, with the dominant issues of the day, they saw the new federal government being concerned mostly with national defense, international relations, trade,    and regulation of interstate commerce.  They viewed each of these realms in broad, flexible terms, but admitted that they could not foresee what other demands might come before the federal government in the future, and so intended it to be able to adapt its powers as needed to meet any contingency.  In other words, the advocates for the new Constitution did not envision the “limited government” that has become the shibboleth of today’s ultra-conservative political vocabulary. They envisioned a hearty, activist government operating within a Constitution that could and would allow it to confront the needs of the future, whatever they might be.
My local Tea Party types would be horrified if they knew that.  What is this country coming to if you can’t even trust the Founding Fathers?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Home from the Pacific

We are richly blessed in our retirement with the means and good health to travel to places only dreamed of in our youth.  A few days ago we came home from five weeks that took us into the Pacific from San Diego to Hawaii, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and back to San Diego.  
There were many questions from friends before we left.  How would we be able to stand 31 days at sea?  Why would we want to cruise around Hawaii when we spend weeks there every year anyway?  Are there not more interesting places to visit than obscure islands in the South Pacific?  But the most important question was: Are you going on a mission trip?  The quick answer was no, this would be purely a pleasure trip.  That didn’t turn out to be true, and I more fully realize that any trip is a mission trip.  I will have more to say about that in days to come.  The short of it is that the Christ we take with us, the Christ we exhibit, is the Christ that others will meet for good or for ill.  
That is true for all of us wherever we are and whatever we are doing, but it seems to have a special meaning when the word gets around in the closed society of shipboard life that you are clergy, and the word does get around.  Most of us are used to that and comfortable with it in our home communities.  A pastor new to town is generally given a year or so to figure out the way things work and where to fit in.  Books are written and workshops offered on how to do that.  The instantaneous but temporary month long community of a thousand other passengers is a study in social psychology unto itself with important spiritual dimensions.  There are no old timers, descendants of pioneer families, or an established social hierarchy.  Just the same, some version of it comes together rather quickly. That’s especially true when so many of our days together were at sea, and the places we visited were small.  Other cruises of shorter duration stop almost every day at another port, often well populated, with everyone going in separate directions.  There is not much time for a shipboard community to develop.  Not so for us.  We had lots of time.  More on that later.  

Suffice it to say we had a wonderful time and would do it again, except that there is more of the world we have not yet seen.