Tuesday, June 5, 2012

an unchallenged life

When I was a kid, I went to a 'progressive' boarding school from the fourth to the eighth grade. The school lived on a farm that grew organic vegetables before that was fashionable, had a barn full of horses, a chicken coop, a root cellar and taught the kids how to ski, skate, ride, shoot and hike. I started learning how to type in the fourth grade. I took algebra in the eighth grade. My mother, when she visited, was appalled by my inability to spell very well.

One night, in the middle of the night, a bunch of us were rousted out of bed to go up to the barn and watch a sow giving birth to eight or nine or ten piglets. And two or three months later, when the piglets, and others like them, had turned into shoats and weighed perhaps 30-40 pounds apiece, three of us took it into our minds enter their large outdoor pen and play cowboy.

We were all ten or eleven and although we weren't especially thoughtful, still we were not malicious in our intent. We wanted some fun and lassoing pigs seemed as if it might be a fun thing to do. We brought rope and were determined to lasso pigs the way cowboys lassoed cattle. When we crossed the low barbed-wire fence into their enclosure, the pigs eyed us warily but without any particular fear. There was plenty of room in the enclosure for pigs and would-be cowboys.

But then we made our move, running and whooping and doing our ineffectual best to lasso our quarry. The pigs squealed and ran and we squealed and ran after them. The pigs -- perhaps 10 or 15 of them -- were faster than we had imagined, but we were determined not to be outdone. We ran and ran and occasionally threw our lassos, only to come up empty. The pigs were squealing and running away as fast as they could. They wanted to escape. We weren't about to let that happen.

And then....

One of us, I don't remember who, caught one of the pigs by a rear leg. And it was at that point that the pig which had been roped gave out a distinctly different squeal. It was high and distinct and contrasted with the squeals that had accompanied our unsuccessful chasings.

A single distinct squeal ... and the entire herd of pigs stopped running away from us. They stopped dead in their tracks and then, as one, turned to face us. And they charged. Suddenly it was we who were on the run, high-tailing it for the other side of the barbed wire where, when we barely made it, we stood puffing and astounded and afraid. Jeeeeesus! The sometimes-keeper-of-pigs had assumed that since they kept pigs, they were therefore somehow superior. The pigs, of course, taught us a lesson.

On Sunday, June 3, 2012, the Roman Catholic Pope, Benedict XVI, celebrated an outdoor Mass in Bresso, Italy, in front of a million, cheering participants during the seventh World Encounter of Families. Given the recent scandals at the Vatican and the mounting pieces of evidence around the world of priest sexual abuse and the Vatican policies that hid and protected the offenders, the Mass must have been a welcome relief to the pope.

But the evidence is mounting. Whether in court or on the Internet, individuals and groups have taken a stand against the long-hidden and vile depredations. So many children suffered. So many families were ripped to shreds. So much evil was committed under the banner of goodness and kindness and spiritual uplift. The chorus of the offended grows louder and the ability of the Vatican to shield itself from the outcry becomes more difficult. The pressure is mounting and with it, here and there, the church has revealed the steel fist beneath the velvet glove ... blaming the accusers, asserting its inviolate pre-eminence, laying down its laws in the face of a gathering storm. The church will not go quietly into this good night. It will not mourn or admit or apologize. It will maintain its stature and power ... and do all in its power to maintain its prestige.

I am not trying to equate Roman Catholics with pigs. I am trying to suggest that any institutionalized setting, from pigs to Vatican to moneyed interests to individuals will only accept so much of a challenge before it gives out that one piercing squeal and turns to confront its challenger ... and it's a no-fucking-around battle. Imagine -- a million cheering Catholics greeted the pope who is, when all is said and done, the very focus of the priest abuses ... and a million is not even the beginning of the support that exists and will continue to exist. The Vatican counts some 1.2 billion in worldwide membership. The irony of a million people supporting the World Encounter of Families while so many children and so many families have been chewed up and spit out is not an irony that many or even most Roman Catholics will consent to address. This is holy. Don't trouble me with details.

And it's hard not to think, in this regard, of the individuals who have decided to take up a spiritual effort ... something more disciplined and focused than simply reading books or mouthing prayers. Such a decision challenges a host of serious and perhaps institutionalized habits. And the challenge will only be allowed up to a point before the institutionalized self squeals that one, piercing squeal, and a herd of habits wheels and charges. Spiritual effort was supposed to make nice, was supposed to be compassionate, was supposed to offer relief and release ... but this challenge is serious. This is not some philosophical or religious Tinker Toy. Spiritual endeavor is not for sissies and, let's face it, we all have some sublime and powerful and squealing sissies within. And this battle is not philosophical or emotional plaything... this is a fight to the death.

The challenged institution: Was there ever such a one as did not rise up in righteous and self-protective wrath when pushed too far? Was there ever such a one as did not have a million supporting reasons, cheering and battling for the old and certain ways? Was there ever such a one who was unwilling to let others suffer so that this blessed institution would survive and flourish and look lovingly in the mirror? Was there ever such a one who was willing to release the treasures stored up over time ... shiny, golden, powerful, much-loved, socially-applauded treasure?

The failure to challenge Wall Street or the Vatican or the institutions of this mind is not just some morally or ethically unpalatable lapse. Of course the activists will always find something to tch-tch about when others do not agree with them and mount the bold barricades they have laid out. What others say is not so important. But what individuals say to themselves, how they measure the juice and jism of their own lives ... that is important. And to fail there is to die dissatisfied ... smothered by mediocrity.

I think it is best to mount the best challenges anyone might.

And don't be surprised if there are some serious, bare-knuckle surprises.

If you're going to fail, you might as well be a successful failure and not just mewl about easy and agreeable 'success.'

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