Thursday, April 24, 2014

the luxury of morality

A child embraces one of the 107 wooden crosses, which honor victims of recent protests in Ukraine, in Prague April 23, 2014. Pro-Ukrainian activists set up a symbolical graveyard to pay respect to the 107 people that died during Euromaidan protests.
REUTERS/David W Cerny
Two days ago a package addressed to my daughter was left on the porch. The package was perhaps 36x36 inches square and a couple of inches thick. Like all nosy-Parkers, I wondered what it was.

"It's a towel warmer," my daughter informed me matter-of-factly... a belated wedding present for her and her husband.

For those as ignorant as I, a towel warmer is precisely what its name suggests -- a gadget that will warm towels.

As I tried to ingest this brand new piece of information, I confess that a towel warmer sounded as if it belonged somewhere in the neighborhood of the designer-label toilet brush -- at once delicious, arrogant and pathetic in its bid to provide personal definition and station and comfort. Still, I suppose I am the owner of similar luxury items -- items I do not regard as luxuries at all ... comforting stuff.

Tonight, assuming I don't drop dead between now and then, I will attend a gathering/forum at which the topic will be the "moral injury" suffered by combat war veterans. And that's where the towel warmer kicked in in my mind: What a luxury morality is -- a comforting luxury... a designer-label toilet brush in one sense.

Some may say that morality is "what separates man from beast," but I am suspicious of that comforting and self-affirming observation, not least because man is an animal from the get-go. This is not a criticism. It's just a fact. But since human beings seem to enjoy gussying up the facts of their lives, I suppose morality is as good a towel-warmer as any.

A luxury is something that can be seen as frivolous and self-indulgent. It can also be seen as a blessing not to be ignored. As I gear up for the meeting tonight, I think morality falls into both categories.

Tonight's subject matter is the interior wounds suffered by men and women who have been in combat situations ... i.e. situations top-heavy with the matter of survival. Where survival is at play, morality becomes a towel-warmer to any save those who are disproportionately convinced in their self-affirmations: Mortal danger may make anyone wish their sense of right and wrong would serve them well, but whether it will or not is a complete crap shoot. Designer labels do not fare well when there is here-and-now work to be done.

There is a sense -- one I certainly would not insist on -- in which men and women who have faced life-and-death moments are lucky. The circumstances force them to do what any fortunate man or woman of good conscience might do at a less compelling speed -- rethink, revise, resee the morality that has been instilled up until that point.

Of the thirty or forty or fifty dictionaries on the Internet, I don't know of one that does not define morality as a social agreement about the nature of good and evil, right and wrong and the like. Each (wo)man grows up instilled with values that oil the social spectrum or, in the same breath, shred that social spectrum. Say "please" and "thank you;" be kind to others; don't steal; don't kill ... etc. etc. Adhering to agree-upon standards makes things a little less unpleasant. Failing to adhere can have painful consequences.

But in the midst of a combat situation, the luxury of morality, however it is parsed, is lost in the heat of the moment and those moments can be shattering. On later reflection, every shred of moral evidence ever ingested is thrown out. This is this. This is not a moment in which the standards set by others come into play. Survival is not for wimps.

In this realm, in the realm of the immediate and dangerous, the castles of morality -- of the agreeable standards that otherwise might guide the footsteps -- crumble. Suddenly a man or woman is no longer a comforted party in the family of man. S/he is an outcast, naked and alone. To say that the hounds of hell surround such a person is not hyperbole. There is no sweet-talking your way out of this one.

Such a situation, repeated over and over in combat, I imagine, can shred the soul... alone within, undefended, wildly uncertain, searching in vain for a life preserver or friend where all the life preservers and friends are suddenly absent. It is horror heaped upon horror. When hope and belief depart, what hope could there possibly be; what belief could possibly survive?

And yet as horrific as it all can be -- and I mean truly horrific -- still this is a world that any man or woman of good conscience must enter. At some point, while not always so terrifying as combat, doesn't each person reach a point where standing on someone else's feet simply is not good enough? Isn't there a need to revisit every building block of morality that ever existed -- to see, as for the first time, whether this is my choice?

Bit by bit and piece by piece, revisiting what was once ingested according to social agreement allows a human being to find his or her own footing. That footing may turn out to be precisely the footing that was ingested so long ago ... but there is a difference: Now this person is standing on his or her own two feet. Now there are no more doubts and no more compromises. Now, what is called "morality" by some, is simply a well-considered choice, one that can be revised as necessary. Now this skin fits the body.

Now there is room to be what a moral (wo)man always was: Happy.


  1. What separates man from beast is the arrogance of our opinion that we're different. At least that's my not humble opinion.

  2. It's always more moral to be consciously moral than to "choose" ethics because our gag reflex forced us to.

    --A survivor