“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” Nuke LaLooch (played by Tim Robbins) in Ron Shelton’s screenplay for “Bull Durham”
Kim Crocker, a volunteer at the Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge near us, reported a tale that reminded me of the rule of fang and claw, talon, and blood. After an absence last year of any overwintering snowy owl at the refuge, this year we have two visitors, neither of them yet fully mature, but hardy enough to make the trek from the tundra. Snowy owls can live nine years in the wild and up to twenty-eight in captivity. Fully grown, they have a wingspan of close to five feet: beautiful, formidable hunters, and relentless predators.[i]
Mr. Crocker told me the ranger observed a Cooper’s hawk make a quick kill, probably a vole or field mouse. Raptors drive their long rear talons into their prey with great force from a dive, wrap their front talons securely around their food and begin to eat, often before their victim is dead. This hawk should have been more situationally aware when he grabbed his lunch. Almost as soon as he attacked, he was in turn struck by a snowy, and the predator became the prey with the added benefit of a vole for dessert. Full grown snowy owls have been observed at the refuge taking a full-grown Bufflehead, Eider or Surf Scoter[ii] right out of the surf and carrying them back to a shoreline rock for a leisurely meal.
Sometimes unforeseen trouble can drop on us with the swiftness of a raptor from the sky. One of the most disconcerting aspects of the last two years of COVID world was the vivid notice that we are not in control. And never have been. This is a valuable lesson.
Oh, we pretend like three-year-olds that if the Bogeyman comes out of the closet or from under the bed we can pull the covers over our head, cuddle our teddy bear, and be protected – that we can be in control, but at three o’clock in the morning on a sleepless night, we know that “the best laid plans o mice and men gang aft agley.” [iii] Now as adults our Bogeyman occasionally comes out from under the bed, and there is not a damn thing we can do about it when he shows up. We must learn to cope with him and muddle along.
Thus, we are not to be grieved that we don’t control even the most important potentialities of our lives: our health, our safety, or how long we will live on this planet.
“Give up the thought that you have control. You don’t. The best you can do is adapt, anticipate, be flexible, sense the environment and respond.” Frances Arnold, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Cal Tech
Our futile attempts at overcontrolling our lives, especially through government and politics, bring us division, frustration, distrust, anger, aggression, and ultimately despair. Our technological successes have deluded us into believing that all things eventually will be brought under our control. “The sociocultural formation of modernity turns out to be, in a way, doubly calibrated for the strategy of making the world controllable. We are structurally compelled (from without) and culturally driven (from within) to turn the world into a point of aggression. It appears to us as something to be known, exploited, attained, appropriated, mastered, and controlled. And often this is not just about bringing things – segments of the world – within reach, but about making them faster, easier, cheaper, more efficient, less resistant, more reliably controllable.”[iv]
Illusory control, then, in the end, is an obsession with self-gratification, for individuals and identity groups. For politicians and social media mavens. For the legions of media chattering heads who so want to reshape the culture in their image. All of this is in a context of a couple of generations of the un-enculturated who have been formed not by tradition or objective standards, but by a faith in self-fulfillment that is largely self-defined by individuals and identity groups. The self-definition is rooted not in classic precepts of freedom, but in the post-modern concept of license. We build precariously on a sandy and shifting foundation of false and malicious hope: we can be anything we want to be and behave any way we choose, most especially regarding sexuality, if we don’t infringe too badly on the other person’s fancy.
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell, ‘1984’
How do we find ourselves so confounded and unmoored? We want to control, but we cannot possibly.
We want to redefine our nature, but we cannot possibly. Far too large a topic for this modest post, but we can look at a corner of it. Cultures to persist and offer stable platforms for human flourishing must formally welcome adolescents into adulthood, must train, must recognize what is essential to its existence and never lose sight of forming the next generation in the principles upon which the culture rests. This instilling of the culture must include objective truths within which the next generation can conform with certainty and find their own context. This has been the case for humans so long as there have been humans.
Our culture neglected this basic principle, and to paraphrase Chesterton, when we cease to believe in something true, it is not that we believe in nothing, but that we will believe in anything. Such is our current state. One of the worst consequences of this is the neglected initiation of young men, prolonged adolescence into their thirties and beyond, and the enduring irresponsibility of too many young men, men without fathers, and men without passages of initiation.[v] These transitions are necessary not just to our culture, but to any culture, and we lost the thread in the latter part of the last century.
“Anchises’ son had halted, pondering on so much, and stood in pity for the souls’ hard lot.” Virgil, Book Six, the Aeneid
Richard Rohr researched this unhappy phenomenon in depth, investigated its roots and consequences in his book “Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation.” [vi] He discovered that male initiation is significant even in other species like elephants. [vii] The lack of fathers and the lack of proper initiation into manhood has devastated our society in easily foreseen ways. Rohr theorizes that rites of initiation existed in all societies and are necessary still, albeit in different forms. To help boys transition into men and inculcate in them the responsibilities of maturity in the tribe, the rites typically had five common factors, sometimes involving scarification or survival alone in the wilderness. It was always necessary that they learn these lessons, and although it is still necessary to learn for us, modernity teaches in many ways just the opposite from these:[viii]
- Life is hard.
- You are not important.
- Your life is not about you.
- You are not in control.
- You are going to die.
We grow wise when we understand that our lives are not ours alone, nor are we in control. We grow wise as Augustine did when we realize that to love and be loved is the fundamental longing of the human heart. We grow wise when we comprehend that the evil that seems all around us is not an adolescent comic book “Dark Side” force or a creature or a thing at all, but a lack, a privation, a missed chance. Just as dark is not a form of its own, but a lack of the good of light, and coldness is not a thing unto itself, but a privation of warmth, so too hatred, bitterness, loneliness, violence, fear, and existential disappointment are all an absence of Love. And it is for many a self-inflicted deprivation.
“The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.” Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
So, we must go out with joy to look for light where it can be found and delight in it. I was greatly heartened a couple of weeks ago when we walked another of our favorite local trails in Norman Bird Sanctuary. Along the way, we met a young earnest couple who were volunteering the afternoon of their day off cleaning out one small plot of Japanese knotweed, an aggressive invasive species that will crowd out native plants that provide food and shelter for the many birds and other wildlife that live there. They spent hours cutting and bagging the stems and dry foliage of the noxious pest. They took their time with laughter and good fellowship as they went, cutting and handling carefully so as not to disturb and scatter the seeds that will spread the weed. They cheerfully told us they will return another day to dig out the roots. No broad- spectrum damaging herbicides, just laborious, painstaking work.
The plot was about fifteen feet square. Out of 253 acres of the sanctuary. Why spend so much time, attention, and energy on such a tiny fraction of the land? A modest, difficult bit of work against such a bitter foe of the indigenous flora and fauna that we all enjoy and cherish is worth doing. Even if it does not solve the whole problem or change the micro ecosystem permanently, it changes us. If one understands that we’re not able to control every difficult challenge that comes along, that our life is about something greater than ourselves, and that we must do what we can, where and when we can, to improve, however humbly, our situation, this is a truth worth knowing.
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued. “Dust of Snow” Robert Frost
[iii] Gratuitous sidebar: Perhaps the most pernicious and dangerous assumption of the whole progressive project is the illusion that we are in control, and that human progress is linear and headed to an inevitable Omega point of perfection. If only we allow the elite technocrats that we anoint to take control, all will be well irrespective of all evidence so far to the contrary.
[v] “What is the single condition of a boy’s life that correlates most strongly with whether he will turn criminal? Not income, not by a long shot. It is whether he grew up in the same home with his father. Our prisons are full to bursting with fatherless boys who never became the men and fathers that God meant them to be. The collapse of the black family has been most catastrophic, and what is the result? What anyone not befuddled with feminist ideology would have predicted, from simple observation of nature and from the universal testimony of human cultures. One out of every three black men between the ages of twenty and thirty will spend time in prison. If we blame that on racism, then we had better explain why, in the days when blacks could not ride on certain seats in the bus and could not even play major league baseball, nowhere near as many of their men were in prison. Family, first and last—the family is where you learn of God and man, good and evil, courtesy, diligence, honor, chastity, self-restraint, and true courage. Give me poverty and the family as strong as iron and in one generation in America my family will be poor no longer. That is not speculation or boasting. It is the experience of millions of immigrants who came to the United States with nothing in their pockets, but with a great fund of moral capital; with faith in God, and firm loyalty to the family.”Anthony Esolen, “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture”
[vii] Elephants need fathers too. Rohr told of a true story about rogue young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa. They were about fifty orphans immigrated into the park to reestablish the herd and without fathers to train them. An 8’ tall creature with tusks can inflict serious damage. Which they did. Killed over fifty rhinos. The debate among the rangers was whether to euthanize the young thugs, castrate them, which would calm them down, or bring in some help. The adolescent elephants (between twelve and twenty) were in a perpetual state of “musth,” a constant flooding of reproductive hormones. This is normally tamped down by mature bull elephants in the herd that whack them around a bit and tell them to calm down. Knowing they cannot yet compete with a full-grown papa elephant, they do calm down and stop dribbling, spraying everything in sight, and acting out aggressively, which is rough on the rhinos. The rangers shipped in six mature bull elephants and within a day, the adolescents dropped out of musth, and not a single additional rhino was killed.