Saturday, March 5, 2011

Get over yourself

“Here I am, Lord; is it I, Lord, who was bringing up three very lovely girls?”

Up to that point, I’d been listening to the “Gather Hymnal Redux” parody with a mixture of amusement and concern. Mildly funny, okay, but didn’t this verge on blasphemy?

But until now—and I’m ashamed, ashamed! to admit it—I’d never heard the melodic similarity between “Here I Am” and the Brady Bunch theme. Now that I’d just been smacked in the face with it, I finally laughed. And when the crooner got to “We remember what you told us, that one time, And it was awesome and we should have wrote it down,” I was howling.

Now, this isn’t about just how wretched the Gather Hymnal is. Take it for granted—although, with my eclectic yet pedestrian tastes, I still retain some fondness for “Be Not Afraid”. (With the right arrangement, it would make a good song for Christian radio; it just sucks as a hymn.) Nor is this a kvetch about how badly Catholics sing, when you can get them to sing at all.

I’m just reflecting on this one exchange on Murphy Brown: One of the cast members snarls at Murphy, “It must be wonderful to know everything,” and Murphy grumps back, “No, it’s hell.” Levity is the pillow and blanket of the ignorant; We Who Know sleep on marble with concrete blocks for head and neck support.

All too often in my teen years, at the height of an argument with my “Irish twin” sister Peggy, she would yell in frustration, “You always have to be right!” Which never failed to puzzle me: why on earth would I want to be wrong? Moreover, if I see someone is in error, why should I wish them to leave them there, cheerfully blundering along with their false information until reality bites them in the six … or someone with less charity than I have takes note of it? Isn’t one of the spiritual works of mercy “to instruct the ignorant”?

Yeah, that’s the kind of insufferable smartass I was … and still am, to some extent.

The problem with being pegged as “bright” at an early age is that you have a tendency to take an inordinate pride in it. Okay, so your IQ says you know more bits of raw data than two-thirds of your fellow citizens; welcome to the “lucky sperm club”. There’s a heckuva lot more to being an admirable person than the ability to whip all your family and friends at Trivial Pursuit.

Being wrong isn’t the same as being an idiot. Intellectually, we all know that. God knows that Stephen Hawking is last person in the world who should be called an idiot, though his attempt to do away with God by invoking gravity and string theory was unfortunate. There is an art to charitably correcting someone without making them feel stupid. Someday I may finally learn how it’s done.

Writing opinions for a living—or, in my case, out of a sense of mission—is a gold-engraved parchment invitation to become a humorless, crashing bore. There are few people who can be interesting without effort; anyone can be a bore without trying. Major Randolph Churchill once said that his father Winston spent many hours working on his impromptu remarks.

Some writers get past that stage by being nasty. Really nasty. One of the reasons I’ve avoided reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great is because, whenever I’ve read one of his rants in the Slate, I’ve come away feeling like I’d been trapped for several minutes by the drunk at the end of the bar, who only interrupted his tirade long enough to barf on my shoes. Do I really want to read a whole book’s worth of that?

In some corners, the ability to craft memorably crushing zingers counts as being “lucid”. So you have writers and commentators who sneer, snarl, fleer, mock, scorn and snark … and people eat it up, because we all enjoy a nice slice of Schadenfreude now and again. But if you don’t particularly enjoy patronizing, acid-tongued jerks, what do you do?

Many people don’t take Chesterton’s writing seriously because it’s very amusing. I find Chesterton amusing as well; however, I don’t think that, in his whole career, he ever wrote a joke. He took his writing very seriously, which is the only reasonable explanation for why he wrote so much. It was himself he took lightly.

And that, I think, is the key.

At the end of the day, as Jack Warner said, a writer is “a schmuck with an Underwood” … or nowadays, a yutz with a Compaq desktop. With all due respect to Dr. Benjamin Wiker, it took more than fifteen idiots writing fifteen books to get us in our current mess; it took a whole helluva lot of other idiots who found them interesting enough to adopt them as guides to truth. So it’s gonna take a lot more than one above-average intellect writing a little-noticed blog to get us out of the mess.

In last month’s newsletter, my pastor reflected on the gloomy statistics about church attendance and membership, and ended with the wry comment, “Isn’t it a good thing to be a survivor, to be with the remnant of the faithful?”

I don’t know about that; I’d like to pull some more people out of the wreckage if I can. But it’s nice to know that it doesn’t all depend on me. So I can stop taking myself so seriously.

Because, as Fr. Dwight Longenecker has pointed out, it’s not enough to build a castle of righteousness around ourselves. It’s not enough for us castaways to huddle around the fire on our lonely little island, congratulating ourselves on our survival. It’s not enough for us to be right; we must get others to see the truth as well.

We don’t need to sound like know-it-alls to do that. Sometimes we just have to laugh at ourselves so we can be taken seriously.