Where’s Walden?

Thoreau’s glorified camping trip at Walden pond has shaped the American imagination and perspective on writers. Of course, writers holed themselves away in order to write far from the madding crowd long before Thoreau. But Thoreau embodied the rigorous independence, the resistance to the unnecessary and contrived, and the love of solitude that are often elevated as fundamental virtues in the life of the American writer.

Writers are often outspoken in their Luddite leanings; their refusal to write on anything but typewriters; the fun they have, chopping their own wood in their private, forested compounds in Maine. Although we do have others “livestreaming” their novel-writing processes, or going gaga for Twitter, there is a surprisingly large population of writers who eschew technology and society. Why are these writing types so often so grumpy about reading books on fancy screens or typing poetry on a computer? Why would a writer move from Rome to the outer reaches of Scotland? Why does another recommend spaying your laptop? I can think of several reasons.

Writing takes concentration. This is so obvious, it hardly bears mentioning. Except, writing well doesn’t just take a room of one’s own: it takes titanic effort. Excellent writing is achieved by the best craftsmen-and-women of a language, with much sweat and tears.  Concentrating one’s whole attention and ability on a work is not something that is eased by having YouTube and Facebook open in other tabs. There is a consensus among a surprisingly large number of writers that to write on a computer with internet available is not to write – it is to procrastinate. The prospect of hard work makes us welcome any and every distraction, and those committed to a work they hope to be worth while need a certain austerity to sustain real concentration.

Writing takes silence. A writer needs to develop a unique style. Perhaps this is why so many writers are choosy about what they read, the way someone who believes “you are what you eat” is picky about food. Writers incorporate and are influenced by a variety of voices, but must develop their own cadence. So writers often find it necessary to plug their ears against our culture’s endless din. If our minds are indeed ‘blank slates’ in some Lockian way, it seems that everything – from billboards to pop-up adds to new hit singles – clamors to be inscribed on it. To attend to the work of their own minds, rather than to fill or occupy them with the work of others, is the task writers set before themselves. And all the world sets itself against this task. Is it any wonder that writers head for the hills? Provided those hills are scarcely populated?

Writing takes time. Though writers are known for sweating under deadlines, quality thought and quality expression take time. Good writing take unglamorous, excruciating revision and editing. Annie Dillard has quipped that she wishes writers still carved their thoughts with difficulty into clay tablets – she is appalled at the sheer number of unnecessary paragraphs published. “You’ve got to slow down, you’ve got to think,” Dillard argues – and  in this age of the tweet and the status update (and, yes, the blog), giving time and attention to the written word feels like a charming anachronism. It remains vital to writing that will last, however. Writers intuit this, or discover it, and must find a hiding place to do the long work of writing and rewriting.

It is an cultural given that we now have less space, less time, shorter attention spans than ever before. But America’s serious writers remind us (from their mountain cabins, via their typewriters) how necessary these threatened things are to writing well. Though the complexities of our technologically-enmeshed society are here to stay, writers seek a Walden away from such enmeshment for good reason: what larger culture views as a void to be filled (an empty stretch of highway, a vacant lot, down time, a quiet mind) is the natural habitat of creativity — and an endangered one. ‘

On Manners and Morality

I have a friend who rides the train once a week. Never has a train ride gone by without her having some new tale of hair-raising public impropriety: people have drunken fights, fondle one another, shout on their cell phones, and otherwise demonstrate blatant disregard for the most basic social mores. My temptation is to repudiate these people as bad. But are they just part of a new social order?

Morality and manners have been explicitly linked at least since Erasmus. He published “The Education of Children,” an early manual exclusively devoted to children’s manners, in 1530. He held that teaching children manners early was preparatory to their moral development, because manners offered an enacted experience of abiding by an external code of “right” and “wrong.” In Erasmus’ mind, manners and morality are analogous; manners mirror morality. Though manners govern a lower sphere than morality, a social gaffe transgresses a code that people in general ‘ought’ to abide by, just as a moral lapse does. Though the words of Ms. Manners hold no obvious similarity to the words of Jesus Christ, both instruct in attitudes and behaviors, both offer commandments and prohibitions with the accompanying relational rewards and punishments.

Of course, manners need not indicate morality; a well-mannered person may be morally bankrupt, just as a saint may not be sensitive to her faux-pas. Often, however, we extrapolate from visible niceties to ethical commitments. Jane Austen, for one, plays on this tendency in nearly all of her novels. Her heroines are forever being taken in by the charm of young men who are later discovered to be anything from inconsiderate roués (Frank Churchill) to near-villains (Mr. Willoughby). They are likewise ever ascribing vice (Pride? Prejudice?) to those who, like Mr. Darcy, do not smoothly navigate the intricacies of Edwardian etiquette. Their surprise is often ours too; appearances are deceiving. It is tempting to generalize from the external evidence we have to certainty about the inner motivations of another, however problematic this may be.

Modern manners, those of the Emily Post variety, gained strength during the social upheaval at the turn of the century, leading into the Great Depression. Suddenly, the well-bred could not distinguish themselves by their wealth – first thanks to the rise of the nouveau riche, then thanks to the stock market crash – and so they distinguished themselves by behaving as ladies and gentlemen. It is obvious that such tactics for maintaining social strata failed: the power of the dollar triumphed over the power of politeness, as the antics of the rich and famous daily remind us. A recent on article by Christine Rosen, on the blog delightfully titled “Everyday Virtues,” asks, a little wistfully, where embarrassment has gone.  It accurately identifies embarrassment as of a lower order than shame; there is nothing morally wrong, necessarily, with getting your teeth whitened in public, or getting into a shouting phone conversation on the train, but to those of us still sensitive to such things, these actions still feel like a breach of a kind.

Embarrassment, Rosen argues, expresses social solidarity, sensitivity to being a part of a group larger than oneself. And in this age of solipsism, where self-promotion is practically an imperative, it is a dying emotion.

Of course, this acceptance of the unacceptable signals, not just the death of old norms, but establishment of the new.  In the place of embarrassment for egregious action, there is cultural shift toward finding the finding of such things shameful as itself shameful. To critique anyone’s behaviour any longer is taboo in the way egregious behavior used to be. To express disapproval of – or even surprise at – another’s public behavior is now unthinkable in a way such extremes once were. So, perhaps embarrassment is alive and well, it has simply turned against anyone attempting to elicit it. And in that sense, embarrassment still provides the cultural glue it did once, it just holds us together in different (and less desirable) ways. ‘

Though we may fall, He has risen

Christ has risen. Easter has come. We have celebrated with church and feasting and games. Those of us who fasted have finished and are happily returning to our regular meals, and those other relishes that remind us of the bounty of the lives we have been given by God. As we return to normal time, it’s tempting to give up a meditative spirit as easily as we give up the privation which fostered it. Though we gladly leave behind a long dark 40 days for a renewed sense of Christ’s triumph, let us not forget the good of the fasting which whetted our appetite for the feast day.

One of the greatest gifts of Lenten fasting is that it intimately acquaints us with our limitations. I failed each one of my fasts repeatedly throughout Lent. Though I can only speak for myself, I doubt I was the only one who fell short of my own low bar. Such failure harkens back to failed New Years resolutions. Lent can make us give up trying to give up anything altogether. Lent can be another experience of inadequacy or failure. And, in a way, it’s meant to be.

The 40 days of Lent are reminiscent not only of Christ’s testing, but of Israel’s – not only of Christ’s shining moral triumph, but of the wandering tribes’ repeating moral failings. My Lenten experience was far closer to that of the faithless children of Israel than to that of the victorious Son of God, and this echo is not accidental. Where Israel failed, Christ was triumphant. Where we fall, he still stands. Lent confronts those of us who fail its rigors with our pervasive weakness, our inveterate inability to deny ourselves, to take up our cross. But even these confrontations with our own failure fit us to turn to him who denied himself unto death, even death on a cross.

Easter has come. We give up our mourning and turn to feasting. Where we fail, he has won. Where we succumb, he has overcome. Where we repeatedly fall, he has risen indeed. Glory be to God. ‘

Piped to pastures still

Lent is a time for Christians to give up what is good in order to be reminded of something better. Fasting and prayer are linked in Scripture, and it seems that fasting is a discipline which intensifies our prayers. It does so not because it makes us more holy to abstain from food, or purifies us of earthly desires, but because it creates a unique singularity of attention. Our time is not spent attending to our bodily needs in the way it is generally. This allows more time spent intentionally before the Lord. It fosters our relationship with God, because it gives we who have plenty an experience of neediness.

Our spiritual need, though undoubtedly our most dire, does not confront us with its demands the way the need for hunger or sleep will. Physical desires and needs are insistent and all-consuming when we do not attend to them; spiritual need is often experienced so subtlely as to go unfed for an entire lifetime. The God to whom we pray for our daily bread is also the God who nourishes our souls. Fasting creates a sense of dependency, a visceral experience of our own insufficiency. This fosters a felt understanding of our radical spiritual dependence on God. Fasting, like most disciplines, is a mode of self-teaching, of choosing certain behaviors and activities because they enforce to our somnolent selves the urgency and the reality of our relationship with God.

For most Protestants, “giving up” for Lent is viewed as a way to revamp forgotten New Year’s resolutions, or as an opportunity to give up what they shouldn’t be doing anyway. Fasting isn’t the same as dieting, though the two are often confused. Giving up treats or television is all very well, but Lent isn’t just an opportunity to break a habit. However much our fast may force us to attend to it – we can’t help but feel the tug of desire we are refusing – let us not forget that it is not about what we give up, but what we give it up for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Catholic priest intimately familiar with the self-denial of the Christian life, wrote a poem that movingly expresses this. “The Habit of Perfection” is a series of addresses to his senses, consoling them for their privation for the sake of greater attention to God. The life of the senses is so easily distracting. We are dazzled by data and allured by experience. Divine things are often less present and less compelling. But, as Hopkins reminds us, they are more worthy of our attention. It is often through the purposeful privation of the senses for a time that we are able to better sense our God:

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

Is there really room for another Austen remake? You bet your Pride and Prejudice!

Like clockwork, the BBC has come out with a television serial of Jane Austen’s classic, Emma. Weirdly, film adaptations of this particular novel seem to come in pairs: both Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed the eponymous heroine in 1996 — on British television and American movie theaters, respectively. This sated our hankering for a few years, but 2010 found us hungry for more: along with the British mini-series there is also, following in the footsteps of “Bride and Prejudice,” a Bollywood version of this story, “Aisha” in the works.

Surely the world could have survived without another depiction of the misguided Emma ensnaring herself and others in the convolutions of her well-intentioned but short-sighted matchmaking. There remains an audience for every new adaptation, however, no matter how similar it may seem to the multitude already in existence. Though this could be ascribed to Jane Austen’s being a more savory version of pulpy romance novels, or the pervasive cultural appetite for quantity over quality, I prefer to see it as evidence that Austen’s work bears repeated representation.

Austen’s attention to the microcosm of relationships within a small social sphere in 18th century England continues to entertain and instruct her many devoted fans. This is highlighted in Laura Linny’s introduction to each of the mini-series’ three segments, where she marvels (somewhat heavy-handedly) that Austen continues to compel without the magic or superpowers that we tend to prefer in entertainment; though, thanks to Seth Grahame-Smith, we don’t need to choose between them.

Austen bears further adaptation because no representation exhausts all that her sparkling wit and subtle satire has offered us — this is why Shakespeare’s plays can bear to be performed endlessly, and why we can read and reread Emily Dickenson’s poems. Classics reward repeated attention, and making a televised mini-series is one way of paying Austen the attention she merits. This particular adaptation proves my point well.

With Romola Garai as Emma, the image of Austen’s heroine as pert, pretty, and blonde is cemented, confirming the precedent of Paltrow and Alicia Silverstone. In fact, there is hardly an actress in the entire film who is not pert, pretty, and blonde, which can lead to confusion for those not well acquainted with the plot. Garai captures the carefree impetuosity of Austen’s Emma, which earlier adaptations have stifled in efforts to enforce her superior social status and lady-likeness: Paltrow’s stilted performance comes to mind. Though she might be indicted for overacting, Garai’s natural insouciance carries her through, and makes Emma’s good-natured blundering believable. She routinely talks — or, rather, fumes —  out loud to herself, a cinematic trick which works to convey Austen’s omniscient narration of Emma’s thoughts more seamlessly than a voice-over.

This adaptation is particularly strong in its use of cinematography to convey to the viewer the carefully crafted ambiguity of the scenes which embroil Emma in such confusion. For a viewer privy to the plot, this offers plenty of dramatic irony; for a viewer new to the story, it enforced Emma’s perspective. The ambiguity of glance, speech, and siltation makes Emma’s belief that Mr. Elton favors Harriet believable, though his preference for Emma is obvious for those who know to look for it. Later, when Emma looks on approvingly at the romantically feckless Harriet, who appears to her to be gazing with admiration on Mr. Churchhill, we see that she could also be looking at Mr. Knightly, whom viewers know to be the real object of Harriet’s affection.

This version succeeds in drawing out themes latent in the Austen’s text which are likely to be overlooked. It develops a poignant contrast between Emma Woodhouse, and the more peripheral characters Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Emma, though bereft of her mother at an early age, grew up in comfort and prosperity and is now the self-sufficient mistress of her father’s house. Both Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, likewise orphaned early, were forced to leave their homes and live as dependents on friends and relatives. We see the precariousness of their social positions, how they must ingratiate themselves to those irksome to them in order to maintain economic stability. The film conveys well how arbitrary the fortune of Austen’s characters is, how a death or a marriage in the family could force an individual into poverty or secure her material comfort. Though this version emphasizes Frank’s caddishness, we genuinely pity his plight.

Another theme unique to this adaptation is Emma’s chafing at her home-bound life. Her worrywart father, enjoyably and believably played by Michael Gambon, is tyrannical in his fear of the outside world, and throughout the film Emma wonders what she is missing by having never been away from Highbury. Her marriage to Mr. Knightly is an even sweeter conclusion in the film, thanks to this added subplot, when he surprises her with a honeymoon at the seaside, which she has never seen.

Though not accurate in every detail, this most recent version of Austen’s beloved novel manages to do what a good adaptation should. It adheres to the spirit of the text, teasing out themes which are likely to be overlooked and which were not explored in previous adaptations. It gives flesh to her characters in a way that allows the viewer to see them in a different light, to learn different things about them. Though it may be long and involved for someone not well-versed in the Austen canon, for a true fan, this most recent adaptation leaves nothing to be desired, and materially adds a new voice to the body of films already available. The BBC’s Emma is available for purchase online here. I encourage you to watch it, and allow a different perspective on the classic text to send you back to it better informed. ‘

A Killer in Captivity

The killer whale killing of this last Wednesday has received a lot press. Video footage of the trainer’s shocking death has gone viral, which hackers have used as a vehicle to spread actual viruses. This has aroused as much righteous indignation as the prurience which motivates millions of hits on videos of a violent end. The killer whale show is slated to resume, Seaworld CEO Jim Atchinson announced on Friday, but without any “in-water interaction” until 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau’s death has been thoroughly investigated.

Reminiscent of Roy’s (of Sigfried and Roy) debacle in 2003, it bears remembering that this whale does have the word “killer” in its name.  Even with creatures less overtly predatory, keeping huge animals confined for an audience’s thrills is an obvious problem. Though Sea World does not plan to kill Tilikum (the whale responsible for Brancheau’s death, as well as two others), neither do they have any plans to “Free Tili.”

The only surprise here is that we are still shocked each time wild animals, expected to perform like clockwork, don’t. In both the case of Roy’s slow recovery and Dawn’s legacy, the possibility that “the show will go on” is touted as a triumph of the human spirit, though it could equally be seen as a continued colonization of the animal spirit, and a lesson consistently disregarded.

Why these shows attract audiences is the first place is a good question. It is undeniable that they are astonishingly popular. Siegfried and Roy were Las Vegas superstars, and Shamu has merited a theme park. The majesty of wild animals is something we feel viscerally. Their elusiveness and their strength mesmerize. It is unsurprising that we like it when animals do tricks. Astonishing feats and entertaining shows will always attract an audience, and this is especially true when they are performed by animals without apparent higher cognitive abilities. But these are no dog and pony shows. The unique cocktail of awe at the majesty and power of large, undomesticated animals and the razzle-dazzle of watching them jump through hoops has made a great deal of money for those with the wherewithal to combine them. It is as if we are trying to reenact the spectacle of King Kong with live animals, from the comfort and safety of bleacher seats.

There will never cease to be a demand for entertainment. Particularly the entertainment of watching human beings make animals above them on the food chain do tricks for fish, or a pat on the head. It is a high wire act: breathtaking in the feat it accomplishes, always in the face of real and imminent danger. But when the danger is real because the wildness of an animal is real (and something enforced generationaly, cannot be trained out in a single animal’s lifespan), then it seems that the endangerment of life and of quality of life is not just a risk for the trainer. In the wake of Dawn’s death, her family and coworkers can take comfort in the fact that “she loved her job and was well aware of its dangers.” The same cannot be confidently ventured for the whale. ‘

Lenten Memory

The Lenten season begins today, though for most this is only noteworthy as a dimly remembered justification for a lot of shenanigans in New Orleans the night before. There is much good in such preparatory seasons, however, even for those of us whose lives are not shaped by the rhythms of a church calendar. Decorating the house for Christmas a month early (or three months early…) extends our enjoyment of the holiday, giving us temporal creatures more time to revel in the thing we love. The Christian calendar surrounds its major holidays with whole seasons — Christmas is traditionally twelve days long, and Easter Season lasts until Pentecost.

While it’s nice to know that advertisers were not the ones who invented long holidays, it is particularly probable that no marketing agency would ever come up with Lent. For Easter (and Passion Week as a whole), the Church has historically taken a different route of preparation than starting up the celebrations early. Lent is preparatory for the remembrance of Christ’s Resurrection because of its contrast to that fact of utmost joy, rather than its continuity with it. Lent is meant to be privative, the fast before the feast, a reminder of why we need God’s intervention in the world in the person of Jesus.

Depriving yourself of something is a good way of waking up to its importance. Skipping a meal makes you aware of your appetite far more than satisfying it would. Lent is a season that capitalizes on this principle. To return to the analogy of Christmas: it’s as if you were given one Christmas present for your entire life. Each year, rather than receiving a new one, you would re-open the old, commemorating when you first received it, and celebrating it again. There would be some counterintuitive wisdom in forgetting what it was you were going to get, or at least remembering what it was like before you received that one gift. Any anniversary is this way: we remind ourselves how glad we are for events which have occurred (births, weddings) and revel in them as if they were new again. Of course, experiences deepen over time. A fiftieth wedding anniversary should have a depth of meaning and experience that a fifth cannot — yet it is in remembering the wedding itself that we set aside time to appreciate the marriage presupposing it.

This doesn’t mean you should spend the month before your anniversary pretending to be single, or even trying to remember what life was like without your spouse. Neither should you hit your thumb with a hammer in order to reconnect with your digits. Lent is not about self-inflicted pain or forgetfulness of our security in Christ. It does recall that our salvation is not a “given,” but a free gift. It is a season of repentance, of giving up, so that we may better rejoice in and receive the fulfilled promise of Jesus’ Resurrection.

This Lenten season, spend time in the Old Testament. Remember how many promises went unfulfilled until the fullness of time. Feel for yourself, along with God’s people through history, the need for a mediator and a savior. Fast from something — remind yourself how little we deserve, and how much we have. Remember the poor. If you can, increase your giving — let your giving up be a giving toward someone who experiences want through all seasons. Lent is a season of remembrance, one brought about not by extended celebration but by protracted absence of it. Remember Proverbs 27:7: “He who is full loathes honey, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.” Don’t starve yourself this Lent, but don’t revel in the usual American over-abundance either. Allow yourself to go without the things you’ve come to expect. Don’t sate yourself so that you have no appetite for the sweetness of our celebrated salvation, when Easter comes. ‘

Our Avatars

I have not seen Avatar. I don’t plan on seeing it, either. Before the film fanatics stone me, know that I watch very few movies at all — much less movies that cost over 10 dollars to see. I don’t have much of a soft spot for SciFi, and — I have heard — though the visual affects are heavenly, the story line holds about as much water as a swiss cheese. I’m more interested in stories than effects, and, though I may be predetermining things, am fairly confident Avatar would prove a disappointment to me.

So why blog about something I haven’t seen? In the edition of our “33 Things” a couple of weeks back, we featured an insightful blogpost of Caleb Crane’s on the much-touted movie. He emphasizes the ruinous aim of the film to seduce us to stay in the Matrix, to use his analogy to the older (and, he argues, less problematic) film about alternate reality. Crane argues that the movie espouses “the church of Facebook,” redemption from the difficult, damaged world through living as a tall, blue Avatar in a virtual Eden.

His article is compelling, though I cannot speak as to its accuracy. It gave way to a more general observation for me that Cameron’s film is only symptomatic of a general cultural trend to embrace artificiality. In this sense, it doesn’t matter whether Crane is right about Cameron — he is right about Cameron’s ethos.

Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist, is famous for his espousing the concept of our existing in a “simulacrum.” Baudrillard asserted that, especially in a technologically advanced (enmeshed) society, we live in a “hyperreality” where we are unable to distinguish between reality and representation. Our representations have ceased even to refer to reality, but trap us in a self-contained unreality. Albeit a bit extreme (he identified Disneyland as a fake world we visited to make our own hyperreality seem authentic by contrast), Baudrillard has a point.

It was once true that play prepared for work. A play kitchen or a baby doll are ways for children to imitate their parents’ roles. But I doubt anyone (adults, mostly) addictively playing Farmville hope it will one day prepare them to own a farm of their own. I have never heard of anyone playing Second Life in order to live their first life better — and, at least from a time management standpoint, the more you play at the second, the likelier it is that your will grow worse at the first. Though this disconnect between real and virtual life means we do not in general need to fear harm from the people who play violent games like Grand Theft Auto or Halo, it is somewhat disconcerting that the amount of time we are “signed on” is spent in efforts that bear little fruit in our daily lives.

This is all old news, and we don’t just play games to send us back to reality, but to take a break from it, for leisure, sport, enjoyment. We have long known to temper the amount of time spent in other worlds, however.  We often forget that the novel was a disreputable thing until it was supplanted by greater evils. It was considered a fatuous waste of time on unreality. (Watt’s The Rise of the Novel chronicles its development into an art form from vulgar tell-alls.)

Now, we are desperate that people waste their time on things that require a modicum more imagination than television. This has resulting in the strange phenomenon of romance novels and fan fiction receiving cultural commendation. Of course, novels can be great masterpieces, as can films and video games. Interacting with other people online has its drawbacks over face-to-face engagement, but offers a wealth of opportunity for connections unavailable otherwise. Just because leisure is a break from the daily grind, however, does not mean it should be a break from our being self-critical, and self-controlled.

Baudrillard’s extreme warning continues to loom over the 13 hours a week the average person spends on the internet. Very little of what we do to entertain ourselves online or on our computers sends us back to reality better or more informed people. The sway of our having an avatar of our own, a persona with which we can navigate another and a simpler world — where our work is backed up and untouched until we want to go back to it — holds strong. And, if Baudrillard is to be believed, it holds thus to the detriment of our sense of reality. ‘

Was the Haitian disaster preventable?

The obvious response to this potentially offensive question is no. Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake, as straightforward an Act of Nature (or God, depending on who you ask) as one could find. The world is now rushing to relieve the overwhelming devastation this tiny country has suffered. Whether it needed be so large a catastrophe, however, is a real question.

Haiti was, in many ways, a disaster “waiting to happen.” Although a major earthquake will inevitably cause damage and endanger lives, no matter how stringent our building codes, part of the reason Haiti’s death toll is so disturbing is because the extremity of the loss was preventable.

Although the world moves quickly to aid Haiti now, much of the suffering presently plaguing the Haitians could have been avoided if their buildings had been sounder, if their government had been less corrupt, and if their county had been less rife with disease already.

It is not as if Haiti’s need has gone unacknowledged ere now. Much international aid and involvement has been available to them, though one cannot help but conclude that if aid had been more effectual before the earthquake, there would be less need of it now. This reminds us that our aid should be intelligent and infrastructural, not just earnest and palliative.

My intention in this post is not to point fingers or hypothesize what-ifs. Neither is it to indict world governments for not doing more to help stabilize nations wracked with poverty and disease, although there is no doubt a place for such adjuration. My desire is simply to draw attention to the places where the general population’s attention and help goes: it invariably goes to the most publicized and most dramatic need. This is, to some degree, inevitable, but it need not be the case to the degree that it is.

It seems inevitable: when there is disaster on the scale of the one still felt in Haiti, the world pays attention. Most concerned people want to offer immediate alleviation to immediate crisis — and this is as it should be. When people are dying daily of broken bones because there are not enough facilities or practitioners to operate before infection kills, and where people suffer greatly because they are without any sort of pain medication, not to mention potable water, the merciful and the just will seek to answer such obvious needs.

But let us remember, in light of Haiti, that there are world-over “powderkegs of poverty,” places where the lack of a news-commanding crisis allows the world’s attention to wander from need just as great, if less sensational.

Human trafficking and sex slavery persist world-over. Child soldiering continues, particularly in Africa. Poverty and disease are to be found in every place where there is human culture, as are unjust and faulty systems of government.

These problems are endemic. Though they are combatable, they often fall through the cracks of the average person’s attention–especially if we are not confronted with these tragedies personally. Even when we are, the theatrics of the pleas for money and the voyeuristic nature of media attention to a given issue can repel us even further from attending to such huge, persistent problems.

A natural disaster is more easily addressed than the intricacies of labor abuses, for instance, and it is easier to make a onetime donation to the Red Cross than to consistently buy fair-trade products. Systems of injustice and abuse are much harder to solve than an obvious physical need like a lack of medical supplies. They are also more difficult to remember, since they are always with us, enmeshed in the way the world works, not jarring like a hurricane or an earthquake.

But such problems are as pressing to the Christian desiring to “do unto the least of these” and to live in the light of Christ’s life-giving gospel. We who are adjured to do justly and love mercy and walk humbly are counseled to defend the orphan and the widow — I would suggest that this means those orphaned and widowed of the world’s attention as well, the overlooked tragedies. There are those whom disaster has never struck suddenly, but whom it has slowly sapped and crushed instead. These too need our aid and our attention and our prayers.

Give to Haiti. Give to those organizations that are either grass-roots enough (a group of local doctors flying in) or well established enough (find information here on appropriate, informed giving) that you may be confident your money will be used toward relief and reconstruction, and not lost in bureaucracy or misdirection. But as you do give to Haiti, consider researching and giving to help support a less present cause as well.

Consistently contributing to an AIDS orphan’s education or to Red Cross efforts worldover is something harder to remember when not reinforced by a media-blitz of attention to an explosive crisis. There are nations that sag under foreign debt, and people who daily go without food even in the United States. Let us not forget the orphans and the widows of the world whom major disaster and media coverage do not help us remember.

As you give to help an immediate and obvious need, consider giving to help develop infastructure or establish micro-loans in other instances of need. Let us, as we average people turn our attention to staunching Haiti’s decimating wounds through personal giving, not overlook opportunities to strengthen other nations by the same means, in hopes of working to proactively prevent such extreme disaster elsewhere. ‘

Delp’s Shaken Advent

Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest executed in 1945 by the Nazi government he resisted, managed to secretly write and publish a reflection on Advent shortly before he was hanged. His thoughts on Christmas have an urgency to them, a poignancy imbued by his imprisonment and imminent death. On this, the 12th day of Christmas, and the close of the Christmas season, we would do well to look back on it in light of Delp’s words of insight and challenge concerning Advent.

He writes, “I have a new and different understanding of God’s promise of redemption and release,” in light of his manacled hands and small cell. Delp wrote from great personal uncertainty to an audience who felt as though the world were ending. The world was at war, and Delp suggests that this is a consequence of human hubris. When his audience surely felt that all they needed was solid ground, Delp resoundingly disagrees: “There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to be genuinely shaken up.” He argues that many of the horrors of the second world war “would never have happened if we had been living in that movement and disquiet of the heart which results when we are faced with God, the Lord, and when we look clearly at things as they really are.” Delp, somewhat shockingly, blames a false belief in human sufficiency to save ourselves and to order the world for the regime under which he died. He views the Advent message as just the sort of shaking up the world always needs. Christ’s advent in the world is an extreme enforcement of our insufficiency: God became human because we humans cannot save ourselves.

To further illumine this point, Delp turns his attention to “characters in whom the Advent message and the Advent blessing simply exist and live, [calling out to us and touching us to cheer and shake us, to console and to uplift us,”] and pinpoints these as available in three “types”: the Angel of the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist.

The Angel of Annunciation, both to Zechariah and to Mary, represents to Delp the persistant promises of God. Unlike the heavenly host that appeared at Christ’s birth, his conception (as well as the conception of John the Baptist) was announced only to one person, alone. Delp knows the importance in uncertain times of relying on “the promises that are spoken” of God’s coming deliverance. We look forward in hope to God’s Kingdom, we rely on the received promises of restoration and resurrection to make sense of a broken world – these promises we hold to “assure and set upright again” when we could easily succumb to despair or worry. Delp also reminds his readers that those are assured themselves by the promises of the gospel can act as announcing angels themselves, can share their assurance in a future hope.

To acknowledge our current misery is little help, Delp says, unless there is some connection between God’s powerful compassion and our powerful need. The bridging of that gap is dramatized in the figure of Mary. Delp emphasizes that we not only have promise of the resoration of the earth, but walking evidence of it: “that there could be a woman walking the earth whose whomb was consecrated to be the holy temple and tabernacle of God – this is actually earth’s perfection and the fulfillment of its expectations. We do not only live in the hope of prophecy, but in light of its fulfillment. As Mary waited, gestated, so we wait for completion; as Mary actually brought forth, so we rejoice in what has already come to pass.

Perhaps Delp’s least expected figure, but of central importance to his vision of Advent, is that of John the Baptist. “Woe to an age when the voices of those who cry in the wilderness have fallen silent[…]” declares Delp. Delp argues that there are certain individuals “struck by the lightning of mission and vocation” who “summon us to our last chance, while already they felt the ground quaking and the rafters creaking [….]” There are certain people who are more attune to the times, more sensitive to pernicious influences and subtle betrayals. Delp warns that “we must not shrink from or suppress the earnest words of these crying voices, so that those who today are our executioners will not tomorrow become accusers because we have remained silent.” We should seek out and listen to the voices that critique our complacency, lest we grow comfortable in our abilities and our blessings, and forget that, even at the Advent of Christ, we are in a perilous time. We must always choose the power of God over the power of the world, though God’s kingdom is one of inversion.

Though we know the world did not end during the second world war, it seemed to those in it as if it might. We are in a time of similar uncertainty now on the world stage, and though our desire may be to build up our own security and turn our thoughts to other things as the new year begins, Delp demands that we live always in anticipation of promises yet to be fulfilled in the world as it shall be, in rememberance of promises answered in the world as it is, and in light of the spiritual urgency of belief in these promises. Delp wishes us all, not a merry Christmas, but a shaking one. ‘