Diagnosing the Pandemic Conspiracy Theories

People are trying to sort through conflicting information on the coronavirus pandemic. How did the virus originate? How serious is it? What is the best treatment? How long should lock-downs continue? Should we encourage herd immunity or keep flattening the curve with stay-at-home orders? How likely is it that we will be able to develop a safe, effective vaccine?

I’ve never claimed to have all the answers, but I believe we should be allowed to ask these questions. Intellectual freedom starts to die and groupthink becomes the only option when you’re not allowed to ask questions.

Here’s another question we should be asking: Why are so many people willing to entertain ideas that others dub “conspiracy theories” regarding the pandemic?

I don’t think it’s because we’re stupid or uneducated. Some people seem to be suggesting that we all just turn off our own brains and do whatever the “experts” advise. (Because the experts have never been wrong before, right?)

I believe it stems from a fundamental loss of faith in our democracy.

In the last thirty years, an enormous gulf has opened up between the common people and the elites. Globalization has created winners and losers, with the winners moving to insulate themselves from the effects of their own policies (for example, by moving to privileged enclaves where communities and institutions still function), leaving the rest of us feeling unprotected. The biggest losers of globalization (whites without a college degree) responded to this perceived divide by voting for Trump in 2016.

Globalization has been a mixed bag of costs and benefits, but any way you spin it, it does pose a challenge to democracy. How can a people make decisions for itself (one definition of democracy) when the old borders between nations and economies have eroded?

During the Cold War we knew who the enemy was, even if our perception of the enemy often resembled a cardboard villain. Now the children of American politicians sit on the boards of energy companies in Ukraine, giving the appearance of corruption.

While the Internet has seemingly increased access to information, it has also resulted in a new kind of inequality: Facebook, Google, and YouTube (which is owned by Google) now have the power to kill a story by taking it down or bury it within their algorithms to minimize views.

Then there’s the classic case of FOLLOW THE MONEY.

We are told that profit is the only way to motivate people to innovate. So we allow pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers to make billions of dollars treating diseases.

The American people are not stupid. We know there is more money to be made in treating disease than curing or preventing it. It’s not that we don’t trust our doctors. But we know that they are operating within a paradigm that has been at least partially designed to profit large corporations.

Just watch the Netflix documentary “The Bleeding Edge” to meet some of the people who have been harmed by these profit-making products (Essure birth control, vaginal mesh, chromium cobalt knee replacements). Or consider the fact that pharmaceutical companies benefit from taxpayer-funded research and tax breaks for themselves, while charging exorbitant prices for essential drugs like insulin.

Remember the opioid crisis? 399,000 Americans have died between 1999 and 2017 as a result of drug overdoses involving prescription and illicit opioids. While drug dealers and individuals bear some of the responsibility for this, so do “experts” in medicine and government – you know, the ones who prescribed the Oxycontin and assured consumers that it was only minimally addictive.

Medical errors contribute to more than 250,000 deaths in the U.S. per year, according to a Johns Hopkins study. Other studies put the figure as high as 440,000. That makes them the third leading cause of death in the United States.

To recap: globalization, inequality, Big Data censorship, crony capitalism, widespread corruption, documented cases of medical malpractice and product liability.

This is why your friends are sharing a video about a doctor with dubious credentials.

This is why we don’t trust the experts.

This is why we are trying to think for ourselves, taking in the information from all sides and weighing the evidence as best we can.

If you don’t want people to believe in so-called conspiracy theories, you need to start by restoring faith in democracy. This can only occur by breaking up the monopolies that currently control our media, our medicine, and our government.

That is all.

Viewing the COVID-19 Pandemic through the Lens of Fragility

I recently read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s four-book Incerto collection.

In the first book, Fooled by Randomness, Taleb posits that we know much less about the world than we think. Published just months before 9/11, he infamously floated the scenario of terrorists flying planes into the Twin Towers.

In the second book, The Black Swan, Taleb discusses low-probability, high-impact events like the 9/11 attacks and explains how our current models (investment, economic, political) fail to account for them. Published a few months before the Great Recession, Taleb confidently asserts that the financial system of the United States will to crash, as it has simply built up too many risky bets.

The third book, and I would argue Taleb’s best, is Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. While the first two books mainly describe the world we live in – a world dominated by uncertainty and subject to Black Swan events – Antifragile lays out concrete tips for how to survive and thrive in the face of this uncertainty.

Incidentally, in Taleb’s fourth book, Skin in the Game (published in 2015), Taleb asserts matter-of-factly that the world will experience a global pandemic in the coming years. The current COVID-19 pandemic is thus not a “Black Swan” event, but rather something that anyone paying attention could have seen coming.

While Taleb has gained fame for his predictions, he cautions that the key is not to predict the future, but rather to structure our lives in such a way as to best handle the inevitable uncertainty and randomness of life.

According to Taleb, everything can be divided into one of three categories: fragile, robust, and antifragile. Fragile things, like teacups, break under stress and uncertainty. Robust things, like rubber balls, can withstand stress and uncertainty. Antifragile things, like human muscles, actually get stronger when subjected to stress and uncertainty (but only up to a point).

To use some examples from mythology, fragility is the sword of Damocles – hanging over our necks, just waiting to hurt us. Robustness is the phoenix, rising from the ashes. But antifragility is the hydra, growing back two heads for every one that is severed.

Common sense dictates that we arrange our lives, our societies, and our world in such a way as to at the very least minimize fragility and maximize robustness, with the added goal of antifragility. However, many of the things we are currently doing actually “fragilize” the system. The natural world understands robustness and antifragility, and the complex workings of many moving parts. The modern, man-made, globalized world oversimplifies things into models or theories that then break when subjected to stress.

Corporations prefer optimization to redundancy. In the words of Apple CEO Tim Cook, “Inventory is evil.” Well, maybe — when things are going according to plan. But in the face of a pandemic, when supply chains are disrupted, inventory is a blessing; its lack a curse that costs lives.

Here are some additional takeaways from Antifragile that we can apply to the current coronavirus pandemic:

  1. Don’t interfere with things you don’t understand.

Our first instinct is often to intervene in a crisis. However, certain interventions actually do more damage than the situation they are trying to address. Examples of this phenomena include unnecessary surgeries, micromanaging forest fires, urban planning, and overprotective parenting.

Often it is better to leave the system alone and let nature run its course. Let your body heal itself, let smaller forest fires occur, and let your kids make some mistakes every now and then.

Now, in the current crisis it would appear that non-intervention is actually riskier than intervention at the macro-level. However, at the individual level, most people who contract COVID-19 will be perfectly capable of fighting it off without needing to visit the hospital at the risk of spreading the infection.

Furthermore, we should seriously weigh the costs and benefits of any major interventions to our economic and political systems, carefully considering the downstream effects.

  1. Embrace Stoicism.

Stoicism has often been described as indifference to fate. However, Taleb views it more as antifragility to fate. Success brings fragility, as a successful person has more to lose than to gain from the unknown. This fact is compounded by the negativity bias, whereby we feel losses more deeply than gains. Many of us feel we have much to lose from the current crisis.

To counteract this predicament, Taleb directs us to Seneca, the famous Roman philosopher and statesman, who advised mentally writing off one’s possessions in advance. This way, if we indeed lose them in real life, it hurts less. In other words, assume the worst, and be happy when the actual result is better.

Many people are financially stressed by the recent blow to their stock portfolios, or just depressed at the cancellation of sporting events and concerts. But as long as we have our basic needs met, we should view surplus income and recreation as icing on the cake.

Don’t take anything for granted.

  1. Adopt a “barbell strategy.”

Taleb uses the metaphor of the barbell as an antidote to bell curve thinking. Barbells take the extremes into account, while bell curves largely ignore them.

How does one survive in an uncertain world?

First, decrease your downside by lowering your exposure to negative events. Second, increase your upside by making some limited, high-risk bets. Taleb advises putting 90% of your money in boring, safe investments like bonds, while investing the other 10% in high-risk, high-reward options. His own options-heavy portfolio is structured so as to benefit from volatility. Banking on this strategy, he was one of the few winners in 2008.

Taleb illustrates the concept of optionality using the example of Thales of Miletus. Tired of being derided as a do-nothing philosopher, Thales put a down payment on the seasonal use of every olive press in the region, thus taking on a small risk. When the olive harvest turned out to be extremely bountiful, he released the owners of the olive presses on his own terms, earning himself a large reward.

Barbell-style investors like Taleb are probably doing just fine during this crisis, while the bell-curvers are suffering.

  1. Embrace trial and error.

Historically-speaking, more innovations have come from tinkering than from formal research. According to Taleb, “America’s asset is, simply, risk taking and the use of optionality, this remarkable ability to engage in rational forms of trial and error, with no comparative shame in failing, starting again, and repeating failure.”

This latest coronavirus outbreak was not the first, and will not be the last. We have to be prepared to learn from our mistakes. If history is any guide, we will not be saved by central planning, but by grassroots trial and error.

  1. Understand that fragility is nonlinear.

In other words, negative effects increase not arithmetically, but rather exponentially. Much like infection rates from COVID-19, they compound over time. Anyone who has ever sat through a traffic jam understands this.

We should identify the potential traffic jams in our supply chains and act accordingly. Resisting globalization might cost more in the short-term and/or when things are running smoothly, but localism is a more robust long-term strategy.

  1. Follow the Via Negativa, or addition by subtraction.

Let’s say you have a problem: you are overweight. It is both cheaper and more effective to eliminate the unhealthy things from your life – junk food, smoking, drinking – than to add in healthy options – expensive gym memberships, diet plans, etc.

Simpler is better.

Less is more.

Increasing complexity also increases fragility. Hopefully the coronavirus pandemic will help teach us to simplify our lives where we can by showing us all the things we really can live without.

  1. Avoid neomania; opt instead for what has stood the test of time.

Taleb defines neomania as being too quick to embrace the latest (often-untested) thing. For example, books have been around for a long time, e-readers much less so. While the e-reader user might seem smarter in some situations (consider how many books you can fit on one device!), the traditional book-reader does better in the event of a power outage.

  1. If something is too big to fail, it should be too big to allow.

Taleb notes that large corporations and nations are actually weakened by their alleged advantage – their size – as they are more subject to Black Swan events. Smaller entities like city-states and small businesses are often more robust in a crisis. We should remember this during normal times, when people start advocating mergers, acquisitions, and various other economies of scale. It is easier to turn a small ship than a large one.

(Anecdotally, I can attest that smaller school systems have responded better to the coronavirus pandemic than larger ones. Likewise, larger businesses will likely have to lay off workers first.)

  1. The need for skin in the game.

Heroes take on the downsides of others, putting themselves at risk for the greater good. Charlatans and frauds keep the upside for themselves while passing on the risk to some larger group. Ethically speaking, we should not allow any entity to privatize its profits while socializing its losses.

Conclusion

This is not a pointless philosophical exercise. All of this matters; it matters a lot. According to Taleb:

Black Swan effects are necessarily increasing, as a result of complexity, interdependence between parts, globalization, and the beastly thing called “efficiency” that makes people sail too close to the wind… The world is getting less and less predictable, and we rely more and more on technologies that have errors and interactions that are harder to estimate, let alone predict.

We must consider – individually, communally, and globally – how best to navigate an increasingly unpredictable world. We can take steps to increase our resilience, and even antifragility, but this will likely necessitate certain sacrifices that seem unnecessary or even detrimental in the short-term.

At the micro-level, relying on the medical system makes us fragile. Learning basic first aid makes us more robust. Improving our body’s health through exercise utilizes our natural antifragility.

At the macro-level, there is a natural inclination to prop up the existing system. But perhaps we should utilize this crisis to build in various redundancies and fail-safes. This way, when the next crisis comes rolling inevitably along, we will all be better prepared to manage it. Instead of trembling in anxiety at the fragilities inherent in our daily lives, we can draw strength from traditional sources of wisdom and comfort – our communities, our families, and our faiths.

 

Featured Image Credit: DonSpencer1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87998491

The Ballad of Thomas Smith

Can you feel the memory of this place?
Or does the weight of time erase
Blood from the root, leaving only fear?
Do you know what happened here?

In 1893 they hung me from a hickory tree;
Still hungry, they tore its branches free
And cut my clothes for souvenirs
Like something great had happened here.

What they say I did – does it matter?
Given tribe or truth, would you choose the latter?
All that mattered was that someone pay
The debt that bore their sin away.

Mrs. Bishop was selling grapes,
She led him down the cellar steps…
Man stole two dollars and beat her flat,
A black man, she said, in a slouch hat.

Willie was at the wrong place in the wrong shoes;
They got him at the wrong time, rubber boots…
Oh, don’t think I didn’t pray
That I had left my hat that day!

They got me at the train station…
Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman.
They had someone else too;
He even confessed, but I never knew…
Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman…

They made him swear to leave town
Then let him go;
They had me, and I would do…
“Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman!”

Shouting at the courthouse, gunfire at the jail,
Rough hands pushing me down, bidding me be still…
Would they risk their lives for me now, a negro?
Would they fight and die for me now, a negro?

Eight fell that night, by the Light Infantry,
Eight died that night, but not for me;
Eight men down, but they weren’t done,
They mourned for eight, but I wasn’t one.

Law washed its hands of me then – not proud,
They handed me over to the crowd…
At last, they tied me to the tree…
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!

As a child I held my mama’s hand
As salt tears watered the scarred-up land;
She said, “Son, now we’s gon’ be free…”
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!

They set me free on Franklin and Mountain…
Bullets biting from every direction…
Mama, why could they not let me be?
Lord… have… mercy…

It’s over now, Mama.
Into His hands I commend my spirit.

And then when they had cut from me
Every last piece that they could gut from me,
They built a pyre for me down on the river bank;
They lit a fire for me down by the river bank.

The blaze left only a few charred bones,
Smooth and polished as river stones…
My sister saw me burn that day;
She heard them sing, then turn away.

Days passed and no one could recall
The wind that blew in early fall
That made them whoop and shout for blood,
That made them throw me on the wood.

Now people pass, but do they hear?
Does my singing reach their ears?
God sent His mercy down on me,
But nothing ever grew from that hickory tree.

Historical Note: This poem is based on actual events. Thomas Smith was lynched in Roanoke in the early morning hours of September 21, 1893. The previous morning, a Mrs. Bishop of nearby Cloverdale had been beaten and robbed near the downtown farmer’s market. She identified Smith as her assailant on the basis of his race and his “slouch hat.” That night, Roanoke mayor Henry Trout called up the Light Infantry to protect Smith from the lynch mob that had gathered at the jail. When the mob tried to storm the jail, the Light Infantry fired into the crowd, killing eight bystanders.

The mob eventually overtook Smith as he was being returned to the jail later that night. They hanged him from a hickory tree on the corner of Franklin Road and Mountain Avenue and shot him numerous times. A man cut souvenirs from the tree and Smith’s clothes, handing them out to the crowd. Many in the mob wanted to bury Smith’s body in the mayor’s front yard, but they were persuaded instead to burn him on the banks of the Roanoke River.

This tragedy was not Roanoke’s first lynching. A little over a year earlier, on February 12, 1892, William Lavender was lynched after twelve-year-old Alice Perry accused him of trying to rape her. He was identified on the basis of his rubber boots.

  1. “Boss I didn’t hurt that woman.” – Thomas Smith’s words from his arrest at the train station.
  2. “Oh, Lord, have mercy on me.” – Thomas Smith’s last words as he was being lynched.
Works Cited:
Alexander, Ann Field. “‘Like an Evil Wind’: The Roanoke Riot of 1893 and the Lynching of Thomas Smith.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 100, no. 2, 1992, pp. 173–206. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4249275. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.

Eating Nature’s Diet

With another school year drawing to a close, getting back to a healthy diet was high on my priority list. I knew I had been slipping lately, making one too many trips through the drive-through as we raced from swim practice to soccer or T-ball. I told myself that if I just made it to summer break, I could finally ditch convenience and focus on eating whole, healthy foods again. Graduation couldn’t get here soon enough.

The day after cheering on the class of 2019, I laid out three simple rules for myself:

1. No processed carbs,

2. No processed meats, and

3. No dairy.

This is essentially a version of the anti-inflammatory diet. For years I had been wary of fully embracing the ketogenic diet, or any other plan that restricted carbohydrates indiscriminately. I love beans and rice and steel-cut oats too much for that. But even eating a “healthy” breakfast of “whole grain” toast was starting to take a toll on my waistline. I would be hungry again an hour or two later, triggering a cycle of snacking. So all bread was out, along with the crackers and pretzels that seemed better than cookies or potato chips, but honestly weren’t. I would continue to allow myself as much fruit as I wanted, despite their high sugar count. My rationale: if nature made it (and not scientists in a lab somewhere), it couldn’t be that bad.

For me, the decision to cut out processed meats came after reading the book Animal Factory by David Kirby. Factory farming is probably one of the worst ongoing disasters in America, the consequences affecting not only our health but also our environment and local communities. Accelerating dramatically in the 1990’s, small farms have been largely replaced by gigantic concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFO’s) which pollute our water with animal waste and often sicken local inhabitants. Millions of cows, chickens, and especially pigs are subjected to appallingly miserable living conditions and doused with antibiotics to reduce the inevitable infections that come with crowding so many animals together. The “product” is cheap, tasty (but only when mixed with salt, sugar, and chemical additives and/or deep fried), and hazardous to human health.

I have stopped eating pork altogether, taking a page out of Leviticus. But I will still consume organic chicken and beef, and have recently started eating more healthy fatty fish like salmon, anchovies, and sardines. And eggs are most definitely in.

When many Americans contemplate a life without processed carbs, the first thing they reach for is the cheese. Last night I broke my cheese fast with a delicious wedge of manchego to go with my lazy dinner of celery, hummus, pistachios, red wine, and dark chocolate. But I don’t plan to go back to topping every meal, from salad to eggs, with shredded cheddar. And I’ve decided I can live without milk and ice cream. My morning coffee now gets a splash of almond milk. The idea that a healthy diet must include dairy is a myth subsidized by the industry and propped up by dubious politics. Dairy is highly inflammatory, and should especially be cut out if one is prone to acne.

So, if dairy, processed carbs, and processed meats are out, what’s in? Fresh vegetables: cucumbers, celery (often with almond butter), beets, carrots, tomatoes, onions. Nuts, but not peanuts (which aren’t even real nuts). I’ve added walnuts and pecans to my fruit and oatmeal routine, which might occur at any time of day. Dark chocolate (85%) and the occasional glass of red wine let me indulge without triggering inflammation. Two recipes I’ve found highly delicious are red lentil curry with sweet potatoes and super-easy crockpot chicken with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes.

I’ve noticed that when I’m not eating processed carbs or dairy, I’m not hungry as frequently. I also don’t eat directly upon rising, but rather wait a couple hours to break the fast. Historically, only field laborers ate directly upon rising. But the breakfast wars remain controversial.

I’ve only been on this eating plan for a week, and I already feel thinner, healthier, and more energetic. I’ve also experienced more gratitude at the range of choices available to me, when our ancestors were limited to only what was in season locally. I’m sure I’ll eventually add back in certain carbs like whole wheat bread and waffles, and I’ve already indulged in some cheese, but I hope I never eat a hotdog again. I hope I can sustain this healthy lifestyle through both the enjoyment of delicious foods and the fear of a host of ailments (cancer, mad cow, heart disease).

What could sabotage this plan? Perhaps the unholy triumvirate of temptation, convenience, and cost. But I’ve found that it’s easier to resist the first cupcake than the third, and some healthy foods can be convenient (I’m fond of telling my children that bananas come in their own wrappers). While buying organic costs more, you save money on fast food and the 80% of the grocery store that’s now off-limits.

Despite the invariable costs, the benefits of healthy eating are more than worth it. Improving your diet also improves your mood, energy, skin tone, immune system, digestion, and mental clarity. In America we eat a poor diet of “cheap” foods and spend millions on energy drinks, expensive skin care products, and pharmaceuticals. The personal benefits of healthy living are clear, but I wonder, how many of our social problems could be improved with improved diets?

As soon as my high school students walk through the door, they are handed prepackaged bags of sugary juice, sausage, pancakes, milk — everything from my three “no’s” of dairy, processed meats, and processed carbs. Despite everyone at my high school receiving free breakfast, free lunch, and (if they stay) a free afternoon snack, they are constantly eating and constantly starving. They also have a hard time concentrating, which I’m sure is exacerbated by the very foods we are feeding them. It’s sad to see high schoolers already struggling with obesity and poor health.

The problem with the well-intentioned initiative of Michelle Obama to improve school lunch is that the new “healthy” choices just aren’t that tasty. Fresh fruits and salads and grains taste good; iceberg salad that was sliced a week ago and sad, shriveled carrots do not. Would it be too much to ask that students be given a hot bowl of steel-cut oats, to which they could add fresh fruit and nuts, in the morning? Or scrambled eggs mixed with freshly sautéed spinach, tomatoes, onion, and garlic (a new favorite of mine)? If this seems unlikely, then we as a society have sacrificed too much at the altar of convenience and profit.

I thank you for indulging me if you’ve read this far; I know how obnoxious it can be to read someone rambling on about what they’re eating or not eating. I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist. This blog is not intended to cure, treat, or prevent disease. What works for me may not work for others. But now I’d like to make a more philosophical observation.

Basically, we disrespect nature at our own peril. Scientists are just now discovering things like the importance of the microbiome to mood and overall wellness. It seems the overuse of antibiotics has come at a steep price. Years ago, scientists thought they had found a “formula” that was just as good for a developing infant as mother’s milk. It turns out they were wrong. As Michael Pollan notes in In Defense of Food, mother’s milk contains substances that are indigestible to humans, but vital food for a certain microbe that populates an infant’s gut and prevents harmful microbes from causing disease. No formula will ever be as good as what nature provides.

In what other ways do we disrespect nature? Feeding animals to natural herbivores in CAFO’s, a common practice that may cause Alzheimer’s. Tricking the female body’s reproductive system into thinking it’s pregnant for years, when in fact it’s not. Spending our days indoors when we are designed by nature to need fresh air and sunlight. Living sedentary lifestyles, driving for hours to sit at desks for hours when we were designed to walk, run, crawl, jump, swim, and climb.

Science and religion are often presented as being at odds, but in the realm of nutrition the natural law tradition embraced by the Catholic Church gets us to the same destination as the evolutionary theory of Darwin: humans were designed/ evolved to eat and do certain things that we can’t change, even with all our science and technology.

In the Bible God says: “Behold, I have given you ever seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth and every tree whose fruit contains seed; they will be yours for food (Genesis 1:29).” For most of human history, we were hunters and gatherers. Only recently did we adopt agriculture and only very recently did we adopt the combination of a sedentary lifestyle and highly processed, chemically altered diet. The results: skyrocketing rates of diabetes, heart disease, depression, and host of other ailments.

I am reminded of the following lines from Wordsworth, which seem an adequate closing to these musings:

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran;

And much it grieved my heart to think

What man has made of man.

Identity and Morality in The Americans

What is it about The Americans that kept me glued to a screen for two straight days? And now that it’s over, why can’t I stop thinking about Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, fictional characters both in real life and on the show?

The story is certainly compelling: two KGB spies in 1980’s America struggling to complete their missions without getting killed or blowing their cover. They have to keep their true identities secret from their teenage kids and FBI agent Stan Beeman, who happens to move in across the street. They must also navigate the everyday struggles of parenthood and marriage, all as the threat of nuclear war hangs over America and the world.

The stakes could not be higher. The writing and production-quality of The Americans are both excellent, the “period” of the 1980’s brilliantly evoked through wigs, silk blouses, and retro cars. But in many ways the success of the show is a credit to the incredible acting of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. If left in the hands of lesser mortals, I may have been able to sleep more over the past week.

Both actors bring great emotional depth to their roles, and kick some serious butt when the situation demands it. They have an undeniable onscreen chemistry and believability, even in moments of extreme conflict. At times during the show, my attention began to slip, but never when Philip and Elizabeth shared the screen. It was no surprise to learn that Russell and Rhys are a couple in real life (Viva Philip and Elizabeth!).

At its core, The Americans is about much more than Cold War politics; it’s a heightened look at the complex interplay between identity and morality.

What should you do when different aspects of your identity come into conflict? Who is most deserving of your trust and loyalty – your country or your family? Whose good should you prioritize, when protecting one could endanger the other? Finally, what measures are morally acceptable in the pursuit of your ideals? Do the ends justify the means, or are there certain lines that should never be crossed? As viewers, we are rooting for Philip and Elizabeth to succeed somehow. But based on these inherent conflicts, we know their story can only end in tragedy.

Season 1, Episode 1 Spoilers Below (Go ahead and read it, even if you haven’t watched yet):

The conflict between Philip and Elizabeth is initially one of two strangers who must present themselves as the perfect American couple. Even after fifteen years of marriage and two kids together, Elizabeth still considers her relationship with Philip primarily as part of the job. Ironically, it is the intensification of their work together that draws Elizabeth closer to Philip, even as it reveals the second and more pivotal conflict between them.

Elizabeth is a true believer. Though she begins the first season as a devoted mother (if not quite a loving wife), her primary identity is as a KGB officer; her main loyalty is to the cause. She can’t stand American consumerism or religion, and disagrees pointedly with what her daughter is being taught in history class. When Elizabeth refers to “the Americans,” she is speaking of them.

Philip is more of an independent thinker. He mainly wants to do what is best for his family — Elizabeth and their two children. To Philip, America is not so bad: the lights stay on, the food is pretty good, and you don’t have to worry about getting sent to a Siberian prison camp. While Elizabeth’s instinct is to follow orders, Philip questions whether he can trust the KGB or the Soviet government. When it comes to “the Americans,” he could easily see himself as one of them.

The pilot episode introduces this moral conflict in the form of a Russian defector tied up in the trunk of the Jennings’ car. Philip seriously wants to turn him in and defect, something Elizabeth cannot fathom. Then he learns that the defector – a former Russian captain – raped Elizabeth back in the Soviet Union during her KGB training. This revelation is enough to take Philip from wanting to hand the guy over to killing him with his bare hands in a matter of minutes. We learn that Philip is more loyal to Elizabeth than his own comfort or desires. Foreshadowing future developments, we see he will put her good and protection even before that of his own children.

For Philip, it is obvious that their family should come before the KGB or the cause. For Elizabeth, it takes being kidnapped and interrogated by their own people to make her doubt her priorities, but only temporarily. Expressing her outrage at this betrayal, she calls the KGB “the people I’ve trusted the most,” to which Philip replies “and that’s the problem.”

Then there’s the conflict between following orders and following one’s conscience.

Season 2 – 6 Spoilers Below (Stop reading if you have not yet watched and take yourself over to Amazon Prime video where you can stream it):

Philip and Elizabeth’s actions cause untold damage. Through five seasons, their kill count is even at fifteen apiece. Some kills are in self-defense, while many are collateral damage. In the sixth season, Elizabeth’s kill count surges ahead of Philip’s, who is attempting to live life as a travel agent. This includes the most unjustified of all their murders – a couple of Soviet defectors whom Elizabeth slays, (unknowingly) in the presence of their seven-year-old kid.

But to really assess the damage wrought by Philip and Elizabeth, one has also to examine the countless lives destroyed and confidences betrayed. Philip’s biggest betrayal is of Martha, the secretary to the head of FBI counterintelligence whom he seduces and eventually marries, all the while conning her into unwittingly committing treason. Martha’s relationship with Philip, alias “Clark,” costs her everything she has ever had or wanted – love, family, country. Philip is distraught over Martha’s sad fate, but not too distraught to enjoy the company of his wife. At the end of the day Martha is alone, but Philip still has Elizabeth.

Elizabeth’s biggest betrayal is of Young Hee, a Mary Kay saleswoman and mother of three whom Elizabeth befriends in order to gain access to her husband. This betrayal saddens Elizabeth the most, as she genuinely valued Young Hee’s friendship and knows her actions have destroyed her friend’s family and happiness.

A big theme here: it’s wrong to use people. It hurts them, and it hurts you too. But using people – manipulating them, seducing them, threatening them – is what the KGB does.

It’s also what FBI agents do. Stan Beeman’s conscience is not clean, as he sleeps with a source, kills an innocent man in retaliation for the loss of his partner, and refuses to do anything to save his failing marriage even as his desperate wife cries out for his attention. Ultimately, his attempts to do right by the people he has jeopardized fail to pay off.

Which brings me to the Jennings’ betrayal of Stan, a ticking time bomb that finally explodes in the last episode. Speaking in an abandoned parking garage, Philip reassures Stan that their friendship was genuine, and he was just doing his job. Despite the betrayal, Stan cannot bring himself to stop his former friends and neighbors; he lets them go. This decision reveals that Stan values their friendship, and perhaps his relationship as surrogate father to Henry, more than the good of his agency and his country.

But the betrayal that stings the most – the one I still can’t get over – is Philip and Elizabeth’s betrayal of their own children, Paige and Henry.

By Season 6, Elizabeth is no longer a good mother in any sense of the word. She mainly ignores Henry, and doesn’t quite know what to say to him when he is around. Back on a school break, Henry jokingly asks to bum a cigarette. After only a few seconds hesitation, Elizabeth holds out the pack to her son, to which Henry asks if she wants to give him lung cancer.

Things are more complicated with Paige, who plays a much bigger role in the show, as she eventually learns her parent’s true identities. The decision to bring Paige into their world and start grooming her for future espionage is a major point of conflict between Elizabeth and Philip. Philip is against it of course, whereas Elizabeth sees in Paige a kindred spirit in search of a just cause. (Yes, Elizabeth still thinks she is fighting to make the world a better place.)

Elizabeth tries to instruct Paige in the new responsibilities that come with this knowledge, but Paige finds it incredibly isolating – a pretty heavy burden for a sixteen-year-old to bear alone. She feels awkward saying the Pledge of Allegiance. She can’t have normal relationships with boyfriends or peers. Then when she confides her family’s secret to Pastor Tim, Elizabeth forces her to keep up the charade of being a surrogate child to him in order to stay in his good graces. (At least Paige’s honesty with her mother saves Pastor Tim his life.)

By the final season, Paige is no longer just keeping secrets. A college student now, she starts going on missions with her mother, mainly as a lookout. Philip is out of the business; Paige is in. But Elizabeth is clearly cracking under the pressure. It’s hard for us – and Philip – to watch Elizabeth deteriorate into a shell of her former self: either working, sleeping, or chain-smoking like a zombie on the back patio.

Elizabeth’s one remaining joy is teaching Paige about the motherland. She and Claudia give Paige lessons on history, culture, and (of course) vodka. But Elizabeth’s growing influence is hurting Paige – figuratively and even literally, as Elizabeth bloodies her lip in a basement sparring session. Paige has to witness her mother kill two men in self-defense – one a back-alley mugger who was threatening Paige, the other a reluctant source who was about to shoot Elizabeth. But the last straw for Paige is when she learns her mother slept with a twenty-one-year-old intern and ruined his life for a piece of intelligence. She calls her own mother a whore and storms off, declaring that Henry was the wiser Jennings sibling for keeping his distance. Ultimately, the never-ending lies have destroyed their family.

Phillip’s loyalty to Elizabeth is put to the test when he is contacted by Oleg on behalf of Arkady. They want him to spy on Elizabeth and stop her, if necessary, from being used by KGB hardliners to undermine Gorbachev. Philip’s ultimate cooperation with them is more of a decision to see the Soviet Union progress than to hurt Elizabeth personally, though of course she won’t see it that way. Then Philip finds another line he is unwilling to cross — hurting Kimmy, the daughter of a CIA agent whom he has been meeting since she was fifteen. Though he does eventually (and regretfully) sleep with her, he refuses to participate in her kidnapping and gives her a final warning to keep her safe. Philip has sacrificed everything for Elizabeth, including the good of their own children, but he cannot see his country fall for her, nor can he surrender his basic human decency.

Elizabeth’s moment of truth comes when she is ordered to kill a Russian diplomat. But this time (thanks to a certain intern), Elizabeth has heard the tapes and knows he is negotiating in good faith. In the end, she does something she never would have imagined – executing a fellow KGB officer – to protect the diplomat and Gorbachev’s mission to change things in the USSR. But just as both Jennings’ find a line they won’t cross, and themselves back on the same side, their cover is blown and they are forced to run.

In one of the most devastating moments of the finale, Elizabeth comes to grips with the fact that she is leaving Henry for good; the Jennings quartet is down to a trio. (For the record, I don’t think I’ll ever again be able to listen to “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits without wanting to burst into tears.) The second moment comes when Philip and Elizabeth see Paige standing on the platform as their train pulls away. The heartbreak is written over their faces as they realize they will be leaving both of their children behind.

In the end, Philip and Elizabeth lose their comfortable existence in suburban America. They lose their friendships with Stan and Young Hee. They lose the integrity of their own consciences, as they have killed innocent strangers and hurt the people who trusted them most. They even lose Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, fake identities that have become real over the past two decades, left to resume (if they can) their lives as Mischa and Nadazhda.

Looking out over the dark Moscow skyline, the one thing they have not lost is each other. We are left to wonder with them if it will be enough.

Declutter Your Soul with Christian Minimalism

Less is the new more. Marie Kondo is just the latest incarnation of a bigger trend toward living more with less. Yet minimalism is not without its critics. Some have accused it of being a luxury of the upper middle class, a subtle form of virtue-signaling akin to veganism. Others guard their beloved possessions from minimalist scrutiny with a fervor bordering on obsession. Marie Kondo, for all her joyful, pixie-like charm, recently found one group of Americans who weren’t having it  – book lovers. Her crime? Suggesting that you really only need about thirty books.

As an avid reader, I assume she means per subject.

Confession time: I consider myself a minimalist-enthusiast — in theory at least, if not always in practice. I love throwing things away, or better yet not purchasing them to begin with. I’m not particularly fastidious in my cleaning habits, but clutter certainly stresses me out. Part of me dreads each Christmas and kid’s birthday party, anticipating the inevitable tsunami of plastic crap that I will have to accommodate until I can safely donate it to Goodwill.

But for me, minimalism is about more than decluttering, more than tidying up; it’s about taking the time to reflect on what’s truly important, and then making time for it. It’s about rejecting the reflexive materialist consumerism that engulfs our culture. It’s about spending time in nature and investing in human relationships. It’s about eating healthy food made from a few natural ingredients versus fast food and processed snacks. (It’s about failing at all of these occasionally, but trying to keep myself on track.)

I have always felt that my minimalism was highly compatible with my Christian faith, but recently I decided to investigate this further. My motive: I was trying to adapt a lesson I had used with my high school history students for a Sunday school class.

First, let me explain the lesson.

While my reading list is mainly fiction, history, and philosophy, I do listen to a few self-helpy podcasts, including The Minimalists and The Art of Manliness. After both podcasts interviewed James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, I decided to do a goal-setting/ prioritizing lesson with my students on their first day back from winter break.

I started by asking my students why most New Years’ Resolutions fail. They came up with a great list, including lack of willpower, lack of support, bad environment, unrealistic goals, and waning enthusiasm. Then I helped them set monthly goals using a template that allowed them to break their monthly goal into four weekly milestones. We discussed James Clear’s contention that success is more about building good habits than having great willpower. They were with me so far.

Then I decided to make it more concrete, based on a story I remember hearing from another teacher. I brought in a big pitcher, a smaller canister, a bag of lentils, and six bouncy balls of varying size. At the beginning of the demonstration, I placed the lentils and bouncy balls in the pitcher, as shown below.

I asked a pair of student volunteers to attempt to transfer the contents of the pitcher into the smaller canister. Many students chuckled at this, clearly thinking it was impossible. In most of my classes, the first group tried to add a little lentils, then a bouncy ball, then more lentils, then another ball, and so on. They were able to fit four or five of the bouncy balls, but not the sixth. They certainly couldn’t close the lid.

I congratulated the first group on their effort and called up another pair of volunteers. This time I instructed them to fill the canister with lentils first and then see how many bouncy balls fit. The result: only three of the six.

Then I asked my students to predict what would happen if I put the balls in first before pouring in the beans. Many doubted it would work. To the amazement of some, I poured the lentils into the container of bouncy balls, shaking it ever so slightly to allow the beans to slip through the open spaces. It’s not often that high school students are impressed, but this was one of those times.

We then discussed what it all meant. The bouncy balls, I explained, were their priorities: school, family, career. The lentils were the little things – the Netflix shows that turned into all-day binges, the five minutes here or there scrolling through social media accounts that inevitably add up. They had to put the big things – their priorities – first in order to achieve their goals. To paraphrase this Laura Vanderkam TedTalk, “I don’t have time for X” is basically code for “X is not a priority for me right now.”

They got it. They liked it. I patted myself on the back for a good day-one lesson. But then I had to figure out some way to adapt it for my Sunday school students.

My biggest help came in the form of this excellent article by Haley Stewart in Public Discourse. In The Soul-Saving Grace of Christian Detachment, she writes:

If our pursuit of simplicity is not informed by the concept of Christian charity, focusing on mere minimalism will come up short… I can spend weeks decluttering my house, and it will certainly be more pleasant to inhabit our space with fewer items inside. But it will be an empty exercise if it is separated from the spiritual life and our obligations to God and our community. We all can and should take a look at how we view our possessions, but not simply so that our homes can be minimalist dreamlands. We should pursue detachment to “stuff” for a greater purpose: ordering our desires so that we can love God and other people.

To which I say, “Amen, sister!”

In a recent Minimalists podcast, a caller complained that he had followed the rules of minimalism but was still depressed and unhappy. The podcast hosts, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, tried to explain to the caller that minimalism was not in itself the answer to everything. Of course it’s not. Because secular minimalism looks like this:

It’s an empty canister. Or maybe there’s one ball inside – the one devoted to “me.” That’s like a starving person having one bite of food; it’s not enough to satisfy you. It’s not enough to fill you up.

A Christian minimalist understands that the goal is more than just my individual fulfillment because “I” am more than just an isolated individual. I am a child of God and a member of a larger community, with real obligations to both.

We all need things to survive (food, shelter, clothing), but we can easily fall into the trap of greed and excess. We forget that things are only means to more important ends. We fall in love with our possessions. This can be bad, very bad. As the Minimalists say frequently on their podcast: “Love people and use things, because the opposite never works.”

This insight is not unique to religion in general, nor to Christianity in particular. Buddhism also discourages worldly attachments. Marie Kondo draws upon centuries of Shinto wisdom. But I would say that Christianity offers the best and most complete framework for implementing minimalist practices (though you would never know it by the way most American Christians live).

As a Christian, nothing should come before my faith – not my nationality, not my political ideology, not even my minimalism. But if minimalism is really about putting things in their proper order, then nothing could be more Christian. Consider these verses:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 1 Timothy 6:6–8

Then He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness. For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke 12:15

We enter the world with nothing. We will all leave the world with nothing. In the meantime, we are to be grateful for what we have and eager to share it with others. Our priorities should be the eternal things – God, our souls, and the souls of others.

Some of the happiest people I know have big families with lots of children. Their houses are cluttered. Their lives are messy. But their treasure is in each other and in heaven, not in their possessions. They may not be living the minimalist dream, but they certainly seem to have their priorities straight.

Personally, I need a little help in ordering my life. This includes staying as clutter-free and tidy as possible. But I don’t judge the mother of eight whose kitchen table is a bit messy. I try not to judge in this sense at all, though I do pity those who let material possessions and the acquisition of status dictate their lives.

Failing to prioritize God and relationships is like eating a diet of only fast food. Your life might seem full, but it is ultimately empty of the things that matter — the nutrients you need to survive.

When I taught my Sunday school lesson, I reminded my students that faith and relationships should be the first bouncy balls in their containers, then their personal goals and ambitions. And really, who needs the lentils? The canister sure looks better without them (although it wouldn’t spell disaster to allow a few beans to trickle in). It is human nature to fear for one’s future security, and to seek refuge in the things we think we need. We should thank God for all He has provided, and trust that He will continue to do so in the future. We should remember to ask only for our daily bread, not a stockpile.

Beauty as a Gateway to Faith in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

Imagine two tourists standing in front of Chartres Cathedral in France. The first simply gapes in awe as everything clicks slowly into place: God, the Universe, his own life — microcosm and macrocosm. Transported by its resplendent beauty, his experience transcends human reason.

The second tourist mills about anxiously before pausing to take a selfie. “Nice old building,” he remarks, “but why do you think they had to go and put those funny crosses on top? Ruins the whole vibe.”

This is how I feel, having read Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, in comparing my reaction with those of others. Each reader is either the first tourist or the second. Either you get it, or you don’t.

Even in his own time, Waugh’s novel (written in 1944) polarized the critics. It represented a departure from his typical comedic style and evinced his own recent conversion to Catholicism in 1931. If internet reviews, podcasts, and the recent 2008 film are any indication, many people still don’t get it.

Brideshead Revisited is not a homoerotic romance, or a drama about the declining fortunes of the British aristocracy a la Downton Abbey, though it contains aspects of both. It is not primarily about friendship or nostalgia or family, though all three figure prominently into the story. At its core, Brideshead Revisited is a novel about one family’s inability to escape religion, which both entices us with its beauty and frightens us with its demands. To view this novel through any other lens is, to a large extent, to miss the point.

The protagonist of the story is Charles Ryder, an intelligent though not particularly motivated young man of the English middle class. While in his freshman year at Oxford, Charles falls under the charming influence of Sebastian Flyte, a whimsical aristocrat who is everywhere accompanied by his teddy bear, Aloysius. After a drunken night of revelry brings them together (Sebastian vomits through Charles’ first floor window), Charles comes to know Sebastian and his wealthy, carefree friends, including the flamboyant Anthony Blanche.

Charles and Sebastian spend an enchanted summer together: lounging in fields, drinking expensive wine. Charles describes Sebastian as “magically beautiful, with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings out for live and withers at the first cold wind.” While their relationship is undoubtedly romantic, Waugh’s writing leaves it unclear as to whether it ever becomes sexual. Many readers are certain it does. I think the text supports both readings, but it ultimately doesn’t matter much either way to the plot of the story or its themes. While Anthony Blanche and Sebastian are clearly homosexual, Charles is not. He is attracted to Sebastian’s beauty and intrigued by the prospect of a perpetual adolescence, which Sebastian (forever clinging to his trusty teddy bear) represents.

Observing that Sebastian has “completely captivated” Charles, Anthony Blanche – the great “aesthete par excellence” – warns him of Sebastian’s family:

“I forget if you know his family. Now there, my dear, is a subject for the poet – for the poet of the future who must be also a psychoanalyst – and perhaps a diabolist, too. I don’t suppose he’ll ever let you meet them. He’s far too clever. They’re all charming of course, and quite, quite gruesome. Do you ever feel there is something a teeny bit gruesome about Sebastian? No? Perhaps I imagine it; it’s simply that he looks so much like the rest of them, sometimes.”

Anthony describes Brideshead — Sebastian’s elder, much more serious brother — as “something archaic, out of a cave that’s been sealed for centuries… a learned bigot, a ceremonious barbarian, a snowbound lama,” with a face “as though an Aztec sculptor had attempted a portrait of Sebastian.” He labels Julia — Sebastian’s younger sister and spitting image — a “Renaissance tragedy” with “a face of flawless Florentine Quattrocento beauty.” However, he warns “she’s a fiend – a passionless, acquisitive, intriguing, ruthless killer… all she wants is power. There ought to be an Inquisition especially set up to burn her.”

But Anthony Blanche reserves most of his venom for Sebastian’s mother: the charismatic and pious matriarch, Lady Marchmain. Blanche criticizes her for refusing to grant Lord Marchmain a divorce; after the war, he ran away with a dancer and set up residence in Venice. Now she “keeps a small gang of enslaved and emaciated prisoners for her exclusive enjoyment… like wraiths following her around. They never escape once she’s had her teeth into them.”

Charles eventually does meet the Flyte family for himself. He finds them not quite the monsters of Blanche’s hyperbole, though very charming and intriguing. Sebastian watches in despair as Charles’ interest shifts inevitably from him to his family. This process of transference begins with their first visit to Brideshead Castle, the Flyte’s ornate family home in the English countryside. Brideshead awakens in Charles the longing for a different kind of beauty. He sketches its great fountain and begins painting its panels, inadvertently launching his own career as an artist.

The family watch in anxiety as Sebastian transforms from a fun-loving youth into a hopeless drunkard. It’s as if the estate and the family that inhabit it are driving him to despair. Lady Marchmain enlists everyone in the cause of saving Sebastian from himself, including Charles. After it is discovered that he lent Sebastian money to get drunk, Charles is sent away in disgrace. Sebastian exiles himself to the Middle East, where he predictably flounders. Charles tries to find Sebastian and bring him to his mother’s sickbed, but to no avail. Lady Marchmain dies.

Years pass. Charles goes on to become a moderately successful artist, specializing in architectural paintings. He travels through Latin America, painting ancient ruins and colorful vistas before returning to his loveless marriage and children he doesn’t care to see. On the crossing back to England, he meets Julia, who is just returning from an ill-fated affair in America to her equally hopeless marriage to Rex, an aspiring politician. Seeing her with fresh eyes, Charles is immediately transfixed. The two begin an affair that lasts a couple years, resulting in Charles’ divorce from his wife. Julia is about to divorce Rex to marry Charles when Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead, himself on the verge of death. His deathbed conversion is the final straw that convinces Julia to end her relationship with Charles, who goes on to enlist in the army.

The entire story is recounted by Charles years later, as he finds himself once again at Brideshead, which has been transformed into a military barracks during World War II. Charles, once an avowed agnostic, is drawn to the stone chapel, where a little light still burns. There he evinces his own conversion, which is not so much a sudden transformation as the gradual acceptance of a beauty and a truth so great it can no longer be denied.

Many secular readers are left confused by Waugh’s tale. After starting off with such promise, why does Waugh feel the need to bring it all around to God? This frustration on the part of some readers perfectly mirrors Charles’ own frustration as the Flyte family manage to turn every conversation around to religion. Lady Marchmain makes no secret of her desire to convert him to Catholicism, an effort Charles resists. In the first part of the book, he describes his initial view of religion thus:

I had no religion… The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teachings was of present value, a division in which the main weight went against it; religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not; at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of “complexes” and “inhibitions” – catchwords of the decade – and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries.

What an adept summary of our own age. Yet each character, and indeed the setting itself, symbolizes either some aspect of the Church or people’s reaction to it.

Most obviously, Brideshead (the estate) is a metaphor for the Catholic Church, which is known as the Bride of Christ. All four children are brought up in the Catholic faith, literally in Brideshead. The separation of Lord and Lady Marchmain is accompanied by his giving up the Catholic faith, signaled by his leaving Brideshead. And yet, at his deathbed he returns, as so many do.

Lady Marchmain is like an autocratic pope, or at times a representation of the Church itself. Anthony Blanche tells Charles that both Sebastian and his father hate Lady Marchmain in a manner very similar to way many hate the Catholic Church and its clerics. They hate the demands she places on them, revealing their inadequacies in meeting them. Like a well-meaning but overbearing cleric, Lady Marchmain enlists spies like the tutor Samgrass and conducts “little talks” to try and nudge people in the right direction. She never curses her children or warns them directly of the fires of hell that await their unrepentance; that is not the Catholic way. She merely reminds them of what they themselves know to be true but would rather forget. At one point, Sebastian even quotes St. Augustine’s prayer: “Lord make me holy, but not yet.” Just like Augustine’s mother, Lady Marchmain will not give up on her son. Yet she can be ruthless to those allies who disappoint her, such as Charles when he gives Sebastian drinking money; Lady Marchmain essentially excommunicates him from the estate for this transgression.

Each of the four children represent one reaction of people brought up in the faith to religion.

Brideshead (the heir), described as dull and monkish, represents the response of vocation to the religious life. However, his desire to become a priest is thwarted by the fact that as the eldest, he is expected to marry and produce heirs. Brideshead’s dilemma illustrates how family obligations can both encourage and interfere with religion.

Cordelia, the youngest and plainest of the bunch, has never wavered in her faith. She represents the call to humble service, having served as a wartime nurse and now a homely spinster. But even she confesses upon her mother’s death that she never really loved her. In Cordelia’s words, her mother was “saintly, but she wasn’t a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can’t really hate God either. When they want to hate Him and His saints they have to find something like themselves and pretend it’s God and hate that.”

Sebastian initially describes himself and Julia as semi-heathens. They have both rejected the Church in their lifestyle choices: Sebastian by refusing to grow up, Julia first by marrying Rex and then having affairs. Yet both find themselves drawn back to the faith, as though by an “invisible thread” that has only to be tugged to send them moving. Sebastian ends up as a sort of caretaker in a Tunisian monastery, while Julia rejects happiness with Charles in favor of loyalty to God and His commands.

Some readers find these conversions, along with Charles’ and Lord Marchmain’s, contrived or unrealistic. How could Waugh have ever accepted the Catholic faith after describing how it “destroyed” everyone in the Flyte family and ruined their happiness? Of course, Waugh knows it is not the Church but sin that destroys, and there is a greater calling than earthly happiness.

Rex (Julia’s husband) and Charles (Julia’s lover) represent two different reactions to those drawn into the world of the Church by their association with the Flyte family. Rex is a thoroughly modern man, embodying the ignorance of the age. He tries to make quick and easy compromises with the Church for the sake of convenience, as symbolized in his attempt to convert to Catholicism leading up to his marriage to Julia. He can not truly appreciate her beauty, nor can he understand her morals. He simply lacks imagination, and depth.

Charles is the modern man who, though he initially holds the Church and its teachings in contempt, has not yet lost his ability to appreciate beauty. This appreciation for beauty ultimately leads him somewhere he would have never expected: faith in God.

Throughout the novel, Charles never engages rationally with the claims of the Catholic Church, except to dismiss them as ludicrous. He even tries to keep the local priest from visiting Lord Marchmain at his deathbed. And yet simply being on the estate works a conversion within him, one that passes first through layers of beauty (Sebastian, the house, Julia) before arriving ultimately at God. Brideshead Revisited is indeed largely biographical of Evelyn Waugh, who describes the book as dealing with “the operation of grace” in people’s lives.

It is no coincidence that Charles becomes a painter of architecture, which he sees as being more real than the people who temporarily inhabit it. He claims to love “buildings that grew silently with the centuries, catching and keeping the best of each generation, while time curbed the artist’s pride and the Philistine’s vulgarity, and repaired the clumsiness of the dull workman.” In the final pages, Charles enters the chapel, observing:

The builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend; they made a new house with the stones of the old castle; year by year, generation after generation, they enriched and extended it; year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness… Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played: a small red flame… the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; the flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

This seems as good a description of the Catholic Church as one can find: an ancient and mysterious building – falling to pieces in places, yet still possessing great charm, nostalgia, and power. Despite its rising and falling fortunes, the Church has managed to keep alight the small red flame of truth that can survive even our post-modern age.

Bishop Robert Barron writes that Brideshead Revisited provides Christians with a model for evangelization through beauty. He observes that buildings like Chartres or paintings like those in the Sistine Chapel “work a sort of alchemy in the soul, and they awaken a desire to participate, to imitate, and finally to share.” He quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar’s claim that “the beautiful claims the viewer, changes him, and then sends him on mission.”

This is exactly the transformation we see in Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. Puritans who would strip religious spaces of their brilliance – or forgo decoration as an unnecessary expense – should remember the value of Beauty as a window to Goodness and gateway to Truth. Agnostics or atheists who reject the claims of the Church would do well to stand for a few silent moments in its great cathedrals, to engage the sculpture of Michelangelo or the poetry of Dante. Perhaps, like Charles Ryder, they will find themselves moved by something they do not entirely understand. Like great art, Christianity is not something that can be simply reasoned; it has to be experienced, so that one might fall in love with it.

Trilobites

Ammonites and trilobites
embedded in this rocky frame
tell the story of a journey
from obscurity to fame.

As we step this mortal pathway,
knowing not which way to go,
birds still spiral up to heaven,
with the valley spread below.

Once a million creatures swimming,
then upon an ocean floor,
trilobites and ammonites
advance amongst us nevermore.

But within their black impressions,
pushed upon this mountain wall,
do their ripples, curves, and ridges
join them to us, one and all?

Within each cell, a signature
evincing power to quash the dark;
every insect, plant, and creature
bears within the maker’s mark.

Jesus, Socrates, and the Problem of Human Blindness

Our whole business in this Life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen. – St. Augustine

SOCRATES: Imagine this: People live under the earth in a cavelike dwelling. Stretching a long way up toward the daylight is its entrance, toward which the entire cave is gathered. The people have been in this dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck… because they are shackled, they are unable to turn their heads around. A fire is behind them, and there is a wall between the fire and the prisoners. Some light, of course, is allowed them, namely from a fire that casts its glow toward them from behind them, being above and at some distance. Imagine that a low wall has been built the length of the walkway, like the low curtain that puppeteers put up, over which they show their puppets.
GLAUCON: This is an unusual picture that you are presenting here, and these are unusual prisoners.
SOCRATES: They are very much like us humans, I [Socrates] responded.
– From Book VII of Plato’s Republic

If it is possible for one story to perfectly describe the human condition and the central problem of our existence, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave does just this. The journey from darkness to the light is an obvious metaphor for man’s passage from ignorance to wisdom. But this process is not so straightforward as we might expect. If any one of us were to fall into a deep, black pit, we would surely struggle with all our might to make it back to the light of day. But what if we were born in the pit? What if we have grown up in a cave, and, knowing nothing else, lack the ability to recognize our own blindness? What if we have grown so comfortable in our dimly-lit surroundings that we resist all efforts to be freed from our chains?

If we are honest with ourselves, we all have blind spots. We all lack wisdom. But some of us are so ignorant as to fancy ourselves wise. What made Socrates the wisest man in Athens? This simple insight: “I know that I know nothing.”

In the book Sophie’s World, the philosopher describes three types of people: the rare Socrates aware of his own ignorance, the people who think they already know enough, and the people who simply don’t care to think about anything too deeply. If my newsfeed is any indication, most of us fall into the latter two groups. I certainly have spent a great deal of my life in the know-it-all camp, a genuine cave-dweller.

What do you do when confronted with evidence that contradicts a previously-held belief? Quite simply, you can either modify your belief, or ignore the offending evidence. And so I have attempted to adopt the latter course. I have witnessed enough hypocrisy and lived through enough disappointment to distrust the idea of quick fixes or black-and-white dichotomies.

I believe now more than ever in the need to apply the same strict standards of truthfulness to all claims, regardless of from which “side” they originate. When it comes to matters like taxes and gun control, we should avoid the knee-jerk reaction to defend our existing beliefs and actually consider what others have to say. We don’t have to accept or reject 100% of their position. Perhaps 20% of what they are saying is valid. So let’s agree with that 20%. And while we’re at it, maybe we can admit that we are only 80% sure that our own current position (whether it be stricter gun laws or lower corporate taxes) would yield the desired result. The truth is, no one knows the exact outcome of any proposed policy until it is implemented. We are all trying to do the same thing that weathermen do — predict future outcomes — but with much less scientific rigor and much more personal bias.

When it comes to politics and economics, a healthy dose of humility is warranted. But when it comes to the things that really matter — to how we are to live our lives — what do we do when we cannot trust our own sight? Consider this passage from Matthew’s Gospel:

Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the great log in your own? And how dare you say to your brother, “Let me take that splinter out of your eye,” when, look, there is a great log in your own? Hypocrite! Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:3-5

Jesus instructs us to examine our own vision before criticizing that of others. We cannot expect those still living in ignorance to understand, as this is like “casting pearls before swine.” We are to beware false prophets, the “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Not by their appearances, but by their fruits are we to judge them.

Why does Jesus speak in parables? He answers:

The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. So in their case what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah is being fulfilled: Listen and listen, but never understand! Look and look, but never perceive! This people’s heart has grown coarse, their ears dulled, they have shut their eyes tight to avoid using their eyes to see, their ears to hear, their heart to understand, changing their ways and being healed by me.
But blessed are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear! Matthew 13: 13-16

And what about the rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus? When he was told to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, “he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.”

He was like the cave-dwellers who could not part with something of lesser value (material wealth) to gain something greater, though initially more difficult (the chance to be Jesus’ disciple and live with him forever in Heaven). Is this not the very definition of ignorance and blindness?

Jesus healed the blind and restored their sight. But as for the Pharisees, the “blind guides,” he declares:

You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of corruption. In just the same way, from the outside you look upright, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Matthew 23: 27-28

The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is much like the Socrates of Plato’s writings; so much so that the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche famously dismissed Christianity as “Plato for the masses.” But one man was wise enough to reconcile the two traditions in a brilliant synthesis that has served as the foundation of Christianity ever since – St. Augustine.

In his Confessions, Augustine describes his own blindness as it persisted through young adulthood:

What profit was it to me that I, rascally slave of selfish ambitions that I was, read and understood by myself as many books as I could get concerning the so-called liberal arts?…I had turned my back to the light and my face to the things it illuminated, and so no light played upon my own face, or on the eyes that perceived them.

Augustine’s journey out of the cave was long and difficult, and only possible thanks to the constant prayer of his mother, St. Monica. But Augustine never dropped his admiration of Plato. Observe Plato’s influence in Augustine’s description of sin:

Sin is to a nature what blindness is to an eye. The blindness of an evil or defect which is a witness to the fact that the eye was created to see the light and, hence, the very lack of sight is the proof that the eye was meant… to be the one particularly capable of seeing the light. Were it not for this capacity, there would be no reason to think of blindness as a misforture.

Now consider these other famous quotes from St. Augustine:

It is no advantage to be near the light if the eyes are closed.

And I entered and beheld with the eye of my soul… the Light Unchangeable… He that knows the Truth, knows what that Light is; and he that knows It, knows Eternity.

I knew that most people never see this reality because they attach to the material aspect of the world. Illusions of self and other fill their vision. I also realized there are those with little dust limiting their vision.

Jesus and Plato and Augustine seem to be telling us the same thing — that our primary task is to stop viewing the world through the materialist lens and see things as God sees them, down to their true essence.

What happens when one has emerged from the cave long enough to see things as they actually are and discard his past misconceptions? Returning to Plato’s tale, he feels the obligation to return to the cave and free the poor souls still trapped there. But how is he received by those who have not yet gained their vision? Plato knows just what danger awaits this returned exile:

SOCRATES: Now if once again, along with those who had remained shackled there, the freed person had to engage in the business of asserting and maintaining opinions about the shadows… would he not then be exposed to ridicule down there? And would they not let him know that he had gone up but only in order to come back down into the cave with his eyes ruined — and thus it certainly does not pay to go up. And if they can get hold of this person who takes it in hand to free them from their chains and to lead them up, and if they could kill him, will they not actually kill him?
GLAUCON: They certainly will.

Of course, this is exactly what happened to Socrates himself, Plato’s beloved teacher, who was forced to drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of Athens. It is the same fate suffered by Jesus: condemned by the angry crowd, abandoned even by his closest followers; although His death was followed by the glory of the Resurrection.

What does all this say about us? We are so desperate to cling to our illusions that we are willing to condemn an innocent man to death. We like to think of ourselves as loyal Christians, but we are just like the Pharisees, just like the murderous cave-dwellers, just like the crowd that chanted “Crucify him!”

So how about we work on removing that log from our own eye, so that we might help our neighbor with his splinter?

God, grant us the humility to recognize our own blindness and the courage to venture out of this cave of ignorance into the light of your truth.

An Eager Hostess, Awaiting Spring

In Virginia, spring can feel
like a fickle friend,
whose arrival is always being delayed
for reasons you suspect are not
as urgent or inexorable
as her letters make them seem.

You forgive the aggravation,
thinking ahead, surely,
to the good times close at hand;
in your mind, she approaches — finally!
in a whirl of bohemian elegance,
dropping half-told stories and future plans
onto your expectant plate.
You let the crumbs and baggage fall
to the polished floorboards —
to be cleared away at some later date —
then rush off into the evening,
bright as the stars,
and full of promise.

Winter is that uninvited relative who
keeps circling back,
presuming upon your continued hospitality;
you offer it dutifully (if lacking in enthusiasm),
but your freeloading guest
seems not to mind, so long as he has
a captive audience
to hear his timeworn tales
as the minutes trickle by.

Finally, your patience wearing thin,
the guise of civility begins to drop:
you let your eyes wander
and a long, slow yawn escape your lips —
“My, how late the hour!”
“Is it really? I suppose…”
“I’ll get your hat…”
“If you insist…”
A little dance of elation as
you watch the front door close,
determined not to answer
should his knock come once again —
You have gone to bed!
But really dreaming, still, awaiting
your capricious, fickle friend.