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another try
2003-01-29 - 2:40 p.m.

I wrote an ENOURMOUS entry and then lost it due to dland problems. But it was all copied from text files, so I didn't lose anything! Huzzah!


And here it is. Wrote it as part of my thesis work, but, you know. It might be interesting to you anyway.


“For Luther and Calvin believe that the Word of God has so descended among men that it can be clearly known and must therefore be exclusively advocated. I do not believe that; the Word of God crosses my vision like a falling star to whose fire the meteorite will bear witness without making it light up for me, and I myself can only bear witness to the light but not produce the stone and say “This is it”. – Martin Buber, “Between Man and Man”, p.8

This passage so beautifully expresses my own feeling about the spiritual that I don’t think I can add anything to it. But it occurred to me when I was reading it that in fact it’s not only “the spiritual” to which I have this sort of relation. Rather, the more I feel the fullness of life the more it seems to me that everything shares this spiritual quality, of being visible, something to which I can bear witness, but which I cannot define or delineate and then say, “This is it”.

Now I look on my own attempts to define things, to sort things out, to make clear logical arguments, and it seems that all the time I was missing out on some vital piece – vital both in the sense of important and alive. The words and concepts which I thought of as being most clear and unproblematic turn out to be nothing more than a kind of screen I could hold over my eyes as I blundered through the world, allowing me to miss seeing everything that would put my wild conjectures in their rightful place.

I’m not sure how well this example fits, but let’s go with it anyway. I was having an argument with someone over the issue of whether or not health care insurance should be publicly or privately provided. I thought I could best make my argument, that is, I would have the most credibility, if I made my argument in economic language, speaking of supply and demand curves, surpluses, market failure and so on. In doing so I realised something about the way Marshall’s Scissors (the supply and demand curves) measure value. Which is that, implicit in its measurement, is that if a wealthy person is willing to pay for a procedure, and the cost of performing that procedure is less than the maximum they might pay, then the procedure ought to be performed, however trivial it might be, whatever the actual price ends up being. Whereas if a poor person cannot pay for a life-saving procedure, then it ought not to be performed. Which is not to say that it won’t be, but that according to the imperatives implicit in the model, then it should not be.

Then I thought of a way to rescue Marshall’s Scissors from taking this position; all one needs do is add in guilt feelings, and give them a dollar value. If sufficient numbers of people will feel sufficiently guilty about the poor man’s death, then the negative surplus from allowing him to die will exceed the negative surplus from saving his life. Problem solved!

It’s obscene. That’s the only problem with this wonderful logic. But I can’t fight fire with fire, that’s the answer, I think. There is no formula by which one can describe mercy, or compassion, or pity. I don’t know why it matters, why people’s lives matter, why we should not allow someone to die when the only obstacle to their survival is money, is our flawed system for measuring money. I do not have a perfect system for measuring value, I cannot hold up some text or script (scrip) and say, “This is it”. I can only bear witness to the light of something I have seen, or the warmth of a light I have felt, and say the words that come to me then. There is no machine for making angels.

And so it is for this reason that I refuse to give either a definition of choice or a pattern for making choices which you may follow. Every definition I have tried to make of choice has had something wrong with it, and the more completely I tried to hermetically seal the definition, the more it felt wrong. “Forget you perfect offering; there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I will not hold up something which is almost right or looks almost right or sounds plausible and say of it, “This is it”. I can only bear witness to what I have felt in moments of decision. Mostly it has been fear because I have believed there was a right choice waiting to be made. God as judge; an author I like once described God as a card dealer, except when you pick up your hand you find all the cards are blank, you don’t know what the stakes are, and the dealer is always smiling. Petrified I have tried to just make the least-bad decision that I could, to cover up what was broken or what looked wrong, to hide from the responsibility that I could not choose not to have.

But by grace one finds, from time to time, in spite of all one’s weaknesses and failing, or more often perhaps because of them, that one is released from this petrification and can breathe free. And paradoxically this happens most often when one is most constrained, most unable to choose. Think, for example, of dancing. Every dancer must follow precisely the steps that have been laid out for them. Any deviation from these, any spontaneous refusal to follow the rules, will result in the coordination being lost and the dance ending. But what feels more free than to dance, when it’s working?


"I remember us driving in my brother's car

Her body tan and wet down by the reservoir" - Bruce Springsteen

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