Monthly Archives: September 2011

Looking for Loopholes

Someone encountered W.C. Fields on his deathbed reading a Bible.  When the person asked if he had gotten religion, Fields replied,  “I’m looking for a loophole.”

Most of us prefer looking for loopholes to facing hard truths.  Not Sören Kierkegaard.

When he writes about Christ, he not only takes Christ’s words at face value, he takes them to heart and applies them to reality no matter how severely they may insult or outrage.

Works of Love is essentially a treatise on Matthew 22:39: “… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The book’s premise is, when Christ commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, he is commanding us to “love without distinction.”

Note my repetition of “command”.  The verse reads, we “shall”, not “should,” love our neighbor.

As the parable of “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) clarifies, our neighbor is whomever we encounter in need. Since all human beings are in need of something, that’s quite a chore.

“The Good Samaritan” also clarifies that the way we are to love is through action.

A couple years ago, Pam left Zöe and me.*  I won’t presume to challenge, justify, or even pretend to understand her reasons.  But I will note that it’s no cinch trying to do justice to raising a wonderful daughter as a single dad with only a modest income and with two demanding jobs.  Sometimes, I was inclined toward resentment.  Kierkegaard helped plenty.

Each time Pam showed up, I would remind myself that regardless of any resentment I might feel, I was obligated to act toward her in a loving way.  In other words, to treat her with kindness, generosity, and concern.

Hold on, I thought, she did me … Loophole.

Yeah, but if I treat her well, aren’t I condoning … Loophole.

A most unexpected and peculiar revelation came out of this practice.  I began to see that resentment fades in light of a call to action.  I suppose resentment inspires counter-resentment, which prompts an escalation of resentment, and so on.

But even beyond the interpersonal dynamic, I began to experience a strange release from resentment, a sense of freedom that felt like a gift or blessing.

Score one for the theory that the truth will set us free.

* Here’s a story about Zöe and her mom and dad in lighter times.

The Curse of the Clever

Let’s return to the question, does Sören Kierkegaard offer a cure for depression, which he called melancholy?

Because Kierkegaard offers nothing easy or simple, the opposite may appear more likely.  He would have us live by Christ’s standards, without recourse to excuse or compromise.  To attempt living out such an idealistic set of prescriptions might only add pressure to our minds, and the pressure might drive us into even darker places.

But if what he writes is the truth, and if the truth will set us free (John 8:32), then the ticket to freedom is not less pressure but more truth. And if the truth won’t set us free from depression, how valid is the assertion that the truth will set us free? And if that assertion proves invalid, isn’t all belief in Christ and his wisdom called into question?

Unless we’re inclined to credit Christ with superior wisdom, engaging with Kierkegaard might prove simply annoying.  So let’s suppose that Christ hit the mark with his proposition that the truth can set us free.

Sure, we could debate endlessly about the definition of this “truth” Christ referred to, and about what on earth “free” means.  But I’d rather leave such debates to folks with time on their hands, and move on with our attempt to heal melancholy.

Kierkegaard was fanatically devoted to discovering truth. And he offers a wealth of insight about human nature, which should lead to insights about our individual selves.  Applying these insights can save us from harmful attitudes and actions.

Kierkegaard was deeply suspicious of intelligence, which he referred to as cleverness. The clever, he maintains, are more apt to expend their powers creating excuses than to use their cleverness in the quest for honest self-discovery.

When I studied Tae Kwon Do, Master Jeong would respond to every excuse, for failure to execute a move or for lack of progress toward the next level, with stony silence.  I suspect most every psychologist and educator would agree that excuses are the archenemy of growth and learning.

But not so many of us recognize that the clever are most in danger, as they can dream up the most convincing excuses.

I’m not remarkably clever.  Still, I am going to try throwing out my best excuses and re-opening the inquiries that inspired them.

Ken Kuhlken, 9-18-11

Gold Diggers of 1933

Reviewed by James Garfield

A 1933 musical comedy directed by Mervyn LeRoy and set during the then-raging Great Depression, Gold Diggers of 1933 stars Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger Rogers as starving actresses looking for a break on Broadway.  Dick Powell, as the singer-songwriter millionaire next door, puts up the money for a musical that will deal with people’s current troubles.  Powell and Keeler fall in love, and his brother and his attorney show up to put an end to the affair, thinking all chorus girls are “gold diggers” who will take Powell for his money.  The chorus girls must use their charms to save Powell from being cut off from his family.

Despite being light and comedic, Gold Diggers isn’t completely escapist like most musicals—there is plenty of material about the Depression (details like the actresses resorting to stealing a milk bottle from a neighboring doorstep, or their first show being shut down due to debt).  The musical numbers realistically occur within the context of stage shows, rather than the usual fantasy element of musicals where people interrupt their everyday lives to break into song and dance.  The most famous number, the opening “We’re in the Money,” seems to mock its own optimistic sentiment by including a chorus in Pig Latin.  The film’s self-hyped closing number, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” takes off from a famous speech by FDR in paying tribute to people who fought in World War I and now can’t even find employment.

Busby Berkeley choreographed and directed the musical numbers.  I thought that none of the ones that follow “We’re in the Money” (sung by Ginger Rogers staring straight into the camera lens, accompanied by showgirls in skimpy coin-based costumes) quite match that charming production, although they are certainly watchable, with Berkeley’s trademark overhead shots of dancers forming kaleidoscopic patterns, and offbeat details like the neon violins wielded by dancers in the “Shadow Waltz” number.

The cast all performs energetically, although I wanted more Ginger Rogers, whose star was still rising—she disappears partway through, being peripheral to the plot, merely a friend of the three main actresses who share an apartment and thus are all entangled in the romantic complications when the brother and the lawyer enter the story.  As for the plot, well—who watches musicals for the plot, anyway? Watch Gold Diggers for the production numbers, the performances, and the unusual acknowledgement of reality—in the form of the Great Depression—in a musical.

The Danger

Existentialists consider a conscious decision about the meaning of life as essential to a creditable existence.  Sören Kierkegaard framed that decision as the choice for or against Christ.

He reasons that the message of Christ is so opposite to the attitudes most of the world lives by, it allows no legitimate alternative but for us to accept and attempt to apply the message with all we have, or reject and go our own way.

In a journal Kierkegaard wrote: “Imagine a kind of medicine that possesses in full dosage a laxative effect but in a half dose a constipating effect. Suppose someone is suffering from constipation. But – for some reason or other, perhaps because there is not enough for a full dose or because it is feared that such a large amount might be too much – in order to do something, he is given, with the best of intentions, a half dose: ‘After all, it is at least something.’ What a tragedy!

“So it is with today’s Christianity. As with everything qualified by an either/or – the half has the very opposite effect from the whole. But we Christians go right on practicing this well-intentioned half-hearted act from generation to generation. We produce Christians by the millions, are proud of it – yet have no inkling that we are doing just exactly the opposite of what we intend to do.

“It takes a physician to understand that a half dose can have the opposite effect to that of a full dose. Common sense, cool- minded mediocrity never catches on. It undeviatingly continues to say of the half-dosage: ‘After all, it is something; even if it doesn’t work very well, it is still something.’ But that it should have an opposite effect – no, mediocrity does not grasp that.

“The greatest danger to Christianity is, I contend, not heresies, heterodoxies, not atheists, not profane secularism – no, but the kind of orthodoxy which is cordial drivel, mediocrity served up sweet.” (1)

If a middle ground, a partial acceptance and application of Christ’s message, is so perverse, people of integrity must choose, when they come face to face with Christ, to either pick up the cross and follow or, whether with a laugh, shrug, or shudder, pass on by.

Christ’s message is so radical, it lies outside any possibility of compromise. The whole of his message invites us to reject and betray our very natures. We are deeply selfish creatures.  Jesus would have us turn our selfishness inside out, and concern ourselves exclusively with the good of whomever we encounter.  He commands us to love without distinction.

He draws a line.  On the one side is self-concern.  On the other side is love.  To straddle the line is like paddling into a wave with the right foot on one surfboard, the left foot on another.

(1) For those who care to read on, at the risk of copyright infringement, I have posted an entire chapter reprinted in Provocations, on my website, at: www.kenkuhlken.net/danger.htm

Either/Or

In 1843, while contending with the melancholy that was a motive for the urgency and intensity of his work, Sören Kierkegaard wrote this journal entry:

“The most important thing of all is that a man stands right toward God, does not try to wrench away from something, but rather penetrates it until it yields its explanation. Whether or not it turns out as he wishes; it is still the best of all.”

One of the heaviest challenges of my life was a years-long bout with panic attacks, in the heat of which, family problems deposed what balance I had and left me alternating between panic and severe depression.

My friend Charlie Morgan, then a graduate Psychology student, recommended The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck.  In that book I discovered an insight that started my healing and which I still try to live by.

Before, I believed that by defining life and events according to my preference I was avoiding pain. I agreed with the 1960s bumper sticker, “Reality is a Crutch.” From the wisdom of Scott Peck, I recognized that dedication to facing or seeking the truth, about large matters and small, sets me free from the pain, emotional and often physical, that are symptoms of living with illusions.  The truth guides us out of the night woods and into the morning meadow. And/or it loosens the stranglehold of a conscience whose job is to turn us away from the selfish and destructive and toward the Good.

Kierkegaard maintains that peace of mind requires purity of heart. To achieve purity of heart requires that we only seek one thing, the Good. And, he assures us, we can’t begin to know or approach the Good except by undertaking a penetrating search for the truth. And as a prerequisite for penetrating the truth, we need to accept one of two premises. Either:
• Christ is God
• or God isn’t anything.
Anyone who cares to argue or question the proposition that those are the only two valid choices should consider tackling Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.