Saturday, August 21, 2004

A Study in Contrasts

Saturday, August 21, 2004 was a study in contrasts for me and I decided to note it down here for future consideration.

I woke too early to get out of bed and disturb the rest of the household, so I switched on the TV and started perusing the satellite channels. Six a.m. turns out to be primtime for “Sponsored Programming” (otherwise known as infomercials).

(Aside: My spellchecker didn’t even blink at the word “infomercials”. What does that say about America?)

I happened upon a broadcast of the film “The Fountainhead”. It’s based on the novel by Ayn Rand. Ayn was the creator of the school of thought called “enlightened self-interest” and her philosophy has an awful lot of adherents. In fact, a foundation created in her name sponsors an annual essay contest for high school students that offers pretty substantial cash prizes.

All that I really know about Ayn Rand I learned from NPR and Matt Ruff’s terrific novel “The Public Works Trilogy”. I do remember that "Atlas Shrugged" must have been required reading in some lit class at my high school. For a while, it seemed as if everyone was carrying a copy -- even people who weren’t normally seen with books.

The whole point of enlightened self-interest seems to be that an individual’s primary responsibility is to themselves and their own good. Rand maintains that humanity moves ahead through the dedicated, selfish efforts of extraordinary individuals. “The Fountainhead” advances this point through speeches delivered by Gary Cooper in the character of architect Howard Roarke. Juicy little tidbits like “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine” and “I am a man who does not exist for others”. In the film, Roarke dynamites a construction project based on his designs. He’s inspired to violence by the fact that the builders have the temerity to change HIS plans. The creation is his and no one should have the right to change it. So he destroys it.

In time he is arrested and taken to trial where he chooses (being the superior man) to represent himself. He makes a lengthy and impassioned speech about how he should be exonerated because he’s the superior man. And, golly gee, the jury lets him off.

When I was younger, I would have been very attracted to that philosophy. There’s real seduction in the belief that it is right and necessary to act solely in one’s own interests. In many ways, I wonder how much of American culture has been shaped by Rand’s writings.

I got to see the other end of the scale at the end of the day.

The readings at Mass on that Saturday evening dealt with humility. I’ll reproduce the last two of them here from the USCCB web-site.

Reading II Heb 12:5-7, 11-13

Brothers and sisters,You have forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children:"My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lordor lose heart when reproved by him;for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines;he scourges every son he acknowledges."Endure your trials as "discipline";God treats you as sons. For what "son" is there whom his father does not discipline?At the time,all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousnessto those who are trained by it.

So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet,that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.

Gospel Lk 13:22-30

Jesus passed through towns and villages,teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him,"Lord, will only a few people be saved?" He answered them,"Strive to enter through the narrow gate,for many, I tell you, will attempt to enterbut will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying,'Lord, open the door for us.'

He will say to you in reply,'I do not know where you are from.'

And you will say,'We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.'Then he will say to you,'I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!'And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacoband all the prophets in the kingdom of Godand you yourselves cast out.

And people will come from the east and the westand from the north and the southand will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."

Fr. Van Bergen preached on the need for humility and on how important it was that we Christians serve other people. He cited examples of service in the parish and in the world beyond the narthex doors. It provided a fascinating counterpoint to that morning’s viewing.

So, is there a point to all of this?

The obvious one, I suppose. Serve others. Do good.

But these two messages book-ended my day and I usually take such contrasts as a sign that the lesson is one I'm meant to heed.