Roger Marolt: Roger This

Roger Marolt
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

I know that I am reading less into it than I should since it was written by two philosophy professors from U.C. Berkeley and Harvard, and actually I am only half way through reading what they wrote and it would probably be wise to finish reading and then digesting their work before commenting on it, but a part of it struck me and my mind went off on a tangent and I’ve been trying to run it down for several days without luck, and if you think you need a break here to catch your breath reading this sentence, well, then, welcome to my state of confused excitement.

The book is “All Things Shining” by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly and it is not a page turner. It is a slow and grinding read, which is a good thing because if it coasted easily over the subject matter I wouldn’t trust it. It’s barely over 200 pages but by the time I cover every other paragraph two, four, and even half a dozen times it will consume as much effort from me as Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

The book starts from a premise that in the Middle Ages people accepted their lots in life as a product of the guiding hand of God. Nobody questioned why they occupied whatever station they did or tried very hard to move up from it because God was looking out for them. Of course the Renaissance caused a u-turn in thinking. People came to understand that they could make choices and alter their lives in significant ways.

The authors contend that we have now over-steered into a dangerous slide that they term “the secular age” in which we believe we are in control of our own destinies to the point where God, if we even believe He exists, pretty much leaves things up to us. In a sense we have become our own gods, assuming a tremendous amount of power over our destinies and taking most of the credit for the outcomes of our lives.

Did I mention that the authors track this shift while weaving explanation and theory from strands of Western literary classics ranging from Homer to Melville to David Foster Wallace? It is what makes the book fascinating. And here is where I am going to leave the experts’ thesis and take off on my own. If you want their conclusions, buy the book.

How about considering this: Is it possible to work hard and get ahead in life in this modern secular sense without damaging your spirituality? I believe the answer is “yes” possibly, but it is a daunting task.

In a world of finite resources and one where millions of people and counting will never have enough of life’s basics such as food, shelter, water, medicine, and clothing to consider that their existences approach anything resembling physical comfort, what does it really mean to “get ahead?”

Well, it means exactly that: You must get ahead of other people. In a world of limited resources, for you to get more somebody else has to settle for less. For one person to move up another person must necessarily move down. Getting ahead means pushing and cutting to the front of the line. And yes, that’s the reality that I’ve been grappling with since I started reading “All Things Shining.”

My first reaction to this revelation was that it is irrelevant. If I make a little more money and accumulate a few more goodies than the next guy, so what? I am just one of 7 billion. My actions can’t possibly affect the global resource allocation.

However, one could draw a parallel with global warming since we more fully understand that (?). If I consider even the possibility of hot gases destroying Earth I participate in the sum of small efforts and economies with others by commuting in a Prius and keeping the thermostat down even when it’s 25 below zero outside. So, what similarly do I do if I buy into the notion of finite resources of which if I consume more somebody else on the planet gets less?

Here’s the thing: Getting ahead at other people’s expense describes what many feel is a perverse and pervasive force in our lives – The Rat Race! It is people clamoring to push in front of us in line with us pushing back to hold our own. There is little consideration for those at the end of the line for whom there will be nothing left after the big grab. Ironically, it seems that people who have the most already are pushing the hardest in the front.

It is anathema to the good advice given in St. Luke’s gospel that urges us to humbly take the last place at the table so that the host may ask us to move up or St. Mathew’s where Jesus tells us that in the end the first shall be last and vise versa. As our own gods in this secular age it appears that we have taken it upon ourselves to make sure we get the best seat and that we will indeed end up in first place, because we don’t think anyone else is looking after us.

We have adopted the Nihilist Creed in which we believe in one Go-Getter, and it is ourselves. Its message gnaws so persistently at our modern guts that we don’t even recognize it as a destructive paradigm shift in culture until somebody sneaks ahead of us in a Main Street traffic jam or jumps the line waiting for movie tickets, and then we go irrationally ballistic!

So, where does this leave the spiritual person who believes that the guiding hand of the other, real God plays an important part as to where one stands in this line of life? I would say that notion saddles that person with some heavy responsibility.