An endless thirst for life

Memento mori, as a reason for hope and for right conduct in this life. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura on the event we all face—though not our ultimate destiny:

“Finally, what great and vile desire for life compels us
To quake so much amidst doubts and dangers?
Mortals have an absolute end to our lives:
Death cannot be evaded—we must leave.

Nevertheless, we move again and still persist—
No new pleasure is procured by living;
But while what we desire is absent, that seems to overcome
All other things; but later, when we have gained it, we want something else—

An endless thirst for life grips us as we gasp for it.
It remains unclear what fortune life will offer,
What chance may bring us and what end awaits.
But by extending life we do not subtract a moment
Of time from death nor can we shorten it
So that we may somehow have less time after our ends.

Therefore, you may continue as living as many generations as you want,
But that everlasting death will wait for you still,
And he will be there for no less a long time, the man who
Has found the end of life with today’s light, than the man who died
Many months and many years before.”

To see environments as they really are

Marshall McLuhan, in The Medium is the Massage, on rejecting well-adjustedness, if well-adjustedness basically means an at-home-in-the-worldliness:

The poet, the artist, the sleuth—whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely “well-adjusted,” he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among anti-social types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power, is manifest in the famous story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” “Well-adjusted” courtiers, having vested interests, saw the emperor as beautifully appointed. The “anti-social” brat, unaccustomed to the old environment, clearly saw that the Emperor “ain’t got nothing’ on.” The new environment was clearly visible to him.

To see environments as they really are tends to be one of the most important and most difficult things to do—because it’s not always clear how things really were until after they’re past. This is why I agree with something a friend of mine pointed out years ago—that it’s not the future that’s to be feared, but rather it’s the present, because the uncertainties of the present are more challenging than the abstractions of the future.

Ungardening

Issam Ahmed and Ariela Navarro write:

Anna Burger lives by a busy road just a minute’s walk from a metro station in the US capital Washington, but every morning she wakes up to a birdsong symphony.

Butterflies, squirrels and even the occasional deer also come to visit the tree-covered property that she has cultivated with a focus on native species that provide nesting space and nourishment for the local wildlife.

Well-manicured grass lawns have long been associated with the American Dream, but a growing “rewilding” movement now seeks to reclaim yard space for nature.

“We knew that putting chemicals on grass to try to keep it green seemed to be a futile process that wasn’t good for kids playing or for the environment,” Burger told AFP.

She and her husband bought the house in 1990 and “we’ve tried to make it friendly, making sure that we have water sources, making sure that there are food sources so these trees aren’t the most colorful but have great berries.”

The couple’s home is surrounded by several houses whose occupants take a more traditional approach toward their green space, but a stroll through the leafy Takoma Park neighborhood reveals many more where “ungardening” has taken root.

Precise definitions of what this means vary, but the concept of meddling less and celebrating nature more was notably popularized in 1993 book “Noah’s Garden” by Sara Stein, a Bible for the movement.

There are some great photos of what these sorts of home look like, including some certified by the National Wildlife Federation as wildlife habitats. Not for everyone, but not bad, either. Nearly every neighborhood has something like this in it, if you look for it.

Scenes of Washington in August

I’ve been running a lot lately. I tend to run more often in August, probably because you start to have that sense that summer will end sooner than you’d like and that you should be outside as much as possible. Yesterday had a great nine mile run through Georgetown and then past the YMCA in Arlington and back. Today, I’m looking back on these scenes from the past few days.

This last photo is the facade of the National Press Building on F Street/Pennsylvania Avenue earlier this morning.

A thousand ages like an evening gone

At Epiphany in Georgetown for Mass this morning, O God, Our Help in Ages Past was sung. I don’t remember hearing it before:

Our God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home:

Under the shadow of your throne
your saints have dwelt secure;
sufficient is your arm alone,
and our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received her frame,
from everlasting you are God,
to endless years the same.

A thousand ages in your sight
are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
with all their lives and cares,
are carried downward by your flood,
and lost in foll’wing years.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the op’ning day.

Our God, our help in ages past
our hope for years to come:
O be our guard while troubles last,
and our eternal home.

Cain was spared by the God of justice

In light of the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to reinstitute the death penalty for those on federal death row, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is circulating past remarks of his on capital punishment, calling us to do better:

The evidence against capital punishment demonstrates that innocent people are sometimes convicted and executed; that our legal system discriminates against minorities and the poor; and that defendants in many states get disastrous legal counsel unless they can afford otherwise. All these things seem to be true — but let’s ignore them.

Instead, let’s assume that a defendant is genuinely guilty of a brutal and premeditated murder; that he or she gets excellent legal counsel with correct due process; and that a fair jury convicts our defendant after careful and intelligent deliberation.

Killing the guilty is still the wrong choice for a civilized nation. Why?  Because it accomplishes nothing.  It does not bring back or even honor the dead. It does not ennoble the living. And while it may satisfy society’s anger for awhile, it cannot even release the murder victim’s loved ones from their sorrow, because only forgiveness can do that.

What the death penalty does achieve is closure through bloodletting, and violence against violence — which is not really closure at all, because murder will continue as long as humans sin, and capital punishment can never, by its nature, strike at murder’s root. Only love can do that.

Executions in Texas averaged nearly two a month in 2004.  Ponder that through the eyes of a young person reading the newspaper.  Is this how we define ourselves as a God-fearing people? Is this really a fitting monument to murder victims?  In “sending a signal” to would-be murderers, do we realize that we are also teaching a message of state-endorsed violence to our own children?

The reality of any homicide is heart-breaking beyond words. We cannot presume to understand the deep and bitter personal wounds suffered by those who lose their loved ones through murder. As a people, we must never allow ourselves the luxury of forgetting the injustice done to victims of murder who cannot speak for themselves—or our obligation to bring the guilty to full accounting.

But as Jesus showed again and again by his words and in his actions, the only true road to justice passes through mercy. Justice cannot be served by more violence. In the world of 2005, capital punishment has become just another narcotic we Americans use to ease other, much deeper anxieties about the direction of our culture. Executions may take away some of the symptoms for a time (living, human “symptoms” who have names and their own stories before God), but the underlying illness — today’s contempt for human life — remains and grows worse.

In Genesis 4:10-16, humanity’s first murderer — Cain, the man who brought bloodletting into the world — was spared by the God of justice.  We should remember that.  God’s ways are not our ways; they are wiser and better.  God’s heart, unlike ours, is driven by love, not anger.  A culture ultimately defines its moral character by the value it places on each human life, particularly those lives that seem most burdensome, inconsequential or unworthy. Violent criminals present an especially harsh moral challenge for us, because their own cruelty has forced them to the margins of society. Recognizing a criminal’s humanity is bitterly difficult when our hearts are clouded by pain.

But the same needle that poisons the killer in every [execution] also poisons us as a culture.  Repaying cruelty with cruelty does not equate to justice.

“The Department of Justice is simply enforcing the law, our law, passed by our elected representatives,” Chaput concludes. “Which means that all of us, as citizens, are implicated in the coming executions. We can do better as a nation. For the sake of our own moral integrity, we need to do better.  We need to abolish the death penalty now.

Limits on federal spending

Michael J. New offers common sense on federal spending:

The recent budget deal that was agreed to by President Trump and Congressional leaders has fiscal conservatives livid. This deal raises discretionary spending caps by over $300 billion over two years and effectively repeals the budget caps that were established as part of the Budget Control Act in 2011. The frustration of budget hawks is certainly understandable. While the rest of the budget has grown in recent years, non-defense discretionary spending has actually fallen in constant dollars since 2011. However, seasoned observers of fiscal policy knew it was unlikely to last. After all, there is plenty of evidence that legislatures, including Congress, have been unable to place effective long term limits on the growth of spending.

Indeed, after triple digit budget deficits became commonplace in the 1980s, Congress adopted the Gramm Rudman Hollings Act in 1985. This piece of legislation established declining deficit targets every year and triggered automatic spending cuts if those targets were not met. Half the cuts were to come from defense spending, and half the cuts were to come from domestic programs. While Gramm Rudman Hollings did result in some short term spending cuts, its main outcome was creative accounting. Congress often pushed spending into future fiscal years to create phantom spending cuts to stay within the deficit targets. When the economy slowed down, the deficit targets became too difficult to reach, and the legislation was scrapped in 1990. …

Fiscal conservatives should revisit pursuing a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Regardless of the results of elections, Congress has shown no ability to place effective long term limits on spending. A balanced budget amendment or another constitutional fiscal limit might be the only effective long-term strategy to limit the growth of government. America’s long term fiscal outlook looks especially bleak due to rapidly growing entitlement programs. Indeed, a balanced budget amendment might as well be the only strategy to get Congress to seriously discuss reforming rapidly expanding programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and shore up America’s fiscal future.

We are acting as if there will be no consequence for our bipartisan monetary policies. Kicking the can down the road…

What does it mean to be mature?

Agata Rottkamp asks, “Are you an adult?”:

If numbers and measurements yield no definitive answers, we must ask a more fundamental question—the very one we want to wrestle with in this and the three subsequent issues of Humanum: what does it mean to be an adult? What does it mean to be mature—to be fully alive?

A troubling new trend suggests that instead of being an adult, it is sufficient to “adult” when necessary—that is, to undertake the things that responsible adults do: pay the bills, clean one’s apartment, control one’s temper, etc. Once the often unpleasant tasks have been accomplished, the role of adult can be cast aside, to be reassumed at a later time. By this logic, however, one could go through life without ever reaching adulthood per se, without giving up “childish ways”, as St. Paul suggests we must when we mature (cf. 1 Cor 13:11). Acting responsibly, though important, is not therefore definitive when we are speaking of adulthood.

As so often on the Christian journey, the beginnings of an answer to our question can only be discerned when the gaze shifts from the “I” (what I have to do to become independent) to the “thou” and, eventually, the “Thou.” Adulthood means no longer having the self as one’s sole focus. The ability to put the other first, selflessly, if not without effort, may be a more defining trait of human maturity. “Now [as one matures] the person is able to give himself to the other,” Fr. Jose Granados tells us, “to abandon the sphere of the isolated individual around which the feelings tend to circle…in such a way that the individual is no longer the center of the relationship but lives…out of himself and, only in this way, becomes fully himself.” …

In a clear and definitive tone, the Baltimore Catechism tells us that God made us to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world; and to be happy with Him forever in the next. If this is our intended telos, then surely human maturity—that is, adulthood—must take up the tasks of knowing, loving and serving God in a way that corresponds to a given individual’s abilities and situation. And when carried out perfectly, these tasks—this full flowering of humanity—become holiness.

Adulthood and the “full flowering” of one’s masculinity or femininity…

‘The things they did together’

I’m at Nationals Park this afternoon for Atlanta v. Washington. And I’m reading David Mills, who writes about masculinity and virtue:

I don’t disagree with all the talk about the challenges men face. Some writers may carry the idea too far, but our society offers no clear guide to what a man does and is. It speaks more clearly about men’s failings and sins than about men’s virtues and calling. Of course some men will feel lost without more guidance, especially if they grew up in a broken family. People sneeringat male insecurity are both uncharitable and unrealistic, and often trying to gain an ideological advantage, and often weirdly dependent on stereotypes. …

Better, I think, to find out what being a man means through friendship with other men. To do guy stuff not because you want to act like a guy, but because guys do guy stuff without thinking about it when they’re together. To find when doing men’s work with other men — to a great extent unconsciously — what a man does and is. …

This requires some care in making friends, of course, and in choosing the common interest which leads to standing side by side with your friends. The more virtuous and wiser the friends, the more they will show you about being men. The better and higher the common interest, the more pursuing it with them will show you about being men. …

The soon to be sainted John Henry Newman gives us a very good example of this. He was the virtuous and wise friend other men sought out, but he looked for religiously serious men and then carefully cultivated deep friendships with them.

The things they did together were worthy enterprises, beginning with he and his friends’ effort as young Oxford dons not only to teach but (because they were ministers as well as teachers) to form their students. Then came the Oxford Movement Newman helped lead, which tried to recover and invigorate what they thought was the Church of England’s essential Catholicism. A worthy work, one into which good men could throw themselves, if one he came to see was misguided.

You can see something of the effect of friendship in Newman’s final Anglican sermon, preached when he’d decided to enter the Catholic Church. It was a move that would separate him from many friends, such was the feeling about the Church in the world he was leaving.

He ended “The Parting of Friends” with a moving request. It indirectly says something about how a man may help another man be a man. [Newman writes:]

“O my brethren, O kind and affectionate hearts, O loving friends,” he begins, should you know any one whose lot it has been, by writing or by word of mouth, in some degree to help you thus to act; if he has ever told you what you knew about yourselves, or what you did not know; has read to you your wants or feelings, and comforted you by the very reading; has made you feel that there was a higher life than this daily one, and a brighter world than that you see; or encouraged you, or sobered you, or opened a way to the inquiring, or soothed the perplexed; … remember such a one in time to come, though you hear him not, and pray for him, that in all things he may know God’s will, and at all times he may be ready to fulfil it.”

Riffing off of Philip D. Halfacre’s Genuine Friendship, it can be tough to remember that it’s in the doing of things together that we have the chance to demonstrate virtue. In the real, concrete, and particular.

Walking, habitually

Amy Fleming takes a walk with Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist who reminds us that walking—and specifically making walking a habitual part of our lives—is both good and healthier than many alternatives:

I witnessed the brain-healing effects of walking when my partner was recovering from an acute brain injury. His mind was often unsettled, but during our evening strolls through east London, things started to make more sense and conversation flowed easily. O’Mara nods knowingly. “You’re walking rhythmically together,” he says, “and there are all sorts of rhythms happening in the brain as a result of engaging in that kind of activity, and they’re absent when you’re sitting. One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes.”

From the scant data available on walking and brain injury, says O’Mara, “it is reasonable to surmise that supervised walking may help with acquired brain injury, depending on the nature, type and extent of injury – perhaps by promoting blood flow, and perhaps also through the effect of entraining various electrical rhythms in the brain. And perhaps by engaging in systematic dual tasking, such as talking and walking.”

One such rhythm, he says, is that of theta brainwaves. Theta is a pulse or frequency (seven to eight hertz, to be precise) which, says O’Mara, “you can detect all over the brain during the course of movement, and it has all sorts of wonderful effects in terms of assisting learning and memory, and those kinds of things”. Theta cranks up when we move around because it is needed for spatial learning, and O’Mara suspects that walking is the best movement for such learning. “The timescales that walking affords us are the ones we evolved with,” he writes, “and in which information pickup from the environment most easily occurs.” …

Some people, I point out, don’t think walking counts as proper exercise. “This is a terrible mistake,” he says. “What we need to be is much more generally active over the course of the day than we are.” And often, an hour at the gym doesn’t cut it. “What you see if you get people to wear activity monitors is that because they engage in an hour of really intense activity, they engage in much less activity afterwards.”

But you don’t get the endorphin high from walking, I say. “The same hit you get from running is what you’d get from taking morphine? We simply don’t know that’s true,” he says. “People who study this area don’t go on about endorphins and there may be a reason for that.” Not that he is opposed to vigorous exercise, but walking is much more accessible and easily woven into everyday life: “You don’t need to bring anything other than comfy shoes and a rain jacket. You don’t have to engage in lots of preparation; stretching, warm-up, warm-down …” O’Mara gets off his commuter train a stop early so that he can clock up more steps on his pedometer. To get the maximum health benefits, he recommends that “speed should be consistently high over a reasonable distance – say consistently over 5km/h, sustained for at least 30 minutes, at least four or five times a week.”

It’s the simple things…