(Note to readers: This is the last of the holiday book reviews. It is long. It is about theology and philosophy, so may also be boring to a great many. I hope you can slog your way through it. If not, here’s the synopsis: Don’t bother reading this book. If you want to read a book to enlighten your path, try Spinoza’s Ethics instead.)
This book was a gift from my mother. I’d have never bought it for myself. But I think she’s finally realized that no matter how many John Grisham novels she gifts me, I won’t change my mind that his books are nothing more than half-witted drivel, and I won’t sit down and try and write a Grisham-mimicking novel. So now she tries a book meant to inspire men. Ugh. I utterly disdain self-help/motivational books. They too, are so much drivel. But since this was a thin (137 pages) little book with big type and lots of blank space for chapter changes and extensive quotations, I figured, what the hell—let’s see what is The True Measure of a Man. So I read it during the afternoon of New Year’s Day, between Crimson Tide touchdowns and other such serious stuff blaring in the background on TV. It’s so bad until I’d feel remiss if I didn’t warn others away, so here’s my take on it.
A lame start to the book: How would these guys know anything about the true measure of a man?
The author is a former CEO of Hilb, Rogal and Hamilton—a local (Birmingham, Alabama) commercial insurance agency—so a good plurality of the jacket cover blurbs praising it in tones making it seem just slightly less inspirational than the Bible were from local sports heroes or coaches or business leaders. Ugh, again. I don’t take my cues from the local conspiracy brotherhood of good ol’ boy Christian jocks and business leaders that make the speaking rounds of the quarterback clubs and Christian breakfast meetings. They wear their Christianity like it’s the latest in camouflage hunting attire—part of the persona they like to project as leaders of that strange pack of wolves known as Southern Christian men. Bidness, beer, Baptists and by-God, football. It’s all you need to know about the rogue species. Former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden is perhaps the ultimate personification of their ilk. It seems the book was directed mainly at them or their acolytes, or at least at the few of them that suffered a bit in the recent economic downturn when, for a few dismal quarters, their fortunes didn’t grow as robustly as the rate to which they had become accustomed.
But I’m not a Christian, nor a Southern man, though I attend a Baptist church; was born, raised and live in Alabama; love football, and drink lots of beer (really, lots). I only go to church so my kids won’t be ostracized as heathens; well, and so they might have a social life outside of school. I no more believe in the Judeo-Christian fantasy of a personal God that sacrificed his son on a cross who then rose from the dead than I believe Santa Claus slips down chimneys to deliver toys. I can’t help where I was born, although I admit I should have moved away years ago, and did, but returned when I had kids because I thought I wanted them to know their grandparents better than I knew mine, which ultimately was the worst decision of my life because I never even liked their grandparents, but that’s another story. I played football for nine years, from fourth grade through high school, but I don’t worship the college sport like folks down here, as if it’s some sort of melodramatic metaphor for reliving Civil War grievances, instead preferring the NFL’s honesty in paying top dollar for its brutality. Indeed, I drink beer, but quite a few of these “Christians” believe it a mark of piety to be a teetotaler, no matter that Jesus turned the water into wine (John 2), not the other way around. So, anytime I’m around a group of these Southern Christian wolves, they can quickly tell I’m not one of them. Which is good. If they leave me alone, I’ll leave them alone. If they refuse to leave me alone, well, I did learn a thing or two from my Southern upbringing about how to resolve differences the old-fashioned way.
Simmons begins the book with a stupid story about a guy building a sailboat to impress everyone down at the local yacht club. The guy lavishes the visible part of the boat with every fancy accoutrement he can imagine, but skimps on items directly pertinent to seaworthiness that would be out of view of those yacht club members he’s trying to impress. The keel, and the weighting and provisioning of ballast, were mostly ignored. You can see where this is going, right? The first trip at sea—yep, you guessed it—he encounters a storm that destroys all his fancy rigging, leaving him adrift, until a final wave washes over the bow and capsizes him for good–because of the poorly-constructed keel and ballast. Guess what? It turns out that the story is a parable, and the keel and ballast are metaphors! They are meant to represent the emotional and spiritual foundation of our lives. Wow. How clever.
Simmons doesn’t get that after life’s necessities are met, life is as hard or easy as you choose to make it
In Chapter Two Simmons proclaims, “Life is, after all, difficult”, then unwittingly provides one example after another of how the quest for the acceptance and honor that men seek is the reason men perceive life to be difficult, even providing an utterly banal personal example of how he worried what the neighbors would think of his manhood if he cut the grass himself when he had an able-bodied son that could do it. This and another example of his worry over being recognized by someone when he and his wife were on their way to marriage counseling is all Simmons needs to conclude that in today’s world, life for us men is all about what we do and how successful we are at what we do. He has a sample size of one (himself), yet feels justified in reaching a conclusion like this? Maybe men outside his echo chamber think differently. I certainly do.
Life is not, after all, difficult. Life, in this land of milk and honey, is profoundly easy. Anyone that can fog a mirror can make enough money to feed himself and his family. Dimwits like Simmons make life difficult because they haven’t a soul that understands that once necessities are taken care of, everything else is gravy. It is because life is so easy that people like Simmons make it difficult by trying to imbue it with more meaning and purpose than is really there, which usually translates to thinking that life’s meaning is derived from what others think of them. Except that the immediate purpose of life necessarily must be life’s continuation (else we wouldn’t long exist), nothing else about life’s meaning and purpose, if there is any other meaning and purpose, is clear. But it’s easy to see that it’s not about accomplishments or acceptance or honor, as Simmons seem to think most men are obsessed by. It can’t be. Even the Bible, the main reference point for Simmons’ dissertation (if only the parts he thinks support his cause) makes clear that life can’t be about temporal things like acceptance and honor:
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes, Chapter 2: 10-11)
Sounds pretty dismal, trying to find purpose through achievement, wouldn’t you agree? According to Solomon (generally agreed by theologians to have authored Ecclesiastes), that’s not the half of it:
I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. Then I thought in my heart, the fate of the fool will overtake me also, what then do I gain by being wise? I said in my heart, “This too is meaningless”. For the wise man, like the fool, will not long be remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die. (Chapter 2: 12-16)
It gets even worse, or better, depending on the perspective:
A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. (Chapter 2:24)
So, basically, the purpose of life is living, i.e., securing food and other necessities needed to survive. If securing necessities is easy (as it is in the US and most of the developed world today), then life is easy. We make it hard when we try to imbue it with more meaning and purpose than it inherently has.
It’s natural to be confused about life’s purpose when surviving is easy. We’ve been hard-wired over eons of evolutionary development to expect difficulty and hardship in our struggle to survive. Now we experience very little of either hardship or difficulty that directly pertains to survival. With survival more or less assured, life lacks purpose and focus. So we invent purposes and fabricate meanings to make life difficult and hard again, which in turn, sanctifies the purposes and meanings we contrived.
Simmons could have simply and succinctly told his audience of men who think the whole purpose of their lives is to fight the losing battle of gaining accomplishment, success and honor amongst their fellows that they are living an illegitimate lie. That so long as they can feed themselves and their families, they’ve no right to despair, and then ended the book there, with about 130 blank pages for them to ponder over how utterly silly are their ideas about life’s purposes and meanings. But no. He chose instead to enable their self-pity by making it seem he was one of them. He pulled a Clinton, effectively telling them, “I feel your pain.”
Control the emotions by acknowledging and accepting them
In the next chapter, Simmons tries to drill down to the essence of the problem. He sees it as the tendency of men to get their whole persona wrapped up in what they do, and to be relentlessly comparing themselves to others, worrying that they never measure up. Fair enough. This is certainly the way things are in the wolf pack of Southern Christian men, where status is determined by proclaimed fealty to a theology devised by a Jewish peasant roughly two thousand years ago and how successfully their devotion to such theology has resulted in the acquisition of a petite bourgeoisie lifestyle. But acknowledging the reality hardly serves to legitimize it.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an interesting article about the movement in psychiatry to address the inner fears with which so many are plagued (failure, not measuring up, spiders, death, etc.) by simply acknowledging their existence and ignoring them. Simmons might have done his readers a good turn by advising the same thing. Controlling the emotions, rational or otherwise, requires acknowledging and understanding them. Philosophers as ancient as Baruch Spinoza (17th century) understood this. Envy, fear, greed, etc., are part and parcel of the human experience, no matter in what shape is a man’s portfolio. In fact, it is usually the ones that are more amply blessed than others that suffer the worst from feelings of inadequacy and envy. The way to defeat the inner voice croaking away at the soul is to acknowledge it and try to understand its source. Ignoring it should then be easy. It doesn’t take a book to understand this, but like women watching Oprah, men like to wallow in struggles against demons of their own creation. It makes the lightness of being so much less unbearable.
I’ve first-hand knowledge that defeating the croaking voice of fear is not unduly difficult. For the last year and a half, I have been my son’s primary caregiver in his battle against leukemia. I have spent endless days and nights in the hospital with him as he endured round after round of chemotherapy. I have helped him regain his strength as he slowly recovered from a bone marrow transplant. Through it all has been the lurking fear that it would all be for naught. That he’d die anyway. This is not a contrived fear, like befalls so many of these angst-ridden men to whom Simmons is preaching. He very well may.
But guess what? He will die anyway. Death is certain; it’s just a matter of timing. And no matter how long we live, we’ll be dead for a much, much longer time. That’s the reality I had to embrace, and the fear accompanying it, before I was able to deal with the truth of my son’s condition. Now I get up every morning that he lives and is without pain, and live simply in the day, enjoying that we have all our needs met and no one is suffering. In my mind, I’m ready for either me or him or anyone else close to me to go now or whenever, so I don’t worry about it. I got there by acknowledging and accepting, but ultimately ignoring, the fear of that comes with death’s contemplation. We’re all headed in the same direction, and no amount of good works, or belief, or casting stones against the temple will change the fact. In a time so short compared to eternity to be laughable, all that we’ve worried over during our lives will be forever forgotten, relevant to no one, no matter how important we might feel we now are. Solomon was on to something.
Good things happen to bad people, and vice versa, and God is the cause of it all
I scoff at these prissy “Christian” men that grow despondent as soon as their lives take a turn they hadn’t anticipated or planned, but it’s sadly understandable. They fully well know, as members of the Fraternal Order of Southern Christian Wolves, that in the shallow, vacuous minds of their fraternity brothers, their misfortune is irrefutable evidence that God no longer loves them, which is why they will soon enough have their fraternity membership rescinded. Their despondency depends on their misunderstandings, even of their very own theology. They claim to worship a God that is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. They don’t get that this means their God is necessarily the cause of everything that happens, including things they consider bad, but the fact hardly means God is punishing them. Was God punishing the Jews when He unleashed the Holocaust upon them? Was He punishing the Haitians when he made the earth rumble? If the worship of God by these wolves had more depth than just professing faith to gain acceptance by their Southern Christian brethren, they would praise God for everything, including their misfortune, and they would humbly accept that there is often no hope for understanding God’s mysterious ways. But even Christianity’s original salesman (Paul) fell a bit short in understanding that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God causes the good along with the bad:
…there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me…I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. (2 Corinthians 12: 10)
At least he understood that God could have removed the thorn had he wished. This unexplained conundrum—that God is the cause of everything, yet things we consider to be bad routinely happen to people that we think to be good, and good things routinely happen to those we consider evil—is one of many that make the Christian theology logically indefensible for me. How could God be all-powerful and yet allow his people to suffer?
Later on in the same chapter, Simmons, after explaining to his audience not to be concerned with what others think of them, exhorts them to be concerned with their legacy. Huh? Either you are concerned with what others think of you, or you aren’t, but if you aren’t, you are necessarily unconcerned with your legacy. This is another example of the many contradictions embedded in Christian theology which make it nigh well impossible to follow for anyone with a logical mind. You can’t forsake the world as Christ directs while at the same time worrying about what the world will think of you once you’re gone. The correct admonition should be to do what is believed right and proper in the circumstances, never mind how difficult it may be, never mind who might approve or object. So what if the pack of Southern Christian wolves abandons you? Do what you know in your heart is right, your legacy be damned.
Illogical Arguments for Belief
The balance of the book is mainly proselytizing, trying to show how following God is the way to find meaning and purpose in the world. Simmons tries to show that by following Christ one can enjoy wisdom, the greatest blessing of God, quoting scripture from Proverbs (Chapter 3: 13-18) that directly contradicts the passage from Ecclesiastes I quoted above. Solomon is presumed to have written both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, so this is an instance of not only the Bible contradicting itself, but one of its supposed divinely-inspired authors contradicting himself. How is one to make any sense whatsoever of this mush?
Then Simmons proposes that friendship is the key to happiness. Yet friendship, as represented by inclusion in that fraternity of Southern Christian wolves to whom he is writing, was previously pegged as precisely the source of angst and envy and despair for men that have suffered misfortune relative to their peers. Perhaps he means that when misfortune befalls us, we should comfort ourselves by finding a group of bigger losers to hang out with. Angst and envy are always relative emotions, driven by our impulse to feel that we are better than others and that our lives have meaning and purpose that transcend the lives of others. But Simmons doesn’t counsel to simply ignore these emotions as illegitimately-inspired. He offers a way around them by finding friends whose lives are at least as miserable as our own.
Simmons then preaches that pride and arrogance should be replaced by humility and a heart of gratitude. Earthshattering news! How can any rational being that surveys the evidence not be humbled by the insignificance of the little speck of space-time that comprises our lives? Keith Richards famously wears a skull ring, the image of a bony skull having become something of a symbol for him. Most people think it has something to do with devilry or his bad-boy pirate image. They’re wrong. He wears it to remind himself that beneath the skin and flesh, we are all the same, and we’ll quickly enough be virtually indistinguishable once we’re dead, and the maggots and worms have had their fill. Belief is hardly a prerequisite for understanding such truths. In fact, Christianity (as practiced) seems more often than not an impediment to seeing such things clearly.
I Love the Now
Chapter seven admonishes that we need to live in the present, forsaking hopes and fears for the future. But how, precisely, is that to be accomplished by a good Christian, worried over finding his way to his final reward in heaven? Simmons offers no explanation. This idea of living in the present is a fairly complex and important idea that is worthy of explication, but Simmons gets it completely muddled. Allow me to help.
The Gospel of Matthew relates that Jesus admonished his followers, “[D]o not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Chapter 6: 34). He said that worry is never worthwhile (“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Chapter 6: 27). Worry essentially resolves to hope or fear, which are two sides of the same coin; one imagines an uncertain future as better than today, and the other imagines an uncertain future as worse than today. The way to escape worry is to abandon all hope and dispel all fear, finding contentment in living each passing moment as it arrives. It’s quite easy to dispel fear. Imagine the very worst that could happen in whatever circumstances arise, (hint: it’s always death) and then accept its inevitability, because even if the worst doesn’t happen this particular time, death is always inevitable.
Abandoning hope is harder. The human heart is designed to strive for the promise of better days, but refusing to imagine anything better than the here and now is precisely what is required. This is where a bit of asceticism (a great many of Jesus’ earliest followers were ascetics) and Solomonic wisdom (of the Ecclesiastical variety) comes in handy. Solomon teaches that the pleasure gained from the realization of hopes and dreams is always fleeting. He doesn’t go so far as to acknowledge it, but he could also have said that pleasure is fleeting because it has its foundation in pain. The greater the pain and the longer its duration, the greater and longer will be the sensation of pleasure when the pain is eliminated, up to a point. Ten years of suffering won’t translate into ten years of bliss when the suffering is alleviated. For shorter-term matters, pain and pleasure are more commensurately matched. All it takes is skipping a couple of meals to understand how enjoyable eating can be. Enduring pain, whatever its type or source (e.g., hunger from not eating), is the impetus for hope. Pain compels us to hope for a future without it.
The danger is when we allow our natural drive to eliminate pain to push our hopes far beyond our immediate concerns. We all enjoy the promise of a future with no pain. It’s called death. Life is pain, so hoping for the permanent cessation of pain is tantamount to hoping to die. No matter how clever our technology allows us to effortlessly alleviate ordinary pains like hunger and thirst, nothing about the essential human condition changes. We thirst and hunger, and yearn for sexual release, which is why a bit of asceticism comes in handy. If we refuse the comforts of technology and force our bodies to suffer some minimal level of pain on a routine basis (e.g., by fasting or exercise or celibacy), we have a better chance at restricting our hopes and desires to the present, and to forget about hoping for the permanent cessation of pain, which anyway will come soon enough, whether we hope for it or not. To live contentedly, we must live in the moment, focusing our efforts on alleviating whatever pain we immediately suffer. Whether the purpose for doing so is belief in Christ or simply the quest to live as graciously and harmoniously as is possible, the path to contentment is the same.
Simmons, of course, equates this sort of contentment with belief in God. He thinks that suffering and pain can only be understood as purposeful in the context of belief, and that we would become despondent if we didn’t have God’s promise of eternity to bide us by our earthly troubles. Nonsense. Suffering and pain are necessary physiological processes meant to aid us in survival. The pain of a sun burn alerts us to the dangers of over exposure. Hunger pangs alert us to the need to secure and eat food. There is, in fact, no pain without purpose, if the purpose of life, as I earlier proposed, is life.
Simmons ends this fantastical exercise in self-contradictory reasoning, by claiming that “we should begin with the end in mind”, forgetting that failure to achieve the ends of wealth and honor is what got us in this fix with ourselves over our ranking amongst our Southern Christian brethren to start with. His proposition seems not a lot different than my strategy for dispelling fear by embracing death, but that’s not how he means it. He means that there is an ulterior end, a transcending purpose, to our lives to which we should be ever mindful. The key to experiencing this meaningful and purposeful life is to make a difference in the lives of others. But wasn’t that what we were striving after before—making a difference in the lives of others, by impressing them with our fancy sailboat? How it makes life more meaningful to imagine that affecting others imbues it with some purpose in addition to those our visceral emotions provide, just perhaps less selfishly so, escapes me. I don’t get why life needs to have some ulterior end. Why do humans, alone it seems amongst earth’s many and varied living creatures, need to think their existence holds some special significance? Is not existence itself purposeful enough?
Still, I believe
All that said, I believe in God. Not by revelation, but by reason. My God is Baruch Spinoza’s* God—a being infinite in every attribute, infused within every speck of matter and every force of nature that comprise the universe. It is, like the Judeo-Christian God, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, but not in the manner of a Superman God like the creature that ancient Hebrew folklore claims led them out of Egypt. It is a being not susceptible to anthropomorphizing. It is necessarily not a creation of man, but every man that ever lived is one of its special modes. In that regard, Christ was a part of God, but so too was every other man that walked the Earth. My belief is founded on what we know of the physical world—that matter and energy are just two forms of the same substance; that the gravity connecting all of matter and energy in space time knows exactly how much and where is every last speck of dust or ray of energy; that there can logically be only one infinity, and that infinity necessarily exists and necessarily comprises everything.
My God takes no special notice of any particular human, even as it beats within every human breast. So far as the individual is concerned, worshiping God is self-worship—it is pledging fealty to that particular slice of God of which we are comprised. God is the man in the mirror. The way around all the angst and envy and fear and failings for men is no farther than the bathroom mirror. All that’s needed to sanctify life by worshiping God is “to thine own self be true”, a concept that’s much easier to understand than implement, which must be why Simmons effectively spent 137 pages talking around, and ultimately failing, to explain its practical application. The true measure of a man is himself. It is to escape from ourselves that we so often seek the favor and approval of others, which is why favor and approval from others always fail us–we can’t escape ourselves. Jesus told us the first and greatest commandment was to love God and the second was like the first—to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. He was right. We have to love ourselves before we can love our neighbors, and loving ourselves means loving God. It’s really as simple as that.
My mother wrote a note to me inside the front cover of the book, “You do know what the true measure of a man is—God passed you with flying colors many times”. She was no doubt referring to the years of pain and heartache I’ve endured in my son’s war for his life against leukemia. Yet, I doubt she’d much agree with anything here that I’ve written. I haven’t the heart to tell her that I don’t, and never have, bought into the curious ethics and theology of Christianity as it is practiced. Sometimes being openly true to yourself would cause others great pain. How to resolve that conundrum might actually be worthy of a 137 page book. As for the 137 pages of this book, doing just about anything other than reading them would likely be a better use of your time.
*Some might recognize this as imitative of Einstein’s response when questioned whether he believed in God and he replied, “I believe in Spinoza’s God”. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the similarity was intentional. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish theologian and philosopher, banished from his Amsterdam community of Portuguese Jewish exiles as a heretic. No one knows exactly which of his beliefs caused his banishment. At the time, he’d yet to publish any of the works that would later cement his reputation as perhaps the greatest philosopher of the early modern era, and the banishment decree did not list specifics as to its cause. Banishment may have been the result of his observation, now widely accepted amongst theologians, that Moses could not have written the Torah, unless it could be imagined that Moses would write of himself in the third person, and could relate the events of his own death. It may have been Spinoza’s view that since the Old Testament was written to the Hebrews while they were a politically and ethnically definable nation, its laws and strictures were only valid so long as the Hebrew nation continued in existence. It’s doubtful that his views on the nature of God as propounded in his masterpiece, Ethics, could have caused his banishment. The banishment came in his late twenties, and Ethics, ten years in the making, wasn’t published until after his death at age forty-four. Whatever the cause, Spinoza’s exquisitely rational mind, capable of stripping away delusions and illusions to objectively get at the heart of human motivations, has been a beacon lighting my way in attempting to understand God and man and how it all fits together. I highly recommend him to anyone with a mind logical enough to make the world seem a confusing place in which to live. My efforts to understand Spinoza have been highly rewarded. He taught me how to think.
Post Script: I reprised this review on a new page The Curmudgeon’s Theology and Philosophy Corner started for the purpose of posting some of my thoughts on the subject. If you’ve made it this far on this posting, I invite you to visit there and share your thoughts.