Reprising the Review of “The True Measure of a Man”

 A while back (January of 2011), I reviewed a book by Richard Simmons III, The True Measure of a Man.  I pointed out that the book appeared to have been written for an audience of angst-filled Southern white Christian men, despondent over having suffered a bit in the recent economic turmoil.  I basically shed some crocodile tears for the men, telling them they had no basis for despondency so long as they could feed their family, and that their despondency and anguish arose either as a result of the misunderstandings they had of their own theology; or, in the places where they understood it, of the internal contradictions nesting at its core.

I proclaimed (for the very first time, if anyone cares) that I was not Christian because I did not believe that the resurrection happened.  Though I practice a Christian ethic in my daily life, I understand that for Christians, belief trumps behavior, and if I were to profess my lack of belief in the specialized deity of Christ to my local church, that no matter how steadfastly I lived the ethic, I would be an outcast.  It was just recently that I realized Thomas Jefferson, the second third (thanks for catching my gaff, MN) President of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence, believed himself to be Christian, though he too did not believe the miracles described in the Bible were anything more than allegory.  His personal bible in which he cut out parts he didn’t agree with and pasted comments he felt should be added is slated to be displayed in the Smithsonian Institution in November.  But Jefferson made no apologies for his views.  In spite of his skepticism at biblical folklore, he felt he was still Christian because he followed the Christian ethic.  (See the preview of the Smithsonian Exhibition of Jefferson’s cut and paste Bible by the Wall Street Journal here).  Perhaps if I was a founding father of the United States, I could get away with it too.  It is a bit ironic that the founding father most revered by those rich white Southern Christian males would likely have been ostracized and disparaged by them for his refusal to believe that God suspends the operation of natural laws in order to work miracles.  But as anyone with just an inkling of interest in the subject knows, history abounds with irony.

I never considered much of anyone would read the review.  In fact, I warned against it, explaining in a prologue that it was long and concerned philosophy and theology, probably making it a bore for a great many.  Yet it has become one of the most popular of all my postings (behind If Charlie Sheen’s Penis Had a Spine, Would that Explain his Behavior? whose popularity might be explained by its provocative title more than its subject matter—it’s actually a piece about penile evolution in primates). This reprise is similarly laden with philosophy and theology.  If you decide anyway to continue, you’ve been forewarned.

Simmons never really got to the source of the problem for those men cracking under the strain of seeing their net worth not expanding as robustly as before.  He correctly identified the main symptom of the problem—that the men foolishly believed the meaning and purpose for their lives was to be found in gaining recognition and acclaim amongst their peers—but offered no way out, except perhaps by finding meaning and purpose in life by serving others, which is really just substituting the recognition and acclaim of one group for that of another.  He never got to the core purpose for life that so often remains hidden from our eyes in this fog of American consumerism and prosperity.  Allow me to interject some clarity.

The meaning and purpose which these men seek is literally right under their noses every time they bring a fork full of food to their mouths when they eat.  The purpose of all of life, not just human life, but all of life, is its continuation throughout space and time.  Or, as I like to say, the purpose of life is lunch—an eternity of them, today and every subsequent day, for all mankind, until the end of time.  Every substantial and relevant meaning to be found in life is derived from this first purpose, this compulsion for survival not bounded by time. 

Anguish and despair so often afflict modern man for two reasons.  First, because securing the resources needed for day-to-day survival is today so phenomenally easy, our passionate minds, primed by evolution for struggle, search far afield of first purposes for struggles that might animate the meaning of our existence.  We contrive purposes which offer challenges for which we’ve been engineered.   But pursuing these contrived purposes leaves a hollow pit in the soul, because no matter how difficult the struggle may be, we know in the heart that the meanings we ascribe to them are also contrived.  The point is especially poignant when the goals and challenges we choose to relieve us of angst, ennui and despair involve seeking meaning and purpose through the approval of others.  There is nothing more vapid, hollow and meaningless than a life devoted to seeking the approval of others, which explains the angst of those white Southern Christian males.  They erringly conflated their survival prospects with the group’s approval. 

The second reason is related to the first.  In ordinary post-modern life, we make use of very few of the marvelous attributes evolution has provided for our survival.  We are born with the aptitude and ability to creatively solve problems of every sort, be they physical, or mental, or a combination of the two.  It was only ten thousand or so years ago that every day of hunting and gathering on the African savannah or the European woodland presented fresh and urgent problems to solve in order to preserve existence.  Yet very few of us employ much of our problem-solving capacity in ordinary life today.  Specialization has robbed us of our humanity.  We drive to work in cars whose inner workings are utterly mysterious to us, sit down at desks we neither designed nor created, plink away at computers whose inner workings are even more mysterious to us than an automobile’s; or perhaps install parts on a piece of equipment that we didn’t build or design as it passes by us on an assembly line, finally to return home to a house that we couldn’t have built and know barely anything about.   If this isn’t the recipe for angst, ennui and despair, it would be hard to fathom what is.  Until we’ve sufficiently devolved such that our magnificent aptitude and abilities for problem-solving fades into oblivion (which I hope beyond hope that we don’t, but that’s a different matter), the masses of humanity that don’t live creative lives will constantly feel a gnawing emptiness in the soul that they’ll try to salve with every sort of opiate, from maniacal devotion to sports teams to maniacal devotion to religious beliefs, to devouring self-help books to help them figure out why it is they always feel so lousy.  A select few at the highest echelons of society will continue to creatively solve problems—mostly of the type plaguing the continued existence of the society as a whole.  For the rest of us, it’s a life of quiet desperation. 

A decent analogy showing the dilemmas faced by individuals in a society where survival is more or less assured can be found in examining what life is like for soldiers in a garrison army, i.e., an army that, with no wars to fight, exists without an immediate purpose.  Boredom and despair at the lack of purposeful activity can drive soldiers mad.  The officers do the best they can, tasking them with busy work—painting rocks, cleaning up latrines, etc.—just to keep them occupied, but they don’t really fool anyone into believing any of it matters.  The old-timers that have endured many similar instances of standing down the fighting capabilities understand to take things in stride; that boredom today might very quickly turn to excitement of an unwelcome variety tomorrow.  The younger soldiers often thrash about, seeking purpose in picking fights, excessive drinking and carousing, etc.  They don’t yet understand that just because one’s purpose has been momentarily fulfilled does not mean time is no longer meaningful.

Peacetime is harder on the officers.  Officers are paid to lead soldiers in combat.  Without combat, there is no legitimate means of judging their leadership abilities.  So they find other ways to compete amongst themselves, most resolve (or at least did when I was in the Army) to proving virtue through asceticism.  This involves working longer and longer hours, even when there’s no work to do, eschewing vices like one of Plato’s Spartan guardians might (incidentally, disgusted by all this faux asceticism, I took up smoking as an act of rebellion when I was stuck in a garrison Army for a time), generally showing that though the officer has no legions to command on the battlefield, he can command the legions of his own passions. They obsess over putting a good boot forward whenever ranking officers are present, becoming expert at spit-polishing boots and displaying war-gaming strategies via PowerPoint.   It is very much like those poor Christian men trying to prove their piety and value amongst their brethren by showing how much money and power they can accumulate, but without enjoying any of it. 

Perhaps the best example in contemporary American culture of misunderstood purpose is in the college admissions game played by high school students and their parents.  If the first purpose of life is survival, then expending massive amounts of time, energy and money at getting into this particular college instead of that one, when the point of college isn’t going to the right one, but instead is learning things that might aid in the survival quest, is a severe and vast misallocation of resources.  There is great survival value in gaining an understanding of how the world is ordered and operates.  There is great survival value in learning to do something which members of society are willing to pay to have done.  Sometimes, but not always, such things can be acquired through a college education.  But any reasonably competent institution ought to be able to provide as good a chance at learning as any other.  It’s not as if Harvard teaches its undergraduates a different understanding of physics, chemistry and biology than does the local state university down the street.  The obsession that many parents (and some children—most likely because of parental influences) have at getting into the right college is misplaced.  It is often vain and selfish, in many cases representing a rejection of life’s first purposes for the luxury of seeking status and approval for its own sake. 

Given that so very few of our natural abilities are tasked to their limits at securing the necessities of life; that so often we are helplessly bound to the kindness of specialists to attain our daily bread, is there a way out that isn’t overly risky, i.e., that doesn’t detrimentally impact our long-term survival prospects?  I’ve discovered a couple of strategies that maybe are helpful.  First, to remain ever mindful of first purposes, we can become a bit Spartan and ascetic, inflicting some measure of pain, be it through fasting or exercising or disciplining our minds to learn new skill, etc.   Life is described in biology textbooks as constant state of metabolic disequilibrium.  Allowing the disequilibrium to build a little through denying the body what it needs for a time makes us aware of the natural processes of life through the consciousness of pain unrelieved metabolic disequilibrium causes.  The cessation of pain, i.e., the satisfaction of desire, is the source of all pleasure.  To a point, the greater is the pain, the more pleasurable is its cessation.  A bit of asceticism can go a long way towards keeping our priorities focused on life’s first purpose.  Nibbling on crackers all day may prevent the pain of hunger, but it also eliminates the possibility of pleasure that would come from hunger’s cessation.

There is another strategy for that can offer great satisfaction in the long run.  We can reverse our devolution to utterly pathetic sheep that society is driving us to become, conspiring to make of us a dependency class, and learn a bit of self-sufficiency.  We can garden and hunt and fish to get some of our food.  We can learn the basics of the building trades so that we don’t have to call an expensive specialist every time the toilet handle needs jiggling to keep the water from flowing all night.  We can learn something of how an automobile operates, if for no other reason than to intelligently ascertain whether a mechanic is lying.  We can learn how the human body functions for much the same reason when dealing with doctors.  These seem like little things, but taken together, they can prompt a spiritual awakening in the soul that God indeed is good as we come to appreciate and love the bounty of capabilities with which we have been endowed.

Going further, once survival is as assured as can be, once we have become as self-sufficient as circumstances will allow, our minds and bodies can enjoy some measure of freedom to play, to roam, to investigate, to laugh, to love, to give of ourselves to others.  But the trick is to never forget that exercising these freedoms does not supplant the first purpose of survival through time and space.  These are luxuries afforded when survival is not immediately imperiled, and engaging in them should be measured and moderate so as to not impair long-term survival prospects.  Thus it’s okay for your child to apply to Harvard, but don’t make it your life’s work to do so.  Staying focused on first purposes provides a bit of perspective.  Failure to get into Harvard does not mean the cessation of existence of either child or parent.  It doesn’t even mean the impossibility of the child successfully navigating life’s shoals and eddies such that survival and propagation obtains.  It just means that the child didn’t get into Harvard, nothing more, nothing less.  The intrinsic value of the child’s life has changed not at all.  Neither would it have changed had they gained acceptance.

The cost of living in a society in which daily survival is more or less assured is confusion about the meaning and purpose for life.  But just because the purpose is relatively easily fulfilled on a day-to-day basis does not change its nature.  The purpose for all of life’s individuals is necessarily the continuation of existence through space and time, else life wouldn’t long exist.  We endanger posterity when we allow the ease of daily living to delude us into complacency about the future and to confuse us about the purpose of the present. 

The lightness of being sometimes seems an unbearable burden.  God has provided us with such exquisite survival armament until continued existence in the face of ease often seems paradoxically difficult.  But the greater paradox is that, for all our trying, we still end up dying.  God commands that we focus all of our efforts on a task in which we ultimately always fail.  Yet all we can do is remain focused on surviving today in such a way that as many tomorrows as are possible will become todays in which to survive.  If our children or others happen to learn by our example, then perhaps our efforts will extend past our lifetimes a bit, but some notion of eternity stretching all of another generation or two cannot be the animating reason for our behavior.  The reason for focusing our efforts on survival is because the compulsion to survive through space and time is the purpose imbued in all of our lives, in fact, in all of life.  It is the common bond we have with each other and with all the rest of the animate world. 

How does all this fit within the context of Judeo-Christian theology?  According to the theology, God is an infinity–the only infinity–all-knowing; all-present; all-powerful.  It (I refer to God as “it” to make a point that any being with these attributes is not a man, nor even a Superman as the ancient Hebrews attempted to make it out to be along about the Exodus and afterward, but is something much more profoundly powerful, present and knowledgeable and infinite than is any man) is the cause and the substance of everything that happens.  It sees the very essence of the whole universe of space and time all at once, while we can only ever glimpse it darkly, as through a looking-glass.  Yet it has imbued us with some measure of its attributes.  We can see at least a short distance into the future.  We can construct for ourselves what the past may have looked like even before our kind was here to witness it.  We can drill down to the essence of life’s existence and discover its abiding purposes and priorities. 

In the quest for survival, we draw closer to understanding and loving God by better understanding the marvel of our being.  Of all the creatures of which we are so far aware, we alone understand that the purpose of our existence is our continued existence, and that we alone can consciously decide to undertake actions that would impair the continuation of our existence.  No other creature is capable of suicide but man.  The knowledge of good and evil with which humans have been imbued (and which Adam and Eve allegorically discovered when eating of the forbidden fruit) is the knowledge of that which will enhance or impair the probability of our continued survival.  The decision to be or not to be is ours to make; we’ve inherently known it since long before Shakespeare. 

Nothing in this essay specifically concerns how the individual compulsion to survive bears on others, all of whom are similarly compelled.  This is intentional.  The first challenge to loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, i.e., to achieve the Christian ethic for dealing with others, is to understand ourselves.  Love requires understanding.  Knowing that God has imbued us first and foremost with this survival compulsion goes a long way towards gaining understanding of ourselves.  All that’s left then is to examine how our particular attributes might be a help or a hindrance in the premises, and then, to thine own selves be true.  I wish Jesus had explicitly explained that first you must love yourself if you are to love your neighbor.  But during his time in ancient Judea, it probably needed no explanation.  It is only now, when survival is so easy that our purpose becomes easily confused, that loving yourself requires rethinking the essence of what it means to be human.    

This first purpose, this compulsion to survive through space and time, is the essence of God living within us.  It is the animating force that reveals to us our true character.  It is the voice resolving the internal conflicts between the head and the heart, telling us which path will yield the highest survival prospects.  Understanding it means knowing that, though we will exist as human beings on earth for only a very small sliver of eternity, our lives are part of the grand tapestry of God’s majestic creation, today’s linchpins between the past and the future.  Although we have no way of conclusively knowing and understanding God’s ultimate purpose for our existence, trusting in God means trusting that the purpose thus far revealed–the compulsion to survive imbued within us—is all we need in order to act within God’s will and plan.

There is great peace and profound happiness to be found in understanding and living in accordance with this very simple and easily understood purpose which God has provided and revealed.  Life only gets complicated and difficult when we lose our focus upon it.

5 thoughts on “Reprising the Review of “The True Measure of a Man””

  1. Mark Nesbit said:

    Just a correction: Thomas Jefferson was our third President. Maybe if he was on a three dollar bill instead of the two, it would be easier to remember.

  2. A ce plan de la accroissement, le débit de dispersion est: Q4Pa-surf = 0, 20 m³/h/m².

    Le débit de grondement sous 50Pa vaut: n50 = 0, 81 h-1.

    Les principales additionnel de fuites d’air sont les jonctions Ouvrant/Ossature.
    Un joint en sédiment Kathaleen expansible est complet pour faire l’étanchéité de la promulgation.

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