Much of today’s popular psychological messaging is designed to make us happy and content with ourselves by puffing up our self-esteem. Much of this messaging is commercial, designed to create in us a frame of mind favorable toward purchasing whatever is being sold. This psychology doesn’t have your best interests at heart; it doesn’t want what’s best and most edifying for you. It just wants your money, your time and attention, and your “clicks”.
But this is the nature of public discourse these days in addition, of course, to the vast political divide that features ad hominem attacks and physical violence on those who see political questions differently than we do. This alone is overwhelming evidence that vast tracts of our society today have abandoned the higher Reality – the foundation of human society that, while not tangible, allows the visible to be livable. As fewer and fewer live within, or at least in touch with, this Reality, our visible reality deteriorates physically, emotionally, sociologically and spiritually.
Lowest Common Denominator Living
Today, our sightline seems to never get off the horizontal, and never, seemingly, farther out front than perhaps tomorrow. It’s not so much our culturally encouraged short-sightedness that stymies us from perceiving and partaking of the Good, but rather it is the worldview lens through which we (and our teachers and “thought leaders” who have trained us) see that blinds us to virtually anything of real value. Without an active perception of the Good, we have become expectation-less; timid (if not fearful); increasingly disconnected in any meaningful way from others, and addicted to diversions on screens and from chemicals to numb our anxieties and make the drab and colorless bearable. And certainly, the periods of isolation brought on by the pandemic only serve to accentuate our lack of the Good.
There are a few signs that you may have become mired in this cultural pond scum:
- Your primary mode of interacting with others is digitally. Sure, the pandemic hasn’t helped. But it is still possible to interact with others in person, safely. It just takes a little more planning and effort. Unfortunately in the world of social media, expressing platitudes and trivialities with our best, dearest friends deludes us into thinking we’re actually communicating, actually sharing our lives when we are not. Because this digital interaction is so easy, it often grows into an addiction that can be quite difficult to kick.
- You likely read (if at all) fictional pap[i]. Of course, there’s a place for entertainment. But that’s not the primary purpose of reading a book. You can find entertainment anywhere. But the only place you’ll find knowledge, and one of the few places you’ll have the opportunity to find inspiration, is in a book.
- Conducting life while oblivious to what some of the most acclaimed thinkers, scientists, poets, and musicians have thought, written about, and composed in the last two and a half millennia. This is a prescription for emptiness; for a lack of perspective.
- Not expecting your best from yourself. If you are self-satisfied with “getting by”, you are not seeking the Reality of life.
- Being accepting of the Pablum that passes for the narrative on today’s social causes without the least bit of curiosity as to what parts of that narrative are actually, objectively true. Most of us, if we were honest, would say we’re good with feeling compassion for tragic figures appearing on our news channels daily. This is our connectedness to our neighbor – our society, for many of us.
- And the same for the narrative underlying today’s “crises”; climate change, Covid-19 risks, etc. We’re quite comfortable with accepting without challenge the droning narrative emanating from our screens 24/7. Our cultural sedation seems to have overcome our natural ability to question and think critically. For some of us, the media has become our personal conscience.
Fighting With One Hand Tied Behind Our Back
We’ve lost the capacity to determine what’s important; lost the ability to think independently, based on the knowledge we’ve acquired; lost the ability to think critically and holistically, based on the skills we’ve been taught. And, in this handicapped condition, we’ve been assaulted by an onslaught of non-sensical gibberish as narrative, e.g.
“Believe that men can’t give birth? Congrats, you’re a transphobe. Want people to keep more of what they earn because they know how to spend it better than the government does? Bravo, you’re a greedy capitalist! Understand that the gender pay gap is because men and women often choose different professions and different hours, not because of rampant sexism? Hooray, you’re a misogynist! Take the “wrong” side of any hot-button issue and your reputation, your friends, and your job can all be lost in an instant. You will likely never get a chance to confront your accusers, most of whom are anonymous. And you may feel forced to issue a faux apology to save yourself (which, by the way, it usually won’t). The understandable temptation is to think that this politically correct madness will soon end—just die out on its own. Well, it won’t. “
I use this (random) example to point out a central tenet of my thesis here and that is that what the gibberers want to do is disclaim that there is Reality; disclaim that there is Good.
Today we are being proselytized by gibberers into a new religion; one that is anti-Reality and anti-Good.
How Can We Escape from the Mundane?
Most of us, if we introspectively look deep, find that we have unfulfilled longings to live a fulfilled life; a life more enriched by beauty; a life in which virtue and honor are esteemed, a life elated when encountering the exquisite; a life filled with relationships of honesty, authentic caring, devotion, and goodwill. The absence of these things in our every day creates a kind of dull ache in the soul that seeks the healing salve of the Good. Sadly, too often instead we treat the ache with chemicals or entertainment.
Our goal then is to remove the boundary (that is our modern cultural noise and fury) between ourselves and the Real, the Good, that underpins the world around us.
Perceiving the Good
We must begin by acknowledging that there are beautiful, inspiring, uplifting things all around us despite the drabness and sameness that perhaps dominates our everyday life. We have only to recognize them, seek them out, and then avail ourselves of them.
Some have thought about this issue a lot more than I. Among them is CS Lewis who, in 1943 wrote a masterpiece of philosophy and analysis concerning what constitutes and influences our appreciation of what is “good” – “The Abolition of Man”.
Some may consider the differentiation between “the Good” and the less good or “bad”, as arbitrary but in any case, subjective. Is it? Or is there a rational, objective basis for this appellation?
Lewis presents a masterful analysis of our penchant for lazy thinking concerning what constitutes the Good. In his book, he dissects why it is not mutable by our analysis or critique, and why, nevertheless, humanity has historically tried to either ignore it or improve on it in accordance with the latest cultural trend.
Lewis opens the book with a recounting of Coleridge’s story of two tourists viewing and reacting to the scene of a waterfall, one reporting that it is “sublime” while the second assessing it only as “pretty”. The recounting is set within a secondary school education guide whose authors claim that either assessment is only that: a subjective assessment based on their feelings about the sight. They go on to assert that all assessments of beauty or good are only true inasmuch as they accurately represent the feelings of the assessor. Lewis sets about to devote his book’s first chapter, entitled “Men Without Chests”, to thoroughly dismantling these authors’ sloppy assertions.
To Lewis. the Good is the Sacred Order of Creation. It manifests itself in Rationality, Honor, Virtue, our care for our parents as well as for our posterity, Love for one another including love’s expressions of charity, and upholding our fellows in response to their needs.
Lewis differentiates between the idea of Nature (as the environment of the sacred order), and nature, as the biology, anthropology, or physics of the material Universe. For Lewis, it is as if Nature has an unchangeable soul, while nature is only there to be analyzed and “improved” by imperfect humanity. Nature both provides beauty, but also a Reality that defies its analysis. We can lay in a field at night and perceive the “goodness” of Nature’s heavens; perceive the glorious perfection of a cosmos that perfectly creates and destroys its member objects according to unchangeable laws of its Nature. Or we can study those laws in a physics or cosmology class, and be left more knowledgeable, but less alive and less connected to its Reality.
Lewis gives his assertion of this cosmic Reality, our timeless human law of Nature, the name “the Tao”, the Chinese idea of the innate “flow of the Universe”. (I, for one, wish he had invented his own term for it rather than borrowing one from the ancient philosophers, especially as Lewis was a devout Christian.) For myself, I prefer “Sacred Order”. But Lewis’ analysis is nevertheless piercing and accurate.
He builds it around several examples, foremost among which is our treatment of our parents and our children/posterity. He argues convincingly that in neither of these cases can it be shown that our care and support are instinctual. (Critics of every idea of absolute goodness need to be able to point to examples of naturally occurring goodness that imply some mechanistic source, in this case, inbred instinct within the species.) Lewis destroys this conclusion.
But we don’t need Lewis’ logical argumentation to notice that today our society routinely does not only not provide for our children, it either abandons them to the state, perhaps so that parents are free to live on chemicals, or it just murders them before they can lay any claim on us for our care and support. And we do these things in vast numbers. We also have widespread evidence of our lack of fidelity to our parents, as today hundreds of thousands of seniors live out the end of their lives in facilities unengaged with their children and families (this is far more than a pandemic issue). Those of us who have had to place our elderly parents into such facilities for proper care can attest that many of their residents have little or no engagement with their loved ones.
The point Lewis makes is that these judgments about what constitutes “good” – in this case, moral behaviors that benefit the species, both previous and future generations – must be taught; must be passed down from one generation to the next. And even in Lewis’ day (the 1940’s), he saw that they were not. Learning these ways from the prior generations connects us with Nature and Reality – Lewis’ Tao – and provides for its continued transmission to our progeny.
And just so you don’t think that C.S. Lewis is the only voice proclaiming these truths, there’s this. NT Wright comments in “Preaching the Cross in Dark Times”, speaking of our natural inclinations toward the good and right:
What do we do with these deep instincts? Many people have argued that they actually point us to God. The reason we instinctively love justice, value beauty, long for freedom, and so on is (some will say) that these are implanted in us by the God in whose image we are made. We can therefore argue from these instincts up to God himself.
Seeking The Good
So while Lewis’ analysis is largely concerned with moral issues – how one interacts with his fellows, and the basis for doing so, etc. – our interest is not just this but also in tapping into this Good as it has been made available to us by those who perceived it (whether consciously or not) and then expressed it, in story, music, rational analysis, and, yes, worship. That these expressions of Reality even exist must also be taught less they slowly fade from society’s memory.
A great place to start is with the Great Books. They’re called “great” because a substantial majority of their readers acknowledge that they contain exceptional ideas, archetypal stories, and have been crafted in such a way that they are set apart from more pedestrian works. And their readers have experienced an enrichment of their soul missing from lesser works. They have been variously uplifted by the stories, or have perhaps been led to experience their unfolding tragedy deep within their being. Possibly, they have simply found towering ideas and insights of which they were previously unaware, revelatory to them. And by the simple act of learning these things, their soul has been elevated.
Then there are the great poets: Shakespeare, Keats, Shelly, Frost, etc. These giants not only clearly perceived the Good (e.g. Longfellow – Psalm of Life), they were able to paint gorgeous word pictures of it that find a way, perhaps because of their intense beauty, to take up residence in us. Wordsworth (1770-1850) well-understood the Tao[i] and its value to the species as can be glimpsed in this ending stanza of his poem Daffodils:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Another excellent vocation is spending time with music’s masterworks not only to become familiar with them through listening but to appreciate their history and development. This is one of those areas of endeavor (perhaps like mathematics) in which the more you know about the basics of the craft, the more edified and uplifted you are when you hear, and so experience, what has been created. For example, if you know a bit about music and its theory, you can not only hear beauty in Bach (say his Brandenburg Concerto) but you can see it as well in its manuscript pages, as if they, themselves were works of art.
However, you certainly don’t have to limit yourselves to the classics. There are unprecedented examples of music creation and performance in nearly every genre of the craft (though maybe not hip-hop J). You can be enriched by great jazz (e.g. Basie, Brubeck), rock (e.g. Who, Prince), musicals (e.g. Disney, Sound of Music) small ensembles (e.g. Bach, Pachelbel), choral (e.g. Mozart’s ‘Great’ Mass, Handel), opera (e.g. Nessun Dorma), etc. Be selective. Look for grace and beauty in the performance, and seek out those that lift you up and evoke in you a connection to the Good; that implants within your soul a sense of the immutable Tao that envelopes you.
How to Rise Out of the Pond Scum?
First of all, you need to realize that what you focus your mind on is a choice. You have to accept that your experience of reality can change, can grow richer, can mature. However, it makes no sense to expect different emotional or intellectual or cultural experiences and awareness by simply wishing them to be different. You’ve got to take action to make them different.
To seek out and receive what will ultimately become an intuitive connection to these purer things, you must exercise your freedom to do so by controlling your own mind. If you allow yourself to be influenced by whims and fancy and emotions – either yours or others’ – you will remain their slave. The ancient stoic philosopher Epictetus was very opinionated on this issue (among many others), as evidenced by these quotations:
“No man is free who is not master of himself.”
“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control. Stop aspiring to be anyone other than your own best self: for that does fall within your control.”
“Freedom is secured not by the fulfillment of one’s desires, but by the removal of desire.”
“You become what you give your attention to…If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest.”
His third point here refers not to desire for the Good, but the desire for worldly “things” – all of the stuff the world wants you to buy, or buy into. This admonition for contentment is widely found in many ancient philosophies and cultures, and certainly in the Bible (e.g. Proverbs 16:8 “Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.”, and Hebrews 13:5 “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,’”). So this message is quite clear: “Don’t be distracted by worldly enticements. Keep your focus on the Good.”
The curious but as yet uninformed person will, in all likelihood, ultimately find the Good for him or herself if he’s intently focused on elevating above his numbing, everyday experience. But he should know that the people mentioned above (among many others) have already found it and can lead him effectively in his quest.
We need to be thankful for people like these whose contributions act to so enrich and elevate our lives by creating the beautiful, whether: scientific theories and discoveries; music; books; plays; art[ii]. As ones who perceive the Good, we can place these works in their proper context. Do you remember hearing the phrase “s/he’s so gifted”? We hear in that phrase an implicit acknowledgment (contrary to today’s narrative) that some people actually are more talented or creative or skilled or insightful or wise than the average person. They have their gift in greater abundance than the rest of us have that gift. Using that gift they are able to create that which is simply more “beautiful”, more representative of the Good than normal; more in tune with the Sacred Order than those with lesser gifts. Thank God for them all!
The True Good
The Good has a source, a cause, as Lewis and the vast majority of great authors, poets, composers, and artists knew well. The very English word has entomology tracing its root to “God”. Whatever word is used, the concept has an Author. Without God and His teaching throughout the scriptures, we would have, like Lewis’ education guide authors Gaius and Titius, no basis for judging goodness. All we would have is our preferences, as we find to be the case in our current culture.
And so our culture continues to distance itself from the immutable, divinely-ordained, to the subjectively relative. Of course, this is not just a prescription for disunity; it is a prescription for tyranny through promoting the whims and preferences of the powerful on the less powerful. This seems to be where we find ourselves today: man’s ordination above God’s.
But this is not Reality. Reality is that God, as Creator, has created and ordained “the Good”. And we find ourselves living in a substrate below His ordained goodness, indicated below.
Good is not relative. God begins His narrative (Gen 1) by announcing that each of His days of Creation, beginning with the third day, were “good”, culminating with His sixth-day creation of life and man, and looking back over all of His Creation declaring it “very good”.
But these are just a kind of preliminary to the revelation of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus endorses but extends these basic rules in His ministry. Probably His Sermon on the Mount provides the greatest insight into just how different following God’s rules are from living within the Good of God. In fact, Jesus’ entire ministry called attention to how the interpretation of God’s rules of living given to the Israelites, was a synopsis of His underlying message. God told the Israelites, for example, Deuteronomy 10:12:
And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul,
And, in Micah 6:8 He says:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The overriding requirement here to connect to the Good seems to be to connect to its Author, to love Him, and follow His instructions. It’s simple. But it’s not easy.
These are revolutionary, counter-cultural attitudes of the heart. And we might be excused if we somehow miss their connection to the sublime, the exquisite. Does Mozart’s C-minor Mass have a relationship to the idea of “fear the Lord, your God” and “to walk in all His ways”? Yes. Yes, it does. Does Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light is Spent” have anything to do with “walk humbly with your God”? Yes. Yes, it does. These things are not the Good. But they are superbly crafted expressions of it that apply desperately needed salve to the ache of longing for it in the pit of our souls.
We need to connect with these things, and then we need to connect to the Good’s source if we are to experience this life as it was intended.
We cannot afford to blindly abandon ourselves in the every day, at the risk of losing our humanity. Seek the Good. Seek what is above. Philippians 4:8-9:
 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
[i] I was encouraged to see that significant numbers of people that do read, read History and Biographies.
[ii] “For a multitude of causes unknown to former times are now acting with combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature of the atrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespear and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagent stories in verse.”
[iii] I fear I have short-changed art here. This is not my intention. It’s just that it hasn’t been my focus. However, I remember standing in front of Michelangelo’s “David”, and his “Pieta” and feeling the same reverent awe that I have felt in listening to the masters, or reading the giants.