By Wayne Allensworth
If I were asked to point to one life-lesson I learned from my parents that meant the most to me, it would be this: Your life is not your own.
It’s not something they explicitly told me when I was a boy. It was something I absorbed by watching them. My father did whatever he could for his family without ever making an issue of it. I noted that he was a loyal friend, and never let family squabbles change his attitude about where his first duty was.
He never behaved as if anyone especially owed him anything, either. I don’t think that was something that would have crossed his mind.
I would say that he has been a forgiving man in his long life — he’s 90 now — but forgiveness implies a formality, a conscious and explicit decision, a decision of a kind that as far as I could tell he seldom made. Family members might be cantankerous and even downright unpleasant, but what his actions taught me was that didn’t matter. Family was family, and a friend was a friend. Some things just are. Some things couldn’t be helped. And there were other things that you just had to accept. Life was like that. Get over it.
And I never, ever heard him celebrate the misfortune of someone whom he did not particularly like. That, too, was something that I doubt would have ever occurred to him, and still doesn’t, as he steadily watches the people of his generation — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful — shuffle off this mortal coil, as we all do. Maybe the great equalizer has something to do with what one might call his positive sense of fatalism.
That was a not uncommon attitude among the working-class people I was raised with. They were fatalistic about personal misfortune, but sometimes you got lucky. Be thankful and get on with life. It’s going to be over soon enough.
What you want only for yourself doesn’t matter so much. Your life is not your own. Whoever seeks after his own life will lose it. Self-denial–and it took a while for this to sink in — was the way to a fuller life. What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul?
Neither my father nor my mother ever put it that way, exactly, but the unspoken rule was to do your duty no matter what and get on with it. I don’t know how “happy” everyone was, but looking back on our lives, I dare say there was at least a certain sense of purpose, and plenty of simple joy mixed with the usual sorrows and disappointments.
My late mother put an especially sensitive Christian spin on an attitude that was a blueprint for living. It’s not that everyone deserved help, it was just that sometimes it was required, and if you were able, it was your Christian duty to help out. Try to make things better, not worse.
I don’t recall hearing much about that as a means of earning metaphysical brownie points. Preachers undoubtedly mentioned acting in a way that pleased God, and they certainly mentioned pearly gates and the Promised Land, but the point was to do the right thing because it was right.
Relativism wasn’t the fashion. Those simple people believed in absolutes, often unstated absolutes that were intuited and acted on, often in the breach, it’s true, and not without a sense of resignation. Even so, there it was.
I don’t mean to idealize the people I knew as a boy. They had plenty of the usual human shortcomings, including some of the more serious negative proclivities that flesh is heir to, yet by and large, that’s the way it was.
Increasingly, that’s not the way it is.
That’s not surprising given the Zeitgeist of an era defined by atomized, self-seeking individualism. The ultimate endpoint of such a philosophy is — again, no surprise here — nihilism. Anything that gets in the way of the self must be nullified, especially the family, the church, and traditional notions of morality, obligation, and duty. Create your own values. Better yet, create yourself, your own reality. That’s what the “trans” madness, for instance, is all about. To hell with the consequences, and with anyone who stands in the way. What right have they to judge?
I’ve read a lot of blather, for instance, about couples feeling “happier” without children. The attitude among a certain social stratum seems to be that if you must have one or two of the little blighters, shuffle them off to day care as soon as possible, and keep them away from the rest of us. Better yet, don’t have any children — they’ll get in the way of climbing the career ladder, and you won’t be able to climb Mount Everest, either, or scuba dive at the Great Barrier Reef. Childlessness reduces one’s “carbon footprint.” Save the planet!
Abortion and euthanasia are the predictable sacraments of the post-modern anti-religion. Human sacrifice follows from such a desiccated sense of what is right, and what is wrong. For whom, exactly, are we to “save the planet?,” anyway?
All is vanity, as the preacher said.
The goals of our anti-lives are to avoid as much pain as possible, maximize pleasure, and do as we please. The new anti-religion dismisses consideration of the burdensome responsibilities that once commonly provided some meaning and fulfillment to our lives.
Don’t listen to the high panjandrums of postmodernism’s anti-human anti-religion. The end point on their path is despair, loneliness, and the Death Wish. To have a life with any meaning, you must give it up. Therein is the paradox of human existence.
Your life is not your own, but by losing it, you gain your own soul.
Wayne Allensworth is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.