Tag Archives: Iraq

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Trees and People

I wasn’t going to write a blog about trees and people until I read the news this week. Indeed, this blog is not going to be about trees and people, not really. It’s rather about the way that people are like trees.

DSC_0036The oak is a symbol in Virgil for strength. Indeed, the very word for oak, robur, -oris, is also used for strength in Latin generally. When Aeneas is described as having decided to leave his lover Dido, Queen of Carthage, he resists her stoutly (cum robore) when struck with her bitter objections, which come at him like cold, Alpine blasts of the North Wind. Notably, on that occasion, Aeneas’ oaken roots reach so far into the soil that it is as if they extend to the gates of Hell itself (in Tartara tendit).

But this is not how I want to say that people are like trees. Rather, I want to state something even more obvious. I want to say that people are like trees because each family member is like a limb on a tree and each family is a tree. Some families are oaks, some are pussy willows. But the important thing is that they are trees, with limbs, and they are all vitally connected, with grafts of saplings that form new, strong branches. And that rather obvious thing is the way that trees are like people.family tree

So when I read this week that a member of the terrorist group that is destroying the Middle East killed his mother because she wanted him to disassociate himself from that group, it struck me hard. For I have edited and written my mother’s Curious Autobiography, and through that experience I have appreciated her life even more than I had before I wrote it. 9781480814738_COVER.inddI saw in the writing of her story that it was, in fact, a story that was already written. I was just recording the story that someone else had written. She had written part of it, and God the other part. And that story touched (and if you buy the book, will continue to touch) all those connected to it—those privileged enough to have known her, to have appreciated and learned from her worldview, to have understood that behind her perception of the world lay that of her parents, and behind their view of the world, that of her parents’ parents, and so forth, stretching back generation after generation. That is the story and the origin of the values that supported it—it is what enabled Elaine’s curious life to be what it was, enabled it to have meaning and significance, which it most certainly did.

The values that those who had come before her were trying to pass on were transmitted imperfectly. Sometimes the full impact of those values could be lost, or at least misunderstood. But in the final analysis they were transmitted, even if occasionally they wound up skipping a generation. But they did not go away.

a family headstone

One of my cousins and I once stood in front of our grandparents’ headstones and talked about meaning and significance, values and morality. His view was that he was constructing values from the jumble that he had been handed. My view wasn’t very different in terms of “jumble” or that the values were somehow “handed” (off? over?) to us. The only difference was the verb. I was trying to derive values from what I was given, he was trying to impute values based on what he had been given. We share the same tree, we have inherited the same sap. And our tree is an oak.

But, to change the subject from a tender moment that two cousins once shared to the recent, terrible news, what values could a person inherit that would lead him to kill his own mother in the name of religion? Several times this week I found myself mulling the event over in my mind, contrasting that event with Abram’s obedience when he was instructed to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.

CARAVAGGIO The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1601-02
CARAVAGGIO, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1601-02

He couldn’t have known that he was doing something that would be a pattern, a harbinger of what God himself would someday do, for God provided a lamb for him from a thicket; Isaac was saved from death by a different kind of sacrifice. But in the case of the young mother in the news story—she was but 35 years old, in one account of the incident that I read—no one came to take her place. There was only a terrorist who, in the name of God—at least what he regards as god—decided that his mother’s desire to escape the juggernaut of the violent religious regime that was coming upon them in Iraq qualified her as a heretic. She merely had decided that what she was hearing, reading, learning, seeing—a blood bath, carnage, destruction, fear mongering, hatred, threats, wholesale executions—these things could not be from God. And she was right.

If you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of time trying not to kill trees. I try not to do stuff that will hurt the environment. I try to recycle; I avoid printing; I try not to use paper towels unless really necessary; hey, I even bike to work every day so as to minimize my personal use of fossil fuels. But while I’m worried about a real tree in this country, maybe I should be more concerned with the metaphoric arboreal destruction that is going on abroad. A young man killed his mother in the name of God, because she was viewed as heretical. I don’t know what I can do about it except pronounce first, that his mother’s life, like my own mother’s, had significance and meaning.

I don’t know much about her life, but I for one will not let her death simply be a casualty of war. I will proclaim that woman as a kind of martyr, for she bears witness to the fact that the members of this terrorist group must be stopped. We in the West cannot sit idly on our hands while thousands of people, who in a fundamental human sense are our brothers and sisters, are murdered. Some Muslim, some Christian. But either way, they are killed tragically. We can, at the very least, get off our hands, fold them and pray for those folks. And perhaps, before long, western governments can help them. Admitting the destitute as refugees may help for a time, but it will not solve the problem. If that regime continues to capture city upon city and impose radical Islamic law upon the territories acquired, then all that will happen is more people will die or be cowed into submission.

Until the governments act, whether western or Middle Eastern, all we can do is pray, and by praying we can save a different kind of tree than that which provides us with paper towels. And prayer is more than just a little, for God is far more outraged with the death of that mother than we. She was an oak, for she showed robust fortitude, she was courageous in the face of death. Her life had significance, and I pray, it will continue to have significance, for she risked it—or rather lost it—for peace, for hope, and for the love of her son, the very son who killed her. What was her name? We don’t know her name yet. But God does.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cats, Dogs and People

dog and catA year or so ago researchers at the University of California at San Diego announced the results of an important study, the culmination of months of research, that established that dogs get jealous. “How odd,” I then thought to myself, “those behavioral scientists must never have owned their own dogs.”

Ben and Hilda
An example of a dog and owner with similar personalities.

I say this because anyone who has ever owned a dog already knew the results of that inquiry, and certainly does not need a scientific study to prove it: dogs do indeed get jealous. Another study by Professor Coren of the University of British Columbia has suggested that people tend to choose dogs based on their own personality. In a piece of popular writing directed toward a general audience, Professor Coren touches on his own research and, even more valuably, summarizes an important Hungarian/Austrian report that suggests that dogs often seem to share personality traits with their owners. At this point, if you own a dog, you are likely to pause, and say, is that how I seem to the world? Further, at this point, I’m sorry to tell the answer just may be yes. (And, if you really want to know, ask your spouse or your closest confidant.)

I needn’t say it, but cats are different than dogs. Well, they are sometimes. Let’s start with a superbly interesting exception, Tara, Jeremy’s pet cat. The reporter in this interview interestingly and amusingly asks Erica, Jeremy’s mother, whether or not Tara has a “lion complex.” Yet “Tara the Lionhearted” cat, saving Jeremy the child from “Hannibal ‘Baby Nibbler’ Lecter” dog, is perhaps the exception to the rule.

The cats that I have known and have had—I here tip my hat to our dearly departed Italian cats Piazza and Lorenzo, and the French Simone—interesting personalities. Cats seem to lose interest in playing with you or in many cases even being petted, and certainly want to act as they wish, quite individually, and in any case not as you may want them to. They are funny in that way, and they seem to tolerate their owners or their owners’ family members, as if the family were intruding on their territory. And while both dogs and cats expect to be fed at some point, the cat is often the most clear and articulate when it comes to asking for his or her food. The dog will often wait, hoping for a table snack for an appetizer. Thus, the dog often seems to be humanlike, wants really to be a part of the family, while the cat regards the family as a necessary social construct, as you might consider the idea of attending your neighbor’s child’s Bar Mitzvah or first communion, finding the warm buckle of your airplane seatbelt only after your seatmate has been sitting on it for five minutes, or in extreme cases, the local sewage treatment plant. Add to this, of course, the matter of the euphemistically entitled kitty litter that the cat completely takes for granted that you will dutifully change, holding your breath, week in and week out.

I will not speak here about the personality differences between dog owners and cat owners. The same Dr. Coren has done so eloquently, again summarizing scholarly studies that would likely be dry reading without his popular-market intervention. I will, however speak about the third aspect of this blog, people. For whether we are pet owners or not, whether we prefer dogs, cats, or horses, or whether we simply long for the Platonic form of an animal and not the animal itself, we are so markedly different from them—even rather intelligent animals—that it is worth a moment or two to point out how it is that we are different, that though biologists may call us animals—and we are mammalian—we are not really animals. For better or worse, we are ourselves quite dissimilar. We control our wills in ways that animals simply do not.

wooly monkeyNow at this point anyone who has read the Curious Autobiography and knows the story of Betsy, my sister, who was a monkey, specifically a cross-dressing monkey, may say, “Your own book disproves this: Betsy clearly exercised her will, taking a bath, watching a soap opera, swinging on a ceiling fan. Well, yes, it certainly seemed at the time that my sister, as my childhood self referred to her (and as I sometimes still do), Betsy, had a will of her own. She was the “strong-willed” monkey, so strong-willed that Elaine Jakes, who by the way loved both cats and dogs, decided to deposit her at the Philadelphia Zoo. Yes, it was traumatic to wave good-bye to my sister in the parking lot of the Philadelphia Zoo, but I got over that when I learned what a good time she was having with the other monkeys. If you want to know of her escapades, you will have to read pages 91–98 in The Curious Autobiography.

But to return to people. We are different from animals in frightening ways. This week, we again, sadly and terribly, learned how. In Oregon, a young man who owned some fire arms singled out followers of a particular religious group on a college campus and executed them. He exercised his will in a way that appalled and shocked us all, startling even his own father. This past summer, we read over and over of people being executed in Iraq or Nigeria or elsewhere again, quite often those whose religious views were not acceptable to their slayers. All of these crimes against human beings cause the horrific destruction of the ancient relics of Palmyra in Syria to pale in comparison. The former evil acts seek to take away the human present, the latter the record of humanity in ages bygone ages. All are crimes specifically against human beings, whether living, dead, or yet to come. So, while we are capable of better, we often find ourselves doing the worst.

In a playful but telling moment in his text, the ancient poet Ovid writes, “I see better things, and I approve; I follow after worse things” (Metamorphoses 7.20f). Speaking of his outlook on life well after his famous trip toward Damascus, St. Paul puts it this way, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do; but what I hate to do, I do … although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom. 7:15, 21; 24). He offers a solution, a solution that has gotten people killed from Oregon to Adamawa to Damascus itself, just after he cries out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” But the answer to this question is something that we must all discover on our own.

Narcissus looks at his reflection. Fresco from the House of Lucretius Fronto in Pompeii

Where does this leave us? Are animals better off because they have no religion? Well, they do have a religion of sorts. Your dog worships you. I’m sure that one of these days there will be an arguably unnecessary canine study to confirm as much. Cats, well, they don’t. I think they’re a bit narcissistic and there’s a chance that, like Narcissus they actually worship themselves, relegating their owner’s voice to that of a mere echo in a thicket. And like Echo’s affection for the object of her desire, for some of us, our love of cats may even cause us to worship them. But I leave that aside.

No, I don’t believe that we are better off without God. But we would do well not to fashion God in the form of a pit bull or a cat or, worse yet, ourselves. Rather, it would be best to start not with self-pity for our estate in a fallen world or with self-love, as if we were superior to those who wreak havoc in the world around us. My hope for myself is to participate in, even embrace, this world’s suffering, and so to learn to live sacrificially not just for my cat or my dog, but for people. This idea is not original with me. My views ultimately derive from a book by Dietrich Bonhoffer that I read when I was quite a young man; the central tenets of that book never left me. Thus, I commend to your thought and my own the example of others who have put into practice Bonhoeffer’s counsel, whose suffering and sacrifice have changed this sad world for the better. Though they are no longer with us, their actions and ideas, and perhaps our own, will continue to do so, making the world better for cats, dogs, and people.

The Pietá of Michaelangelo