Chess and the Art of Deception

At my rudimentary level of playing (if “playing” may be the accurate description) and understanding chess, it is a game of deception and decoy; of contrivances to convince your opposition to believe you intend to do X, while all the while planning to do Y.  Aside from being obnoxious, what would one think if, as your opponent is about to make a move, you were to stop him and say, “Excuse me, but if you move that Knight, I would take your Queen.”  This would be acceptable, of course, if you were teaching your son or daughter the game of chess; as the younger, more inexperienced player is about the make a fatal mistake, to caution:  “If you do that, you will lose your Queen.”  Inasmuch as creating a ruse is part of the game of chess; of setting up decoys; of intentionally putting up a moderately important piece (say, a Bishop) as a sacrificial piece in order to set up a deception in order to create the ultimate outcome:  Checkmate.  

Yet, where in the rules of the game did the acceptance of deception as a modality of behavior become established?  I do not recall when, as a child, as I was taught the fundamental rules of the game of chess, I was informed that being deceptive was an accepted norm.  No one ever said to me, “Hey there, if you put the pawn there, then wait a few moves, then move the pawn forward and make your opponent think you’re interested in taking his Knight, when all the while you have your Queen sitting in the corner waiting to take his Castle – it’s okay to do that.”  I have never seen the issue of deception explicitly stated in the “Rules of Chess”; but, I suppose, there are books and articles “out there” which include (or “assume”) ploys of deception as being “part of the game”.  It is probably no different than, say, sending all of your wide receivers and tight end out for a long bomb, then pump-faking, then shovel-passing the football to the fullback.  That, too, is a form of deception.  Yet, all of that occurs in a single move, where multiple players are expected to be performing their roles; and, besides, for each of the players on offense, there are an equal number on defense, for a 1-on-1 ratio.  And because all of the players move with fluidity concurrently, to describe the play as a play of “deception” is somehow not the same as planning 4 or 5 moves in the game of chess, while all the while knowing that you are engaging in a ploy of deception.  Thus, one might say, it is a game of dishonest intentions.  But, you counter, just as there is a 1 to 1 ratio of players, so there is the same ratio between two chess players; each player sees the full board in its totality; the one who is deceived is deceived in the open field of the chessboard.  Yes, but it is the intention that makes all the difference.  Yes, but, you counter, isn’t the intention of sending out the wideouts and tight end, all the while knowing that you plan on a draw play, the same type of intentional deception?  Is intentional deception part of a game?  Where and when do we learn it?  How do we learn it?  How does one learn to deceive another?  Does one learn from a “Rule Book of Deception”?  If so, I have never studied from such a book.  Yet, as I play the game of chess, I realize that the greater the deceiver, the more gifted the player.  Inasmuch as I am not much of a chess player, perhaps that is a positive reflection of my character.

The Incremental Life

I find that a foundational problem in the vast majority of the population is the error of leading an incremental life. It has become a trite triviality (the duality of concepts taken together is intended; ‘trite’, because it is a common banality; trivial, because it is next to insignificant; together, to convey the idea that it is both widespread and unimportant) to note that the young live for the here and now; that there is no longer a sense of having to pay one’s dues; that as youth is idolized, so the young must be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor here and now (without, as it turns out, much effort needed to be expended on the ‘labor’ side of the equation) – (as you can see, I am attempting to define such trite triviality by circling back and utilizing trite and trivial concepts to define itself); and that as youth is defined by and as the ‘beautiful people’, and physical attractiveness is the penultimate value of life, the telos from birth, the eudaimonia of this century — so it must be lived within an incremental life, or not at all.

The incremental life is a life of episodic living. It is a life which is described by Heidegger in Being and Time – where the avoidance of an ontological encounter is accomplished through our projects; the encounter with nothingness, which is the direct route to encountering Being, is avoided by immersion into distracting projects – of work, of leisure activities, and even of drunks and degenerate pleasures. But the complex over time always gets reduced to the common denominator of the lowest quotient; the remainder, in its bare essence, is nothing more than human failure; and that is why we end up with a society overwhelmed by divorce (the final realization that the incremental life was never intended), suicide (the meaninglessness of physical attractiveness as a foundation of one’s life), and failure (not necessarily lack of financial success; rather, the goal of excellence in anything attempted, is simply never reached).

A man and his family sits in a Bob Evans Restaurant; he is surrounded by his beautiful family — an ensemble of boisterous daughters ranging from ages 3 – 13 – with his wife across and adjacent from his two eggs over-easy, three strips of bacon and hash browns, the one egg slightly broken with the yellow having seeped from its levy. His wife of 12 years (the incongruity requiring explanation is prayed never to be asked, and in those rare moments of terror, the world of morality is shaken and the sudden trembling of the world, tantamount to Atlas shrugging, by the innocent question which, in the company of delicate sensibilities, asked by the oldest child, whether with mischievous candor or ignorant naiveté, Mom, I was rummaging around in some of your papers, and how come your marriage certificate shows that I was born only 3 months after you were married? – resulting in a terror-stricken moment of silent looks askance as to intent, motive, truth, falsehood, cover-ups and flippant lies, or all of the above bundled into a shrug and a, Oh, you must have misread it, and a cold, harsh stare of daring to that first child you had brought into the world with such hope and love and expansive dreams, where the universe was a titillating challenge of eternal optimism, until one day you wake up with the angst of realizing that death and the unexpected vicissitudes of life require planning beyond the mere pleasures of a newborn gurgling of delightful and toothless smiles and shrieks of joy) sits with an outwardly calm demeanor to those who do not know her; but the husband/father/man with the seeping yellow plate of eggs does know her, and recognizes the subtle seethe beneath the exterior, that somehow dawn and the peace of morning quietude were no longer meant for her; that the life of daily drudgery meant that Heidegger was irrelevant, or always was; for who cared for a dead Philosopher who devoted his life to making complex the obvious; a Nazi sympathizer who violated his own code of academic categorical imperatives by compromising in order to ‘survive’, when in fact his moment of confronting the nothingness could have been met head on, with courage and principle, in order to attain the very spice of Being that he preached. Yes, the children – born of her flesh, the bond of mother to children, of all 6 daughters; but joy comes in moments of reflection; and to have the time to reflect upon one’s joy; for without that time, joy is but an episodic emotion, a feeling which bypasses fleetingly, and it is only when it is conjoined with reflection and time to reflect does it rise to the stature of joy.

And one day, while sitting at breakfast – with Jasmine barely acknowledging them; Karen sitting self-consciously; Lisa gorging herself; Maria shrieking; Nancy holding up her syrup-sticky hands up to the ceiling for inspection; and Olivia shrieking because that is the nature of a 3-year old; befuddled, the father asks himself, How did I arrive at this point? For it began with the episodic state of love; and when he had asked her father – his now father in-law, for permission to have her hand in marriage, her father had said to him: What are your future plans? At that moment, he had not stopped to reflect; instead, he blurted out a quick answer to satisfy the old man in order to fulfill his episodic state of love. “I plan to marry her and take care of her!” he declared boldly. The old man had smiled – almost a smirk – and shook his head slowly and deliberatively. “Yes, of course,” he had said quietly, “yes, of course.” And with a pause, the old man gave his blessing, but before that blessing, he had asked a peculiar question: “For what end?”

The father had never paused to answer that question.

Then, the incremental family came into being – of a child, then another, then another; and each one, in and of herself, each moment of birth was a time of joy, of an overwhelming intervening event; but with no time for reflection upon the previous event, and no amount of reflection upon a future event, each event was a momentary frame of joy, or an event, one might say; for to be consistent, inasmuch as no time was set aside for reflection, it never rose to a level of joy; merely an episodic moment of emotional consummation.

Life in increments. Each increment, an opportunity for reflection, to pause and reflect into the future; to know God’s plan and purpose; that each life has a teleological framework, and it is our responsibility to meditate, discern, and grasp that framework. We as rational beings, placed for a purpose and a specific goal within the framework of God’s plan, cannot be like “everyone else”. We who are “partakers of the divine nature” cannot merely be “tossed to and fro” as if we were unaware of the very purpose of our existence. Now, the father in Bob Evans Restaurant — that is not to say that he was not following God’s plan; that he was fully partaking of the divine plan may well be so; but let us hope that at some point in his life, he had indeed asked and answered the question, “For what end”? For a man who partakes of the divine nature must by necessity know three things: Who am I? (One’s identity) Why am I here? (One’s certainty of Being), and Where am I going? (One’s purpose for being). One who partakes in the divine nature cannot wake up one morning and decide that the incremental life he had been living heretofore is no longer one that he desires; but that is what an incremental life has the potential danger to end in. To partake in the divine nature means that we must break out beyond the boundaries of our present lives; to have a vision of where we want to go, and for what end; to live an incremental life, as the world around us, is to disregard the divine part of our nature.

For what end? To fulfill God’s plan; to guide and mentor our children; to set a course for our family with the full confidence that the changing and fickle storms which toss others to and fro will not impact us. In these uncertain times, it is all the more important to take the time to reflect. Actively, partake of God’s divine nature.

Time and Age

Two old people on a park bench; and, of course, the image is one of time passing, of coiffed cauliflower clouds lazily drifting above, bringing passing intermittent shadows on a windblown fall day. A man and a woman; as the jogger passes by, seeing these two elderly figures sitting near, but not intimately so, to one another; the identifying passing thought: an old couple; grandparents; old people from another time. Such thoughts are often fleetingly dismissive; for some reason, each generation believes that theirs is “the one”; that those who are old are irrelevant; that grey hair and wrinkled foreheads; that deeply etched lines showing decades of smiling; of accordion-shriveled upper lips; of canes revealing painful arches and arthritic knees somehow diminishes one’s being.

The young are too busy with projects, plans and purposeful pursuits; Heidegger recognized the profound lobotomized bifurcation of our lives: old age and death are the penultimate ontological end; how we divert our focus upon that telos is the singular key for the young; for to ruminate upon our death is to become overwhelmed with existential angst; of the Prozac generation that we have become; for it is indeed our projects and hobbies which provide the diversion from such ruminations; and so the old have endured and survived, only to come ever so closer to that end which they spent their lives attempting to avoid; for death comes “like a thief in the night”, and all that we can do is hope that our projects and diversions will keep us occupied until the time of eternal slumber.

But it is still a puzzle, is it not, why the young view the old as irrelevant? The old are a source of wisdom, or should be; as Confucius once stated, By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and Third by experience, which is the bitterest. But to imitate would be to remind one of impending death; to experience would take us away from our diversions; and to reflect would mean we would have to face ourselves. And so the old are passed by; as joggers see the world peripherally, in a whisk of blurred images, of trees and rectangles of sidewalks; of pets being walked and automobiles passing; and two old people on a park bench. Lovely couple. Old. What’s my schedule for this afternoon?

Time passes; the daily engagement of diversions must be attended to. Otherwise, we may be forced to reflect upon the very worth of our being, and the worthiness of those very diversions which are meant to occupy our thoughts.

For, who among us can freeze time at any given moment of our lives, and honestly declare that we are acting as worthy stewards of such a precious commodity?

Fourth Parable and Lessons: Job Owned, but He Was Not Owned

One cannot, of course, improve upon the Book of Job; how Job’s wealth was vast and plentiful; where he was surrounded by his wife, seven sons and three daughters; the company of his friends, a reputation as a man who was blameless and upright; and in an instant, everything was lost.  Yet, when his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity?  Curse God and die!”

But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks.  Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?”  In all this Job did not sin with his lips.  Job 2:9-10.

It was Job who had great wealth, vast possessions; but upon losing his material wealth, he remained steadfast in his faith and joy.  For Job owned, but was not owned.  We mistake sometimes, and think that by not owning, we show virtue; but virtue is the ability to remain faithful upon a test; if the test is forever avoided, one may never know whether your virtue was real, or merely the butterfly’s dream.

Lessons from these four parables:

We must always be able to discern between the real and the absurd; to see beyond words; for words must match deeds; words must not merely be a playground of conceptual potentialities, though such conceptual frameworks sometimes have their value and place in the world of humanity.  Yes, a mud puddle could potentially drown a child, but the reality of such an event is remote, and must be viewed as such.  The test of a man may one day come; one must always be prepared for such a test.  And so the sword of a samurai must be ready to be unsheathed; but ever remaining in its sheath, if never used; yet, ready to be used, when called upon.  And virtue cannot be true where no test is ever encountered; un-ness is not a virtue when it is embraced; the virtue of un-ness is in the having, not in the vanity of viewing the Koishu Gardens, and thinking that by not owning, you have grasped the serenity of life.

First Parable: The Lady, the Girl and the Stranger

Once upon a time, there was a child with her mother, walking along a dirt road.  It had just rained, and the mist in the air brushed delicately upon the mother and daughter as they trekked through the countryside.  Their journey passed by some mud puddles freshly created by the rain.  As they walked, they came upon a stranger standing by the side of the road, on the adjacent grassy knoll.  The mother and daughter cast their eyes downward; the stranger smiled, revealing a cavernous vacuity for his front teeth.  He stared intently at the mother and daughter, both of whom could feel the piercing look upon them from the uninvited stranger.

Suddenly, without warning, the stranger rushed to the young girl, scooped her up into his arms, and carried her off of the dirt road onto the grassy area, where he just as swiftly, but gently, placed her upon the wet grass.  Too startled to cry, the little girl was lying prone, staring straight up at the bright blue sky.  She remained quiet, too frightened to move, too paralyzed to scream.  The mother, too, had been overtaken with such surprise at the suddenness of the short-distance kidnapping, that it was not until her daughter had been gently placed upon the grass that she let out a shriek of fear, anger, and tremulous indignation with such force of relief, that it caused the stranger to stumble backward, almost tripping over the little girl.  In the course of profane invectives spewing ferociously from the mother’s mouth, the stranger declared, “But madam, I saved your child’s life!  She could have tripped and fallen face flat into one of the muddle puddles, and drowned!  You should thank me for saving her life!”

Silence

In the West, and especially in the United States, silence is an uncomfortable state. At a party; at a gathering; with a chance but brief encounter; silence cannot be sustained; it must be expunged, invaded, violated, shattered and engulfed. The concept itself is rarely spoken of in its singular modality; instead, it is often hyphenated and combined: “uncomfortable silence” or “embarrassing-silence”. Thus, the very concept itself has come to be understood as that which is unpleasant or undesirable. It is a void which must be filled; music, conversation, laughter, banter, platitudes, politeness, complimentary dialectics, rhetorical flourishes, conjugated dialogues – each has a place, in its rightful time, in its proper context. But so does silence.

Often, at gatherings, in medium to larger crowds, I find myself silent; listening to others speak; being polite but watchful; I enjoy listening to others. Some find that I am aloof, or sometimes even unfriendly; yet, I find that silence is a state of comfort for me. In the early morning hours, when I pray or meditate, it is important sometimes to listen; the prattle of our thoughts are neither profound nor informative to God; the utter self-contradiction between our stated belief and our actions: If indeed we know God to be omniscient, then do we not also know that He knows our thoughts even before we speak them? Thus, our conversations with God must sometimes take a different road – that of silence, and listening to the quiet voice of God. In the meditative silence of the early morning sunrise, when the robin speaks, the radiance of God pervades with a subtle but persistent explosion of Being – of revealing the being-ness of the world; and our human apparatus to perceive the Being-being-revealed; only in silence can we experience that moment of dawn, when God whispers to us through the revelation of his Being, as the robin knows each day.

The Collector

In the seclusion of her life (and one may always view such seclusion as the private portal of one’s soul, or within the lost imaginations of a wandering mind, or the momentary quietude of becoming lost in a pleasant memory from a childhood past), she had been known as a ‘collector’. Her weathered, sun-spotted hands, leathery yet revealing the grace and delicate bones they exhibited in youthful days, friends would comment how she could have a career in television merely relying upon the beauty of her hands; and that was without commenting upon her facial beauty; the beauty of her physical appearance; the beauty of – and the reader would naturally inquire, but what of her soul? For, of course the soul is of paramount importance; it is that which forms the foundation of absolutes; and as was already described, she was a collector in younger days. Her collection, however, was of information; of gossipy tidbits about her friends, neighbors, family and acquaintances; embarrassing moments; of details which one would ask to be forgiven for, or forgotten, or tossed into the attic of one’s past.

She collected and carefully stored such details; and when it was to her advantage, she would bring them out and use them for various purposes: as a tool; as a shield; as a hammer or axe; to defend, to fend, to deflect, to slash or to bludgeon. Such was the contrast between the delicate beauty of her hands, the relative grace and ease with which she moved them, almost in free-flow, as a ballet-dancer, as she spoke and used the weapon of her choice: words. For though we describe by metaphor the power of words, her hands were without such weapons as we ascribe; it was through her lips that such words emerged and spewed, and the wounds inflicted.

How many of us are collectors? How many of us can wash the sins of others, as God washes our own sins merely by our asking? And in her last years, she lived a solitary life, for by words her circle of friends dwindled, cast away and running and hiding from the weapons of words; until one day, she found herself alone, in the solitary confinement of her own words. And though they may merely be words, they build walls around us; impenetrable, surrounded by a moat which cannot be traversed. Collecting is a hobby of sorts; the collector reflects the value of what is collected; and the collection reveals the soul of the collector. Some collect stamps; others collect paintings; still others collect pottery and other such items. But to collect the past acts of your neighbor – ah, that is a collection which is not worthy of the soul of man.

In a Small Town, Part III: Tony (You may want to read Parts I & II before you read this)

Tony was a short, stocky man with dark, short, curly hair, with a chin which jutted sharply, and with his head eternally cocked slightly backward, he had the unmistakable demeanor of a “Napoleon” short-man’s complex, of waiting to provoke a fight at every turn. The townspeople could not remember a time in the history of the town when the Corner Pancake House had not been in existence; it was as if, when the wandering prairie pioneers decided to round their wagons and camp for a fortnight at the fork where the Powhatten River and the New Israel River merged, and in the morning when exhaustion had overtaken them and the new settlers decided that this was as good a place as any to build a new town and future; the town came into existence almost overnight; and with it, the Corner Pancake House appeared, serving breakfast, lunch, and an early dinner to all who came, hungry and lonely alike; as well as meals and snacks and desserts in between.

It was in Tony’s nature to be a brute; to be nasty; to yell and scream; to demean and belittle. The essence of his very being depended upon being a street brawler. He had contemplated marriage a number of times, but he knew that his own nature would not change; and being unchangeable, he also recognized that he would only exponentially quantify the strife already permeating his life; for he yelled and cursed from the first moments after he awoke coughing and wheezing to the first cigarette being mashed into flat smoldering curls of stale smoke beneath his stubby fingers.

The fact was, he needed the quiet of each evening after he closed up the eatery, to come home and eat a sandwich or snack; to wash up; watch some television; smoke some cigarettes; be alone. His aged parents lived and died in the very home he occupied. This was his childhood home; he was born in this home; he lived in it; his father and mother grew old in it; he would one day die in it. In this house, he had never cursed, or uttered a word which would have shamed his mother or father. Once, he was “Antonio”; a son to his father; an adoring child to his mother; with expansive aspirations and dreams proposed by both; to finish his schooling, a distant, unspecified thought of “getting educated”; college, perhaps; a professional man; to one day “make something of himself”.

“Antonio” graduated from high school. Just as his grandfather and father had done, he began working at the Corner Pancake House. His grandfather died. His father became ill. Dreams quickly turned to daily necessities; then to routines; time passed; life became settled into a commonplace drudgery, replacing exotic dreams; Tony took over the eatery; took care of his aging parents; watched his parents die; buried his parents and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.

When Judy first came to work at the Corner Pancake House, he paid her no more attention than all of the other dozens of high school girls who passed through his eatery; he saw each of them as no more than nuisances, of pampered and silly girls who knew nothing of life, sacrifice, of working hard. He had no conscious philosophical empathy to impart a work-ethic to these young girls. Certainly, as some of the girls suspected that beneath his gruff exterior, that there existed a kind, compassionate human being; and over the years, when they came back to the small, insignificant town, the girls began to come pay Tony a visit; to give him a hug; to thank him; to have a bite to eat; to reminisce about how hard Tony worked them, but how his “insistence for excellence” and the life-lessons he “drilled and instilled” helped them along their later road to success… Truth be told, Tony was rather amused by it all. It was good for business. He began cultivating a reputation that the public crowned him with. It was as if a coronation of thorns had miraculously transformed into an opportunity of redemption without lifting a finger.

He became even meaner and tougher on the young girls working for him; he could now afford to let the essence of his brutishness display itself with greater exaggerated ferocity, because the parents of all of the girls firmly believed that his meanness was for the good of character-building. He had the best of both worlds – he could be openly mean, and yet grow in reputation of being kind and compassionate. Parents stopped by to approvingly watch their daughters get the “Tony treatment”; paid exorbitant prices for burnt hamburgers and soggy hotdogs; left meager tips; and left satisfied that they were co-conspirators in a worthwhile, character-building endeavor.

And then one day Judy came to work for Tony, and kept working for him; and when she would not leave, his meanness only grew. He would lash out at her for every little infraction; he would call her a “dog” in front of the other girls, and have her do all of the menial work; when the infant patrons vomited, it was always Judy who was called to clean up; on given nights when mischief was particularly enhanced when the boys deliberately missed the urinals, Judy would be called upon. When a fight broke out among some particularly rowdy men, late at night, and tables were overturned and food was smattered to the ceiling, Judy was called upon; she worked late into the night; she worked without complaining. For the echo of Tony’s private meanness was reserved outside of the public’s hearing: “If you don’t like it, quit!” he would sneer, though only provoked by silence. “Whatsa matter? You don’t want to work here anymore? You want to get fired? Get the mop and clean it up!” Tony’s voice would roar, and as he walked back to the kitchen, his vicious laugh would echo and trail behind.

For the public, the open humiliation was accepted, even applauded. For the psychology of such meanness, in a small town where everyone’s business was known by all, it was really quite uncomplicated. The Corner Pancake House was known by all to be a temporary haven for an initiation into the workplace. It was a violation of an unspoken code to remain employed there beyond one, perhaps two, but certainly no more than three years; and when it came to the fifth, seventh, tenth years, the open hostility by all was accepted, even expected; for, indeed, it was shameful that a girl would have no more ambition than to continue working at the local eatery; and if Tony needed to be meaner than mean in order to teach her a lesson – not only for Judy’s sake but for all other girls in the small town – then he was in fact performing a public service! Good for Tony! And in the unspoken thoughts of so many; in the private, quiet whispers; ah, poor Judy, she has no ambition, and on top of it all, she has that sister of hers…

It is not surprising that tragic circumstances can actually bring to the surface a subterranean meanness; of a character of uncharitable darkness, bubbling, percolating, yet as a stranger who enters such a rural, picturesque town would never suspect such complexities of human baseness; but each town, as each person, because of the fall of man, has both the potentiality, as well as the fulfillment, of man’s inherent essence of sin; for of course we partake of a divine nature; but divinity would lose the purity of God if the contrast to man’s baseness was not only possible, but a reality; and in a small town, such a reality was so often magnified; and indeed, so it was in this small town.

Once, late at night, when a broken glass had been kicked under a table at a corner booth, and Judy had gotten on all fours, crawled under to clean, and emerged with dark red blood dripping from a deep gash in the palm of her hand, Tony threw her a towel and growled, “Why do you keep working here?”

There was silence. In the shadows, from beneath the table, Judy’s eyes glinted; they revealed a puzzled, quizzical look, with a glaze in her eyes, and whether they were tears or just a reflection of her eyes from a peculiar angle, Tony could not discern; but before she could answer, Tony turned his back and walked away.

Early on, Judy looked for an apartment. It happened that a new complex of apartments had just been built in the outskirts of town; as a promotional gimmick, the management of the complex offered a two-bedroom “luxury suite” for “free, for a full year” for the winner of a lottery drawing. People from all over town put their names in the drawing. Judy submitted herself and her sister’s name, never expecting to win.

She won.

But there was a catch. The winner had to sign a three year contract. If the renter failed to pay the full rent, or was more than 30 days late, the renter would be responsible for the first year’s rent in full, as well as any accumulated arrearages. Judy and her sister could live for free for the first year; Judy would work hard, save, and hope for the best. When Tony heard about this, he sneered at his lowly employee and smirked, “You’ll be homeless, penniless and in debt after a year.”

That same day, Tony called the owner of the luxury apartment complex. “If at any time Judy and her sister cannot pay for any month’s rent, I will guarantee payment.”

Now, whether the Reader is surprised by this unexpected display of compassion, it must be said that, in defense of Tony, we have already acknowledged that man partakes of a divine nature; the coalescence of beauty and baseness is the very essence of man. That is the complexity of that which we call man. In judging a man for his baseness, we disregard his divinity; in praising his beauty, we ignore his inherent nature of sin. How then shall we judge a man? Shall we condemn him when he acts according to the baseness of his nature? Shall we elevate him to the stature of gods when he reveals his divine nature? And so we must take Tony for who he is – man, in his confounding depth of complexity, where sin debases divinity, and divinity purifies sin, a single act of compassion may overwhelm and erase a life of meanness. We must therefore be vigilant in restraint and caution in judging the entirety of man; for not by a single act will the essence of a man be defined, neither for his divinity nor his baseness; and judgment must be defined from a vantage point transcending the historicity of man; and so we must apply this principle to Tony.

That very next day, Tony was particularly cruel to Judy. “You’re a worthless dog, and you and your sister will die in a gutter one day, mark my words,” he growled.

Judy looked at him, almost through him, with slightly parted lips, almost with a painful smile. Her silent and patient saintliness in confronting such open vileness from a man almost overwhelmed Tony. Tony turned and went back to the kitchen. He paused near the butcher’s table, heaved a heavy sigh; and whether it was a momentary sob, a shudder, or a muffled curse under his breath, we shall never know.

In a Small Town, Part II (You may want to read the first part before you read this)

So, let us continue in this vein; as I often say to my children, “Let us take the following hypothetical,” and proceed to create and build conceptual models of dynamic conundrums; and in doing so, the point of such exercises, of course, is to sharpen one’s core beliefs. For, you see, it is my view that (as I referred to in my commentary on Camus and The Myth of Sisyphus), the pebble which represents man at the inception of his essence must be formed, molded, and each roll down the hill and up again, in picking up values and principles by which one grows and matures and begins to formulate the essence of one’s foundational beliefs; and the methodology in formulating and solidifying such core principles can be aided by encountering and ‘solving’ potential life-challenges and – ah, but this is a mere digression.

Let us go back to the hypothetical: So let us suppose, that Judy has a sister who is mentally disabled; let us go further and say that Judy showed great promise as a young child, and all of her teachers saw her as a brilliant mathematician, a child prodigy of the arts, or perhaps a musical genius (you may choose any one of the particulars in creating this hypothetical); but at the age of sixteen, Judy’s mother and father suddenly died in a tragic car accident, leaving the two of them – Judy and her disabled sister – as orphans. Judy went to work at the Corner Pancake House to support herself and her sister; let us add to this tragic tale the fact that the dead parents left very little behind, leaving both as essentially destitute. Colleen (Judy’s sister) is 18 at the time, an adult by law; but mentally, she cannot function at a level greater than 6, perhaps 7, at most.

There is talk that she would be “institutionalized”; but alas, Judy will not let that happen. If she can show the well-meaning social workers that the two of them can be independent, then there would be no legal basis to have her “put away”. She works; sometimes double-shifts; Tony treats her like trash; but throughout it all, she smiles serenely, with an inner peace and confidence well beyond her youth; and the reason why she is able to perform the complex ballet of life at such a tender young age, is because she has a purpose, concrete and formulated, created by tragic circumstances, thrust upon her without cause, and some would say with such cruelty of fate; but nevertheless, it is a fate and circumstance, as trying and ‘unfair’ as the fate of life’s tumults can crumble a once-promising life; and here, of course, is the question; not a question which need be answered in a traditional sense; no, rather, it is a question which leaves one with a sense of unease, as all foundational questions are meant to portend; that such a life, in all of its trying circumstances – did it change the reader’s view of the value of Judy’s life? If so, Why?

For by most accounts, we would pass by the Judys of this world; not oblivious, but rather guilty of deliberate and conscious avoidance; and so we go through the customary pretensions of “hello”, “nice to see you”, “how are you”, “fine, thank you”, and yet without going beyond the carefully-circumscribed conventions which never reach beyond the surface-knowledge of a person’s life, character, or value; yet, we make value-judgments, as to the worth of our neighbor, the value of his or her life, without much knowledge of intimate or personal details. Ah, the reader says, now it is different because… Judy now is a figure of sympathy; almost of hero-status, and why is that? Because she is living a life of self-sacrifice, of having given up her personal dreams, of fulfilling and completing the essence of the natural gifts granted to her – that she “could have been” may always be a regret in her life; yet, because she sacrificed for the sake of another, we see her as having value, to elevate her to the status of whispering with awe, “A life well-lived.”

But is this so? The reality of life is that few of us would do what Judy did; we would create complex models of justifications; and, indeed, we do and can; and this is where the reader may become somewhat offended and defensive; indeed, self-denial and self-justification may overtake the reader; for how many have failed or refused to sacrifice the centrality of “self”; put away the aged parents into a nursing home; divorced a disabled spouse; disowned a depressed son or daughter; or abandoned a friend or neighbor because of the trying circumstances; because, to lend support would be to sacrifice a career, an opportunity, a life of comfort. “But it is different because…”; “You don’t understand”; “In my case, I had no choice…” Of course it is different; and each of us can fill in the blanks of the unique and peculiar circumstances which differentiate our particular life-episode from that of Judy. But is that truly so? Or do we elevate Judy to the status and stature of a tragic hero, precisely because we know that we would not have done what she did? Do we, out of a sense of guilt and shame, compliment and applaud the life of Judy, despite the tragedy of having given up all that she did?

Yet, to live with shame and guilt shows our humanity; and alas, that one day we would fail to recognize the hero-status bestowed upon one like Judy; that would be a day to rue.

In a Small Town, Part I

In the small town, the Corner Pancake House was where all of the girls began their careers. Sometime around the Sophomore or Junior year of Titusville Central High, the girls would waitress, cook, serve the town smart-alecks, and begin their trek from childhood to adulthood. It was the town’s singular rite-of-passage. It would last a year, perhaps two at most; the owner would yell, scream, curse and call each of the girls “lazy no-good s.o.b.s”; nevertheless, sometime “down the road”, each one of them would come back after they had gotten married, or graduated from college, or taken another job in another town, or in some big city, or every once in a while, in a foreign country – they would all make their way back to “Tony” and he would hug them as if they were their long-lost sister.

But there was once this girl – Judy; she never left. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t attractive; sure, she was quiet, perhaps a bit too introverted; and though you wouldn’t call her a “looker”, she possessed a certain sense of quiet serenity; and she stayed. By all accounts, Tony treated her like trash; one would have thought that, after the third or fourth year, when it became apparent that Judy would never leave; that she would remain a waitress at the Corner Pancake House all of her life; that Tony would have begun to treat her well. But it was as if Tony didn’t know how else to treat her. When Judy would leave a piece of microscopic lettuce in a hidden corner behind the salt/pepper/sugar carrier, Tony would take great pleasure in his bellowing voice, calling, “Judy! Get over there and do a proper job! Stop being so lazy and…” and with quiet serenity, without complaint, without emotion, Judy would rush over to the table and correct the infraction.

There were rumors, of course; rumors that Tony loved Judy; that Tony and Judy were secretly married; that Judy was secretly in love with Tony, but because she had promised her heart to a mysterious man in another town, that she could not… But the truth of it was that Tony didn’t know how else to treat Judy; he had never had a girl from Titusville Central High stay and work; and so he continued to treat her like the high school girl he knew her to be, even after years and years. Now, some might say that this is a rather sad opening for a story; but who are we to judge the reasons and foundational values that embrace the life of another? How many of us can know the inner thoughts of Judy; and how can we determine that her life was of greater or lesser value than the girls who came and went, who went on to “glorious” careers, or to exotic sanctuaries of work, play, lives fulfilled or forlorn? The worth of a person must be judged not by the work he or she does, but by the quality of attending to the task before the person. That Judy made sure that each of the tables was prepared for the customers; that the orders were taken with precision and pleasantness; that there was always a quiet smile, and a word of encouragement – are these not the episodes of value? Yet, how often do we pass by the many Judys of this world, and make either a judgment or none at all. Indeed, to not even notice may be the greater mark of cruelty, than to judge that your fellow man is of lesser worth.