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Life On the Iceberg's Tip
Your stories of belonging (or wishing you did) to something larger than yourself.
For DC readers, next week I’ll be moderating a debate on civil rights law. On October 18th, writers from The American Conservative and The American Prospect will join together to debate: Resolved: The principle of disparate impact distorts civil rights law. You can get tickets here.
A little while back (I’m catching up on reader roundups), I wrote a little in response to Mr. Psmith’s review of Children of Men. I was interested in the projects that take more than one lifetime, whether it’s being part of a family that extends forwards and backwards beyond you in time; or working on a cathedral, whose vaults you’ll never see meet and close in your lifetime.
I asked you:
Where, if anywhere, do you feel like you belong to what Mr. Psmith calls the “temporarily above-ground part of a vast, superhuman entity”? Is there anywhere you feel the absence of that connection?
Are there moments where you drew strength from a shared project when you didn’t feel steady as an individual?
What’s something you’re working on whose fruits you expect not to see?
This “vast superhuman entity” that is a large family
Jordan told the story of caring for her grandmother alongside the rest of her family.
My grandmother just passed away and it’s been very obvious through her care in hospice that the steps necessary for giving her dignity and aid was a responsibility too great to be borne by any single person. The family rose up together - each according to their gifts - to play an important role. She had 10 children and each have different skills, so I felt like one part Mirabel from Encanto or another part of this “vast superhuman entity” that is a large family. The amount of support from the medical system (nurses, doctors, occupational therapy, physical therapy, respiratory therapy) was also great and felt superhuman at times.
It’s notable how many people came together. I think everyone knows that preparing for death is “a responsibility too great to be borne by any single person,” but, in practice, that is often borne by one person anyway.
I’ve pulled just a snippet from Bethany’s longer comment (all of it good):
As for family, American culture and history tends to erode the sense of continuity, since we are a nation of immigrants, whose ancestors have left a homeland, and very often, the intervening generations have migrated within the country, starting over again and again. This is my experience at least, including a sense of alienation from both sets of grandparents. Yet I am fiercely attached to my father, and resolved to keep his legacy alive, while also providing my children and (hopefully) grandchildren a family tree with many branches that all support one another.
Learning to speak dance
I appreciated this from Lawrie. And I was surprised and delighted to see that she had an example of seeing dance passed on—it’s so much harder to hand on than a book. It requires an active body.
I've recently been watching clips of old musicals, especially of Bob Fosse's choreography, and what I have noticed is how familiar they feel, even though I've never seen much of his work before. His work has been transmitted as part of the cultural conversation. (An example: this is clearly where Michael Jackson got his influence from).
My son is 6, and he's becoming an avid reader. As I think about what books to give him next, I realized that part of what I am doing is passing on some of the cultural conversation that I received. As our pop culture gets more atomized and less common (I know so few of the current pop artists and movies), I wonder what that means for the art our generation and future generations will create. How do we build art, literature (and by extension, philosophy and theology) when we no longer have a common creative language to draw from?
A (discardable?) part of a larger whole?
MF had a sharp comment:
The comment on Greece and Rome was, respectfully, not the best for your opening—both civilizations not only had but valorized suicide.
Here’s my reply:
If you are a part of a larger whole, you can borrow strength and consolation from your being part of it, but it also might suggest you're not a significant part and can be discarded. The Greeks and the Romans didn't have a way to articulate the dignity of the weak within their paganism. They weren't wrong in their sense of how we can be part of something larger than ourselves, but their anthropology was lacking.
(This ties in tightly to Louise Perry’s writing on the resurgence of paganism/suspicion of the weak and my reply in the Fairer Disputations symposium).
Living with fragile roots
Scott shared what it’s like to belong to a listing institution you love:
I've been feeling the darker side of this lately. After the pandemic a lot of educational structures are struggling, including in some ways my own. Given that it is a remarkable institution to which I have dedicated myself, the possibility of its decline has an impact on me in a way that, were I to treat it as a mere job, it wouldn't. The anchoring goes both ways. I suppose that's the problem with a less isolated self; "but then, those who love must share the fate of those they love."
Quakeress explained how she lives in “the absence of such a ship.”
I have a long and enduring complicated relationship with Christianity, i.e. I wish I could believe in it to an extent that would enable me to be part of this "vast, superhuman entity". There are some other similar superhuman entities, but the political, ideological ones are a bit shallow and puny compared to the the majestic ships of religion that plow the waves for centuries and even thousands of years, their large hulls filled with memories of the dead and the needs and ambitions of the living.
Since I lack the ability to throw myself in this ship—and I feel the absence of such a ship for me very keenly—, my child is not part of the ship, either. We don't have a huge family, either, but I think it is immensely important for her to know she is part of a story that is bigger than herself. I've always made a point to tell her about all those family members whom I remember and who came before here and the ones that might come after her. She seems to be very aware, as far as I can judge, that SHE IS NOT ALONE but that my beloved granny, her beautiful four great-aunts, great-great-Aunt Louise to whom our awful porcelain used to belong and so on are all on her side. She seems to find it very satisfying. I also tell her about her own children and grandchildren because I want her to know that her story will extend beyond herself, that she is not an end point but a beginning as well.