Monday, October 29, 2018

Bring it on Home

Considering the appalling events of the past few days in our country, I cannot in good conscience continue to exist as though I am not part and parcel of the world around me. I cannot pretend that it is possible to isolate myself from what is happening to us. If our "hobby" of amateur astronomy has nothing to say to the terror and pain around us, then to hell with it! But... it has a lot to say, a lot to teach us, a lot to teach the world.

The following is a reposting of something I wrote several years ago for my now defunct blog, Celestial Pilgrimage. It is more relevant now than when I first posted it:

Everywhere I look in the sky, no matter what the direction nor how distant the object, whatever I see is either acting on or being acted upon by something else. It is either orbiting something else, or is itself being orbited. It is either attracting something else, or is in turn being attracted. It is either illuminating its surroundings, or is itself being illuminated. Nothing is alone; nothing exists in isolation. There is a bedrock fundamental something to be discovered here, and double stars are perhaps the clearest visible illustrations of whatever this is to the amateur astronomer.


But allow me to digress a bit. I am forever amazed by how much the whole of my subsequent life has been influenced by the relatively short time I spent in the Army (1975-1979). I truly believe that I learned and grew more in those four years than in any other comparable length of time. From insignificant mannerisms (how I stand, what I do with my hands while walking, the fact that I always start off on the left foot) to fundamental ways I view the world, I keep finding bits and pieces of my Army experience down there in my subconscious, nudging (or pushing) me in one direction or another.

One really good example is foxholes. One of the first things we learned in Basic Training at good old Fort Ord, California, was the correct (that is, the Army’s) way to dig one. And if you have some picture in your mind taken from a host of cheesy WWII movies (hole in the ground, head and rifle sticking out) – get rid of it now. What we were taught was the DuPuy foxhole, named after the general who invented it. DuPuy had studied the carnage of Vietnam (remember, I enlisted only about 3 months after the fall of Saigon), and realized that everyone had been doing it all wrong ever since, well… ever since ever. The problem with firing out of a hole in the ground was that an advancing foe could fire right back at you. Thus the high casualty rate on both sides in a defensive battle.

General DuPuy (right) with Westmoreland in Vietnam

What DuPuy came up with was a system of mutually supporting two-man foxholes. “Buddy Teams” of two soldiers would each dig their own pit, piling all the excavated dirt directly in front of the hole, completely blocking one’s view straight ahead. When you were finished, you could fire diagonally to the left or to the right, but immediately in front of you was this great earthen berm, higher than your head. The end result was that, in a line of these DuPuy “Defensive Fire Pits” (to use the official term), each buddy team was responsible for protecting the team to either side of them, while their own defense was left in turn to those teams. To work, the system required complete trust between the teams. You yourself could do absolutely nothing to protect yourself, and concentrated all your attention and efforts on defending your neighbors.

Take a moment to ponder this. There is a really profound principle at work here. One that I think goes to the very core and fundament of our being - of the universe itself. It is the indispensable principle behind How We Must Live. As the poet Charles Williams so beautifully put it:

This abides – that the everlasting house the soul discovers is always another's; we must lose our own ends; we must always live in the habitation of our lovers, my friend’s shelter for me, mine for him.

The consequence of ignoring this is not just selfishness. It is not just missed opportunity or a life sadly lacking in color or meaning – it is a violation of the very nature of reality. To attempt to live for one’s self is an exercise in futility – you will fail.

One of the most awesome passages in the New Testament (for me, at least) occurs near the end of the Gospel according to Mark. Christ has been crucified, and various passersby taunt Him, asking why He doesn’t “save yourself and come down from the cross”. They conclude with the scoffing remark, “He saved others, Himself He cannot save”.

Wow. Read that again. What was meant as a contemptuous dismissal, as a cynical comment on apparent failure, turns out to be the very key to The Meaning of Life itself. We cannot save ourselves – we must rely on others. And it is up to us in turn to save them. This is what it means to be a Human Being. When we fall short of this principle, we fall short of and even deny altogether, our very Humanity.

Think about that, the next time you are admiring a particularly beautiful double star... or the next time someone shoots up a House of Worship out of fear of the "other".

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