What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


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Exactly ten years ago tonight, my family and I were enjoying an unscheduled visit to Houston, Texas, where we wined and dined with old friends. For a very long time, New Orleanians have planned their hurri-cations with nearly the same off-hand and casual demeanor one would use to plan a dinner party. One simply goes through the checklist — are the groceries bought? Is the tank full of gas? Do we have batteries? Are the suitcases packed? Check. Threats to recalcitrant children? Check. Strong language for wives who over-pack — for crying out loud, woman, we’ll only be gone for three days! Check.

You’d pardon me for being rather blasé about the “big one,” but you see, in those days the world seemed to operate like a well-oiled machine. True, there were some nasty surprises here and there — but FedEx got my packages to me overnight, State Farm insured my car, Chubb insured my house, the FDIC guaranteed my checking account, and the liquor store guaranteed my prescription was ready for pick-up. What else could the 21st century man — the man of 2005 — want? We’re self-reliant, lift-ourselves-by-our-own-bootstrap Americans! We have everything we need — we’ve got FEMA!

Six weeks later, I drove down a desolate St. Charles Avenue.

The sky was utterly blue while the city was utterly dead. I shared the Avenue with no other living soul. Katrina had even killed the birds. An impenetrable cocoon of silence had blanketed the city — the kind of silence that one only finds deep in a dark and evil wilderness, or sees portrayed in movies where a virus has wiped out the species.

It is a sobering thought to imagine a city — your city — so full of life one day, and laughter, and criminal activity, and good deeds, and hail-fellows-well-met, and pretty girls, and gnarled old women, and quarrelsome children running headlong just to see what’s around the next corner — to see your hometown in all of its run-of-the-mill ordinariness and then . . . to wake up one morning and suddenly know that you’ll never step into that river again — that it is all gone for good.

I had come to town from Baton Rouge (where the family and I had relocated to an old family home) for the purpose of checking out our house and retrieving a few things. Nothing too serious, mind you. I only needed a few pots to cook in, extra undergarments, silly little things that most people live without, really. But the woman of the (relocated) house had to have her things. “And clean out the refrigerator and freezer while you’re there,” she had intoned.

And what did I do? Well Sir, I cleaned out the refrigerator and freezer.

For those of you who don’t know, the only difference between August and September in New Orleans is the spelling. After six weeks in the September warmth, that durable good had acquired an odor that was powerful but not entertaining. I daubed some Vick’s vapor rub into my nostrils, dipped a bandana into a bottle of Dr. Tichenor’s antiseptic and tied it around my face — and the combination of those two items came closer to killing me than anything the freezer had to offer.

Of this much I am certain: When the next storm comes, the meat comes with me.

About other certainties, however, I am more circumspect.

You see, I had come to rely upon certainty in a foolish way. Certainty was my eternal friend. “I’ll meet you tomorrow at noon,” I’d say. And what did I do? Why I met you at noon, of course. If I decided to buy potatoes at the grocery store, guess what I did? I bought potatoes at the grocery store! Can you guess what happened if I put the garbage can on the curb on Thursday night? I’ll tell you what happened: The sanitation truck came by on Friday morning and whisked the contents of it away.

If I dropped by a friend’s house for a glass of bourbon on a Tuesday afternoon, we had — of all things — a glass of bourbon. If I went to bed at night, no one barged through the door and threw me in jail on a trumped up charge. If I opened the refrigerator door, the light came on. If the dog went too long between walks, he could be utterly depended upon to soil a small and valuable Aubusson rug while ignoring the wooden floors that covered the whole of the house. If a politician opened his mouth, I knew with a dead certainty that a lie was beginning to form.

Your life may be one of confusion and bewilderment, Sir—but there was practically no end to the certainties in my life.

Certainty about tomorrow had become my narcotic, one that had thoroughly replaced the virtue without which none of my ancestors could have lived: Christian Hope.

They occupied a world that was “red in tooth and claw,” covered in woods filled with the wild things, and cities where the enemy lay in wait — blackhearted men in alleys, or unforeseen accidents, or diseases hidden in the crevices and cracks of their own homes. For them, certainty was an infrequent visitor, one that could not be depended upon to stay the night.

They needed something to get by the wolves — and it was Hope that got them home.

Certainty, as fine as it is, and as much as we enjoy his delightful company, cannot live with Hope. With Certainty, Hope is just another psychological mouth to feed — and an unnecessary one at that. How could I have known — and how could you have known — that when Certainty is king, despair is his hollow-cheeked and emaciated queen? How could we know that all is well, and all will be well only when Certainty sits upon his throne — but that the moment he steps away to inspect the kingdom, or run off to a Crusade, or buy a castle for his mistress, that his very absence brings upon us the hopeless, deathly rule of despair?

Upon the perished Avenue . . . in the expired city . . . on that October morning in 2005, all Certainty abandoned me — I became the starving servant of despair.

What had become of our friends? I did not know. Where would we live? I did not know. Where would the children go to school? I did not know. Would we ever see home again? Again, I did not know.

And then I remembered something. In the middle of my despair and grief, I had quite forgotten it, but then I remembered it:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

What I suddenly remembered was that I was supposed to be on my way somewhere — a lifelong pilgrimage to an eternal destiny. Before, I had lived as if I had already arrived — as if I had nowhere else to go. And indeed, when you have already arrived, things can only get worse.

For me and my fellow New Orleanians, things got worse. We had mistakenly lived as if we had arrived when we should have lived as pilgrims “on the way.” We had put away our Hope in exchange for Certainty, and for a very long time Certainty had kept the lights on, the faucets running, the dinner hot, and the chalice full. Until it didn’t.

I remember moving back to the City in November, and of how when the garbage truck rolled by once in a fortnight, we felt gratitude and even cheered for the men as they passed. I remember how if the grocery store was out of bread, we felt grateful to buy their undersized eggs. I remember how happy we were when the drugstore stayed open for eight whole hours.

And I remember drinking bourbon on the porch with an old friend who’d been through enough hell to burn Satan’s dinner — and of deep gratitude that I could sit on porches again with old friends.

I particularly remember saying grace with my family for the first time upon our arrival back home — and of how good it felt to hold my wife and daughters’ hands as we prayed, and thinking how lucky we were that God had given us to one another.

As difficult as these ten years have been — and make no mistake about it, New Orleans ain’t out of the woods yet — I feel that perhaps the storm has left us New Orleanians with an improved perspective on things. True enough, many have begun to slip back into the old customs and habits — acting as if they’ve arrived and no longer needing Hope.

Certainty is sitting on his throne again, reassuring us — reassuring you, too, I bet — that tomorrow is vouchsafed and you can take it easy, and that even if something tragic happens, you’ve still got your friends — you’ve still got your family. Ten years ago tonight, I would have agreed with you.

The trouble is that Certainty is a fly-by-night, and when — not if — he leaves you, you’ll need something better than despair to see you through. More than a few folks committed suicide in the aftermath of Katrina — the name despair goes by in these parts. They were fine people and I miss them. But they were hopeless. How I wish that they could have seen the value in Hope, and understood that while we live on this earth, we are meant to be pilgrims, always on the move, traveling towards a destiny not of this world, and that the worst thing that could possibly happen to us is to arrive.

Maybe you’ve arrived. Maybe you know with infallible certitude what tomorrow brings. Maybe you know something I don’t know. Maybe not.

It has been said that “nothing is fool-proof to a sufficiently talented fool.” I was once talented in that regard.

Now I’m beginning to wonder.

Comments (6)

A very fine essay, Paul. My compliments to the author.

It is very true that man is not at the top of his capacity if he has not Hope, for the three virtues Faith, Hope, and Charity are necessarily the prime accoutrements of a man born of the Spirit. And such a hope is always first the hope for the end goal of the pilgrimage, not for way stations along the way. If we are bound up in loving and resting at the way stations, we have lost our way.

That said, I wonder if it is possible for man to ever NOT start down the pathway of treating the usual, the standard, the "every-day stuff" as certain. Even if we know, in our heads, that tomorrow might NOT be the usual, that maybe this very night God will demand an accounting of us, still and all we know it isn't likely. More than that, though, we have a duty and obligation to prepare for the most reasonable paths, we can't just sit on our rumps and say "I have no idea what will come next, so there is nothing I should be doing about it." We DO have some idea - with some reasonable prospect - and that itself is enough to ACT on it so as to prepare for it. When God told Joseph to have Egypt store up grain for 7 years, He wasn't telling men to
do something utterly unnatural to us.

And if we are bound to think about the tomorrow and have duties today because of what it is most likely to look like, then we are hardly acting contrary to the human virtues to plan for tomorrow as if our plans have meaning.

I guess what I am pointing to is the old adage "work as if everything depends on you, pray as if everything depends on God." Which, I admit, I do so, so poorly.

Well I had no idea Kenneth was from New Orleans. At the time of Katrina there were so many nostalgic sentiments that people shared online and this essay is a very fine addition to that catalog. Of course there were also many sweet, funny and irreverent thoughts because, hey, it is New Orleans.

Anyway, one of my longtime favorite singers is a native son of Louisiana and does charity work related to the recovery effort. Marc Broussard's early career produced a Bayou Soul jam that is still at the top of my playlist.

However the lyrics of a more recent song may be more relevant to the aftermath.

This post reminds me of the book of James:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

At the same time, I agree with Tony that it is also natural and legitimate for human beings to be comfortable in their surroundings and to feel at home. We are caught between the now and the not yet. God gives us many gifts to enjoy, and some of us with humility must admit that we are very fortunate and receive with thanksgiving such gifts as peace and order in our cities. This is a good reminder about the "thanksgiving" part of that.

all we know it isn't likely.
CS Lewis makes a generally unappreciated point that expectation is a characteristic of animal behavior and is not characteristic of human rationality, properly speaking. To expect what has come before--animal or pre-rational thinking To discover the causes of things--true rationality.

This is precisely what the materialists are confused about, holding as they do Bayes' theorem to be the epitome of rationality.

What about the expectation that the same cause shall produce the same effect?

Lewis's point, I suspect, is about INSTINCT. Animals don't think about causes and effects, and their responses to circumstances are molded not by thought but by instinct. Humans, though, even though we do HAVE instincts, also think about things and are able to respond in virtue of our thoughts as well as in virtue of our instincts. (We do have instincts, of course. Having instincts is not anti-human.)

Nevertheless, in the concrete case we don't know ALL the causes, we are unable to discern some causes because they are too subtle, and we are unable to account for other causes because they are small but innumerable. The sciences of probability and statistics - and I call them sciences intentionally - allow us to state results not of a certain kind but of an uncertain kind, taking into account our lack of determination of some of the causes - that we KNOW, by reason, that we have not accounted for all the particular causes. When a dark and gloomy sky starts to thunder, a rational man takes along an umbrella even though the storm might pass over without raining, and if he knew all the causes of all the air currents and all the air molecules and all the water molecules with all their ionic charges he could say for sure and certain "no, this time it will pass over."

To refuse to make statements of an uncertain kind merely because they are not certain is to repudiate the human condition, it is to reject man's limitations and pretend that we ought to be God. For God, all of his statements of what will be can be made with certainty, (he knows with certainty all true things including future events), but for man some true statements of the future are of the uncertain kind. Humans, for example, must judge when some contingent state of affairs is so with moral certainty, meaning not the metaphysical certainty of the first axioms of logic, but the lesser definitude of moral judgment. Man must also act on, and therefore judge, when some things are more probable than the alternative, for without being able to judge so, he would be unable to plan, and planning is a positive duty for those in positions of responsibility.

When a man says

If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

the "this" that the man proposes to do is decided because he has judged that, probably, doing THIS will have better results for men than doing THE OTHER thing in its place.

I agree with your point that it is rational to act on uncertain knowledge. Some incidental comments:

What about the expectation that the same cause shall produce the same effect?

Well, if you use the term "cause", then it is no longer expectation, is it, but a certain knowledge.

It is like the proper usage of the terms "subsequent" and "consequent". When we use the later term, we affirm causal connection between the two things or events.

Lewis's point, I suspect, is about INSTINCT.
Not exactly, I don't have the exact quote but it was in a discussion of human rationality. About INSTINCT, I doubt if it is clearly understood. It may be related to non-quantitative aspects of matter.

When a dark and gloomy sky starts to thunder, a rational man takes along an umbrella

He is rational when he acts from the belief that rain is a possible consequence of thunder but he is not rational when to him, rain is merely subsequent to thunder.

This difference lies in a major division of the fundamental views of the laws of nature, are they mere regularities or is there something necessary in them?

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