Saturday, October 14, 2017

Posturing While the World Ends

My wife and I are in Minnesota, my home state, for our 33rd wedding anniversary. Friday, before visiting relatives outside town for the weekend, we spent the day in Minneapolis, mostly at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Rather, my wife did. You know how it goes at art museums, guys. She wants to look at every piece twice. You pick a couple of paintings, look at them a while, then go out for coffee or a beer or a nap, depending on time of day. I went for a nap at our hotel, but not before pondering Pierre-Jacques Volaire’s painting of “The Eruption of Vesuvius” (1771).

What struck me about the painting is the three gentleman relaxing on a safe ledge in the foreground. Even their dog looks unconcerned. A caption alongside the painting suggested that the men were “consuming the scene with  an air of detachment, as though the eruption were a controlled experiment. It mirrors the way men and women of means consumed science at the time, as public presentations and social encounters.”

The men in the foreground didn’t make me think of science; their “detachment” or nonchalance led me to think instead of the collapse of our culture while the rich look on, getting richer while embracing each new progressive cause, walling out the disadvantaged with gates and private security guards while throwing money at the poor with invisible tax dollars. Ten billion for programs? Check! A dollar into the hat of the toothless man leaning against the building? Never! Better yet: take the man out for coffee. Are you serious?

My juices must have been stirred by the pope. On the plane from Boston I read Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelic Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel. As in his first encyclical, Laudato Si, our pope lays into the money world. “In this system,” he writes, “which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

One line struck me most forcibly: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

For me, as for Hamlet, the time is out of joint. Everything seems out of proportion, and we do not connect the dots, the only exercise that could possibly put things back in perspective.

L’Arche may be to blame for my sense of dislocation. I was always skeptical of philanthropy, as a sop to rich guilt, but since I began “sharing time,” as we say in L’Arche, with men and women having intellectual disabilities, I have grown appalled at my own ignorance, detachment, and nonchalance. A neighbor would call, ask for $100 for a cause, and I would write a check, never once trying to bridge the gap between my safe ledge and the uncomfortable lives of the actual human beings “beneath me” in the lava, the people my charity check allegedly benefited.

A few months at L’Arche Boston North in Haverhill, Massachusetts, changed so much for me. Beginning with me myself. To change I had only to get off my ledge and jump in. A terrifying thought? Yes. It was.

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