The truth about dragons

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. Revelation 12:9

Slaying the dragonOne thing I wish we could teach young people is the truth about dragons. It has to be taught indirectly, through metaphor, because the unseen world is–well, unseen. Some people who read this might become a little annoyed because something doesn’t want them to believe it. I think that sort of anger is the dragon’s breath, warning them away.

The primary mission of dragons is simply to keep people from the truth, particularly those truths that lead most directly and surely to joy. This is mainly because dragons are not themselves happy, having chosen to follow the theory that joy could be theirs as an entitlement rather than as what it always has been and always will be–a momentary balance requiring eternal care.

So now they wander the dark regions, trying to vindicate themselves by blocking the way of others to rather simple moments that unaccountably become forever.

I’ve acquired a taste for meeting dragons–often quite suddenly–because I’ve learned, slowly and after long, torturous detours, that, first, dragons are a sure sign of treasure–some truth that’s new to me is close at hand–and, second, dragons are mainly bluff. They have no real power–except the power of illusion and dread. It’s true that they often trick people into doing awful things, which is their only way to make anything happen. The easiest way to defeat a dragon (though not always the people who have been deceived by one) is to ignore it, and boldly to step forward as though endless joy were your right. I admit that it isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s simpler.

The treasure, as I said, is always the truth–though I don’t mean truth in the way that scientists usually use the word. Their brand of truth is okay–very useful and very powerful–but it’s concerned with inventing props and manipulating the setting–it cannot discern the plot.

The kind of truth I mean is the truth of stories, the truth for which we live, the sum and good of our desire.

Truths of this sort have to be created–not out of nothing, but out of the stories we become, out of life itself. Is it true that you live in a happy family? Is it true that you have faithful friends? Is it true that you are kind and generous? If so, then these are truths that you have helped make more than they are truths that you have discovered. The important truths we create, mainly by using now to bind the past and the future into a pattern we choose, by making and remembering promises–some of them to ourselves, some of them to God, many of them to people we want with us sharing the special kingdom we are making of our lives.

Dragons may be found anywhere, but one predictable abode is near the hearts of young girls. The truth they are guarding has to do with what young girls want. What young women want most is to be loved by an admirable man–who sees and acts with his whole self. This is not a selfish or a petty thing, properly understood, so much as it is one of the attributes of godliness–every good kingdom is held together by love, and so being lovely is part of God’s design for our joy.

Unfortunately, the desire to be lovely makes some young girls vulnerable to insinuations that loveliness must be bought–all the fragrances, and face paints, and costly costumes. Or, it leads them to settle for attracting counterfeit forms of love–attention, lust, and all that–by dressing and speaking immodestly, as though the treasure of their truest being were some sort of joke.

So for them, that’s what it becomes.

Fortunately, the counterfeits are only that. Love is also real. This is what most torments dragons. They come here from a reality before the world where they believed that power alone was enough to create a kingdom worth having. What really enrages them is when an admirable young man enters the story who wants the young woman for more than a game–who sees in her the source of a better life, a true partner in making of the world a kingdom governed by love.

The reason that dragons are so often associated with knights is because nothing upsets them more than an admirable young man. The very existence of such men gives the lie to everything dragons have stood for, because what such young men truly want is not power or money or a high score in Modern Warfare but the admiration of a lovely woman, one who’s not too easily impressed, too soon made glad.

Unfortunately, this desire to be admired leaves young men vulnerable to all sorts of foolish ambitions. Where there is a chance to demonstrate their strength, or skill, or smarts, or daring they are likely to be found snowboarding off cliffs, sticking their heads in the mouths of alligators, or strapping themselves to rockets. Dragons enjoy such spectacles but they don’t get involved.

Dragons do get involved when an admirable young man sets out to demonstrate his worth to a lovely young woman. Trouble comes, often through the usual human weaknesses: doubt, fear, selfishness, pettiness, impatience, deception, jealousy.

Such moments, properly understood, become little or nothing.

Which is not the same as saying the tests are not real, or that they require of us less than courage, nobility, and genuine heroism. Dragons, remember, work through dread, and though dread is an illusion it is an illusion as deep as consciousness itself, and it can only be dissolved by a faith that is equally deep.

There is no avoiding it. A moment will come when wisdom requires us to move past the point of no return, push all our chips to the center of the table, put everything on the line, and risk it all. That’s our fundamental choice: dread or faith.

Dragons are dragons because they choose dread. Knights and princesses live happily ever after because they don’t.

Constructing a point of view

The experience of the young is, increasingly, that every human attachment is basically voluntary. Life is all about designing oneself according to an ever-expanding menu of choices provided by an increasingly free, prosperous, and globalizing society. A choice, they’ve been told, is nothing more or less than a preference, and nobody can tell an individual why he or she should prefer this rather than that, as long as he or she doesn’t violate the rights of another chooser. Deep down, our students don’t know whether they are or will be parents, children, creatures, citizens or friends. All they’re told is that in our wonderful, enlightened, high-tech world, such commitments are up to them.

. . .They have almost limitless freedom in choosing what to study, and hardly anything moral or intellectual is required of them. What few requirements are imposed on students are so broad and flexible as to point them in no particular direction at all. In the name of freedom and diversity, little goes on in college that gives them any guidance concerning who they are or what to choose.

Peter Lawler

The WebDriving home from the state capital the other day, the brilliant light flaming in winter-bare cottonwoods along the river where snow was just beginning to fall, part of me wanted to stop and explore, while another part was tracking promises that should be kept.

I kept driving, enjoying my glide through the mountain landscape at more than a mile a minute, feeling the grip of steel-belted radials on the exquisitely engineered curves and rises of I-90, listening to an audio recording about Alexander the Great written by first century C.E. biographer Arrian on my Subaru’s stereo.

It was great fun, hurtling through space encased in layers and layers of engineering and design. I was seeing the river from a point of view unavailable to earlier travelers. A fur trader wet to the hips trudging the river bank with forty-odd pounds of traps or a Salish hunter returning cautiously from Three Forks leading game-laden ponies could have imagined my swift and comfortable journey only as something supernatural.

Though watching the world through a window seems quite natural, it is actually the product of centuries of accumulated artifice and construction. And it was only one of the points of view available to me. I also had at my fingers instant access to information that would help me see the river as part of a vast hydrological cycle, or as a constantly changing habitat for fish, or as a potential real estate development, or as a likely site for a heap-leach gold mine.

It is such a richness available today that creates the most daunting challenge for young people, and thus for teachers. A young person has before him or her endless points of view constructed of arguments and facts, and endless choices about what points of view to inhabit supported by web sites, pamphlets, videos, reports, and songs.

Our noisy and contentious world gains meaning and coherence only as a conscious observer, paying attention to some things and not others, creates a point of view. Young people need to learn how to pay attention and how to decide decide where to look. This is nothing new.  Such help was once the main point of education, and teachers guided young people into science and history, providing a good grounding in reason and evidence, learning to see things intelligently, in ways that linked the thriving of the individual to the needs of the community and the nation–indeed, of civilization.

No more. As modernity dissolved the authority of all but the self, voices raised on behalf of the community were lost in a cacophonous crescendo of other voices competing for attention. In this world, teachers speak with little or no more authority than many others–advertisers, propagandists, rap artists, seducers, marketing reps, and thousands of others who  would enlist the young in their causes, organize them into their purposes, or sell them the accouterments of an identity.

Now we hear that being moral is just one way of life, among many. Official education competes amid the din lowering its aim, promising money and jobs.

It might help to remember God did not speak to us as thunder from the sky. He came among us as a man without credentials, speaking in a man’s voice, saying things one must have wanted to hear to hear, that were only be true for those who decided to live them before they became true. No one has to listen.

Quieter voices note that money beyond a modest amount does not bring happiness, that the economy is a fickle god that has often left its devotees stranded and alone. And other voices abide: those people in the community, especially the elderly, who have worked for years to accomplish good work. Every town has them: people who build museums, organize food pantries, develop management plans for rivers or forests, run 4-H programs, establish gardens, or operate successful businesses.

A community that is worried that its children might get lost in the modern barrage of voices–those of revolutionaries, those of addiction merchants–will want to be sure that its own voices are among those heard at school.

In my experience, through the simple act of gathering and telling the stories of ordinary members of the community, students can learn much of enduring value, including the important insight that ordinary people have survived, always, through acts of nobility and heroism, and that learning to see this and understand it is one of the important keys to happiness. They also learn what they need to learn in the official version of schooling–how to sort through information, how to select facts that are useful, and how to combine data into coherent narratives that move the work forward.

A peaceful world is not a boring world, without conflict. It is a busy world, where people somewhat heroically show up on time with their assignment done and the deadline met, looking past personal conflicts and complications so they can keep the lights on at the hospital, the shelves stocked at the supermarket, and the furnace running quietly in the nursery. Much of the work of peace is giving the ordinary its true voice, so that those who want what it tells about will know where and how to look.

By the time I made it home, Alexander had died in Babylon and snow had closed the passes behind me, but I had time to shower and review my notes before meeting my evening class.

What’s wrong with these kids? 2/24

The Roman soldiers who killed a teacher two thousand years ago killed people often–mostly rebels, robbers, and thugs. The system of which they were a part, the Roman state, had taught them to take honor in their work defending the order. They knew little or nothing of the dirty, bloodied commoner, or what he stood for, or who he threatened. The teacher understood this and prayed for their forgiveness, noting “they know not what they do.”

Though Jesus was caught in an evil pattern, he wasn’t tricked into thinking that most of the people who harmed him were his enemies. They were also being harmed by the patterns he had tried to change. Those patterns are still among us. They came slowly into focus for me in a small mountain town in western Montana, but it could have been anywhere. It was simply the world.

I now see the same patterns on a much larger scale in the nation and the world and on a smaller scale within families and individuals. These patterns replicate themselves, and the more force we throw against them, the more powerful they become. They are nearly alive, taking their vital force from us, from our efforts to destroy what we see as evil.

We live in troubled times, among disorderly nations. The evening news is dominated by stories of wars that seem unstoppable. Our cities are disordered, and we hear more and more of crime, gangs, and homelessness. Our families are disordered, and we read that children are being born to single girls who are children themselves. Our personal lives are disordered, and the mental health business is booming. It seems that even nature is disordered, as storms and floods may be increasing in frequency and severity.

In all the noise, we hear passionate speakers clamor for attention, proclaiming that our schools no longer work and that our children are not getting the education they need, but there is little agreement about what sort of education they do need, and calls for better schools bog down in contention, becoming part of the troubled pattern.

Meanwhile, children go on learning what we teach, though not necessarily the things we say in classrooms. The fundamental curriculum for schools is often visible at its board meetings, in the bantering stories told by teachers in the lounge, and in the disciplinary code that is practiced (rather than the one that is written down). The level of honesty, compassion, and concern for the truth that we demonstrate in such routine, everyday affairs is more educative, for good or ill, than the ambitious, idealistic rhetoric in official curriculum guides. How do we handle our disagreements? How do we talk about each other in small groups between classes or after meetings? What standards of evidence do we maintain for tales told about our opponents?

A couple of years after I resigned as principal, the managers of that school were still struggling with the same problems I had faced. They brought in specialists to teach conflict resolution skills because of an increasing number of fights between students, not to mention a maddening level of contention among staff and parents. The conflict resolution folks taught the latest skills from their field, but judging from the agenda of acrimonious disputes at board meetings, the patterns have proven resilient.

The administrators treated student fighting as a problem separate from the rest of the school operation, to be solved with its own little program. They didn’t see it as one manifestation of a much larger pattern. The school itself was a bundle of unrelated programs with fragmented and sometimes contradictory goals. Its leaders didn’t view the myriad problems holistically, considering what teachers were teaching in the history and literature classes about character and consequence, for example, or how disagreements were handled by administrators, or what values were encoded in the discourse at board meetings.

Of course, seeing that small problems are related to much larger problems can be daunting. A few months before, the superintendent had sued the teachers’ union because of their no-confidence vote in him. Meanwhile, the staff was engaged in its annual acrimony over contract negotiations. The union had suggested a work “slow-down,” in which no teacher would come before eight or stay to help students after four, and a “sick-out,” in which large numbers of the staff would call in sick. Their strategy was based, strangely enough, on faith that the school board members they reviled cared more about the education of children than did professional educators, and that the board would back down rather than see the children lose out. They were using kids as pawns to enrich themselves. And of course, it was quite true that some board members saw teachers as commodities to be bought and used as cheaply as possible. Enemies often come to resemble each other.

And there was much, much more. Groups of parents were campaigning to remove or reprimand a number of different coaches and teachers. At every level in the life of the school, champions of morality or diversity were speaking the language of anger. Each group believed their problems were caused by an enemy, so, of course, the combatants wanted institutional uniformity that would force their enemies to accept a better way. In their different ways, each of the sides wanted codes of acceptable language. Each wanted sanctions against deviance. Each wanted submission to their orthodoxy. They wanted to force things to go the way they were sure was right.

And in the midst of it all, the staff was directed, without intentional irony, to consider the question, “How can we get our kids to stop fighting?” The more interesting question would have been “How can we become a peaceful people?”

An ecology of war

“Ah,” said the mouse, “the world is growing narrower every day. At first it was so wide that I felt anxious. I kept running and was happy to see finally walls to the right and left of me in the distance, but these walls are speeding so fast toward each other that I am already in the last room and there in the corner stands the trap into which I’m running.”

“You need only change the direction in which you’re running,” said the cat and gobbled it up.

I came home from Vietnam angry, distrustful, and certain that having tasted war I had something to teach younger people about the pathways of peace. I had a lot to learn about what a poor platform anger would be from which to launch a campaign for peace. I spent the next fifteen years trying to transform a contentious little school in a contentious little town into an orderly place. It became my personal little Vietnam–a long, drawn out process of failure.

I was astonished over and over again at the resilience of the system. I left the school twice when experience made staying seem impossible; but, after hard study, I returned each time renewed and certain that, this time, I understood what needed to be done. My last bout, as principal, began when I took a job that five people had held in the previous six years, blithely certain that I knew enough to do better. It ended in a stormy board meeting at which five hundred disgruntled people came to the school gymnasium to participate in the local sport of winter politics.

Each of us contends against systems, vast in their scale and deep in their effects, that organize us into patterns that often operate outside our field of vision. Just as geese fly south in the winter without understanding the urge they feel, so we often act for reasons we cannot name. As with magnetic force or gravity, we cannot see the forces that work on us and through us, though we can see their effects. They are manifest in patterns around us, and if we do not learn to see and evade some attractions, we are organized into contests that may not serve our best purposes.

As we learn better to recognize those patterns, we are better able to see that people who are organized to oppose us by those patterns are not necessarily our enemies. It is the patterns themselves that we need to overcome. There is an ecology of war–an ecology of evil, if you will.