Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the newest book I’ve read in a long time, weaves together the stories of a young French girl, Marie Laure, who is blind and a German orphan boy, Werner, who is gifted at mathematics and tech. Over the years of the Second World War, their lives intersect at surprising points. I enjoyed the style: the present tense, poetic descriptions of the scenes. The best part was how it captured snapshots of what “the war” was like, and how it followed up with the characters as adults, revealing how their childhood experience of World War II forever changed the direction of their lifelines, like changing the threads and changing the whole tapestry.

Some themes I picked out were:

-intransigence of life

-the war: living through it, how actions by leaders at the state or military level trickle down into daily life

-overcoming trials: carrying on or just going along is contrasted in Marie Laure and Werner. Werner accepts a deepening spiral of Nazi commands that drags him into moral quicksand

-happiness: what is it? All the Light We Cannot See, would say, rightly, that it is not a permanent state, but something we can catch glimpses of if we try to do our honest best in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Sometimes circumstances can snatch it away entirely, such as when Marie loses her father.

-the randomness of birth and outcomes: circumstances beyond our control determine a lot of what happens in our lives

-freedom despite the randomness: But free will matters too, and our approach and our willingness to respond can change things for the better. Werner does finally learn this lesson, I believe.

Over all, it seems very accurate about the nastier aspects of war and difficult circumstances. I would say the balance the book strikes between free will and circumstance is one of its best features.

It’s not a particularly religious book, and it captures some very unpleasant wartime realities, but I think it’s pretty accurate about what it means to make good choices and try to live a good life on the ground. And it’s not the darkest book I’ve ever read; I’d say Graham Greene is darker, and he was Catholic.

Here are some quotations I picked out:

From Werner’s childhood, the contrast between his orphange and the opulence of the SS Officer’s home:

“The lance corporal looks around the room–the coal stove, the hanging laundry, the undersize children–with equal measures of condescension and hostility.” (80) [He is coming to collect Werner to repair the radio of the SS Officer Siedler. Werner goes there and successfully repairs the radio.]

“Werner gathers his tools. Herr Siedler stands in front of the radio and seems about to pat him on the head. ‘Outstanding,’ he says. He ushers Werner to the dining table and calls for the maid to bring cake. Immediately it appears: four wedges on a plain white plate. Each is dusted with confectioners’ sugar and topped by a dollop of whipped cream. Werner gapes. Herr Siedler laughs. ‘Cream is forbidden. I know. But”–he puts his forefinger to his lips–“there are ways around such things. Go on.'” (83)

Then, later,

Marie Laure misses her father:

“Oh, to the free. To lie once more in the Jardin des Plantes with Papa. To feel his hands on hers, to hear the petals of the tulips tremble in the wind. He made her the glowing hot center of his life; he made her feel as if every step she took was important.” (403)

Finally, this quote from the end shows the ripples of the war in the characters’ later lives. Jutta, Werner’s sister, receives a token from Werner that had belonged to Marie Laure, so Jutta goes to visit, but she is very nervous and self-conscious about her German-ness as she travels:

Jutta and her son ride the train to visit Marie Laure in France:

“Before dark, a well-dressed man with a prosthetic leg boards the train. He sits beside her and lights a cigarette. Jutta clutches her bag between her knees; she is certain that he was wounded in the war, that he will try to start a conversation, that her deficient French will betray her. Or that Max will say something. Or that the man can already tell. Maybe she smells German.

He’ll say, You did this to me.

Please. Not in front of my son.

But the train jolts into motion, and the man finishes his cigarette and gives her a preoccupied smile and promptly falls asleep.” (507)

I love how this final quote captures how we sometimes feel like others can see through us, can read our invisible thoughts, and we can become very paranoid about nothing.

Catholic Theologian Takes Own Life. My essay from T&C

man-1394395_640-300x199My latest from the Truth and Charity Forum: Mourning Stephen Webb.

Depression and faith have a complicated relationship.

Original posted here. 

“I mourn for Stephen Webb even though I did not know him personally. His work in First Things, particularly, “Saving Punishment,” affected me deeply. He was also brave enough to write about Christians and depression, and still, it claimed his life. As a people who exalt life, I can only hope that we can exalt his life and offer consolation to others because our faith has seen depression and suffering and there can be light on the other side of darkness.”

“Mental illness is full of contradictions and difficulties, and no one is immune. It’s not something we like to talk about because it can be embarrassing for a faith tradition that promises hope. Webb even commented that, “church leaders and theologians talk so little of this befuddling malady.” Deep friends are sometimes able to venture into these murky waters. And pray we do and do it often because no one needs to feel ashamed of depressive thoughts”
Continue reading

The Frightening Motivations of Mass Murders

When mass shootings happen, as it seems to be happening  more and more frequently, fingers immediately point to guns. And that’s understandable, but the tool is not the cause of the action. The motivations are what we need to look at, and those are far more frightening.

This great article by Peter Turchin explores the motivations and rise of the Indiscriminant Mass Murders. So often, the shooters’ view of themselves as victimized, “moralistic punishers” is overlooked because, I think, it scares us. We have all felt that way at some point: wronged and wanting justice. Now, most of us don’t kill people, and that’s good. And it doesn’t in any way excuse these actions because we can see their motivations.

What it means is that pointing the finger at guns or mental illness won’t get us anywhere but denial. What it will take to stop these is learning to see one another as like us, to lift each other up even (and especially) those who have committed wrongs. But I suppose that response isn’t  not super likely, this side of heaven. But it’s worth a shot.

This article analyzes the motivations of these IMM shooters and looks at some of the factors in society that account for the increased sense of isolation and disenfranchisement that so many people feel (even though most are not violent, of course).

It’s not fun or light reading, but I believe it is pretty insightful and honest.
“The rampage shooters see themselves as moralistic punishers striking against deep injustice. In a perceptive opinion at New York Times, Adam Lankford writes, “we should think of many rampage shooters as non-ideological suicide terrorists” (I would remove ‘non-ideological’ because many such killers in my database were ideologically motivated). He then points out that a common factor in both rampage shooters and suicide terrorists is “a deep sense of victimization and belief that the killer’s life has been ruined by someone else, who has bullied, oppressed or persecuted him.” I would add that this ‘someone else’ does not need to be a person (a point that Lankford acknowledges elsewhere in his opinion). In fact in the case of IMM (with an emphasis on the I), it is usually a group, an organization, an institution, or the whole society that are held responsible by the killer.”

http://evonomics.com/what-changes-in-society-lead-to-mass-killings/

Ask a Question

gLjmSW7el8dIHwJd8bFTCx02FR2P7ooVnBVFOyc7PbLmLsqYwwM0c5rrb-ATRRYlCT8GKA=w1315-h537Got something on your mind?

Are you curious about any aspect of living the Faith or confounded by some obscure area of doctrine? Want a book recommendation?

Ask me about it! I would love to hear from you!

I promise to do my best to answer as many earnest questions as I can. I can share my experience and chase down the occasional obscure theologian. And if I just don’t know, I’ll tell you that too. Your question may even make it into its own post.

Comment or tweet @StephaniesIdeas

My Crusades article on Crisis

I forgot this post this here. Crisis Magazine posted my review of a new book on the Crusades by Steve Weidenkopf

“The idea that faith provided cultural coherence in a land without nation-states is very foreign to the modern Western mind. Today the cultural unity organized around “America” or “democracy” is considered valid and primary. Faith is seen as valid only tenuously and certainly second in importance to the nation-state. This difference allows many commenters to blithely decry religious violence as the reprehensible action of “extremists,” while turning an uncritical eye to the ethics of wars waged by states in the name of “democracy.”

So the distinction between “religious violence” and other violence turns out to be a red herring. The standard that makes such acts acceptable or unacceptable is not the name in which the conflicts are waged, but rather the adherence to Just War tenets: is there a just cause for the war? Is it defensive in nature? Is violence used as a last resort? Is there proportionate cause? Is there a reasonable chance of success? Are the principles of justice within war followed such as attacking only combatants?”

Read it all here: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2015/history-crusades-obama-read

Stop Trying to Harvest Life’s Peak Moments – Centesimus Annus

From JP II’s Centesimus Annus: His 1991 Encyclical on the 100th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, widely considered the first Church encyclical on social teachings:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.75 It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments. (36) ….

one notes first the poverty or narrowness of man’s outlook, motivated as he is by a desire to possess things rather than to relate them to the truth, and lacking that disinterested, unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of wonder in the presence of being and of the beauty which enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created them. (37)

I love this. I find in Catholic theology and thought a truly unique invitation to contemplate that which is truly good in life versus what things are the distractions.

I think in my own life I have often succumbed to the temptation to confuse having with being–ie if I have a cool outfit, I am cool. There’s no easy way to explain this because we don’t have a vocabulary for it.

But happiness and a good life are not different. Happiness is not a moment, not even a collection of peak moments. True happiness is a life well-lived, a life of dedicated work to people and ideas that matter. That sort of effort is itself the reward.

I hate the analogy of apple-picking, but it demonstrates so clearly. It’s fun to go pick apples in the late summer and early fall; I visit an orchard and spend an hour or less plucking the prettiest products of the branch. I bask in the sun and feel very pleased with myself for connecting with nature. And there’s nothing really wrong with that, but it remains a grab in the dark for a “peak moment,” those oh-so-perfect looking scenes in my head which will make me happy if I simply gather enough of them.

The real satisfaction is not in the serene, beautiful moment–because a moment is just a moment and it passes away immediately. Real satisfaction is in the dedication to the entire process of planting, nurturing, watching grow, weeding, pruning, watering and finally, yes, picking, cooking and preserving. Real satisfaction is in the authenticity of hard, honest work (of a variety of natures).

Consider mothering. The peak moments are my little girl’s first steps, her precious laugh, my toddler boy’s love of his birthday cake. But if I could swoop in and capture all the peak moments without the whole process of life, those moments would be empty. Those moments are meaningful because I have nursed them when they cried, laid beside a restless, sick infant, cleaned up the peanut butter, made a thousand bland lunches and calmed the tantrums. I could even miss the “peakest” of moments (though it’s nice to have them), such as the birthday parties and the first steps, and still find satisfaction and joy in my life as their mother because I would still be a part of that life-long process of dedication.

Consumption, materialistic consumerism, tries to trick us by offering the peak moments as though they can be seized or grasped without the whole-life process of dedication, work and sacrifice. “Want a perfect body? Buy this Vitamix Blender. A healthier you awaits.” As though the moment of enjoying one’s physical appearance in the mirror can be obtained by the $40.00 purchase alone. In reality, the blender likely delivers neither the happiness nor the perfect body. Only effort sustained over months towards the end goal of a healthy diet and body will bring us closer to our ideal–whether or not we have a Vitamix (no offense Vitamix).

And materialistic consumerism is also much nastier than that mere level of lying to us, the buyers. In a disordered emphasis on profit, corners are sometimes cut, people hurt in the process of production for excess. Now, there are certainly legitimate purpose of marketing–to put audiences in touch with something they might actually need. And those creating and selling products certainly do need to earn a living. And capitalistic enterprise can be engaged in well and virtuously.

Oh but how easily it morphs into false promises and misleading visions of happiness. This is why I love the quote above, John Paul II tells us that it is “necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth.”

Yes. Yes. This and only this is the hallmark of a good life and consequentially of true satisfaction and peace. Constantly grasping for happiness in new experiences, products and achievements is a race to nowhere. The only thing that matters is to seek the truth, to strive to live in accord with it, to contemplate beauty and goodness, and to love God and others…just like Christ taught.

Some Articles of Mine from Truth & Charity Forum

Two Pieces on the Synod on the Family

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/6-reasons-the-synod-shouldnt-worry-us/

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/extraordinary-synod-to-address-pastoral-challenges-to-the-family/

Guttmacher Inst: On The Increased Need of Family Planning Services

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/on-the-increased-need-in-family-planning-services/

Earth Day: Life vs. the Environment: A False Dilemma

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/life-vs-the-environment-a-false-dilemma/

Denmark Forces Churches to Perform Gay Marriages

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/denmark-forces-churches-to-conduct-homosexual-weddings/

 

Books

Books I’ve read this year. Some good stuff here. What are you reading? I’m very interested

The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield

The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter (A biography of C. S. Lewis and his friends, most notably J.R.R. Tolkien)

Dune by Frank Herbert

A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Paybe

Perelandra by C.S. Lewis

The Survival Medicine Handbook by John Alton

Prayer and Temperament

Enneagram

The Pre-Persons by Philip K. Dick

MacIntyre Post #4: Know the universe, know God

Aquinas’s claim is not just that theology and philosophy must be consistent…but also that failure to understand the universe of finite created beings inevitably issues in a defective knowledge of God. Why so?      We understand God as creator in part through a study of the natural order of things and of the human place within that order. Errors about that order and about the human place within that order give rise to errors about God himself and our relationship to him(75).

This is why the problematic philosophy of science today gives so many people wrong ideas about God and his existence. Science is not a belief system, but a method of investigation. Observing natural phenomena needn’t exclude the philosophical claim or possibility that God exists.

We ignore philosophy, pretend that it doesn’t matter, when what that really means is that we unwittingly accept certain philosophical premises. One of the most popular is that the method of natural science–which is to just observe nature–somehow provides metaphysical grounding for all human meaning. By establishing a type of empiricism, it cuts out all possibility of spiritual matters simply by default. But examined closely, there is of course no empirical reason to be a strict empiricist. It is helpful for explaining natural events, but there is no reason to extend empiricism into an epistomology or metaphysics or anything else. Yet this is what we tend to do nowadays.

Thus a philosophically and theologically consistent view of the natural sciences could view nature with just as much accuracy but instead come away with an awe and reverence for the Creator.

Most importantly though, what I want to take from this quotation is the idea that an unquestioned philosophy can become a theology (or lack of theology) that isn’t based on anything.

In what ways do you see our understanding of the natural world affect our understanding of God?

Augustine: Does Happiness Require Truth? (God, Phil., Univ. Post #2)

The late-classical skeptics (just as their Greek predecessors) had denied that the possibility that anyone could know anything certainly. Augustine, then, poses this question to the skeptics, says MacIntyre:

in his Contra Academicos he posed the question of whether it is possible to attain happiness while still only a searcher for truth rather than as one who has achieved it. (25)

Augustine believed that true happiness could not be had while still uncertain of our actual goal in life or what true happiness consisted in.

Today, many people claim to believe that “everything is relative” or that we can’t really know truth. I think Augustine’s question applies well: What does it mean to be happy if we don’t know what goodness or happiness really are? Because if we can’t know truth or anything beyond relativism, how can we really know what those two concepts really mean?

Augustine responds further that somethings can be known certainly, even if the amount of certain knowledge is limited.

 “ ‘if I am deceived, I am.’ ….I am deceived neither in believing that I know nor in believing that I love. What I love may not be what I take it to be, but that I love it, whatever it is, is certain” (26).

Thus, there are always two things we can know: that we exist and that there is something outside of ourselves that our loves (or desires) are directed at.

Lastly, Augustine unsurprisingly posits that we need knowledge of God to truly be happy and know truth and this knowledge only comes through grace.

Interestingly, he notes the biggest obstacle to receiving this grace is our own capacity to distract ourselves.

“What deprives us of the knowledge of God also deprives us of self-knowledge: an indefinite capacity for distraction by external trivialities and a craving for self-justification, so that we either do not attend to what is within or, if we do, disguise from ourselves our thoughts and motives. And in areas where our sexuality exerts its power, we lose our capacity for self-examination” (28). (referenced Conf. 10.35-37)

How true is this? I can’t help but think of the internet and the myriad ways we distract ourselves nowadays from thinking about things that truly matter. And I’m sure I do it just as much as anyone else.

And without knowing God, he says, we cannot truly know ourselves.

To connect to the first post, I think distraction is a big reason we avoid philosophy and tell ourselves that it is irrelevant anyway.