Good Humor and the Illusion of Control
Day-to-day events are moving with the speed of an avalanche, so fast, in fact, that they threaten to bury me right here where I sit scribbling. Our moment cries out for a caveat: Between the time of this writing and the time of your reading some important new “fact” may be brought to bear on the following consideration, rendering it absurd. So let me hold my breath while it seems safe, if not generous, to say that the toxic trident of the coronavirus pandemic, the specter of economic ruin, and the quaintly dubbed social unrest we’re experiencing from coast to coast have been met with cascading failure on every level of government. If Professor Pavia were handing out grades, the federal government would receive an F, New York State also an F, and you, local government, a mark of F minus.
As we’re reminded again and again, governments have been relying on science, but science has been laid bare for all its limitations. How long, for example, does the coronavirus survive on surfaces? Forty-five minutes? Eighteen hours? I’ve encountered both estimations and a half-dozen others besides, and so have you. Since a couple of recent studies (not yet peer-reviewed or published) suggest the likelihood of contracting the virus from any surface may be near zero, we ought to remind ourselves of what “science” is: a method of inquiry. Nothing else but a method of inquiry.
Technocracy, science’s digitized bastard, hasn’t exactly cloaked itself in glory, either. The data sets and computer models, which are after all no more reliable than the numbers being fed into them, have been unerringly wrong. About halfway through this ongoing nightmare (although who’s to say what halfway means at this point?), I heard a smug technocrat declare that we’d just have to get used to staying inside until medicine (also science, but at least as much art) concocts a vaccine that will propel us from our homes. Eventually. Maybe in a year. Maybe two.
The figurative tumbleweeds blowing down the New York streets, the abandoned office towers, the shuttered businesses that haven’t closed for good—not officially, although that’s a matter of time—all point to the years of striving it’s going to take to emerge from this economic pit. Meanwhile, what does everybody plan to do after the unemployment insurance transfers stop fattening our checking accounts?
And then, since things only seem to go one way these days—from bad to worse—a depraved Midwestern cop kneels on a man’s neck for nearly nine minutes, and this in front of many witnesses, ending the man’s life.
Long-bottled but predictable and justifiable outrage ignited immediately, and hundreds of thousands took to the streets to exercise the right to petition their government for the redress of grievances. Most of these citizens were people of good will. I know a lot of them, and I’ve known them for a long time. But the movement was just as immediately co-opted by power-driven political actors who catalyzed the protestors into a mob that soon developed a separate, fevered mind of its own. That is the nature of mobs.
In a flash, no questions could be asked, no counter interpretation entertained, no criticism brooked. You were either with them, or you deserved to be lined up against a wall and shot. The revolution, comrade, was on.
Never to be outperformed in their capacity for craven capitulation, our industrial leaders rushed to take the side of the mob with solemn pronouncements. I lost count of the emails I received from executives who had “C” in their titles, in the fervent hope, the avid aspiration, that they would be eaten last.
A fresh biological menace, the threat of economic collapse, the unholy whiff of mob rule, science falling short, political policies and the hapless brows that sprung, all these conspired to hurl a rotten pineapple at the Illusion of Control.
I don’t have much faith in the unalloyed progress of technology, which, based on what I’ve written here, probably goes without saying. But even I am forced to admit that technology has its advantages. So while the purity and the clarity of the light on this bright June morning mocked my blackening thoughts, I received the following, by text message no less, from a brilliant young friend:
Prayer for Good Humor
by St. Thomas More
Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest.
Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it.
Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good
and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil,
but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.
Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments,
nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.”
Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor.
Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy,
and to be able to share it with others.
We’ve come to understand humor as the ability to find something comic in just about any situation, but More’s use of “humor” in his prayer probably reflects the older meaning of the word, which refers to disposition or temperament, though he is careful to add the bit about the grace to take a joke.
Because it takes a peculiar brand of arrogance to assume that everybody knows everything, please bear with me. More was a lawyer, writer, and renowned wit in 16th- century London. As far as saints go, he’s famous. A fictionalized version of his life is at the center of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 bestseller Wolf Hall, and in the 1960s, More was the subject of the play (and subsequent film) “A Man for All Seasons,” with Paul Scofield in the leading role. Living hundreds of years too early to receive any royalties (pun definitely intended), More filled a number of important offices in the court of King Henry VIII, ending up as Lord High Chancellor of England, a kind of Chief Justice.
A shorthand version of events would show More, after increasingly contentious squabbles with the king, yet unwilling to bestow his blessing on the monarchy’s assumption of powers he rightly believed belonged to the Church. For his refusal to knuckle under, Thomas More was imprisoned in the Tower of London along with his friend John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and a number of other churchmen whom he subsequently witnessed being marched to their deaths. Still, he would not budge. Catholic teaching and tradition were right; Henry was wrong. He was beheaded on July 6, 1535.
Some suggest that More wrote his Prayer for Good Humor while he was locked up. I’ve been unable to verify that to my satisfaction but I would like to believe it. Displaying a charitable and cheerful disposition, More hoped and trusted that he and his judges would be together once again, and for all eternity, enjoying one another’s company in heaven.
More enjoyed his position and his place, and he relished a legal argument. But he was committed above all to moral truth, and to doing what was right, regardless of what it might cost him. A loving family, honor among his peers, elevation to an important position, even by one so mighty as a king—More could give these up because he understood that, whatever form it took, the end was inescapable. No temporal disturbance, not even a trial for his life, with the chopping block on the short horizon, had the power to grind him down. He couldn’t possibly be deceived by the Illusion of Control.
Here was a man who was, in a word, free. He is reported to have kissed his executioner and forgiven him after he mounted the scaffold, and with his last breaths declared himself “the king’s good servant, and God’s first,” thereby writing the coda to his extraordinary life.