I was seven years old when Neil Simon’s Broadway play The Odd Couple became a TV series. Forty-five years later, I still remember Oscar and Felix as perfect embodiments of the liberated and the oppressed—which, I suppose, might reveal something about my own organizational limitations. This semester, for the first time in quite a while, I’m sharing my classroom with another teacher. She is bright-eyed, high-energy, orderly, and intense. I think I had powdered sugar from a donut on my sweatshirt when we met.
I approve of orderliness in principle; after all, the major motif in the opening line of Genesis 1 is God bringing order from chaos. But in defense of chaos, God didn’t start with order. He could have if He had wanted to, but He didn’t. God must have seen some value in amorphous ambiguity to bother beginning with chaos.
Then, by chapter 4, the champion of order, the farmer Cain, slays his brother, the wandering herdsman Abel, because God preferred the unreserved gratitude and generosity of Abel’s offering over that of the prudent manager Cain, who held back his best.
Now, that parallel is a bit unfair, because there’s nothing terribly wrong with this nice young teacher wanting the classroom to be neat and tidy, adorned with colorful posters and anodyne inspirational sayings. If asked, many people would probably agree with the idea that school is supposed to cultivate orderliness, responsibility, and conformity. That a school of students should be like a school of fish, mindlessly swimming together, moving as one.
But they would be wrong. The word school comes from schola, which means leisure. The highest thing that takes place in school is not discipline or orderliness, or even the acquisition of essential literacy and numeracy skills, but rather the possibility for reflection and contemplation that opens up on the far side of the acquisition of those skills.
Contemplation can be serene, like the transport we experience in our initial apprehension of a delicate flower. But for the blessed few, serenity can lead to something richer, which is the sublime, the beautiful comingled with the tragic. Think of the essential beauty of the flower. But what if the flower is revealed to be artificial? It is a betrayal, perhaps in part because it does not have the organic complexity of a living thing breaking forth from the earth for no purpose other than beauty. Mostly, however, the artificial flower is a betrayal because it neither lives nor dies. There is no comingling of the tragic.
All life is mortal. It is both terrible and beautiful. It can be puzzling, perplexing, even enigmatic. But apprehending this fruitful ambiguity requires an openness to the possibility of Truth and the courage to follow no matter where it leads. Not just the small “t” truths of social utility, but the capital “T” truths that subsist in themselves and need no justification. While this habit of mind—implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, subversive and non-conformist—has never been widely popular, it is seen far less these days in young students, whose minds, I would argue, are awash in the existential uncertainty unleashed by abortion culture.
The beautiful idea underlying school is that the young should have a good long time in which they don’t have to worry about providing for themselves or surviving on their own. They are given the leisure to learn and to think. But imagine their pathway winding through the unmarked graves of brothers and sisters never to be born, should-have-been friends never to be met, and could-have-been spouses never to be wed. The young know that we abort unborn babies, and that they too would have been aborted had their mothers so chosen. They live in a lingering shadow, a sad darkness. They do not have the spiritual light necessary to see the sublime. They exist on a diet of anodyne inspirational sayings, lacking the courage—because it has not been instilled in them—to be flesh-and-blood bodies animated by immortal souls.
Fortunately, there are ways back. Mercifully, there are always ways back. But they are never where you expect them to be. Oscar, which means “spear of God,” was a slob, but he had an eye for wonder, a talent for friendship, and an openness to adventure. Felix, which means “happiness,” could never achieve the joy and peace he yearned for because it cannot be achieved as a willed end; it can only be discovered incidentally. The beauty of The Odd Couple was the ongoing revelation of hidden and surprising things, provoked by the clash of Oscar’s chaotic messiness and Felix’s rage for order. As a priest friend often says, “it’s our sins which save us.”
The souls of the young are small safe spaces, barricaded behind angry leftist orthodoxies. Many of them are not liberals, promoting liberty, and they certainly are not conservatives, conserving wisdom and tradition accrued over time. They are that most dangerous of political animal, utopians, who believe in the absolute perfection of their understanding of things. If the polls are right, they will have their president in November and the age of the joyless Felix will be upon us. But the original Neil Simon screenplay plumbed depths too dark for television. The story began with Felix attempting suicide, and failing because of his fussy, delicate nature. Utopian dreams inevitably implode. Let’s just hope the existential wisdom of an Oscar will find the young dreamers before there is too much damage. Such strange twists and turns.