Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reality vs Ideology

I recall my perplexity upon finishing Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” for the first time. I knew that the book had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I believed (and still believe) that its author was one of the true heroes of the 20th century. I was interested in reading it partly because of its status as a work of great literature, and partly because I was interested in its critique of Soviet totalitarianism and ideology. When I finished reading it, I was confused because the book contained no explicit denunciations or critiques of communist ideology. Instead, in simple and straightforward prose, it told the story of a single day in the life of a concentration camp prisoner without ever making any direct commentary on the system that had led to his being present there.

What I recently realized, years later, is that that, in fact, is one of the main sources of the novel’s power. The critique of ideology present in the book is not in the form of an explicit theoretical treatise, but rather in the form of a simple exercise of bearing witness, in showing the reader a snapshot of what is, or was, albeit in fictionalized form. The character of Ivan Denisovich is not a cypher or a symbol of some larger ideal, he is exactly and only what he appears to the reader as in the novel's pages, a human subject attempting to survive and even thrive under conditions of ideologically imposed brutality.

The reason for this, I now see, is that the language of ideology is the language of theoretical abstractions. While theoretical language is an unavoidable and necessary part of writing and speaking, it is more easily detached from the reality of ordinary human experience and therefore, more susceptible to abuse. This is because formulating a set of beliefs about the way the world should be, always involves abstracting away from what is. The ideologue often becomes committed to this vision in a way that makes him or her impervious to the realities of lived human experience, attempting to force his vision onto the world at all costs. When given the power to force others to conform to its vision of how things should be, this fanaticism can lead to oppression and suffering.

It is easy to recognize the destructiveness of particular ideologies and the toll they take or have taken on human beings. Most of us recognize the evils of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. What is less easy for some to recognize, is that even the critique of ideology can itself become ideological. In the words of Georgetown University professor Patrick Deneen, “Can the principled stand against a politics based upon the application of universalized principle avoid becoming universalized?” Or, as conservative thinker D. G. Hart observes when discussing the conservative critique of ideology,

Conservatism arose as a denunciation of theoretical (read: ideological) approaches to politics, such as the French Revolutionaries’ attempt to rationalize and even mechanize traditional French society. Of course, the temptation for conservatism is to respond with a rival theory of politics for the good society.

This leads us back to Solzhenitsyn’s novel. It’s strength lies precisely in its failure to provide a counter ideology to that of the Soviet system it exposes. It does not give us a theoretical tool that we can abstract and use to advance our own ideological causes. It simply shows us the human reality of life under an ideological tyranny. It presents us with a reality to which we must respond. This is the novel’s lasting power and genius. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Where I Am

About six months ago, I wrote here about my decision to leave my stable, decent paying job with health insurance in order to move 50 miles and participate in starting a church with friends. I talked about how it was an attempt to find and fulfill my life's purpose and calling, and how, for the first time, I was letting my sense of vocation determine my actions rather than the need to pay the bills. I said that even though some days I wondered if I was making the right choice, I had to believe that if God had called me, he would provide for me and make things possible. This was what it meant to live by faith, I said, to not be a prisoner of my circumstances. When I think about those words now, it nearly makes me sick to my stomach.

To put it bluntly, the last four months since I left my job and moved here have been among the worst of my entire life. In fact, I can only think of one other time in my life that things seemed worse than this. I have spent the last four months feeling like nothing so much as a prisoner of my circumstances. The truth is, right now, I have trouble seeing how it's possible to be anything else. All my former talk to the contrary now seems to me like a load of pretentious, self-deluded, spiritualized garbage.

Shortly after I moving here I got sick. Actually, it was a month to the day I had left my job and thus given up my health insurance. This was a scenario I had known was possible, and even feared on some level, but hadn't seriously entertained. I went to the doctor and paid out of pocket to be treated. I took the medicine I was prescribed and seemed to get better. But then, just as I was finishing the medicine, I caught a cold, and at the tail end of that I ended up with another sinus infection.

Of course I didn't want to believe it. But the symptoms were too clear (and too miserable) to ignore. So back to the clinic I went, to spend more money out of pocket. This time they put me on a different, supposedly stronger medication. Even before I had finished the course of medication, it became apparent that I wasn't getting better. I ended up on antibiotics a third time and didn't get better then either. By then I'd been sick for a month. 

On top of that, I was working two part time jobs, neither of which I really liked much. As a result of the time and energy consumed by the two jobs, I wasn't really able to participate in the life of the community I came to join either, a nice bit of bitter irony. I was discouraged, angry, exhausted, and overwhelmed.

To make a long story short, I ended up leaving one of the two jobs in the hope that the extra time to rest would help me get better. It didn't. Fearing possible pneumonia, I ended up going back to the doctor two more times, being put on antibiotics two more times, and I still didn't get better. Finally I was put on allergy medicine, which seemed to help some but didn't really make me better. I continued to feel lousy and exhausted all the time. 

Finally, I was able to take a vacation and go home over the week between Christmas and New Years. I was still feeling fairly lousy, but at least I was able to rest and enjoy spending time with my parents. My mom also paid for me to see her chiropractor, who gave me some supplements to treat my sinus problems. Leaving my parents on New Year's Day and returning to the miserable life I've been living here, was one of the saddest things I've ever done. I cried a lot that day and even the next.

After arriving back here, I began to treat my illness with an aggressive combination of home remedies and continued taking the supplements given by my mom's chiropractor. Over the course of a week, this seemed to help a lot. Then, a few days ago, with the help of friends, I had an appointment at a naturopath clinic. They put me on a restricted diet and gave me some more supplements to take. As of today, I am feeling much better, almost normal in fact. That is definitely something to be thankful for, but the story doesn't end there.

The whole time I was sick, I thought that if I could just get better, everything would seem fine, that I would be happy again. Now I'm feeling much healthier, but instead of being happy, I feel depressed. I made a big move and it was supposed to be a new start in life. Instead, it just feels like the same life I thought I was leaving behind, except worse. I'm working a job that I don't enjoy, the same kind of work as the job I left, except for far less money and with no health insurance. I'm living in someone else's house because I can't afford to live on my own. I'm nearly broke. I miss my family. I don't see a way forward.

A friend tells me that I lack faith that God is working in my life. That’s probably true. It’s hard to believe when life is so relentlessly painful and you don’t see a way out. God and His purposes seem like distant abstractions compared to the financial burdens I face, a job that makes me anxious and stressed all day, and my inability to see any way through these struggles. I'm tired of everything feeling like a continual painful uphill struggle towards nothing. I don't know what the answer is, but I feel like something needs to change, and soon.