Saturday, January 25, 2014

How To Become a Mediocre, Cynical Coward (Or Not, If You Prefer)

The [modern] journalist begins with a worship of success and violence, and ends in sheer timidity and mediocrity. But he is not alone in this, nor does he come by this fate merely because he happens personally to be stupid. Every man, however brave, who begins by worshipping violence, must end in mere timidity.

Every man, however wise, who begins by worshipping success, must end in mere mediocrity. This strange and paradoxical fate is involved, not in the individual, but in the philosophy, in the point of view. It is not the folly of the man which brings about this necessary fall; it is his wisdom.

The worship of success is the only one out of all possible worships of which this is true, that its followers are foredoomed to becomes slaves and cowards. A man may be a hero for the sake of Mrs. Gallup’s ciphers or for the sake of human sacrifice, but not the sake of success.

For obvious a man can choose to fail because he loves Mrs. Gallup or human sacrifice; but he cannot choose to fail because he loves success. When the test of triumph is man’s test of everything, they never endure long enough to triumph at all. As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is a mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all the Christian virtues, it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.

It was through this fatal paradox in the nature of things that all these modern adventurers come at last to a sort of tedium and acquiescence. They desired strength; and to them to desire strength was to admire strength; to admire strength was simply to admire the status quo. They thought that he who wished to be strong ought to respect the strong. They did not realize the obvious verity that he who wishes to be strong must despise the strong.

They sought to be everything, to have the whole force of the cosmos behind them, to have an energy that would drive the stars. But they did not realize the two great facts---first, that in the attempt to be everything the first and most difficult step is to be something; second, that the moment a man is something, he is essentially defying everything…

When modern sociologists talk of the necessity of accommodating oneself to the trend of the time, they forget that the trend of the time at its best consists entirely of people who will not accommodate themselves to anything. At its worst it consists of many millions of frightened creatures all accommodating themselves to a trend that is not there. And that is more and more the situation of modern England.
GK Chesterton, Heretics

Reflection – Not just modern England, either, big guy! The tendency which GKC observes here, the use of phrases like ‘being modern and up to date’, ‘getting with the program’ and such and so has only become more acute in the century since he wrote this.

The chapter this is taken from is called “The Mildness of the Yellow Press”, how what is supposed to be hard-hitting and shocking journalism is fundamentally a cynical toadying to the powers of the moment in service of the agenda of the moment. Uh, yeah – that hasn’t exactly gotten any better lately either. I will spare you what I actually think of our modern media, as I don’t think I could do so whilst still using language befitting a reverend member of the clergy.

But since most of us are not, in fact, journalists, let’s think about this larger point GKC is making: the worship of success as a certain path to mediocrity and failure, the worship of strength as a certain path to weakness and timidity and cowardice.

I am reminded of a very funny bit from a Lily Tomlin routine where her character says “I always wanted to be someone, but I realize now I should have been more specific.” The truth of the matter is, we have to be more specific. We have to decide, not to be successful or strong or catch the wave (unless we are, in fact, surfing). Rather, we have to choose to be something real, do something that matters, some good thing outside ourselves that we care enough about to pour our whole heart and soul into it, whether we succeed or fail.

I remember full well making my final promises in Madonna House in 1998, acutely and painfully mindful of my weakness and inability to live this vocation well at all, yet deciding simply that I would rather fail at MH than succeed somewhere else that I didn’t care about. I would rather give my all in some ‘hopeless’ endeavor that meant the world to me than be all rational and canny and calculating in something that I didn’t actually care two cents for.

And it’s the same dynamic at play with all the trends and issues and preference cascades of the day. Whatever you think of, say, same-sex marriage, the last thing in the world you should think is ‘Well, everyone is getting on board with this, so I guess I should, too.’ Cowardice, that is—rank, mediocre, craven, cowardice. Be a Man, or a Woman, and think your own thoughts, and come to your own conclusions—don’t be bullied or rushed by the mendacious ninnies in the media-entertainment business who don’t know anything about anything and whose only concern is to accommodate themselves to a trend that isn’t there and to make everyone as mediocre and compliant as they themselves are so they can sell you whatever product they’re shilling (oops, there I go telling you what I think… better stop for today!).

We should be content to be out of step, retrograde, ‘on the losing side of history’, or whatever… and be right, then to be heedless of right and wrong and constantly running to conform to the mores of our day. That is what it means to be strong and brave and ultimately to succeed in the task we have set for ourselves in life.


  1. Ah, there it is 'same sex marriage' mentioned and a temptation to fall into line be with the flow rather than thinking for one's self and standing up for what is right. It appears most Catholic cannot define marriage from a faith prospective so they enter the discussion with one arm tied behind their back. This has led to "stinking Catholic thinking" on this issue at a growing disservice to our faith and will soon lead to an assault on our teaching and we shall see about strength and bravery or acquiescence. Is it the media, really, or a lack of understanding to begin with which undermines right choices and the ability to recognize wrong headed reporting for what it is. Jesus is the light of the world. Don't drive our the darkness just turn on the light.

    1. Yes, indeed. We do need to try to have a conversation, not so much about 'same-sex marriage' as about marriage, period, but that is no easy thing to do in our current climate. But try we must.
      I agree that it's easy to blame the media for it - really, they are just the symptom, not the disease. What the disease is... well, not so sure, but Jesus the light is the cure, that I know!
      Peace to you.

  2. In August I was invited to present a program in an 800 family parish about the Christian definition of marriage and how people of various orientations, currently secular activists are using same sex-marriage to redefine the definition of Christian marriage in institutions and judicial venues. I did not address homosexuality as such though it came up ("we want respect and equality in marriage"). There were three priests in attendance one was my back up on Church teaching. It went well, the best part was the comments of married individuals and what marriage meant to them. Powerful. I am meeting with the pastor of my home parish this week about a similar program in this parish. Turning on the light I hope. Enjoying your writings. Thanks.


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