Heroism in the Modern World

As Hurricane Season 2017 has kicked into full swing with Charlie’s devastation and Irma’s impending doom, images of Houston’s floodwaters have been painted across every major media outlet worth its salt.  And rightfully so—the relief efforts deserve as much national attention as they do praise.  For some, it’s proof that even a politically divided landscape still comes together in times of need, as sad a statement as that sounds.  It’s almost as if, due to the poisonous rhetoric flung about by million-dollar news anchors and paper editors, people started to believe that partisan differences between conservatives and liberals had reached the point of lethality among common Americans.

But there’s something greater to focus on.  The hurricanes have been deadly and there will be more to come.  Even if Irma is the last one of the season (it isn’t), there will be more next year and the year after that.  They’re forces of nature, and unless someone is willing to get into HAARPA memes, they aren’t exactly forces of nature that mankind can do a whole lot against.

What is baffling, however, is the praise given to acts of charity that one would think, given our history as both a civilization and as a species, would be expected in times of trial.  Praise goes to the exceptional among us, and if the exceptional among the Houstonians are those braving the waters looking for survivors, running the food banks, and volunteering at the shelters, then we have a problem.  No man is an island entire of itself, the old poet Donne reminds us; misery affects all of us as it affects the individual.  But charity answers misery in the same fashion.  It is through charity that communities resist the moral failing that encompasses cowardice within its sphere of tolerance, because charity binds men to each other as a common people: they are allowed close enough for comfort, but maintain enough space to keep their respect.

The Modern conception of radical individualism dispenses with all of that.  Individualism demands that men either be strong or that they be weak; the strong should not need the help of others, while the weak are left to beguile their ways out of servitude to the strong.  The individual has need for God only at the individual’s first conception; as the idea of the individual has grown older, more and more foundations of the individual’s existence have been stripped away and dispensed with.  Even by a mere hundred years ago, the individual was amusingly considered the crowning achievement of history, as if it were mere coincidence that mankind had survived long enough for the West to invent the absurd notion that men were independent agents in a chaotic and nonsensical world, and that they were strong enough forge out of randomness the laws, philosophies, and cities necessary to flourish.  Pride is the sin of the era, both intellectually and physically.  Piteously dark pride.

I get ahead of myself.  The strong push forward in pursuit of a form of perfection—be it intellectual, physical, or some other form of perfection deemed worthy by that person.  Perfection can only be pursued as a means toward something else: the glory of God, or at the very least, the exaltation of His creation.  Pursued as an end in itself, the concept of perfection becomes oriented toward the consumptive flaws in the soul, points inwards, and instead of leading to the glory of Man, it destroys him utterly.  The leaders of Modernity seem to believe at least half of this, as they try leading us further into temptation with ego-pandering social media and on-demand entertainment.

But what about the rest?  The strong are the ones we expect to man the rafts and rescue old women from their rooftops in the post-flooded Texas summer.  It is in periods of crisis that the strong shine the brightest.  But those that are not strong, whether by age, birth, or mere incompetence, what of them?  Individualism keeps them aware their lack of strength, and rather than being a natural fact, it highlights it as a flaw.  Only the strong survive, Modernity claims; those who are not strong are left with the impression that they are alive by accident and, as such, at any minute are likely to perish without even their memory or mark on the world lingering on.  This fear breeds a dark shame, particularly among the incompetent; it breeds generations of men with hollow chests.

But for the others, Modernity’s answer is that they are to be cordoned off and forgotten about by whole swaths of society.  They are thrown into nursing homes, special needs houses, Veteran’s Affairs-run hospitals, or drug clinics.  They aren’t totally forgotten, the contemporary liberal will argue, since they’re receiving the benefits of socialized welfare programs that are funded by our hard-working taxpayers.  And yet the liberal’s argument implies that people remember that they even pay taxes, that they know where these taxes go, and that they have some grasp over the magnitude of the problems and numbers.  Taxes that go directly into State coffers for handouts to the feeble aren’t a form of charity; they’re a form of paid indulgences to absolve the culture of its guilt for not having an adequate answer.  And it shows: most of these institutions paid for through State money end up being places that no one ever actually wants to go.  The general tendency is that the people here aren’t cared for—they’re just kept alive until something other than starvation kills them off.  They’re left to scrounge up for themselves the communities that have been denied to them by very nature of the Modern world.

The point here is that it is an empty way of trying to solve a Modern problem that, like so much else of Modernity, has no answer.  The reason that a seemingly simple act of charity has become so praiseworthy is because the normal state of Modern man is of self-indulgent vice.  We aren’t expected to look outside ourselves or our own interests.  We aren’t expected to even look up from our smartphones anymore.  And when crisis hits and the suffering that affects both you and your neighbor reaches levels well beyond what you are accustomed to, Modernity tells you to that it’s every man for himself.  And yet, the stronger, more perfect version of yourself that lives deep inside your conscience, prompted by God, is your soul aching in the opposite direction: Men were not made to let each other suffer.  Modern Man ignores that voice and in doing so denies his nature and submits himself to the barren landscape of Hell.  Those who listen to it, or those who already recognize that voice and live it daily, resemble Modern Man only in the clothes he wears or the car he drives; in all other aspects he is superior.

What Harvey has shown us is that crisis wipes away Modernity as easily as flood waters submerge interstates.  As culture continues to glorify inward-searching and self-aggrandizement, however, the degree of catastrophe necessary to wipe away this individualistic pride will continue to mount.  The answer is to reject Modern nihilism, reject radical individualism, and in fact, to reject the individualist/collectivist dichotomy that rules present political discourse.  The argument will not be made sensible over debates on what a person’s place in society is or how that society is structured.  It will be won when the purpose toward which both Man and society are organized is settled upon.  When Man places himself only in relation with Man, he flounders, stumbles, doubles back, and finally submits; one man becomes Cain while the other man becomes Abel.  Only when Man chooses to place himself in relation with God does a path out of barbarism and self-destruction become visible to him.

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