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The Goatherder
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November has been exceptionally cruel. I have been trying desperately to reconcile the events. Some people say that luck evens out in the end. But that is absurd. In the course of life, random events occur – these things that we call luck. And like the distribution of all groups of random events, they lay out in a bell curve. Most of us have luck that falls in the middle, neither too fortunate nor too tragic. But others are on one extreme of the curve or another. And it is that distribution, with some people having unbelievable luck and others tragic fortune, that is so maddeningly difficult to understand. Which leads us to the first of the November events, the re-election of George W. Bush. George Bush – when fate flips its coin, it has come up heads for Bush ninety nine times out of one hundred. Yet this beneficiary of infinite good fortune does not display the tiniest hint of awareness, nor any curiosity as to “why him?” His methods of coping with unfair privilege have started with alcoholism and ended with religion. He has embraced a perverse form of evangelical Protestantism that equates good fortune on earth with favor in God’s eye. It is preordained that he have good fortune, because he is one of God’s elect. And in late November, the Rector of my church and his wife buried their son. Two of the most decent, thoroughly well-meaning people I have ever known nursed their twenty-five year old son as he withered and died of cancer.

I have agonized to find an explanation. I have lain in bed, vacillating between two simplistic theories. First, that this is God’s way of testing us, a simple exercise in making us stronger. The stronger we are, the better able we will be to fight evil. The other is that there is no explanation at all; that the ultimate absurdity is to seek meaning in the face of an uncaring universe. Unfortunately, the latter leads to despair, the former to fanaticism. Neither of these serves our purposes. Despair makes us an enablier of evil, both in the world and in ourselves. It leads us to a life of shallow hedonism and cruelty. On the other hand, if all of life’s misfortune makes us better able to fight evil, then we are never really strong enough. We need to seek more and more stringent tests so that we can make ourselves even stronger. And then we become inured to the pain of others, because it is good that they be strong too. Fanaticism leads us, ultimately and inevitably, to actually practice evil.

So I end up with a working hypothesis that allows the questions to remain unanswered. I believe that either God does not act directly in this world or that God’s plan is so complex and subtle that it is well beyond my understanding. But this leaves me full in the midst of a quandary; How then, do I lead my life?

The only thing I can do is to cultivate certain virtues within myself (the only area over which I have even slight dominion). These virtues will help me to cope with the cruelties of November, and maybe even influence the world for good.

The first virtue I will call acceptance, patience and determination. It starts with an understanding that the task of ridding the world of evil and injustice is too enormous to be accomplished in my lifetime. The virtue that I have to cultivate is to retain my distain for evil, accept the inevitable fact of its existence and not become overwhelmed or embittered. I have to understand that I will -- and will have to -- continue to fight injustice to the moment that I draw my last breath. I have to cultivate this understanding in myself, despite human nature to the contrary. Human nature does not easily accept a dynamic balance. It seeks ultimate victory or the glory of obliteration. It has to be held, by ropes of will, on the tightrope between the two. I have to take satisfaction in the fight, glory in each victorious battle, and truly accept that the war will continue.

The second virtue is the capacity to experience joy. Without it my own life is wasted. I believe that the capacity to experience joy does not come naturally to most adults in our culture. Some people are simply hardened. Some refuse to allow themselves joy while others are oppressed. Some denigrate joy as a cheap feeling, and others believe they never have enough. I will not experience joy unless I cultivate the ability. And that means that I have to find joy in my own circumstance. I have to find it in my daily life, in the natural world that surrounds me, the people that love me and the exercise of my human capacities. I can certainly experience joy vicariously, from the satisfaction of helping other people -- the thrill of marching forth. But I have to do more than that. For I cannot help others without feeling it myself. Joy is not something that can be taught; it can only be cultivated.

So these are my two New Year’s resolutions. In the New Year – and thereafter – I will practice patience, acceptance and determination. I will celebrate joy. And without really understanding, I will use these virtues to shelter me from the storms of November.