Sunday, October 23, 2011


Out here on the east slope of the Rockies which is the high end of the prairies, when an old rancher tells you, “Look out for that horse -- he’s a striker,” or “Watch out for that cowpie,” it’s a good idea to pay attention, but a lot of people don’t. They get some hurt and some stink out of it, but they feel they have preserved their pride by taking care of themselves. The old Westerns used to get a lot of mileage from dudes who wouldn’t take advice from old-timers. Some old-timers themselves get bristly and defiant as they age.

Up in Glacier Park there are all sorts of warning signs about not going close to a cliff edge or not going on a particular trail until a grizz changes territories or that you should always carry bear spray or that you should not hike alone. The people who disregard those signs are the tenderfoots and greenhorns from the city where a strong sense of entitlement gives them the courage to go through their days. All that confidence might impress a two-bit mugger, but not a moose on the rampage. Cliffs, of course, are impervious to just about anything but erosion. What makes people think they are immune to the laws of gravity? Maybe romanticism, like Don Quixote.

On the other extreme are the people who are always terrified, always hunting for someone who seems to know what they are doing and who will protect them. This makes them vulnerable to deranged evangelists who assure them of the exact date and hour of the Final Judgement, which for some reason seems to their followers to be comforting. I’ve never understood why.

Of course, unwanted advice can be pesky. People are always saying to me when I’m on my way home, “Now, drive carefully!” Did they think I wouldn’t? It makes me testy and I drive a little too quickly until on the night road the ghost of a mule deer barely misses me. So, um, well -- I drive more carefully. I was being stupid in the first place to not recognize a bit of good will and a kind of conventional “charm” to safeguard the trip. On the other hand, the old time Blackfeet never said goodbye because they thought it implied you weren’t coming back.

It’s true that a lot of advice is, well, ill-advised and just a power trip. These days kids will lecture you about smoking or littering. We’re already programmed to balk from the days when we were kids ourselves and every time we were headed out the door, our mom said, “Put on your jacket!” On the other hand, I rather vividly remember an incident before a fancy holiday dinner when lit candles were on the table. I was just big enough to climb up on a chair and reach over to light scraps of paper from that candle. My mother remarked mildly, “If you keep that up, you’re going to burn your fingers.” Screeeaaaaam. Of course, if I’d been a little older I would have accused her of self-fulfilling prophesy -- “You made me do it!” But older yet and I was chagrined. Then amused.

On the other hand, she was always warning me that whatever it was I was doing that she didn’t like (slumping, reading too much) meant that no one would ever marry me. But she didn’t warn me until too late that getting married was a dangerous thing to do. I’m warning you -- whatever advice you get, there’s always an “other hand.”

Nevertheless, when someone doing major physical things says, “Stand back” or “Watch out,” you’d better do it without stalling or you’re liable to get clobbered by a turning ladder or you might step on a rake. When a rancher says, “Look out for that cow. She has a bad temper,” you’d better believe it. And if Nassim Taleb says, “There is a black swan coming,” you’d better cover your assets.

A certain kind of rule-based religion is packed with if-then warnings. If you curse, you’ll go to hell. If you do “that”, you’ll grow hair on the palms of your hands. Nowadays the health field has taken over the role of religion: if you don’t stop smoking, you’ll die of lung cancer. If you don’t have tests all the time, you’ll be consumed by bad health. If you don’t take all your meds, you’ll die within the hour.

One of my favorite jokes, which is supposed to have been a real happening, is about the little boy whose mother said to him, “If you do that again, I’ll give you a licking!” And he did. Before she gave him his licking, she asked (in the spirit of research), “Why is it that when I tell your sister I’ll give her licking, she stops doing whatever it is. But you just go ahead and do it anyway.” “But, Mom,” explained the boy, “It’s worth it to me!” She learned to try to figure out what he was getting out of his “bad” behavior. (God ought to try that.) If people are consistently doing something that seems to bring them nothing but bad consequences, perhaps we ought to inquire into their motives. Maybe they know something we don’t.

Aside from that, too much warning, too many rules, too many consequences and obsession with them seems to me to belong to the first part of my “Dilation of the Spirit” -- the part about Confession of Sins, despair, misfortune, misery, and helplessness. We get into that too much and neglect the second part, the “Assurance of Pardon.” Where are the warnings about good things? What word is there? Optimism? Hope? Confidence? Not good enough.

What seems to be happening is that people are getting so stuck in the warnings, so resentful of them, so convinced that people in Washington DC have no right to regulate their lives, that they use up all their energy in kicking against the . . . well, you know. And the other side is so angry at them for fighting the efforts to do them good, that they’re using up energy unnecessarily, too.

Laughter. That’s what we need. More laughter. Because the whole thing is getting ridiculous.

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