On Holy Fear

Posted by the chieftain of seir on Jan 1st, 2008

This is a little out my regular style. An explanation/apology can be found here.


On Holy Fear


Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. And Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke, saying:

By those who come near Me
I must be regarded as holy;
And before all the people
I must be glorified.”

So Aaron held his peace.

Well folks, the wind has really picked up these last couple of days and it’s bringing about humdinger of change in the weather. Now I am curious; what does this wind bring to mind for you folks?

Judging by how you all came in bundled up in winter clothes, I’ll bet that you all think that was a stupid question. To most of you I imagine that this wind just means that winter is here with all the annoyances that it can bring.

But this wind means something different to me. It reminds me of a man who died. He was installing metal roofing when a powerful gust of wind came up and blew him off the roof. It was a forty foot fall down onto rocks. And the rocks he fell on were big rocks, the kind that landscapers use for erosion control. As I said, he died.

Well, the jokers at OSHA got involved and they shut down the company that was doing the work. The man who got blown off the roof was not wearing the proper safety harness after all. But it was all very unjust. The only other company in the area that could do the same kind of work that they did was not very good about wearing their safety harnesses either.

I know this to be a fact, because at the time I worked for that other company. We were not very happy about the situation. I mean, how would you feel if you made more money because somebody died? More to the point, how would feel if you were to make more money because somebody died doing something you did all the time?

But in the abstract, it was a pretty good deal for us. We were just a couple of weeks work away from being laid off for the winter and suddenly we got a bonus job. It was big job, too. But we were all conscious that it was unmerited good fortune that came at other people’s expense through no fault of their own.

Now I can see that a lot of you are taking issue with the “no fault of their own” statement. You think that they should have been wearing the proper safety equipment, don’t you? If you think that way, it just goes to show that you are a civilized person.

After all, civilization is all about eliminating risk, right? Civilization is all about making the roads wide and smooth so that there will be no danger when you are out walking. It is all about making big barns to store food so that you will never go hungry. It is all about making walls to keep dangerous things out. Anyone who does not take every possible precaution against risk is violating one of the core values of civilization.

So I understand why it is natural reaction for all you people to think that the man should have been wearing his safety harness. But you have to understand, if everyone were civilized, there would be no ironworkers. There would be no one who was willing to work 40, 100, or 240 feet in the air to construct new buildings. No rules, no safety equipment, no training, can ever make ironwork safe enough for a civilized person.

Lets face it, people, when you become an ironworker you are dramatically increasing the chance that you are going to die on the job. Ironworkers are 18 times more likely to die on the job than the average American. And that is only if you compare them to all Americans. If you compared iron workers to people with desk jobs the disparity in risk would be even greater.

Now tell me, if you are willing to see men greatly increase the risk to their lives so that you can have malls to shop in and factories to work in, how can you be so quick to condemn a man for marginally increasing the risk he takes so that he can be more productive?

I know, I know, you would say that you are just condemning the man for taking an unnecessary risk. But what is an unnecessary risk? No one has to be an ironworker. If they chose to take the job because of the money or the thrill, who is to say that they should not assume marginally more risk for a greater thrill or greater money? Moreover, what if eliminating one risk increases another risk for the people doing the ironwork?

That last problem is the big one. Most of us are going to eliminate or reduce risk as much as possible. But some types of risks can’t be avoided and they can’t be done away with. In fact, any attempt to avoid certain types of risk will only increase the risk. So there are some types of risk you just have to face. But how shall you face them?

I doubt you civilized people think much about the question of how to deal with danger. The whole force of civilization is spent towards eliminating danger so that people don’t have to deal with it. And for the most part civilization has been pretty successful at making people’s lives risk free over the last hundred years or so. But one of the drawbacks of civilization’s general success is that it tends to rob people of their ability to deal with danger that has to be faced. It robs people of their ability to deal with risk that can’t be eliminated.

I can see that some of you don’t care much for my assertion that civilization tends to lessen people’s ability to deal with risk. But if you look at history you will see that the more civilized a people became, the less those people were willing to do risky and dangerous jobs. I don’t want to bore you all with a long historical digression, but I think you all know enough about history to know how this worked with the Romans. The more civilized they got, the more they needed uncivilized type dudes to do their fighting for them.

I guess “uncivilized dudes” is a kind of silly way of saying barbarians, huh? But what makes a barbarian “uncivilized?”

It goes right back to the whole risk thing. The barbarians are considered uncivilized because they embrace risk. They were uncivilized because they thought that armor was for sissies. They were uncivilized because the barbarians glorified death in battle. And most of all, the barbarians were uncivilized because they looked down on people who played it safe.

If you understand that one’s attitude towards risk and danger is what separates the civilized from the uncivilized, you start to realize that there are still barbarians around today. In fact, you will find that most soldiers, ironworkers, tree men, and any other group of people involved in dangerous work are of the barbaric type.

I can see a lot of you starting to get restless. I have gone from talking about a poor sap that got blown off a roof to talking about the difference between the civilized and the barbarians without making any particular point. But I am not just rambling on for the fun of it. I do have a place I’m a’headin to.

You see, I am afraid of a particular type of danger and I want to talk to you people about it. But you people live such civilized lives that I am not sure that I can really talk to you about my fear. I don’t think you people understand fear because I don’t think you people understand anything about danger except for the fact that it is something that smart people avoid. So I want you people to think about what the barbarians have to teach you before I get to my main point.

I would guess that you all think that the barbarian’s tendency to seek out danger is stupid. And I will grant you that it does not exactly lead to a long life, on average. But there are some benefits to seeking out danger. You see, by seeking out danger the uncivilized learn some things about dealing with danger (if they live long enough, at least) that the civilized don’t normally learn.

Now I want to be clear, I am not trying to get you people to become barbarians. You all seem pretty happy the way you are. Besides, barbarians tend to have short lives and I don’t want that for you folk. But I think we can all agree that even in the midst of the most advance civilization in history, we all still have to face some risks that cannot be eliminated. And let me tell you, risk is risk and danger is danger no matter if you go looking for it like the barbarians do or it is just something that you can’t avoid. So it follows that civilized people ought to learn what they can about dealing with danger from the more experienced barbarians.

As many of you already know, I have been taught by barbaric men to do a wide variety of dangerous things. I have been taught to do rather mundane dangerous things, like how to handle a chainsaw. And I have been part of more exotic dangers such as when I was helping a crew of guys who were working with high voltage equipment while it was still hot.

But you know what? The same commandment was always taught to me no matter whether the dangers I was dealing with were exotic or mundane. “Stay Scared” they would tell me, as they taught me the finer points of using a chainsaw. “Stay Scared” was the command implicit in the reverent silence that would form when the men with the high voltage gloves and the hot sticks started working.

Now I can see that some of you guys are kind of disappointed that the great lesson to be learned from barbarians is “stay scared.” You think you could have heard that from any old civilized person, don’t you? You were hoping for some advice on conquering your fear or overcoming adversity, weren’t you?

Well, I will admit that you can find plenty of macho lessons on toughness among the barbarians. But learning to conquer your fear is a pretty simple task when you have to face your fear on a regular basis. Same thing goes for overcoming pain and discomfort. A little bit of practice can make any fool tough.

But though a lot of you people won’t believe me, staying afraid is extremely hard. Most civilized people have no idea how hard it is and hence civilized people do not value the ability to stay afraid like they ought. To be sure, when civilized people have any choice in the matter they will go out of their way to avoid even the possibility of danger. And sure, they might panic when faced with a sudden danger and blindly do all they can to make it go away.

But that is not what is meant by the command to “stay scared”. If you were just going to avoid danger there would be no need to “stay scared.” In the absence of danger, fear has no purpose. And nobody, especially amongst the barbarians, would ever recommend that you let fear rule your mind. Panic never did anyone any good.

Hopefully you all realize that the kind of fear that I am talking about is a kind of respect. Fact is, the more macho barbarians don’t even like using the word fear. They will say things like “you got to respect it” instead of “stay afraid.” But I think that is all very silly.

You don’t respect danger because you admire its intellect or its accomplishments, you respect it because it can hurt you; you respect it because it can destroy you. And that, my friends, is what fear is all about.

Now I am always amazed when I am among civilized people by how they handle danger that they can’t make go away. You have people who won’t let their kids do anything the least bit dangerous and who will go far out of their way to avoid the tiniest of risks. But when faced with a danger that they can’t avoid or eliminate, those same people will just pretend that the danger does not exist. They won’t talk about it; they won’t think about it; they will just act like it does not exist.

People, that is not fear. That is not respect. When you have respect for something you are always mindful of it. When you are afraid of something you are always on the look out for it. Trying to forget about a danger or pretend that it does not exist is the exact opposite of the command to “stay afraid.”

But while civilized people tend to be the most egregious violators of the command to “stay afraid,” I don’t want you people to think that barbarians follow this command like they ought to. Fact is, people are fundamentally disrespectful creatures. They are especially disrespectful of things they are familiar with.

That is why guys with experience in doing dangerous work are always stressing the command “stay afraid.” They know better than anyone else that it is easy to lose your fear of dangerous things if you are around them enough. And they usually have the scars to prove that losing your fear can make any danger more hazardous than it has to be.

You know, I think that it was a failure to stay afraid that killed that poor guy I started off talking about. I don’t say this because he was not wearing his safety harness. The roof he was working on had very little slope and I happen to think that a safety harness on a low slop roof just increases your total risk. No, I think the crew that he was working with forgot to stay afraid of the wind.

I doubt that you people have ever thought about it, but the wind is a perfect example of something you need to stay afraid of when you work at any kind of height. You see, the wind gets stronger the higher up you go. Even just going thirty or forty feet up is enough to get you past the trees and other wind breaks so as to make a dramatic difference in how strong the wind is. So the wind is an ever-present danger when you are working at any kind of height.

Now there is no way you can make the danger posed by the wind go away. You can wear all the safety harnesses you want but it is not going to help you. I know a guy who was on job where a man was decapitated by a sheet of roofing tin that the wind got a hold of. No safety equipment would have stopped that. I have heard of guys losing control of I beams in high wind. And you all know that if you get hit with an I-beam you are going to be hurting puppy no matter what safety equipment you happen to be wearing.

Of course, you can always come down when the wind gets too strong. But that is not as easy as it sounds. First off, you often have a lot of material on the roof that you have to take down with you. A lot of times it can take you an hour or more to get off the roof after the decision to do so has been made. A lot of nasty things can happen in that time. After all, it can be quite dangerous to try to get stuff off the roof under high wind conditions.

But really dangerous thing about the wind is not what it can do, but its unpredictable nature. It is incredibly difficult to make the determination on when the job should be shut down because of the wind. You can have a weather pattern that seems to call for the wind to last all day and you can have weather patterns that seem to call for the wind to pass by in a matter of hours. Making matters worse is the fact that you can have all kinds of wind. You can have a strong steady wind that doesn’t seem to change much. You can have a wind that goes from gentle to gusty and back again within the same minute.

What I am getting at here is that wind is a constant danger that you can’t eliminate when you work at any kind of height. Even if it is a dead calm you can’t be sure from one minute to the next that it will stay that way. You always have to be making judgment calls based on instinct and experience. And there are no rules and no safety equipment that can insure you will always make the right call. Nothing will make it so that you will always be safe from the wind.

But if you remember to stay afraid, if you always stay respectful of the wind, you will have a pretty good chance of making the right calls. If you lose all fear, though, you will surely die.

I have been blathering on for so long about how tricky the wind can be because I don’t want you people to be too harsh on the guy I started out talking about. Nonetheless, I also want to impress on you people how important it is to stay afraid when you are doing dangerous things. So let me be clear: as hard as it is to make the right judgment call in regards to the wind, there can be little doubt that the boy died because he and his crew failed to stay afraid.

You see, that boy was over 20 feet away from the edge of the roof and he was on top of the piece of roofing tin getting ready to fasten it down when the wind took him off the roof. To be more precise, the wind came through the unfinished side of roof and up under his piece of roofing tin. The wind was so strong that it blew the roofing tin with him on top of it off of the roof.

In fact, it did more than blow him the 20 feet it took to get him off of the roof; it also carried him about 30 feet away from the edge of the building. If the wind had not carried him so far he would not have landed on those big landscaping type rocks that were 30 feet away.

Now let me tell you, a wind that strong does not normally come out of nowhere even at forty feet up. I was not there so I can’t say for sure, but I will be willing to bet anything that the wind had been getting steadily stronger the whole time they were on the roof. I would bet that they were keeping the edge of the tin towards the wind until they got into position. I would bet that they were making sure to keep their body weight on the tin when they got it into position so that the wind would not move it. I would bet that they felt so clever for defeating the wind and keeping the job going. Then the wind demonstrated that it could move a piece of tin even with a person’s body weight on it.

But I will not cast any stones at that crew. And I don’t think that anyone else who has done dangerous work for long periods of time will either. We all know in our heart that we have forgotten to be afraid at some time or other. And we all know that we could have died just as easily as the poor boy who was blown off the roof. We all know how incredibly hard it is to stay afraid.

You know, I never thought that I would have a hard time staying afraid when I first started working in construction. If anything, I thought that I would have trouble controlling my fear long enough to do anything. The fact that I would be struggling to hold onto my fear never even crossed my mind.

I thought I had good reasons for thinking that I would always be fearful. After all, no one would ever mistake me for daring person. In fact, I have it on pretty good authority that I that I have been risk adverse ever since I was born. My mother likes to tell the story of how I took forever to learn to walk because the first time I tried it I fell down. For a long time after I fell I refused to even attempt standing or anything like that. The old ways were good enough for me.

But once I started working in the trades it did not take me long to start doing totally stupid things just because I had lost all fear. Even now that I have some experience under my belt, I continue to have problems remembering to be afraid. You would think that all the close calls that I have had would have driven home to me the reality of danger.

After all, I have fallen off a roof. I have been zapped by electricity a number of times. I have lost control of heavy pieces of machinery on steep slopes more times than I would like to confess to. Some times these things happened as a result of what I would consider running necessary risks. But most of the time they came about because I was not afraid.

You would think that as a reasonably intelligent individual I would be able to stay conscious of danger, wouldn’t you? But I can’t always manage it. Nor can a lot of other people who work in the trades. We all have to struggle to stay conscious of the danger that we know is there and that we know can kill us if we let our guard down.

It occurs to me as I am talking to you all that maybe conscious is not the right word. After all, I can be completely conscious of the danger and still not be afraid. A close call that I had a while back is a good example of that.

As most of you know, my current job requires me to work alone a lot. Not only do I work alone, but I go to a lot of out of the way places where there is nobody else around. One of the most out of the way and isolated places that I have to go to are the smoke towers. On the particular day that I am thinking of, I had a job to fix a light fixture in one of the smoke towers.

Now a smoke tower is a kind of fire escape that is designed to let people get past a number of burning floors and make it to the ground. To get to one these towers you have to go through a big thick fire door. That door leads you into a kind of airlock that you get out of by going through another nice thick fire door. That lets you out onto a screened causeway that brings you to the actual smoke tower. But to get in the fire tower you have to go through another nice thick fire door.

The fire tower itself has thick masonry walls. The ones I was working in were six stories high with nice long runs of metal stairs that end every so often at a landing. Nobody ever goes into these fire towers because all of the doors leading into the tower are alarmed. You have to get a special key to get into these things without setting off the alarms.

All I am getting at here is that nobody can possibly hear you scream once you are in one of these things. Nobody is likely to find you if you get hurt in smoke tower either. Especially if you have a job like mine and nobody really knows where you are or what you are likely to be doing at any given time.

Anyway, I had to fix a light fixture in one of the towers. In fact, I pretty much had to rebuild the whole light fixture. That means I had to get a bunch of stuff together and make sure I had all the tools that I needed. It is at this point that I stop and think, “Hey, the fixtures in the smoke tower are pretty high up, I should grab a different ladder.” But I don’t.

The funny thing is that I had the properly sized stepladder right there where I kept my tools. But I took my six foot step ladder instead. Don’t ask me why. I clearly remember thinking that it would be smarter to grab the proper ladder.

So I get to where I am going to work with a ladder that I know is going to be too short. Now I should mention that light fixture that I needed to fix was right next to a flight of stairs. That means that I had to set up my ladder right next to a flight of metal stairs with nicely defined edges. And I think to myself as I am doing so, “it is really dumb to be using a six foot stepladder here.” But I don’t pay any attention to myself.

Now as I start climbing the stepladder I notice that it is not sitting perfectly flat on the ground. One corner was about half an inch off of the ground. That is enough cause the ladder to shift if your weight shifts. I remember thinking to myself that it would not be good if the ladder shifted while I was standing on the very top of the stepladder. But I ignore myself, even though I know that I am going be standing on very top of the stepladder because the stepladder I brought is too short.

So here I am, standing on the very top of my stepladder right next to a flight of stairs. Not only am I standing on the very top of my stepladder, but I have my arms above my head trying work on the “stupid” light fixture. I was calling the light fixture stupid because at the time I was having a hard time getting the cover to come off.

But suddenly the cover does come off. Of course it catches me by surprise. And of course it causes my weight to suddenly shift. Naturally my weight shifts towards the stair case, and my screwed up ladder naturally shifts when my weight does. The net effect is to shift my center of gravity from a stable position to one that was dynamically inclined to fall.

In the abstract, six feet does not seem that high off of the ground. But let me tell you, falling six feet off of the top of a stepladder down a flight of metal stairs is no joke. Especially when no one is around to hear you whimper. (I was too scared to scream.)

But thanks to an unjust God who keeps people from getting what they deserve, I never did fall. I don’t have the foggiest idea of how I kept my balance. Frankly, I don’t want to think about it, even now. All I know is that for a few seconds there, I was doing some serious acrobatics in an effort to keep my balance. I could have been as dead as the guy who was blown off of the roof.

The sad part of this story is that I was conscious of the danger I was running the whole time. It is just that without the fear I was unwilling to grab the right ladder even though doing so would have been almost costless. On the other hand, once I got scared, I was willing to go out of my way to acquire the right ladder. Fear can make a world of difference on how you behave.

I can see that you are all getting pretty bored. You all thought you understood the importance of being afraid after the first paragraph didn’t you? You did not need all these long pointless stories to drive the point home. Or at least, you don’t think you need them.

It is easy to understand the importance of being afraid in the abstract, but the abstract does not count for much in this life. It is hard to really believe how important it is to stay scared until you have almost gotten killed a few times. My little stories are just an attempt to give you people some of the benefits of almost getting killed without you having to go through the actual experiences.

The reason it was so important to me to make the importance of staying afraid real to you has nothing to do with my concern that you might fall off a ladder. Nor do I want to start thinking more about the dangers that are posed by the wind at forty feet up. The purpose of all this rambling is to remind myself, and to remind those you who are still with me, to be scared of the truth.

I can see by your confused looks that this is going to take some explaining. You have always heard that the truth is something you shouldn’t be afraid of, right? You were brought up hearing that the truth will set you free and all that kind of stuff, right? You were taught that only bad people are afraid of the truth, right? But such talk only comes about because civilized people have no idea of how to handle a danger that you cannot avoid.

Of course, civilizations do try to handle the dangers posed by Truth. Look at the foundations of all the worlds’ great civilizations and you will find a hierarchy of priests. These are bulwarks that civilizations throw up against the dangers posed by truth.

But these bulwarks are not very successful. Look at the foundations of the major problems that have plagued and destroyed the world’s great civilizations and you will find the hierarchy of priests. We all like to blame the priests, but in reality, mankind just can’t safely handle the truth. Blaming the priests won’t change this.

I can see that a lot of you people think I am getting carried away. But it you look around you I think you will see that civilization has a paradoxical relationship with the truth. After all, the same people who tell you that the truth will set you free will also tell you that you that you are not suppose to talk about politics or religion in civilized social gatherings.

I guess they are not in hurry to see anyone set free are they?

Sure, that was a cheap shot. But I hope I don’t have to remind you people that trying to pretend that something is not dangerous is not the way to handle danger. Nor should you try to avoid thinking about something that is dangerous. Yet it is precisely those methods that civilized people use to try to deal with truth.

I can see that I am losing you people. You are still confused as to why the truth is dangerous. You think that only lies are dangerous, don’t you? You think the only reason that truth is dangerous is because some people hate the truth or don’t want to face the truth right? You think that if everyone loved the truth there would be no danger.

But I think that this is looking at things the wrong way. The truth is powerful, and anything that is powerful is dangerous. It does not matter whither you are talking about power in a jet engine, a loaded gun, or the power that comes from a truth. Lies would be nothing without the truth.

Nor can we keep ourselves safe from the dangers posed by the truth by doing away with truth. If you choose to live as if the truth did not matter you will die. If you don’t look both ways before you cross the street you are going get run over by a truck. Failure to learn all you can about the world can mean that you are going to die of disease that could have been cured or that your enemies will come up with more powerful weapons than you. Truth is a matter of life and death and you cannot live without seeking it out to some degree or other.

Yet truth is even more important than life or death issues. For we are all going to die in the end in any case. There is no way around it. The universe is already dead; it just has not finished disintegrating yet. No technology is going to provided us with a way around that. So why should we bother trying to live? How should we live? What should we stoop to in order to stay alive if we all going to die? The questions of how and why we should live are more important than the question of how we might extend our brief lives by few more seconds.

Thus the answer to the question “what is meaning of life?” is more important than the answer to the question “why does the earth go around the sun?”

I can see that lot of you are uncomfortable with the way that I put”what is the meaning of life?” on the same level as “why does the earth go around the sun? You think that there is no real way to prove an answer to existential questions but you think you can prove that earth goes around the sun, don’t you?

But you are falling into the modern trap of confusing proving with knowing. How do you know that the sun exists? You feel the warmth of it on your cheek and you can see it with your eyes (if you can see, that is). How do you know that murder is wrong? You feel that is wrong. What is the great difference between the two?

And how do you prove something? You can’;t unless you are willing to grant that some of the things that you know are true. What you know governs what you can prove. And what you know is governed by what you see, hear, and feel. So how come reasoning about right and wrong is less valid reasoning about why the earth goes around the sun?

As you all know, I have already dealt with this matter at considerable length elsewhere. I am trying to avoid getting overly philosophical. For the purpose of this discussion I just want to point out that the statement that “murder is wrong” is true because you know it. And that truth is more important to how you live your life and the survival of civilization in general than the science behind the atomic bomb.

You could live your whole life without understanding the science behind the atomic bomb and be perfectly happy and productive. But live life without knowing that murder is wrong and you are going to have problems. People around you are going to have problems.

The fact that some people out there might not know that murder is wrong and might argue that you cannot prove that murder is wrong is as irrelevant as the fact that color blind people cannot see the color blue. It does not make murder right.

Look, I know the more sophisticated of you are shaking your head at how overly simple I am making everything out to be. But I am not trying making a rigorous philosophic argument at the moment. All I want us to do is use a common everyday definition of what we think of as being truth. And as a practical matter, we don’t doubt that murder is wrong any more then we doubt that the earth goes around the sun. Some of you more sophisticated types might want to make a distinction between scientific facts that we can “prove” and “moral truths.” But as a practical matter I don’t think that you can live that way when your daughter gets killed.

In any case, we can save that argument for later. For now, I just want to remind you all about how powerful the truth is. And I want to remind you that truth has the same power no matter whether you are talking about “scientific truth” or “moral truth”. As far as the dangers go, I don’t think there is any difference.

Now I know that most of you think that it is obvious that the truth is powerful. And I agree, really. The only reason I brought the whole “moral truth” vs & “scientific truth” argument up is that I wanted you all to think about the types of danger you can find in this life. Let me ask you this: is it a more horrible fate to die a murderer or to die young? Hopefully most of you will agree with me that to die as a murderer is a worse fate than dying young. But we spend a lot more time worrying about dying young or dying in general than we do dying as murderer, don’t we?

That is because we don’t think there is any real danger of us dying as a murderer. Whether we die or not is not entirely in our hands. But pre-meditated cold-blooded murder is. So we assume that it will never happen.

But it is precisely that kind of thing that we should be scared of when we are dealing with the truth. We should be scared at all times of the truth that we know. For although we think it justifies us, it can also damn us. It has the power to turn us into a parody of all the values that we possess.

I can see that I am losing you people, so let me ask you something: How many of you people think that the communists became a powerful and widely followed ideology through the careful study of economics and history?

The very idea brings smiles to your faces.

So what was the source of the communists’ great power? Look at wherever they came to power and you will find the same constant. People were drawn to them because they criticized the unjust and cruel nature of the society that the people were living in. And in any country where communists gained a significant following they did so because their accusations were true.

It was truth that gave communists their power.

We all know what the communists did with the power that truth gave them. We all know the people that they killed. We all know how they oppressed people. We all know the lies that they told. The communists are a stark example of how the truth can destroy whole societies.

I can see that you people are still not with me. You think that if the communists had only had more truth, if they had only been better people, they would not have done the things that they did?

Well, let me tell you something. The communists had two main sources of support: the poor and oppressed, and the highly educated. Now tell me, if having more truth than other people helps protect you from the dangers of truth, than how come the highly educated were often all for communism?

The sad fact is that the more truth we have, or if you prefer, the more education we have, makes no difference in our ability to correctly handle the power that truth gives us. The more the truth creates in us a feeling of power, the more self-confident we start feeling. We look around at the silly mistakes of reasoning that other people are making and we feel confident that we won’t make those mistakes. We shake our heads at all the facts that the ignorant don’t know. But what good does this really do us?

Did it stop a lot of educated people from mocking the religious beliefs of their forefathers while at the same time they were worshiping Stalin? Did it stop them from disdaining the middle class as being too materialistic while at the same time they strove to create a materialistic paradise here on earth? History says no.

But we all think we are better people than those who made those mistakes, don’t we? Oh, in some part of our brain we know better. But it is so hard for us to believe that we could make the same mistakes. We tell ourselves that we can learn from the mistakes of our forefathers. We tell ourselves that now we have enough truth to keep us safe. We just cannot make ourselves believe that our truth is not sufficient to keep us safe.

By “safe” I don’t mean safe from death. We are all going to die. That is why the power that the truth gives is so dangerous. For if we are going to die, what fate can be worse then living our short lives as a twisted parody of all that we value? The most dangerous power that the truth gives us is the power to damn ourselves.

Again the communists serve as a prime example. Who can doubt that they turned in to a self parody of their own values? Who can doubt that the communists damned themselves by their own values?

But we do not need to single out the communists. In any religion and in any ideology we can find people who are parodies of their own professed values. We don’t need to dig up examples from history either, for we all know such people in our everyday lives.

Those people are the ones we love to hate. They are the ones that we pour scorn upon. But they should rather move us to fear. After all, those people truly believe that they are living up to their values. How can we be sure that we are not as self-blind as they are?

The dangerous power the truth gives us is the power to justify ourselves. We can always find a finite number of truths that will justify ourselves. Why should we look any further? Yet in failing to look further we sometimes ignore the truths that damn us.

It is problems like these that make it fashionable in some circles to disdain the very idea of truth. If we can never be sure that we are not also amongst the damned, why bother to seek truth?

You know what is funny about these people? They profess that we are not gods. They profess that the concept of “truth” is ridiculous in the context of our frail humanity. And they use that as an excuse for acting as if they were gods. Because they profess that such things as universal truth are beyond us they give themselves free license to believe whatever they want to believe. The only things they disdain are those who profess to believe in some universal truth.

Now we can all laugh at them sophisticated post-modern types. We can see clearly that they are just as arrogant and self-justifying as any man who proclaimed that there was a universal truth and he knew it. But while we are laughing, let us not to forget to be afraid.

How are we really any different than the post-modern types? They take a true idea of man’s limitations and use it to justify a worldview that at its core is a perfect parody of the very mindset they claim to abhor. Are we really any different than them?

I have said it before, but I will say it again, the dangerous thing about the truth is that it justifies us in our own mind. When we see people doing things that are wrong or we see people who hold absurd opinions, we tend to feel superior. We imagine ourselves demi-gods in a field of mortals.

The fact of the matter is that we can get so caught up in the power and beauty of our truth that it can blind us to the fact that it is not sufficient. We can become satisfied with what little of the truth we see that we have no appetite for more. And that is what causes us to become self-justifying parodies of our own values.

In a way this is all very trite. Arguing that we should stay scared is like arguing that we need love. It is a difficult proposition to argue against. Who is going to come out against a little fear and humility?

But as I tried to demonstrate with all my stories about the trades, knowing something is dangerous does us no good. We need the actual fear.

I know that we cannot manufacture that feeling any more then we can manufacture love. But if it is worth pursuing the love of truth it is also worth pursuing the fear of it.

One Response

  1. Karl Marx Says:

    If you can’t write clearly you can’t think clearly. And I think the latter half of your essay proves that you can’t think clearly.

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