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Redneck Wisdom III

Jonah Howell

Redneck Wisdom III


Truth and lying in an ethical sense—The old truism holds that “a language is a dialect with an army,” but that doesn’t get us to a scale we can use. Let me start with an example: Your mother grew up a long way from here. So when she sees a Bible on a dashboard, she assumes the driver’s Christian: That symbol is clear to her. Until we got together, she never thought it could have another meaning. I grew up here. I know that a Bible on a dashboard means the driver plans on parking somewhere he shouldn’t, and he wants the police to think about his upstanding spiritual character when they’re deciding whether to write a ticket or a warning. Neither her interpretation nor mine is untrue. The first time Astrid and I talked about the differences between men and women, we found ourselves in a whole minefield of words ready to flip to meanings we’d never thought of. The more important or sensitive the subject, the more the words surrounding it will differ from person to person. A good number of disagreements aren’t actually caused by differing ideas—the folks disagreeing just can’t let go of the idea that they share a language. If at least one of them realizes that his words aren’t other people’s words, and he speaks in a way that sounds like lies to him but actually delivers his truths to the other, their disagreement disappears, or at least it clarifies itself. But that type of truth is only accessible to those capable of reading another like those psychics in Jackson Square read a palm. It requires eyes turned full-on outward, not rolled back into your own head. In that way, the modern obsession with self-examination is a vice, and self-talk is a lie-machine. Each are born of another vice, that of insecurity and the consistency- and reputation-addictions that it causes. But I’ll talk more on those later.



Variety and novelty—Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov ends with a baffling twist: Alyosha, a probationary monk in his small town’s monastery, visits Father Zosima, who heads the place. Alyosha asks to join the monastery as a full monk, and Zosima refuses. He says Alyosha doesn’t have enough experience with the world God’s created to spend his life in solitary contemplation of it: His life needs more variety. He should pitch himself, Zosima says, into the world, with all its sins and problems, to really understand what his life as a monk means once he embarks on it. Sad and confused, Alyosha leaves and runs into a group of local children, and he begins to teach them…

Variety isn’t a virtue or a vice on its own, but a necessity like inconsistency. If you live without denying the life God has put in front of you, your life will be unpredictable, passing through phases not contained in the common cultural life-map. Jesus says in Matthew that “strait is the way, and narrow is the path, that leadeth into life,” but that doesn’t mean that each person has to follow the same narrow path. What, and make God’s own eternity a conformity-fest? I refuse to insult my God by thinking Him so unimaginative.

Your will is tied to many other wills—of your friends, your acquaintances, your beloved—, so sure, the path that leadeth to life is strait and narrow. It’s wide enough to fit you and maybe a couple folks you love. The Words in Red: “Wide is the way, and broad the gate, that leadeth to destruction.” Wide and broad because they hold such a crowd. There’s the hidden meaning in that famous dictum, that you should live “in the world but not of it”: If you find too many people crowding the same path you’re walking, you can bet your bottom dollar you’re denying your own life for the sake of easy conformity. Most churches—and certainly every religion—expect this of their congregations. But I don’t remember Jesus ever joining that kind of club. In the end, He only left us a few lessons, compared to the giant body of rules the various religions expect you to follow. What were they?

If people need you, and you care about them, be what they need, even if everybody else thinks they’re scum. “For it is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick.” If you’re worried about where your life’s heading, stop worrying and know that you have the strength to deal with it. “For if God so tends to the birds of the air, how much more so you, who are made in His image?” Be “salt and light” to the world—add some savor, some spice, and help it see clearly what it couldn’t see before, even if it causes some eye pain. And do what you think is worth dying for, even if all your friends think you’re a lunatic, and even if it’s illegal. That one doesn’t need a quote.

What else? Ah, yep: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” The favorite verse of conformists who want you to join them in their shallow moralizing. Conveniently they always seem to forget the second half of the sentence: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” It’s a joke. A joke. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that Jesus was humorless. If we’re comparing the two, pray tell, what does Caesar have a stronger claim to than God?



Smoke, fire, and causality—“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,”or a smoke machine. There’s always some basis in the old superstitions, whether material or as a residue of fear, which was once material. The question is whether what was material and spawned what we think of as a superstition still is material—the development of dictionaries and things like that gave us the illusion that, at a certain point in history, our language and its meanings crystallized. Other types of standardization—political, scientific, spiritual—cause similar illusions. Where are the witches now? Hidden beneath the false solidity of catalogued languages. But life is always a current, always flowing, and we build our spider-thread castle of thought and speech on that speeding current, and miraculously the castle doesn’t fall. But it moves, for sure, waving in the wind, winding around itself above the waves.

Back in medieval times, folks would come into hospitals to tell stories to the patients. This wasn’t just an act of symbolic charity. They believed that, if you told a story with high moral content, something that pointed the patient’s eyes to God, something that made the sick spirit stronger, that could really cure disease. It was as much a part of medical practice as chemical medicines. We can call this superstition. We can say they just filled in the gaps of their medical knowledge with spirituality because they didn’t have the scientific know-how we do now.

Or we can be less arrogant and say they recognized a link between spirit, thought, word, and biology that supposedly more “enlightened” modern medicine don’t grasp one bit after centuries of thinking that the mind and body are separate.

New doesn’t mean better, and neither does old: Strength is in seeing the world for what it is without using those types of shortcuts. But this type of mind-body separation is still peppered through the way we talk and think. All sorts of new-agey spiritualist types talk about “embodied thinking” and stuff like that, but the real question escapes every type of system and fad: How do you live when you really know that the mind and body and spirit are connected in ways that no causal direction explains? Is the pain in your knee as much a spiritual problem as a physiological one?

That German I keep talking about, Nietzsche, wrote that the new philosophers after him would be physiologists. But that doesn’t mean everything would eventually be explained on material terms, or at in terms of scientific rigor. Those would amount to leaps of faith like any other thought of the future.

I’d rather say, to translate him anew, that my new philosopher needs good eyes, along with sharpness in all the other senses—even those we all feel but don’t have names for. For someone who sees clearly, the new philosopher, the one who can respond to the world as it is and to its illusions as they are, the mental, the physical, and the spiritual are so tightly knotted around each other that there’s no cutting them apart. I hope I’ll be strong enough, and I hope I can teach you to be strong enough, to trust our unnamable senses that much. It’s easy to hear someone calling your name. It’s tougher to hear the historic needs in that shout, the angels’ trumpets blaring, the demons cackling beneath at their own visions of the future, the implications of their own religion.



Progress and tradition—are two sides of the same coin, and both are tails, since each, as an ideal, is asinine. New ain’t good, and neither’s old. Goodness has to be judged on its own, independently, according to your own “strait and narrow path.” Maybe all those folks had it wrong for thousands of years—look at the people around you, and imagine a hundred generations of that, and tell me it’s not believable. It just so happens that only the most memorable things about the distant past made their way through history to us, and some, in willful ignorance, look at the curated exhibit and think a whole era must have reflected its beauty. The myth of inevitable progress is more obviously nothing but terrified, defensive optimism in the face of an unknowable future, and to judge past generations based on new moral fads is the most offensive height of undeserved arrogance. But the myth that the past must have been better is just as weak, just as deluded, and just as much a vice.



Rebellion and conformity—are, likewise, two sides of the same coin, and both are heads, since they’re nosy by definition. Each looks into what other folks are doing and tries to orient itself on that basis. So each one is a vote of no confidence in your own senses and your own values. Each one’s an offshoring of moral values to others, either as agreement or opposition. But no matter what people will tell you, there are more than two options.

Sure, according to St. John’s Revelation, you should be “either hot or cold, but not lukewarm,” but that’s a statement on commitment to your ideals, not agreement with some end of a polar system of prefabricated trend-subcultures. Often the hottest and coldest ideas lie somewhere outside of what folks imagine is a closed, linear spectrum, and each of the parties that think of themselves as opposites is lukewarm as a glass of day-old tap water.

Not everything outside two opposites is between them, and not all alternatives even fall closer to one than the other—when we talk of things as opposites, it usually just means we haven’t yet thought of anything further out. The idea of opposites is just a lie of convenience, and a real alternative is full-on incomprehensible to either side—or else it incorporates enough of each side that each thinks it despicable.



Illusion and reality, or subjectivity and objectivity—are almost the same thing. Often they are the same thing: An illusion can be strong enough that someone acts on it, and it becomes their reality, and the people around them have to treat it as reality if they want to interact with that person, and that ain’t bad or good, it’s just so. Remember what I said earlier, that to communicate truth you’ve got to turn your eyes so completely outside yourself that you can speak in terms of other people’s illusions.

In the same way, that German I keep harping on, Nietzsche, said there’s no difference between illusion and reality at all, and that makes sense if you’re thinking on a large scale. If you’re talking with a group of people, you have to accept their illusions as reality so you can develop a common language.

But on a more personal scale, it’s important to recognize the difference between the two. One is a manipulation—the result of fear and its desire for consistency or knowability. The other is what’s in front of your nose. It’s no mystery that smell connects more closely with memory than any other named sense. Trust your nose and what’s in front of it.

Everybody wants you to see the world their way, and that’s manipulative, sure, but it’s not malicious. They see the world like that—to them, it’s obvious and unquestionable. But they’re not looking over the same nose. Trust your own. Unless I’ve given you a rare birth defect, it’s the only one you’ve got.

But don’t resent others for expecting you to accept what they see. Often it’s all they can see, and they really have no idea that someone could see something different. It’s a rare strength to realize that there are other noses with truly different eyes above them—and that it is a fearful, self-sabotaging vice to imagine that there is One True Nose, one clean split between illusion and reality.



Power corrupts—if you’re too weak for it. Remember what I said about not worrying about the labels attached to you, about the dangers of reputation-addiction? Here we are again. Power gained by the reputation-addict, by the socially insecure, is a corruption-machine. But if you’re strong and have your people around you and know what you think is right within that system rather than relying on a public you don’t know, you can wield power honorably. Don’t fear power or authority. Just make sure you’re ready for it if you’re gonna take it. The litmus test: If you feel emotional turbulence reading what some journalist has written about you, you’re not ready. If you can laugh at distant criticism, no matter how much there is, but take seriously the criticism of those you trust, then you’re golden.



Insecurity—is tasteless. Public insecurity passed as counterfeit for authenticity is just gross. You’re better than that. Confession must be held in the privacy of a booth, just as prayer has to happen in your own room. And once you confess, or you pray, you have to learn to let what you’ve confessed or prayed pass from your hands. The constant self-examination demanded by modern psychology is nothing but an insecurity-machine, forcing everyone involved to become their own cops, judges, and juries, to war against their own lives and wills, like an internal wrist-cutting habit.



Health and allergies—There are physical and social allergies, and they’re both related and often reflexive. Health is an absence of allergy, a state in which neither your body nor your mind revolts against the world it lives in, but rather each throws itself into that world with exuberance, whether that exuberance is expressed as joy, or sadness, or fury, or lust.

Allergies inhibit the energy that allows—or forces—that exuberance. In the case of a physical allergy, this is obvious: Inflammation forces your metabolic energy inward, causing blockage, lethargy, decline, convalescence. A social allergy—an immediate, reflexive repulsion caused by some way of interacting or speaking—works the same way, on mental and physical levels. If you cringe at a certain mode of communication rather than simply taking it in and figuring out how to respond in its own terms, you’re suffering from an untreated social allergy that will prevent your eyes from turning outward enough to see truth. That is, each social allergy is an inflammation that causes self-deception and thus self-denial.

When you can ingest any material, physical or social, without inflammation, you know that the energy in your body is flowing well, that you have affirmed your life on each level. Some of that comes from nutrition, some from exercise, some from social goodwill or spiritual revelation, and none of the above causes all the benefits of the others, but each is non-linearly interlinked.

If someone claims that your mental health causally follows from physical health, or vice versa, you know that they are trying to convince you of a defensive illusion that has been useful to them. In this way, most of those who claim to be health experts are defensively delusional neurotics who cause more harm than good in themselves and others by obsessing over the physical or mental angle and splitting either into “healthy” and “unhealthy” categories. Such neurotic obsession, in this case, is the fundamental vice, a systematized life-denial.



Drunkenness—, of whatever type, can be a great pedagogue, in that it teaches the feeling of self-examination’s lack—and, at extremes, in that it can erase self-examination to such an extent that you have to reckon with real inconsistency, with the memory or report that you’ve done or said things supposedly “out-of-character.” Problems arise when drunkenness, of whatever type, becomes that character, that consistency.

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