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On Dishes and Stories

Everything that is wrong with the world today can be summed up in one simple concept: people hate human beings.

No, no: I’m not saying people don’t like each other. To the contrary, it is still human nature to find our value and even our energy and joy in those moments when another person receives our self-offerings, the more firmly the better.

That’s the real reason we shake hands. When we discover that somebody takes our simplest offerings, then we offer more to see how they will handle them. If they receive them with respect, we offer more. We are created for honor and I’m afraid we’ll take it anywhere we can get it.

However, we’re also a practical people, maybe even a little ashamed of our need for others. We have problems we’re trying to solve, and sometimes when that other offers himself to us we’ve got more important things to deal with.

The mother doing the dishes or the father reading the newspaper provide a couple stereotypes for what I’m talking about.

Let me explain: in ages past, many families had a rather strange and nostalgic custom of gathering around the table to eat. In America, it was especially common on Sunday afternoons, when folks were even known to have guests over to share their food with them.

The trouble was, after the meal they had to wash the dishes. In those days, you couldn’t just throw them in the dishwasher, you actually had to stand at the sink and wash them with your hands. Most parents used this to punish their children, finding it far more effective than a time-out.

This will be hard to imagine, but do your best to picture it: virtually every single day, the dishes had to be washed and somebody had to do it. This is the real reason women had fewer jobs outside the home. While the husband would go to the office to meet clients with whom he would play golf all day, the poor wife would stand at the sink, chapped and bleeding hands (this is before the days when Palmolive was as gentle on your hands as it was tough on the dishes) covered in foam that reached, like (and yet not like) an elegant glove, to the elbows, scrubbing dishes as if her life depended on it, so that at dinner the family would have something to put their food on once again.

Women slept, cooked, and washed dishes. Men played golf and read the newspaper.

Perhaps that helps you imagine the trauma she must have felt when little Johnny and hungry Laura would come up to her, pull on her apron, and say, “Mommy, will you read me a story?”

Now, of course, women have been saved from all these overwhelming practical duties and are able to devote themselves entirely to the development of their humanity. Their own, I mean, not the children’s. And of course, that development of her humanity is done through meaningful things like, for example, running a government agency or sitting behind a counter or exposing the oppression of women in pre-socialist societies.

You see! Everything changed with the dishwasher.

I hope I don’t have to come right out and say that I’m being facetious. My point is that human beings have always got in the way of our practical ends. Think how much easier teaching would be if it weren’t for the students.

This problem is, when you think about it, quite serious. The tyrants of the world are only people like us with a stronger appetite for power and more talent with which to get it. Lenin learned he could write, Hitler learned he could speak, Napoleon learned he could strategize. So they did, and people followed them – they loved them – openly.

We all fall into our petty tyrannies, whether it’s the husband with his wife, the mother with her children, the teacher with her classroom, or the government agent with those who need his permission to tie their shoes.

What would keep us from doing so? I never learned anything in school that would incline me to treat others as more important than myself. To the contrary, I learned that we live in a world where only the fittest survive and that fitness is power.

What would keep us from being petty tyrants? Two things could. One, if I get an advantage by compromising. This is the social contract of a Thomas Hobbes, a John Locke, or even a Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But such an arrangement is unstable, utterly unreliable, and based on the notion that life is a power game. It breeds and feeds on insecurity.

But there’s another option. This is going to sound horribly antiquated, but it’s still the only other option. I could actually respect the other. Let me take it a step further. I could actually revere the other.

How one reacts to that suggestion says a lot about what one thinks of human beings. If you laughed at it, I would urge you to reconsider your perspective if only because you end up laughing at yourself. You may have a deep issue with the problem of self-respect. Furthermore, that lack of self-respect will certainly play itself out in your relationships with those you love in spite of your view of yourself and even of what your loved one is.

The last five centuries have seen the western soul gutted of any noble conception of what a human being is. The line from Machiavelli through Hobbes, Hume, DeSade, Hegel, Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche, to Lenin, Hitler, and Stalin is direct, and it has one common theme: “human beings ain’t all that.”

For Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hegel, Marx and his stooges, they are means to an end.

For DeSade, LaMettrie, and Darwin, we are a mechanism, governed entirely by deterministic laws, lacking what had been called a “will” for many centuries, and directed instead by what had been called appetites during those same centuries, but now would be called will so the word would lose its former meaning.

Nietzsche summed up the modern sub-text quite well when he said, “I love the great despisers. Man is something that must be surpassed.”

The modern world despises human beings qua human beings. We like them for their use, but we find their nature a nuisance. We surely can’t be expected to alter our plans because of that nature.

The modern school, for example, is rooted in this despite for human nature. Let us suppose that a teacher could go through a teacher’s college program without being taught that, having survived the dark ages of pre-scientific psychology, we finally understand humans because of the work of Piaget and Visigotsky. Let us suppose that somehow that teacher graduated from teacher’s college with her respect for human nature intact.

Two things will remain true. One, she will not have made that human nature the center of her reflections during teacher’s college and NCATE will ensure that. Rather, she will have learned techniques for controlling that “student” or “class,” methods for efficiently getting through text books, and maybe, in the most Progressive of teacher’s colleges, she might have learned about how to teach the child to express himself (which they apparently only know how to do when a teacher reveals the secrets of self-expression to them).

But she won’t have learned what a child is. She won’t have been taught to direct her attention to this child’s faculties and how to turn them into virtues. She will never have been asked to formally consider the God-given or even the natural purpose of human nature. She won’t have been given an approach to teaching that at least holds out the possibility that a wise man or woman could be the fruit of her instruction. Instead she will have learned “practical” things. And she will have developed the habit of demanding practical tools from every teaching situation she attends.

And two, when she enters the school, even with her reverence for the Divine Image intact, that school, public or private, religious or secular, will not be patterned on the nature of the child and oriented toward the cultivation of that child’s faculties.

Don’t misunderstand. It will be full of people who love children and want to see them flourish. But the wisdom of the ages and the time needed to absorb it will not be part of the form of the school. I like to think that in schools that are not weighed down by the evils of government bureaucracy, there are even a few schools that will drill down to the basics and figure out how to run a school that is good for the human child. But there really isn’t time for that when you have to be accredited and maintain your certification. Besides, it hasn’t been done for 150 years, so where are we going to find our models? And there’s one more problem. Parents are far more concerned about their children getting into college than they are about their children becoming human.

If you don’t take the time to figure out what a human being is and how it should be nourished, you will harm that child. I don’t mean that the child will be inconvenienced or even hurt. That is part of life and of growing up. I mean that a harm will be done to the child’s essence.

If nothing else, his reverence for human nature will be undercut. His vision for what he is and what he can become will be jaded. And his faculties will not be cultivated as they would have been by people who believed in and revered human nature.

We have two duties as human beings and in these duties is our joy – our fulfillment; our blessedness. Our first duty is to become fully human. Our second duty is to help others become fully human. As a Christian, I point out that this is how we give glory to God, because, as the immortal martyr of the second century, St. Ignatius, put it: “the glory of God is the man fully alive.”

So when your child says, “Mommy, will you read me a story,” don’t despise him. Either teach him how to do the dishes or put them aside yourself and read him a story. Because the essence of being human is summed up in two things: dishes and stories.

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