On work Monday morning, anything is more interesting than last week's unresolved issues. As I gazed absently at my email, trying to refresh my memory, I overheard my co-workers across the aisle trading jokes heard on the internet about the deaths of the 39 Southern Californians. They concluded their jollity by asserting that the cult members were pretty stupid to believe what they believed and stupid beyond belief to have acted accordingly.
I recalled that the television news reporters, obliged to a higher degree of decency, gravely labeled the individuals as cult members and herded them into oblivion with those of Waco and Jonestown, which seems to clear things up for most people.
The cultural body has noticed another nuisance, a few cells distracted from their duties, an itch in the political tissue, a dangerous idea about to blemish. The antibodies have swarmed to the site and identified, classified, marginalized, isolated, and eliminated the offense with jokes and labels. In a few days, it won't be news at all. A few weeks, and it will be forgotten until the New Year's Eve review of the old year's top stories. Gossip has done its work and we can go about ours.
The relatives and friends will never forget. And neither will the thoughtful and sensitive minds for whom Rancho Santa Fe and Waco and Jonestown remain unclassifiable, who will not dismiss the matter with a few words.
What lies beyond the veil that we insist that the news stories wear? About the time of the mass suicide, I watched a few minutes of Bill Moyers' series on religion that featured the story of Abraham and his intended sacrifice of his son Isaac. Most of the panelists rejected the extremity of the sacrifice of Isaac and one in particular folded his arms obstinately and demanded to know why any one would be so stupid as to believe in a god that asked such a price. I translated this to mean, that if he were shopping for a religion, he would not choose one that asked much of him. He might drop a few bucks in the collection plate or serve on the annual Easter picnic committee, but nothing more significant than these tokens and then only if rewarded by feeling good about himself. It is the slogan of our times, perhaps of all times, that there is nothing more precious than ourselves, our money, our reputation, and our pleasure.
But it is not whether we should sacrifice ourselves or our children; I don't believe this is a matter of choice. We run the survival-gauntlet from conception to senior citizenship, some being cut early in perfect innocence, others cautiously avoiding risks for decades or eagerly taking chances for money or children or thrills or abstractions and all, so it seems, falling down sooner or later. Is it really safest to take the safest path? Am I really interested in a life without stress or risk or profound questions or terrible answers? Can they be avoided?
I suppose it is vital to our concept of consumer economics that each and everyone of us remain in harness, show up every Monday morning more or less eager to work, and invest all we make in durable goods, delicious foods, and secure portfolios. I suppose we think it best to herd the masses undistracted through the aisles, picking tasty desserts and juicy tabloids from the shelves, dainties selected for price and performance, putting off mention of the unpleasantness that cannot be talked about but ultimately cannot be avoided.
That we have a right to our opinions and may act accordingly means there is no absolutely right way of living or dying and that the meaning of life is what we bring to it and what we say when we leave. To bring something new, to risk something, to dare to lay a trip on someone is a creative act. The degree of meaning can be proportional to the risks taken and the sacrifices made. Common opinion notwithstanding, a conscious choice bought with the chooser's blood can ring across generations.