My Brush with Socialism

Every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven.
~ G.K. Chesterton

A friend of mine posted a NYT op-ed by David Bentley Hart that caught my eye: “Can We Please Relax About ‘Socialism’?” Yes! My thoughts exactly! I’m so tired of hearing that word bandied about on the left and the right, as if a couple of grade-schoolers with identical plastic light sabers were whacking each other into submission. I’m with Hart: Let’s give socialism a rest already!

But that wasn’t Hart’s point. Instead, he was opining that only here in America “is the word ‘socialism’ freighted with so much perceived menace.” That is, he was coming to socialism’s defense against conservative scaremongers like Ben Stein – whack! – and Republicans in general – whack, whack!

Too bad, for I think some “give it a rest” is in order these days, especially since nobody is in a hurry to define what socialism actually is (and isn’t). And, let’s face it, there’s no real incentive to do so as long as the word’s ambiguity continues to prove so effective in stirring up supporters (and donors).

Yet defining socialism is less important than seeing it in action. “Successful socialism has been created in only one place on earth, the kibbutzim of Israel,” Joshua Muravchik wrote in a different op-ed, this time in the WSJ. “But once the Jewish state was securely on its feet, kibbutzniks chose to switch to private enterprise. Socialism, they learned to their surprise, was not a happy way to live.”

I had a taste of happy socialism among the Hutterites, and it’s worth a look.

The Hutterites and their communitarian ways came to my attention decades ago when I was hanging around the Catholic Worker and reading Dorothy Day. “Before families come, they literally sell what they have and come and lay it at the feet of those members in the group who are in charge,” Day wrote of the Hutterite (at the time) Woodcrest Bruderhof in Rifton, New York. “It is truly a Christian communism.”

I had to check it out for myself, so I wrote ahead and made plans to visit Woodcrest for a couple days. In the meantime, I read up on the Hutterites, their history and values. Founded in Tyrol, Austria, by Jakob Hutter in 1528, the Hutterites were an Anabaptist movement that took very seriously the example set by the early church. “All who believed were together and had all things in common,” we read in Acts 2.44, and the Hutterites decided it was a practice that couldn’t be improved upon. “Communalism is the distinguishing principle by which all Hutterites have lived for nearly 475 years,” writes Laura Wilson. What’s more, “Hutterites are resisters. What they resist most are those influences inimical to their beliefs.” And yet, I also found that they are very open to outsiders and welcoming to all those who are curious about their way of life.

My stay with the Bruderhof, a modern Hutterite-like community, was a full one. I stayed with a family, ate and played and prayed with them, and then I also had a chance to work in their manufacturing business – Community Playthings which specializes in wholesome play equipment and solid youth furniture. I helped assemble a large tricycle, as I remember, and felt pretty good about making a contribution – both to the community hosting me as well as the child who’d benefit from the trike.

And that’s my recollection of this successful, even joyful form of limited socialist utopia: There was freedom within the collective unity. “While we share all we have with each other, we reject any attempts to make people uniform,” reads the Bruderhof’s statement on Community of Goods. “We practice our gifts through our work within the community, but there is also plenty of time to explore and nurture individual pursuits.”

The key here is that Bruderhof and Hutterite communitarianism is structured, but voluntary. There are lines of authority – in the community, in the manufacturing business, within each member family – and yet there is security and solidarity in the group’s commitment to mutual support and service. It’s not perfect – can any society be perfect this side of heaven? – but the folks who join and stay can see that it works, and they’re free to leave if they decide it doesn’t.

I think that highlights an important principle that’s too often overlooked in today’s socialism debates. Authentic socialism – or a fair distribution of goods among those in a society – is surely something to be commended as laudatory and even virtuous, especially for Christians, but it’s hard to accomplish well (or at all) through coercion. Yet, as the Bruderhof demonstrates, it doesn’t have to be coerced.

At least, that’s the lesson I took away from my visit there, and it’s one which has stayed with me ever since. I’m much less interested in questions of how much the state should be spreading wealth around than how I can better spread my own wealth around.

And that’s something I can do, God willing, without a whole bunch of debate.

Depressed and Desperate: The Day I Called Dr. White

Many people…find it hard to analyse, and even more difficult to express in words, what appears to be destroying them from inside.
~ J.B. Phillips

It’s awkward to be a depressed Christian. Awkward and discomfiting.

You love Jesus, pray and read your Bible, and get to Mass and Sunday services. You dedicate yourself to service, strive to live a virtuous life, and keep your eyes fixed on heaven best you can. You may even have a decent handle on the marginal value of transient emotional satisfaction in the life of faith – and yet you’re suddenly afflicted with oppressive despondency anyway. It’s utterly out of kilter, a wrenching interior disruption, but you can’t shake it. It’s not just a spiritual dry spell, not simply a devotional dip, but a full-on collapse, and you’re frightened by the dark direction of your thoughts.

What to do?

I’ll tell you what I did. I called a shrink.

But it wasn’t just any shrink. I decided that my particular depression (and, if I’m not mistaken, I probably wasn’t the first to think his own case of depressive illness was somehow extraordinarily, uniquely severe) required the best that pastoral psychology could come up with. Yet, at the time, I was still a pretty new Catholic, so my frame of reference was limited to my prior exposure to evangelical authors and leaders. I think I turned to Minirth and Meier’s Happiness is a Choice (1978), and I know I gobbled up The Price of Success (1984), by Bible translator J.B. Phillips, a hero of mine who himself suffered a debilitating depression.

But the text that gave me the most solace, the most hope was Dr. John White’s The Masks of Melancholy (1982). It was the right book at the right time.

White was not only a practicing psychiatrist and professor, but also a prolific evangelical author and popular speaker. His many books published by InterVarsity Press had come to my attention during the years in the Christian bookstore business, but I’d never gotten around to reading Masks – why should I? It was about mental illness, suicide, and depression, and I surely wasn’t going to be subject to those kinds of problems.

When my own depression hit like a Looney Tunes anvil, I flailed and faltered and grasped at anything that might give me relief. I went to co-dependency workshops and group therapy. I started using tobacco again and probably drank a bit more than usual. I prayed extra novenas and rosaries, and went to movies, by myself, a lot. And I read books – books about depression, mainly, especially from a Christian angle – and there was something about Dr. White’s kindly prose, medical realism, and illuminating narratives that really hit home.

He explained the science and physiology of depressive illness in a way I could understand, and he wasn’t afraid to tackle the tough questions – particularly the delicate, at times tense relationship between religion and mental health. White’s approach was both rational and eminently pastoral, and I recall reading through Masks twice – like back-to-back twice, as in finishing the last page (sitting in a study carrel in DePaul University’s library, I remember it well) and then immediately turning back to page one to start again.

But I didn’t stop there. In the fog of my depressive state, I made a snap decision to track down Dr. White himself to give me a leg up. It seemed reasonable at the time, so when I got home, I grabbed the phone and called directory assistance. The operator gave me the number for InterVarsity Press, and, if memory serves, when I asked the secretary there for Dr. White’s number, she…just gave it to me.

In any case, I got the number somehow and dialed. There I was, pacing in my flat in Chicago, frantic, phone in hand (ringing, ringing), and then, *click* “Hello?” It was Dr. John White himself on the other end!

I can’t remember if I even identified myself before I poured out my story and my travails. I assured him that I would do anything and everything to regain some equilibrium in my mental state, that I’d try medication, whatever it took. His response after a short pause was – not unreasonably by any means – a simple, “How did you get my number?”

Like a flash, my depression evaporated in favor of a wave of embarrassment and chagrin. The impropriety of my impetuous phone call, however innocent, swamped my sensibilities, and I hemmed and hawed through the rest of the conversation. White was more than generous (probably more generous with me than he would be with that secretary), and he offered some gentle encouragement (at least I assume he did – I don’t remember that part of our chat), but it was all over pretty quick. After hanging up, and before the crushing weight of my depressive illness settled in again, I had an epiphany that I can only attribute to God’s grace: I really was a mess, and, my faith notwithstanding, I needed to do something more than dabble in group therapy and books – or phone calls for that matter.

It took yet another crisis before I made the radical changes necessary to begin climbing out of my depressive sinkhole, but that phone call with Dr. White was a marker of sorts. I’m still embarrassed about it, I suppose, but I’m so grateful he was home and took the call, for it helped me recognize that my recovery would require allowing living, breathing people to care for me. Depression might be something we suffer in intense loneliness, but it is only shed when we share it with others.

Months later, after moving back home to my family in Colorado and beginning therapy, I read M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled (1978), and it, too, had a profound impact on me. By then, however, I’d found enough human support – from my parents, my friends, others with depression, my shrink in Boulder – that I didn’t even consider reaching out to Dr. Peck.

Good thing. I imagine he’d have been tougher to track down.

Dr. John White died in 2002. Rest in peace, and thanks.

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

A Marxist Christmastide: Celebrating the Season with Silliness

Christmas is not only a feast of children, but in some sense a feast of fools.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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Taking a Cue from Big Tobacco: Big Tech Introduces the iFilter!

I’m addicted to the Internet because it’s more interesting than people.
~ Dilbert

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Of Borrowed Time and the Other Cruelest Month

Until that day dawn – and it may not dawn at all while I am in this mortal flesh – I shall go on hoping. Hope deferred is good enough for me.
~ Dom Hubert van Zeller

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Jonesing for a Belly Laugh: Of Rimshots, Resets, and Wodehouse – Again

What the people need is a way to make ’em smile.
~ The Doobie Brothers

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The Three Books I’m Going to Read Next

The medium is the message.
~ Marshall McLuhan

I toss that McLuhan quotation up there as if I understood what it means, but I’m no better off than the poor schlemiel in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall that receives a severe public drubbing from McLuhan himself. “You know nothing of my work,” McLuhan tells the pedantic blowhard, and I’m just as guilty.

Still, I’m going out on a limb to draw on McLuhan’s famous line nonetheless because it relates to the series of events I’m about to lay out here.

It all started back in March when I came across a MercatorNet essay by Philip Reed, a professor of philosophy at Buffalo’s Canisius College. “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Cellphone” was the title, and, if you’re like me, you can pretty much predict what follows – no? Flummoxed? Here’s a hint in Reed’s sub-title: “Why should I be tethered to the rest of the world 24/7?” Ah, yes, my thoughts exactly – indeed, my words exactly, since I’ve said virtually the same thing to my family and friends, students and colleagues for years. The convenience and wired capabilities that make cellphones so attractive to the whole planet are the very characteristics that make the infernal devices abhorrent to me. “The burden comes in the form of feeling an obligation to individuals and events that are physically elsewhere,” Reed writes, and I frankly enjoy being in one place at one time. Present realities are plenty for my fractious brain to deal with; I’ve no desire to be constantly pulled in a myriad cyber directions.

After finishing Reed’s online essay, I acclaimed “Hear, hear!” to my computer, and I immediately posted the article to my Facebook feed.

Wait – Facebook feed, you ask? Computer? “Ah, yes,” you might be thinking, “another pseudo-Luddite hypocrite.”

I don’t think so, because I have no objection to making use of the internet and high tech as tools. In fact, as a nurse and nursing instructor, I’m required to be familiar with electronic medical records, and I depend on email as a primary means of communication. That’s what I especially appreciate about Reed’s piece: He wasn’t eschewing technology as such, but extreme iMobility. With the advent of smart phones, our use of technology is swiftly morphing into a dependency, and universal Wi-Fi connectivity is essentially becoming a necessity for day to day existence.

The same day I was pondering Reed’s essay, I read a book review by Stefan Beck in the Wall Street Journal that offered an alternative perspective on technology. The book is The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel, and it traces the real-life story of one Christopher Knight who disappeared into the wilderness of Maine for some 30 years. He lived a jerry-rigged life of isolation – part recluse, part scavenger – and somehow he survived. Why, you ask? Here’s how Beck gets at the question: “For some, the temptation to cast off the strictures of civilization by fleeing indefinitely into the woods, the desert or the mountains is intoxicating.” Right – cast off the smart phones, tablet, and other assorted gizmos! Be free, be free! We have nothing to lose, as Marx and Co. might put it, but our electronic chains!

Later in Beck’s review, he notes that Christopher Knight’s story is also, “unexpectedly, a tribute to the joys of reading,” and that the de facto hermit “read everything he could get his hands on.” OK, I’m not ready to jettison all of Western civilization and decent brewed coffee, but I’m all about books and reading. I clicked on my local library’s website, found The Stranger in the Woods listing, and clicked the Reserve button. “Top of the ‘to read next’ pile,” I thought – check!

Then I noticed that my friend Shawn had responded to my Philip Reed anti-cellphone post with a follow-up: A New York Review of Books link to Bill McKibben’s review of David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. The title alone was enough to return to my library’s website and click that Reserve button again. (“This’ll be number two on the pile” – check, check!) Sax provides a guide to the throwback underbelly of our hyper-digitalized Zeitgeist, describing, for instance, the appeal of such quaint relics as vinyl LPs, old-fashioned board games, and actual paper-filled notebooks – the kind you write on with actual pens and pencils. He also talks about e-commerce vs. brick-and-mortar stores, e-learning vs. face-to-face instruction, and even virtual vs. manual labor.

Of course, Sax also addresses books in his book, along with bookstores, and he predicts a rosy future for the book trade. Plus, he delineates his own flirtation with e-books and his retreat back to a preference for the printed page. “I couldn’t annotate to the cloud as I read in print,” Sax writes, “but I could underline, write notes, fold down corners, and never get lost by accidentally tapping the page with my finger.” It’s the testimony of a rehabilitated tech enthusiast – just one of many scattered through Sax’s work. That’s why it’s so curious that McKibben’s review of The Revenge of Analog begins with this depressing avowal:

Our accelerating disappearance into the digital ether now defines us—we are the mediated people, whose contact with one another and the world around us is now mostly veiled by a screen. We threaten to rebel, just as we threaten to move to Canada after an election. But we don’t; the current is too fierce to swim to shore.

Nonsense, and that leads me to the third book atop my “to-read” pile (check, check, check!) which I spotted when I made my way to library to pick up the other two: Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Again, the title alone was enough for me to grab it, but Gavin Francis’s review in The Guardian confirmed my choice. “Alter teaches marketing and psychology at New York University,” Francis writes, “and wants to show us how smartphones, Netflix, and online games such as World of Warcraft are exquisitely and expensively engineered to hook us in.” All I could think of was Russell Crowe’s riveting portrayal of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand in the movie The Insider. Alter’s revelations won’t have nearly the same impact I’m afraid, but maybe they should.

Anyway, I scurried home from the library with my three books and plopped them in a pile next to my bed. I was anxious to read them in hopes they’d enhance and expand my outlook on their common theme: The modern dilemma of coping with the avalanche of digital information and stimulation. Yes, the medium is the message, and it’s a disembodying, anti-incarnational message these days, and that by design it seems.

Such were my thoughts as I tuned into WSND on our analog radio with its bobby pin replacement antenna. Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” came on. “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,” goes the dominant melody line toward the end, echoing the old Shaker hymn and its promotion of downward mobility, lower tech, and simpler ways. It was a heartening moment of serendipity – I couldn’t have planned it better; the felicity was almost divine. After a succession of dire digital deliberations, the music’s message was heartening. “To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”

A version of this essay appeared in Crisis Magazine.

Easter Meditation on a Suicide Averted

Look, here’s a true story. It’s a bit raw, but maybe it’ll help.

I was living in Chicago when I got depressed. Not the bluesy kind of depressed, but the heavy, can’t-shake-it, “drenched wool blanket draped over your thoughts around the clock” kind of depressed.

Sure, I sought out counseling; sure, I attended group therapy sessions and read books for adult children of alcoholics. Nothing was helping, though, and I spent a lot of time going to movies.

By myself.

I was like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, but without the sexual dalliances, and without the admirable existential yearnings of Percy’s Kierkegaardian hero. I was a kid in his twenties from the Colorado burbs, newly Catholic, and living among do-gooders in gritty Uptown. In fact, the do-gooders were my heroes, and I was trying to become a do-gooder myself.

That’s why the depression was so bewildering. God, went my prayer, over and over again, God, why are you doing this to me?

Maybe you’ve prayed that prayer yourself, and maybe your prayer met with cosmic stonewalling like mine did – or at least that’s how it felt. Regardless, I prayed and prayed, and then I self-medicated by going to movies – lots of movies. Going to movies distracted me from the pain and the endless loops of irrational, self-destructive thoughts, and it was better than drinking – or worse.

One night, I ended up in Water Tower Place. There used to be theater there on the second or third floor – maybe it’s still there. I forget what the first show was, but I recall sticking around for a second because it was too early to go home – too early, that is, to land home and crash without feeling compelled to talk with my roommates. I do remember that second show: Gardens of Stone, Francis Ford Coppola’s other Vietnam film, a stateside gut-wrencher that revolves around the Arlington National Cemetery. It was probably not the best film for me to be watching at the time – hardly the diverting entertainment I was groping for. The film’s bleak fatalism accentuated my despair and underscored my emotional isolation.

After it ended, I trudged over to the Chicago subway stop on the CTA’s Red Line. It was late enough that the platform was sparsely populated – just as well. I didn’t want to talk with anybody; I didn’t want to interact. I was tired and miserable and anxious to get home to bed. My mind was racing with dark thoughts. Sleep, at least, offered the prospect of temporary mental relief.

Relief, I thought – and the thought morphed into a prayer: Please, God, grant me some relief. I was standing at the edge of the platform and looking down the tunnel for the ‘L’ train. There are no guardrails or barriers on the edge of subway platforms. There’s just air – just a drop-off to the rails and rats below. As I heard the rumble of the arriving train and saw its lights, I had another thought: If I just fall forward as the train arrives, I’ll get that relief. A pause – the lights got closer. Just a bit of courage, just a shift of weight, and I’ll fall forward, fall in, fall down. I vacillated at the last moment. No more pain…

Terrified, I wrenched myself away from the platform’s edge, and the train rolled in. I shuddered, backed up, and turned to the pay phone on the wall – no cell phones back then, no universal and immediate connectivity. Instead, my bridge back to safety was mediated by an anonymous operator. “Collect call,” I told her, and she punched in my parents’ Colorado number. One ring, two – then my mom’s voice. She accepted the charges and ventured, “Hello?”

“Mom, it’s me,” I said. “I need to come home. I need help and I need to come home.”

I did move home soon after, started regular counseling, and got on meds. The meds were like a temporary chemical brace for my wobbly thinking, and the counseling offered me long-term mental guardrails to lean on going forward – and here I am, decades later, guardrails in place, and alive.

That night on the subway platform I stared down death, stared it full in the face and slapped it away. In that split second, I was granted a choice – and a clear vision. With God’s grace, no doubt with God’s grace, I looked at self-annihilation straight on, considered it, toyed with it, and sent it packing. “Not tonight, you bastard,” my platform retreat declaimed. “Not tonight, you lousy bastard. Maybe tomorrow, but not tonight.” In that moment of crisis, I clung to the grace and gave in to its tidal sweep. It wasn’t the end of something, but a beginning. There’d be no quick cures, but only daily surrenders. Daily willful surrenders, with no guarantees, and yet each surrender meant living for another day.

And where’s there’s life, there’s hope – the Easter message in a nutshell. He is risen, dammit – risen! He’s alive, and where’s there’s life there’s hope. Hold onto life, no matter what – hold on to life, hold onto hope.

I’m telling you, when your platform moments come, you must back away. Your twisted thoughts will deny your infinite worth as a human being, your ineffable value to the world, to the universe, to those who love you – to us, to me. At those moments – if they come at all, God forbid, and if they do, let them be few – hear my words, let my words ring in your head: Your life is worth living; you will get through this; and don’t you dare, don’t you dare do anything to snuff it out. Don’t you dare.

Back away, and let the metal carnage pass. If I can do it, so can you. We can both refuse annihilation this day, this day! Alleluia.

For immediate help, call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Nailed: The Outrage and Consolation of a Helpless God

If Christ was not of the very substance of omnipotence,
if becomes relatively pointless to point to the paradox of his impotence.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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A Birthday Odyssey: Of ‘Arrival’, Pain Control, and Redemptive Suffering


The sacramental liturgy continues in our very person.
~ David Fagerberg

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