Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Good Hand Soap

Hand soap is an indescribably small thing in the large scale of the world. When compared to Napoleon or Brazil or the governmental debt of the United States, it seems to be of little importance.

But is it?

I have searched through trash cans and trashy Wal-Marts to research this post; I have ventured to depths of shelving in supermarkets that have been untouched for decades past. What I have found as a result of my daring research has surprised me beyond belief.

Good hand soap can be the tipping point of an avalanche, the slightest grain of sand that might steady or fall at a breath of the wind. It may, for instance, stop a missionary kid in Africa from getting typhoid or tuberculosis; it may prevent a doctor from getting a deadly disease in the emergency ward; it may prevent you from flunking your test as a result of your awful cold.

Washing your hands with good soap is one of the bedrocks of civilization, for whether the missionary kid in Africa or pastor's kid in America eats one meal a day or three, he must make sure his hands are clean beforehand.

It is said that the Native Americans fell before their various European conquerors, not from their swords, but their spit. Germs felled more men than swords did. And I can only imagine how the tides of history might have turned if, by a stupendous miracle, the Aztecs might have been graced with the gift of hand soap.

This takes only one of the faces of the many-sided die that is the miracle of hand soap—the medical one.

Take another side, that of democracy. If Barack Obama wishes to celebrate diversity, I hope that he may go home and look to his hand soap. I can't speak for the state of American bathrooms, but scarcely do I see more diversity here in Africa than when I look at a bathroom sink. I have seen many brands cross my porcelain altar, and I have marked their passing. I have seen the English Breeze drop like teardrops to my hands; I have read the incomprehensible Arabic on that cylindrical plastic as the suds rise into the air and dance for joy. All of the wonder of the Middle East and all of the refinery of the United Kingdom meet in my Liberian bathroom; three continents cupped in two American hands!

I cannot, however, fail to recognize the philosophical value of hand soap. The prospects are overwhelming.

Let me mentioned, at least, the immense joy that good hand soap brings. Please notice the adjective that I used there: “good” hand soap.

My sister sometimes visits a Canadian friend of ours here on ELWA; we may drop by there on a walk or stop by to help her move furniture. But whatever happens, if we should use her bathroom, our inevitable compliment is a joy-drunken exclamation on the state of her hand soap. It is indescribable. Not only because it superbly cleans our hands (which is, after all, the point of hand soap) but because the scent and texture is like that of the Greek nectar of the gods.

However our day might go, whether it is raining mongooses or whether the day is parched as the summer cirrus clouds, we may look forward to the joy of using her hand soap. It is a simple joy, which may be the best sort of joy there is, because you can find it anywhere—if you are looking for it.

There is, also, the spiritual parallel of hand-washing. Perhaps those who are religious about washing their hands may be religious about washing their souls. At the very least, it indicates that there are some people who are willing to be washed if they can see their need, whether it be dirty hands or dirty souls.

If we continue that parallel, we might say that Christ is the best sort of hand soap there is. As he cleanses us, he may fill us with simple joy; he might delight our senses; and if we should have cuts, he may sting us in his cleansing. Let us not be content with cheap soap, of half-Christianities and almost-churches. Good soap is expensive; it may cost us. But in the long run, the cost is worth the benefit.

All of this and more I have to say about hand soap—but time would fail me to tell the rest, so I will stop here. I have, however, one more thing to say.

The average human being will tell you that the standard time to wash your hands is twenty or thirty seconds. (My grandma, who was a nurse, often reminds us of this; and says that when certain bathrooms were videotaped—a rather awkward pause came here—many people either washed their hands for five or ten seconds or did not wash at all.)

Obviously, your mind ought to be doing something during this time, other than controlling your hands and causing them to lather up your soap.

My suggestion is to not squander this time; or if you do squander it, to squander it constructively. For half a minute, allow yourself to ponder the intricacies of hand soap. Purify your mind as well as your hands; dwell on simple joys and a cleansing Savior.

Perhaps all that can't be thought of in a mere twenty seconds, but I think if a fraction of that went through your head, it would be a twenty seconds well wasted.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Chasing Echoes of Thought

Sometimes I prefer thinking to talking.

You know, for an introvert, I really do like people. Really. I get along with most everybody and it takes a genuinely rude person to get on my nerves. I crave deep conversations.

But as an introvert, sometimes I prefer silence to speech. I get this sort of craving oftentimes after several hours of socialization—it's like an off switch. All of a sudden, I'm done with people. Boom. Mouths go in slo-mo and my widening eyes just can't take it all in. My ears plug up. My throat constricts. I blink rapidly. They're all common symptoms of an introvert shutdown.

In those times, I retreat to a quiet corner. Anytime this happens, I do the same action—it signifies that I'm thinking.

There's this odd gesture that somehow reflects what is going on in my head. I put my palms together, like I'm praying, and put my thumbs on my chin and my fingers just below my nose, touching my lips. Then I stare forward into space; or if space is distracting, I close my eyes like I'm doing some deep meditation.

It's a leftover from BBC Sherlock. Sometimes Sherlock does it when he's in his mind palace. I'm quite the opposite; I do it when I'm in my mind library.

You see, I don't have the time, patience, or belief to try out that mind palace thing. But “mind library” works quite well to describe my state of mind when I'm having a thought attack.

It's not really a sort of mind palace. The point of a mind palace is to organize information that you've memorized; the point of a mind library is to wander around looking up favorite pieces of information and failing to find any order whatsoever. They're strewn all about the library; spine up on the desk, ripped up on the floor, stuck to the ceiling with nineteen pieces of gum. If anything, the mind library is the complete antithesis to the mind palace.

Let me describe it to you. It's a library in the sense that it contains bits of information loosely bound together in long strings of almost-logic. However, I have very little choice about what goes through (or goes into) this mind library; I sometimes get to choose what I start out with.

Say I start out with politics. Perhaps that will lead me to the Supreme Court; then it will lead me to a Supreme Court decision having to do with a criminal versus the state of Kansas; then it will lead me to Kansas; then it will lead me to the farm; then it will lead me to a wheat field; then it will lead me to wondering what the price of wheat is; and so on, until my thoughts fly by so dazzlingly fast that even I don't know exactly what I'm thinking or how I got around to thinking it.

Inevitably, philosophy will get involved; it will start lecturing me about the subliminal worldviews of politics. Then my analyzer will tell philosophy to leave off and let the real thoughts do their work. Theology'll poke his head in next and start handing out treatises on how the Bible relates to the office of the President.

Sometimes this happens in minutes. Sometimes this happens in hours. All of it happens in my head.

I'll wander through bookshelves stocked with my stories and peruse through them; I'll look around for my essays, just to find out that they were lost somewhere in the massive nonfiction section. Once I go there I end up reading Chesterton quotes on absentmindedness and absentmindedly note the irony.

The worst thing is that sometimes I don't even enter my mind palace on purpose. Forgetfulness and my mind library, you see, are very good friends. I just stop sometimes and my face goes blank for long periods of time while my mind is off on vacation.

And lest you think I'm exaggerating, I'll have you know that I thought up this post in the shower, while analyzing the steady stream of information wandering aimlessly around my head.

So if you ever see me staring off into space, or pacing the hallway, or leaning back in my chair with my palms pressed together—just know that I'm in my mind library.

And if I'm meandering about in my mind library, I'm probably not getting anything done—but usually I can find some interesting stuff to take back to the real world and rework into stories and essays.

To close, let me leave you with a word from a dear friend of mine. It's wise and I resonate with it deeply:

“I am not absentminded. It is the presence of mind that makes me unaware of everything else.” —G. K. Chesterton

Saturday, February 15, 2014

On Ridiculousness: A Defense

The other day I “ghosted” an old forum that I used to frequent often, reading posts here and there and checking things out. After some time, I concluded that, for whatever reason, I preferred the “old” randomness of the forum to the “new” randomness. Why was that? Was it just that my memory had romanticized it?

I investigated further on various forums and social networks. Some of what I considered “old-style” randomness was still alive and well. But what was the difference? Why did I still enjoy one particular style of “randomness” and humor, while I found that I disliked the other style?

I began to find this division all over. Not only on the internet, but in real life as well. I dislike certain brands of internet humor, but I enjoy being ridiculous and making up insane monologues with friends. I found that I loved making inside jokes that made no sense but disliked popular memes that made no sense. Both could be considered “randomness”, but what was the difference? Why did I like one but not the other?

I separated the two categories and analyzed them. Then I slapped some hasty labels on the twins: one, I call “Wholesome Ridiculousness”, and the other I call “Empty Randomness”. The two categories have some definite characteristics.

Let's take “Empty Randomness” first. This is primarily the sort of randomness I critiqued in my previous post: words which are used for no particular purpose. This is a category that contains imploding chocolate and turkeys and the like. It is random not for the sake of relief or the sake of sanity, but it is random for the sake of being random.

This sort of randomness, when used liberally, begins to give conversations and forums an empty feel; it has no particular direction and no specific meaning.

But what about “Wholesome Ridiculousness”? What's that all about?

In some respects, it looks similar to “randomness”. It often contains arbitrary objects; I'm sure it often features turkeys and chocolate.

But in contrast, it has two tendencies: first, it is more creative; and second, it is more relational.

The creativity of ridiculousness is the main thing that makes it wholesome. Anyone can explode over chocolate; but what takes skill and creativity, what takes imagination, is ridiculousness. To tell a sweeping tale of the year 2020 in which my hindsight was 20-20 and my mate Firefly was flying by—that is ridiculousness. Randomness is akin to throwing up whatever comes to mind; ridiculousness is akin to art, the creative impulse to make something, to make anything, to make a thing that cannot be possible except in the imagination. It is randomness for the sake of creativity.

Chesterton called it “farce” and put it this way: “Of all the varied forms of the literature of joy, the form most truly worthy of moral reverence and artistic ambition is the form called 'farce'...To the quietest human being, seated in the quietest house, there will sometimes come a sudden and unmeaning hunger for the possibilities or impossibilities of things; he will abruptly wonder whether the teapot may not suddenly begin to pour out honey or sea-water, the clock point to all hours of the day at once, the candle to burn green or crimson, the door to open upon a lake or a potato-field instead of a London street.”

This ridiculousness also tends to be more relational. Perhaps you may read randomness online in the form of memes and topics; but ridiculousness nearly always requires two or more. People bring with them a greater meaning. With other people, you realize that you are speaking to eternal beings; that if everything else in this earth passes away, the people you talk to will live on.

In that same way, when you are being ridiculous with friends, the ridiculousness becomes more than just a temporal distraction; it becomes something that will stick in your memory; it becomes the source of inside jokes, expanding like a spiderweb until the jokes are so long and complicated that you nearly forget it all and have to start all over again, like a secret handshake that continues to be amended as the years roll by.

It becomes a source of joy: some days when I feel down I remember the night that I went cow-tipping in the north pasture with my closest friends, and I feel again the exhilarating ridiculousness of wheeling through the pasture singing Vanilla Twilight atrociously off-key. We never did find the cows.

Where randomness is repetitive and without creativity, ridiculousness is imaginative; where randomness creates emptiness, ridiculousness creates memories.

Like I said, randomness as a whole has two sides. I dislike dry and meaningless randomness strongly; but I defend with equal strength the wholesome randomness that relies on creativity and relationships for meaning.

The trick for us is to distinguish between them. And how do we do that? We hold on to what creates meaning, and we reject what doesn't.

If we manage to do that, the internet—and all of life—will be better for it.

Friday, February 14, 2014

On Randomness: A Critique

If you ever join a forum, you will likely encounter a strange and revered altar. It is crowned in chocolate and stained in many virtual deaths; it is the dwelling place of cats and role-plays and a slew of arbitrary objects.

This is the home of one of the Internet's great religions, the mighty altar of Randomness. For whatever reason, the online ability to be random is one of the most treasured and revered; those who are the most random have a corresponding reputation.

Satire aside, randomness has enjoyed a surprising popularity on the internet, and to a much lesser extent, in real life. For whatever reason, we enjoy blowing up multiple times and fighting over chocolate and kittens. And yes, I am included in that number; several years ago, the most random thing in existence was the turkey, and it was my mascot, my proud standard and symbol of all that was Jake.

But as I've grown older, I've been more and more disillusioned with randomness. Although I still hold “the good old days” in fond regard, I look at them now with a more critical eye. (More on “the good old days” in my next post.)

Randomness now bothers me. By definition, randomness means that it is random; it has no inherent reason for coming into being and no particular meaning. And for a writer, this is the polar opposite of what I want to write and why I want to write it. Every word ought to have meaning; every word ought to be in place for a reason.

Even for those of us who are not writers, what we say and do ought to have a lasting value. Obviously, we won't hit the mark every time; sometime we may make a careless remark or something that's empty of value (and often, of civility). But as a general tendency, we should be weighted towards value and meaning.

The opposite has happened, however. The tendency is less towards meaning and more towards “randomness”. What we have failed to realize is that, just as bad money drives good money out of circulation, empty words can drive meaningful words out of circulation. Randomness can become something other than a diversion, and meaning will become the diversion. Instead of a comment about cats in a conversation on good stories, we will have a comment on good stories in a conversation about cats.

Having said my piece, let me temper it. Like most things, randomness is not inherently bad or good in itself. Yes, holding randomness up on a pedestal is a mistake; but so is looking down on randomness as something that corrupts and corrodes meaningful conversations. It is what you do with it that makes it either desirable and undesirable.

And there are parts of randomness that are undesirable. Randomness for the sake of randomness is a nearly always problem. It creates a philosophy of chaos and unmeaning. To be completely random is to throw away all rules and all meaning.

There are, however, two sides to everything. There is a sort of randomness that I stand by and defend from all comers, and I will address it in my next post.

Until then, what do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? What's your opinion on “randomness”?