Doing Good, ‘Slowly, Gently, Little by Little’

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Four years ago today, Pope Francis was elected to serve as the 266th Pope. So far he has proven to be one of the most popular and inspirational people to hold that sacred post.

Just a few weeks after ascending to the Papacy, Pope Francis said at Mass:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!” But do good: we will meet one another there.

do good
Sound advice, here. (Image: “do good,” by potential past, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I love all of that, from the principle that the redeeming work of Christ was sufficient to redeem everyone — even those who don’t accept it — to the point that we can make the world better and more peaceful the more we (as Scripture says) persist in doing good.

I hope this week that we all make the most of any opportunities we have to do good! And as always I wish you and yours the very best.

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Cyrano de Bergerac, Science Fiction Author

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

That title is not a joke.

Before we get to it, let me admit my ignorance: I did not know, until I started looking for this week’s quote, that Cyrano de Bergerac — the real-life de Bergerac — was one of the earliest science fiction authors.

Today is Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac’s birthday (6 March 1619 – 28 July 1655), and it turns out he was not just a character in a story who helped his friend woo the woman he really loved. That was made up by Edmond Rostand, whereas in real life de Bergerac was a French soldier, a playwright, and — as it turns out — a science fiction novelist.

He actually wrote two science fiction novels, both of which were published posthumously: L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (The Other World: or the States and Empires of the Moon, 1657), and Les États et Empires du Soleil (The States and Empires of the Sun, 1662). The first was published as the “Comical History” of the States and Empires of the Moon, thanks to being renamed by Henry Le Bret, de Bergerac’s friend, who also excised material he considered objectionable.

But let’s get to the quotes….

This bit in L’Autre Monde may come across as comical to us, until we consider that de Bergerac wrote it over 300 years before the Apollo program made the Moon’s nature more familiar to more people:

“I think the Moon is a world like this one, and the Earth is its moon.”

My friends greeted this with a burst of laughter. “And maybe,” I told them, “someone on the Moon is even now making fun of someone else who says that our globe is a world.”

I read some foreshadowing of H.G. Wells in there, as I think of how The War of the Worlds opens. We know so much now about our Solar system that we did not know then. (And as one whose forthcoming debut novel concerns the early days of a lunar colony, I confess a bit of jealousy: it might have made my own writing easier if I hadn’t had to try so hard to make the fiction part live up to some real science.)

But de Bergerac did not limit his imagination just to the Moon. Consider that he wrote this in the 1650s:

I think the planets are worlds revolving around the sun and that the fixed stars are also suns that have planets revolving around them. We can’t see those worlds from here because they are so small and because the light they reflect cannot reach us. How can one honestly think that such spacious globes are only large, deserted fields? And that our world was made to lord it over all of them just because a dozen or so vain wretches like us happen to be crawling around on it? Do people really think that because the sun gives us light every day and year, it was made only to keep us from bumping into walls? No, no, this visible god gives light to man by accident, as a king’s torch accidentally shines upon a working man or burglar passing in the street.


A representation of the Copernican model of the Solar System. (Image: “Harmonia macrocosmica …,” by Andreas Cellarius, 1661, from Wikimedia Commons.)

What would de Bergerac have made of our efforts to peer into the depths of space, by which we have found dozens of exoplanets — planets orbiting distant stars? I think he would be pleased, and perhaps a little disappointed that we had not yet found ways to reach them.

I think de Bergerac’s literary achievement is all the more impressive when we put him and his novels in relation to other science and literary luminaries:

  • Copernicus (1473-1543): formulated the heliocentric view of the Solar system
  • Galileo (1564-1642): confirmed by observation the Copernican view
  • Johannes Kepler (1571-1630): in addition to formulating the laws of orbital mechanics, also wrote in 1608 what some consider the very first work of science fiction, Somnium (The Dream), published in 1634
  • Francis Godwin (1562-1633): Anglican bishop, wrote The Man in the Moone, published in 1638
  • de Bergerac (1619-1655): The Other World: or the States and Empires of the Moon, 1657; and The States and Empires of the Sun, 1662
  • Voltaire (1694-1778): in addition to his philosophical works, wrote a short story about an alien visitor to the Earth, Micromégas, 1752
  • Mary Shelley (1797-1851): Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818
  • Jules Verne (1828-1905): From the Earth to the Moon, 1865

I had been under the impression that Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel, and had no idea that so many authors had explored the notion of space travel two centuries before Verne’s classic was published. Maybe you knew all that, and knew that Cyrano de Bergerac was more than just a character in a story. I’m glad I know it now, and probably shouldn’t have been surprised to learn just how far back science fiction started — just as authors today extrapolate from the findings of current science, why shouldn’t authors have done so 350 years ago?

My dad is fond of saying, “Learn something new every day.” Maybe this can qualify as your “something new” for today. But even if it doesn’t, I hope you learn something new today, and all this week!

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Ideas as Rabbits, Writing as Horse-Racing?

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is John Steinbeck’s birthday (27 February 1902 – 20 December 1968). Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, and wrote classics such as Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and The Grapes of Wrath (which won the Pulitzer Prize). As you might expect, Steinbeck had a few things to say about writing.

In the April 1947 issue of Cosmopolitan, for instance, Steinbeck said,

Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.

The trick, of course, is to turn the ideas into fully-formed stories and books. It’s not always easy, and it’s not the most predictable line of work, as Steinbeck observed in a December 1962 issue of Newsweek,

The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business.

That’s why so many of us ply other trades to support our writing habits. But we persist (as I pointed out last week), whether we consider it art or craft or simply obsession. But how can we persist long enough to create something worthwhile? In June 1969, Steinbeck told The New York Times,

The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.

Certainly the prolific writers I know prove that writing is the most important thing in their worlds — and I suspect one reason why my output is not what it could (or possibly should) be is that I don’t think of my own writing as all that important, and am too quick to prioritize other things over it.

Horse Racing
How does writing compare to horse racing? (Image: “Horse Racing,” by Peter Miller, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

But before this blog post devolves into self-recrimination, how about something completely different?

Given our current political environment, it seems important to close with something Steinbeck wrote in one of the essays in the last book he published, 1966’s America and Americans.

The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce them for things that we ourselves do every day. A Presidential slip of the tongue, a slight error in judgment — social, political, or ethical — can raise a storm of protest. We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.

Thus it has ever been. So even if writing is less stable than horse-racing, maybe it’s not so bad after all.

(But I still think I’d make a good President.)

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Writing is a Risk

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is author Richard Matheson’s birthday (20 February 1926 – 23 June 2013), but the quote I’m going to focus on doesn’t come from any of his famous works. Matheson is probably best known as the author of the vampire novel I Am Legend, which not only made it onto the big screen itself but was the inspiration for one of the most iconic zombie movies of all time, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In addition, Matheson wrote for movies and television, where one of his leading works was the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”

In 1994, Matheson was interviewed in The New York Times, in which he said:

Life is a risk; so is writing. You have to love it.

The “life is a risk” part is pretty straightforward. Life is risky, and it’s important to acknowledge that, perhaps especially in this day of legislative and regulatory efforts to eliminate the riskiness of our day-to-day existence.

But how is writing a risk?

Risky?
It’s dangerous out there…. (Image: “Risky?,” by Pig Monkey, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

In the abstract, writing is not risky in terms of danger to life or limb. Not all risk is physical. A case could be made that writing itself, the act of writing, is no risk at all; but those who have faced persecution over things they wrote would surely disagree.

For most of us, the risk is not so dire. When we write, we privately face the uncertainty of whether our words will be adequate to express the fullness of our thoughts, and uncertainty is part of risk.

The risk increases when we dare release what we’ve written into the world. Whether we’ve posted something for free on a message board or blog, or offered something for sale in some way, we run the risks of being rejected, being misunderstood, perhaps even being vilified for the thoughts we’ve articulated and the way we’ve stated them.

So we may not usually face bodily risk, but if our thoughts are personal to us, meaningful to us, the risk we perceive is real even though not tangible.

Yet we persist. Possibly we do so because we believe in what we’ve said; possibly because we think whatever reward we might receive is worth the risk of failure; possibly because we’re driven to do it for reasons we can’t articulate. But doing it out of love makes it easier to persist for very long.

Sometimes I wonder if I love it enough.

___
P.S. It’s good for those of us who write to concede that reading is also a risk. Feel like taking a small risk? As I’ve said before, Quality Education won’t magically transform your life, but I’m confident you can find some worth in it.

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Don’t Expect Instant Transformation

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. James “Jim” Belasco speak at a conference. Belasco is known for his entertaining and insightful books on business and management, such as Teaching the Elephant to Dance and Flight of the Buffalo. He gave an entertaining talk, or so I recall after looking at my notes over the weekend. I particularly liked this quote I wrote down:

Unfortunately, reading my book … will not result in instant transformation.

I can relate to that.

Open Book Series
What will you get out of a book? (Image: “Open Book Series,” by Kristin Bradley, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

That resonates with me because it’s certainly true of Quality Education, the book I revised and released last year. Reading it will not magically transform your life or your thinking, nor will it automatically revitalize any school system — but I’m confident you can find some good things in it.

It will be equally true of the novel I have coming out in a few months, Walking on the Sea of Clouds. It’s a pretty good book, I think — not perfect, not close to being “great” as such things are reckoned, but good enough for what it is. If near-future science fiction is your thing, you’ll find some things to like in it.

I suspect what Dr. Belasco said rings true for a lot of my writer friends. We do what we do and what we can, and put what we’ve done out in the market for you to consider. We hope you’ll like what we have to offer.

But for me, it’s important that you don’t expect too much. Don’t look to me for something that will change your life or revolutionize your world: you’ll be sorely disappointed. All I try to provide is good words, be they stories or songs or whatever: not great words, not matchless words, but good words — for good people, like you.

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Up or Down

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is President Ronald Reagan’s birthday (6 February 1911 – 5 June 2004). Before serving as President, Reagan served as Governor of California; and before he was Governor, he delivered a speech called “A Time for Choosing” that thrust him into the political spotlight.

This section of the speech seems to relate as much or more to us today as it did to his audience then:

You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down — up to man’s age-old dream; the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order — or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.

I like that a lot. Not left or right, not progressive or conservative, but up or down.

Arrows up down
Which direction shall we go?. (Image: “Arrows up down,” by Counse, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

Reagan gave that speech on 27 October 1964. I don’t know if my parents watched it on television; I certainly don’t remember, since I was just over four months old at the time. But it resonates with me, and I remain committed to moving “up” — toward greater freedom within the bounds of the law, rather than down toward more constraints on our lives.

Who’s with me?

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Feeding Upon Corruption

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Given the response to the first full week of our new Presidency, it seemed fitting to share one of my favorite quotes about our tendency — and here I use the royal “our” when in particular I am thinking of the media and of political pundits — to think the worst of those we dislike or with whom we disagree, and to give voice to the worst of our thoughts.

This week’s quote comes from the Occasional Meditations of English churchman Joseph Hall, specifically number 31, under the title “Upon the Flies Gathering to a Galled Horse.” The language may be a bit difficult (it was published in 1630, after all), but it will reward a close reading:

How these flies swarm to the galled part of this poor beast; and there sit, feeding upon that worst piece of his flesh, not meddling with the other sound parts of his skin!

Even thus do malicious tongues of detractors: if a man have any infirmity in his person or actions, that they will be sure to gather unto, and dwell upon; whereas, his commendable parts and well-deservings are passed by, without mention, without regard. It is an envious self-love and base cruelty, that causeth this ill disposition in men: in the mean time, this only they have gained; it must needs be a filthy creature, that feeds upon nothing but corruption.

Horse Fly
“It must needs be a filthy creature ….” (Image: “Horse Fly,” by Jonathan Bliss, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

Does that not describe our sensationalist media? Does it not often describe many of the rest of us, as well?

Do we not, from time to time, gather at the metaphorical wounded flesh of an opponent, feast upon the blood and fill our bellies with the gore? Is it not both self-serving and cruel for us to do so? Does it not say something about us that we focus our attention not on that which is admirable, but on that which is tainted? Yet of course we do so with only the best of intentions, or so we tell ourselves, forgetting where good intentions leave us.

This week, even when it comes to people with whom I disagree, I think I’ll try to find things I can commend more than condemn. You’re welcome to try the same.

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Monday Morning Insight: Are You a Friend to Government?

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is John Hancock’s birthday, at least according to the “New Style” calendar — the Gregorian calendar, which became the legal calendar in Britain and the colonies in the mid-1700s. But whether the day he was born is considered the 23rd or the 12th of January 1737, he was certainly a patriot and a statesman, and served as Governor of Massachusetts (twice) and president of the Second Continental Congress.

On the fourth anniversary of the Boston Massacre — on 5 March 1774 — Hancock delivered a speech in Boston in which he said,

Some boast of being friends to government; I am a friend to righteous government, to a government founded upon the principles of reason and justice; but I glory in publicly avowing my eternal enmity to tyranny.

That quote seems appropriate for our present day and our present government, especially given the inauguration of a new President this past Friday and the widespread protests the day after.

Were you a friend to our government, until this past Friday? Or, conversely, did you only become a friend to our government this past Friday?

In other words, were you consistent in your support of our government until a President of whom you disapproved was elected and inaugurated? Or were you consistent in your opposition to our government until the country elected and inaugurated a President of whom you approved?

How you answer the question may tell us more about you than it does about our government.

Because neither before nor after this past Friday has our government been totalitarian, nor has it disavowed the principles of reason and justice upon which it is founded. Yes, we may support or oppose some policies and programs for which our tax dollars pay, and in turn may wish such policies or programs to continue or to cease. Yes, our government’s standard of justice may shift or be unevenly applied. Yes, government levies some requirements on us, and more or fewer requirements on others. But that is the nature of limited, imperfect governmental action, and it does not make such actions tyrannical.

Broad Stripes & Bright Stars
How well do the lights of our government shine? (Image: “Broad Stripes & Bright Stars,” by Jason Samfield, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

I, for one, agree with Hancock: “I am a friend to righteous government, to a government founded upon the principles of reason and justice,” and so long as our government remains so I will be pleased to support it. With Hancock, however, “I glory in publicly avowing my eternal enmity to tyranny,” no matter what political persuasion the President happens to be — but I will not let fears and phantasms of despotism cloud my mind, and cause me to see tyranny where it does not exist.

We are still the land of the free, and I wish you peace in pursuing your freedom.

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Monday Morning Insight: 230 Years of Religious Freedom

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

On this date in 1786, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” into law. Thomas Jefferson had drafted the statute in 1777, and it was first introduced in the assembly in 1779. Jefferson considered the statute so important that he asked for it to be included as one of three accomplishments listed on his tombstone, along with the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia.

I love the way it begins:

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free

Indeed, and God wants us to use our minds well! There’s a reason the prophet Isaiah says, “Come, let us reason together.”

Religious Freedom
Detail on a monument to Thomas Jefferson in Louisville, Kentucky. (Image: “Religious Freedom,” by Don Sniegowski, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

The statute declares that punishments or burdens enacted to try to influence people’s thinking

tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do

“Hypocrisy and meanness.” Lord knows that often we cannot help but be hypocritical, but I pray God will forgive us if we persist in it and if our religious practice is either unkind or shabby.

As someone who believes that science and faith agree more than they disagree, I find this clause amusing:

… our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry

And given the unfortunate antagonism we face from time to time, no matter which side of whatever divide we find ourselves upon, this part is encouraging:

And finally, … Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, … she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict

Unless we disarm Truth by restricting “her natural weapons, free argument and debate.” Let’s try not to do that, shall we?

And, finally, the act declared that

… all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and … the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

Religious freedom: It’s a marvelous thing. I hope you have opportunity to practice yours this week.

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Monday Morning Insight: Robot Overlords, and Hope

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

Today marks a lot of birthdays of people I might have quoted — guitarist Jimmy Page (1944), singer-songwriter Joan Baez (1941), author Stuart Woods (1938), actor Bob Denver (1935), football player Bart Starr (1934), President Richard Nixon (1913) — and particularly science fiction luminary Algis Budrys (1931). But as I thought about it I decided I’d like to quote a different science fiction luminary.

Czech author and playwright Karel Čapek was born on this date in 1890, and he is best known as the author of the 1920 play R.U.R. R.U.R. stands for “Rossum’s Universal Robots” — in Czech, “Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti” — which, in addition to marking the first use of the word “robot,” became the pathfinder for every story that postulated the eventual subjugation of the human race by our robot overlords.

Anyway, in Act Two of the play, after the head of Rossum’s and one of the robots state that they “only meant it for the best” — a familiar refrain! — two of the top robot builders combine to observe that

… mankind will remain. In twenty years’ time the world will belong to them once more; even if there’s nothing more than a few savages on a tiny island … that will be a beginning. And any beginning is better than nothing. In a thousand years they’ll have caught up with us again, and then go on further than we ever did … and fulfil the dreams we’ve only ever talked about.

Without spoiling the R.U.R. story, I find that to be a very hopeful message to hang on to for whatever difficulties we may face. “Mankind will remain…. and any beginning is better than nothing.”

Robots

(“Robots,” by Bart Heird, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

 

While we’re at it, I also think this quote from Čapek’s 1922 novel The Absolute at Large is pretty funny:

You can have a revolution wherever you like, except in a government office; even were the world to come to an end, you’d have to destroy the universe first and then government offices.

I think almost anyone who has worked in a government office can relate to that. But never fear, “Mankind will remain…. and any beginning is better than nothing”!

Have a great week!

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