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December 3, 2008

The Shock of Recognition

The effect of the fog of war on a commander is well known. It separates him from events on the battlefield. Communication is lost or garbled, confusion reigns, and misunderstanding leads to catastrophe.

The effect of the fog of news may be less well known, but it can be just as misleading. I know. Absorbed in the endless news cycle, dazed by data, vision blurs and we cannot see the gathering signs of catastrophe all around.

Yet now and then the fog parts, and we catch a glimpse not only into current events but into ourselves. And it is frightening. Such was the effect of a story in last week’s news that had to horrify readers across the country, if only for a moment before we began our holiday shopping.

The story described a crowd so eager to rush into a Wal-Mart on Long Island at 5 in the morning on Black Friday that it broke down the doors and trampled an employee to death. And then stepped right over the body to get into the store, running over other employees trying to help the downed man, and anybody else in its way, including a 28-year-old pregnant woman. The shoppers could not be bothered; they had important things to do. Like pick up a bargain.

There is a message here, a sign. About ourselves. For how many times have we mindlessly rushed through a day, pushing others aside to reaching for things that in the end are only trinkets? Like a driver risking life, limb and sanity by tearing down the highway to save a few minutes to waste later.

This story about a crowd at a Wal-Mart lifts the fog of news, and for once we see modern man, we see ourselves, clearly. They say the root of the religious impulse in man is an awareness, sudden or gradual, that something is missing in us, that we are broken, no longer whole, and desperate to be restored, to be healed by a power or grace greater than our own.

That’s the story and it may be the moral of The Fall, if anyone is allowed to take it seriously in this age of the therapeutic. And we forget it at our soul’s peril.

There are still such moments when an awareness of the human condition dawns, but they’re rare. As Walker Percy noted years ago, whether anyone was listening or not, “most of the denizens of the present age are too intoxicated by the theories and goods of the age to be aware of the catastrophe already upon us.”

But now and then our attention is caught by a dispatch from the hell within each of us. We may tell ourselves this is a story about the behavior of others, and certainly not about the absence of a moral consciousness in ourselves. But it won’t go away.

The “big” news in the paper is about the financial Crisis, Meltdown, Panic, or whatever the term du jour is. While the real crisis goes unnoticed, or is dismissed as an aberration, rather than recognized as a symptom of what truly ails us, and it isn’t economic or anything else material.

For one day a news story surfaces somewhere among the ads and catches our attention despite ourselves. And we are arrested in our mad dash to nowhere. At least for a moment.

That’s when the old prayer and confession comes back: We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.

Does that last, telling phrase even appear in the Book of Common Prayer any more? Wasn’t it airbrushed away about 1979 in the spirit of a spiritless age, and replaced by the prose equivalent of a happy face? Drunk with the theories and goods of the age, we rush on through the catastrophe, trampling over even our selves.


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