The War to End all Wars (not), and the “situation” at Penn State

This is one of those posts that might belong over on Quod Sumus, except that that doesn’t yet have the readership that Venti Belli does, and I’d rather not speak these things into empty air. Apologies in advance for what is probably a pretty rambling collection of thoughts…

It occurred to me on Saturday morning that I hadn’t posted anything regarding Veterans’ Day on the day itself, at the which I feel really bad for the error.  In partial redress, I would draw your attention to the archives pages for World War I records in the United Kingdom, and events to honor our veterans at the National Archives. Today’s document concerns the five Sullivan Brothers, who perished together when their cruiser was sunk in the Pacific in 1942.  You might also find the Veterans History Project pages of interest.

Regarding World War I as the origins of Veterans Day: one of my friends posted this quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions the other day, and I have to say it’s thought-provoking:

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.

And the other thing that’s weighed on my mind a  good deal is the horrible story of Penn State, a school for which I’ve always had a lot of affection, and for whose former coach my whole family used to have much admiration.  That’s gone, suffice it to say.  I think The Daily Show once again got it right, excoriating the riots against Paterno’s firing.   And there were a couple columns in The Washington Post that deserve to be read and pondered. One, by Thomas L. Day, calls into question an entire generation’s leadership (or lack of it), and how the scandal has affected him as “an Iraq war veteran, a Penn State graduate, a Catholic, a native of State College, acquaintance of Jerry Sandusky’s, and a product of his Second Mile foundation.”  A very wide-ranging thought piece.  The other, by Father James Martin, SJ, examines the spiritual and psychological profiles and dynamics that allow behavior like this to develop, escape detection, and resist termination.   Both articles are food for thought, as yet another institution and public figure who trumpeted ethics and values comes crashing down.

From my own spiritual perspective, Father Martin’s column highlights the Church’s long-held teaching that pride is the first of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Ultimately, pride, an inflated sense of one’s own importance and therefore immunity, is at the root of most sin, and it is often expressed by a desire for gratification–in anything really, be it news, knowledge, fitness, relationships, learning languages, etc.  The pace of modern society, and its emphasis on fast communications, has been promoting a culture of gratification for some time (though the horrible abuses in the Church come from well before this communications revolution).  That is why humbling oneself and fighting against pride and narcissism is the greatest, and constant, struggle of life, I think. With being better informed than anyone else, the Penn State story might show one horrible version of what happens when that is forgotten.  When righteousness is equated to the preservation of one’s personal and institutional image.

But, to continue the train of thought sparked by Father Martin’s column, the story of pride needn’t be that horrible, depraved, or dramatic; we all deal daily with forgetting to fight against pride and narcissism.  And we deal (or we should deal…) with the pain we cause by forgetting to think of others first.  Some of the greatest hurt and harm I have suffered in life has come from people who have thought only of themselves, of their need for validation and admiration, regardless of what damage and destruction it wreaks on those they profess to love (and even more on people they don’t know well).  And for my own part, I have caused pain and anxiety to those I love by focusing on myself, rather than on others, forgetting that others have suffered as much or more than I have; forgetting that each person deserves respect for their own struggles. Forgetting that, while love often becomes the epitome of narcissism, true love finds happiness in the object’s happiness, not its own satisfaction.  Such prideful behavior must be broken.

Without such pride-less love, how would anyone sacrifice for another’s happiness, let alone lay down their lives for someone else? Perhaps that is the link between this past Veterans Day and the Penn State scandal. We have been celebrating the service and sacrifice of those who, at some level, adhere to our ideals of the negation of pride and the ultimate fulfillment of love.  And have had to witness the downfall of icons who seem to have forgotten those very points.

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