I had an email a few weeks ago that I’d won a writing contest I entered through the Atlanta Writing Club, the Terry Kay prize for fiction. I stayed mum about it for a bit, just in case it was all a big misunderstanding, but I got a tangible recognition for it, so it must be true.
I better quickly add something so as to beat you to the joke. Yes, it’s typical to follow up one’s formal name with a nickname in quotes, but in this instance “Stink” is the name of the short story that won, not my nickname. So stop laughing this instant.
The presenter of the award read off a judge’s comments for the winner in each of the three categories. For my story, the judge commented that, among other things, “the weirdness is delivered with deadpan calm.” As my daughter helpfully pointed out, this phrase could also serve as the motto, anthem, and raison d’etre of my whole life.
The story (“Stink”) is supposed to be published in an upcoming edition of The New Southern Fugitives e-zine.
A little late but better late than never, I read a memoir much-talked-about a couple of years ago, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I read a bunch of reviews and commentaries on it right after it came out. Most of them expressed the idea that there was this whole overlooked racially-identified group that was failing and so we need more Programs or something.
Having now read the book for myself, I don’t see it that way at all. Whatever the author meant by it, I just saw pathetic personal dysfunction proliferating intergenerationally in part by faulty assumptions about reality. There’s nothing new here. It’s the same age-old human story of frailty and failure, except this time the perpetrators and victims are white.
I’ve read a lot of that sort of thing, usually in the context of black family disintegration and self-defeat. Now, having read this one about failing whites, I better see all the commentary as a huge missing-the-point endeavor into what “we” need to do about it. The fix starts with individuals gaining strength so as to flourish in life and pass along habits of abundant living to the next generation. An individual person must subjectively nurture the conscience and live according to its best dictates, and everything flows from that. No amount of collective programs is going to change that, nor develop into the personal commitment that is needed. In fact, they’re counter-productive, imho.
Productive personal commitment starts with a recognition that God is real and He cares what we do and there is something more beyond this life. We’re all part of a grand story. Human flourishing starts with individual motivation and we don’t acquire that motivation by bootstrapping. You know the word “bootstrapping?” It’s used in legal writing a lot. Imagine you’re wearing boots with straps. You want to lift yourself up in the air, so you bend over and pull up on your bootstraps. Maybe you tried this when you were little, I admit I did. Of course it doesn’t work, there are some basic physics involved whereby forces cancel each other out. I don’t just decide to do right and positively impact others so that they do right, too. There has to be a reason for my doing so. And not just an explanation for striving, but a reason to even see human flourishing for what it is, and dissipation and failure for what they are.
In the present age, we have the ability to see, if dimly, the ideals and the degree to which we miss the mark, but even that ability is slipping. We look horizontally, rather than vertically, you might say. We look horizontally to what the collective says is right instead of vertically, to what God says. It’s of course a bad thing if we choose darkness over light. But it’s worse if we can’t even distinguish dark from light. If we recognize darkness but choose it anyway, we’re still recognizably Image-bearing humans, even if we’re far off course from where our Creator would have us be. But if we are unable to discern light from dark, we may call good “evil” and evil “good.”
We can see exactly that happening. We were warned about it, for example in Isaiah 5, long ago.