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Monday, June 24, 2019

Mortality and Faith by David Horowitz. Book Review

Mortality and Faith
An American Icon Wrestles with Life's Big Questions

David Horowitz's 2019 Regnery Press book, Mortality and Faith: Reflections on a Journey through Time, is a big, chewy chomp into life's big, hard questions. Why are you here? What is "here" anyway? What happens after we die? How does death affect life? How does one find love, and what impact does love have on life? How do we survive the loss of those we love – those we lose to changing life circumstance, and those we lose to death? What role do fate, human will, or mere chance play in our lives? How to juggle being a member of the species that can land on the moon, while inhabiting a human body that can be reduced to helplessness when a blade, wielded by a surgeon in efforts to heal, cuts just one micrometer too far? And what about the whole God thing? And, related, but not identical, the whole religion thing? What have the great thinkers said about these questions?

Mortality and Faith is a series of vignettes. The reader travels through Proust's thoughts about love – Proust was "often attracted to people who had something in them of a hawthorn hedge in bloom." The reader moves on to Horowitz kvelling about his kids, to graphic, cringe-inducing details of prostate surgery, to even more cringe-inducing portraits of human cruelty to the most defenseless among us, animals and children. What do these diverse topics have in common? More on that below. Each vignette is recounted in Horowitz's cool, clear, precise prose. Horowitz is an intelligent author who writes with the assumption that his reader is as intelligent and deep as he. This book offers no promises that life's big questions can be reduced to cozy nostrums; no ten-step program to enlightenment, no secret Biblical verse that guarantees prosperity, no happy, Hollywood ending.

There are several audiences to whom I would like to assign this book. We tend not to talk about death as frequently as our recent ancestors, for whom the deaths of children and spouses were all too frequent and occurred at home and in full view. It astounds me when I meet people who have lived for decades without mourning a death. Horowitz marches right up to the Grim Reaper and stares deeply into its cold eyes. "Year by year, the skin parches, the sinews slacken, and the bones go brittle, until one day the process stops, and we are gone."

Sharing Horowitz's encounters inevitably prompts the reader to reflect on the deaths of her own loved ones, and her own inevitable sell-by date. I've lost two siblings in the past four years and four siblings in all. There is scant space in our culture for what those losses did to me. America is so focused on the future, on success, on happiness or at least consumer satisfaction. Reading this book caused me to cry, several times, and had I not read the book, I would have had no place else to shed those tears.

I would also like to assign Mortality and Faith both to hardcore liberals and conservatives who resist communicating with their ideological opposites. David Horowitz is a favorite boogeyman of the left. The Southern Poverty Law Center devotes almost four thousand words to a main page maligning him; in August, 2018, Visa and Mastercard temporarily blocked donations to the David Horowitz Freedom Center. In 2019, Twitter temporarily suspended him. "Horowitz has no friends left," Tablet magazine declared in 2012. Horowitz wrote in his 1996 book Radical Son that he was "the most hated ex-radical of my generation." In this book, Horowitz writes, "An army of haters is eager to distort my words and my life and do me damage whenever and wherever they can." His wife fears that someone may attempt to assassinate him. In my days as a leftist in Berkeley, Horowitz was spoken of in the grave tones that pre-pubescent wizards usually reserve for discussions of Voldemort. If George Bush was in the first circle of Hell, Horowitz, as an apostate, was way down below Ronald Reagan himself.

I don't know if Horowitz would appreciate my saying this or not, but Mortality and Faith is not a right-wing book. It's not a left-wing book. It's a highly human, vulnerable, searching book. How many men would be willing to describe in detail cancer and medical interventions that strike at a man's ability to get an erection, or to be continent? There are more things that unite us than separate us. Members of all political camps have families, fall in love, suffer setbacks, and confront mortality. "None of us are outsiders," Horowitz insists. "We are all headed in the same direction." Strangely enough, in a 2017 New York Times article, author Daniel Oppenheimer said, "We're all David Horowitz now." Alas, Oppenheimer did not mean this in a complementary or philosophical way. "We're all amateur political pundits, and we're all less willing to compromise," Oppenheimer concluded. I don't know about that, but I like the beginning of the quote, and it works for Mortality and Faith. Death serves the admirable end of reminding us that, in spite of our differences, we, like Ozymandias, all face the same ultimate fate. A right-winger, left-winger, or middle-of-the-roader could be moved by Mortality and Faith.

"It's all a waste," Tablet quotes David Horowitz as saying in 2012. Indeed, Horowitz opens his book with perhaps the darkest quote from Franz Kafka, one of world literature's least cheery authors, whose main characters turn into cockroaches and, though innocent, face endless trials. "The meaning of life is that it stops," Kafka wrote. The very next quote in Mortality and Faith is from Ecclesiastes, one of history's biggest buzzkills. Horowitz doesn't go with the famous, "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity … and a striving after wind." Rather he quotes, "It is better to go to the house of mourning than of feasting, for that is the end of all." You may not find yourself singing the 1977 Kansas hit "Dust in the Wind" while reading this book, but I sure did.

Chapter one of Mortality and Faith begins with Phil Horowitz, David Horowitz's father. One of the strongest emotions I felt while reading this book was sadness for this father-son relationship. Horowitz fils depicts Horowitz pere as trapped in the wishful illusions and false utopian promises of communism. It's as if an impenetrable yet transparent wall separates father and son. The son can witness his father, lost in toxic dreams, but the son can never rescue him. Any child of a parent who invested in self-defeating patterns, for example drug addiction, might relate. The urge to smash through the impenetrable wall and rescue the parent is palpable, but of course Phil did not believe that he required rescue. Rather, he thought he was the one who would bring Messiah-like rescue to others. "All our days together I wrestled with my father's discontent and tried as best I could to overcome it." That victory would never be enjoyed by David. His father "clung to defeats like an infant to its mother's breast." Phil's death offered David no deliverance. "On crystal days" that might allow a sense of joyful abandon, "the face I had both loved and feared [would] approach on the ether of memory … an impulse to please would swell like an ocean wave inside me, and I would look out on the roll of dolphins and pelicans, and welcome my lost father to a luxury neither of us could ever have imagined would be ours." But even in imagination, Phil could not be redeemed. Even in spirit, Horowitz can "map the frown" of his father's rejection. "There was never a chance he would accept my gift or enjoy its pleasures … In my father's house there were no mansions." Here Horowitz alludes to Jesus' promise to his followers that they will receive a reward in Heaven. This is one of many instances where messianic communism and other earthbound ideologies are juxtaposed with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Horowitz travels from communing with his deceased parents' via their possibly imagined spirits to communing with prominent thinkers, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky, twentieth-century Chicago author and Nobel Prize-winner Saul Bellow, and the seventeenth-century French Catholic mathematician, physicist and inventor Blaise Pascal. I stopped frequently while reading Mortality and Faith to place orders for books mentioned therein, including Martin Amis's Koba the Dread, about Stalin.

Luminaries like Pascal – and he was hardly alone in this – were equally prominent as scientists and as believers, thus making a mockery of New Atheist dogma that science and Christian faith are mutually exclusive. Indeed, Horowitz points out that "the architects of the scientific enlightenment – Copernicus, Pascal, and Newton – were all religious believers. It was precisely their faith in a supernatural design that inspired them to search for an order in the cosmos." Pascal was brilliant, devout, and also wracked by horrible pain. "Do not pity me," his sister, after his death, quoted him as saying. "I know the perils of health and the advantages of sickness. Sickness is the natural state of Christians, because then one is as one ought to be, always under the privation of the pleasures of the senses, exempt from all the passions, without ambition, without avarice, in constant expectation of death … you have nothing else to do but to submit humbly and peacefully." One wonders, if Pascal really said this, if he was just trying to see the best in his difficult fate. Or maybe his sister was on to something. Pascal was lucky enough to be born into a family that rubbed shoulders with the likes of Cardinal Richelieu, one of the most powerful men in French history. And Pascal came to devote his life to the poor. Something – perhaps his own suffering – engendered in him a self-denying empathy. He died when he was just 39 years old. One guess is that he had stomach cancer that metastasized to his brain.

Pascal contributed to mathematics, the driest of the sciences, but he was also a mystic, who experienced a vision of God. He wrote in defense of the scientific method, preceding Karl Popper's "falsifiability" criterion by three hundred years, and he also wrote the Pensées, a defense of Christian faith. Historian Will Durant called the Pensées "the most eloquent book in French prose." Pascal was no mere theorist of the good. "I am resolved to have no other employment all my life than service of the poor," he said. He took in a poor family, who, alas, brought smallpox into his house. Though he was gravely ill himself, he told the family to stay and he tried to move out of his own home, to protect them.

Jane Muir, author of Of Men and Numbers: The Story of the Great Mathematicians, makes an astounding comment about Pascal. "If he had devoted more time than the few years that he did to mathematics and less to religion, he might stand out today among the truly great. He was well on his way to inventing the infinitesimal calculus and he probably would have if he had not had 'his eyes obscured by some evil sight' as Leibnitz later said." One sometimes encounters, among science writers, this kind of dismissive blindness to the value of Christian charity work and to exploration of humanity's spiritual horizons.

Horowitz recognizes Pascal as "one of the great poets of the human soul." Pascal gave the world "Pascal's wager," a cool calculation that encourages humans to believe in God; they lose nothing by doing so, and gain much. But he also gave the world "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point." "The heart has its reasons which reason does not know." In other words, even so impressive a mathematician as Pascal cannot run the numbers with enough skill to compel any given agnostic, including David Horowitz, to faith in the God Pascal encountered, and whom he described as "Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars."

When Horowitz was facing daunting surgery, thirty congregants of St. John Vianney Catholic church prayed for him. After Horowitz came out of the surgery well, he wrote that he wouldn't like to think that their prayers were responsible for his good fortune. There was a young woman at the hospital who "didn't come in from the parking lot where her husband might be waiting for her." Rather, she arrived in a wheelchair pushed by her mother, from the interior of the hospital. "Her eyes had already traveled to a distant space … I could not help thinking, each time I saw her, of the many lives I had been privileged to live in my span, and those she would not." The question Horowitz raises is, if God does answer prayer, why does God answer some prayer and not others.

If Horowitz had asked me, I would have suggested to him that he and his prayer warriors pray for that girl, and let her know that they are doing so. True, such prayer would guarantee no earthly outcome. Nevertheless, we are advised to pray, and to pray together. Even Jesus, facing a horrific fate he knew he would not escape, asked his companions to pray with him in Gethsemane. One message here is that we must pray even when all is lost, and that we don't always know prayer's ultimate benefit.

"Love death." Horowitz reports that 9-11 ringleader Mohammad Atta copied this instruction from Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, into his own journal. Formulations like "love death" were there at Islam's founding. Mohammed's friend Khalid ibn al-Walid was known as "The Friend of Death." Khalid used to threaten non-Muslims, "I bring the men who desire death as ardently as you desire life." Sounds morbid, no? But are these rhetorical flourishes any more morbid than Pascal's praise of sickness? Qutb's "love death" was used to inspire men to murder. Pascal's appreciation of the uses of adversity inspired him to take in a homeless family.

Horowitz differentiates between Christianity, whose founder acknowledged that his kingdom was not of this world, and who adjured his followers to "render unto Cesar what is Cesar's" and Islam. Qutb said that Islam would "unite heaven and earth in a single system." "This is the totalitarian idea," Horowitz says.

Then there is the atheist totalitarian ideal, Marxism. "Human beings could achieve their liberation by worshipping themselves instead of gods. This was a flattery so great that it changed the world, leaving boundless carnage in its wake," Horowitz writes. In both the case of Islam and Marxism, an enemy must be identified, and the elimination of members of that enemy class is assessed as a moral good, since the enemy is understood as the expendable barrier between mankind and Utopia. Horowitz quotes Marx, "The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness." Note the use of the passive voice: "is required." The passive here makes it sound as if some disembodied arbiter of truth lays down the requirement that religion be abolished. But of course it is Marxists themselves who require this.

Compare Marx's anti-religion mandate to Mohammed's divine commission: "I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah's Apostle." In Marxism, religion must be abolished. In Islam, religion must be established. Neither the Marxist nor the Islamic mandate cares about the person being forced to abandon or accept religion. His or her identity and personal choice are erased as unimportant, or are rendered criminal.

"The effort to redeem the future begins by making identity a crime," Horowitz observes. By this he means that totalitarian systems make selected identities criminal. If you are a property owner, or an infidel, or a heterosexual white American male, you must be reeducated or erased. But identity itself becomes a crime in the totalitarian worldview. That you dare be unique, that you dare have preferences and tastes and unique reactions to stimuli, that you wanted pistachio rather than vanilla or chocolate, that you wanted a red coat rather than a navy blue one, chokes the machinery, the bulldozer paving the way to Utopia.

I invite Horowitz to compare this attitude to Jesus, who said, "I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me." Marx and Allah impose themselves on interchangeable cogs. Jesus, God made flesh, the God who knocks (take that Walter White), the God who cherishes human individuality and human choice making, humbly waits for permission to enter, permission granted by an individual whose individuality and choice matter. Marx and Allah demand submission of entities whose only salient feature is their submission. Jesus says, "Let's grab a bite and hang out." We know how Marxists would respond to this attitude. Horowitz quotes Trotsky, "We must rid ourselves once and for all of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of life." Himmler, whom Horowitz does not quote, said something similar, "We must settle accounts with this Christianity, this greatest of plagues that could have happened to us in our history, which has weakened us in every conflict … We shall once again have to find a new scale of values for our people."

Of course Horowitz invokes the twentieth century's other totalitarian monster, Nazism. "Most of my family lineages end in 1939, the year I was born … the communities of Eastern Europe, of Moravia and Ukraine from which my ancestors came, ended up in the gas chambers and are now erased." "The more beautiful the dream, the more necessary and more total the crime," Horowitz writes.

Again, I advise Horowitz to consider the contrast between this need for purifying massacres with Jesus' words. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, Jesus quotes a farmer in whose wheat field some enemy has sown tares, or darnel, wheat's intoxicating, deadly poisonous "evil twin." The farmer's servants offer to uproot the tares. The farmer says, no, let the tares grow alongside the wheat. At harvest time, we will separate them. The message here is not "kill them all and let God sort them out." It is, "Let them all live, and God will sort them out at harvesttime," that is, upon death. Christians have interpreted this parable as instructing Christians not to massacre others just over disagreements.

But, but, the reader may protest. Certainly Christians, no less than Marxists, Jihadis, and Nazis, have participated in massacres. Indeed, yes, Christians have. And Christians have done so contrary to their own scripture. Other Christians have condemned them for that behavior, and have worked to correct it. These may seem like fine points to some, but consider Horowitz's objection to author and rabbi Joseph Telushkin's statement that evil springs from the refusal to recognize "the image of God in each human being." Horowitz dismisses the rabbi's words as a "saccharine bromide" and "folly." Horowitz cites Mohammed Atta and Satan. Wasn't Satan created in the image of God, Horowitz asks? (The Bible does not say so.) Horowitz also asks, didn't Mohammed Atta see other human beings as created in the image of God? The insistence that one loving, omnipotent creator God created man in his own image is a Jewish idea, inherited by Christians. It is not shared by the world's other religions, including Islam. Allah is unknowable. To say that man is created in Allah's image is blasphemous.

In Islam, infidel Christians and Jews are the "worst of created beings," Koran 98:6. Many Koran verses insist that Christians and Jews are not fit to be friends of Muslims. Hostility even to the basic humanity of non-Muslims is commanded repeatedly in the Koran and in hadith. Dr. Bill Warner points out that the language of Islam in dualistic. The Koran never speaks of humanity as a whole, but as a dyad, with good Muslims on one side, and low, disgusting infidels on the other. The Koran is remarkable among world scriptures for the amount of space it devotes to demonizing non-Muslims. Non-Muslims are "najis," ritually unclean, in the same category as corpses, feces, urine, dogs and pigs. So, no, Mohammed Atta was not raised with the idea that all men are created in God's image.

"If there is no God to rescue us, we are nothing," Horowitz, the agnostic, asserts. And so he moves on to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the author who is credited with saying, "If God does not exist, everything is permitted." Dostoyevsky's work presaged the obsessions of twentieth century totalitarians. In Crime and Punishment Dostoyevsky describes a "radical vanguard" who "'seek in various ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better.' The quest for salvation breeds a self-righteousness that encourages radicals to commit crimes that are monstrous." Here Horowitz implies that Christian theology combined with humility would have served as a corrective. "A God who becomes human and suffers in the flesh to redeem human sins is one thing; ordinary human beings acting as gods to purge others of their sins is quite another." If Jesus already has the salvation role cornered, his followers don't have to aspire to "save the world" through purges.

On the other hand, a Catholic who forgot that message is the villain in Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor passage from The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky sprang from a family of mixed ethnicities and religions. He had Tatars, Orthodox Christians, and Polish Roman Catholics in his family tree. But Dostoyevsky consistently singled out Poles, Catholics, and Jews, for disdain. Dostoyevsky blamed Catholics for inventing atheism. Ironically, Dostoyevsky blamed popes for seizing territory. Ironic because Orthodox Russians participated in the late eighteenth-century territory grab that wiped Catholic Poland off the map. Poland was more westernized and had a stronger tradition of democracy than Russia. Poles engaged in armed uprisings against Russia during Dostoyevsky's lifetime, uprisings that were suppressed by Russian thugs with nicknames like "The Hangman." Horowitz is able to appreciate Dostoyevsky in spite of his anti-Semitism. That's admirable. Me, I cannot see Dostoyevsky's anti-Catholic writing as a worthy spiritual critique. I see it only as propaganda for Russian imperialism in my ancestral homeland, one my family left, my father told me, "Because the czars burned our books."

In any case, Horowitz admires "The Grand Inquisitor" passage from Dostoyevsky's 1879 novel, The Brothers Karamazov, finding in it insights into human nature and the appeal of the totalitarian. The anti-Christ villain of the piece, The Grand Inquisitor,  puts Jesus Christ himself on trial. "In giving human beings freedom," Horowitz explains, "God is the true source of their unhappiness, for 'nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom.'" The God who allows his creations to reject him torments those creations with free will. "By refusing to enter history and compel belief, God has condemned His children to live alone and lost, not knowing why they are here or where they are going, or whether what they do or who they are has any significance at all." Humans are willing to say to those who would oppress them, "'Make us your slaves, but feed us.'" Humans want not only food, but certainty. "'we shall have an answer for all … it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure in making a free decision for themselves.'"

"You lead a charmed life," Phil Horowitz once said to his son David. David was at first taken aback by the comment, but he later assessed it more positively. In his assessment, he mostly attributed the charm of his life to his own attitude. He "embraces the good and buries the bad." I say it's more than that. Horowitz lost a great deal after his break with his leftist past. Yes, his own attitude helped. But luck or fate or maybe God played a huge role. He met a woman whom he could love, and who could love him right back. His children have achieved fantastic successes. All of this is described in the autobiographical and family vignettes that are interspersed with Horowitz's encounters with the great minds and their musings. The theme of other vignettes: the problem of evil, as embodied in fictional and true accounts of child and animal abuse.

Above I asked what these diverse vignettes have in common. Horowitz walks and talks with great minds about issues that vex any thinking person. He remains an agnostic. He's not sure there is a God, or an ultimate purpose to life. But he knows he loves his kids and grandkids, and wants a better world for them. He knows he's a very lucky guy to be married to his wife.

In reading the more personal passages, this reader was reminded of an observation frequently made about Jewish spirituality. When we think of Jews' relationship to God, we might think first of pork. We know devout Jews don't eat it. Food and the body: a Jewish focus. We think of a Jewish woman blessing the Sabbath candles, in her home, with her family. Home and family: another Jewish focus. "You're not Jewish till your grandchildren are Jewish," goes the old saying. Another saying, "'Two Jews, three opinions.' So believe what you want, because ultimately Judaism doesn't care what you believe, but rather what you do," wrote American Rabbi Baruch HaLevi. Judaism emphasizes mitzvot, singular mitzvah. Observant Jews follow the commandments; more secular Jews feel compelled to do "good deeds."

In his and his wife's generous aid to abused animals, including dogs and horses, in his commitment to and love of his children, grandchildren, and family members, no matter what spot they occupy on the political spectrum, in his engagement with the deep thinkers of the past and with the day-to-day concerns of this here-and-now world, and in his unfailing doing of good deeds, with no retirement from that in sight, Horowitz's life demonstrates the influence of some of the best aspects of traditional Jewish spirituality.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

"God through Binoculars" Excerpt

Tibet. Source

The Dudh Kosi or River of Milk drains Mount Everest. It glimmers in its gorge, turquoise and silver. I once trekked along it, to a spot where it joined one of its seven sister rivers. The confluence of rivers is sacred in Hinduism. I encountered a sannyasi seated in lotus position in the sand and gravel at the place where the rivers joined. Sannyasis' renunciation of the world is so severe that they perform their own funerals before taking to the wilderness. This sannyasi was naked except for ashes. His limbs were as slim and slack as jute ropes. His dreadlocked hair was piled atop his head. Once he had taken his vow, that hair was never again combed or cut. There was nothing anywhere near him except for the fierce V of mountains rising up thousands of feet from the rushing river's bed.

The rise of those mountains was an act of aggression to me. As I trekked, I felt the mountains to be my enemies, eager to cause me pain, thwart and humiliate me. And yet I adored their beauty. The Himalayas are active; they grow a couple of inches every year, as the Indian subcontinent pushes into the Asian landmass. There were no people; I was the lone other. There were only the parrots down low in the gorge, winging, carefree, from river bank to river bank, their highway air; their concern with the pitch of the mountains minimal. Then, rising higher, there would be crows, then, still higher, lammergeier, vultures that eat bone. The mountains bullied even sunlight; it visited only in slants.

The sannyasi said nothing to me, and I said nothing to him. I thought of everything he had renounced, from peanut M&Ms to romantic comedies to the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica to crying over a broken heart to worrying about the future to telling a friend about last night's dream. What did he receive in exchange? I wondered what he knew, if anything. I kept walking. I was on my way to a Peace Corps conference, the closest thing to a Roman orgy I'd ever know. We'd eat till sick, dance, flirt, copulate. That sannyasi would be with me, every moment. I'd be thinking of him. What does he know that I cannot access?

I just googled "Dudh Kosi" to revisit this river in photos. I see that now it hosts organized white-water rafters. I wonder what the sannyasi makes of them. I wonder if he ever thinks of me; no, not really; of course I know that he has never thought of me. I think of him often.

I have long had this question: are contemplatives, the Desert Fathers, the Desert Mothers, and all those who leave society and go off on their lonesome – Tibetan monks, Hindu sadhus, Buddha, John the Baptist – are they truly holy? Or are they merely crabby misfits who couldn't get laid and are too lazy or soul-dead to engage in conventional hygiene?

Entering the wilderness temporarily to contemplate a difficult question or to realign yourself when you are off track is a necessary thing. In the Bible, Elijah left society and slept under a juniper tree. There, Elijah was commanded, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a still small voice."

That's where God was. God was not in the special effects: not in the wind, the broken rocks, or the earthquake. God was in the "still, small voice" that Elijah had to leave society, and enter the wilderness, to hear. A quote from the Desert Fathers and Mothers: "Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything." I respect staying in one's cell for short stretches. It's the lifelong rejection of society that gives me pause.

We tend to stereotype urban life as stressful, and country living in wide-open spaces as healthy and stress-free. My mother grew up in a village in Slovakia. I visited Kovarce in the 1970s and it was postcard-perfect. Kovarce was surrounded by fields of blue rye and red poppies. Clouds of white butterflies rose into the sky. In the hills, wild boar announced their presence with heavy pants. And the cuckoo – such a tender punctuation to the drawn-out ripple of the breeze caressing leaves. Uncle John built an indoor toilet for our visit; before that, all he had was an outhouse. He didn't even have a refrigerator. When he wanted something to eat, he didn't stand in front of a cold, white light and stare at leftovers. He went into his backyard and dug up his meal, or picked it, or chopped off its head.

My mother grew up in that idyllic, rural setting. She told me that there was one guy in the village who didn't fit in. He hung himself. She and her brother Joe peeked in the window. She remembered the corpse's black tongue sticking out of its mouth. The entire village came out for his funeral, as they did for all funerals. They marched in the funeral procession. They sang loudly, as they always did – Slovaks do love to sing – and they wailed loudly, as they always did. She told me that if anyone had paid that kind of loving attention to this poor misfit before he died, he probably wouldn't have killed himself.

I grew up on stories like that. Village beatings, murders, feuds, conspiracies, and chicken thieves – and this was just our own family. I knew that the perfect rural image is not what urbanites want it to be.

Contrary to what we moderns want to believe about our "stressful" urban lives, and rural peace and tranquility, rural people are far more likely to commit suicide than urban ones. Young, rural Americans are almost twice as likely to kill themselves as young, urban Americans. It seems that there may be something salubrious about spending time around other people, and something stressful about being alone in the back of the beyond.

 From God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery available here