Monday, March 16, 2009

Beware the Envy of March

I have a long, bad history with March 15. For those of you who don't know, (And why would you know? I feel bad for mentioning it: ignorance is bliss.) March 15 is the original due date for tax returns for corporations with calendar (as opposed to fiscal) year ends. In fact, in the original version of Julius Caesar, Brutus was JC's tax accountant and only agreed to join in the assassination because it seemed easier than telling Caesar how much tax was due with his return. Shakespeare eventually dropped the Inland Revenue subplot -- and the brilliant fourth- and fifth-act scenes depicting the audit of Caesar's estate tax return -- after a brutal crackdown from the crown, which feared a rise in noncompliance. CPAs have been considered box office poison ever since. Et tu, Elizabeth?

Anyway, I was a young(ish) intern for my first tax season, and on March 15, the very large firm I worked for took the tax department out for an evening at a local Chinese restaurant, where I proceeded to take a major part in the consumption of three scorpion bowls, a very large and aptly named rum-based cocktail. Later that evening, I attempted to persuade my co-workers that I would be fine if they left me to sleep off the booze in my car. The office was in the suburbs of Boston, and the evening was very cold, however, and they rightly feared that I might perish of hypothermia, leaving them with an even larger workload, so they persuaded me to accept a ride home and another to the office the next morning. The next morning began a very long day, but I did learn never to drink hard liquor at office events and to switch to Diet Coke after the second beer.

Perhaps seven or eight years later, I was living in Maryland and in the third or fourth year of my stint with a different, smaller firm, and I was in the parking lot of a Burger King, where I'd stopped to get some breakfast. I'd rolled the window down to enjoy the sort of early Spring day that is common in the DC area, and as I looked through the clear air at the flowering trees, the radio began to play George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun," which is one of my very favorite songs, and I thought, "I still have another month of tax season," and I began to cry in a way that made the phrase "burst into tears" seem somewhat less metaphorical.

It is perhaps unfortunate (but I'm not sure: it might be a good thing) that music so easily makes me cry. Sometimes I think that one of the reasons I so much like being in the choir and doing other singing is that when I'm performing, I'm too busy to weep. Not all music makes me cry. Almost all Bach makes me cry, but there are very particular personal reasons for that, and, truly, if the cost of listening to Bach is a few tears, then, well, I have a lot of handkerchiefs, and I'm very good at passing watery eyes off as an allergy problem, which I in fact have.

This particular March 15 (i.e., yesterday), I was in church, and I wasn't crying. The music Sunday was Celtic music, played by fiddler and a guitar player who sometimes also played a guitar. It made me happy. The sermon was about envy, which, apparently, is pain brought about by the good fortune of others. I'm sure the sermon was fine, but I stopped listening after not too long. It's rare for me to make it through a sermon without drifting off into my own thoughts. Or if I'm in a less pensive mood, I'll open the hymnal to see whether I can easily read the bass part to whatever we're singing next. But yesterday I mostly reflected on the Old Testament. As is typical in a Unitarian Universalist church, the minister was not relying heavily on scripture. Since the sermon was on envy, however, she could hardly help mentioning some of the OT stories, and since I know them all pretty well from my protestant upbringing, a mention was enough.

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.
And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?
If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?
And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.
And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;
When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

I am truly sorry if saying so offends anyone, but the lesson that I draw from a lot of OT stories is that Yahweh was a jerk. I was originally going to say he was a douchenozzle, but why take chances? By all accounts, smiting is no fun at all. At least for the smitee, that is: Yahweh seems to have smitten with great glee. Anyway, I'm not trying to excuse Cain here, but I know from personal experience that brothers don't always get along under the best of circumstances. Agriculture is, on the whole, more difficult and tedious work than animal husbandry, and the LORD was being arbitrary, at best, and probably cruel.

I will (possibly) return to envy in a bit, but my favorite example of Jehovan douchenozzlery capriciousness has always been the Exodus. Here again, I have no problem with the whole let-my-people-go thing (though, c'mon, maybe keep them out of slavery in the first place, Mr. High and Almighty?), but I don't really care for the continual hardening of Pharoah's heart.
And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.
Thou shalt speak all that I command thee: and Aaron thy brother shall speak unto Pharaoh, that he send the children of Israel out of his land.
And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.
But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments.
And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them.
And Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded them, so did they.

I learned early in my career as a Southern Baptist that you really didn't want to ask too many questions in Sunday school. If I were to ask my Sunday School teacher, "Why did God have to harden Pharaoh's heart? If he would have let them go after a couple of plagues, why not just accept that?" then I would have gotten a speech about humans' inability to understand the plan of the LORD and then my teacher (aka Dad) wouldn't have let me have any dessert after Sunday dinner.

But reading the passage now, I see that it answers my question. God kept on hardening Pharaoh's heart (it happened a lot of times: Pharoah would certainly have died of an MI if he hadn't been swept away in the Red Sea Massacre) so that God would seem more powerful when he delivered his people from the Egyptians. And, perhaps, just because smiting the Egyptians was so much fun. It appears from the passage above that both factors motivated Yahweh, though the powerful reputation thing appears to have been the biggest deal to him. I think Jehovah must have been acting out because he was envious of the other gods. Let's face it: Anubis and Ra were way sexier. It's hard to read that passage and the chapters around it without coming to the conclusion that God let his people fall into slavery, smote the Egyptians with multiple unnecessary plagues, and killed great numbers of innocent children all so that he could prove that he was the most powerful.

Given all this, it's pretty easy to see why Jesus was such a stand-up guy. If your father's known for destroying the world in a flood or turning somebody into a pillar of salt for the ginormous sin of curiosity or not letting people eat perfectly good foods like pork and shellfish, then what better way to rebel against the family franchise than to die to redeem everybody? The Universalists (also the Primitive Baptists) believe in universal salvation: that the sacrifice of Christ saved everyone. And if they're right, then Jesus' "Father forgive them" was really the best possible way of flipping the bird at the old man, who, it seems likely, was up on his throne saying, "Aw fuck, there goes the neighborhood."

I myself have been exhibiting near-Jehovan levels of crabbiness in recent days, though since the closest I can come to smiting anyone is leaving a nasty review comment for a member of the staff, I don't think the world needs to worry about floods just yet. I'm not ready to confuse pique with envy, but I reckon that if busy season went on until the end of May, I'd start to hate the high school students who walk by my office building several times a day because they're young and beautiful and don't have to answer questions that their co-workers are too lazy to look up for themselves.

Or I'd just find another job. I'm not really cut out for envy, and I often find the young and beautiful to be callow and uninteresting. I told the guitar player after yesterday's service how much I enjoyed his music because it stopped me from thinking, and he laughed and asked whether it stopped me from thinking about envy. I remarked that I was sometimes jealous of people who can play instruments, but I didn't think that I envied them because their possession of an ability I don't have gives me no pain. I would like to think that's because of an exceptionally generous spirit, but I'm pretty sure it's just that I have abilities of my own that I'm confident in.

Anyway, it makes more sense to concentrate on what you have and what you're good at than to worry about what others have and are good at. It's not necessarily human nature, but human nature gets us into a lot of troubles, and I've never thought of it as a very good excuse. If human nature sucks, we should try to make it suck less. Besides, it's not like the world is getting any fairer. And if Jesus was a lot nicer than his father, he didn't seem all that much more concerned with fairness:
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?
They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,
Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.
Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

I mean, he sort of sounds like Secretary Geithner talking about the AIG bonuses, doesn't he? But Christ had a point: if you got what you were promised, then the fact that someone else got more may be galling, but it's not necessarily wrong (unlike, I hasten to add, the AIG bonuses, which are necessarily wrong). So it makes more sense to enjoy what you've got and to focus on the similarities rather than the differences. After all, everyone gets to enjoy spring. Well, everyone except me, but my delight in the second half of April is probably all the greater.

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