Last week at the Olympics, as everybody on social media knows, a female gymnast named Simone Biles removed herself from competition. I had never heard of her before this. I follow baseball and football, and sometimes a little golf or something else, but not the Olympics and not women’s sports in general. The latter doesn’t interest me. I find the frequent expressions of feminism unpleasant, and since the women’s performances are less impressive than those of the best high school boys, I don’t think I’m missing much. As for the Olympics—their old appeal for me was the patriotism of amateurs, but that’s mostly gone.
But why should what a gymnast does in Tokyo occupy more than a flicker of my attention, unless I am an aficionado of gymnastics? I presume that she has reasons for what she did. Meanwhile, I have a couple of thousand books I haven’t gotten around to reading, just in my own house. I have a piano I don’t play nearly as often as I once did. I don’t know the names of most of my neighbors, and they don’t know mine, because it’s rare that anybody is outdoors doing things—mowing the lawn, digging gardens, planting flowers, yes, but playing games, never.
Here I am writing for what have become the newspapers of our time, but without the cheerful paperboy flinging the rolled-up Middletown Monitor into the rosebush, without the sports section and the comics that make the paper worth the expense, and without the local news, the want ads, and the obituaries. Magazines on the web have become necessities, and they are far more varied in the points of view to which they give expression than are those rickety and monotonous cripples, the old dailies. What is not necessary is to permit the mass phenomena, especially the political, to eat up more and more of our time and our minds. I say so as a conservative.
Let us consider. If we find it obnoxious that a team of spoiled ball-kickers should lecture hundreds of millions of people on their politics, it is a trouble of the same sort to take the ball-kickers too seriously or to interpret their success or their failure as representing anything really important. Why do I like baseball so much? Because it is—or it should be—sheer play, with no meaning beyond itself. It is a boys’ game played by men who are still boys. You can still get around the business noise of it, and you can forget to tune in on the day when the team celebrates some antisocial fashion. You can enjoy that strange game, unpredictable, downright silly at times, when a slugger who slams the ball into a headwind just makes a long out, while a dribbling ground ball that hits a pebble brings in the winning run.
Of course, there was a time when scouts would scour the farmlands and the factories for ballplayers, because every big factory had a team, and farm boys played when they weren’t working, and nobody was more than a few miles from a game. The decay of local play is one feature of a general decay of local life, and, since we are embodied creatures, that decay implies a constriction and a graying of the human. And we grow all the more irrationally passionate about the little that seems to be left to us. In a healthy society—and we are not—the owner of the buttocks seated in the chair of the Oval Office should be of no more than modest and sporadic interest. In a healthy polity—and we are not—the next nominee to the Supreme Court should be of somewhat less moment to you than whether the teacher at your child’s school can keep order in a class of healthy-bodied boys and girls.
Well, we must live in this world as it is. We have no choice but to care about the politicians who still might exercise some influence over the machines that govern us—whether to oil them with our lost liberties, or aim their action at socially productive ends, or, at best, to cast sand into their gears. But we do still have a choice as to letting these monsters matter to our souls. It is one thing to live with cancer and to fight it. It is another to think about the cancer all the time, to read nothing but journals of oncology, to be checking your skin every day for spots, to be scanning the ingredients of your groceries for carcinogens, to be cutting friends because they eat the wrong food, and to be hectoring and easily hectored in turn, a tyrant at heart on Monday and a willing serf of the machine on Tuesday.
If I seem to be recommending escape, it is an escape from prison into the open air. I am recommending recovery of what Russell Kirk called the permanent things. Remember what politics and economics are for. C. S. Lewis, in “Membership,” says it better than I can:
The secular community, since it exists for our natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude. To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavor. As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so god as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere plowing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit.
One final point. “A sick society must think much about politics,” says Lewis, “as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other.”
Sacrifices must be made. But at some times even we members of an ulcerous society must be alone. And those times are the telltales. Can you be alone with yourself, out of the reach of the machine? Can you rest easy and look into the sky? Can you say a quiet prayer while you glance up from the book you are reading? Do you still have a mind and a soul, or have they been so fully absorbed into the cancer that you are restless and irritable without the itch? The danger is everywhere.
In Tokyo, yesterday, a man was rude to the small boy next door, and hurt his feelings. Forget Tokyo. Ask instead, what did I do, yesterday, that made the sun shine a little more dimly in my home, or a little brighter? Did I sing a song, or read one page of a good book, or do something for the blessedly useless joy of it, like a child? Did I take one small step back towards being fully human?