thinking

bits and pieces of clouds, ether, maybe even ideas

The Way We Live Now – Great Expectations – NYTimes.com

The Way We Live Now – Great Expectations – NYTimes.com.

Great Expectations

Eric Weeks/Gallery Stock

When I first told my son, Charlie, about the Easter Bunny and described his duties — distributing and hiding colored eggs — my logical 3-year-old would have none of it. “But rabbits don’t have any hands,” he said. Since I never believed in the Easter Bunny, either, I didn’t apply further pressure on the issue. Next to the Crucifixion itself (whose violent details I spared my son and daughter until age 7 or so), the image of a man-size rodent that lurches around people’s houses late at night, clutching fragile treats in its curled paws, strikes me as one of the most appalling nightmare visions that adults can inflict on tender minds.

Human Empire

Data source: The Barna Group, February 2010.

As a wavering Christian and occasional rationalist, I’ve always found Easter (which I sometimes think of as the New Testament’s Passover 2.0) a singularly problematic holiday, both in its cheery, secularized aspects and its grisly, credulity-straining religious form. My considerable respect for Easter in theory and my shallow responses to it in practice left me feeling inadequate and frustrated. Year after year I tried and failed to feel the profound sense of renewal and gratitude — of hitting bottom and coming back — that the liturgically crucial feast is said to inspire in countless souls that I kept wishing and praying included mine.

This spring my hunger for an uplifting Easter is especially acute. I doubt that I’m alone. The past year has been a test of faith for Americans of all sorts, even atheists, and on many fronts. Take our long and agonizing vigil at the grave site of what once was termed “the new economy.” According to the worldly theologians of finance and commerce, a force known as “the business cycle” that governs the rise and fall of markets was supposed to have taken us higher by now, replenishing depleted bank accounts, restoring a sheen of functionality to corroded Rust Belt cities and permitting again the buying and selling of homes.

The rock in front of this tomb remains in place, though, and the day of rejoicing still appears far off. This seems true in the realm of politics as well, despite the recent passage of the health care bill and the winding down of the battle for Iraq. Unity and peace, where are ye? Hidden.

Ten years ago, during a time of steady churchgoing that followed the birth of my daughter, my first child, I made friends with a gruff old Episcopalian priest to whom I confessed my perennial difficulties with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Easter’s for-me elusive main event. He listened with a big fist propped under his chin as I listed my doubts and puzzlements, which went back to childhood. More troubling for me than the supposed miracle’s scientific implausibility, I said, was its murky dramatic character. In what sort of shape was the Savior’s body once it was reanimated? I asked. Pierced and bleeding or intact and shining? And why did Our Lord not fly straight up into the sky rather than hanging around down on the ground? I went on like this for half an hour, until the old man raised his square gray head and stopped me. “Walter, here’s the important thing,” he said. “It either happened or it didn’t, and if it didn’t, if it’s all a lie, neither of us should be in church today. But we are,” he said, “aren’t we? Yes, indeed, we are.”

I’ve come to call this thoroughly circular argument for Easter’s significance the “Presence Principle.” It implies, in a way that my intellect resists but my heart is willing to entertain, that the terrific annual to-do involving lilies, hymns and dexterous rabbits is, just by virtue of its continued existence, not an absurd, unwarranted phenomenon. A celebration, by my old priest’s reasoning, means that its celebrants must have something to celebrate, and the bigger the celebration, the bigger the something. Because I suspect that no man will ever succeed in satisfying me further on this matter, I’ve stopped asking questions; I take Easter as a fact now. And Passover too, for the people who observe it. I’ve decided that faith is what some facts are made of and that the true meaning of Easter isn’t just the escape from sin and death but, in part, the escape from thought itself, one of humanity’s direst oppressors and, perhaps, the hardest to shake off.

This year, when so many more solid-seeming facts have proved to be not entirely satisfying (see the stimulant effects of increased government spending and lowered interest rates), I’ve decided to celebrate into existence 12 months of optimism and abundance, for America and the whole world. Why not? In economics, it has long been recognized that markets are driven not only by rationality, nor even chiefly by rationality, but also by a non-thought-related energy known to the experts as “animal spirits.” Well, I’m raising my animal spirits. I’m raising them high, like a sacred cup of wine.

The Easter Bunny has no hands, it’s true, but my children’s enjoyment of the holiday didn’t suffer from this realization. In fact, it has grown over the years, perhaps because their expectations for Easter didn’t start out particularly high. (As isn’t the case with hyped-up Christmas, which hasn’t been the same since Santa vanished.) They hunt for eggs, sit peacefully through church, gorge on candy, pretend to eat their lamb, gorge on more candy and, later, drift off to sleep, usually with new stuffed animals tucked tight against their sides. They do all this even though they know, by now, something about the cross, the crown of thorns and various other unsettling grown-up matters, from unemployment to terrorism. It’s a wonder that they can forget about these things long enough to dig the sugary chicks from the wads of phony cellophane “grass” packing their made-in-China Easter baskets, but it’s only one wonder among many — including the fact that they exist at all, which I’m not sure they properly appreciate. They certainly weren’t born of thought, my son and daughter. Nor do they live by thought, when I come to think of it.

So this Easter I’m vowing not to think at all, and I’m not going to face the facts; I’m making new ones. I’m making them the way I dye the eggs and hide them behind the furniture: humanly yet magically, with nothing but my own two paws.

Walter Kirn, a frequent contributor, is the author, most recently, of “Lost in the Meritocracy.”

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