Life Is a Cliffhanger, thank God
One of my favorite recent television series was Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley. One feature that made the show addictive was the cliffhanger ending of each episode.
In each 30-minute episode, Richard Hendricks, the hero, saved his fledgling startup from an imminent disaster (usually threatened by a Big Tech oligarch). Invariably, though, Hendrick’s Houdini trick opened the door to an even bigger disaster. The cure was always worse than the disease.
What makes that formula, so endearing is that it perfectly mirrors real life.
I don’t want to sound like someone who thinks every win is just the universe’s way of setting us up for more significant failure. Instead, I believe the idea of “winning” is a false premise. There are no wins and losses. There is no final buzzer. The story doesn’t end when the book does, just our permission to spy on the characters.
I’ll give an example: The Sopranos. The series ended with a cut to black as Tony, Carmela, AJ, and Meadow enjoyed a peaceful, happy dinner in a diner. That was the end of the show, but not the story.
I’m not going to speculate on what happened after we lost permission to observe the Sopranos. Logic dictates something did. Maybe a bomb planted under their table detonated. Perhaps they finished their dinner, went home, and lived happily ever after.
And it’s the happily-ever-after part that we want to believe, not only for the Sopranos but for ourselves. We want to believe if we could just get the house cleaned, or just get some extra money to fix the air conditioner, or just get through these election audits, then we can live happily ever after.
But life is more like Silicon Valley. When you get the house cleaned, your adult son calls to tell you the baby’s sick and could you come over. When you get a surprise bonus that fixes the air conditioner, you notice a water spot on an upstairs ceiling. When the audits are over and conclude the Donald Trump was re-elected in an electoral landslide, you find out there’s no provision in the law for doing anything about it.
As Donald Draper said, “It’s your life. You don’t know how long it’s gonna last, but you know it doesn’t end well.”
I am in the midst of a 12-month string of these episodes—pending doom, miraculous escape, right into the lion’s den.
And I’ve experienced similar periods before.
In the past, I sort of gave up. After a string of near-misses with great escapes, the next collections letter, the next job reassignment, the next unexpected complication would lead me, not to despair, but to extravagance. I would say, “screw it; I can’t win,” and pretend the big, scary thing was there. I’d ignore the monster and party like it’s 1999.
As Don Draper predicted, that never ended well.
Somewhere along the line, though, I realized two things:
- These bad surprises never stop coming.
- That’s the only thing that keeps us from killing ourselves.
Neither winning nor losing makes life worth living, but the knowledge that there’s another game. Without another game, win or lose, your life becomes meaningless and empty.
The Antifa and BLM crowd is a perfect example. They’re miserable because someone else solves their problems for them. Free of problems and surprise setbacks, they invent fake problems and demand someone else solve those. When their benefactors say, “uh, that’s not actually a problem,” they get their feelings hurt and lash out like 3-year-olds.
And, before we indict Antifa and BLM, let’s remember that billionaires are precisely the same way. When people have accumulated enough money to solve any problem with cash, they start meddling in other people’s problems.
Anyone who wants to end world hunger is actually wishing the worst on the world, not the best. When we try to provide low-income housing, we destroy the lives of the people who move in. In the words of Shelby Steele, we deny them agency in their own lives.
Television series don’t end when the writers run out of creative escapes for the hero; they end when the writers run out of impossible problems. When Fonzi jumped the shark, we knew Happy Days was done. Not because Fonzi skiing with a leather jacket was ridiculous, but because sharks don’t need to be jumped. It was a fake problem with a stupid solution.
When the universe runs out of surprise problems to throw before, we have nothing to live for. When someone pays your rent and provides your feed, you have reason to exist. Not, at least, given the human condition.
Remember, too, that it wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, we lived happily ever after. Then Adam and Eve tasted the fruit of the forbidden tree, and God told them, more or less, you and your seed will live lives that are nothing but a series of problems to solve.
Our nature has prepared us to solve those problems. Adam and Eve survived despite being ejected from the Garden, which means they passed along great genes. Genes that allowed their dependents to excel at overcoming these problems, beginning with finding food and shelter. These many generations later, humans are problem-solving machines.
Happily ever after comes when our Lord and Savior tells us, “well done, good and faithful servant!” You get the feeling that “well done” means “you solved all the problems We threw at you while keeping the faith.”
What will He say, then, to those who had no problems to solve? To those whose problems were solved by others? And to those who, free from the divine problems, create man-made problems for others?
I don’t know the answer, of course, but I also think it’s stupid to risk it. And it’s a sin against charity to deny others the opportunity to pick up their crosses every day and follow Christ.
We should help our fellow man, but that help needs to be personal. We cannot solve poverty (“The poor you will always have with you.” (Matthew 26:11)), but we must feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked. Then those unfortunates who we helped can solve the next problem themselves.
When billionaires decide they will end poverty or eradicate all disease or solve once and for all some other apparent social disorder, they are, in fact, denying God’s creatures the opportunity to keep the faith through trial and terror.
Charity (aka, “love”) is to will the good of the other. And the good of the other is when they hear, “well done, good and faithful servant,” not when their rent gets paid up for life by some housing program bureaucrat.
Now, I’ve solved my problem for today: writing a blog post. But in writing this post, I ran out of time to get the house ready for HVAC guys who are coming to fix our blower tomorrow morning. Which means I’m going to have to get up earlier than I like and scramble to take care of that in the morning.
This means I am blessed: God has not run out of problems for me to solve in a way that lays the foundation of another problem.
Ad majorem Dei gloriam.