To Whom Much is Given

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.

That’s a passage from Christian scripture, but it’s a precept that I’ve read, heard and seen in the texts and teachings of other religions, and it’s commonly enough reflected in social policy and proposals for humane and ethical action in all sorts of places that it deserves more general notice and attention, I think. There seems to be an underlying assumption amongst many people of all kinds and cultures that if one of us has more than another and that other is in need, one ought to take some responsibility for her neighbor’s well-being and share the resources. It’s arguably a foundational principle of civility and hospitality everywhere.

Yet it’s practiced so much less often than is possible. For all of my love of time with friends and family, I also crave quiet and reclusive time, shutting out the world and curling into my own self, and that applies to all parts of my life. And I think that’s probably more common than not. Who does not prefer the company of her own self or her very small circle of kin and kind, especially when the workaday world has seemed particularly demanding and rest and retreat as hard to come by as clear water in the swamp? Who doesn’t covet the privileges she feels she’s chosen and earned for herself?

I was reminded of this particularly when we were in Hungary this summer and I had the privilege of going with a number of the touring choir members and my husband to visit the ancestral home of a hereditary Count and his wife the Countess. The Count himself made only a brief appearance at the end of our visit, his wife having participated with staff and supporters in the greeting of our group, speechmaking about their work with orphans and special needs children in the family-sponsored home on the grounds of the residence, and a small but lovely reception in the main public-room of the place, a large parlor filled with art and artifacts passed down through the lineage. The Count was charming and rather cheery when he did appear, but I sensed that he preferred his privacy as well.

The Countess, on the other hand, had a rather regal bearing and while she was generous in hosting us and very willing to share her home and thoughts with the group, I heard some quiet comments aside that she seemed a touch condescending or even a bit put out by our visit. I had been at the back of the room during her parlor commentary about the family history and the work of the orphanage, not able to see her over the number of people in the room, and her tone was very subdued, so I got the gist of the story, but didn’t see any of the expressions that might have influenced the commenters.

What I did hear was probably a fairly common tale among the nobility in Europe during the previous centuries: a privileged kinship, whether by their own efforts or honors conferred upon them by royalty, this family had done as they were both able and expected to do with their wealth, which was to live quite elegantly and surround themselves with art and beautiful landscaping and magnificent homes. At the same time, they saw themselves very much as caretakers of the larger community, responsible for the well-being not only of the people who staffed their private holdings but those living in proximity as well. This is of course the story of noblesse oblige, a practice of good that may have been at its core a defensive move but served the purpose in any event. Like many noble families, the one we visited had essentially founded a town around themselves over the generations, supporting educational or healthcare or other needed resources and, in this instance, building a magnificent basilica where the town could worship and where, not coincidentally, the touring choir were performing on the evening of our visit in a benefit concert for the children’s home.

Also like so many other noble families, this one had gradually seen its fortunes decline in the years between the World Wars, and on advent of German action in the region in World War II, was ousted from their land and holdings and fled for safer places. Their palatial home first became military headquarters during that war (in which the Hungarians quickly and brutally learned that their alliance with Germany was a general pretext for annexation and Nazi rule), and then was used for Communist offices in the years after. It wasn’t until just a few decades ago that the Count and Countess were able to return to his family property and renew their residence in the place. The good news was that there had been no interest on the occupying military’s part in redesigning the buildings, nor any money for the Communists to do so, so the architecture remained for the most part intact. The bad news was born of the same circumstances, though: the military’s disinterest in redesign and the Communists’ lack of funds extended to any concern for maintenance. Naturally, the park in which the palace stood, the palace and outbuildings all fell into a state that even in their heyday the real owners could probably have scarce afforded to mend, and it all added to the sorrow that the art and fabulous book collections had been heavily looted.

This is a long way of saying so, but on the day we visited there, I stayed after the others had left that once-elegant parlor, pausing to thank the Countess and to ask her a couple of questions about what I understood were the Count’s and her attempts to resurrect some of the property, if only for the appreciation of the locals and the young wards and their caregivers now living in closer quarters with these two owners. Her tone, perhaps because she was no longer addressing a whole roomful of people, or maybe because she felt she didn’t have to represent her husband’s whole heritage anymore, not acting in any official capacity at the moment, softened greatly, and I sensed mostly melancholy. There was sorrow for what had been lost, yes, but after we spoke about that and the enormity of the restoration needs for a moment or two, I simply asked her in the middle of that once-glamorous hall if she had a personal favorite artwork in there.

It was almost as if she became for a moment the young bride who had come there with the Count before the war, a little in awe of his family and the wealth that surrounded them, the power and the weight of the name upon her shoulders seeming rather immense even in the midst of her happiness. I can’t say she became suddenly shy, though it seemed to me that there was the slightest hint of it as she walked across the room and, instead of choosing one of the showy ancestral treasures or superb museum-quality portraits but this moderate-sized, unrestored and slightly bleary, painting of peasant girls dancing around in an Impressionistic meadow, and said simply, “This one.” I asked her what made it so, and she did little more than offer a soft comment that it was pretty and it made her happy.

Digital artwork from a photo: The Countess's Favorite

This is my digitally painted version of the Countess’s beloved artwork, which besides being in great need of restoration was under glass and hard to see without much maneuvering. But even in its retouched state here, I think you can catch a glimpse of what filled her with such longing: a sense of sweetly carefree innocence that must seem now like a distant, faded dream.

And I thought that perhaps what had been asked of her, she who had had quite a lot at one time and might even be seen in town nowadays as a bit of a remnant of things past, was her innocence. It must have been a long, sorrowful journey from being a young lady inducted into the nobility by marriage and impressed, if not overwhelmed, by the lavish life and the heavy weight of what was expected of her in her new role, to the life she knows now. However she and her husband might work to regain a place in the community through their labor and largesse, the world has changed, and they with it.

What must it have been like, as she moved through the war and later years in exile, knowing that everything tangible she had known at home might well be gone? On returning long after, though she saw that it wasn’t demolished, her happy ease was clearly broken and irretrievably changed. Finally, settling into her new role as figurehead of a still somewhat nebulous but ambitious attempt to find a way to make all that was left have real meaning again, looking into that painting must have become rather like looking into a mirror at her past self, not as a dancing peasant girl but as a naïf who thought the world was simple and clean and kindly and that all she had to do was make the best of what had been given to her in order to be happy in it.

As American as Whaaaaaa…???

Digital collage of eagle, flag, baseball, etc + text

So much for inalienable rights . . .

So the husbandly-personage and I were talking about Libertarian ideals and as usual, the conversation drifted as we meandered the miles homeward through another hot afternoon. I think you know enough about me already to guess that I’m generally less than hot on talking, or even thinking, politics. Always a topic for argument, disagreement, divisiveness when I’m out of the safe environs of my own little twosome. Even within it, occasionally. And I just plain don’t relish conflict at any level. When it comes to politics, that’s also occasioned by its being one of those few areas in which I am admittedly cynical and tend to lack my usual annoyingly perky attitude of perpetual be-nice-ness that assumes all the best of all humanity. I think when it comes to civility and unselfishness, ours is a race of creatures ill-suited to follow our best instincts.

Which is to say, I think a great many political systems, even democracy for cripes’ sake, look fabulous on paper. There are lots of admirable aspects not just to democracy but to constitutional monarchy, to communism, socialism, even anarchy, not to mention a whole slew of sub-categories within each. And don’t get me started on all of the world’s religions and pseudo-religions and cults, which I may have mentioned in crankypants moments I find are often freely intermixed with political, social and more personal beliefs to the point that I’m quite convinced few (any?) living beings have any clear concept of what any of the aforementioned means by definition, let alone in their originators’ intended forms, any more.

The problem–you can see where I’m headed–is that despite the beauty of many ideas’ intentions, they are very seldom enacted with anything near the purity of heart they might require to actually work. We Homo pseudo-sapiens just have a tremendously powerful tendency to do things to please and satisfy our personal inclinations. We work hard to define wants as needs, to translate privileges into not just constitutional rights but, by cracky, as pretty much divine rights and Not To Be Messed With, Dammit. It’s in this world that, while I think most thoughtful persons will agree that focusing on anything other than actual driving while driving is potentially dangerous not only to the persons in the vehicle being driven but to any others sharing the road and its vicinity, I still had this afternoon the not-at-all-uncommon opportunity to look over at the next lane and watch a driver assiduously texting from behind the steering wheel without the remotest indication that he was worrying himself about whether that was risky for him, let alone aware that we were in a car not one metre distant from him and hurtling along at the same mad freeway pace.

This is the same world where plenty of people know perfectly well that it’s an iffy proposition to suck tar and nicotine into your lungs but do so willingly and regularly and are quite content to share all of their available leftover smog with nonsmokers’ adjacent lungs without even having to be asked for the gift*. *(In this setting, feel free to assume I’m using the Norwegian version of ‘gift’, in which language the word means poison.) It’s the same world full of people well-versed in the basics of their home countries’ and counties’ laws who are still completely willing to flout and break those laws if and when they think they can get away with it.

Crotchety? Oh, yes, I certainly am when it comes to assuming people will do the right thing if left to their own devices. But I’m not exactly sure there’s any cure for that, least of all within any political, legal, religious or social system we’ve yet discovered, and even the most would-be benign autocracy slides off into murky territory and rots from the inside without a great deal of delay. Am I dark-minded enough to say It’s Just Our Nature? Just the way we ARE? Sounds like a quitter talking, at best. But yeah, there’s an element of defeatism or even fatalism involved when I see how far we’ve come along the ol’ human timeline, how many Golden Ages have crashed and turned to ethereal gnat poo in how many stupendous civilizations, how often the stubborn and unsanitary insanity of self-interest has brought down the greatness of the moment . . . well, fill in the blanks yourself. I told you right up front, now, didn’t I.

Meanwhile, I would like to reiterate my longtime belief, what perhaps you could almost legitimately call one of my few real articles of faith, that the majority of people are weirdly, strangely, pretty good at center. Go figure. That’s the basis for my muddle-through theory of salvation–well, continuity. It’s simply that, no matter how awful and disgusting we’ve managed to be as individuals, let alone to one another, and this also on a global level, despite the number of massive historic failures to succeed in being simply ongoing nations and cultures, somebody always seems to carry on. How improbable! How bizarre! How heartening. Okay, alla youse guys, I guess that means we have to soldier on in our own limping, screwy, fatheaded mortal way. If every one of us manages to be just a little bit less self-centered and, what the hey, less often deserving of placement in the time-out corner of life–well, I think we might have a shot.