Dear Dr. Boli: I am a ruined man. For as long as I can remember, which stretches far back into last week at the very least, I have ordered my life by the wise sayings of the wise. I know they are wise sayings because they appear on signs with interchangeable letters outside churches and businesses all over the tri-borough area—or at least I thought I knew they were wise, but alas! the order of the universe has been called into doubt, and I feel chaos’ winged chariot (“winged” being pronounced as two syllables) overtaking me.
Last week I passed a sign that was particularly encouraging to me. I remember that it was in front of the Fifteenth Presbyterian Church in Turtle Creek, and I can quote the exact words from memory: “A river doesn’t stop after a fall.”
How true! I thought. And how applicable to the human condition! When a river “falls”—that is, when the water plunges over a precipice, forming a “cataract” or “cascade,” or, in the delightfully evocative colloquial term, a “waterfall”—it does not give up and consider its mission aborted. It simply continues on its way, regardless of the plummet it has just suffered. Should we not all take inspiration from the persistence of the river? If the inanimate river can do it, surely we who are gifted with understanding should be able to recover from our mishaps and our personal tragedies and continue on our way.
Perhaps I ought to have kept this insight to myself, but it seemed too good not to share. And indeed the first seven people I shared it with seemed as pleased with it as I was. But the eighth—oh, I wish I had never spoken to her! She immediately pointed out that it is impossible for water, unlike human beings, to be injured in any way by a fall; that, furthermore, the water in the river exhibits no agency at all, but is acted upon by physical forces entirely beyond its control; in short, she said, if we are to follow the example of the river, then the only thing to do is to give up all pretense of independent action and allow ourselves to be buffeted and directed by every random force that stands in our way, and the only infallible rule for our pilgrimage here on earth is that our movement must ever be downwards.
And she was right! There was no arguing with her, because her objections were insuperable! But if that was true of this wise saying, might it not be true of others? I began to investigate on my own, and I discovered that it was! “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ ” they say—but there is a “me” if you rearrange the letters! (There is also a “meat,” and I shudder to think what that portends.) The squeaky wheel gets the grease—but such grease is not fit for human consumption!
I will not draw out the tale of my investigations. I have lost faith in all the wisdom of the world, as represented in the changeable slogan boards in front of churches, synagogues, businesses, and so forth. But what am I to do without wisdom to guide me? I no longer trust metaphors drawn from inanimate objects as guides to ethical decisions, but I have never learned any other way to make an ethical decision. I am thinking I might rob a bank. What shall I do? —Sincerely, Athenagoras McWarble, East Pittsburgh.
Dear Sir: When the metaphorical fails us, we must rely on the literal. Have you considered beginning by reading the criminal code of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania? If you have no ethical rudder, so to speak, you might at least benefit from a clear and precise description of what the General Assembly has determined ought not to be done. After all, we know that state legislatures are formed only from the citizens of the highest ethical principles, chosen by their fellow citizens for their wisdom and disinterested philanthropy. If you need ethical guidance, turn to the Pennsylvania General Assembly: that is Dr. Boli’s best suggestion.