By Mary Beth 2015
Have you seen this guy? What adjectives come to mind when you look at the picture? Cuddly, sweet, adorable? This is how I have hear several kids refer to it recently. His name is Baymax and he appears in a recent film called Big Hero Six. I haven’t seen the movie and cannot speak to its plot or intention. Rather I mention it because of the extreme peculiarity of the thing and these qualifiers being attached to it. Study the picture for a good moment and decide for yourself what you see. I know what I see. But more on that in a moment.
In our age of privilege, leisure is no longer true leisure, rather apathy and overindulgence, and entertainment has gone from being an occasional respite, to a multi-billion dollar right. So with this abundance on our hands, what is it we pursue in these areas? Each has followed a confused path along the Porphyrian tree of being. The Porphyrian Tree is an epistemological tree shaped diagram used to illustrate, in this case, the metaphysical scale of being, both corporeal and non-corporeal. It depicts the logical division of the genus, being or substance into successive dichotomies. One need only take a short drive to the grocery store to surmise that a monumental shift in our attention has occurred and that there is great confusion about what’s what on this tree. If it is true that man once largely pursued other human beings for love, in the modern world, he has aimed the arrow of his affections lower, starting with animals, and lower still, the inanimate world. And now he aims at something even Porphyry himself could never have predicted. The virtual beings.
Let’s start with the animals. Some of the most rampant pursuits of “love” by modern man involve animals and pets. Certainly many animals in all of their varieties contain a great many positive qualities. These qualities make them worthy of a healthy amount and type of affection. However, It is no secret that a great segment of the population now worships animals, particularly their dogs. It is a rare thing to encounter a car without a “Who Rescued Who” dog paw bumper sticker, an “I Love My Grand Dogs” bone magnet, or even the epitaph I encountered recently, “I kiss My Dog On The Lips”. (Really no need for analysis there. It seems to speak for itself) But there are effects far more damaging than the recent glut of bumper stickers due to this elevation of the animal to an equal, or often a higher plane than man. (Dog lovers please; no burning bags of Fido’s good works on my doorstep for pointing this out.) One very clear example of this played out is that we see endless commercials about saving unwanted and abused dogs and cats, but never one on saving the unborn child. While animals and pets serve their purpose and are a source of joy to be treated respectfully, they are not the highest of the corporeal creatures. That would be us. Yes, humanity. But alas! What good is a human when you can chain yourself to a tree which leads to the next object.
Again, our being the highest of corporeal creations comes with a great responsibility to the lower, according to Holy Mother Church. Consult the Catechism on this. It makes sense, as the Catholic faith is a faith of reason and logic. God is the ultimate Being of reason, and so it follows. This responsibility includes that owed to this grand and unfathomable gift of the cosmos, and more specifically our breathtaking corner of this little expanse; Earth. However, an important distinction must be made about this responsibility. It is not so much a responsibility to the natural world itself as inanimate objects have no feelings, physical or psychological, rather it is a responsibility owed to the living and animated inhabitants of course, and ultimately to the Creator. It is a dangerous proposition to place the kind of love onto nature that is reserved for only human beings. We respect and cherish the natural world because it is a profound gift and a perfect reflection of the order and enormity of the ultimate beauty and love (more on that in a future post).
While it is unhealthy at best to ascribe human qualities and affections to animals and trees, there seems to be a new kid in town; the virtual pets. I am not referring to pets in the strictest sense of the term, rather an object of attention, attachment, affection, and perceived fulfillment. This can encompass the whole gamut of electronics, gadgetry, games and the like. But in the interest of time, let’s look at one specific kind as it relates back to Big Hero Six and the robot guy called Baymax. There are multimillion dollar companies peddling an endless stream of these virtual “pets”. There is one I play with my children called Pou. It is essentially a little electronic blob with eyes and a mouth that you must feed, change, bathe, and play with to keep it “healthy and alive”. Strange, if we step back even a half a step. I have even caught myself describing Pou as “cute”, particularly while it is “young” and small. Notice all of the words in quotations given the fact that Pou is not even really a material substance.
Cute, no? (and cool)
In reality, Pou is nothing but a bunch of colored pixels with an electronic voice over. And though this is in many ways innocent enough comparatively, one can certainly see not only how this is getting out of hand in terms of money and time spent, but also effecting a change in our attitude. It is having an impact on how our children and perhaps even older generations, view the world and the beings in it.
I grew up a child of the 80’s (can I get an “Amen”?!) About all we had was the occasional waiting for your table at a certain restaurant Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Frogger. I never once heard anyone describe Pac-Man, Miss Pac-Man by extension (nor the frog for that matter) as “cute”, nor any other term of endearment. Never, not once. Human beings, with all of their being connected through social media and its electronic facilitators, are more lonely, isolated and lacking in love than ever before. And now we are looking not just to trees and animals but to electronics to “love” us” and to “love” back.
Your eyes are the most beautiful shade of lavender. Looking into them is like seeing my soul staring back at me.
Back to Baymax the robot. What is it about it that is so peculiar? It’s not so much that it is a computer graphic animated into “being”. We are all, sadly, used to that by now. (Even our Lost in Space robot was made out of actual cardboard boxes, tinfoil and Slinkys.) But what is strange is the actual look of the thing. Though not outwardly objectionable nor offending, there is something still very wrong in how it looks, something almost hard to pinpoint as it is not entirely unappealing in appearance and yet somewhat terrible in its lacking. (Does this sound like anyone else we know of?!) It is in the blank emptiness of the thing’s appearance. The vacuousness, devoid of anything resembling actual flesh and blood human life. The nothingness. And nothingness is bleakness. And bleakness is hopelessness. And hopelessness is nihilism. That theory of absurd purposeless existence without a grand order accorded by our loving Creator.
Maybe you think I have gone too far in my analysis of this white blob, and I am sure he is a really standup guy in the film, but in today’s modern context then again, perhaps this is not completely far off. If art imitates life, then in fact it is not far-fetched at all. We do live in a nihilistic world, one that seeks to fill this vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum. This includes our human natures. And we are continually trying to fill the vacuum with more illusion. And the illusion is getting more illusory by the minute.
This does give me a hankering for s’mores though. (And they are not just a perceived good.)
Man used to try and fill himself up with only good old-fashioned disordered material things, now we have added to that list, the virtual. Now we have this white blob. There is little doubt that a creation like Baymax would not have been well received back in my day. It is likely that no one would have been drawn to such a thing, no matter how quippy and clever his mile a minute one-liners may have been. People would not have been able to “get him” back then, but they do now. This speaks volumes about our modern day understanding, or lack thereof, about the nature of being. Another aspect of this all is that none of this virtual surrogate parenthood or companionship is teaching our children what the world is promising it will; love and respect and unity among fellow humans. Instead, it is teaching us to not only put our time and money and attention into things that are in fact not even really there, but to take all of this affection off of human beings. As a result, we are viewing other humans as beings unworthy of love and compassion. We have an overabundance of each, for inanimate objects, with little left for people. And why? Because, trees, dogs, and virtual beings now, never “let us down”.
Newsflash: Human beings have been letting each other down since the dawn of time. (A story comes to mind about a garden.) But they are still the only items on this list capable, through their free will, of returning love. Does humanity hold anything worthy of endearment anymore? If we keep operating under the assumption that the answer is “no”, then soon it won’t. This means not just in our perception of others, but in their acts. In short, If we view people as unworthy of love, it will soon follow that they will start to act in the same manner. A being must receive love to know love, whether from humans or the ultimate love from our Creator. The latter is a gushing well that is highly neglected, and fewer and fewer attempts are made at the former. This is already a current and continuous tragedy, hurling toward catastrophe. We hear repeatedly about a person’s dog and its “unconditional love”. But what about actual unconditional love between deeply flawed and yet loving and yearning human beings?
I have experienced and do experience this act of the will daily. My husband is one who unconditionally loves. No matter my weakness or selfishness, and a whole slew of other “ness” words, he is there with the tireless work of love and an exceedingly short memory. I am not sure why except that he must truly understand what is meant by the term Christ-like. As a mother I certainly experience this with my children. No matter their mistakes or quirks of personality or their flaws, they remain to me beautiful, tender little beings who grip my heart to the point where I can physically feel it in my chest. Of course there is no denying that unconditional love can be difficult.
Nonetheless here we are, sinful and marred, with intellects, and complicated psychologies, and utterly unique histories, and that glorious, frightening thing: free will. And yet we still use that free will to love each other unconditionally. This is nothing short of a miracle. And it is made possible only because we were created not out of necessity, but out of one thing only: an infinite, unyielding and mysterious love. This is the beginning and end of it all.
Now back to that Porphyrian Tree. Consult the tree and you will see that we knew far more about ourselves and all of this in the year 200 AD than we do now. Our beautiful world is made up of the rational, (humans) the sensible, (animals) and the rest, and now we can add the strange and unforeseeable category of the virtual. But in the several hundreds of years since, each of these categories of being and our understanding of them has gotten all mixed up. It has become like an artificial Christmas tree that we have taken upon our inept selves to reassemble. And the branches have been placed in the wrong holes in the trunk. Many of the elements (the branches) are assigned qualities of being that simply do not exist and never will, while robbing those intrinsic qualities from those who do actually possess them by their nature. And instead of growing upward toward the sun, this tree seems to be rotting in the ground. Surely the handiwork of our enemy. He is the master of chaos and confusion, which he often disguises as great concern. Good, he portrays as bad and bad as good. And then nothing makes sense; goodbye to natural law and reason. Goodbye to true love.
But we need to revisit, recover and reorder this Porphyrian Tree on both the grand scale; the greater order, and small scales; the order in our souls. This is the tree worthy of hugging, because it encompasses the highest abilities of our intellect, to reason, to contemplate and to seek truth, and points to this order, which makes not only perfect, but beautiful sense. Because it came from He who is perfect in reason and in beauty. Worthy of a lifelong embrace indeed.
Is it a leap, to go from Big Hero Six and the white blob to nihilism? Perhaps. But perhaps not. The effect of modern man elevating the non human creations to a point higher than their natures, is that it is at the cost of embracing humanity and the opportunities for love offered therein. Nature abhors that vacuum. And so our rejection of somethingness (mankind) or everythingness (the Divine Being of the Godhead) is the embracing of nothing things (the white blob), and nothingness (Nihilism). This is hard to recover from, once in place. So, in a world of virtual goods, beings, and reality, and their perceived good, let us seek the actual of each of these. They are there. And they point to a nature whose origins are in a goodness that has nothing virtual about it.