Killing Mosquitoes at a Narrow Gate

March 14, 2017

camel and needle

I have a small subscription list of friends and acquaintances to whom I’ve been emailing poetrydaily for maybe ten years. I mix it up: some poems are mine and some are those I come across which strike me in ways that compel me to share them. They range from classic works to modern pieces in various modes and styles. This morning I posted this:

All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
killing mosquitoes

This is a haiku by Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) translated by American poet RobertHaas. It struck me that these three lines correspond to something I recalled from the NewTestament, from the Gospel of Matthew to be exact. Matthew has Jesus making this remark:

“…the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” —Matthew 7:13-14

Googling a bit I found that most Christian interpreters consider this an insight relating to salvation in a traditional Christian sense, but scriptural interpreters have been known to have axes to grind and have surely spun verses to grind them well. As a result many words have been put into the mouths of religious figures that they probably never dreamed of thinking, much less saying. But I think both of these verses speak to the same authentic truth, namely that being a genuinely good and honorable person in this world is not an easy thing.

The forces operating against goodness have always been fierce and mighty, this is nothing new. Pushback is not an idea that suddenly popped up in 21st century news cycles. In fact, centuries of religious teachings might be thought of as moral pushback systems and the figures at their center, each in their own way, sometimes cramped by prejudices of their own cultures, have struggled and taught against greed, ignorance, fear, xenophobia, misogyny, religious intolerance, hate, you name it, by appealing to us to consider truth.

So in Issa’s haiku we have a Buddhist whose tradition teaches ahimsa (no harm) murdering mosquitoes. It’s hard not to harm in the middle of a biting swarm. Few could do it. Squeezing through the good gate is as hard as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. In the past these ideas meant something. They meant so much that religious traditions grew around the teachings of especially insightful and compassionate humans who bucked human nature. But today we follow different drummers who speak in the tongues of men without an ounce of compassion and sound like clanging cymbals in irrational tweets at 3 a.m. —men and women who throw themselves into the worst swamps of human nature without shame then twist and torture the meaning of words, of ideas, of truths into grotesque caricatures of the good.

In the United States we’ve come to a place where we’ve elevated such men and women to power to an extent we’ve never done before. Men and women who treat truths as if they were lies and speak lies with the moral ease of Russian oligarchs using their people as door mats at the thresholds of their mansions. We have a president who’s in the process of creating such moral confusion through tweets and counter tweets, through wild charges and immediate contradictions, through the use of calculated, serial sprays of doubletalk from the mouths of press secretaries and surrogates that he is accomplishing what the Soviet Union could not do in its 70 years of existence, which is to bury us.

An immediate example of what we’re doing to ourselves is wrapped in the person of Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives —an ironic title if there ever was one. A speaker who’s been pushing a bill that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will do exactly what he claims it will not do. It will strip 24 million Americans of their health insurance. It will cost especially older people more. It will treat the poor as pathetic chumps. And it will do this in the name of Ryan’s ideology. It will do this in the name of Ryan’s primary constituency: the rich. And, as if to rub salt into wounds, it will do this to the sights and sounds of Ryan’s obvious glee in having pulled off something Republicans have been salivating over for decades: not so much to kill so-called entitlements for the poor and middleclass but to transfer them to the wealthy by means of the tax breaks for elites that will finance the Republican health “care” bill.

To make things even more insulting, Ryan doesn’t even seem to know what the basic idea of insurance is yet there he is stating the obvious as if it were some dark, secret evil. He says the “fatal conceit” in Obama-care is that it has the healthy paying for the care of the sick.

Ryan on Obama’s ACA: “… young and healthy people are going to go into the market and pay for the older, sicker people.’ So the young healthy person is going to be made to buy health care, and they’re going to pay for the person, you know, who gets breast cancer in her 40s. Or who gets heart disease in his 50s.”

You want to say, What! were you born yesterday? The insurance industry is built upon exactly that. Every form of insurance since the idea was first conceived is a statistical system built upon odds. Every insurance system counts on making its profits from those who pay premiums but never collect.

After the CBO’s report was issued Ryan of course claimed it said exactly what it did not say. But, though Paul Ryan may be a fool, he’s no dope. He knows exactly what he’s doing and so is a pathetic example of how narrow they way is that leads to life (and truth), and of how Paul may sit contentedly at mass in his Sunday suit praying to his God while grinning and swatting, killing poor mosquitoes.


Jim Culleny

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