Editor’s Note: the first half of “Briggs” can be read here.
-Really? It’s not to feel good? Well then, Hoover, what is the purpose of life?
-Well… that’s a very fine question. I raised up to my full philosophical and pedantic height. My spongy black New Balance footwear suddenly seemed unworthy of the answer I had to give this teetering dime store sophist. Can you really save the world in such loathsome shoes? I strode onward.
-What is the purpose of life? Well, many people would say many things. Terrible beginning! I mentally gave myself a roundhouse kick. I rallied: the point of life, Briggs, is to leave the world a little better for the next generation. (Suddenly I saw a poster with a sunset and wildflowers and a storm fence near a sandy beach. I did not like this poster.)
-Let me restate that. The true purpose of life, I went on, specifying things, is to make a difference in the life of a child. (Same poster, but with a sun-freckled girl holding a flower out to the shadow of her mother’s arm. Ahh the sadness of our banal efforts at life’s purpose!) I regrouped.
-Let’s just cut to the chase: The point of life is to love and be loved in return.
Now there, there was something! I had heard precisely this line in a song in a jazz show with a real blonde girl in Cincinnati I did not in fact love. We had gone to a club with her roommates, where a jazzman in a hat brightly sang about “a strange enchanting boy,” who went around telling people “the greatest thing… you’ll ever learn is just to love… and to be loved… in return.” This was years ago, and though things did not work out with Melissa, (wonderful as she was, let’s do justice here) perhaps, in some odd way they had. I was with her when I heard that song, and it had stayed all these years, and was being put to good use. It was a perfect answer for a romantic roughneck like Briggs. (Was he a roughneck, I suddenly wondered. Had he ever done anything mean in his life? Who exactly was Briggs?).
Briggs didn’t respond. Not to this or any of my offerings. He just looked at me with no expression. I became more self-conscious than usual and quickly moved on.
-Or, one might say the purpose of life is to get in touch with your higher power. Or to achieve self-actualization. Or it’s like this tribe I heard about in South America – or maybe it was a men’s club – anyway, for them the purpose of life somehow is centered around growing your nails – with intention. But more than that. But not. Think about it.
Now, of course I could have given Briggs something baldly Christian. I could have just laid my tattered holy cards, as it were, on the table. Hand over your life to Jesus. Repent and sin no more. There is one like a Son of Man. Where two stand, one will be left. Be a fire etc that kindles etc whatever etc. But it would be too obvious. Briggs would expect that from me. Besides, smacking down the bloody crucifix on this guy would be like using a brick of firecrackers to wake up the four year old; a rocket launcher to smoke out a hedgehog. A spiritual toddler like Briggs needed a more delicate instrument.
-Or for a great many people, I said, the telos of life is to depart from samsara and get to nirvana, ultimate reality, the great–
-Nah. It’s to feel good, said Briggs. Everyone does all that stuff so they don’t feel like a [deleted] [deleted]. Like they’ve wasted their life. Everyone just wants to feel good about themselves. End of story.
I looked at him, bewildered.
-People take drugs to feel good. Is that the purpose of life? To take drugs?
-No, it’s to feel good. Drugs help you get there, then fine.
-But people get addicted to drugs. Booze, coke, meth. They lose their homes, their families, ruin their lives.
-Then they should get off the drugs. So they’ll feel better.
-They shouldn’t have started in the first place.
-Sounds good to me. Less time feeling like a [deleted] [deleted].
-So, lets get this straight. Just – I affected a cheery voice – Do drugs! Steal cars! Be a whoremonger! Because it feels good!
-Be a whoremonger.
-Even if it leads to diseases and abortions and, and…
-Stuff that feels bad? Then don’t be a whoremonger.
I stared at him. I get it, I finally said. You’re playing Socrates. To make me question my assumptions. And so come to find that I don’t know anything at all. And there, there is the beginning of true wisdom! Ahh, yes. And you just ride it out above everyone else.
I knew this was wrong as soon as I finished saying it. Briggs did nothing out of calculation. He simply said what he said. He was, in this way, like a fish. He just swam where he needed to swim. His t-shirt was 17 years-old.
-Look, I said to Briggs, trying to remove any sort of ecclesial tenor from my voice and just talk to him, one Omaha guy to another. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say to someone–
-Did you know, Briggs said, apropos of nothing, his entire tone changed, almost childlike, the meatpacking plants used to employ half the workforce in this town?
-Uh, no. No, I, uh, didn’t know it was that high.
-In the ’50‘s the meatpacking union was interracial. It was so powerful it pushed through an end to segregation in the city’s bars, restaurants, all that.
Briggs picked up off my desk a grey mug that said “Brebeuf” and sort of cradled it in his hands. My grandfather worked down there, he said. He and all his old union buddies were, like, the only non-racist grandpa’s in the entire midwest.
A light dawned.
-Now, look, oh, Briggs, see, you’re on to something. Look at the bigger picture here. If everyone just does what feels good, then men are gonna move their capital wherever it feels best for them. Without even considering the people who have made them all that capital. They’re gonna move it unilaterally to where it can have illicit affairs with other capital and make even more capital. And it’s usually not where guys like you are at, is it? They shut down those plants to get away from the unions. There are economic ramifications for what you’re talking about. Do you have a job? You don’t, do you? Do you ever wonder why?
-That’s pretty one-sided.
-Those guys are just following the market.
-You’ve got to be–
-The market knows. Better than we do. Industry decided to consolidate, move closer to the production side. Besides, unions hold back innovation and drive up costs. Cheaper labor means a better return for shareholders. Take things to some small town out west, hire all these Honduran guys, Guatemalans, give them a better life. What have you got against Guatemalans? Shareholders cash in, management makes out, everyone benefits.
-Everyone except the guys who lost their jobs here.
-Creative destruction. You think the Black Angel got built without someone knocking that stone around?
-In that graveyard in Council Bluffs?
-Are there others?
-Briggs don’t you see, you can’t let these whoremongers or businessmen or anyone do whatever they want. Our entire civilization… I mean, there’d be no order. Everything would be up for grabs. Only he with the most power, he who could use his power to manifest his desires in the most expedient way (for some reason I suddenly began talking like the Constitution) would rule over the fates of men. It’s Machiavellian.
-Wouldn’t know. I don’t read Italian crime.
-Actually, I’ve never read Machiaevelli either. Is that what it is? A crime novel?
-Here’s the thing. You tell me what part of your life you did with the express intent of feeling bad, or that in some way didn’t in the end all come down to feeling good, and I will give you – he waved his hand. I sensed, for just a moment, that this man truly could give me anything my heart desired. I could almost see it before me.
-But, Briggs, my faith. Christ.
-Yeah, yeah. Christ. You didn’t even mention Christ when you were trying to tell me what everything’s all about.
-I told you, people don’t receive… never mind. My point is, Jesus clearly didn’t do what he did to feel good. He suffered to save mankind.
-Saving mankind would feel pretty good.
-But he would do it even if it didn’t feel good!
-Which would make him feel even better.
I took a deep breath. I see, I see. Let’s just come off down the precipice here.
Briggs licked his orange fingers and rubbed them into his palms. I’m not on a precipice, he said.
-What you call feeling good, I call the Holy Spirit. Christ plays in… he plays… really in a lot of places. So what we’re wrestling with is just a theo-linguistic–
Briggs looked at me.
I looked down. A pause.
-I’m sorry, I said.
-I said I’m sorry, alright?
Another silence. Somewhere the Brooklyn Deckers marched down the street, past the empty warehouses, devouring all the men without work.
Briggs looked at his wrist. There was no watch there. I gotta go, he said. I have to visit the prisoner.
Coming from Briggs, “visit the prisoner,” could mean any number of things. Like that, he was down the stairs and gone.
I sat there, stunned. Everything was flying. Had I ever had a decent summer? What was I really in seminary for? Are we all just shallow hedonists? Are all hedonists actually that shallow? And Briggs. Where did he sleep? Had he ever really trundled into the nesting places of all those girls? Was he actually always a little drunk? Now that I thought about it, I had never seen Briggs drink a day in his life – and he was not a doer of things in secret.
Briggs immediately came back.
-I left my popcorn.
There were still a few kernels left in that pathetic bag, the refuse, the dust.
-Briggs, what I think we need is some common ground. But he was already out the door again.
I went to my window and watched him head down the street, weaving ever so slightly. I raised the screen and stuck my head out. I wanted to say something clever, a last shot, but nothing came. Briggs was getting away.
-Repent! I finally shouted at him, ironically. Turn from your sin! Christ is the way!
-You don’t know me, Briggs shouted over his shoulder, still walking.
He was right. I didn’t really know him. I wanted to say something else, but I wasn’t sure what.
-I’m not just talking to you, but to all the forsaken of the land! I proclaimed at last, booming, my best faux prophetic voice. There is only one way to the holy kingdom, and already you have been shown the path!
Except for Briggs no one was out there to hear me, so I could get away with this. On a small roll, I continued.
-And you, titans of the earth, bearer’s of mens’ fates! The blood of your workers flows from your mouths! Release yourselves from slavery to unseen forces!1 Return to your hearts, all mankind, and follow God alone!
It was all over the top and ridiculous, played in broad comic pitch. But it was like something had gotten released. I guess I was more wound up than I realized. I’d been studying Latin all summer.
-And don’t bring that tasteless crumbly [deleted] popcorn around here anymore! Hulls jammed in your teeth all day. No one should have to put up with that kind of–
Brigss turned around and looked up.
-You’re yelling, he said.
So I was. No one, of course, would be able to receive it, whether I was serious or not. It felt great. I went on, while Briggs turned and headed down the street, walking off into the sunset or wherever.
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