Where Torches Burn

Content advisory 18+ The other day a friend of mine was trying to explain something during a lesson we were having on Skype. He is a 49-year-old Russian businessman who used to live in America. He is very pro-American, or, shall I say, pro-West, in terms of what he considers its more highly evolved way of life. BUT he is Russian at heart, which I can only explain (to myself as well as to you) by suggesting that he loves his country in spite of itself and in spite of HIMSELF. If you know what I mean.


I guess if you are from, say, New Zealand, a part of you will love New Zealand no matter where you end up. It's just an element of who you are, and you can't avoid it. You would have to hate yourself totally in order to despise the entirety of where and what you came from. Right? And we all have to love SOMETHING. Right?
But my friend meanwhile does nothing but criticize Russia. He has even come up with a means of explaining why the average level of intelligence in Russia is less than that of European and North American countries. I confess that I could not grasp the full intricacy of his reasoning so I won't even try to repeat it to you, but, trust me, that is his theory.
Of course, like most Russians, he can refer to family members of the past who suffered this or that injustice at the hands of the authorities. Moreover, his experience in America was apparently a very positive one and he sort of wishes he had stayed there. He returned, with his Russian wife at the time (whom he met in America) because he believed that his country had 'turned over a new leaf' and was heading in a positive direction.

Now he regrets that choice. He is like quite a few Russian ex-pats who currently live in the US or UK. Intensely hostile to the current Russian government and equally contemptuous of most of Russian history, he remains -- as they mostly do as well -- nevertheless doggedly proud of being Russian.
And so what he was trying to explain to me was one of the myriad differences between the USA and Russia -- this, as with most all of his examples, in order to demonstrate the superiority of the American way of doing things. The particular topic he focused on pretty much captured what is often referred to as 'The American Dream.'


It goes like this: Americans can start with little or nothing and, by dint of true grit and sheer determination, proceed to the top of the ladder. Russians, on the other hand, cannot seem (or prefer not to bother trying) to accomplish this. And, according to the theory, it goes back to the concept of America as, originally, a frontier country where people arrived with little other than their dreams and systemically forged their way from the Atlantic to the Pacific, surmounting all obstacles with the help of their guns, guts, and God, grabbing chunks of land, farming it (40 acres and a mule), and building their dreams out of mud.
If we sidestep the more unpleasant aspects of this odyssey (slavery, the general lawlessness of the Wild West, the boomtown avarice and violence of the Gold Rush era, the attempted genocide of the Red American natives), there is truth to be found in it. Moreover, the wave of immigrants in the early part of the 20th century, augmented this glowing ideal. Italians, Irish, Germans, Jews, Russians, etc., landed mostly empty-handed and within a generation or two had likewise begun to live the dream.


But again, this is part reality and part myth. Alongside the Honest Johns and Devoted Janes that set about doing things the 'right way', and so methodically constructed the Middle-Class bastions of small town America, we had the mafia, the labor union wars, the Jim Crow (racial segregation) policies, corrupt police and politicians, etc. -- the latter two offering, as elsewhere, the usual foul-tasting diet of human scum.
Basically, however, this idea of 'rags-to-riches' which constitutes The American Dream more or less survives critical analysis. I am American and at the same time no great fan of America -- yet I had to concede that my Russian friend was on the right track. But his critique did not stop there. In his opinion, it was not just Americans of the great and famous 'melting pot' who deserved the credit, but more specifically those of Anglo Saxon descent.
This is also where we get into the notion of the so-called Protestant Work Ethic. It runs as follows. The Protestant Reformation, which came about in the wake of Martin Luther's revolt again the sumptuousness and almost total corruption of the Catholic Church, resulted in the ascendancy of some very serious-minded and god-fearing folk. And there were a bunch of them: Puritans, Calvinists, Lutherans, Quakers, take your pick. These people were of the all work and no play variety, and they frowned severely on such foolishness as drinking, dancing, and fornicating. Even today, you can tell the difference in mentality just by comparing a Catholic church (or cathedral) to a Protestant one.


Cathedrals are invariably ornate, gold-gilded, and generally magnificent. Protestant churches look like mean halfway houses with sharp, dagger-like steeples planted firmly atop them. Put it this way: no tourist ever ever wore out his camera photographing Protestant Houses of Worship -- although it must be said that English villages are full of these stony little halls of piety and their burial gardens outside where dead parishioners of yore lie at rest beneath the ancient gravestones that still can be seen poking from the ground like rotten toothpicks -- and nor can one deny that they attain to a certain quaintness.
But above all, they bespeak a harsh view of life. "Early to bed and early to rise", the adage goes, "makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise." Another one runs as follows: "Spare the rod and spoil the child." This means quite simply that you must beat some discipline into the your snot-nosed kid, otherwise, he/she will stray from the 'flock'. Likewise "children should be SEEN and not HEARD." Well, you get the idea.
It was these Anglo-Saxon Protestants who built the first churches in America, and their gray-flecked austerity still permeates a hidden part of the American spirit. They were narrow, flinty, no-nonsense people who worked hard and did not smile much while doing it (nobody was going to laugh his way in THEIR heaven, by God). These are the people whom my Russian friend gives the bulk of the credit to.


To prove his point even more, he cited American films.
"Do you ever notice," he said, "how the heroes in American films are always forced to overcome obstacles in order to win out in the end? That is the secret of Americans: this faith that they can triumph over adversity. Russians do not possess this. They think that trying to achieve a goal through honest hard work is a waste of time. They would rather wait for a miracle."
This, he concluded was the difference: Americans (Protestants) make things happen; Russians (Orthodox and essentially Catholic in how their churches conduct business) are taught to do nothing and wait for a stroke of luck or Divine Intervention...
One of the examples he offered was the film "Rocky". Rocky, he explained, was an emblem of American faith in how the underdog always has a chance to prevail -- if he wants it badly enough.
Hmmmm...I thought. Rocky. Yes, those films had gone down well with me also.


By this time, I was getting excited and so a wonderful thought crossed my mind. I would access on YouTube the short clip of Rocky running through the streets of Philadelphia, accompanied by the fabulous soundtrack "Getting Strong Now." In this film clip, the children start following Rocky and they all run together until, at the end, Rocky puts on a blazing burst of speed and vaults up the stone steps of the monument building (City Hall?) and starts dancing around in triumph at the top. Most people have seen this episode and, to be sure, it is inspiring as hell -- if you are the type to get worked up by ANYTHING. I confess, I sometimes watch this clip just to pull myself out of a round of negative thinking, which is probably why it came to mind at this moment.


"Wait," I told my friend. "I have a surprise for you." (My friend has also expressed an interest in Motivational Speaking, and so I thought that this film segment would get his blood pumping.) And I activated the Rocky clip, inspiring music in background and all. It seemed to me the perfect way to punctuate the point he was making about 'work ethic'. You must understand that he was sitting at his kitchen table in Moscow as we spoke on Skype. So as Rocky came churning out of his house into the road to begin his roadwork (running that boxers do for training), my friend suddenly disappeared from the table and started pulling breakfast material from the shelves.
"Watch!" I cried.


"I'm listening," he answered. Off goes Rocky, muscles bulging from his sweat-suit, on his training jaunt.
"Yeah, but you need to see it!"
Finally, he sat back down. At this point, Rocky (Balboa) is passing through a marketplace where an Italian flag is flying and people are shouting encouragement to him. ("C''mon Rocky! You can take him!") ) Then he is joined by children who magically appear. Rocky turns and beckons to them to come on, and off they go, Rocky running ahead, the kids adoringly at his heels...
At this point, my friend, recognizing the location, puts in, "I know Philadelphia." And he starts naming the buildings he sees. That is such-and-such, that is..blah blah, etc. He is focusing, not on Rocky and the kids, but on the architecture. (I am getting exasperated a bit). Finally Rocky goes into his sprint and the music becomes powerful ("Getting strong now! GETTING STRONG NOW!"), reaching a crescendo as Rocky's arms and legs go pumping up and down. I am always wildly inspired at this point. Then Rocky surges up the steps. 2 minutes and 12 seconds. That's all the complete attention I had asked my friend for.


Afterwards, my friend says, "He doesn't look like a boxer." He did of course. Stallone in those days was a fitness fanatic and he actually trained with real prize fighters before doing the films. I point this out.
And I ask, "Didn't you find that inspiring and motivating?"
My friend responds with a bunch of rhetoric about Italian working class origins in America, and finally, I just cut him off.
It was clear that he had missed the point totally.
OK, it was just a film, and 'Rocky' was just an actor named Sylvester Stallone. There weren't really any children running after him in the streets. It was all make believe. But what it captured, at least in my view, was the Passion which lay at the root of the 'work ethic'. That was the point, that was the key. That's what it was all about.
By contrast, I saw a film once that depicted a mega-factory somewhere in China where thousands of Chinese workers kept churning out Christmas decorations -- reindeer, white-bearded Santa Clauses, multi-colored bulbs for Christmas trees, etc. -- to ship to America. Forgetting for a moment the supposedly 'true' meaning of Christmas, not to mention the spending orgies that happen in America at that time of year, what I saw struck me as simultaneously surreal and obscene. It made me fully comprehend the figurative meaning of the term "anthill." This was work ethic without the underlying passion ('motivation, yes, I suppose, but who knows what sort?) that all the great artists and entrepreneurs possess.


So I wanted my friend to feel the passion that is way beyond any mundane adherence to or insistence on the Bottom Line... The PASSION. Evidently, he didn't see it. To him, it was all about details and analytics.
So let me make the point. The so-called Protestant Work Ethic is NOTHING without the Dream that inspires it. ROBOTS have a great work ethic. Robots do not inspire me. Besides, in the end, its not about Protestants or Anglo-Saxons particularly, to the exclusion of others. They just know how to get up early in the morning.
Anything worth doing: cooking, love-making, boxing, building churches and skyscrapers, in order to be done well, must be done with PASSION. Without that, it is only bean-counting and inventory.


So, my dear friend, next time you think about Anglo-Saxon/Protestant work ethic -- or, for that matter, any other target that is fundamentally based on first dreaming the dream, remember not just the hard and precise mechanics of the work, but the underlying fire burning in the furnaces of the heart. For that is the secret, my friend, and without it all the hours in the office following the long commute mean nothing, leading only perhaps to some future heart attack. Or regret for having wasted one's life. Anything is possible, as long as there is Fire in you, in me.

===Eric Richard Leroy===

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