The Is and the Ought
by Jeremy Adams
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Anton Shenkman was a young man of grandiose pronouncements.
He would eventually become an arsonist and a murderer.
And I... I would become his unknowing accomplice.
He moved to our town at the age of seventeen in the aftermath of his father’s death. He didn’t attend my high school but was a loyal attendee of my church. He took a room at his uncle’s house located across the street from the church; proximity had more to do with his choice of churches than denomination.
Anton came to dominate our youth group from the moment he stepped foot in the first meeting. He skipped the meetings where we actually did something fun like play a game, go to a movie, or take part in community service. But his bells sounded louder than anyone else’s at the regular meetings where we discussed scripture or theology with our youth minister.
His favorite expression had something to do with the “universal shallowness of the modern man,” as he phrased it. Anton had this crazy notion that everything in modern culture was aimed at encouraging “the human mind to forget what it would naturally seek in its natural, reflective state.”
He had pessimistic pronouncements about everything from art, sports, politics, and anything concerned with culture in general:
“That’s not artistry, it’s archaic stupidity,” he said in response to a modern artist who had visited our city recently.
“The Greeks understood the aim of sport. These guys on a football field are just well-trained creatures of athletic habit. Where’s the longing for perfection in them?”
“Even Robespierre had more statesmanship than today’s rancorous politicians.”
He tore down and tore down. His incessant criticism was never balanced by anything the least bit constructive. He never built anything but cheap intellectual artifices.
His departure for college was a glorious occasion for those of us who stayed in town for school. No one liked him much. But then again, nobody really listened to him either — that is, besides me. He had all the idiosyncrasies of an autistic child: the hand movements, the slight nuances of his facial expressions, the weirdness in general. When he left for college most of us assumed that we would never see him again. But every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and summer he would grace us with a return to church, except this time he haunted the adult Bible study classes.
No one befriended Anton despite the fraternal spirit we are told to embody by the Bible: “Am I not my brother’s keeper?”
Anton definitely didn’t need to be kept, though. His very persona radiated independence. When most people speak they look for recognition or reaction from others. Anton never cared. It was almost as if he was speaking to some other layer of reality separated from the rest of us. Moreover, when he did speak it was never quite germane to what everyone else was talking about. Non sequiturs came to dominate his outbursts. The flock would generally continue the discussion as if Anton had never spoken. This never bothered him, as he would stare at the ground unless he was speaking.
It wasn’t until the summer after Anton’s sophomore year of college that I really began to scratch the surface of what he was saying. It was during that summer that I had my first conversation with Anton. I didn’t befriend him because such a prospect would have been impossible. It was only in the midst of an odd dialectic during Bible study that I began to recognize the eccentricity that defined him.
The topic of the Bible study session had been the effects of wealth on the human soul. The general consensus of the group had been that wealth is acceptable as long as it was not utilized as the barometer of one’s spiritual self-worth. And of course, being loyal church-goers, we all decided that tithing was a sufficient material sacrifice. But Anton became enraged, taking part in a panegyric about Buddha’s childhood, and then about the rich man that Christ rebuked, and then made a point that made everyone nervous.
“Think about it for just a moment,” he counseled. “Let’s say that in America we can buy a car for $10,000 with everything you would ever need: reliability, comfort, safety, a radio and maybe even power steering and power locks. But let’s say you can afford a $20,000 car with leather, a sunroof, and a V-6 engine. The works, you know. Isn’t there any moral obligation to take the extra $10,000 and donate it in order to save fifty African children from disease and famine? I would certainly say so. There’s no question about it. We consume as if there is no opportunity cost. But there is. And it must be measured in the currency of human life.”
It sounded like a 1960's ‘Let’s Save The World’ diatribe that we have all heard in one form or another. But the moral logic of his argument was unsettling because it was so sound, so much so that I had to tell him about it.
“I’m glad my words superseded my weirdness for once,” he said.
“Well, I actually listen to what you say. I don’t always agree or understand, but I have an open ear.”
“Well, good. I rarely get that.” He never made eye contact. He continued on. “I have this vision in my mind of an adult Anton who people listen to. But I worry that the adult Anton will be listened to like the child Anton, and that worries me and stifles my futuristic prospects.”
“Damn, this guy is weird,” I thought. I was lost in his verbal abyss once again. He began to look me in the eyes, obviously fixated on a thought rather than on my eyes.
“Hey,” he said while jerking away from me. “You want to go across the street? I’ll show you what I mean.”
“What you mean about what?” I trepidly asked.
“About the adult Anton.”
His third-person referencing just added another flavor on his palate of bizarreness.
I followed him across the street to his uncle’s house. It was your ordinary house born out of the Baby Boomer era. Not too clean, but not too dirty. His uncle was apparently a bachelor who rarely occupied his own house due to the nature of his work — a railroad worker I believe he was. Anton briskly walked to his room located immediately off the living room. His room smelled of peppermint, and papers had been cascaded all over the floor. Three plates with rotting turkey sandwiches sat in different corners of the room. He must have seen the look of disgust on my face.
“It’s all I eat, really. I had to go to the infirmary last year because I thought my gums were infected. Turns out I was in the early stages of scurvy.”
He had a five-layer bookshelf that dominated the north wall of his room. At first glance I didn’t notice the logic of his shelving. Each layer of his bookshelf was devoted to a single individual. The top shelf was devoted to Jesus, the second was layered with Buddhist literature, the third featured the collected works of Saint Augustine, the fourth was littered with different renditions of a book entitled Summa Theologica, and the bottom shelf was jammed full of books by Rousseau.
Stapled on the right hand side of the bookshelf was a piece of notebook paper with the words “The Ought” scribbled on it. There was a similar piece of paper stapled above his window which led to the front porch. This piece of paper had the words “The Is” written on it.
“Barring sickness or catastrophe,” he presaged, “I have conceptualized my life to old age.”
Before me was a time line that he had pieced together of his life. He held it so close to my face that I had to take two steps back to take it all in. Not only had he included events from the past, he had written down events that had yet to take place.
The time line was divided into two distinct halves: the “ought” and the “is.” The “ought,” he explained, were the years of his childhood and young adulthood. He knew little of the world, he readily acquiesced, but was encyclopedic in his knowledge of Christ, Buddha, Augustine, Aquinas and Rousseau.
“By the time I spend ten years digesting the majestic ideas of these men, I guarantee I’ll have a crystal view of The Ought. By then I will move on to the Is.”
“The Ought?” I repeated.
“You know,” he said. “A view of what is possible in life, in the world. We all have to know what’s possible so we know what direction to march in.” He was looking down at his feet as if he were reading his words from a podiatric teleprompter.
“I just want to make sure I’m fighting for the right thing.”
The second segment of his time line, “The Is,” mentioned nothing of marriage, a profession, or any other adult-like items. There were three parts of “The Is” broken down into lengthy blocks. Each block had a single title. The first block was entitled “famine.” The second had the word “enrichment” paraded over it, and the last segment was dedicated to “revelations.”
“You see the logic of my design, don’t you?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand you,” I was forced to say.
“Art isn’t accidental. It’s conceived in the mind of the artist before it manifests itself in the world.”
“I’m still not following, Anton.”
“You see, I will spend over ten years of my life discovering what Plato called ‘the Good.’ And once I’ve discovered it I will go about bringing it to fruition in the world. You see, ‘The Is’ will become ‘The Ought.’ It’s very Christ-like.”
His arrogance was suffocating me. It struck me that he had created the time line on a mental whim.
After he graduated from college, however, he came home and refused to get a job. For whatever reason, his uncle continued to support his academic lifestyle, and Anton was more than happy to take advantage. I never spoke with him in person again but was always observant of his church attendance and outbursts during the Bible meetings.
At the age of twenty-seven he went to the used bookstore, sold the totality of his library and vanished without a trace. No one at the church knew his whereabouts until the pastor ventured across the street to ask his uncle about his sudden disappearance.
“He’ll be sending in updates for your church bulletin,” his uncle supposedly said.
And so from that day forward the church bulletin became an entity of interest to me. Up to that point I never read a word of the weekly bulletin. But henceforth it became the beacon of light on Wednesday evenings as I would stem through the bulletin. Under the “Personal Tidbit” section of the bulletin, the church would issue a tersely-worded blurb about fellow church members. The name was always in bold, which made it easier for me to scan.
“Betty Mahoney broke her hip and is recuperating comfortably at her home.”
“Gary Green has announced his retirement from the local Farming Council.”
“Rey Serabian and his wife Lindsey are expecting their first child in August.”
Months, even years, passed and countless bolded names were consumed by my eyes and mind. But no bolded Anton was ever seen. I had long since given up reading the church bulletin when one of my friends whose wife worked at the church called me with the news.
“You have to read the bulletin when it comes out tomorrow,” my friend exclaimed. “It has some interesting information about that weird fella from a few years back. What was his name?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“Well, what does it say?”
“I don’t really know,” he said in earnest. My question had sapped his zeal. He continued on. “My wife just said it was consistent with his weirdness.”
Copyright © 2005 by Jeremy Adams