Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Dear Cachexia,

Well, isn’t this impressive! You’ve had charge of this patient of yours for just two weeks and you’ve already managed to let him slip into taking part in a pro-life demonstration at a Planned Parenthood “clinic.” How do you do it? Keep this up, and you’ll soon discover just why it is that Wormwood (whom you never met) is referred to as “Chewy” by the older hands around here.

Now, don’t fret and stain your knickers. The situation is far from lost. There are plenty of tricks to learn for successfully handling these two-legged, talking beasts. Just follow my advice, my boy, and you’ll soon be able to play this sap-brained patient of yours like a well-hooked trout.

The first thing to be kept in mind is this: It’s the little things that count. Part of the Enemy’s absolutely unnatural (and positively disgusting) love for these vile humans lies in his having created them “in His own image.” What this means is that He doesn’t make them do anything. Instead, the Enemy has left them free to decide what to make of themselves. What they are is the sum of what they have done. Consequently, every decision the gifted beasties make gives you an opening. You must capitalize on these.

Don’t indulge in hopes for the spectacular. That’s where you neophytes make your mistakes. Concentrate on the mundane. Our patients are creatures of habit. Not one of them simply leaps into the arms of His Excrescence, Big Daddy Red, at the conclusion of some thoroughly edifying but completely unexpected act of stupendous wickedness. These things require careful conditioning. Just keep the patient slouching towards us by helping him to make the seemingly small compromises, and to accept in himself the apparently small lapses, and you will soon have him safely in hand.

Now, it’s just this matter of conditioning that makes the situation with your patient so easily remediable. The chump is just not ready to have this one incident mean much. Managed properly, you not only can contain the damage but turn your patient’s little outing to your distinct advantage.

Don’t forget: As far as this pro-life demonstration goes, your patient is only along for the ride. He’s there only because he feared offending his friend if he declined the invitation to go along. (We’ll attend to this unfortunate friendship later.) Like so many people, your patient finds the whole question of abortion rather unsettling. Thus, the twit does what he can to avoid thinking about the matter altogether. This no doubt has something to do with various of his dubious (but from our perspective, highly useful) adventures with the opposite sex, the mere thought of which produces a roaring sensation in his ears and a pronounced tendency to cringe when the telephone rings unexpectedly or an unseen child on the street yells “Daddy.”

Moreover, your patient is positively addicted to notions like privacy. He has the nagging sense that something is “wrong” with abortion. But, on the other hand, he fears “imposing his values on others” (although, if pushed, he’d have a tough time telling anyone exactly what his “values” really are). So, your patient contents himself with being “personally opposed” to abortion—just as he is to loud ties or Nehru jackets. Remind me sometime to tell you about some of my favorite patients—now safely in the tender maw of Our Father Below—who were personally opposed to the Holocaust, to slavery, and to other of our magnificent achievements.

This mix of confusion and guilt that your patient feels is salubrious. Just keep sloshing it slowly back and forth. This will produce a splendid greensick feeling in the pit of his stomach at the very mention of words like conscience or morals. Then, whenever one of those nasty little questions about conduct or beliefs floats into his mind, simply ask him how he “feels” about it and whether he’s “really comfortable dealing with it.” Don’t worry: He’ll be about as comfortable as a claustrophobic on the A-train at rush hour, and every bit as eager to head for the exits. But don’t overdo it. Push the fun too far, and he may start raising questions for himself. That could be disastrous. Reason is one of the most dangerous of the Enemy’s gifts to these little beasties. What’s more, it’s habit forming.

The whole idea is to keep him from inquiring into anything seriously. (He’ll congratulate himself on being a tough-minded realist who doesn’t waste time on impractical junk.) Just keep everything fuzzy. The effect you’re after is the same one that our Special Forces Units have successfully produced in so many of the modern clergy: The lights are on, but the folks are away on a long vacation.

Now, as we speak, your patient is standing on the curb outside the “clinic” reciting the rosary in a desirably self-conscious manner. Get cracking and proceed as follows:

  1. Keep his attention focused on himself (a basic element to any successful undertaking). Don’t let him think about what actually goes on inside the “clinic.” Your patient is a young man on the rise. Ask him whether “this type of stuff” is likely to further his career or his reputation with “those who count.”
  2. Help him to conjure up images of himself prominently displayed on the “film at eleven.” (Of course, no news crew is going to show up. But he doesn’t know that, and the very thought that one might will heighten his experience of the theater in which he is the main actor and the sole spectator.) Let him imagine how he will explain being at the demonstration to his colleagues. (“Oh, you know, it was sort of a sociological experiment, to get a sense of the behavior of members of a fanatic sub-cult. I’m thinking of doing a study on them.”) Listen for the telltale belch of a nervous stomach. Remember: There is a fine line between cowardice and prudence. It is one we have profitably confused. Urge our version of “prudence” upon him.
  3. Ask him whether he’s doing any good. Point out that people continue to enter the “clinic” for “health services.” It won’t occur to him, as it did to that detestable Chesterton, that no one knows how many miracles have been wrought by prayer. It also won’t occur to this self-infatuated cheese-brain that the very presence of witnesses to evil gets others to thinking.
  4. By this time, your patient will be nearly blind with self-created anxiety. Assist him by heightening his sense of isolation. The fact that he stands in a “cloud of witnesses,” as that execrable Paul pointed out, will be lost on your patient. In fact, he will hardly notice that he’s in the presence of other demonstrators. Remind him that he “has lots to do today,” and that he’s “done his bit.” Stand back so that he doesn’t trample you on the way to his car.

As he drives away, the demonstration happily slipping from sight in his rearview mirror, your patient will have two contradictory thoughts (not that he’ll notice that they are). First, he’ll feel wildly relieved that he got away with no one important noticing that he’d been present. Secondly, he’ll feel that he’s done something akin to the acts of the martyrs and that he’s just about as virtuous as they. He’ll never take part in any other demonstration. And the very thought of taking a truly unpopular stand against the orthodoxies of the day will make him ready to blow lunch all over his shoes.

Salvation on the cheap. It’s the name of the game. Now get in there, boy, and (ahem) give him hell.

Your affectionate uncle,


Thomas C. Kohler is Associate Professor of Law at Boston College.