Meaning and Meaninglessness

The subject of meaning teased me in my youth though it never was allowed to flourish until I started college and began to escape biblical literalism.  This escape was into a gradual appreciation of the metaphor which didn’t fully materialize until a prescient friend gave me a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets and W.H. Auden’s collected poetry in my mid thirties.  My life has not been the same.

Meaning involves intricate and intimate experience with difference.  Until one encounters meaning, he lives in a sterile universe of sameness usually marching lockstep with those of a similar orientation to life.  A quest for meaning inevitably leads one to a face-to-face encounter with meaninglessness for the one cannot exist without the other.  For example, there is no blue without non-blue.  Now I have been blessed as my venture into meaninglessness has been gentle for it can drive one stark raving mad.  I think I am fortunate to have what the poet John Keats described as “negative capability,” the ability to live with pronounced self-doubt, insecurity, and emotional fragility.  It is no accident that since the gift of poetry in my mid-thirties I have been immersed in poetry and literature for there I find metaphor which allows me to find an anchor in what would otherwise be an overwhelming mystery, a mystery that the linear thinking in which I was stuck for 35 years cannot abide.

One of my most beloved poets is Emily Dickinson and she wrote a poem which so beautifully captures the internal descent where this meaning is found.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

Do Trailer Parks Cause Tornadoes?

I really miss David Letterman though his most able replacement, Stephen Colbert is brilliant!  Letterman was wry, bizarre, and even weird and in his early years even more so than later.  One quip from the early years has stuck with me because it put a dimension of reality on the table that I’d like to “cuss and discuss” today:  “Trailer parks cause tornadoes.”

He dropped this bizarre witticism probably 25 years ago when I was just beginning to stumble into some faint grasp of the time/space continuum and its offspring causation.  Even today I don’t “understand” it because time/space and cause/effect bring one right into the guts of life…if one dares to go there.  Or perhaps I should say, if one is foolish enough to go there!

And, like the whole of life, there is no “understanding” of it.  It is part of the mystery of life.  But my faint grasp of this phenomena has made me less apt to cast blame and more apt to see my own agency in my life, how that I have had choices where in the past I have thought I did not.  We live in a world of contingency and in any of these daily array of contingent moments we have choices.  Sometimes I make a good one.

Here is an e e cummings poem which is relevant, though the first stanza is beyond my grasp:

when god decided to invent
everything he took one
breath bigger than a circustent
and everything began

when man determined to destroy
himself he picked the was
of shall and finding only why
smashed it into because

 

ADDENDUM–I have diversified this literary effort of mine.  In this blog I plan to focus more on poetry and prose.  Below you will see two other blogs of mine relevant to spirituality and politics which have lain dormant for most of the past five years.  I hope some of you will check them out.  However, the boundaries will not be clear as my focus is very broad and my view of life is very eclectic/inclusive/broad-based.  Yes, at times too much so!

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

Shakespeare and Our Collective Madness

Shakespeare viewed the entire world as “out of its ever-loving gourd” mad.  Thus he would describe life itself as a “tale told by an idiot” as he was a keen observer of the human predicament and was bewildered by what he saw.  Therefore in Hamlet, he lamented, in so many words, “Why bother” in the first place, why “toil and sweat under a weary life” when one could take exit with a “bare bodkin” and escape to golden mansions and streets of gold.

But I think that Shakespeare recognized that he too was mad but took comfort in that he had in his heart “something else” than madness.  His plays and sonnets revealed the presence of “the pauser reason” which allowed him self-awareness enough to own his “madness” but to realize he was not totally mad as was so many people around him who lacked that self-awareness.

I’m curious what he would say today about Donald Trump.  I think he would have a field day as Trump is about as close to “nothing else but mad” as one can be and merit the label “functional.”  But the only thing that gives him this label are his handlers who often appear to be going mad in their desperate effort to make his daily insane behaviors and statements palatable to the press and public.

To illustrate our collective madness, I have read that our world has the resources to eliminate hunger.  If so, why don’t we?  It seems to me that failure to do so is totally irrational yet you can bet your sweet bippy it will not happen in mine and your lifetime.  This is because “reality” grinds relentlessly onward, mindlessly, heartlessly, mechanically like the “tale told by an idiot” toward some unknown end and “chooses” to be oblivious to egregious ills.  But I, like the Bard, do affirm that “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

The Simple “Complexity” of Spirit

I have deep conviction that life is essentially a spiritual enterprise; or, as someone has said, “We are spiritual beings having an human moment.”   But to be honest, I’m hesitant to even use words like “spiritual” for in my culture they too often refer to jargon and rhetoric which I now see as ideological bondage described by the Apostle Paul as, the “letter of the law” which he described as spiritually lethal.

Bear with me here as, in my hubris, I attempt to define “spirit,”  to put into words that which is Ineffable and therefore beyond the grasp of language. The human ego is driven to attempt to but this Essential into words, to capture that which always eludes the effort to grasp it.  This is the existential dilemma of human beings, having in their heart an intrinsic drive to find meaning only to eventually to discover that the Ground of our being where meaning is found is always beyond our ego’s effort to capture, and therefore “own” it.   This obsession eventually brings us face to face with the experience of humility in which we have the opportunity to accept that this “Ground” is present in the very quest that drives us and is satisfied when we begin to resign from the “beseeching” of the ego and rest in the comfort of Grace, in the knowledge offered to us by W. H. Auden that “the Center that we cannot find is known to the unconscious mind.  There is no need to despair, we are already there.” Or, to put this wisdom in biblical terms, we must come to realize that God is “the author and the finisher of our faith” so that at some point we give up the efforts of “the flesh” to earn salvation, be this effort intellectual or moral endeavor.

This brings up the subject of meditation, a dimension of prayer which is usually dismissed in Protestantism as it is antithetical to Protestantism’s obsessively rational approach to Spirit.  Meditation brings one to recognize the limitation of rational thought, a recognition that teaches one the value of thinking but simultaneously the value of recognizing, and experiencing that there is more to spiritual endeavor (and to life) than rationality.  The most powerful expression of this insight I’ve ever run across was provided by Shakespeare when, in Hamlet, King Claudius was on his knees in prayer, offering these words, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.  Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

So, how have I done in defining Spirit?  Failed miserably huh?  Well, good.  Then I’ve accomplished my purpose.  Life is a spiritual enterprise and rational understanding of it is completely beyond the grasp of our finite mind.  When this understanding and experience of finitude begins to sink into our ego-ridden consciousness, we are brought to our knees…so to speak, or perhaps literally.  For then we begin to embrace the incomprehensible Mystery of life which, paradoxically we recognize always has and always will Graciously embrace us.  “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

ADDENDUM–I am about to diversify with this literary effort of mine.  In this blog I plan to focus more on poetry and prose.  Below you will see two other blogs of mine relevant to spirituality and politics which have lain dormant for most of the past five years.  I hope some of you will check them out.  However, the boundaries will not be clear as my focus is very broad and my view of life is very eclectic/inclusive/broad-based.  Yes, at times too much so!

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

 

 

GOP Self-destruction and Its War on Truth

Several times during the Obama administration I listened to Republicans passionately declare, “President Obama is out to destroy the Republican Party.”  It was apparent that their collective unconscious was speaking as the seeds of self-destruction were obviously ravaging their party.  During the Tea Party hey-day, many GOP stalwarts from earlier Republican Presidential administrations would say such things as, “We’ve been hijacked” in recognition of the incipient catastrophe that was unfolding.  And as the Trump madness gained strength during the 2016 campaign, most of his party’s leadership actively opposed him until it became apparent he was going to win then they sheepishly came on board.

Donald Trump is the embodiment of the poison that has been seeking expression in the GOP for decades as the party’s leadership pointedly followed a pathway of dishonesty and fraud, featuring a conspicuous disdain for truth.  Their “war on reality” is now on the surface and finds expression almost daily with Trump’s overt and flagrant dishonesty.  Stephen Colbert introduced the term “truthiness” several years ago in reference to how media often was very manipulative and dishonest with the news.  But now the Trump administration has followed this practice that was so conspicuous in his campaign with an even more overt disavowal of basic standards of truth.  Trump and his staff now openly declared that he has the right to say whatever is on his mind regardless of whether or not it is valid according to prevailing standards of truth and non-truth.

The failure to respect truth in this self-destructive tendency of the GOP  puts on the table the over whelming support of evangelical Christians.  These purported champions of Jesus Christ, who claimed to be, “The Way, the Truth, and Life” are openly supporting this man who is the blatant antithesis to the fundamental tenets of the teachings of Jesus.  I suspect that many of them now see they’ve been duped but, suffering from the same spiritual malady of Trump, they cannot utter the simple words, “I made a mistake” even though their very valid faith permits them to do so if they have the humility to admit human flaw.

The irony is that challenges to Trump’s moral and spiritual integrity have come, not from these evangelicals, but from those who do not wear their faith on their sleeve or who are not even Christian.  For example, Kazir Khan was the first to openly question the moral character of Trump.  And more recently, Congressman Mark Sanford (see yesterday’s blog) and Senator John McCain have boldly stated the obvious that Trump has trouble separating “truth from lies.” (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/18/john-mccain-savages-donald-trump-administration-inability-separate-truth-from-lies

Though no longer an evangelical, I still have a passionate conviction that life is a spiritual enterprise.  As someone said, and I paraphrase, “Mankind is a spirit having an earthly moment.”  In the words of Teilhard de Chardin, the “Cosmic Christ’ is seeking expression in the whole of this cosmic enterprise that we are inextricably caught up in.  It is important that men and women of spiritual sensitivity be present to speak “truth to power” on occasion and that can’t be done when one’s “spirituality” consists primarily of sterile dogma and rhetoric.  I am very impressed with people such as Mark Sanford and John McCain who have faith of an “uncanned” variety and who aren’t wearing their “faith” on their sleeve.  Those who do carry only this simplistic faith Shakespeare described with the following keen wisdom:

When love (i.e. “faith”) begins to sicken and decay,/It useth an enforced ceremony./There are no tricks in plain and simple faith./But hollowmen, like horses hot at hand,/Make gallant show and promise of their mettle.

When “Truth” is not given reverence and allowed to permeate the whole of our being, individually and collectively, self-destruction is encouraged as illustrated by the Republicans.  Again, as Shakespeare put it, we then begin to “feed even on the pith of life.”

 

Hiking the Appalachian Trail.

In 2009 this phrase entered the English metaphorical lexicon as a synonym for having an extra-marital affair.  The Republican Governor of South Carolina, Mark Stanford disappeared from office for a suspicious amount of time and no one could fully account for his absence.  His staff at one point, under mounting pressure, finally explained that the governor was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” and could not be reached.  Shortly thereafter it was revealed that he was in Argentina cavorting with his sexy paramour.  Thus an apt metaphor for “cheating” came into our language. Stanford had to resign from the office and submit to the humiliation of the press, especially the late-night comedians who pilloried him for his hypocrisy.  Being an outspoken supporter of “family values” and moral propriety, his hypocrisy was apparent to all.  He was a broken man.

But now he is back in Congress as an outspoken Republican critic of Donald Trump while most of his party continues to cower before the “sound and fury” of Mr. Trump, all of which “signifies nothing.”  Sanford describes himself as a “dead man walking,” noting how that he lost everything and knows how it feels and so now has nothing to lose.  Circumstances of life, I like to call it that “bitch reality, slapped him in the face and he managed to find the courage to accept the loss of face and emerge with a newly found humility.

Disillusionment is painful.  It is particularly painful for those who are outspoken proponents of moral virtue and political correctness.  Such hypocrisy now abounds in the Republican Party and they have unwittingly elected as President the very epitome of dishonesty, insincerity, and moral depravity.  They now have the opportunity to use the words of the cartoon character Pogo and humbly lament, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Sanford declares he now has nothing to lose.  And he doesn’t.  The Republican Party needs to find that same humility and simply admit, “We made a mistake,” uttering the words that Trump is incapable of uttering.  And, furthermore, the entirety of our country needs to find this humility as Trump’s election is a reflection of the American soul and not merely the soul of those who voted for him.  We now have a learning opportunity before us.  Let’s see what happens.  Usually in these circumstances the wisdom of W. H. Auden is relevant, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand.  But he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

(If you want to see more details about Govenor Sanford’s fall from power and rebirth, see the following link:  http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/02/mark-sanford-profile-214791)

Ta-Nehesi Coates: “Thinking They are White”

Ta-nehesi Coates’s book on racism was one of the most provocative books I read last year. Mr. Coates grew up an impoverished black child in Baltimore, Maryland, managed to escape with an education, and wrote this very revealing book about what it is like to grow up under the tyranny of racism in ’70’s and 80’s America.  One line that really grabbed me a class of people who learned to “think they are white” and the power that comes with that understanding.  For, being white in America did carry, and still does to a large degree, implicit assumptions of power, i.e. prerogative.  Growing up a poor white boy in Arkansas I clearly remember discovering early the “black-white” distinction in my culture, the blacks being known, of course, as “N…….s” and viewed with great scorn and contempt.  Looking back I now recall distinctly how important this was as a poor white, having a class of people who were lower on the totem pole than we were though we were very low socio-economically.  Learning to “think I was white” was one of the most important early discoveries of my life, very much a formative part of my identity the early stages of which involves drawing distinctions between self and others, including between my group and other groups.

But Mr. Coates’ observation, “thinking they are white” really cut to the quick with me, conveying to me what he had seen about the smug observations we make early in our childhood which become solid bedrock in our cognitive grasp of the world.  And with my grasp of my “whiteness” I knew that though I lacked many things, no one could take away from me my “whiteness” and with that status came the power of eating on the right side of the diner, using the nicer bathrooms, drinking at the white water fountains, and going to the better white schools.  It was nothing I thought about…consciously.  It was a given, a basic assumption, an implicit part of the template through which I viewed the world.  I had a power that many others did not have, regardless of how powerlessness I might feel otherwise in my life.

Though I have long since gone beyond this racist view of the world, I know the template is still there in the depths of my heart thought quite faint.  In the past decade as I’ve aged I have recognized faint racist imagery and thoughts creep into my consciousness, an experience which has not alarmed me because I see them for what they are.  The earliest imprints from our culture, even those “burned in” on our pre-conscious soul, never leave us.   People may vehemently deny being racist but very often their behavior and passing thoughts betray them.  For example, note the Republican Party which is quick to deny racism but has systematically and persistently sought to deny blacks the right to vote in recent years.

Racism is only the surface of a deeper problem, an intrinsic dimension of identity formulation already alluded to.  For an identity to begin to organize and to escape the matrix in which it first existed, that “blooming, buzzing, confusing world of sense experience” spoken of by William James…it must draw distinctions between it and the “other”.  Blacks in my early life, and in most of my generation, was one of the earliest “others” that we found and when we “othered” them it was done with great emotional intensity.

So racism is merely an essential part of American identity and all cultures and tribes have some similar process at the bedrock of their collective psyche.  But I’ve discoursed here only as an introduction to my next blog post, the Christian faith utilized as a contrivance for identity formulation and, devoid of maturation, serving only to “other” masses of people.