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John Masefield, Stanley Kunitz, and “Continuity of Being”

John Masefield, the British poet laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, is now running a close second to Shakespeare as my favorite sonneteer. He was a bookish lad, an addiction which his aunt, his guardian when his parents died in his childhood, sought to break by sending him to sea at age 13. But he there found lots of time to read and to write without the interference of the unappreciated aunt and also developed a lifetime passion for the maritime life. “Sea-Farer” is one of his best known poems and the sea, and water themes, are common in his work.

His adventures at sea, including the foreign lands he visited, gave him a global approach to life and made him an observer of the human situation which is a gift many poets have. In the following sonnet, he started with a line about the ephemeral nature of identity itself, noting a wish to “get within this changing I, this ever-altering thing which yet persists…” Masefield’s natural curiosity and educational accomplishments helped him see life as every bit turbulent and capricious as the sea, always changing yet persisting nevertheless.
Modern life in the late 19th century (he was born in 1878) was teeming with scientific discoveries and theories, including the work of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. To those exposed to higher education, life was not a static phenomenon but a dynamic process and even one’s own identity was an evolutionary process. But later in the sonnet he did recognize a “ghost in the machine” which some of us like to describe as “god” (i.e. “God”) which appeared often to be effecting some direction to the caprices of our day to day life. Even “in the brain’s most enfolded twisted shell,” he saw, “The King, the supreme self, the Master Cell” providing some mysterious teleology to our often-mischievous path. This notion brings to mind one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”
If I could get within this changing I,
This ever altering thing which yet persists,
Keeping the features it is reckoned by,
While each component atom breaks or twists,
If, wandering past strange groups of shifting forms,
Cells at their hidden marvels hard at work,
Pale from much toil, or red from sudden storms,
I might attain to where the Rulers lurk.
If, pressing past the guards in those grey gates,
The brain’s most folded intertwisted shell,
I might attain to that which alters fates,
The King, the supreme self, the Master Cell,
Then, on Man’s earthly peak, I might behold
The unearthly self beyond, unguessed, untold.

Here I want to append an excerpt from another poem, by a United States poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz, entitled, “The Layers” in which he too recognized some mysterious “center” in the depth of one’s being from which one, “struggles not to stray” even in the infinite vicissitudes of life.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

Here is a list of my blogs. I invite you to check out the other two sometime.
https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/
https://literarylew.wordpress.com/
https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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David Whyte and T.S. Eliot on the Subject of Faith

The following poem by David Whyte portrays faith in a more meaningful fashion than what I’ve been familiar with most of my life.  In this poem, faith is presented with a “loss” dimension, poetically conveying the need of “losing one’s faith to find one’s faith” (my paraphrasing). This is related to the observation by evangelical-Christian literary, “hall-of-famer,” Oswald Chambers who noted the danger of “believing only in our belief.”  Whyte and Chambers, and many other spiritually-oriented persons, see the danger of an ideological faith, understanding that the ideological dimension of faith must lose its tyranny in order for the underlying dimension of human experience that faith points to can be experienced.  This is precisely the wisdom conveyed in the famous Buddhist teaching, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.”  Whyte captures this truth with the image of the moon fading away and offering, “the last curving and impossible sliver of light before the final darkness.”

Poem by David Whyte: “Faith”

I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.

But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.

Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.

T.S. Eliot also understood this subtle dimension of faith, noting in The Four Quartets:

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning 
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled 
If at all. Either you had no purpose 
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured 
And is altered in fulfilment. 

Autocracy Can Resolve Political Conflict!!!

The political divide in my country is greater than I’ve ever seen, the result of long-standing tensions that found expression in the election of Trump to the presidency.  There are many dimensions of this division but in my estimation the key issue is perspective on life itself.  Some conservatives are rigidly sure that there is only one way to view the world, the “right way,” and it “just happens” to be their way.  On the other hand, progressives are more open-minded, seeing the world as fluid and less rigidly defined.  This viewpoint also is often held very rigidly in spite of announced beliefs of open-mindedness, failing to appreciate the value of a conservative approach to life.  The conservative resistance to change and the progressive insistence on change are contrasting approaches to life, both of which are necessary for any group, i.e. “tribe”, to function.  When the tension between these two social impulses becomes to great violence can erupt if wise and astute leadership is not available in the tribe.

Perspective is merely a view of the world, best illustrated with the old image of, “Do you see the glass half empty or half full?”  This question is a simple illustration that what is going on in the depths of one’s heart can influence how he interprets even a simple thing like the fullness or a glass of water not to mention more weightier issues such as immigration or abortion.  The problem arises only when those who are “half fullers” become adamant in their position while “half-emptiers” are equally adamantine. In gridlock such as this, perspective has become a tyrant and it is tyranny of this sort that led to the Civil War in 1861.

A philosopher once noted, “You cannot have a perspective on your perspective without somehow escaping it.”  Implicit in this wisdom is the understanding that regardless of how certain one might be about his view of the world, it is possible to stand back a bit and mull over the possibility that someone might see things differently.  This involves respect for other people, for “the Other,” and if this respect is lacking conflict will emerge.  Sometimes the solution that arises to alleviate this conflict is tyranny as one side of the issue is able to manage political and social power to the point that the alternative viewpoint is squashed.  For this reason an autocratic regime systematically attempts to repress dissent.

A caveat is here in order.  I have here presented a perspective on a complicated matter, a perspective on perspective itself.  I bring the same “skewed” view of the world to everything I post here and to everything I think and say in my day-to-day life.  There are many good and wise people who do not have this view of the world.  The problem arises only when one “skewed” view of the world usurps power and attempts to squash other “skewed” views of the world.  If this power grab is successful, the result will be the aforementioned autocratic state.

“Making Nice,” Trump, and the Social Contract

Donald J. Trump is a little boy who needs to be loved.  Never having learned the rudimentary dimensions of making himself loveable, he discovered that he had wealth and privilege to manipulate and intimidate people into a pseudo love.  One of the earliest lessons about love takes place when we enter school and find ourselves on the playground where negotiation with others involves a subtly that a child has often not had to deal with before.  The rules of “being liked” are not explicit but depend on an emotional maturity to pick up on the nuances of social life.  I like to think of it as learning to “make nice,” to not say or do the first thing that comes to your mind when you feel slighted.  It involves a tacit agreement to put up with another’s irksome attitudes and behaviors…to some degree…in return for the tacit response of others putting up with yours. This is the nuts-and-bolts of what we call the social contract.

If someone comes along to the playground who will not abide by the terms of this social contract, he will soon be known as a bully.  If you are “ugly and your mom dresses you funny” he is the one who will point it out while others will not say a thing, unconsciously knowing that you will not point out their own flaws and short comings. This reminds me of Trump on the “playground” of the debate stage in 2016 when he was rude and obnoxious, breaking all rules of civility and decorum.  On any debate stage, the candidates usually have a great dislike of others on the stage but there is an unwritten rule to not attack each other personally. Trump stomped all over that rule and as Senator Lindsey Graham put it, “The rest of ran and hid in the corner.”  When faced with a bully, one has a natural response to try to escape.

There is a certain insincerity to, “making nice.”  It is not, “telling it like it is” which Trump avowed and which many of his supporters cited as a reason they liked him.  “He’ll tell the truth, unlike those lying, hypocritical politicians we are used to,” they said.  Yes, but Trump’s “truth telling” is closely akin to that of someone with Tourette’s Syndrome who, severely lacking impulse control, will “tell it like it is,” and announce to a woman he has just met, “My you have a nice set of tits.”  This Tourette’s Syndrome man is certainly saying what nearly all other men are thinking but most of us have a social filter and would not say something like that.  (And I apologize for the “locker-room talk.”  Seriously.)

Self-awareness and Bullying

In my last post, I shared thoughts about bullying and self-consciousness or “self” awareness.  A couple years ago when I was on Facebook an upper classman when I was in Jr. High at my small Arkansas high school shared his shame and regret about bullying a helpless, self-conscious, insecure lad in his class. This gentleman had been a star athlete himself, later to have a tryout with the Arkansas Razorbacks; he was handsome, intelligent, and headed to success in his life.  On Facebook he shared about his effort to reach out to this man he had bullied to apologize but had received no response.  This gentleman had found awareness and now sincerely rued his cruel behavior to this “nerdy” and perhaps handicapped classmate.

Self “awareness” is something we mature into, slowly becoming aware of the “presence” of other people in our world and becoming sensitive to their reality.  There are times, however, when this maturity never comes and, furthermore, there are times when people are ensconced in a social milieu where this “self” awareness is discouraged.  The best example I find of this occurred in the New Testament with the crucifixion of Jesus, as explained by Fr. Richard Rohr who interpreted the famous words of Jesus on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” as, “Father, forgive them for they are not aware (or conscious) of what they do.”

These men did not awaken that morning, convene down at Starbucks, and suddenly decide, “Hey, let’s be mean and nasty, violent and brutal, and put that guy to death who does not see this world as we do.”  They had many meetings at that coffee shop in planning their deed and came to the firm conclusion that they were going to do the right thing, the “lord’s will,” if you please. They were firm in their convictions and many of them I’m sure were morally upright men, probably in a respectable position down at the local church….or, “synagogue” in that day.  They were probably members of the school board, members of the Lions Club, active in what used to be called, “benevolent societies,” and faithfully they bought Girl Scout cookies each spring.  And I’m sure that there were young, unmarried men in the mix also, those who avowed that they didn’t, “smoke, drink, chew…or go with the girls they do.”  But it is possible for good men to do bad things when they are driven merely by ideology, steeped with preconceived ideas about their world and the deep-seated conviction that they objectively understand the world.  When men and women are addicted to their ideas, regardless of how “noble” those ideas may be, they lack “awareness” and are capable of great evil in what they deem as service to the good.  T.S. Eliot summarized this problem, “Oh the shame of motives late revealed, and the awareness of things ill done, and done to others harm, which once we took for exercise of virtue.”

“Be Best,” Don’t Bully!”

In clinical practice, I often had to deal with bullying, though mainly the more “mature” variety as seen with teen-agers.  Younger children, however, would occasionally present to a counselor in her office, plaintively asking, “Why don’t they like me?”  The counselor would first offer some reassurance and then begin to offer coaching on basic social deportment, how to behave in a less obnoxious manner, not rudely and intrusively.  The young bully who actually sought help of this sort, who could ask the question, “Why don’t they like me?” was demonstrating that he had the maturity to be aware of the problem and therefore was probably amenable to being helped.  The real problem lay with those children who could not imagine the possibility that there was anything wrong with their behavior and then lash out at those who appeared to not like him.

Self-awareness is an essential dimension to the bullying issue.  Most children who get to the playground age in public schools already have social antennae so that they are amenable to feedback from the social context in which they find themselves.  They even will feel a sense of shame if they breach the unwritten rules of the social contract and then amend their ways in an effort to fit in.  Some, however, will not have internalized a sense of healthy shame and will brazenly stomp on social convention and find themselves frequently in trouble with the principal and eventually in a residential treatment facility.  Some will not be amenable to the rules even then and will grow into adulthood and begin to “rock n roll” with their anti-social attitude and behavior until they find some conflict-habituated place in the social structure.  Some, perhaps, will even become successful businessmen and/or politicians and maybe even find themselves as the leader of their country.

This “self-awareness” is the gift of the neuro-cortex which gives us the Shakespearean, “pauser reason,” a filter with which we check our impulses.  For example, if one encounters a belligerent bully as an adult he will usually know that he cannot respond with bullying behavior without risking severe conflict.  This makes me think of an old Jim Croce tune from the 1970’s, “You don’t tug on superman’s cape/ You don’t spit into the wind/You don’t pull the mask of the old lone ranger,/And you don’t mess around with Jim.”  If you remember the famous tune, you recall that a man wandered into town who did not regard the admonishment, “You don’t mess around with Jim.”

Yes, I’m curious what is gonna happen this Tuesday in Singapore.

Have We Been Bamboozled?

Before I deactivated my Facebook account last month, I ventured into a discussion of truth.  One astute individual noted, “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us.”  Another observation discovered decades ago put it this way, “Our thinking is the belated rationalization of conclusions to which we’ve already been led by our desires.”

It is sobering to toy with the notion that we believe only what we want to and avoid anything that challenges this belief system.  This is graphically being illustrated currently with the power of the Trumpian delusional system to capture the reins of power in our government. This phenomenon is not intrinsically “bad” as it is merely an intrinsic “human” quality which each of us begin our life with and often grow beyond as we reach maturity.  But it becomes “bad” and even evil when our maturity does not include spiritual maturity so that we can have the humility to recognize this narcissistic tendency and be open to acknowledging self-deceit.

Self-deceit is the primary dimension of the Bible quip I offered yesterday about sin, noting that the essence of sin lies in the “thoughts and intents of the heart.”  It is easy to live in a religious culture and glibly acknowledge being a sinner but it is frightening to toy with the notion that sin goes deeply into our inner-most being (i.e. “heart”) and influences our view of the world, even including our view of ourselves.  Our usual response, when threatened with this truth is to utilize our ego’s defense system and simply cling more tightly to our customary view of the world and of ourselves, not daring to venture near the anguish of disillusionment.  This is most significantly an issue with respect to our certainties, including our religious certainties.  As W. H. Auden noted, “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.”  The “Gospel” of Pogo put it this way, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Is Sin Still a Relevant Term in Our Culture?

I have some taint of the Trumpian arrogance in me so that it is hard to say, “I made a mistake.”  Yes, my “memory bank” failed me in yesterday’s post and the “relevant” poetry blurb at the very end was not the one I had in mind, a problem which I have now corrected.  I’m making this “confession” though facetiously just so any of you who are interested can return to yesterday’s post and sample a bit of the wisdom of Stanley Kunitz. However, admitting being mistaken is a very human flaw and I’m in recovery now from having been mired in that morass of self-loathing and infantile arrogance most of my life.  Richard Nixon when he resigned in 1973 did not really admit doing any wrong, declaring famously at one point in the debacle, “I’m not a crook.”  But when the impeachment proceeding reached a certain point of intensity, he did resign and with great humiliation walked to that waiting helicopter with his wife and continued his flight into political ignominy.  He was in great pain, greatly shamed and humiliated by what his words and behavior had led to, but under the pressure of the political structure that he was part of and respected to some degree, he accepted disgrace and meekly resigned, a tacit admission of wrong-doing.  Nixon had some inner sense of self-control that allowed him to not resort to the violent impulse that would explode in many people when they are shamed like he was.

There is something to say for a religious culture in which “confessing sins” is part of life.  Even though this “sin” matter goes deeply beneath the surface…and from time to time circumstances lead us to exploring the matter more intently, discovering that the real sin lies in the “thoughts and intents of the heart—it is helpful to have the surface level of the issue commonplace enough that we can readily admit shortcomings.  But occasionally people appear in our culture who have steeled their heart about even a cursory acknowledgement of sin or fault and they will brazenly refuse to admit wrong on even the most trivial matter.  And if one of these people happen to stumble into a position of power, they can wreak havoc on all who are within their sphere of influence.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/