“Ways of Seeing” by Peter Berger

Vision is subtle and frequently we “have eyes to see but see not” and, yes, ” ears to hear but hear not.”  And it is very challenging to realize that human nature subjects us to this limitation yet without meaning, necessarily, that we are a bad person.  But if we never let the wisdom of this quip from Jesus sink in it can lead to a lot of “bad” that will emanate from the resulting unexamined life.

Relevant to this subject, John Berger wrote a classic little book in 1972 entitled, “Ways of Seeing.”  When I discovered the book 25 years ago it grabbed me immediately even though it was written to artists by an art critic and I am far removed from either.  But at that time in my life I was very familiar with the ambiguity of life, including “ways of seeing” and readily grasped the wisdom from the eye of this art critic. Berger pointed out that seeing ultimately is not so much a deed as it is an experience as an evocation as we focus on an object and allow that object to evoke from the depths of our heart a meaningful experience.  Each of us have these interior depths though so often circumstances have confined us to the surface of life where we scurry about our three-score and ten without ever daring to venture into the deep places of the heart that hide the mystery of life.  Venturing there will force us to encounter the significance of the teaching the aforementioned teaching of Jesus about having vision and using it not.

Here are the opening words of Berger’s brilliant book:

Seeing comes before words.  The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.  But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words.  It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.  The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.  Each evening we see the sun set.  We know that the earth is turning away from it.  Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.

 Berger realized the simple truth that object-relations theory teaches us in the field of psychology:  there is a gap between the subject and object, between the sense-perceiver and the perceived.  This is the “gap” that Deepak Chopra has made famous and therein lies the mystery of life.

 

The following is a list of my blogs.  Please check the others out!

 

Literarylew.wordpress.com

anrrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

Theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

“Families Are to be From”

Decades ago a student of mine in a high school sociology class quipped this wisdom after a discussion of dysfunctional families.  She clearly “got it” that day in class, understanding that families are a matrix from which we must escape at some point and begin to make our way in life as she was preparing to do at that time.  If we do not “cut the cord,” not only from “momma” but from the family itself we will be hampered in establishing our own roots in the world and carving out our own identity.  My clinical practice of 20 years consisted to some degree in helping adolescents wrestle with their struggles in dysfunctional families as they sought to prepare to “fly the nest” in a few years.  And this “flight” from the nest is not merely geographical.  It is possible to move to the far corners of the world and still not have cut the deep-seated ties with family which bind us to crippling emotional patterns.  Furthermore, it is possible to find oneself in old age and still enthralled by parental and familial dictates that should have been discarded years ago.

The bondage to families is often maintained under the ruse of love, as in, “Oh, how could you say that” or, “How could you do that” if you loved your family.  I have a friend who shares an anecdote of not cutting the cord with his mother until he was age 50 when he brazenly and emphatically, and rudely told her emphatically at the end of a visit one day, “F…k you mother” when she was repeating an intrusive end-of-visit ritual that he was not going to put up with any more.  She was devastated, as was he, but as the dust settled down she plaintively noted a fear that, “You will never visit me again.”  Unconsciously she knew he was cutting the cord.

There are times when a mythical hero will have the herculean task of escaping the toxic family system, the “family system” sometimes being an entire culture.  This hero will often be a scapegoat of some type who will carry the unacknowledged pain of the family and his life will be an illustration of the struggles of Jungian individuation.  T. S. Eliot wrote a play about this adventure entitled, “The Family Reunion” in which the hero is told that his task is to apprehend the knowledge of the family’s darkness, i.e. “sin” so that “expurgation” might be achieved:

What we have written is not a story of detection,
Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation.
It is possible you have not known what sin
You shall expiate, or whose, or why. It is certain
That the knowledge of it must precede the expiation.
It is possible that sin may strain and struggle
In its dark instinctive birth, to come to consciousness
And so find expurgation. It is possible
You are the consciousness of your unhappy family,
Its bird sent flying through the purgatorial flame.
Indeed it is possible. You may learn hereafter,
Moving alone through flames of ice, chosen
To resolve the enchantment under which we suffer.

Awareness is All

“Awareness is all” states a bumper sticker on a friend’s car.  I believe this is so true but there is a catch—“awareness” always means to contemplate that our “awareness” is not complete and never will be.  So this “awareness” has a built-in catch-22 so you will always understand that you only see part of the picture. This morning I do think I have some degree of awareness but an important dimension of this “awareness” is that my view of the world is always filtered by biases and preconceptions so that I’m rarely under the illusion that I have complete awareness.  Earlier this morning as my wife and sweet dachshund Elsa sat on the back stoop and watched the dawn unfold, in deep admiration of the experience of the moment, I quipped to them, “Our view always tends to block our view.”  I was aware that as I watched the flycatcher birds cavorting about, scouring for food for their new born, I had witnessed moments like this many times in my life but had never seen the beauty unfolding as I was at that moment.  The process of growing awareness works toward allowing us to grasp our beautiful world in more of its pristine glory.  And I watched the sun beginning to light Taos Mountain for another day, flickering different permutations of shadow and gentle light on these mythical mountains, dressing them for another day of bringing magic to this lovely Northern New Mexico community. As always, Elsa was doing her part to quicken the moment, just setting there on her cushion in all of her exquisite, innocent beauty, licking her ribs and fantasizing about the exciting world she would get to play in another day.

My quip came from the realization that this pristine beauty has been with me from the earliest moments of conscious life.  But like all humans I learned to take it for granted, often seeing not the beauty of the world but my usual image of the beauty, “my view of the view,” not humble enough yet to approach the whiff of “the thing in itself,” less encumbered by the blinders of cognition. These blinders are, albeit, a very necessary part of life but they can become so familiar to us that we never venture beneath the surface and flirt with the aforementioned pristine beauty.

The poet Carl Sandburg understood this truth in his poem, “Precious Moments.”  Bright vocabularies are transient as rainbows./Speech requires blood and air to make it./Before the word comes off the end of the tongue,/While diaphragms of flesh negotiate the word,/In the moment of doom when the word forms/It is born, alive, registering an imprint—Afterward it is a mummy, a dry fact, done and gone.

Sandburg realized that a word is “alive” only one moment, in the “moment of doom” when it is formed after which we will be left only with an imprint.  But this beautiful poem was encouraging us to explore the depths of our heart and discover that flirtation with the pristine beauty of life can be rewarding. This exploration will help us to understand how that our view of life often blocks our view of an intrinsic dimension of life.  This is what Jesus had in mind when he challenged those who live on the surface of life, having “eyes to see but seeing not, ears to hear but hearing not.”

The Irony of Speaking the Truth

This truth matter is really heavy on my heart recently primarily from the assault on “Truth” by the Trump administration.  In the past week I have explored truth’s subtlety, a subtlety that is so pronounced that I think it is something we can never grasp objectively but Some “thing” that peeks through our heart occasionally in spite of our deep-seated, unconscious effort to not let it happen.

But please note the irony I am demonstrating.  I will admit that at present moment I believe I am speaking…or writing…what is truthful otherwise I would not even bother to offer this verbal deed to the oblivion of the cyber world.  But what I say here, and in real time, is only a perspective of how I see the world and can never be thought of as “objective.”  Everything we do and say is only our “skewed” way of viewing the world but it is important that we put this “skewed view” on the table in daily exchange with other people, be it here in the cyber world and or in day-to-day life with people we encounter.  The dialogical engagement with other people is imperative so that we can avoid the temptation of speaking, thinking, and living in an echo chamber.

The echo chamber is lethal.  If we isolate ourselves within a safe cocoon of group-think we are signing our death certificate, so to speak, as the soul cannot thrive in the resulting abyss of “empty self-relatedness.”  This isolation, if not broken, will spell our doom individually and collectively without Divine intervention; for, in that self-imposed prison we “feed even on the pith of life” as Shakespeare not

Human Bondage and the Mystery of Truth

I want to continue to explore the Carl Sandburg poem, “Who Am I?” and focus on the notion included in the poem that Truth is a “captive” quality in our heart.  It makes no sense that such a noble quality of Truth is hidden, even imprisoned in our heart, suggesting that beneath the surface of our conscious life there are things of which we are unaware.  Truth is usually seen as a commodity in our life, a body of wisdom that we can claim as our own if we subscribe to what we see as essential tenets of Truth, and hold steadfast to them.  But poetry, and certainly Holy Writ such as the Bible, if taken superficially will lead us to believe that “I” know the truth and so would anybody else that listened to my passionate affirmation of this “fact.”  But Sandburg throws a monkey wrench in this mind-set, insisting that “Truth” is not factual but is a hidden dimension in our heart always seeking expression but only in the context of our conscious wish to avoid it.  If we understood this wisdom, it would give us pause about our certainties and encourage us to hold firm with them but to realize that other people’s understanding of the matter might be different than our own.  The absence of this humility is daily on display in our world in the Trump administration.

Poet John Donne understood the bondage of his will on this issue, declaring that the Reason he has assumed would lead him to Truth, is “like an usurped town to another due…(and) is captive’d and proves weak or untrue.”  In the beautiful sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” he portrays this internal conflict in the human heart that wants the freedom of truth but is stymied on the pursuit without Divine intervention.  Here is an excerpt from this sonnet:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Sandburg and Donne realized that humankind has a divided heart.  Yes, we want noble qualities like “Truth” but fail to realize that on another level, “No we don’t!”  They realized that Truth is very disruptive to our status quo, personally and collectively, and does not come without a willingness to pay the price of disillusionment.

An Alternative to “Truthiness”

Yesterday I shared a Carl Sandburg poem about truth, titled, “Who Am I?” Today I would like to explore the poem more deeply as Sandburg grasped intricate dimensions of Truth, describing it as “the most elusive captive in the universe.”

Just how can truth be so elusive and how can it be “elusive” if it is already “captive’d” within our heart?  Sandburg believed that we have intrinsic knowledge of the truth in the depths of our inner most being but we have a fear of acknowledging and embracing this Divine gift. “Truth” is frightening to our ego-bound consciousness because She is a process which is disruptive to our shallow, self-serving grasp of her intricacies.  “Truth” is a dynamic process which is catastrophic to our shallow certainties about life. It is very frightening when She begins to penetrate “the small bright circles of our consciousness” (Conrad Aiken) and challenges the “canned” truth that our ego prefers. Therefore, Truth eludes us though She is already in our heart, a “captive” which usually we do not allow to “come out and play” in our life.  But She is always there, nevertheless, nudging us along and encouraging us to let Her in for a visit someday.

And what did Sandburg have in mind when he asserted that Truth disregards “all signs that read, ‘keep off.’”  He realized that Truth, as opposed to what Stephen Colbert described as “truthiness,” is contrary with the self-serving limits that we have created in our life.  If Truth is given access to our heart, it will always confront “Do not trespass” signs marking the areas of life that we don’t want challenged. T.S. Eliot had this in mind when he encouraged us to “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”  Sandburg and Eliot were not discouraging having anchor in our heart that affords us existential courage, but saw that the only “anchor” that survives the test of time is the “certainty” of some “thing” that lies beyond the grasp of our finite mind. This is the very Ground of our Being.  The self-serving bromides that we take for truth will never pass the test that this “Ground” presents to us. And on this note a conclude a witticism from a dear pastor of my youth, “Yes, Truth will set you free.  But it’ll first make you miserable.”

The Elusiveness of Truth

Trump is again demonstrating his alienation from what most of us know as “truth.”  He foolishly claimed a few days ago that he and Vladimir Putin discussed a joint cyber security unit but was immediately confronted with how the rest of us saw this as complete nonsense.  So he changed his tune yesterday, suggesting…and I paraphrase…”You must not take me literally.”  His handlers found the temerity to challenge him privately and let him know just how completely inane and foolish a “cyber security unit” with the Russians sounds.

Trump definitely believes in “truth” but he reserves the prerogative of getting to define the notion without reference to what others think.  He sees “truth” as a static quality and to him it amounts to whatever whim and fancy courses through his brain.  He reserves the prerogative of defining the term…and all other terms…without regard to how the notion is seen in the context that he lives in, that context which most of us call “reality.”  This arrogance resonates with many of his followers who also see truth as a static quality, some “thing” which they have certainty about without any consideration to the rest of us.

I increasingly believe in “truth” and I even have the temerity to spell it out as “Truth.”  But this Truth is an elusive quality which can best be described as a process, a “process” which the Christian tradition sees as a person, illustrated with the words of Jesus, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  But this “Truth” lies deep in our hearts and, while always seeking expression, it denies the objectification that would permit any mortal to say that he owns it, objectively.  Those who claim to know “the Truth” objectively always do so with a certainty, a certainty which always betrays itself in real time as specious.

Here I wish to let poet Carl Sandburg present this notion beautifully in a poem entitled, “Who am I?”

My head knocks against the stars.
My feet are on the hilltops.
My finger-tips are in the valleys and shores of
universal life.
Down in the sounding foam of primal things I
reach my hands and play with pebbles of
destiny.
I have been to hell and back many times.
I know all about heaven, for I have talked with God.
I dabble in the blood and guts of the terrible.
I know the passionate seizure of beauty
And the marvelous rebellion of man at all signs
reading “Keep Off.”
My name is Truth and I am the most elusive captive
in the universe.