“The World is My Oyster” (Not)

I hardly know where to start.  This Donald Trump demon that has been unleashed on the American psyche has tripped all of my triggers too and “literarylew” has “more offenses at my beck than thoughts to put them in.”  So I’m reaching into my stuffed “beck” and pulling out, “The world is not my oyster.”

To Trump, the world is his oyster.  He is a two-year old boy who never had limits set when he went through the developmental stage of the “terrible two’s” and so remains a two year old boy, “breathing out threatenings and slaughterings” anytime he is faced with a limit.  All of us go through this developmental stage, very much related to what we clinicians describe as the Oedipal transition. Though this is a challenging moment in our young lives, most of us learn to control our rage and acclimate to the external world, accepting deferred gratification over immediate gratification.  Without this willingness, we fail to fully enter the human race.

I know it was challenging for myself and even remember a dream in my early thirties when I was beginning to address my early childhood repression.  In this dream I was a furious little tyke, red-faced, shaking my fist in defiance when denied what I wanted.  It took a girl friend at the time to point out, with a laugh, what that dream was about.  She knew me very well!  And I can tell you very clearly now, in my mid-sixties, I feel the frustration of dealing with the experience of the world not being my oyster.  I often declare, “I want it all” and add, “Why should I have to accept limits” as I deal with the frustrations of aging, especially the realization that the river Styx is fast approaching.  But mercifully, back in my terrible two’s, the gods (i.e. “God”) recognized he did not need to unleash a redneck Arkansas Trump on the world and tied me down with a fundamentalist Christian load of guilt and shame.  And, central Arkansas, you better be grateful to Him!

But Trump has used wealth to create a world for himself in which he could get by with the assumption that the world is his oyster.  And, now given to the severe pathology of the American psyche, the Republican Party finds itself willing to cater to his narcissism to the point that he is their nominee for the Presidency.  Furthermore, and gravely troubling to me, evangelical Christians are lining up behind him in over whelming numbers displaying a profound lack of critical thinking skills.

Accepting the fact that the world is not our oyster is merely accepting limits.  Watching Trump allows us to see an impulse that we all have, if we could only come unleashed for a few minutes.  I think Trump’s fanatical following by the Republican extremists represents their unconscious desire to become unleashed, to give vent to their darkest, most violent impulses which are a very “human” response to the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”  But this is a dimension of the “human” experience that must be kept in check and certainly does not need to be encouraged by demogogues.

The Delusional World of Trump Continues

I just finished my morning foray into the mad world of Donald Trump and was not even taken aback to see that he is now focusing on the mental instability of Hillary Clinton.  This is just further illustration of how completely out of touch with reality he is; for, if he paid any attention to the feedback that he is getting from friend and foe he would realize that he should not touch the subject of anyone’s else’s “mental instability.”

But this is the problem with narcissism, especially when that mental illness has reached the stage of malignancy it has with him.  For in that state of madness, one is impervious to feedback from the outside.  One then finds himself comfortably ensconced in a delusional system and inevitably will have constructed himself a social world consisting of people who will help him maintain his lunacy as they too live in a version of the same delusional system.  Theologian Paul Tillich described this as “an empty world of self-relatedness”, a pristine world comprised of people who march lock-stepped to the beat of the same demonic drummer.

I speak from experience.  As noted before in this venue, I grew up in a context of delusional narcissism in which I learned that I was one of God’s “special” and “chosen people who had the truth; and, yes, others perhaps had the truth also but no one had it like we did!  And I’m not free of this poison yet and will never be completely as it always tempts me to bask in the safety of my present day mind-set and dismiss any and all those see the world differently.  But when the Grace of God has intervened and one has “named the demon” the demon can no longer work its tyranny in your heart with the same degree of abandonment.  Yes, I still catch myself taking myself too seriously…in this venue and in the whole of my life…but then “reality” chides me and I am reminded again that I’m only a finite perspective in a world of other perspectives.  I don’t have “the” Truth though I now feel that I am in the loving hands of the Truth and therefore don’t have to be so damn “right” any more.

And this is often quite uncomfortable.  For in my heart’s core I still have that childhood desperation for “certainty” but am learning to live without it, learning that this is what faith is about.  And, yes, this is faith in God…though that is a long story…but it also is a newly found faith in myself as I’m discovering that the certainty which used to offer comfort was specious at best and was predicated upon a denial of my human vulnerability.

Trump has a god-like power over many people in my country.  His message preys on reptilian-brain fears which are readily assuaged by his promise that he is gonna “Make America Great Again.”  He knows that he can say and do anything he wants to and his followers will stay with him for they are hapless before his demonic falderal.  Last fall he even declared publicly that he could shoot someone dead in the streets of New York City “and my poll numbers will still go up.”  The very next day his poll numbers spiked.  He offers a delusional hope and when desperate people have imbibed of this nectar it is usually impossible to take it from them.

And many evangelical Christians are drinking the kool-aid with relish, disregarding the advice of one of their own spokesmen, Chuck Swindoll, who posed the question of Trump, “Where is the basic thread of human decency?”  It is not there but many evangelicals, terrified by the reality of the modern world, are willing to sell their soul for the specious hope of a “strong-man” who will turn back the clock and restore our country to the “good old days.”  They fail to realize that these “good old days,” that I remember well, were the days when blacks knew their place, women knew their place, gender diversity did not even exist, and those Communists occupied the place that “Muslims” occupy in our present day mindset.  The “good old days” required rigid demarcation between “us” and “them” which is best illustrated by Trump’s promise today to “build that wall.”  “Walls” and boundaries are necessary for life.  But when they are emphasized to the neglect of openness and inclusiveness they are destructive, destructive of the world outside but also of those that are inside the “safe” confines of those boundaries.  As W. H. Auden noted, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”

Elif Shafak’s Perspective on Western Faith

Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist whose Sufi faith is a powerful influence in her life and in her writing.  In this excerpt from The Forty Rules of Love she sheds a valuable light on faith from her tradition in which she can see unity where in the West often we see only difference, where our “distinction drawer” is too much in control.  (The italicized material will be my observations.)

Instead of losing themselves in the Love of God and waging a war against their ego, religious zealots fight other people, generating wave after wave of fear.  Looking at the whole universe fear-tinted eyes, it is no wonder that they see a plethora of things to be afraid of.  Wherever there is an earthquake, drought, or any other calamity, they take it as a sign of Divine Wrath—as if God does not openly say, “My compassion outweighs my wrath.”  Always resentful of somebody for this or that, they seem to expect God Almighty to step in on their behalf and take their pitiful revenges.  Their life is an uninterrupted state of bitterness and hostility, a discontentment so vast it follows them wherever they go, like a black cloud, darkening both their past and their future.

This is a picture of the ego in firm control, using their purported “love of God” to wreak havoc on the world, including those most dear and close to them.  When the ego is tyrannizing our world, it desperately functions as a distinction-drawer keeping parts of our human experience separate from our awareness and projecting it “out there.”

There is such a thing in faith as not being able to see the forest for the trees.  The totality of religion is far greater and deeper than the sum of its component parts.  Individual rules need to be read in the light of the whole.  And the whole is concealed in the essence.

But the ego is a constellation of rules that seeks to “rule” our world, that is impose order upon it to make it consistent with our need for order and perfection.  Its goal is to know all of the rules, never forget one of them, so it can always be right.  It builds for us what W. H. Auden called, “A life safer than we can bear.”

Instead of searching for the essence in the Qur’an and embracing it as a whole, however, the bigot singles out a specific verse or two, giving priority to the divine commands that they deem to be in tune with their fearful minds.  They keep reminding everyone that on the day of judgment everyone will be forced to walk on the Bridge of Sirat, thinner than a hair, sharper than a razor.  Unable to cross the bridge, the sinners will tumble into the pits of hell underneath, where they will suffer forever.  Those who have lived a virtuous life will make it to the other end of the bridge, where they will be reward with exotic fruits, sweet waters, and virgins.  This, in a nutshell, is their notion of the afterlife.  So great is their obsession is with horrors and rewards, flames and fruits, angels and demons, that in their itch to reach a future which will justify who they are today they forget about God…..Hell is in the here and now.  So is heaven.  Quit worrying about hell or dreaming about heaven as they are both present inside at this present moment.  Every time we fall in love, we ascend into heaven.    Every time we hate, fight, or envy someone we tumble straight into the fires of hell.

The ego does not want us to live in the present moment.  It is a creation of this time/space continuum that we have been confined within by the biblical “fall” leaving us comfortable only when immersed in memories of the past…good or bad ones…or hopes of the future.

Is there a worse hell than the torment a man suffers when he knows deep down in his consciousness that he has done something wrong, awfully wrong?  Ask that man.  He will tell you what hell is.  Is there a better paradise than the bliss that descends upon a man at those rare moments when the bolts of the universe fly open and he feels in possession of all the secrets of eternity and fully united with God?  Ask that man.  He will tell you what heaven is.

Why worry so much about the aftermath, an imaginary future when this very moment is the only time we can fully experience both the presence and absence of God in our lives?  Motivated by neither the fear of punishment in hell nor the desire to be rewarded in heaven, Sufis love God simply because they love Him, pure and easy, untainted and unnegotiable.

And when you love God so much, when you love each and every one of his creations because of Him and thanks to Him, extraneous categories melt into thin air.  From that point on, there can be no “I” any more.  All you amount to is a zero so big it covers your whole being.

This “love of God” is a challenging notion as it is so easy to be trapped into loving only some idea of God, some culturally contrived notion of God, which has nothing to do with the experience of Him/Her/It/Whatever.  And here I pause as I’m at the threshold of silence, where all words become futile.

But when the “idea of God” is seen, and experienced for what it is, that being an idol, the theological teaching of God’s immanence and transcendence can become meaningful to one.  Yes, God is “out there” as well as “in here” and this intuitive insight can best be said as simply, “God is.”  And this God who we now see and feel “is” comes with a parallel development, the discovery of our own simple, bare, “is-ness” in what would be otherwise a cold and barren universe.  We discover our “zero-ness” which is so big it does cover everyone and everything, uniting us all.  In the Christian tradition we call this “the Spirit of God” which the Apostle Paul described as Christ and noted “by Him all things cohere.”

The Tyranny of Labels in Video

This video brilliantly illustrates everything I have been obsessing about with my emphasis on “distinction-drawing” and actually everything I’ve been trying to say for the past five years on this blog.  If we live our life in the tyranny of the narrowly defined world our ego has carved out for us, individually and collectively, we will always have conflict for there is no end to the need to draw distinctions between “us” and “them.”  Here again we see here the curse of religion…all religions…the ego always tends to take the spiritual wisdom provided there and turn it into a weapon under the name of whatever god we worship.  And, of course, there is the temptation to make this point accusatorily, “You do this but I do not” but the luxury of this self-deception is no longer mine. Losing that “luxury” is relevant to something said this morning in The Guardian about Donald Trump’s narcissism, “Trump does not have an interior life.  He ‘had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury…an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.’”  This “rumbling” is what my spiritual tradition calls “the Spirit of God” and if there is no “rumbling” there is only ego-ridden certainty which is devoid of any Spirit.

And when the ego’s tyranny metastasizes to a certain point, there will always be violence.  For the ego’s need to know that we are “right” can reach the point where we will to express with action the repressed experience of being “wrong,” a feeling that cannot help but arise when we are introduced to a world which is based on the tyranny of labels.  I do think that religion often offers the opportunity to dive into the depths of our heart and acknowledge this feeling of “wrongness” but it entails the willingness to face the pain of disillusionment, in Christian doctrine described as “being lost.”  This is why Aeschylus described the grace of god as “awful” centuries ago for he knew the agony of being disillusioned of the unquestioned certainties of our ego-constructed world.

“And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”  Aeschylus

 

My First Experience with “the Other.”

Something happened yesterday that resurrected ancient memories from my youth when Jews were one of the many that had been banished into the vast category of “them.”  I’m in a book club at the local Episcopalian Church which meets weekly and reads non-fiction books which always touch on spiritual themes.  One of the group members has often referenced the Jewish religion in our discussions and yesterday it suddenly dawned on me that she is of the Jewish faith.  I’m not for sure why that surprised me as this church, and this reading group, is very eclectic and views faith from many different perspectives.  And I have worked with and socialized with many persons of the Jewish faith and have never had any discomfort with them. I think that what happened is that on this occasion a memory from my preteen years in Bible camp was resurrected and for a moment I silently re-lived the first experience of encountering first a Jew.

Bible camp is part of fundamentalist Christian youth culture and often the high light of their summer.  It consists of sermons twice a day, a morning devotional, bible studies, and plenty of games and recreation.  On this particular occasion when we were being informally oriented to the schedule, I overhead someone say of a lovely young girl standing near-by, “She is a Jew.”  This was not said disparagingly but it definitely conveyed the attitude of, “She is one of ‘them.’”  In the following few days I often encountered her in various groups and recognized her immediately and felt in my heart deep angst and sorrow about her “fate” in life.  I was not angry or rude, nor was anyone else in my memory, but I was deeply concerned that this nice young girl “didn’t believe in Jesus” and subscribed to a faith that had “killed our Lord and Savior.”  I think that my distress was probably  my first experience of the phenomena of “otherness” and it was troubling. And this illustrates how my faith was bathing me in a spirit of ex-clusiveness.

As I relived this moment from my youth yesterday in the book club, I pondered over the experience and wandered what it must have been like for that young lady in a group of young people in which she was radically “other.”  And I also wondered, “What in the hell were her parents doing allowing her to be there.?”  She sat through the hell fire and brimstone sermons, suffered through the altar call, and certainly at some point someone tried to lead her to Jesus.

As I’ve shared recently I am fascinated with the “distinction-drawer” that operates in all of us and with this flash back I got to see an early manifestation in my young heart of this ego contrivance at work.  And it illustrates how I learned to use my Christian faith to bifurcate reality into “us” and “them” and take great delight in knowing that “us” had it exclusively right.  Living in the Western world I was presented with a binary world and it is very difficult to ever question basic premises like that.  But as poet Adrienne Rich eloquently noted, “Until we see the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot begin to know ourselves.”

 

The Ego and “Distinction Drawing”

Fr. Richard Rohr today offered observations about the ego which are relevant to my present focus on the “distinction drawing” that is an essential part of our identity.  He pointed out how the ego is concerned only about itself which is just a basic dimension of being human and only becomes toxic when it metastasizes and begins to project its shadow outside onto “them” and in extreme attempts to obliterate “them.”  The best example is Isis but the same phenomena is found with any extremist group.

Ordinary ego functioning is, yes, “egotistic” but it is usually benign and helps provide group/tribal coherence.  It provides an identity which always sets one apart from “them.”  I shared recently about my upbringing in a conservative Landmark Baptist Church and it does provide an example of an inordinate need to “draw distinctions” and thus overly emphasized the biblical admonishment, “Come out ye from among them and be ye separate” and “Be ye a peculiar people.”  I often facetiously note to friends that my little church clearly succeeded in this endeavor and, with chagrin, admit I won the prize for “peculiar”!  But let me assure you that in my little central Arkansas community these people were not toxic, were very good people, and did a great job in providing me the social and educational structure that would allow me to now be able to “discourse” about them.  Conservative groups, with non-toxic ego needs, are the backbone of any tribe and even of the entire world.

But when the toxicity metastasizes, we find phenomena like Isis and Westboro Baptist Church, the latter of which is a caricature of Baptist churches.  In these groups the “distinction drawer” has become so powerful due to repressed fears and anxieties from the reptilian brain that there is a need to strike out at somebody.  In a way they are so much under the grip of the unconsciousness that they are powerless which is how Rohr interprets Jesus’ dying words on the Cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Jesus knew that those who hated him to the point of wanting to kill him merely were not conscious of what they were doing.

When distinction drawing becomes too rigid, when the need for boundaries becomes paramount, it always leads to an over emphasis of what sets the group apart rather seeking for common denominators with others. It is not accidental that one of the most appealing dimensions of Donald Trump is his promise to “Build that wall” to keep out the Mexicans.  And it is not often remembered now but not long after he started this emphasis one of his competitors went to the absurd extreme of proposing to build a wall between our country and Canada also!  Trump’s message appeals to frightened people who see their out dated certainties threatened.  The message of “building a wall” is a symbol that resonates with the need to “set boundaries” and keep change from happening, not recognizing that “change” is an essential dynamic of life and must be embraced rather than opposed.  Otherwise we would still be living in the Stone Age.

The Tyranny of Being Right

One of the earliest “distinction drawings” I learned after becoming conscious was that the world was divided into two categories—“saved” and “unsaved.”  And from that font of binary thinking I learned there were Baptists and then there were other religious denominations who did not understand the Bible “right.”  And even worse, there were the “Mary-worshipping” Catholics and also the Jews who weren’t even Christian!  And even within Baptist ranks, there were my particular brand of Baptist (Landmark Missionary Baptists) and then those “liberal” Southern Baptists from which we Landmarkers had split off from in the late 19th century.  And even within Landmark churches there would often arise doctrinal squabbles which would lead to a split and the start of another church.  Note that the phenomena of needing to draw distinctions was a fundamental premise.  And in my denomination, there was even the phenomena of the Bride of Christ which was an honorary place in heaven for Christians who had belonged to the church which most closely adhered to the gospel and could trace their historical roots back to Christ.  Yes, I was honored to learn that this was my church.  Yes, even in heaven there would be distinctions drawn.  Gawd it was comforting to know that I was so special.

And please note that this “distinction drawing” was not the exclusive domain of Christianity or even fundamentalist Christianity.  It is merely part of being human and is toxic only when we never mature enough to make the need of drawing distinctions less important than finding common ground.  It has always been present in human history and will always be present as it is inherent in cognition itself.  BUT, it is possible…I am finding…to be a thinking human being and realize that some of the distinctions I have drawn with such rigidity in my life are not quite as black and white as I had been taught.  But for those who are stuck in what Richard Rohr calls “binary thinking” cannot help but obsessively seek for distinctions which leave them separate from others and thus “right.”

One result of this emphasis on my early life was the need to be right.  I quickly learned that there was “right” and “wrong” and learned that “right” consisted of basically adhering to the rules that constituted “right.”  I now realize that existentially, in the bowels of my young heart, I had perceived myself to be intrinsically bad but that I could be “good” and be “right” if I followed the rules, if I would be a “good little boy.”  This put me on the path of being a very good hypocrite, for the word hypocrite merely means “to act.”  I am not denigrating myself in the least with this point.  I was only a child and had learned how to find validation and that was in “acting” right and I did so with utmost sincerity.  Richard Rohr has pointed out that most of us spend the first half of our life as an actor in all respects and only then begin to wrestle with the under-lying dimension of life which always involves opening Pandora’s box in some way.  But it is hard to impossible for a guilt-ridden Christian to admit they have been “acting” for doing so would be to acknowledge and embrace the feelings of “wrongness” which have always tyrannized them into outward compliance with rules.  They would have to realize they have been living in bondage to “the law” albeit a “Christian” version of bondage.  They have been socialized or enculturated into their faith…which is a necessary stage of faith…but at some point it is important to acknowledge the “act” they have been putting on and allow the “Spirit of the Law” to begin to flow.  James Alison, who will share the stage with Richard Rohr in a couple of weeks, has written a book entitled “The Joy of Being Wrong,” describing the release he found when he no longer had to be constantly trying to be “right.”  And of course, in the need to “be right” I constructed various constructs in life in which I could be “right” and “they” would be wrong.  Oh, how comforting it was.  And how hypocritical.