Indian novelist and social critic Arundhati Roy wrote one of my favorite novels, The God of Small Things, which I strongly recommend. She has been outspoken about political and social injustice in her own country and even in our country. He outspoken views have gotten her into no small amount of trouble with her own government. Recently in Amy Goodman’s radio program, Democracy Now, she was interviewed about the U.S. declaration of war on Iraq a decade ago and used the term “psychosis” to describe the decision. Now, I think “psychosis” might have been a bit over the top. But she does offer a very insightful, critical perspective about that decision, a perspective that is now agreed upon by many in this country. (Ms. Roy interview link: http://www.democracynow.org/2013/3/18/arundhati_roy_on_iraq_wars_10th) Cultures do function as individuals in a sense and can be “mentally ill”, even psychotic. And it always takes someone from the outside, someone who is not caught up in the collective madness, to point in out. Thus the important role of Ms. Roy and other brilliant thinkers from other cultures. Circular reasoning often prevails. We have something in mind that we want to do and then devote our rational processing of data into legitimating the conclusion to which we’ve already been led. Or, to quote someone (whose name I no longer recall), our thinking is often “the belated rationalization of conclusions to which we have already been led by our desires.”
I know I sound like a broken record, but “this is a spiritual problem.” Now to call anything a “spiritual” problem and, already acknowledging there is the “broken record” issue with me, I myself want to say, “Oh, barf me with a spoon!” It is so easy to pontificate about “spiritual problems” and even more so I know that I’m doing so on some level, playing back an old recording in which I achieved cheap ego satisfaction from heaping “hell-fire and damnation on a lost and dying world.” Well, that is not what I have in mind. That is too simplistic. The solution I had in mind back then was very immature, reflecting spirituality seen as a rational process in which certain precepts merely needed to be accepted and followed. But by “spirituality” here I refer to the gut-level values of our culture, values that are usually reflected even in our religion. And, if we were honest, our supreme value today, our true “God” is consumerism, or “stuff.” We actually believe only in “stuff” and our heart lies with “stuff.”
But the spirituality I now value and seek to practice…and admittedly do so very poorly…is that of a new direction. It is a focus on the “eternal” but not in terms of time and space but in terms of value or quality. It is simply to recognize that our world is ephemeral, that there is an Ultimate reality that is present and expresses itself through this world. And our ephemeral, mundane world can have meaning only when we live in reference to that other dimension. Thus we daily “chop wood and carry water”, not knowing what the outcome may be, but knowing, i.e. “believing” and “hoping”, that it was make a difference. T. S. Eliot described it as the need to “offer our deeds to oblivion.” Of course, this offends our grandiose ego self who wants to know what the outcome will be and wants the outcome, especially the part that we played, to be really magnificent. But we can’t know. But we can take comfort in the hope that, collectively speaking, “There is a divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.” (Shakespeare)
I offer two poems which so beautifully emphasize this external reference point, one from the East and one from the West:
First, from Lao Tzu:
Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub,
By vacancies joining them for a wheel’s use;
The use of clay in moulding pitchers
Comes from the hollow of its absence;
Doors, windows, in a house,
Are used for their emptiness:
�Thus we are helped by what is not
To use what is.
And then there is a lovely sonnet by John Masefield in which distress in our life is seen as an occasion to “thrust on that Unseen” and “cast to the devil’s challenge” the man’s “yes”. For, the devil’s challenge is a resounding “No”, an emphatic declaration that our life does not have any meaning and that our efforts are futile. When that spirit of negation rears its ugly head, that is the moment to look around and find the beauty that is nearby in our world, to offer a “random act of kindness”, and try to do so anonymously and without ostentation, and perhaps offer to love to one of God’s critters, human or otherwise. In other words, “get over ourselves” for a moment which is what the black hole of despair is often about.
Man has his unseen friend, his unseen twin,
His straitened spirit’s possibility,
The palace unexplored he thinks an inn,
The glorious garden which he wanders by.
It is beside us while we clutch at clay
To daub ourselves that we may never see.
Like the lame donkey lured by moving hay
We chase the shade but let the real be.
Yet, when confusion in our heaven brings stress,
We thrust on that unseen, get stature from it,
Cast to the devil’s challenge the man’s yes,
And stream our fiery hour like a comet,
And know for that fierce hour a friend behind,
With sword and shield, the second to the mind.