Category Archives: alienation

Where There is No Vision, the People Perish.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  Heard this often in my youth and realize now that referred to those who don’t see and understand the world as I did at that time.  There is vision and then there is “vision” and learning this lesson requires as step one, realizing that at very best we “see” through a glass darkly.  To put that in more human terms, we “see” only in accordance to a deep-seated need to “see” the world that we are accustomed to.  For example, in my youth in the state of Arkansas, I clearly saw that “Negroes” were not as intelligent and virtuous as were white people.  “It is obvious,” I’m sure I told myself.  What I failed to understand then is the dictate from my culture which mandated that I saw “Negroes” in this way and that seeing them in such a manner fulfilled my personal and tribal need to have someone that was beneath me on the social ladder; they were “the other” in my early life.  The irony of that was that my family was close to the bottom of the ladder itself the first decade or so of my life when those values were being imprinted.

Obtaining vision requires a capacity for paradox, realizing that we see only when we realize that we don’t see, that we see “only through a glass darkly.”  This paradoxical capacity introduces us to the experience of “the other” and awareness of our existential loneliness.  We are all very much alone in this world and it is only through the illusions of cultural contrivance, the object world, that we can superficially connect with others and pretend that we have connection.  And this “pretense” serves a very useful function in this very necessary world of appearance; but it is only when we venture beneath the surface, beyond the pretenses of our persona, and flirt with what W. H. Auden described as the, “unabiding void,” that we can enter the meaningful realm of spirit in which a more genuine connection is possible.  You might even say that our tippy-toeing near or into the void, “scares the hell of us”….or it least it can…as hell is living one’s whole life on the surface, failing to answer the famous question of Jesus, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul; or, what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

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AN AFTERTHOUGHT — What prompted this post is a story in The Economist about the state of Oklahoma and its egregious lack of vision.  Their “lack of vision” so closely parallels the obscurantism of the Republican Party in my country. Here is a link to that story:

https://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21736102-low-teacher-pay-and-severe-budget-cuts-are-driving-schools-brink-whats-matter

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Gaining the Whole World and Losing Your Own Soul

Yesterday’s post addressed the subject of alienation, being trapped in an inauthentic existence while the heart pines for the taste of genuine human experience.  This “imprisonment” is the situation in which one’s persona grips an individual so tightly that the heart has been stifled to the point that he has no awareness of any dimension of life other than the “suit of clothes” that he wears.  It is relevant to a poetic quip of W. H. Auden, “We drive through life in the closed cab of occupation,” seeing the world only through the skewed prism of our “occupation” or basic, unquestioned assumptions about life.

Auden had another observation about this existential predicament, noting in one poem, “In the desert of my heart, let the healing fountain start.  In the prison of my days, teach this free man how to praise.”  Auden recognized that this existential “entrapment” in the world of appearances often grates against the soul to the point that one wants an escape which, in his estimation, merits a simple prayer of gratitude for the gift of life.  We are “here” and this “here-ness” is the simplest but most profound thing that we have, the simple gift of “be-ing” alive in this brief parenthesis of time.

Social critics, writers, and artists have been crying out since the mid-19th century about this loss of soul which is the by-product of modern industrialized, technologized human life.  One of my favorite examples is Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman” which was a smash-hit in 1949 and is estimated by many to be the greatest American play of the 20th century.  The lead character in the play, Willy Loman, is at the end of his successful career as a salesman and he is gradually feeling that his employer is “putting him out to pasture.”  In fact, this process culminates in the play when, after protestations to his boss about the matter, Willy is fired.

Miller uses Willy Loman and his family to poignantly illustrate the mid-20th century expression of what happens when a man comes to the end of his career and finds that he has nothing but emptiness remaining, his persona having become obsolete, or “used up” and cast aside by the corporate world.  Anger, resentment, and frustration overcome Loman as he realizes that his life is, “over,” over in that he no longer had an identity without the successes he delighted in with his job.  Without his persona, there was nothing left.

A social structure functions because of the human ability to take on a role, a “persona,” and fulfill the obligations of that role.  The problem arises only when that social structure becomes such a behemoth that individuals are devoured by it, their very lives having become only that of a “thing” which has as its primary purpose only in keeping the behemoth afloat.  The illusions of the culture become so powerful and stifling that there is no room left in an individual’s heart for authenticity.  In our modern consumer society this is often described as human identity having devolved to the point in which it’s only a “consumer,” a “consuming unit” designed to buy more “stuff,” and thus keep the “stuff-producing” apparatus going.  In this, “Brave New World,” of Aldous Huxley, human value can be summed up in the quip, “Whoever has the most toys at the end of the game is the winner!”

Marilynne Robinson’s Keen Spiritual Grasp of Life

Marilynne Robinson is one of the most astute social critics and feminist writers in our contemporary world.  In the current edition of The New Republic she has an article about Martin Luther and the dissent that he introduced, leading to the Protestant Revolution.  She points out that Luther was a very conflicted soul, certainly “haunted” and driven by forces he was not aware of, but he appeared at a ripe moment in history and has proven to be a pivotal figure in Western Civilization.  I also can see how one could even argue that the direction he led us was not even in the best interest of mankind, given our present day capacity to allow “dissent” to become such a way of life that even a “rational” body like the U.S. Congress is anything but rational.

Even in her youth Marilynne was a thoughtful sensitive soul, very “aware” of her own subjective experience and the world in which she lived, even that of flora and fauna. The following is from an article in “Christianity Today” magazine about Robinson’s keen spiritual sensitivity.  The writer pointed out that she developed a keen sense of observation, including the Ineffable, recalling that she could sense God’s presence there long before she had a name for him. “I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me,” she writes, “barely restrained, and I thought everyone else must be aware of it.” Perhaps they were, but in a culture in which “it was characteristic to be silent about things that in any way moved them,” the young Robinson was, in her deepest experiences, alone.”

There were mentors, though. She remembers her grandfather holding an iris blossom before her, quietly commending its miracle of form, and the “patient old woman who taught me Presbyterianism,” offering Moses’ burning bush and Pharaoh’s dream of famine as wonders to contemplate. In their reticent attention, both mentors gave Robinson a way to stand before mystery and gradually behold it. “It was as if some old relative had walked me down to the lake knowing an imperious whim of heaven had made it a sea of gold and glass, and had said, This is a fine evening, and walked me home again.

Her subjective “aliveness” is best illustrated in her first novel, “Housekeeping” in which an Aunt cares for two young nieces and leads them into her eccentric, “hippy” world of myth and magic.  One of the nieces eventually rejects this life for the “normal” while the other takes off with her aunt for a vagabond life of adventure in an ethereal world of which most of us are oblivious, where distinctions are nebulous.  The most memorable line in this novel for me is, “Emptiness can blossom into all the compensations it requires.”  Robinson knew, and still knows, that the realm of the imagination holds riches untold for humankind if we are but willing to find the courage to venture there, allowing our intellect to be refreshed by the energy that lies there.

For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing-the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries. (“Housekeeping”)

Emily Dickinson and Consciousness

‘Twas such a little—little boat 
That toddled down the bay!
‘Twas such a gallant—gallant sea
That beckoned it away!

‘Twas such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the Coast—
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost! 

This little ditty by Emily Dickinson was one of my first imbibations of this delightful New England poet of 19th century America.  The poem reveals the vulnerability of Dickinson which in turn gave her the perspective which allowed her to offer such a wry glimpse into the human enterprise, a glimpse that is so relevant to any generation.

Dickinson was herself a “little boat” on the “gallant sea” of life and her poetry reveals that she frequently feared she was going to be swept away by the current.  And the second stanza vividly conveyed the fear that any of us have of getting “swept away,” the fear of being “lost” and having no awareness of it.

Consciousness is a perilous adventure and as Hamlet told us it does make “cowards of us all.”  To be conscious is to realize, cognitively and emotionally, that we live our life strung out on a narrow precipice above an unabiding void.  It is fear of this void, i.e. “Void,” that makes us “cling to these ills that we have, (rather) than fly to others that we know not of,” borrowing from Hamlet again.  Dickinson spent her adult life on one of these narrow precipices, ensconced in the attic of her father’s house, where she explored the vast riches of her tender heart and shared her findings with posterity.

Are We Just “Dust Bunnies” Here on Earth?

I like to tie together different pieces of literature together at times when the connection is very subtle at best.  Here is a collection of wisdom about the existential predicament of humankind, starting with the very creation of itself from the Psalmist David in the Old Testament:

Note here the relevance of the Shakespearean wisdom that I quote so often, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  The Psalmist recognized the sentiment of many men and women that life is as if some architect is spinning the web of life in which we are all caught up and, indeed, is spinning the web of our own individual life.

14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:14-16 King James Version (KJV)

Compare with this excerpt from the W. H. Auden poem, “In Sickness and In Health”:

What talent for the makeshift thought/a living corpus out of odds and ends ?/What pedagogic patience taught/Pre-occupied and savage elements/To dance into a segregated charm?/Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm,/And gardened from the wilderness of space/The sensual properties of one dear face?

And then Shakespeare’s Hamlet, overwhelmed with existential angst, bemoaned his fate with the following:

… that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Here three literary greats, indeed one of them “Divinely” great, artfully put into words the mystery of how we came into being and asked the question, “What are we doing here?”  And take note of the “quintessence of dust” notion which brings to my mind the biblical admonition that we are but “dust of the earth,” an humble state to which we will return.  There is a sense in which we are but dust bunnies, bouncing about this lonely planet for a while.  However, therein lies our glory if we but have the courage to look beneath the surface of things, things which can appear grim on occasion.

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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/

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.

The Intoxication of Lunacy!

Colorado has a group of people who are apparently serious about the notion of a flat earth.  When I started reading this I suspected it was a spoof but the more I read I realize that these people are serious.  They really do believe the earth is flat and they have “proof” that this notion is valid!  )  I have often in my “career” as a blogger used the flat earth notion to illustrate complete lunacy, a private world view for people who have lost contact with reality and created their own little imaginary world which, at the extreme, is collective psychosis.  Ideas can carry us away and because of their intoxicating effect on our mind-set we can lose all critical capacity, believing our pet “idea” even when all evidence suggests it is self-delusion. (See Denver Post story at following link:  (http://www.denverpost.com/2017/07/07/colorado-earth-flat-gravity-hoax/)

I have my own personal spoof of this lunacy in which I facetiously and sarcastically postulate a world in which “the moon is made out of cheese.” Yes, suppose during the night I am the victim of a neurological convulsion in my brain and awakened the next morning to know, with great passion, that “the moon is made out of cheese.”  If this should happen, I might take this very seriously and suddenly realize that it is the truth, that the darkness I’ve lived in has finally lifted, and I see clearly that, yes, “the moon is made out of cheese.”  Furthermore, some friends might try to intervene and set me straight but they would make no progress because, “when you know the truth, you just kinda know the truth” and no one is going to dissuade you.  Of course, finding truth always requires that others be convinced so I would start evangelizing and before long I would have a congregation of like-minded souls and we would then have the solace of validation, a solace which would be enhanced by the realization that only we saw the truth and that any “truth” is always rejected by those who are enlightened.  This insight would give us the comfort of borrowing a theme from fundamentalists of every stripe and sadly and piously understand that “we are being persecuted for His sake.”

I am here addressing one of my pet themes, best described as a toxic version of group-think, a private referential system in which validation is found only in those who have found our view of the world amenable to theirs.  When this toxicity infects any idea, ideas which might otherwise have value to others is immediately rejected by these “others” as they have no meaning to them whatsoever.  The resulting ideology, a passionate belief system that has become delusional becomes a private prison guaranteed to repel anyone who looks on from the outside.  But the rejection itself is perversely rewarding as it leaves the “true believers” with the smug satisfaction of owning “truth” which only they have apprehended.  What has happened is that very unhappy people have crafted a belief system which isolates them even further than they were to begin with and they slowly die from the suffocation that always comes from what Paul Tillich called “an empty world of self-relatedness.”  Emily Dickinson described it as “a mind too near itself to see distinctly.”

In my clinical career this phenomena was known as “insanity,” succinctly capsulized in a clinical bromide, “Mental illness is a reference problem.”  The individual who is completely mad…and we are all mad to some degree…has cut himself off from all external reference and finds great comfort in his delusional system.  For the intoxication of self-delusion resists any sobering-up that critical thinking would afford. It is easy for an out-sider, i.e. a non-believer, to quickly isolate the premise of a delusional system but just dare try to challenge that premises and you will meet great resistance.  For this “premise” represents an emotional investment the person/persons have made which cannot be relinquished without great pain.  Hypothetically, if one could reach into the heart of these people and surgically extirpate the premise, one would witness a complete melt-down.  For this premise is an existential anchor which holds its victims prisoners in a fortress from which they dare not escape.

I conclude with, still again, my favorite bumper-sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think.”