Category Archives: existentialism

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.”

Thinking vs. Feeling Our Way Out of Life’s Wounds

Shakespeare knew that unacknowledged fear could stymie a person and keep him from meaningful action.  This was best illustrated in Hamlet whose internal conflict led to a tragic end.  In his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy he said, “Thus conscience (i.e. consciousness) doeth make cowards of us all, and the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought and enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regard, their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.” Hamlet was tormented by Oedipal issues which he could not acknowledge and thus was driven to unconscious “acting out,” leading to a tragic course of action.

In King Lear, we find another example of this truth.   Goneril said to Edward, “It is the cowish (cowardly) terror of his spirit/that dares not undertake; he’ll not feel wrongs which tie him to an answer.  Our wishes on the way may prove effects.” Lear, like most people, did not have the courage to face the terror in the depths of his heart that left him powerless to “undertake” or to commit to action.  This was because he had experienced “wrongs” in his youth which were so profound that his adaptation had locked him into a pattern of avoidance, a pattern which could be broken only by “feeling” these wrongs.  Because of this imprisonment, the whims and fancies (i.e. “wishes”) were only the “effects” of unconscious wounds and the not the result of conscious, purposive intent. Instead of being the driver in his life, he was driven.

Shakespeare grasped a powerful insight of modern psychotherapy.  Gut-level issues that wound us deeply cannot be resolved with band-aid interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy in which “thinking” and “thinking about our thinking” are utilized, albeit often with a degree of effectiveness.  But he knew that the real core issues of human experience, those that tie us up in knots, must be addressed with “feeling” and not with thinking.  These issues we must “feel” our way out of as we can never “think” our way out of them. I think the emphasis of cognitive based clinical intervention, though certainly of some value, ultimately reflects our culture”s wishes to keep maladaptive behavior and mood disturbances on a surface level and not address the gut-level dimensions as depth-psychology seeks to do.  Until we are willing to acknowledge the subterranean dimension of life, and go there when the circumstances of life nudge us in that direction, our life will be, as Ranier Rilke noted, merely, “The toy of some great pain.”

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The following are three blogs that I offer.  Please check the other two out sometime!

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

 

Tennessee Williams Had Boundary Problems!

Yes he did!  For example, read this thoughtful and provocative wisdom that flowed from his heart, “Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see …each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition– all such distortions within our own egos– condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions to our own egos the corresponding distortions in the egos of others, and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. That’s how it is in all living relationships except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each other’s naked hearts.”

My clinical mind, not quite completely dormant yet, read this and immediately diagnosed, “Porosity of boundaries.”  For this man saw too deeply and felt too deeply and when one is that open he is susceptible to what poet Wallace Stevens described as, “The fatality of seeing things too well.” Life, including relationships must also be lived in a perfunctory manner, on the surface of things, for to dive too far into the depths of life is to risk opening Pandora’s Box.

But my viewpoint of Williams is not as critical as it might seem.  Insight about existential issues requires “boundary problems” otherwise one is confined to living life oblivious to reality, opting to keep on the surface of things. Yes, boundaries are important, even vital, and it is important to be able to maintain involvement and investment in the surface of life even when one’s heart is as open as was Williams’.  And Williams managed to do this, more or less, as he was a successful poet and playwright which usually requires an ability to function in the structure of life and of the art world.  The quoted passage demonstrates what novelist Toni Morrison described as having a heart that was “petal open.”  It was this quality which made his plays so rich and powerful as he was able to reach into the depths of his heart and put on our collective table wisdom that most of us do not have the courage to find on our own.  “The Glass Menagerie” and “Street Car Named Desire” are almost too painful to watch as Williams put human vulnerability right before us and then even rubbed our nose in it!  He put the repressed pain and vulnerability of family life, and of social life as a whole, right before our eyes.

The wisdom of the above quotation is humbling.  We prefer the comfort of being ensconced in our view of the world, including our view of other people including those who we love.  But, Williams displays here the wisdom that W. H. Auden had when he asked the question, “Suppose we love not friends or wives but certain patterns in our lives?”  This same wisdom can be applied to collective experience and pose the question, “Are those ‘bad guys’ actually that bad or are we contributing to their ‘badness’ to accomplish our unacknowledged purposes?  I remember in the 1960’s when the Viet Nam War was raging as my country passionately subscribed to the domino theory about Communist desire to take over the world when now it is quite apparent that there was more to it than we thought.  And what about destroying the Native American culture in the interest of Manifest Destiny only to now see clearly that it was merely an example of “might makes right” so that we were able to accomplish our greedy ends.

Life is complicated.  It is important that we wrestle with the issues that people such as Williams have written about.  But it is also to not make the mistake of taking ourselves too important and allowing the ugliness that is upon us to eat on us to the point of being consumed by bleak despair.  There is always hope.  There is “method to this madness.”  There is “a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invite you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

“Tale Told by an Idiot” Still Being Told

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

This famous Shakespearean wisdom from Macbeth has stuck with me from the first time I heard it in high school when, stuck in a literal mindset at the time, I found Shakespeare and literature…other than the Bible…horrifying.  This wisdom is frightening as it takes the reader right into one of humankind’s worst fears, “Is anything real, and if so, am I participating in it?”

But now after three decades cavorting about in the delightful realm of Shakespeare’s imagination, I’m not as frightened or even daunted when I come across one of his glimpses into the scary parts of our psyche.  Here he was certainly telling us that we are all mad but the body of his work conveyed the conviction that there is “method to this madness” that we call life, that, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  Shakespeare recognized what we now call “consensually validated reality” as a stage play in which we play various roles throughout all of our life, all of them amounting in some sense only to “performance art.”  And he knew that this social facade was necessary but he liked to point out to us in his plays and sonnets just how given it is to duplicity, hypocrisy, dishonesty and the rest of the ugliness of the human heart that reigns in us all, though we are hard-wired to keep it covered up beneath the surface of this “dog-and-pony show” that we call reality.  But occasionally the gods will send along a vivid illustration to let us see just how much non-sense we are mired in and then it is our task to have the courage to learn from this object-lesson that is being provided us and amend our ways.  But we must always remember the wisdom of W. H. Auden on this note, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand, and he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Rebecca Solnit on Trump’s Maddening Solitude

This is the best “sermon” I’ve read yet about Trump and his minions.  Rebecca Solnit spares no punches and delivers a prophetic word, not just about Trump, but about our whole culture.  As they say, “Read it and weep.”  And weeping is in order as this is a very sad moment in our history and could get even sadder at any moment.

My use of words like “sermon” and “prophetic” bely my rage at the church culture of my origins.  Yes, “me doeth protest too much.”  I still think that “truth” can be found in spiritual traditions but very often spiritual traditions ossify and become merely “well-worn words and ready phrases that build walls against the wilderness.”  That leaves it to artists, writers, and even comedians to “speak truth to power” and Ms. Solnit here “knocks it out of the park.”

http://lithub.com/rebecca-solnit-the-loneliness-of-donald-trump/

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Paean to Mothers and Home

Home is increasingly important to me.  I like to go places, I’m not to the point of isolation, but I always like to get home.  If I travel, the further I go the more disconcerting and troubling I find it.  I immediately want to get back to the safe and warm confines of my simple little home with my wife, lovely dachshund Elsa, my garden, the birds, and my dear friends who live in the town.  I know this is from my childhood when the home that my mother created was the safe respite from the scary world “out there” that the first grade told me I had to learn to adjust do.  And I did learn to adjust to it but I’m now realizing, as I round third base in my life and head for “home” plate, that certainly “home is where the heart is.”

I stumbled across a notion about the importance of “home” in Greek mythology and was reminded of the emphasis of returning home in their stories, especially the story of Odysseus who was always focused on returning to the comforts of heart and home.  Furthermore, I learned that he actually tried to fake illness to avoid going on the long voyage that would lead to a long war and keep him subjected to great dangers for many years.  And, when he finally was able to head home, many were the obstacles that the fates placed in his way.

Recently I was reminded of an old hymn from my youth about the safety and security of the heavenly home which was promised as the reward for our earthly sojourn:  This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.  If heaven’s not my home, O Lord what will I do?  I think this old hymn, and the Greek myths do convey to us the unconscious duress that human experience puts on our soul and the comfort we find in “home.”  And though fathers are an essential part of making a home, an emotional dwelling place for the children, it is usually the mother who carries the brunt of this deeply important emotional/spiritual burden.  And on this Mother’s Day, I’m grateful for my dear mother, Dorothy Lucille Stough Chamness Smith who did such a fine job for which she is often rewarded by reading “Literarylew” from heaven!!!  And, if she does, I hope she doesn’t yawn and roll her eyes very often!!!

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/