Category Archives: group psychology

e e cummings and individuation

The poet, e e cummings declared, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
The world has a primary task, socio-culturally speaking, of homogenizing the “raw-material” of the human “matter” that comes its way as we daily “rattle the world for our babies.”  And yes, our babies are the precious coins that our piggy-banks always have stored up for us though we so often don’t treat them with the respect they are due.  But as our babies begin the task of becoming humanized they find the homogeneity pressure is overwhelming and so often they meekly succumb to the pressure and become mere automatons, following the dictates of the tribe into which they are born.

e e cummings demonstrated in his poetry…and I’m sure in the whole of his life…his determination to “rebel against the machine” and thus we witness the absence of punctuation, capitalization, and often the absence of simple linear thinking.  And I’m made to think of “Bartleby the Scrivener”, the fictional creation of Herman Melville in the 19th century, whose compulsive, “I would prefer not to,” was his standard response to the structured workplace of the burgeoning industrial revolution of his day.

Human life is the daily conflict between the twin poles of a demand to comply with “fitting in” and the equally important need to “individuate.”  A healthy society will call for both but so often an imbalance is seen in which the “fitting in” is so heavily emphasized that little or no room is left for individuation and the tribe is left with a nation of sheep. When that happens, the wisdom of Proverbs 29 is relevant, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” for vision is not possible when group-think (or group “vision”) tyrannizes.

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Shakespeare, Madness, and Trumpism

Sometimes I’m tempted to focus on Shakespeare alone in this blog.  His work offers us more wisdom than I’ve found anywhere else, if one has the courage and discipline to explore it.  As I’ve argued recently, I think his work reveals that he thought that madness inflicted the whole of this human endeavor and that even the “consensually validated reality,” if closely examined reveals this to be true.  Freud probably had this in mind with his book entitled, “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

One line from the play, “Hamlet” that has always intrigued me on this subject is, “What’s mad but to be nothing else but mad?”  Shakespeare was telling us, “We are all ‘mad’ but the label ‘madness’ belongs only to those who are ‘nothing else but mad.’”  Yes, everyday life is “psycho-pathological” but to waste much time and energy calling it that is kind of, well, kind of “nuts.”  Labels like “psycho-pathological” or “mad” must be reserved for those who go beyond the pale of everyday insanity and illustrates for us what is really going on with our daily grind of “consensually validated reality.”

But there is a continuum to this madness that we are all inflicted with by virtue of being “mere” humans.  There are occasionally people, even prominent people, who come along and illustrate for us madness though manage to avoid institutionalization and possibly even become powerful political leaders.  In my lifetime I can think of people like Idi Amin,  Sadam Hussein, and their predecessors, Hitler and Mussolini. And, you guessed it, there’s Donald Trump.  Though Donald Trump was “freely” elected in a democracy, his election proves the speciousness of any notion of “free will.”   Trump is a good example of someone who Shakespeare would describe as mad but he would also note that with him there is definitely “something other” than mad, meaning he really doesn’t deserve the label “mad,” but he sure comes close to it!  He is pretty far down on the spectrum toward madness but he lives in a culture that has found what he offers valuable enough that they are willing to overlook words and deeds that would disqualify most people from the White House and from the entitlement of the word “sane.”

It would be so helpful if my country would use this moment in its history for self-reflection and consider the wisdom that Shakespeare offers us here.  If we were mentally healthy as a culture we could contemplate our “madness” as Shakespeare challenged us to do and not be daunted by the task, realizing that to contemplate the notion does not make us “mad.”  For, most of us in this exploration would learn to chuckle, or even guffaw at things we began to discover about ourselves, quirks and oddities which reveal merely the conflicted nature of human experience and do not mean that we are mad.  But one dimension of the human ego which can tyrannize one into madness is the fear of having any flaw, and of having any flaw coming to the light of the day.  That fear often drives us not acknowledge our conflicts even if this lack of acknowledgement causes these conflicts to worsen to the point of mental illness or even to the point of validating one who is mentally ill and electing him President of the United States.

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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/

“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/

Epistemic Closure in Poetry

The political impasse in my country with the hijacking of the Republican Party by hyper-conservative voices has brought to my focus the topic of epistemic closure.  This is the idea of an idea, or group of ideas, that so captivates a group that any disagreement is forbidden as it would threaten their unconscious need for certainty.  Carried to an extreme this phenomenon always produces a figure head, someone extremely immune from feedback from external reality like Donald Trump.

This morning I ran across a beautiful poem in the Times Literary Supplement which illustrates this phenomenon.  It then brought to my mind two other poems, all three of which I will now share:

Sleeping Dogs by Stephen Dobyns

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

And here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson who uses vivid, concrete language to describe the emphatic closing of a mind against any feedback from one’s private frame of reference:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

And finally here is an excerpt from “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden who poignantly captures the duplicity of the social contract and the courage it takes to explore beneath its facade:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 

“The Moon is Made Out of Cheese”

The following is a facetious reverie I utilize socially on occasion to illustrate the lunacy that we all wallow in occasionally.  Bear with me.  There is a point to it.

Wow, I woke up this morning and I suddenly realized that the moon is made out of cheese!  Furthermore, I knew that this insight was profound and relevant to the entire world so I immediately began to formulate a plan whereby I could spread this very important insight.

I started by canvassing my neighborhood and though many refused to open the door, some laughed at me, there were a handful of people who, knowing how special and gifted I was to begin with, immediately said, “Hey, you have a point there!  I’ve always had thoughts like that myself but didn’t have the courage to speak of them.”

So we began to meet regularly and started each meeting with an assessment of those in the neighborhood who had not “seen the light” and had so rudely refused the good news that we had brought.  We took great comfort in the realization that most people cannot handle the truth, stubbornly keep their minds and hearts in the darkness, and refuse to allow enlightenment to enter.  Often, as these meetings ended, we would be in tears as we lamented the fate of those who had stubbornly refused to acknowledge the truth that we offered.

I must make a long story short and summarize.  This initial group did grow and at some point our initial band of seven faithful souls expanded to twenty-three.  We formally organized and, of course, since I was the source of this inspiration I announced that I was the leader of the group…and also the treasurer…and that I was the final authority on some of the fine points about the moon being made out of cheese.

At this point, trouble started.  One gentleman brought up the question, “Well, what kind of cheese is it?”  I was a bit taken aback as I knew without a doubt that it was American cheese but another dared to suggest, “No, it is cheddar.”  Still another affirmed that it was American cheese but argued that it was Velveeta.  It took a lot of argument, and at times intense anger, but I managed to convince the second gentleman that the Velveeta notion was heresy and he agreed with me.  But the cheddar proponent was adamant about his viewpoint, and convinced three others he was right, and they separated from our group and focused on developing a belief system around the moon being made out of cheddar cheese.

My point here with this lunacy is, once again, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  Those who do, lacking the capacity to think critically, are subject to easily being influenced by a seductive and/or intimidating person.  Whatever our “pet” thoughts are, it does not hurt in the least to subject them to a bit of critical thinking.  I like T.S. Eliot’s observation on this note, encouraging us to, “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”  “Pet” thoughts that have value can withstand this type of scrutiny and even flourish as a result.  This makes me think of something I read decades ago about how to make a poem, “Grab a word and pull on it.”  Grabbing a word or a thought and “pulling on it” with critical thinking can help ferret out the value…if any…if the thinking.  The less value in the vein of thought that grips one’s soul, the less likelihood that any critical thinking will be brought to bear upon it.

Each of us have passing thoughts.  That is good.  But we can be selective about which one’s we give any energy to and if it is something that tends to promote isolation, we might take pause.  We might ask, “Do I really believe this?”

Trump and the ‘Thing-ification’ of Faith

The evangelical support for Donald Trump reflects how greatly imperiled the Christian tradition is in.  True, evangelicals are only a portion of Christianity but most of the Christian tradition is based on rationality to the exclusion of experience which makes it more amenable to being a cultural artifact. When religion becomes a cultural artifact, it risks becoming what the Apostle Paul called “the wisdom of this world” to which he assigned the value of “sounding brass and tinkling symbols” or as comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it, “yada, yada, yada.”

One’s Christian faith can easily become a “thing” which facilitates the phenomenon known as the “Christian identity movement” in which one’s faith has become “thing-ified.” It reflects that the individual has succumbed to the influence of modern industrial civilization and learned to see and experience himself only as a “thing” and therefore his god…and god’s son…can only be a “thing.”   Furthermore, one’s loved ones, one’s friends, even mother earth is only a “thing” and we all know that “things” are to be used, to be exploited without any concern for their separateness, for their own uniqueness and value, even for their own soul.

A good friend of mine recently shared with me his experience of realizing his own “thing-ification” in the whole of his life, especially with his faith.  He was indoctrinated into the Christian tradition at an early age, pressured at an early age to become a minister, and his faith…as a “thing”…became his identity.  He began to realize in his late teens that something was amiss, and began a decades long exploration of an emptiness in his soul that an addiction to this “thing-ification” had covered up.  As he gradually began to find the courage to let this “thing” dissipate, the emptiness began to be more intense, and as the intensity increased he began to find a grounding which he realized was faith in a more genuine sense that he had ever imagined possible.  He summed it up as, “I had to lose myself to find myself”.  He further explained that he realized he had to, in an important sense, lose his faith to find his faith and this experience was very much related to finding faith in himself.  “To believe in God is to believe in myself,” he summarized.

Christian tradition has become such a “tradition” that it is often nothing but sterile tradition, a medley of ideas devoid of any connection to human experience, i.e. “the body.”  I call these Christians “Christian-oids” or “Christian-ettes” who each day more or less say, “Wind me up and watch me be Christian.   This way of life is a habit, and a comfortable habit, so comfortable that it is hard to break.  It is very painful to realize that giving up this “habit” is giving up the “letter of the law” in exchange for the “Spirit of the Law,” giving up “death” for “Life.”  And a noble tradition that has become perfunctory is amenable to gross influence by unconscious forces allowing innocent and good intelligent people to find themselves enthralled by ideologies which are actually very dark.  Shakespeare recognized that when any spiritual tradition becomes perfunctory like this, when it becomes an “enforced ceremony” it becomes deadly:

When love begins to sicken and decay,
It useth an enforcèd ceremony.
There are no tricks in plain and simple faith.
But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle.

When faith that was once heart-based, has “sickened and decayed” into empty rhetoric and ritual, there will be lots of loud and boisterous postering which will provide much fodder for late night comedians but will do nothing to assuage the ills of the social body or of the individual souls.

I dare to say that we have today a perfunctory Christian tradition very often and thus we see so many of them lining up behind a craven figure like Donald Trump and even declaring that God has “raised him up” to be President of the United States.  This trivialization of the Christian tradition has led to a banalization of faith so that “easy believism” has replaced the “costly Grace” spoken of by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Consequently one can readily subscribe to a rationale creed, don the “Christian” attire, and bask in the social comfort that it affords  without ever allowing it to delve into the heart and there, according to the Apostle Paul, “be a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

 

 

 

 

When love begins to sicken and decay,
It useth an enforcèd ceremony.
There are no tricks in plain and simple faith.
But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle.

Thoughts about the Election 2016

This election yesterday which will bring Donald Trump to the Presidency of my country in January has taught me so much, not just about my country but about myself.  This is because I now pay attention much better, not only to what happens “out there” in my world but what happens “in here” in my subjective experience.  No longer do I have the luxury of merely coasting by on my convenient set of preconceptions.

The American people have clearly voted for a more conservative direction in our country, politically and culturally.  Their insistence on a return to conservative values was so emphatic that they were even willing to vote for a candidate that most of them did not like, many of whom even found it embarrassing to vote for him.  And I feel passionately that a conservative presence in any culture is needed; but it is sad that the Republican Party could not come up with a candidate who represented their values and didn’t bring Trump’s unsavory qualities to the table.

Furthermore, this election was an affirmation about a certain way of looking at the world, a worldview with very certain and rigid boundaries best illustrated with Trump’s brazen declaration to “build a wall” to keep out the Mexicans and even to make Mexico pay for it.  This “building of walls” is a metaphor for the whole emphasis of the Trumpian message to “Make American Great Again,” meaning to turn back the clock to the time when boundaries were very definite and “everybody” knew their place.  Yes, “Negroes”, women, homosexuals, foreigners of all stripes, and all expressions of diversity were frowned upon or persecuted.

When the basic assumptions that formulate the template through which we view the world are threatened, it is a very human response to want to revert to what has worked in the past to diminish or eliminate this threat.  This is true on an individual and a collective level.  But sometimes this need for the security of the “tried and true” of yesteryear can become too great and we will succumb to the temptation of making,  “for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”  (W. H. Auden)  Life is inherently dynamic and with the dynamic flow of this spiritual process there is always some risk involved.  Without willingness to take risks, to change, we have retreated to a sterile and moribund world which leaves us bereft of spirit, existing only as the walking dead.