Category Archives: human culture

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!”

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New Years Thoughts About the Perils of Thinking.

“Dear Creator, Help me let go of everything I think I am, to make room for everything I really am.” This is a Facebook post this morning from a local poet (Taos, NM), Lyla June Johnson, who is a very gifted soul and is a passionate spokeswoman for Native American issues, spirituality, and social activism.  This woman “gets it” and does so much more quickly than I started the process of “getting it.”  Here she puts on the table a core issue that I’m wrestling with in my life, “we are not what we think.”  This is part of what leads me to use the bumper sticker wisdom so often, “Don’t believe everything you think,” realizing that beliefs are merely thoughts and are readily seductive with self-serving whims of the ego.  Sure, welcome the thoughts that flow into and through our mind but occasionally take pause, mull them over, and we might learn that these “beliefs” could be a bit less certain than our ego wanted them to be.

Without realizing the limitations of believing in our rational formulations, Truth which is an elusive process and not an accumulation of factual knowledge can lead us into folly.  Novelist Hermann Hesse noted this when he wrote, “My story isn’t pleasant, it’s not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.” We will inevitably be guilty of this “dishonesty” if we can’t practice the self-reflection, i.e “meta-cognition” noted here for the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, “Reflection requires that the plain opposition of positive and negative be left behind. Thinking is not content with the abstraction of mutual exclusivities, but struggles to conceive of a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories.”  We must learn to occasionally find the capacity to, “think about our thinking.”

“Loss” Sure has its Value, Sez Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

(Naomi Shihab Nye)

Loss is a powerful issue in my life for reasons that are hard to pinpoint.  Many others have had to deal more tragically with the issue than I but something in the depths of my heart are quite familiar with it.  I think part of it was living on the margins of society in rural Arkansas in my youth but then practicing as a mental health clinicians for about twenty years, often dealing with tragically vulnerable adolescents and families also made its impact.

Loss is counter intuitive to what we are taught in our culture.  We live in a “get, get, get” world, or as a pastor from my youth put it, “get all you can, and can all you get.”  Our culture’s commercialism gives us an acquisitive orientation, dismissing the core of all great spiritual teachings that quality and depth in life is found in giving up the quest for “more.”

Two other poetic observations come to my mind, the first by Emily Dickinson who noted, “Renunciation is a piercing virtue, letting go of a presence for an expectation.”  This “presence” is often the very “way things are” at a particular moment in our life and losing this certainty can threaten us to the very core of our being.  When I entertain this vein of thought I always think of the wisdom of T.S. Eliot who noted the need to occasionally, “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”

My country is in grave peril right now.  Yes, the stock market is booming so all should be well.  Yeah, yeah, yeah!  But the very fabric of our being is now in question.  “Truth,” which admittedly is not cut and dried, is now becoming totally self-serving so that the primary rule for defining truth is that “I want it” and “people like me want it to.”  And this is a peril that faces the whole of our society, conservative and progressive. The issue is, “Can we see beyond our own nose? Can we, “see beyond the small bright circle of our consciousness, beyond which likes the darkness.” (Conrad Aiken) It is only in the darkness of allowing our certainties to be subject to questioning that the Grace of an always elusive Truth can whisper to us.  Otherwise, another Eliot observation is relevant, we will be, “united by the strife which divided them.”

Here are two other blogs that I publish.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Louise Labe–16th Century French Feminist

Subversive thought has captivated me for most of my adult life.  I am drawn to those who “think outside of the box” and, I like to add, “those who think outside of the box that the box is in.”  Some of the most skilled thinkers of this persuasion are feminist poets, novelists, and intellectuals.  Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray are a few of my favorites.  But earlier in the week I stumbled across a 16th century French woman, Louise Labe, who was an early “feminist” even when women didn’t have the comfort of the label.  And if you “Wiki-pedia” the name, she was quite a rebel and must have wreaked a lot of havoc in her day in the fiercely patriarchal world she lived in.  Here I share her 18th sonnet which reveals the passion which drove her, passion which was forbidden women in the day.  The final stanza beautifully captures her desire to find full expression for her soul, no longer “living in reserve” but instead seeking satisfaction of “my ache” in the depths of her being.

Kiss me again, kiss me, kiss me more:
Give me one of your most mouth-watering ones
Give me one of your most smouldering ones
I’ll repay it with four, hotter than any embers.

Weary, you say? Here, let me find a cure:
I’ll give you ten, all different, of rare softness.
Then as we mix up happiness and kisses
We two will please each other at our pleasure.

Now you and I will live our lives twice over
Once inside our self; once in our lover, and
Love, if I dare think this thought aloud,

Living in reserve makes me impatient:
How will I ever satisfy my ache,
Unless I rouse myself to seek, astride.

“A Punch in the Gut” from Tom Robbins

My religious background has given me an appreciation for the “prophetic function” in which “outliers” in a culture have the gift of seeing what others cannot see and being so brazen as to announce it.  Reiterating what I’ve said before, I think that in our present day this “prophetic function” often appears from the “outliers” who are artists, musicians, and writers.  Religion does not offer us this “prophetic function” in most cases as it is so often a tool of the culture, having imbibed of the essence of the culture and became a purveyor of its values.  I stumbled across the following wisdom from novelist Tom Robbins on Facebook this morning, cutting right to the heart of so many of our country’s deep-seated issues:
Have you risked disapproval? Have you ever risked economic security? Have you ever risked a belief?… Real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s clichés…Curiosity, especially intellectual inquisitiveness, is what separates the truly alive from those who are merely going through the motions….Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won’t adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet.

“Real courage is risking one’s cliches” really is a punch in the gut.  We have no idea we are merely mired in a world of cliches until we find the courage to toy with the notion that maybe we are.  And we always are more so than we wish to think.  Poet Adrienne Rich once noted, “Until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.”  This is true individually and collectively.  Our country at this present historical moment has an opportunity to look at some of its most pernicious assumptions.

 

 

“My story isn’t pleasant, it’s not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.” —Hermann Hesse

Life is messy.  So, we attempt to eliminate the mess but the end result is that at best we lessen the mess for ourselves and heap it upon others.  But we can’t get away from the gist of Hesse’s observation, life is messy unless we are willing to lie to ourselves. Of course, “lying” to ourselves is how social convention is formed in the first place.  That is to over state the matter for sake of emphasis but, as Otto Brown once wrote, “Reality is a veil we spin to hide the void” and I’m benefiting from this veil even as I write.  The problem lies only in the human tendency to not acknowledge the veil, to not realize that it subjects us to seeing “through a glass darkly” and basking in the comfortable illusion that we see things objectively.

“Not wanting to lie to ourselves” is now becoming ever more apparent as the contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies of our social facade have crystallized into a single point, Donald J. Trump, who is merely the figurehead of our collective duplicity.  He is obviously the “toy of some great pain,” spinning and twisting about like the bit of paper cavorting about in the wind in that mesmerizing scene in the movie, “American Beauty.”     He is being used by the gods to give us an opportunity to own our ugliness, our horrid self-absorption that refuses to see beyond the end of our own nose.

Of course, I’m talking about you…and all of those who aren’t reading this…as I stand above all of this, being as narcissistic and psychopathic as Trump!  Wink, wink!  Really big wink, wink!!!  My facetious point is that this is a human problem and all of us have this tendency to go to great extremes to avoid reality, reality which includes a deep-seated aversion to being disillusioned of our pretensions.  ‘Tis much easier to cling to our “invented stories.”

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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/

Poetry Sometimes Puts a Dollop of Grim on our Plate!

EXSANGUINATIONS by Joyce Carol Oates

Life as it unspools
Ever more eludes
Examination
We wonder what is best—
Exsanguination in a rush
Or in a 1,000 small slashes.

Oates has the grim that poets often have. This poem makes me think of Shakespeare’s cryptic observation about, “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Poets do not have the filter that most people are equipped with…in a sense, “cursed” with…and therefore are skilled at bringing our attention to the underbelly of life as well as the sublime.

Life is harsh. This harshness often bites us in the butt and the gods have equipped us with an infinitely resilient heart to cope…most of the time! Here I want to share an excerpt from William Wordsworth’s “Preludes” relevant to the beauty and Grace that is available in the context of human struggles:

DUST as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange that all 5
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I 10
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use 
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.