Category Archives: human culture

The Perverse Delight of Being Right

I grew up being right.  How did I know I was right?  Because I “knew” that I was right.  How did I know that?  Because I was taught what right was, and how to merit that label, and therefore it was simple to just adhere to the definition and make sure your thinking and behavior complied to its premises. “Right” is always something external to the subjective experience of a young child and gaining the delight of knowing that he/she is right requires dutifully imbibing the definition of right that is proffered.  I used the term “imbibing” because it is more than a mere cognitive matter; it is a matter of “soaking up” the nuances of the culture to acquire a subjective “experience” of being right, meaning it is not likely to be questioned.

I have questioned this “rightness” of mine my whole life.  Oh, somewhat less in my youth as just did not have the self-confidence, the courage to stand on my own two feet and think for myself.  “Thinking for oneself” in a collective mindset that discourages it will leave one with a sense of alienation and I got a double dose of that malady.  The experience of alienation was so intense that I desperately tried to comply, to believe the right things, to do the right things so that I would have the comfort of belonging.  But if you must “try” to belong, you are in deep shit as far as having the comfort that belonging offers.

This “splinter in the brain,” as Emily Dickinson called it, has tormented and blessed me, the whole of my life.  Even today, as I am standing on my own two feet, there is the deep-seated nagging realization that I am now defying nearly all of the offerings of the tribe I was born into that would offer one the “delight” of being right.  I now see that the desperate desire to be right of my early youth was merely the result of the implicit assumptions I had gained from my tribe that I was intrinsically wrong, leaving me with a deep-seated experience that my simple “being” in the world was wrong.  I now seek “The Joy of Being” wrong, which is the title of a very important book in my life by James Alison, the complete title being, “The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes.”  I personally believe this joy is what the teachings of Jesus was about, that he assured us that we could have this joy if we found the courage to relinquish all the pressures to fit in and just “be” present in the world.  This, in my estimation, is “salvation” which in the words of T.S. Eliot is, “a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.”

A very important caveat is warranted.  This freedom to “be,” to live free of the bondage to social norms, does not allow one to live in disregard for the conventions of one’s tribe.  Many of these conventions might not apply to me but that does not give me the freedom to go on the war path against them.  In that case I would be guilty of the very same obnoxious contempt that a tribe utilizes to stamp out the individuality of a soul. But it does give me the freedom to speak out about perceived injustice and evil as long as I don’t get so arrogant with self-righteousness that I encourage violence, overt or subtle.

The inspiration for this discourse stems from an article I read this morning in the New York Times about an Indian woman, Gauri Lankesh, who had this courage to be herself and speak out about the injustice of her country. She was a journalist who was murdered in 2017 because of her bold, and at times brazen willingness to “speak truth to power”.  Extremism always springs from knowing you are “right” and the arrogance that gives one this assurance arises from deep-seated darkness that permits violence.  This darkness arises from primitive fears and anxieties so intense that the light of conscious awareness is disallowed, a light that would permit respect of difference.

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Shame, Truth, Courage, and Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and the Washington Post, shocked the world yesterday by disclosing an effort by AMI (the National Enquirer publisher) to blackmail him with salacious text messages they had uncovered, including sexually intimate photos.  Yes, these photos even included the now quite common “d…k pix.”  Ami was trying to get him to back off an intense investigation he had initiated to determine how they had intercepted his texts and emails. But Bezos did not play ball, declaring he preferred to “roll this log over and see what crawls out.”  He admitted the shame of this experience but determined he would not be blackmailed and was willing to call the bluff of the National Enquirer. The National Enquirer and its CEO, Jeff Pecker (chuckle, chuckle) have been intimately involved with Trump, Pecker now having defected under pressure from Robert Mueller’s investigation of the President.  Trump and Pecker colluded to pay off Trump’s hush money to a prostitute and former Playboy bunny.

My concern with this story is shame and its relationship with honesty.  A sense of shame…a “healthy shame”…helps make us human, giving us the motivation to participate in the very necessary social fiction that makes us human.  We keep things hidden and should do so.  Not everything needs to be disclosed.  But when “healthy shame” has been obliterated by toxic shame, it reveals that there is so much to hide that the individual will go to any extreme to keep the secrets of his heart hidden.  Mr. Bezos, like all mortals, has sexual peccadillos fluttering about in his heart and mind and he “imbibed” of a few like most of us have.  But he found the courage and stubbornness to not be blackmailed and owned up to the accusations, taking the “wind out of the sails” of the National Enquirer.  (And, admittedly this “courage and stubbornness” was facilitated by the fact that he is one of the richest men on the earth.)

Life, i.e. “reality”, often pushes us into a corner where we are forced to admit things that are not pleasant.  But when shame tyrannizes us into a façade that is not simply a persona but a prison, we cannot allow “truthfulness” to break out; sometimes we will go to any extreme to deny what we are accused of.  Related to this machination, Trump introduced to us the term “fake news” as a simple term for, “whatever I don’t like or is unpleasant,” is not true.

This issue, given Trump’s intimacy with the National Enquirer, brings to my mind the question of what he and his compatriots have dug up on members of Congress.  We all have stuff we don’t want to come out and it is now clear that if the intent is there to uncover it, it can be uncovered.  Blackmail would explain some of the blind compliance with Trump’s whims that many noted Republicans have demonstrated; Lindsey Graham and McConnell comes to mind, to name but two.

Franz Kafka on the Power of Books

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”  Kafka knew that our internal life is always “frozen” to some degree, confined to structure and routine which allows us to live our lives in a structured and routine life.  But he knew that at some time in our life this “frozen sea” needs to be broken up and that literature, i.e. “books”, are one means by which this is accomplished.  But he also noted that the only books that could serve this purpose are those that, “wound or stab us” to “wake us up with a blow to the head.”

Routine and structure provide safety and no one can fault humankind for desiring safety.   Otto Brown noted, “Reality is a veil we spin to hide the void” but he also knew that this was a necessary “veil” which provides the safety necessary to go about day-to-day life and keep the wheels of our social organization spinning.  But Kafka’s concern, and the concern of other writers and artists, is that the need for safety can become so great that life itself is stifled and instead of an interior “flow” in our heart we have only a “frozen sea.”  W. H. Auden put it this way, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”

If the risk of life is not acknowledged…the fragility and vulnerability of being a mere “meat suit” in a relentlessly grinding cosmos will be avoided; but so will the experience of being alive. It is disconcerting for humankind to consider his vulnerability, to realize that he is this mere “sack of bones” on a speck of cosmic dust on a lonely planet.  It is this finitude that he seeks to hide with this specious “safety” that Kafka suggested books could “crack.”

This is a personal issue for me, thus a recurrent theme in my daily life and in this blog.  Literature has been the primary means whereby the “frozen sea” in my heart has been shattering for the past three decades since a good friend gave me a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and introduced me to W. H. Auden and T.S. Eliot.  Good literature comes from the depths of the heart and speaks to the depths of the heart, described by the Psalmist as, “deep calls unto deep.”

Here is the Kafka quote in  full:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

Woody Allen: “The Heart Wants What it Wants”

Allen said this in response to criticism of his marriage to his step-daughter in 1997. He was very astute, perhaps more than he realized as the declaration merely meant, “I want what I want and I don’t have to explain it to anyone!”  He realized that marrying your own step-daughter was, at least…shall we say “awkward”; but, the desire of his heart prevailed.

The heart is easily misunderstood as we are taught by our culture to look at life superficially, including our own life…and even our “heart.”  I’m reminded of sermon fodder from my youth, “The heart is desperately wicked and deceitful above all things.  Who can know it?”  My adult interpretation of this verse from Jeremiah is, “The heart is really complicated, so much so that, ‘Who can know it?’  The complications of the heart include good and bad impulses, even ‘desperately wicked’ ones which this same heart will not allow us to be conscious of.”  But what we are not conscious of will manifest itself in our attitude and behavior though we will always “be human” and fail to acknowledge this.

On its deepest level, the heart is a rapacious monster wanting only what it wants.  Most of the time this black hole is assuaged by the process of symbolization, i.e. “sublimation”, so that instead of complete satisfaction of our wants we will settle for “some” of our wants which will allow us to live in a world populated by persons who have made the same bargain with the reptilian brain.  History has given us many examples of persons who could not accept this bargain, most of which are noted for acts of brutality which have led to imprisonment or execution.  This people have said with their behavior, “I want stuff and I will go to any end to get it.”  On the platform of world history, demagogues like Adolph Hitler come to mind.  He wanted power; he wanted to control the whole world, and would go to all ends to accomplish this goal.  Fortunately, humankind intervened and stopped him though not before millions of lives had been snuffed out by his rapacity.  England had a chance to set a limit in 1938 but the appeasement policy of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain demonstrated that people like Hitler cannot be reasoned with. Less than a year later Hitler brazenly disregarded his agreement with Chamberlain and marched into Czechoslovakia.

The heart is the wellspring of life.  It is the source of all the beauty that we see in humankind; but it is also the source of all the ugliness.  Poet Ranier Rilke noted this ambivalence, telling us, “The heart has its beastly little treasures.”  At times it is necessary to give attention to this “beastliness,” individually and collectively, to allow the beauty to find expression. But if the “ugliness” is not acknowledged, and addressed consciously, it will prevail usually under the guise of some “noble” announced intention.

Knowledge is Capricious

Daniel Boorstin, a noted American historian declared in his book, “The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself,” that, “More appealing than knowledge itself is the feeling of knowing.” Boorstin in this quote had gleaned from his study of history that the comfort of “the feeling of knowing” often, if not most of the time, would triumph over knowledge itself.  Throughout history we have records of cultures in which “the feeling of knowing” proved to lead to their demise while letting that “feeling” give way to some critical thinking could have allowed them to continue, though with a moderated view of reality.

It is comforting to feel that one knows, permitting one to “know” that one knows.  It is so comforting that human nature has hard-wired us to prefer “knowing that we know” in the interest of preserving our tribe.  But when the world grows so small…as we are now experiencing…then “knowing what we know” begins to compete with other tribes who “know that they know” with equal conviction. Then violent conflict ensues unless leadership is available which will direct us to tolerate the notion that diametrically opposing ideas of reality can co-exist. There is no need to attempt to obliterate “them” just because we see “them” as, “not knowing correctly.”

The core issue is the comfort of “feeling that we know” not understanding the wisdom of poet W. H. Auden who told us that, “feeling knows no discretion but its own.”  Auden knew that our view of the world is not a rational matter, but one whose origin lies beneath the surface in the murky realm of feelings, closely akin to the unconscious.  But to recognize this truth is to take away the certainty that we can have in believing our beliefs and discounting anything or anyone that threatens them.  Another word for this realm of feelings is the heart, that center of our being which is unlocked only when we are willing to forego the tyranny of rational thinking and permit the grace of a non-tyrannical rationality which is quickened with the intuitive wisdom of the heart.

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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/

Rebecca Chopps On Our Country’s Malady of the Soul

Barack Obama has answered the bell and has come out swinging, addressing the Republican morass of recent decades that has created our country’s present debacle, and yes, taking not-so-veiled jabs at the figure-head and spokesman for this roiling cauldron of chthonic energy.  I stumbled across a book just last week by Rebecca S. Chopps entitled, “The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, and God,” which is relevant to this cauldron as she explores how language, including religious language, can be used to give expression to hidden dimensions of the heart, individually and socio-culturally. But for this “revelation” to occur, there must be a voice/voices from beyond the pale of the status quo who see into the heart of the poisonous mindset which is always oriented primarily to maintain the prevailing power structure.  Chopps writes as a feminist but also as a Christian…apparently…though if she calls herself a Christian she is certainly beyond the pale of the Christian power structure that would “legitimate” her wearing that label.

Here I will share a couple of paragraphs from Chopps’ book:

Proclamation, in feminist discourses of emancipatory transformation, resists and transforms the social symbolic order.  Proclamation is a form of resistance to the practices and principles of modernity that control, dominate, and oppress.  But proclamation resists by way of transformation, seeking to provide new discourses by a variety of strategies, methods, and ways, and to transform the ruling principles and order into ones that allow, encourage, and enable transformative relations of multiplicity, difference, solidarity, anticipation, embodiment, and transformation.  Transformation occurs by creating new images of human flourishing, new values of otherness, and multiplicity, new theoretical practices of solidarity and anticipation.

This is reminiscent of one of the most powerful of Paul Tillich’s sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundations” in which he argued that the purpose of the church is to, “rattle the cage” (my term) of the status quo.  But the status quo does not want to be “rattled” and will arm itself to the teeth in an effort to deny any affront to its comfy zone of satisfaction, where “they bask, agreed upon what they will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light” of the unquestioned assumptions which give them privilege and power.  This is also obviously so with the power structure of religious culture though often those most ensconced in that power structure are basking even more in the comfort of a falsetto humility which does not permit any consideration or discussion of their motivations.

I conclude with another paragraph from Chopps:

Through discourses of emancipatory transformation, proclamation enables those marginalized voices who so often have not been heard, to speak: to speak of the beauty, hope, pain, and sorrow they have known on the margins.  Proclamation also speaks within the ambiguities of the order, the ambiguities, for instance, of the bourgeois who, though promised freedom in his autonomy, discovers few genuine possibilities for the community, relationships, and love he so desires.  Unable to find any “authentic meaning” the bourgeois attempts to fill in the empty spaces of his or her soul through the attainment of material goods that great momentary satisfaction with increasingly diminished returns.

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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/

Emily Dickinson and John Donne Speak to Us

Emily Dickinson knew the human heart, as do any poet who is worth their poetic salt.  Therefore, she knew about meaning and understood that it was obtained only in the inner most depths of the heart which she captured with the following poem:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
Dickinson knew that meaning comes from “heavenly hurt” and that it leaves, “no scar” to the casual observer, those who look only on the surface of things; but those who can withstand the pain will find, “internal difference—where the meanings are.”  This “internal difference” allows an ephemeral “certain slant of light” to daunt the citadel of the heart and bring into question certainties which had, to that point, been biases and premises unsullied by the “certain slant of light” of conscious awareness.  It is in the resulting disarray, confusion, doubt, and fear that “meaning” can surface in our heart and allow “words fitly spoken” to flow from our inner most being.

To borrow from another line of Dickinson poetry,  she called this intrusion into our consciousness of this, “slant of light,” a “splinter in the brain.”  This “splintering” is a violation, a penetration, not unrelated to what the famous poet John Donne had in mind when he noted that God would not be able to penetrate the stubborn rational fortress of his egoic self, “except thou ravish me,” which would come only after the answering of his prayer, “Batter my heart, three personed God.”