Sunday, March 11, 2007

"Bury my heart...."

I don't disagree with Athenae here, and yet....

There are profound issues of identity at play in "modern life." No surprise, that; Soren Kierkegaard diagnosed this particular angst over 100 years ago. Plus ce la change, and all that. What still makes the rounds, one way or another, is the solution of "Follow your bliss." Which is not quite, to be fair, what Athenae says:

I talk about this a lot, about our society's devaluation of work as a motivation in life, about the fallacy of the whole "nobody ever died wishing they'd spent more time at work" trope, about the essential horseshit of "working for the weekend" and seeing 70 percent of what you do with your waking hours as dues-paying without payoff, and the reason I talk about it so much is that I really do think it's got something to do with what's happened to this country in the past seven years. With the general dumbing-down of the public discourse. If you're not doing something that you think matters, that you enjoy, with even part of your time much less most of it, you're going to go looking for that. And you're going to find it, in many cases, in the kind of crazy that Tbogg cites above.
Well, maybe it isn't just the last 7 years which are the problem. Edward R. Murrow saw it, too, more than 50 years ago. Jean Paul Sartre saw it, after World War II. T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway and the whole "Lost Generation" saw it, after World War I. Theologians saw it in the 1960's and declared "God is Dead" just to get people to pay attention to their spiritual lives again. The Romantics saw it, back when the Machine which was the threat of three "Terminator" films truly began as a threat to human existence. No, this is not new; not at all.

But what's the solution? The Romantic solution has become "self-actualization," sometimes rendered in as flimsy a form as "Follow Your Bliss." There was a noble beginning there. When John Locke realized human consciousness was as much a function of memory as of psyche, Wordsworth seized upon the notion to declare (as Freud would agree at the end of the century): "The Child is Father to the Man." Whitman sounded his "barbaric yawp" to proclaim the dignity of the democratic man and woman. Bramt Stoker and Charles Dickens saw this as the beginning of a new millenia, a new hope for civilization (well, Western civilization, at least). While Stoker romanticized that change in his Texan Quincey Morris, Dickens actually traveled to America and was, shall we say, disappointed by reality. The Byronic declaration of the individuals defiance of faith eventually withered down to "finding yourself" and "following your bliss," a luxury afforded very few in this world, but more and more embraced by many as their true destiny. Thus the success of "American Idol."

Kings and queens didn't "follow their bliss." I remember a TV movie about Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, with Johnson raging through the White House about the failure of that effort: "This is the loneliest job in the world!" Uneasy lies the head beneath the crown. Thomas Hardy skewered the Romantic pretensions of the "simple" life of the working class, the farmworkers and the masons and the "ordinary people" whom the educated classes of England assumed had no interior life, no internal struggles, no fears and resentments and difficulties of their own because their life was unencumbered by the numerous demands of the middle class or of noblesse oblige, or simply of being educated. Read Tess of the D'urbervilles or Jude the Obscure and watch a master rebuke the arrogance of the blissfully ignorant. Hardy's work finally became so controversial he gave up novels for poetry, but his dark view of life didn't grow brighter. It is a myth that individual existence has ever been about doing what you think "matters." But it's also a myth that life is only about brute existence, about "what keeps mankind alive."

The truth, as Daniel Martin said, is in the river between.

But there is a crazy out there; Athenae is absolutely right. The question is, can this crazy be cured? Is the cause environmental, or genetic? That is, are some people just born this crazy, or do they learn it from the world they live in? Is it viral? Or endemic? I vote for viral, because I'm not that much of a Calvinist, and because, as I say, I agree with Athenae:

If you're not doing something that you think matters, that you enjoy, with even part of your time much less most of it, you're going to go looking for that. And you're going to find it, in many cases, in the kind of crazy that Tbogg cites above.
That's as succinct a statement of the spiritual crisis of "modernity" as I've seen written. And it's an idea, as I said, that stretches back at least to the Romantics:

Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

And what makes Wordsworth exclaim like that? Why, because:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

And given them away to what? Why are we so quick to give our hearts away? "Where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also." It's not a religious statement, it's a psychological one; that's a spiritual truth as much as it's simply common sense. As Dom Crossan renders it, even more bluntly: "You buried your heart where you buried your treasure." Why are we so eager to bury our hearts?

As I've said ad nauseum, seemingly ad infinitum, (and as Athenae says too) it's a question of identity, a question of boundaries. We know ourselves first by our boundaries, by what is not "me." An infant learns the first lesson: differentiation, and we never unlearn that as the basis for all other knowledge. What part of what is around me is not me? What are the limits of my reach, my grasp, my self? At first all is infant, but soon enough we learn that is not true, and the world begins to divide into Self and Other, and this becomes the foundation if not for knowledge, then for understanding. And yet we are made, not for Self, but for others. We are individuals meant to be a community? But community, and my community? And that takes a lot of energy. I know; I've seen it directed at church before; I've seen it going off like a loose cannon on deck; and I've imagined as Athenae does:

That poor fucking dope is so worked up, so totally convinced he's a part of the struggle, so totally wrapped up in finally finding something that gets him excited (and it's Michelle, and I don't get it, but she's kind of beside the point). He's like a kid having his first beer. Work that builds up, instead of tearing down.
Does she realize she's echoing Paul there? Or is it just coincidence that she's bordering on discussing ecclesiology here? Maybe; maybe not. Paul's focus, of course, (I am thinking of 1 Corinthians) was the church, but Paul saw the church as "having lasting societal benefit." What we often now call and set apart (make holy, Derrida would point out; heilige, unscathed) as "religious language" began as ordinary language directed to ordinary people. It is an easy matter to see that what he says for a nascent institution has application to societies. Paul was talking about the kind of people I have met personally, not just through rantings on the intertubes: people truly so caught up in having some kind of struggle, because "struggle=purpose," that they tear at the roots of the very institution they profess to love and defend, simply because they can't see the difference between Self and Other. It's a remarkably adolescent activity, and yet it goes on everyday, in ways large and small.

These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your own cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you now know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, "God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us"? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."
--James 4:1-6

What is different there from what Athenae is saying, except the references to God, to a covenant to which only some are a party, a way of life only some have chosen? The letter of James doesn't have the meter of Wordsworth's sonnet, but it is no less eloquent, no less directed to the same point. "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures." "And all I can think is, imagine all that enthusiasm, all that energy, all that gloriously righteous purpose directed not at psychotic revenge fantasies against imaginary assailants but at work that would benefit others, work that would have lasting societal benefit of any kind."

Yes. Imagine that. Imagine asking for the right thing, for what builds up others, rather than for what builds up me.

I am reading (Simone Weil's) essays as a part of my Lenten reading...She says that we "...must experience every day, both in the spirit and the flesh, the pains and humiliations of poverty...and further we must do something which is harder than enduring in poverty, we must renounce all compensations: in our contacts with the people around us we must sincerely practice the humility of a naturalized citizen in the country which has received us."

I keep reminding the young people who come to work with us that they are not naturalized citizens...They are not really poor. We are always foreigners to the poor. So we have to make up for it by "renouncing all compensations..."
Dorothy Day, from The Dorothy Day Book, p. 11 (Via Pastor Dan)

I actually wrote a paper on this subject in seminary, but decided I was crazy and have tried unsuccessfully since to either abandon the idea or modify it to something more rational. But sometimes I realize "rational" is just as much a human construct as "poverty," and wonder if we'd be abandoning the former if we just learn to live without the latter. and not by making the tide rise. Life does require purpose, but that purpose need not be a grand one. "Man's reach must exceed his grasp," true, "else what's a heaven for?", but so few of us really lust so fiercely after heaven. Most of us simply want to end the day without any undue concerns for tomorrow. "Give us this day our daily bread" is a prayer of true humility and of not asking for more than you can take on at one time. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof; but somehow, we are never satisfied, and too much is too often not enough. But we aren't taught to care about humility; we are taught, instead, to imagine ourselves Leonidas defying the armies of Persia, although we never get quite so far as to imagine we would really have to die and then wait 2500 years to achieve our fame. There is a bliss to be had in quotidian existence, though in our action adventure world in which Kiefer Sutherland saves the nation ever 24 hours and every villain in every movie wants to destroy, not another person but the world, not the world but the cosmos, we can be forgiven for not being able to think locally, act locally. Ordinary existence, as Hardy chronicled, can be a dreary affair; but the dreariness for Hardy, as for Eliot, as for Hemingway, was clearly connected to the loss of spirituality. The metaphysical continued; the reason behind the metaphysical, was lost. If there is one central problem behind this conundrum, that is it; and it is not a problem of discourse, or only of 7 years standing.

Kierkegaard, as I started out saying, gave us the idea we now call "self-actualization." He posited it as the apotheosis of the individual against the totalizing system of Hegelian thought, and he posited it not as the inevitable result of thesis/antithesis/synthesis or even of the "natural forces" of evolution (which is actually merely Social Darwinism in another guise, Hegeleniasm with a pseudo-scientific patina), but as the result of an individual choice and an individual effort. This choice is often mischaracterized as the "leap of faith," as if it were only a matter of a sudden and complete decision. But that was the language of Kierkegaard's pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio, not of Kierkegaard himself. Kierkegaard's teachings in his own voice, his "Edifying Discourses," were aimed at the believer, but a believer as a pilgrim, not someone suddenly arrived at her destination. And becoming an indivdual, or rather accepting that you were an individual, meant both a titanic struggle with responsibility, and a profound humility about your place. As it would later be for Sartre, being an individual was a bedrock of understanding, not an accomplishment of ego. "Self-actualization" is about ego, about "what's in it for me." The paradox is that, pursuing "what's in it for me" is precisely the pursuit Athenae condemns.

What hath got wrot, indeed?

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