Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Freedom from Longing

"The greatest freedom is the freedom of longing." I have been trying to sort that out, to see if it makes sense for me.

This statement, found in some recent reading, was presented as a truism, presumably reflecting Buddhist ideas. The process of enlightenment involves a freedom from preoccupation with desires and the future: it is grounded in the now. To be asborbed with the desire for sexual fulfillment or for money, power, etc. is to be enslaved by one's own emotional life.

So far so good. I can't argue with that and in fact believe strongly in the power of the present as the only reality, where God is to be found. I have written about Christian mindfulness, exploring this idea in detail.

But as I think about longing, I also think, from the Western (Christian) angle, of the ongoing longing for beauty or happiness that motivates my life--even the longing for the deliverance of death if I were suffering with incurable pain. Such longing seems natural. It is related to hope, the calm expectation that pain will cease, that friends will call, that a trip may be both possible and rewarding, a longing for greater and greater degrees of love, of more and more beauty, whether in art or music or nature. The hope that the earthly struggle and pain of existence will one day come to an end so that I can be released into an unknown joy.

I keep thinking of the Psalms with the longing of the soul for God, unreachable yet with a motivating energy, pushing us toward greater perfection in prayer. We long for a peace that surpasses understanding even though it can't find fulfillment on this earth.

Of course, our hearts are restless with a burning longing that is frustrating and never satisfied: these are the desires to be burned away. They take us out of the present into worry and mental anguish. But there is also the refining fire of peaceful longing, I think, that longing of trust that involves hope.

I hope this is not so abstract that it's unclear or meaningless. There seems to be a difference between the freedom from desire (longing) and the need for spiritual longing, even if that longing has to do with earthly beauty and pleasure. I never want to be free of such longing.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Observations (This and That)

This week I saw, not for the first time, a man knitting in the public library. I've seen him there before: an athletic, lean man in his fifties with a small gray beard who, for whatever reason, chooses the same spot. Perhaps he wants to be observed.

Or, like people who read in public places, likes to have some people around. Whether he is making a statement about his masculinity is unknown.

I also saw, not for the first time, an ibis family of 12 white birds in search of something to eat on my lawn. I can tell from their long, curved beaks that they are not cranes or herons; the egrets, when they appear with their elegant tail feathers, are always alone. They walk slowly, as if in pain, over the grass, always causing me to wonder why they choose that unlikely, suburban location.

But the ibis(es) believe that it's safer to travel in a group.

Yesterday I found a headline in the magazine Scottish Life: "World Porridge Championship Returns to Scotland." I wonder if this exciting event will coincide with our upcoming visit there.

I am always intrigued by British eccentricity--or is it just whimsy or individuality? I think of the Englishman, quoted in a recent article, who avoided doctors, going instead to the local vet when he was ill. Why? "He doesn't ask too many bloody questions."

Enough said.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Enjoying Evil

As I mentioned recently, it is interesting to see contemporary writers addressing age-old topics, including such vast issues as evil, the existence of which is problematic in a world that makes sense. It has provoked strong and varied reactions from writers and thinkers in every era.

Twenty years so I developed a course, The Faces of Evil, for the honors students at the University of Central Florida that turned out to be my most popular course--and a particular favorite of mine because I kept expanding its scope as I learned more. That, for me, is the chief value of teaching: to learn and share what one knows.

There is a great challenge in talking about evil in a way that makes sense. Now Terry Eagleton, the British literary theorist, has written a lively article in the magazine Tikkun, based, no doubt, on his recent book in which he asserts his belief in evil.

Eagleton, whose reputation as a Marxist bad boy who stirs up controversies in academia, is not the first person I would expect to become a Christian apologist, yet the essence of what he says in his essay "Why is Evil So Sexy, and So Profoundly Glamorous?" is in keeping with the mainstream tradition in which he, like me, was raised.

Of course, he brings wit and brio to this familiar discussion. Goodness is seen as dull and boring, he says, because we fail to understand what virtue is: it is an ongoing practice, not a static piety but a kind of energy or exuberance that "has something to do with God."

Eagleton's God is not, to be sure, a Victorian schoolmaster, well-behaved and dictatorial like the divine character in Milton's "Paradise Lost." Rather, God is "an infinite abyss of self-delighting energy." No one, he asserts, can reject the Christian idea of God and still live because there is no life outside God.

And to be without such abundant energy, says Eagleton, is evil. Evil, then, is (as it was for Plato and Augustine and countless others) a negativity, an absence of the good: in this case, a lack of the ability to be fully alive. (I am reminded of the words of Irenaeus: "The glory of God is man fully alive." Or was it Ignatius of Antioch? Hard to keep those old guys straight.)

If we fail to see the exciting side of goodness, Eagleton says, we naturally find it dull and turn to vampire stories and the apparent allure of evil.

Eagleton's point is that virtue has nothing to do with doing your duty; it has to do with enjoying yourself in an authentic sense.

Like zombies and vampires, the truly evil live in a twilight world of non-being between life and death. All they can manage is a kind of inauthentic life; so despite the appeal of certain literary and cinematic villains, including Milton's Satan, Shakespeare's Iago and Richard III, Hannibal Lecter, et al., they live a parody of real life, deriving pleasure from inflicting their sufferings on others.

Perhaps we are fascinated by evildoers, as I used to speculate with my students, because we see our own potential for malevolence--hatred, racism, violence, e.g.--in others, real or imagined. But most people are not evil even if in their adolescent fantasies they find the idea enticing.

If I were to re-write Eagleton's essay, I would say more about the power of love as the essence of goodness as well as about the way evil inevitably involves the ego, the isolated self disconnected from society.

No topic invites more speculation or raises more important questions than the nature of evil. What happened to the ancient idea that goodness should be exciting and evil boring? How did it get reversed? Can it be discussed outside a theological framework?

Eagleton, using some useful literary examples, shows that the answer is "yes" to this last question while also cleverly showing the religious dimension of the topic. I am grateful for his article and for all the intellectual energy he has put into keeping the topic engaging.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Being Perfect

I could call this post "Confessions of an Ex-Perfectionist." But that is only the beginning of my concern with the dangers of perfectionism.

When I began teaching, I continued the intense and serious mien of my student days, an approach that made me feel older and more confident than I was.

I was precise in my speech and dress (not that I am now a slob!) to the point of being compulsive and wanted every detail of my life, from the car to the house to my work, to be simply perfect. Errors of any kind were intolerable.

I see my life since then (c. 1970) as a gradual thawing out, a relaxation and mellowing, as I learned to temper carefulness with humor, relying a bit on my old days on the stage and seeing my teaching duties as a performance. Still, I prepared with meticulous care, and still do; I wrote with meticulous care, and still do.

So I can understand when students, colleagues, and friends who are less experienced as writers than I (this includes a few university professors who are experienced teachers but not writers) freeze up when it comes to writing. One of them says to me regularly, "I'd write more if I only knew the rules." (He says the same thing about returning to church, by the way; if he only knew the rules....). But the rules have even less to do with praying than with writing.

What these people and millions who experience writer's block face is a concern with premature editing, prompted by memories of no-nonsense teachers years ago who frowned on ending sentences with a preposition (something up with which I will not put, as some wag said) or beginning one with a conjunction (and, but).

All these shibboleths (meaning #3 in my dictionary: a common belief that ain't really true) should be tossed to the wind; let the mind be free. Write as you talk. Then go back and revise. THEN and only then edit: be concerned with correct spelling and grammar. Otherwise, you put the cart before the horse (a useful cliche) and get tied in knots (another one, also mixing metaphors but who cares?).

If you want to write, write; let others help you with technical questions. If you want to be a singer, sing; hire a voice coach to guide you with technique. Trust your own voice, your own ideas, your own treasury of words stored up in the brain after years of reading and talking.

All of this comes to the fore as I read about the new movie, "Limitless," which concerns a failed writer who takes a pill that allows him to become a wunderkind. He not only knocks out the novel he always wanted to write but reinvents himself.

In a recent NYTimes Magazine article, Carina Chocano talks about this as a way into a bigger issue: the quest for perfectionism in general and how it can drive us nuts. Parents read about Chinese mothers and feel guilty. How often we beat ourselves up for not being more productive, neat, creative, passionate, articulate, mystical or whatever instead of appreciating who we really are.

She reminds us of the Greek idea--"eudaimonia" it is called--that describes the highest human good; and the aim of philosophy was to achieve this state. But it was not personal perfection that the wise old Greeks aimed for. No, it meant human flourishing, the goal and purpose of life was to keep getting better.

No one ever reaches total perfection. And to try to do so is the way to madness.

Chocano finds the quest for self-perfection among the "Real Housewives" awe-inspiring but also terrifying. It's as unnatural, hollow and desperate as the many achievements of the Tiger Mother.

What, you may ask if you are a Christian, about the New Testament? Doesn't Jesus teach: "Be perfect as your heavently Father is perfect"? Yes, but again, he is not thinking of perfect abs, SAT scores, and stock portfolios; he is not talking about making the perfect risotto or even having perfect prayers. He is, I think, talking about being a whole, integrated person, an image of God, one that is always moving toward the highest good. It is like the Greek idea: human flourishing toward a supernatural goal since, as Ignatius of Antioch declared, "The glory of God is man fully alive."

The fact that we never quite make it all the way to perfect fulfillment in this life is only to be expected--no one's perfect, after all--but we keep journeying toward greater degrees of love, understanding, and enlightenment.

And that we enjoy the journey.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How much freedom do we have?

It's encouraging to see new books on, and new approaches to, topics that have long engaged the minds of thinkers. One of these fundamental issues is the question of free will: how much choice do we have in life? How are our choices related to happiness?

I recall a student in my freshman Honors course fifteen years ago who announced, with the intellectual arrogance that sometimes accompanies gifted students in special programs, that free will is a delusion. I responded with the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer: "You've got to believe in free will; you have no choice."

The class laughed politely; my arrogant student did not. Modern science, it seems, would support Singer's idea.

Sheena Iyengar, the American daughter of Sikh immigrants who lost her sight as well as her father, would agree with Singer's paradoxical remark. She is uniqely well suited to wrestle with this question, using psychology and other fields in a remarkable study The Art of Choosing.

She also relies on her own life experience, concluding that chance might be one way to account for the tragedies in her life but she finds it "much more promising" to think in terms of choice, and about what is still possible, about what she can make happen, given her circumstances.

This type of daring optimism in the face of catastrophe reminds me of Victor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning: it was his chosen response to the Holocaust, his refusal to give up all hope, that saved him.

Iyengar examines how people makes choices and how much control we have over our everyday decisions. Using the social sciences rather than philosophy or theology, she shows that her view of freedom is true: if we believe we have a chance to survive a catastrophe, that feeling of choice, of being in control, is what saves us. So, unlike caged animals, we humans are able to create choices by altering our interpretation of the world; thus we are shaped by the choices we make. "We make choices and are in turn made by them."

So, she concludes, we can't opt out of choice because it's everywhere in our life-world; we must, in that paradoxical language used by Singer, continue our complex relationship with choice, which with its uncertainty and ambiguity, remains ultimately a mystery, like all really important realities.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Perils of E-mail

Once again, I am reminded of the dangers of electronic communication, or more specifically, the imperative toward speed at the expense of reflection inherent in the systems modern technology makes possible.

Speedy communication has many benefits, but it is also easy, as I learned again today, for people to fail to think about their readers and to edit what they say.

Involved were plans for a coming talk. 'M' wrote to her good friend, 'B,' with some pointed comments about ways to improve the staging of my talk on April 1. 'B' forwarded these remarks, which were hastily written with no thought they anyone else would see them but 'B,' to me.

Unfortunately, M's remarks were poorly worded and included indirect criticism of my style that I found offensive. So there was an angry exchange of e-mails to those involved, and to others in the organization, resulting in profuse apologies and hurt feelings and minor suffering that could so easily have been avoided if both M and B had taken the time to read what they had written and realized that forwarding their comments to me was inappropriate at best.

Too often, speed and the rush of events that dictate so much communication--I think of the too-rapid speech of some media and telephone spokespersons--prevents clarity and therefore upends the very purpose of communication.

There are many other problems unrelated to rushing--I recently read about Nicholas Carr's book on how the internet is affecting our brains and Evgeny Morozov's book on how Twitter, in creating false intimacy, can bring out the worst in people.

Carr, quoted by Maureen Dowd in the NYTimes last month, says that if we are to be aware of our deeper emotions and true feelings, we need to quiet down and be attentive; instead, we are endlessly interrupted and distracted.

What happens to careful thought and effective communication in such a world? My recent experience provides the answer: the new technology makes communication easier but complicates things since it is full of pitfalls and perils.

As I tell my writing students, Be careful what you say in an e-mail. There is no privacy in this still uncharted territory, and the same would apply to other, newer forms of social media.

Is there such a thing as slow,mindful electronic communication?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bowing to Blank Walls

In old European churches, apparently, it is not uncommon for some people to bow to a blank wall when entering. This makes no sense until we realize that once there was a statue or wall painting in that spot that has been removed by "reformers" but is still remembered, centuries later.

This happens in England, writes Richard Kieckhefer in the opening of his book Theology in Stone, and in Germany. There, according to Otto Clemen writing in 1938, a wall painting of the Virgin Mary, painted over by iconoclasts, was (perhaps still is) being venerated; for many, the old religion, or at least the old religious practices, still linger. Reformers could not destroy the power of the image, a reminder of the holy.

We can never underestimate the collective memory of a community, especially when it stems from deep feelings. Such feelings are stronger than the shifting political winds of public policy. Stronger than the rational mind, which knows that excessive reverence of statues and relics can be superstitious.

The seemingly meaningless, absurd gesture of bowing to an empty wall is a way to acknowledge a sacred space where, in the words of T. S. Eliot, "prayer has been holy" --especially in old churches looked upon by many today as tourist sites.

As I read about the Dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, I keep wondering about the thing unspoken by historians, because unknown: the feelings of all those dispossesed of their way of life, sent into terror from the safe haven of holy places that were sold off, destroyed, or left empty, the "bare, ruin'd choirs" that Shakespeare lamented. Religious matters always involve deep, often unspoken feelings.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Emotion and the Big Picture

"We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion," writes David Brooks in his latest NYTimes column, based on his new book The Social Animal.

As always, Brooks is thoughtful, the kind of conservative who reads widely and has an open mind and, what's more, sees the big picture. He has become one of my favorite political writers, even if we sometimes disagree.

Anyway, his argument is not new: for years I have been reading about the over-emphasis on Cartesian logic and rational thought at the expense of feelings. Despite the influence of Aristotle (who valued the emotional life) on the formation of the European university, rational thought has always dominated academic discourse, with feelings being considered either irrelevant or weak, effeminate, unpredictable, and unrealiable. In other words, the clear and distinct ideas of Descartes et al. have dominated the world of learning and science to the detriment of the inner life, the source of our decision making.

But, as Brooks shows, science has finally caught on to what people of faith have known but dared not utter in intellectual circles: that the emotional and intuitive aspects of our lives are not separate but interwoven with and inseparable from the rational. Not to recognize this more unified view of human learning and behavior is simplistic and has serious implications for public policy, which is what Brooks is ultimately interested in.

Educational systems that are designed to cultivate the rational mind, like parents who put too much emphasis on test scores, are approaching the complexities of learning from the outside, ignoring the inner life. They overlook the way decisions are made in the real world, where people are made happy in ways that have nothing to do with reason or logic. The development of friendship, the way we choose a spouse, the way world leaders relate to one another--all these have a greater impact on the peace and happiness of life than education narrowly defined (e.g., learning material for a standardized test in statistics).

Neuroscientists and other social scientists whom Brooks has read are valuing the emotions and showing that feelings are not opposed to reason; "our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason," Brookes writes.

He does not take this a step further, into the spiritual or religious realm, at least not in his Times column. Yet the importance of the unconscious mind as it seeks transcendence, like the importance of the inner life of feelings, memories, and desires, is central to what interests me: the life of the soul.

If the conscious mind hungers for money, power, or fame, we are also led by our powerful unconscious selves into the realm of the spirit: this is worth noting on Ash Wednesday, as Christians look within and examine their consciences.

So I am grateful to David Brooks for looking beyond the surface level of public life into what current thinkers are saying about the big picture and for reminding us that science is pointing in a positive direction as it seeks to reveal more about human nature. The more we understand ourselves, the greater our appreciation of the mysteries that surround us.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fame, St. Louis, and Jay Landesman

A recent obit in the New York Times took me back many decades to my college days in St. Louis, when, with what seemed like an exotic group of friends, I spent many weekends in an area called Gaslight Square. The impresario of the Crystal Palace, the centerpiece of this long-gone bit of Bohemia, was Jay Landesman, who died last week in London at 91.

It was at the Crystal Palace that Landesman introduced St. Louisans to a young Barbra Steisand, Woody Allen, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May. His nightclub was one of some twenty raffish bars, clubs and restaurants, intermingled among old art galleries and antiques' shops that became, for just a few bright years, our version of the Village.

And I, at 20, in the company of a friend who played jazz piano and an "older woman" of 28 named Joy--who wore too much makeup, smoked too much, and drank too much coffee and who lived in a louche apartment, like some Holly Golightly, above one of the galleries--devoured this atmosphere. Joy introduced me to Jay. I also saw my first transvestite at the Crystal Palace.

Joy worked, in all places, in the library of the Jesuit university where my friends and I were students, St. Louis U. We could practically walk to Gaslight Square from the campus.

My walk on the wild side was fairly innocent by today's standards but seemed tinged with danger and therefore with a heightened aura of sexuality as we sipped forbidden cocktails (under age), ate in a Japanese restaurant, listened to Muggsy Sprecker's Dixieland band or simply watched all the other young people parade down Olive Street, alive with lights and music, and felt we were at the center of the universe.

I remember trying to impress Jay Landesman, naively hoping he would hire me to perform in his club; that was before Streisand, et al. but around the time of his musical, produced at the Crystal Palace, "A Walk on the Wild Side." I remember him as polite and charming.

His creativity and energy as a producer, which led to minor achievements in New York and London, contributed something distinctive to my growing up. I felt sophisticated in the glittering area he helped create, part of what later became known as the counterculture.

Then suddenly, after a few years, crime increased in the central west end of St. Louis, the bars began to close, and the customers went elsewhere. By then (1964), I was in graduate school and Jay moved on. The Times said he "achieved the rare distinction of being famous for not being famous." He had an eccentrically creative life, producing the first and only Beat musical (not a commercial success) and always bubbling with ideas, most of which resulted in flops. His memoir was called, "Rebel Without Applause." But he kept writing and producing. He had two sons and was the uncle of Rocco Landesman.

Jay Landesman's life raises questions about the meaning and value of success and fame; the latter mostly eluded him, as it does most of us. Much more important than fame is what he succeeded in achieving: creativity throughout his long life and the determination never to give up in the face of commercial failure.

I salute Jay and his colorful life, and I'm glad he got the applause of a great obituary in the New York Times. I'm grateful for the memories of the world he brought to life in St. Louis long ago.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Great Awakening

Rumi, the Sufi poet who died in 1273, lived at an amazing time in history, when the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe were built, when universities were begun, when Angkor was flourishing in Cambodia, when the Rhineland mystics, including Meister Eckhart were alive--all this spiritual energy happening in various parts of the world.

There's more: Zen masters in Japan, such as Dogen Kigen; in China: Wun-men and Sung Tung P'o; in the Arab world, Averroes, who influenced Thomas Aquinas, who influenced Dante; the Jewish sage Maimonides was alive and St. Francis of Assisi and Roger Bacon (doing scientific experiments) and St. Bernard and Hildegard of Bingen. All were around from roughly 1100-1300.

How to account for such an awakening? Is it coincidental? The 12th century in Europe has always amazed me by its progress and daring, and it is all the more remarkable in the context of other great things happening in unrelated places.
Not a bad topic for a spring-like day of new beginnings.

Rumi, whose works have been made widely available by Coleman Barks, is the author of the following short poem, one of my great favorites. Christian readers can easily see a parallel with the kingdom of God within:

You go from room to room
Searching for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck.

Non-religious readers will no doubt see here the dazzling insight that what we need is what we already have before us in the here and now.

As to what it feels like to encounter the supernatural or to sense the presence of God in and around us, I turn to a recent New York Times review of a book by biblical scholar James Kugel, whose brush with death led him to speculate on the origins of religious belief. A sense of God's presence feels like "being awakened to a reality underneath the ordinary reality" (in the words of the reviewer, Judith Shulevitz, who likens this experience to that of the medieval cathedral, which was designed to express the overwhelming presence of God).

Along with the Gothic cathedral, poetry like Rumi's may be the best door into such mysterious awakening.