Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Genuine Freedom

"Real freedom is freedom from the opinions of others. Above all, freedom from your own opinions about yourself."

This statement by Brennan Manning, a Franciscan priest and influential author who died earlier this month, hit me right in the head.  My first thought was, How can I ever be free in this sense until I am dead?

My whole interior life has been a combination of self-criticism and worry about the views of others, the fear of being shamed in some way, of not fitting in, and the rest. A great deal of anxiety seems to stem from concern about being judged and found wanting by others, of looking foolish or saying something stupid, of not measuring up to one's own goals.

Yet maybe Father Manning really meant that the letting go of the self leads us away from such worries and fears. Each day can be an opportunity to rise above the opinions we imagine others have of us and become our true selves, ones loved by God just as we are.

Manning also wrote: "Define yourself as one loved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion."

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Too much news?

Is there such a thing as being too well-informed, brimming with too much information?  Thoreau, long, long before the era of mass media as we know them, thought so. In a famous passage from Walden (1854), he wrote:

"If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, we never need read of another. One is enough."

You might say Thoreau was a crank, an extremist who sought (partial) solitude from the madding crowd, such as it was in those days. But his frustration with the trivial facts of the daily news, on which his neighbors spent much of their time, is understandable in a week when CNN has been  bringing us a constant barrage of not always accurate, "breaking" reports on the suspects in the Boston Marathon massacre.

At issue is, how much information does an informed citizenry need to make good political judgments?  If knowledge is power, how much knowledge is too much? So much depends on who we are and what we do with facts in the information age.

Some of Thoreau's frustration seems to live in the work of the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli, author of The Art of Thinking Clearly and of an article in a recent issue of the Guardian in which he argues that we should cut out our consumption of the news entirely. It is an arresting article that will drive news junkies crazy and lead many others to scratch their heads.

Dobelli objects to the continuous flashes of repeated news flashes, which he likens to junk food that is irrelevant to our lives; it is much easier, he says, to determine what is new than what is important.  He considers the news misleading since it does not provide an explanatory context for understanding facts.  As a result, he says, terrorism becomes over-rated and chronic stress under-rated.

What is new is, moreover, bad for the brain (something to do with the immune system), inhibits thinking, weakens comprehension, wastes our times, and makes us passive.  "I don't know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie," he writes.

Of course, he is right to a point: the writer/artist must have time for quiet reflection and, as my wife and I are, cut off from the world one day a week so we can give full attention to our work. The same is true for prayer or meditation time. To the extent that over-reliance on the latest news gets in the way of the good attention we should pay to the really important things, Dobelli is right.

Thinking people should read the kind of journalism Dobelli advocates--the in-depth investigative article--avoiding too much reliance on the repetitive sound bites provided in our media. The problem: many people are too busy to spend hours looking for and reading such articles. Is total ignorance of what is happening preferable to addictive news?

Dobelli has, apparently, become famous for avoiding news just as his fellow Swiss are famous for disengaging themselves from the real world in their land of neutrality and secret bank accounts.  However much I may agree with the drift of his argument in his short article--not a substantive, ruminative piece as found in the The New Yorker, the Atlantic, or Harper's--I have to remind myself that, like Thoreau, he goes too far.

We need to know what is going on in our world: the latest political, economic, and foreign events, and the leaders responsible, impact our lives, whether we like it or not. How can we hold these leaders responsible (for torture, injustice, stupidity) if we do not follow the daily news?  We must, of course, be selective in our listening and reading and not become inured to what David Foster Wallace called "total noise," a tsunami of facts and opinions coming at us from all directions.

Intelligent people need to go beyond relying on instant headlines and news flashes, but we need information in order to bring to what we read and discuss some factual grounding. Besides, for me, the psychological motivation involved in those making the news is usually fascinating and important. It provides material out of which good fiction comes as well as the investigative journalism that Dobelli prefers.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Opening Doors

I have had my first piece of fiction published in the first issue of a new journal, The Provo Canyon Review, based in Utah, and I am amazed.

The article, "Opening Doors," about the life of a New York City doorman, is available at: www.theprovocanyonreview.net.

I find it hard to believe that, after years of insisting that I only write non-fiction (my poetry has never been sent out for publication and my numerous attempts at fiction have gone unfinished), I have completed a longish short story and got it published, all in about two years.

Although I have never lived in Manhattan, my wife grew up there, and we have visited the city, including the Upper East Side, where the story takes place, many times. I have long been intrigued by the city's doormen, who see a lot but say little. This point was made in an article thirty or more years ago by Gay Talese, and it got filed somewhere in the recesses of my brain as an idea that I wanted to explore some day.

Then, about two years ago, I happened to see a documentary about an elderly fashion photographer, Bill Cunningham, of the New York Times
and was moved by the contrast between his humble, ascetic lifestyle and his glamorous job. Somehow, the idea of writing something about doormen merged with the story of Bill; the rest of my story--including the narrator's relationship to the doorman he has known for forty years--came quickly.

I don't know if this is to be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, or whether I will do more fiction. This story idea percolated for more than thirty years, so time is not on my side.  Non-fiction writing comes easier for me, seems to require less stamina and courage, and has many rewards.  I have a lot of experience in this genre, and as a teacher find that explaining things comes naturally.

It is a pleasure to see my experimental and creative side now get a bit of attention and to have in Chris McClelland a fine editor, who was able to prune my story by a thousand words while losing nothing. And, as with so much publishing, luck was on my side: Chris, a former student of mine, began a new journal with his wife, Erin, just as I completed my story.

I wish all the writers who may read this good fortune as well as the gift of patience as they revise, polish, and submit their work.  It is encouraging to know that, with online journals, the chance of being published has increased in recent years.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Non-Disappearance of God

Roger Ebert, the esteemed movie critic, said a few months before his recent death that he considered himself a Catholic, but "I cannot believe in God."

This may surprise or shock many people who see adherence to religion and a belief in God as inseparable.  What Ebert might have meant was: I no longer believe in a God who allows evil (like the cancer that killed him) to exist, the kind of loving father who is also the all-powerful creator depicted in the Bible.

This idea of anthropomorphic God who directs our lives, Karen Armstrong suggests, is merely a "starter-kit," something we receive in our childhood and are expected to build upon. We are expected to grow up.

Christians may never let go of the words of Jesus about his heavenly Father caring for us, but they learn, through experience and reading of theology, that the idea of God has to be more expansive than this. 

We need a more mystical notion of God as the unknown and unknowable, not the omniscient, eternally static Supreme Being of 4th century Neoplatonism or the God of the Old Testament, who angrily punishes or lovingly rewards. As Matthew Fox once wrote, our universe is expanding, but our idea of God remains static.

Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit scientist, saw the universe moving toward the future, with God "up ahead," not "up above" like a divine Santa Claus.  Such a concept of God images the unknowable God either as the great silence or the creative potential that exists in the mysterious space of the future. God is the ultimate coming-to-be.

In what I have written about the contemplative mysticism of Thomas Merton, I have explored the "negative way" of the mystics: God is the unknowable Unknown yet the ultimate gound of being, who is Being itself, and beyond all knowing.

A recent article by Richard L. Rubenstein in the New English Review (3-4-13) helped me understand a bit more about the so-called Death of God, which means the death of the limited idea of the Old Testament, anthropomorphic God cited above.  God can, rather, be seen (says Rubenstein) as the Holy Nothingness, the Great Silence, an idea with ancient roots in several religious traditions.

"In place of a biblical image of a transcendent creator God," Rubinstein writes, "an understanding of God which gives priority to the indwelling immanence of the Divine may be more credible in our era"--that is, after the so-called death of God.  God, as the Ground of Being and all beings, can be understood as the ground/basis of all feeling, thought and reflection.

The mystical idea of God as Holy Nothingness does not mean, says Rubenstein, that God is a void; rather that since nothing means "no-thing," nothing is not the absence of being but the overflow of being. So too, as I have shown, silence is not the absence of sound but the source of presence, human and divine.

"The infinite God, the ground of all that is finite, cannot be defined for there is nothing outside of God, so to speak."  The infinite God, Rubenstein says, is not a thing, but a no-thing. This does not seem far removed from the God revealed to Moses as the "I am who am" or the God Thomas Aquinas called not a being but Being itself.

All of this speculation seems important as I continue to encounter books, many successful, by atheists or agnostics who recount their loss of God. They have grown up not to a more complex notion of God but to a rejection of the God of their childhood. It seems to me that their very atheism or agnosticism is part of an honest recognition of a broader idea of God than that with which they were raised. It is the type of God depicted "up there" in the movies enjoyed so much by Roger Ebert.

But such a God is mythical and cannot explain reality. Such a God has disappeared, been denied, even laughed at by best-selling atheists (Richard Dawkins, et al.) because such an idea of the divine is not in sync with reason and science. It seems to me that those who reject God on such terms are really rejecting the older concept of God since the real God is inescapably everywhere, immanent as well as transcendent.

Once a thinking person defines God as a being both omnipotent and omniscient, there is no way out of the problem of evil: how can it exist in a world made and governed by a loving God? The problem here is not with evil but with the idea of God.

It seems to me that God, Being itself, is alive as a personal, loving presence in and through all reality while the old idea of God has, for many thinking believers, died.

Maybe, without being too irreverent, we can say the death of God has been greatly exaggerated.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Searching for the Unknown

A friend of mine is a great fan of the fiction of Jose Saramago, the Portuguese writer who died in 2010 after winning the Nobel Prize. So I was happy to find a story of his in book form, The Tale of the Unknown Island, in a used bookstore. It was published in 1997.

This brief (42 page) fable apparently captures much of what Saramago was about: allegorical explorations of the unknown, with some satire of bureaucracy, in long sentences made up of clauses strung together with commas and comprising vast paragraphs.  This style is fairly easy to get used to, and the short tale is a delight to read.

The author has the tendency to sum up his big ideas in concise form. In this case, we read that, if you don't step outside yourself, you will never find out who you are. The whimsical yet profound tale concerns a nameless man who requests a boat from a king so he can travel to an unknown island.  Since he has no knowledge of the sea or of where this island might be, his request is seen as absurd.

But off he goes with the cleaning lady in a quest for the meaning of life, which has something to do with love.  I will say no more so that readers can enjoy this tale for themselves and perhaps search out his novels.

I checked out Saramago on the internet just for fun, even though I was taught that knowledge of an author's life should not affect one's interpretation of his or her work.  What I learned about his life was not especially helpful in approaching this piece of fiction, in contrast to the way that Hemingway's life, which I have been re-exploring, is immediately relevant to understanding his work. Saramago, like Shakespeare, does not require the reader to be familiar with his biography. This is liberating: the work of art can stand on its own, open to many interpretations, uncolored by factual specifics.

I am glad at last to have met the fantasy world of Jose Saramago.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Sound of Laughter

One of the great joys of my life has come to be the sound of a group of people laughing.  To know that I have been the immediate cause of their temporary happiness is gratifying, almost ego-enhancing.

In recent years, with a university colleague, I have put together two one-hour programs, "Historical Humor and Wit" and "Fractured English."  The material is taken from what people (writers, public figures, students, others) have actually said or written, so I can only claim the originality of creating the package.

Looking at historical figures (Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Churchill, et al.) as funny or witty men humanizes them, brings them down to our level, and makes history a human story rather than a mere succession of events, mostly horrible. Our audiences eat it up, learning a bit while also laughing a lot.

I often begin with what Charlie Chaplin said: "A day without laughter is a day wasted." Yet many go without laughing, and, sadly, without the psycho-physical release of tension involved, for long periods. It's no wonder we have the Comics page, the emailed jokes, the cartoons, and TV comics.  Men, more than women, tend to bond over jokes, even silly ones involving puns. Both men and women seem to use the silliness of cat videos and anything cat-related to provoke a smile or a laugh. I join right in; many people are too serious, even solemn, afraid to smile let alone laugh.

Comedy allows us to step back and take in the whole picture of life at a given moment; in our detachment, we find amusement, perhaps at human folly. 

The German poet Schiller said, we are fully human and alive when we play. And laughter is at the heart of play, and of that elusive thing called happiness.  I like to think of laughter as a type of prayer, an affirmation of life and its essential goodness.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Whom you gonna call?

Just after reading an amusing Atlantic piece by Megan Garber on the decline of the pronoun whom, I saw on the sports page of the Orlando Sentinel this morning the headline: "Whom to trust--a coach or an accused robber?"

I wondered if the readers of the sports page were really so demanding and traditional in their grammatical usage as to expect "whom" in this construction since, as Garber and others have pointed out, "whom" has been slowly dying for a long time; it's been on a decline since 1826.

Will we speakers and writers of English be using who instead of whom as the object of a verb or preposition exclusively in the future?  Garber and others say Yes, that it will have disappeared in 50 to 100 years because it costs readers more than it benefits them. It has become a pompous word.

The problem?  Confusion over whether the word is in the subject or object slot in a sentence, as in these examples, which make "who" the correct or standard choice and "whom" the antiquated choice since, yes, grammar does change as language usage changes.

1.  Jack said to his wife, whom he had just learned had been unfaithful to him with the man next door, "Go to hell."  Problem: The writer thinks that "whom" is the object of "learned" when in fact it is the subject of "had been unfaithful," the "he had just learned" being parenthetical.  It is easy to be confused by the grammar of such a sentence.

2. I don't believe in relying on whomever is sitting at the table.  Problem: "whomever" is not the object of "on," as the writer thinks, but the subject of the verb "is sitting."  Few people bother to figure such things out.

WHO has been traditionally been the personal pronoun used in the subject slot, WHOM in the object slot. Now, with "whom" being increasingly loathed and avoided, we can use "who" not just for subjects but in general--unless the effect is totally jarring.

So it's Who do you trust?  and Who you gonna call?--or preferably, Who are you going to call?  And, instead of "To whom am I speaking?" we can say something simpler: "Who is speaking?"