Friday, January 31, 2014

Fear and Fame

Why do so many people, even non-readers, have such a high regard for authors? Why is there such uncritical reverence for the published writer? Why does publishing something, even online, make a person into an object of admiration?

These are some of the interesting questions Tim Parks asks in a recent article.  I found it earlier this month just after giving a talk on Hemingway to a group of 25 people, all of them familiar with the Hemingway legend but few of them readers of his work. Even non-readers have literary heroes, it seems.

The same week, my wife, Lynn, published more of her fiction on Amazon Kindle, and the reaction to this news, even among those who have intention of downloading these stories, is usually one of excited awe, as if she were now some minor celebrity.

Parks teaches creative writing on occasion and finds among his students the same eagerness to publish than I have found in some of my students.  They see the only real validation of their work as having it accepted in some format so that it's "out there" so that they are, presumably, no longer anonymous nothings.  They are not willing to wait until the story or article or poem is ready; this may take months, even years.  Yet most of these emerging writers are impatient.

We live in a culture of celebrity, where winning is everything even though this motive is rarely acknowledged by most writers.  The fear of being unrecognized seems to be at work here, the fear of being ignored, the fear of personal failure if the piece of writing we dash off one week is not soon being applauded by readers.

Fame is a devouring monster. Leo Braudy, in his fine book The Frenzy of Renown, sketches the role of fame in some of the great writers and its cultural interplay with the realization that all earthly fame is fleeting: today's Hollywood celebrity is tomorrow's has-been. Yet something in most of us seeks at least fifteen minutes of fame.

I remember my then 9-year-old nephew asking me, "Are you famous?" when he saw my books listed on Amazon.  I assured him that I was not and never will be famous; that I did not seek fame, though I was pleased that much of my hard work was rewarded. Much of this publication was expected by the university where I taught; but my non-academic writing, including this blog, is not produced primarily to attract attention to myself. If I can reach a handful of readers who find something I say interesting, I am richly rewarded; if I have no readers at all, the process of having written is deeply satisfying. Too many writers do not enjoy the process.

Parks worries about his ambitious students, who (like many people I have known) rush into publication before they are ready.  They will neglect the patient thought and revision needed to make a text really satisfying in an effort to make it commercially viable. The motive: not money so much as fame, the reward, apparently, for the nagging need we have for reassurance that we are important in and of ourselves.

Parks finds low self-esteem at work; I would add fear, which is even more basic and underlies so much.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Near Death Experiences

I tend to avoid books about near death experiences, yet was fascinated today by a best-seller by Evan Alexander, M.D., The Proof of Heaven.

The title, however, bothered me as much as the credentials of the author impressed me: he is a neurosurgeon at Harvard whose coma led him to a transcendent experience of God, convincing him that God, the soul and the afterlife are real.  All this is fine, but can one prove in a scientific way a matter of belief?

Perhaps the author meant "personally convincing evidence," rather than "proof," though I know about the proofs advanced by Thomas Aquinas about God and what that great medieval philosopher finally thought of them: they are finally useless in the face of an unfathomable mystery. Faith goes beyond reason and scientific-philosophical proofs.

But Alexander's book is nonetheless of value as a personal testament to what many countless people we call mystics have experienced in pre-scientific ages: that the non-physical universe is immediately around us; it is not, as he says, far away but "simply exists on a different frequency."  If we could tune in to the ultimate consciousness of God in and around us, we would see, as Thomas Merton said, that the door of heaven is everywhere.

Near death experiences should not be treated as fantasies produced by an overheated brain; like the visions of mystics, they can provide glimpses of that other world.

I welcome a man of science like Dr. Alexander realizing that he has no idea what consciousness is, that the mystery of the human person will always remain a mystery. The behaviorist B. F. Skinner was wrong in asserting that the goal of science is the destruction of mystery since neuroscience and quantum physics, among other fields, keep reminding us of the limits of what we can know--and prove--and of the wonder of reality.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

When fear is good

Maria Popova's valuable blog recently cited several interesting books by visual artists that deal with facing fear--what in my field is called writer's block.

One of them, Steven Pressfield, says, "Fear is tells us what we have to do."  The more scared we are of a work or calling, he says, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.  Shaun McNiff in Trust the Process cites Monet as saying that people should not fear mistakes but welcome them because they can be harbingers of new ideas: a mistake may represent something we never saw before.

So fear and creativity go hand in hand, it seems.  The horror of the blank page can also be a stimulant; the initial fears we have in beginning a story or painting seem directly related to the joy we experience, or at least the satisfaction, when the work is completed.

As an anxious person, I have often thought that, if I had been a laid-back guy, I would have not only written less and achieved less but explored fewer spiritual paths.  Would I have taken an interest in silence, meditation, mindfulness and prayer?

When I look at people outside the fields of art and spirituality, I see fear as the driving force in much human achievement, in the intense work that produces success in the world of business, science, academia, etc.  Would there be much comedy without anxiety?

So far all of its negative aspects, fear, even anxiety, can lead to great things; but, of course, it must be balanced with trust.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sundays with Andrew

I have learned that spending a bit of time each Sunday with Andrew Sullivan is worthwhile. I mean reading his popular Daily Dish blog, where he and his clever associates post pieces on religion and spirituality, along with all the rest: politics, gender and sex, legalizing pot, and the usual rich cultural mix of poetry and popular culture that this pioneer blogger and thinker is famous for.

This week I glanced at pieces he posted on cosmology, the Hagia Sophia, a poem by William Stafford, and article on the quest for meaning--all helpful in slowing us down as we tend to rush through stuff on the internet.  Even non-theists and materialists can find material for reflection here.

Last week, Sullivan and Co. introduced me to a theologian named Martin Laird, author of Into the Silent Land.  Here, in a generous selection from the book, the Daily Dish gave us a passage on union with God that reminded me of Thomas Merton.  "Separation from God is not possible," writes Laird; "God does not know how to be absent."  We created in our minds the illusion that we are separated from the God, whom we meet in stillness and silence, beyond words. Laird writes beautifully, and I am grateful, as always, to find someone else, with a stronger background in such things, to say what I have been trying to say.

I am also grateful to Andrew for a piece by Robert Barron on why and how the new atheists miss the boat: God, as Aquinas found and Merton (among many others) re-discovered, is the sheer act of being itself. God is not a being separate from us.
Then there was a piece on awe and wonder, the kind found in architecture (I think of the Gothic cathedral), based on an article by a psychiatrist who rejects the taboo on combining psychotherapy and spirituality.  He defines spiritual people as those who exercise their innate ability to experience awe and wonder.  It seems that buildings that inspire awe and wonder are healing because they inspire positive feelings that are quite separate from religious expression.

All this I would have missed without dropping in on Andrew last Sunday.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The age of anxiety

The poet W. H. Auden proclaimed the mid-20th century the age of anxiety, but every age, it seems, can lay claim to being so called--at least if we judge by the number of anxious people around.

In a revealing article in the new Atlantic, the magazine's editor, Scott Stossel, describes the extreme phobias he has experienced and the remedies, none of them effective. He seems to have tried everything. He takes Xanax along with vodka when he ask to speak or fly in a plane. Not too wise.

Like chronic fatigue syndrome, imagined by outsiders to be imaginary, severe, crippling anxiety is often little understood or acknowledged.  Having suffered from a milder form of anxiety than Stossel's most of my life, I can identify with his agony and frustration yet agree that many accomplished people, like him, have plunged into work, having successful careers in spite of intense fears and worries. I do not mean garden-variety worry and fear but the kind that leads to panic attacks.

It is comforting to know that Cicero, known for his oratory, panicked before his speeches and that stage fright has crippled Laurence Olivier, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Hugh Grant, and countless other performers; that Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Jefferson and Gandhi, Freud and Proust are among those who seem to have had some form of this emotional disorder, which is largely genetic but reinforced by habits of worry.

Yet the worriers of the world are often sought out by smart employers who know that anxious people will be excellent researchers or financial advisors because of their compulsive attention to detail. The person who imagines the worst is also highly imaginative and creative.  What is painful and often shaming can become a source of strength.  Kierkegaard went so far as to say, "The greater the anxiety, the greater the man."

Well, I doubt that. It is sad that all the medication and therapy in the world cannot really heal the anxiety of someone like Stossel. He doesn't mention the combination of exercise and meditation that has helped me. No doubt his work as a writer is a spiritual pursuit, as it is for me, but there is nothing about religion or spirituality in his catalog of remedies.

And it is sad that so little about this disorder, which affects one in six American adults, or 40 million people, is widely understood. This is a major health problem and leads many, like me, to prayer or to a form of Buddhist practice, which has a great calming effect.  There is no cure--the fears surface each day--but there are helpful remedies that enable us to cope and to live good lives despite all the things in the world that can alarm us.

As I thank Mr. Stossel for going public with his lifelong malady, I wish him peace in this new year. I pray that I, like all the restless, anxious souls out there, we will find in and through our fears and worries, vehicles that lead not to despair but to productive living in an age that is, inevitably, one of anxiety.