Thursday, September 5, 2019

Reflections on psychic innocence/denial/avoidance...and the promise of the imagination


When I first read Thomas Hardy’s perception, “happiness is a brief relief in the general drama of pain,” from the Mayor of Casterbridge, I had a moment of clarity and awakening. I wanted immediately to challenge such a negative view of the human condition. Surely, this portrait of the human condition was not either complete or even worthy of credence.

Somehow, somewhere there must be a more optimistic, more uplifting and more inspiring pallet of colours to depict our shared ethos, even though Hardy was writing from the southern moors of England. Surely, what I was experiencing in my family of origin, then seen as turbulent and troubling, was not the general condition of the rest of the town, or the wider world. In 1958, the world was basking in the relief and promise of the aftermath of the second war, and the vision of the political discourse was focused on Sputnik, and the potential of the space frontier. Popular music featured ultra-simplistic love songs, whether composed with a ‘rock’n’roll’ beat of Elvis and Chuck Berry, or the more ‘sophisticated’ rhythm and melody of a ballad, sung by men like Perry Como and Pat Boone.

The trajectory of the human spirit was pointing straight ‘up’ into the heavens, both literally and metaphorically. Riding the tidal wave of such heady hope and optimism, John F. Kennedy eclipsed Richard Nixon in the first televised political debate in the presidential campaign in the U.S. Nixon’s five’o’clock shadow seemed to have betrayed his rejection of basic make-up, possibly a hold-over from his Quaker heritage. The ‘hollywood’ heroic image of Kennedy captured the hopes and dreams of a new generation of Americans “to whom the torch is being passed,” apparently oblivious to or unworried about Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith.

It was not long, however, before the tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. boiled over in the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis, taking the world to the cliff of nuclear war. Averted, however, through the tenacity and courage of the Kennedy brothers, Bobby and John, (as reports coming out of Washington made it appear, heroism in the diplomatic world of geopolitics was not only restored but actually enhanced by this new generation of young and vibrant, hopeful and courageous leaders. We all lost a sliver of our innocence in those dark hours and days, but certainly not all of it.

And then, in November 1963, a knock at the classroom door in which I was teaching a grade-five class of boys, interrupted not only that lesson, but also the calm and optimistic and hopeful and youthful world landscape with the tragic news that the same young vibrant (and happily married, so far as we all knew) young president had been slain by an assassin in Dallas. Portrayed as an isolated incident perpetrated by a loner, mysterious “Russian” agent, and then followed by a lengthy and still controversial Warren Commission into the assassination, America and the world grieved, in a shared empathy with his widow and their two young children. Still contained as an “isolated” incident, analogous to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the transition enabled many to continue to uphold a world view of hope, promise and courage, as if the landscape was precisely the inverse of that old Hardy view, that pain was only a brief interruption in a general drama of hope and optimism.

And then there was Bobby, and Martin Luther King Jr., both cut down in their prime, and then there was Viet Nam, and napalm, agent orange, street protests of flower children and their Woodstock and hallucinogens. Still, we were a generation raised on the wave of hope and promise of the aftermath of that deadly war, and while there were increasingly complex and powerful weapons being designed and tested, we were generally bubbled by a protective layer of public hope. The most penetrating question that I faced as a now grade ten history teacher, to another class of young men went like this: “Sir, would you go to fight in Viet Nam?” The young man, Ed Kotke, who posed that question remains a fixture in my mind as both courageous, somewhat brash, yet nevertheless eminently worthy of a legitimate and honest reply: “Only if I could serve as a teacher,” I blurted.

To be sure, there were disappointments in my singular lack of academic prowess at Western, almost exclusively the result of my own obstinence, defiance, rejection of the politically correct and familial “duties” and expectations of family psychic barnacles. There were also many parallel experiences of achievement and community outside the classroom and the library, confirming the ancient trope that undergraduate years really are the best years of a young life.

Births of three children, new career opportunities, new colleagues, and additional coaching challenges coalesced into a gestalt of at least a decade of hope, optimism and personal frontiers magnetically challenging and life-giving. While there were sounds of storm clouds rising on the horizon about oil prices, environmental dangers of acid rain, and rising alienation threatening political division in Canada, personal lives were unlikely to be threatened by the shifting of political tectonic plates.

Innocence, of the kind that sustains a smiling public face, belied a growing consciousness that work, and the rewards of good performance especially in the public eye, were somehow very hollow, fickle and very emptying of both energy and creativity, and yet somehow, continued to demand and provoke excessive effort, in what was beginning to appear to be an obsessive pursuit of applause.

Clearly the public mantra of climbing a ladder of achievement, income, status and prominence was a form of entrapment ensnaring many including this now mid-forty ‘innocent’ who perhaps was beginning to grow up into a new consciousness, less innocent, less arrogant, less overtly ambitious, yet nevertheless, still requiring heroic address through personal action.

I had heard words like ambiguity, uncertainty, paradox and irony, as intellectual notions prevalent in literature inside an English classroom; yet somehow they remained detached from personal experience, except as they interacted with “teaching moments” to support students. Teachers, educators, by definition, are “expected” to have answers, in the face of students’ confusions.

And then, attending a workshop in “creating” near Boston, conducted by Robert Fritz, I heard him say, “It is of course OK to know that you do not know and to acknowledge that you do not know!” This kind of moment etched itself in memory, as the kind of peeling of the mask of blind ignorance (literally, not knowing) that had not previously confronted my consciousness, illuminating a long-standing darkness, a blindness, a studied innocence as the mask I had been wearing, and behind which I had been  performing vigorously and vainly for the previous nearly five decades.

There had been a similar moment, in a class on Frye’s “The Code,” in which the professor had noted the “divided mind” of Paul’s writing in Romans, (I do what I would not do and do not do those things I would do.) However, keeping such moments encased in some cognitive capsule enabled a prolonged detachment from the full implications of these “nuggets” of wisdom.

It was only after a complete collapse in both career and personal terms, that I was introduced to the fullness of the human condition, reflective of, and even incarnating the much deeper and so long resisted wisdom and truth originally visited in Hardy’s novel and the core truth of many other shamans, poets, prophets and spiritual pilgrims.
Writing his report of the Fifth Danish Thule Expedition 1921-24, across ac tic North America from Greenland to Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, by the explorer Knud Rasmussen, Dr. H. Ostermann quotes a scalawag in Nome, Najagneq, who had faced seemingly indomitable forces and powers that threatened his survival in the Arctic, when asked if he believed in all of the powers he spoke of, responded:

“Yes, a power that we call Sila, one that cannot be explained in so many words. A strong spirit, the upholder of the universe, of the weather, in fact of all life on earth—so mighty that his speech to man comes not through ordinary words, but through storms, snowfall, rain showers, the tempests of the sea, through all the forces that man fears, or through sunshine, calm seas of small, innocent, playing children who understand nothing. When times are good, Sila has nothing to say to mankind. He has disappeared into his infinite nothingness and remains away as long as people do not abuse life but have respect for their daily food. No one has ever seen Sila. His place of sojourn is so mysterious that he is with us and infinitely far away at the same time.
Echoing this wisdom from  Najagneq, Ostermann also quotes his countryman, a primitive Eskimo, Igjugarjuk:

The only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and it can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone can open the mind of a man to all that is hidden to others. (Both quotes from, Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology, The Masks of God, Penguin Compass, 1959, p.51 and 52.)

The “sophisticated” and “educated” and mostly “urban” (and clearly urbane) society, unfortunately, has considered much primitive wisdom to be just that, both primitive and savage. Archives shelves are lined with the stories of colonization of the Najagneq’s and the Igjugarjuk’s of our culture, including the dismissal, denial and the avoidance of their prophetic insights. Writing about how “cultured” humans “know” their personal and private truths and realities, James Hillman writes these words:

Our souls in private to ourselves, in close communion with another, and even in public exhibit psychopathologies. Each soul at some time of another demonstrates illusions and depressions, overvalued ideas, manic flights and rages, anxieties, compulsions, and perversions. Perhaps our psychopathology has an intimate connection with our individuality, so that our fear of being what we really are is partly because we fear the psychopathological aspect of individuality. For we are each peculiar; we have symptoms; we fail, and cannot see why we go wrong or even where, despite high hopes and good intentions. We are unable to set matters right, to understand what is taking place of be understood by those who would try.
Our minds, feelings, wills and behaviours deviate from normal ways. Out insights are impotent, or none come at all. Our feelings disappear in apathy; we worry and also don‘t care. Destruction seeps out of us autonomously and we cannot redeem the broken trusts, hopes loves.

The study of lives and the care of souls means above all a prolonged encounter with what destroys and is destroyed, with what is broken and hurts—that is with psychopathology. Between the lines of each biography and in the liners of each face we may read a struggle with alcohol, with suicidal despair, with dreadful anxiety, with lascivious sexual obsessions, cruelties at close quarters, secret hallucinations, or paranoid spiritualisms. Ageing brings loneliness of soul, moments of acute psychic pain, and haunting remembrances as memory disintegrates.

The night world in which we dream shows the soul split into antagonisms; night after night we are fearful, aggressive, guilty and failed. (James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, Harper, 1976, p.55-6)

It is our historic and eminently human and limited capacity to render our psychic pain into one of two conceptual baskets, that of science or that of religion. In the case of the former, our pain is an “illness” while in the case of the latter, our pain is “evil”. And whether considered from either perspective, so far, our pain has “needed” and even “demanded” an intervention. We need to change, and to get well, or to get right with God, or perhaps even both.

Both religion and science have adopted a language that is dominated by what can be categorized as literalism. In religious history, many of the original images or icons have been trashed as idols and the literal features of human behaviour have been rendered “judged” in the aberrancy. In science, only the literal, the empirical and the specifically “denotative” features of each and every symptom are the focus of the attention of both researchers and practitioners.

Hillman argues persuasively, that through such reductionism which may have empowered both the medical and the theological communities, we have lost sight of, and certainly the gifts of the imagination, of the poetry and the truths that underly each of our lives, and more importantly each of our encounters. We have effectively dehumanized each human, and reduced each to a functioning thing.

 Hillman posits three ways by which we deny the imagination in our perceptions of human psychic pain:

We put empty names on our psychic complaints: alcoholics, suicidals, schizophrenics (nominalism).

We reduce patients to “cases” only persons in situations. (nihilism)

We idealize humans in our attempt to restore our dignity, promoting a one-sided sentimentalism with words like health. Hope courage love maturity, warmth wholeness…and in goals like freedom, faith, fairness responsibility, commitment. (transcendence) (Hillman, p.58-67)

Perhaps, just perhaps, through a re-visiting some of our language, and the depths of the images, the myths, the gods and the poetry, all of them the free expression of our imagination, we might join a human race in touch with our complexities, and the gifts of our darknesses, without having to resort to the kind of scathing and judgemental interventions both in language and in action that refuse to acknowledge the depths of our fullness.

Would that the current existential crisis facing the planet and each person living on it might bring about a new consciousness that is not nearly as dependent on an external saviour or judge, dependent itself on a depth of fear and neurosis of those extremes of both feeling and action that are innate to each of us.

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