Wednesday, November 13, 2019

#23 Men, agents of and pathway to cultural metanoia (KE #e)




“A divorce is like an amputation: you survive it, but there is less of you.” (Margaret Atwood)

There is so much to admire about the sensibilities, imagination, courage, creativity and downright prophetic wisdom of Margaret Atwood. Nevertheless, 32 years after leaving a marriage, I profoundly and humbly contest her contention.

It is not that there is no trauma arising from the moment of the decision, from the conversation with a spouse about the finality of terminating the marriage, from the moment at which you pull the U-Haul up to the driveway, open the back end, and proceed to put those basic things like a broom, shirts, slacks, luggage, shoes and a few books, a frypan, a saucepan, a lamp and a pair of skates and a squash racket into the cargo carrier. It is a moment, no matter how diligently and even respectfully arranged, when no one is home, when there is not a sound, nor the sight of another person on the street, in the front yard or even passing by, on a late August afternoon.

And yet, what led to this moment?

After twenty-three years, three bright and generally happy and healthy daughters, successful professional careers for both partners, a substantial modern home, and, to all appearances, the ‘perfect marriage,’ what could possibly have gone so wrong?

First, from a private perspective, I had been working up to sixteen hours each weekday, beavering away at marketing, public relations, attempting to retain and to grow the market share of the community college after decades of obsessive-compulsive working as a secondary school teacher, basketball coach, free-lance journalist. Without having clarity of my own "driveness," I knew that to pursue a doctorate, I would be expected to read books and write papers, two activities I had confidence I could do. It was to "look inside" and to "reflect" and to "pause for critical self-examination" that seemed to be required if the past was not to continue as prologue for the next few decades. Just maybe, I thought, perhaps naively, innocently and somewhat idealistically, in seminary I might be directed, coached, mentored and supported in a journey into the unconscious, into the kinds of memories and cultural as well as psychological impulses that had been and could continue to hold sway if I were to continue hell-bent on the pursuit of what is now clear to have been "applause" and "respect" and "honour" and what is generally included in the gestalt known as "okayness". Many have written, so I later learned, about how "our" (humans') first half century is dedicated to the pursuit of extrinsic success: career and income, family, home, status, and public recognition whereas the second half-century is dedicated to the pursuit of intrinsic values: relationship, imagination, creativity, ideas, beliefs and ultimate meaning and purpose.


With respect to my then perception of the "landscape and culture" of the marriage, I intuited a deep sense of emotional, psychic and relational dryness, something vaguely felt along the bones, inside the veins, and certainly deep in the imaginative heart, without knowing a) what were the primary causes or b) whether or not the situation was likely to change.


After I declared anxiety about the potential for the union to dissolve, we went into therapy, with a Lutheran clergy who concentrated on Frankl’s logotherapy. After a few sessions, it was apparent that one of the partners was somehow less engaged in the process than the other. The question, “Are you concerned about the future of your marriage?” from the counsellor, prompted my then spouse to question his competence. “Of course, otherwise I would not be here!” was her interpretation and conclusion. Reading for two people who had both graduated in English was prescribed without prompting the anticipated dialogue about the matters and questions raised by the writing.

Time for reflection when considering a major life decision takes on a greatly exaggerated and intense real time application. If the potential decision, whether to stay or to leave, matters, (and how could it not?) then all of one’s faculties, sensibilities, memories, hurts, resentments, and even the “good times” take on an aura of a kind of permanence that does not accompany everyday decisions, revisions, hiccups, and wrinkles. Now, more than at the time of the marriage ceremony, (when we were both in our early twenties) a decision to dissolve that union seems much more significant. It is not only the kids and the apparent stability, the accomplishments, and even the projected future that includes more weddings, graduations, grandchildren and the potential of travel, reading, and growing old together that rise to consciousness but something very different.

We all have a memory gestalt that portrays patterns, patterns and their potential predictability that seem to have come from seeds in the earth-garden-memory of previous arresting, discomfiting and potentially threatening moments. An invitation to host a couple for pizza, met with an unforgettable moment of fear, a litany of theatrical/movie/television/literary experiences leaving memories of unfulfilled shared reflections, another litany of “not enough money” anxieties that eventually coalesced into a predictable and enervating chant, a persistent anxiety if and when the prospect of a new job in a new and different city reared its head, a decisive electric jolt of considerable voltage about the perceived prospect of a marriage ripe for abuse from within, taken together provide an emotional landscape for which no one individual can be charged with responsibility.

What was it about my participation, my person, my attitudes, perceptions, beliefs and actions that contributed to the malaise that can only be described as an emotional sand dune, dry, deflecting all winds, and rejecting the ‘water’ of engagement to remain and grow the flowers of connectivity and appreciation before dissipating to the unconscious water table below?

Here is where those predictable, only on distant reflection, qualities of the Knight Errant with which any and all others have inevitable and serious difficulty in tolerating, and certainly of adopting to come into play. Recall a few of the cogent and pertinent observations from Hillman previously noted:

“The Knight Errant follows fantasy, riding the vehicle of his emotions; he loiters and pursues the anima with his eros, regarding desire as also holy; and he listens to the deviant discourse of the imagination. His arguments make use of the ‘straw man;’ he personifies, makes the other position come alive so that he can meet it as body and not only as thought.” …But the Knight Errant is also an outcast, a renegade wandering like Cain, never quite able to return within the structures of literalism, seeing through their walls, their definitions and so excluded by their norms…The Knight Errant of psychology is partly picaresque rogue, of the and underworld a shadow hero of unknown paternity, who sees through hierarchies from below. He is a mediator betwixt and between, homeless, of no fixed abode…Or his home is in the ceaselessly blowing spirit…”(James Hillman, Revisioning Psychology, p. 161)

For anyone to adjust to the vagaries of such a being, whether male or female, requires a monumental commitment, even to begin to accept such wild and seemingly unreasonable, illogical, emotional, fantastical and irreverent perspectives. And from a conventional perspective, rational, reasoned and pragmatic foundations can only be at odds with such a rogue. It follows too that the rational, reasoned and pragmatic point of view rises to the level of public respect, responsibility and maturity. The latter perspective warrants such public acclaim, especially when one is focussing on “unwed mothers” from the desk of a social worker engaged with rural Ontario.

The chorus, “There is not enough money!” for a trans-continental trip, planned in the narrow window between an early teen (likely to reject such adventures in favour of friends and a summer job) and a kindergarten sister, in order to take advantage of such a sliver of time, is one poignant and pertinent occasion when the two perspectives collided. The decision to make the trip with the kids, with or without their mother, seemed enough of a catalyst to provoke compliance and an agreement to join the trip. To all appearances, all five of us seemed to enjoy the experience.

Fear and the intrinsic apprehensions, social, financial, intellectual, spiritual and especially relational, have a silent, imperceptible non-odorous, tasteless evanescence in any ethos, whether of a family, a school, an emergency room, a courtroom, and especially a church. And the Christian cornerstone of “original sin” is easily and readily and tragically transferred to deep, ineradicable and persistent incarnation and utterance in a plethora of observations, contentions, boundaries and beliefs. On reflection, after more than three decades, it is reasonable to assert that “fear” was a third party in our marriage, whether or not that fear was deliberate, conscious, malicious or unconscious, inadvertent and merely unfortunate. Fear of risk seemed to be palpable for one partner; fear of suffocation, stagnation and repression was visceral for the other.

For my part, having been raised in a family of origin in which the mother’s tyrannical turbulence seemed to be the prevailing “west wind” blowing off the ‘Big Sound’ through the house, with neither prevention nor abatement available from her partner, there is little doubt that I was more than a little sensitive to the dominance of the negative animus. It is also more than likely, without adopting a clinical stance, that I was “hard wired” in opposition to excess female control and power: I was unlikely to behave as I perceived my father had, in the face of such attitudes.

Whether or not these seemingly irreconcilable differences could have been reconciled remains mute all these years later. Brief glimpses of a word or two here and there from two of the three daughters would suggest their general acknowledgement of the conflict within the marriage, while they persistently have resisted acceptance and agreement with the “how” of the break. To their concern, there are no “user manuals” outlining how one is supposed to carry out a marriage breakdown, nor are they, nor can anyone, really comprehend the depth of the terror one experiences within and immediately following the event. These are not excuses, merely a pencil sketch of context.

The Atwood quote above provokes only push-back, given the personal, professional emotional, intellectual, psychic and even social intelligence that can only accompany, follow and result from the life-changing, deeply penetrating and highly energizing (almost by necessity) requirements of walking alone into the dark night. Divorce, for me, has been and continues as a defining, and provocative moment whose gifts continue to unfold all these decades later. Such an unfolding would, of course, be inconceivable without the support, empathy, acceptance and love of my wife of eighteen years, Michelle. Andrea Bocelli's lyrics, Because we believe, succinctly capture both the moment and its meaning in my life:

Once in every life
There comes a time
We walk out all alone
And into the light
The moment won't last but then
We remember it again
When we close our eyes

Also, I found this passage in James Hillman's The Soul's Code, that quotes the poet Rilke:


Rather than blaming fathers for their absenteeism and the concomitant unfairness of loading extra burdens onto mothers, mentors, the schools the police, and taxpayers, we need to ask where Dad might be when he's 'not at home.' When he is absent to what else might he be present? What calls him away?

Rilke has an answer:


Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.
(James Hillman, The Soul's Code; Grand Central Publishing, New York, 1996, p. 81-82...
quoting Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans.by Robert Bly, New York,, Harper and Row, 1981

The question of leaving a marriage to enroll immediately in seminary, has seemed to many to be eminently paradoxical, irreverent even sinful and clearly unforgiveable. Church officials, former friends and colleagues have spoken, directly and even more behind my back, vociferously and vehemently against my decision. Undoubtedly, many of those continue to hold me in contempt for such a decision. Certainly, there seems to be a controversial and irreconcilable position of the church with my decision, which I nevertheless, clearly reject. The issue of reasons for and background behind the marriage breakdown and the potential for reconciliation were never raised by a single member of the church hierarchy, formally or informally, at any time in the rather deliberate and complex process of entering the stream for holy orders. I did have a brief conversation with a clergy prior to leaving, on my own initiation.

Whether a decision to submit my name for candidacy in a process known by the acronym ACPO (Anglican Committee on Postulants for Orders) months ahead of the originally designated date (by the same presiding bishop) was an overt or unconscious attempt to deter my candidacy remains mute today. Nevertheless, surprised, and a little dismayed, I began the process of preparing the requisite biography, immediately upon receipt of the decisive phone call. It came a mere 30 days following the marriage breakup, while I was enrolled in the first year of theology, now living in a two-bedroom apartment with a young male dentistry student. Biography, like other forms of self-realization is never without its unsettling unearthings of details some of which would normally be withheld from people seeking to determine acceptability for holy orders, if one were anxious of the outcome. I held no such anxieties, and disclosed whatever I deemed relevant. Before submitting the document for official review, I forwarded it to a clergy friend, who, upon reading it, phoned to tell me she had wept while reading. Surprised, I asked whether or not I should edit the material, and was dissuaded.

It was, however, at the weekend, north of Toronto, in late October, when each candidate was scheduled to be interviewed by three interviewers. The last of the three ended the interview with this statement, “After I read your bio, I was afraid to come into this interview!” Shocked, then, and even today, I responded, “I am sorry to hear that; I am here to answer whatever questions you might have.”
“I have no questions, except that I wonder if you would like to have a fourth interview, given that you are barely out of a marriage,” she responded.
“While I do not seek an additional interview, I remain open to one, if the committee deems it appropriate,” I replied. On the final day of the committee’s deliberations, I was given an “orange” light, translating, “not at this time” is it appropriate for you to be admitted to the process for holy orders.

I returned to study, and for the next few months, attempted to make sense of the decision, and its implications. Shortly after the Christmas break, I received a visit from the Bishop and his Chaplain for candidates at the college. The Chaplain, a former military chaplain, blurted, immediately when I entered the room, “Get out of here and get back to your home town and into therapy!” He immediately departed the room, without waiting for a response, leaving me alone with the bishop, who, uncomfortably, asked if I wanted a coffee, which I irreverently declined.

In a class of some dozen potential candidates for the ministry, seven of whom were openly and assertively “born-again” conservative fundamentalists while the remaining five of us were dubbed “liberals”. Not either encouraging or nurturing the friendly accommodation to their religious view-point, the liberals were essentially considered “less than” worthy of even entering the ministry by the “fundies”. At one point, in a field ed class, one of their number uttered what turned out to be one of the more identifying and, in my view, contemptible utterances: “The Bible says Hitler will not be in Heaven!”
His statement was instantly countered by one of the liberals, a strong feminist, recent graduate in philosophy, mother of three, recently divorced from a local police officer. The class erupted into an open conflict which brush painted me and other liberals, as “difficult, irascible, and contentious.” Only following a term in Chaplaincy training in Scarborough, when I returned to discuss second year with the Dean did I learn of his recommendation that I consider an additional unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (C.P.E.), likely in Toronto, since such a unit was not available at the University Hospital in London. Connecting the dots, back to that Field Ed class was not difficult. In fact, it was obvious that the Dean wanted me out.

Fortunately, Trinity College Dean was most welcoming and my application was accepted, as was my application to the Toronto Institute of Human Relations for a unit in pastoral counselling. Trinity proved a very different scholastic institution, more liberal, and in church terms, leaning toward what the church considers “high” church as compared with “low” church in London. These terms mean very little to any man on the street; “high” means concentrating on liturgy, homiletics, and hierarchy, while “low” refers to a more informal liturgy and more evangelism, as compared with the more intellectual tendencies at Trinity.

To be continued

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