Saturday, February 13, 2021

Buber's injunction to drop down to the 'mud and filth'

One of the central images, archetypes, in western culture, is the story of the Good Samaritan. Hated by and hating also Jews, the Samaritan is considered, by both conventional biblical interpretation, and by extension, conventional cultural perceptions, the “good guy” in the narrative, and the Jew, taken for granted as dead, in the ditch, is the rescuer. He purportedly lifts the Jew from the ditch, finds a room for him, pays for the room, and goes on his way. And all this happens after the priest and the Levite have passed by without so much as a glance or a helping hand.

While the is much merit to the bridging of the gap between Jew and Samaritan, and historic value in the gzillion acts of kindness that have been both performed and received, through a transcending of traditional barriers to mutually respectful relationships, and the lifting up of people in need by those who can, there is another perspective on this story, that, if brought to consciousness, and then lifted to a different and higher bar could have an even greater impact on the world than the original version has had.

And that view is encapsulated in Buber’s seemingly innocuous quote from yesterday’s blog: If you want to raise a man from mud and filth, do not think it is enough to stay on top and reach a helping hand down to him. You must go all the way down yourself, down into the mud and filth. Then take hold of him with strong hands and pull him and you out into the light….

The seemingly radical-‘ness’ of this insight is in the submission, first, to the state of the plight of the individual in the ‘mud and filth’ and then to ‘enter’ into that space, physically, metaphorically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, before putting out a hand to then pull both rescuer and rescued up to the light.

Historically, the world can be perceptually, cognitively, statistically, politically and in every other conceivable dimension, between those in the ‘mud and filth’ and those ‘up’ on the ‘high ground’ peering ‘down’ into that ‘mud and filth’. And, from a sociological, political, and even cultural perspective, those ‘up’ are now deemed ‘have’s’ while those in the ‘mud and filth’ are deemed ‘have-not’s’.

The categorization, for the purposes of academic study, has some merit, in that it attempts to ‘investigate’ segments of populations, and then compare those populations from a variety of perspectives. Does a specific culture and historical and geographic region ‘treat’ those in the ‘mud and filth’ better or worse than another period or region? Does the size of that segment of the population rise or fall dependent upon and/or resulting from certain steps in an agenda adopted by a regime? Demographics, stratification, and the concomitant contextual colourations, both positive and negative, have been built into the cake of all human cultures and civilizations, as it were, just like those stratifications based on skin colour, relationship to god or Gods, or gods and the rituals, demons and spirits that have accompanied those various differences.

Power, whether measured by physical strength, fiscal resources, academic achievements, spiritual and religious piety, or scientific investigations and potential ‘cures and/or healings’ has been a prominent part of the gold that is both burned into and painted onto the ‘ring’ that attests to the most, and the most relevant power in the kingdom, at any moment in time.

Implicit in the assumption of power, status, influence, and the degree to which that power is sustained and sustainable, of course, is also the relationship of those ‘with’ power to those ‘without’ power.

And implicit to power and those holding it has been the ‘right’ or the ‘freedom’ to decide how far to reach down into the ‘mud and filth’ in order to help those permanently assigned to or resigned to that state. The decision even as to whether it is worth their while to consider whether or not there is any obligation, duty, responsibility or ‘benefit’ to such reaching down is also reserved to, by and for those with power and influence. The social, political and cultural notion that ‘this is how things work’ as an accepted, concrete, immutable fact both of history and of the nature of human beings, however, could well merit re-visiting. This current epoch, especially, could benefit from a profound reconsideration of the meaning and the impact of that conventional norm.

Occasionally, we will hear of an individual, like Mother Theresa, for example, who chooses to live among lepers, as a model of deep, profound and exemplary faith. And there have been others, throughout history whose lives have been ‘dedicated’ to climbing down into the ‘mud and filth’ in order to become one (atonement) with those in need. Another historic aspect of this “divide” between those ‘up’ and those ‘down’ is, from the beginning and continues throughout history, is that those ‘down’ have grown a deep and seemingly permanent resentment, detachment and hopelessness about the potential for those ‘above’ both to reach out a hand, and even more profoundly, to consider the option of ‘coming down’ into the ‘mud and filth’.

Political parties, in the west, trumpet those policies and practices that mete out dollars in and through programs to “alleviate” the suffering of those, whose votes they need in order to retain power and, in possible, to enhance their own ‘power position’. Barnacled to those policies and the cheques that drop into mailboxes, is an implicit attitude that can legitimately be considered, and is so deemed, as patronizing, condescending, marginalizing and even colonizing of those in the ‘mud and filth’. Of course, those designing and voting for such policies and programs either do not consider that aspect of their ‘honourable’ work, or if they acknowledge its darker features, choose to phrase their approach, ‘we are not letting the perfect impede the good and we are doing good’ in this approach.

Nevertheless, one is prompted to ask, what kind of policy and approach would result if and when a political party, leader, group were to “enter” fully and completely into the space, the mind-set, the implicit and explicit roughness of those in the ‘mud and the filth’ and then imagine, conceptualize and actually design and write approaches that would incarnate that fully-realized experience?

We do not, as privileged, mostly white, highly educated, above-average affluent men and women whose lives have spanned the last half of the twentieth century, and the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the depth of the plight of the Jews rounded up, herded onto trains, and then gassed in concentration camps, in spite of the many worthy efforts of their ancestors to continue to bring their stories to light. We do not, as white privileged, educated, modestly affluent mostly men, fully appreciate how our attitudes and beliefs in the relevant definitions of masculinity have impacted those great-grandmothers and grandmothers, wives, sisters, daughters over the last century-plus. We do not, as white, healthy, educated, affluent men and women, most of us brought up in something called a Christian home and church, have any more than a superficial, and often dismissed conception of the depth of the pain our approach to indigenous tribes, all of whom preceded us on the North American continent, has had and continues to have, on the health, education, access to opportunity and weight of hopelessness that we have, unconsciously and perhaps ever innocently, imposed on those indigenous peoples and their descendants.

We also have little to no consciousness of the feelings of both explicit and implicit racism that we continue to struggle to maintain, for the simple reason that ‘that is how things are supposed to be’ when that “supposed to be” concept is our own design and imposition.

Recently, I read a comic’s depiction of the last century-plus has evolved, primarily, as he put it, through nothing other than mansplaining. The informal definition of that new word is ‘the explanation of something by a man, typically to a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.’

If men have been writing the philosophy, the theology, the scientific papers, the academic standards and processes, most of the literature, and the political philosophy from the beginning, there has been little attention paid to the Buber notion of ‘climbing down’ into the ‘mud and filth’ in order to fully comprehend and to identify, and to resolve to confront all of the plight of those doomed to such conditions. And as a corollary to that blindness, hubris, innocence, denial and resistance, there is also much about “reality’ that we have refused to acknowledge, that can only be discovered and potentially learned from those conditioned by the ‘mud and filth’.

And to relegate those people to ‘a problem, a nuisance, and a blight on an otherwise proud, accomplished, resilient, brass, gold and glass symbolic architecture, or another gilded age “achievement” or a tech-wave of superiority or a medical miracle of any of the many procedures and pharmaceuticals is merely to perpetuate a cultural, societal, personal and sabotage.

Buber’s profound, if highly idealistic, yet worthy injunction to all of us, while rarely applied, offers an inexhaustible reservoir of experience not only for the artists among us, or for the philosophers, or the theologians, or the political class. If and when we encounter another in the ‘mud and filth’ and we are in a position to ‘drop down’ to the ‘mud and filth’ we will invariably and inevitably discover, mostly to our shock and surprise, both a deeper experience of our own human spirit of empathy and agape, but even more importantly, the gift of insight of what really matters.

There is no time or energy in the‘mud and filth’ for idle wondering about what to do next, or how to interpret whether or not someone ‘likes’ us or not, or whether to eat out or order in, or whether to tout a specific faith as “right” and all others as “evil”…

James Hillman’s injunction for each of us ‘to get down’ into the earth of our own existence can and will be enabled and enhanced by this Buber injunction, which exceeds the boundaries and beliefs of all faiths.

 "Tikkun Olam," Hebrew words typically translated as 'repair the world' or 'mend the world' or 'heal the world' can and will be more fully and effectively accomplished, or even aspired to, if we really listen, digest, absorb and apply Buber's insight.

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