Friday, April 12, 2024 #41

 Sleepless nights have had to be integral to the lives of most men (and women) who took themselves seriously, perhaps too seriously. Often, at least in the life of this scribe, they indicate a kind of mental, psychic thrashing, a sort of ‘roiling’ as the mind re-visits, transforms, and echoes moments past and potentially yet to come. Here is not the place to analyse dreams. Far better minds and psyches are much more prepared and willing to engage in that mysterious engagement, entanglement and both beauty and horror.

Rather, questions about identity, how events, people, books, ideas, beliefs and actions have been ‘framed’ seem to have risen to the top of the moment of waking. Rather than leaving the ego at the centre of all propositions, interpretations, comparisons, identifications and meanings, it seems much more ‘healthy’ to think, perceive, and ‘frame’ everything from a different point of view. In the West, where some deep and lasting footprints of Christianity have left their imprint on many, including this scribe, beginning with that horrific ‘pauline’ epithet, ‘we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God’…(Romans 3: 23), many have been scarred, ‘branded’ as if we were new calves in the Christian farm, to be forever identified by this black mark of unworthiness. Accompanying the metaphor, naturally, is the ‘fire of hell’ as a potential, devastatingly hopeless eternity if one continues to ‘live in sin’ without redemption and salvation.


It is not rocket science to speculate that many young people, in their (our) teens, were ‘branded’ with a kind of binary ‘good/evil’ image, like a small hole in the end of a needle through which we were expected to make our way. Did we want to ‘go to heaven or hell’ is a question so heinous and yet so ubiquitously promulgated as to render both God and the church deeply implicit in a manner of discerning how to live that literally, metaphorically and psychically lobotomizes anything approaching a “full life”. And yet, here we are, decades, if not centuries later, still enshackled by the vestiges and stain of that ‘binary’ horn of the moral, ethical, and especially psychological and religious reductionism. Polarized and oscillating between two equally simplistic, reductionistic, and seductive (for opposite reasons) options many have often reduced to a ‘risk or avoid’ kind of mind-set. This ‘either-or’ has been a trap, overlaid with the psychic ‘ego’ as a kind of moderator (borrowing from Freud’s ego-super-ego-id tricotomy), exemplified by an extremely ‘what-would-auntie-think’ on the one hand and a ‘who-really-cares-anyway’ speculation, prior to engaging in a new activity.

Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies, speculates about the ‘inherent violence’ of the human species. Many political debates are currently framed, under the rubric of a zero-sum game, as a black-and-white choice between what one faction considers morally and ethically ‘right’ and another faction considers as morally and ethically deplorable. We have heard of the dilemma of young women, emerging into their full feminine reality, fearing and living under a cloud of a reputational depiction as ‘angel or whore’ when such a dichotomy is equally repulsive, untenable and demeaning, for different reasons. Young men, too, have faced the ‘envisaged’ reputational categorization as ‘real men’ or ‘wimps/girlie’ and in my generation ‘fags’ for those who engaged in the arts, dance, music and poetry. Real men were (are?) hunters, fishers, red-necks, bigots, over-sexed and highly competitive and thereby predictive of success in athletics, business and the professions.

While there are psychological theories that posit an influence of a ‘strong mother’ from whom some young men have had to emerge from being under their domination (Oedipal complex describing a child’s feelings of desire for their opposite sex parent and jealousy and anger toward their same sex parent), and other theories that speculate about the ‘Electra complex’ in which a young woman is attracted to her male parent and in competition with her mother, again the binary prevailed in and through the inception and dissemination of such theories (and their substantial impact). Similarly, there were and are men and women who, in the course of their encounters with others, irrespective of their professional obligations, have either exhibited traits that ‘fit’ the strong/masculine/decisive/executive or the more tolerant/considerate/relational/feminine characterizations. This ‘heaven-hell’ universe,  still smudges the doorways of our minds and hearts with smoke and fog, given that none of us really fit any of the boxes fully or comfortably.

Naturally, gender identity continues to focus the attention of many public debates, and tensions, as the emergence of the LGBTQ+ community has found both a voice and a supportive cohort. Again, however, ‘straight-gay’ is an abiding dichotomy among many of the establishment figures and voices, not only based on their unfamiliarity with the ‘new’ but also resulting in some part from the protracted history of the binary “new-old” in which the “old” is revered and the “new” distasteful.

Poised on the edge of this aspect of the dichotomy, too, is the religious/faith community, who have been reared in an theology of reverence, even sacralizing the past and projecting that reverence into the ‘afterlife’, while denigrating the present. Indeed, our minds, and our perceptions have become so integrated into a binary perception, attitude, and belief system that, while such a process may have given us the scientific method, and the multiple ‘benefits’ of those experiments, theories and discoveries, the ‘branding’ has left us bereft of ambiguity, nuance, shades of ‘grey’ and multiple options, especially in the manner in which we ‘language’ our perceptions and social encounters, not to mention our political divides.

Poised on the tips of two deeply embedded and mutually exclusive options, many of us have spent decades trying to breathe the oxygen of multiple perspectives, multiple options, multiple orientations, ethnicities, belief systems, and the need to integrate into a far more ‘rich’ (metaphorically, not financially) way of being in the world.

Even the dichotomy of “I am a human being, not a human doing” which floated through the seminaries in the 90’s, while focusing on reflection, pause from the obsessive compulsive thrust to accomplish the duty-list of chores, served as a kind of cognitive reductionism. Labels, especially those conceived and birthed by the psychological/psychiatric establishment, have mainly been based on the ‘sickness’ model, rather than on a pursuit of what is healthy in each of us and thereby worthy of both respect and enhancement and encouragement.

The dichotomous epithet from Corinthinians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things…” also divides adult from child, in a manner that at a minimum, in today’s parlance, ‘puts down’ childhood while elevating adulthood as a proposed path of religious and spiritual discipline. The psychological impact of this kind of directive (subtle though it may be) is that those attributes of the child, enthusiasm, experimentation, risk-taking, courage, exploration, invention and creativity including the emergence into the world of loving relationships are boxed into a chronology in which they cannot and do not fit or comply. Similarly, the ‘adult’ model is envisaged as ‘mature, thoughtful, reflective, complex, conservative, restrained and risk-avoidant, another grouping of attributes that defy the ‘adult’ containment.

Many sleepless nights have found this scribe reflecting on the alienation of what some might call ‘my little boy’ who had inserted energetic, creative, and somewhat challenging notes into what were otherwise ‘elder’ meetings, both among the educational establishment and more recently among the ecclesial establishment. Wearing a plastic ‘red nose’ while attending a church board meeting, as the clergy in charge, was only one example, in which a fossilized, frozen group of men and women were blind to their own frozenness, and the ‘red-nose’ was one of many attempts to ‘awaken’ whatever was lying dormant in their mind and psyche.

While the moment of the ‘red-nose’ was a spontaneous act, without the reflection that three decades offers, the moment returns as an example of how alienation can accompany ‘binary’ categorizations, and the contempt that accompanies such boxed-in thinking and perceiving and the attitudes that come from those boxes. Of course, the majority, in any social, cultural, political or ideological group prefer the ‘conservative,’ and ‘moderate,’ and ‘modest’ and ‘safe’ approach to the decisions they are asked to make. And while that may be a ‘fact’ of our culture, it is also a severe limitation not only on our culture, but also on the individuals within our culture,

Here again, the ‘young boy’ (puer, Dionysus, Persephone (goddess of Spring), Ares (god of courage), Hephaestus (god of design and creativity) are, as usual, being displaced by the others including Athena (goddess of reason, wisdom). It is not that specific ‘gods’ are images of specific persons, but rather, from a cultural perspective, these forces are in tension. And the ‘puer’ in each of us, so it seems from this desk, has been shut out of many of the conversations, relationships and initiatives in our ‘mature, stable, dependable, reliable, and predictable culture and ethos.

Well……we the saying goes, ‘how is that pattern working out for us?

Are we not both witnessing and experiencing the disastrous impacts of a one-sided, heavily tilted, deeply obsessed with ‘reactionary, conservative, nationalist, and even fascist not merely rhetoric but actual manipulation by the ‘senex’ attributes among us, taken to their extreme over-the-top absurdity.

Just as ruling a culture, society, government, church, university from sole perspective of the ‘puer’ would be absurd, so too is the dominance of the senex, rational, conservative, reactionary ‘approach. And this applies not only to interpersonal relationships but also to the kind of cultural ‘garden’ and the psychic ‘garden’ in which health ‘flowering’ men and women, girls and boys can and will thrive.

Not only in the binary unsustainable, but the dominance of the ‘old’ at the expense of the ‘young’ in archetypal terms, is snuffing out the kind of raucous, respectable, collaborative and collegial ‘messiness’ and chaos in which nature can only survive and thrive,

Yesterday, on ABC’s The View, the concept of a collaborative Scrabble game, having been introduced into Europe, was scathingly dismissed by all five members of the female panel. “Don’t they know that life is competitive?” shouted one of the panelists. The very notion that a family, or a group of friends might sit around a table and put their mind and their imaginations together to come up with the words for a collaborative game of Scrabble was so abhorrent to those five American women that this audience member was shaken.

Have ‘we’ collectively so reduced human existence to a competition (exclusively as the only model available and acceptable)? And if so, it is not surprising that the American ‘enterprise’ is itself crumbling right before our eyes. 

While Mandela and Gandhi were both fully engaged in social, political, ethical and moral transformations with opponents who were clearly identified, their world never devolved into a binary proposition in which winners only succeeded by eliminating or destroying their opponents. 


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