For seven years, in the 1990′, my husband and I held a monthly salon at our house in Utica. It was well attended, in part because our hosting plan included provision of good food and wine, to cover which we passed the hat at the end of every salon. During some of those years, when I was going through an extremely painful “breakdown,” I came to be able to legitimately use the term “suffering” to name my unremittingly dreadful experience, that was, at the same time, undeniably transformative. Suffering, to me then, meant real lived experience, no shortcuts, no “safety net,” no recourse but to keep walking through and perhaps one day to be “worthy of my suffering.” I remember so clearly one salonista, a youthful elderly woman from a wealthy Jewish downstate background with a forceful extroverted downstate personality (though a Utican by marriage) who took umbrage at my talk of suffering. She – her name was Helen – insisted she had never suffered, implying, as far as I was concerned, she had no idea what I was talking about. At the time, it was as if I had brought up my case of beri beri, or rickets, or some other long ago vanquished disease, utterly unthinkable in this better, modern world.
Now turned 66 and undeniably elderly myself, I suspect there may have been more going on than met the eye in this woman’s stout refusal to admit of suffering as a human experience. After all, all of us knew she had nursed the love of her life, an English Prof at a local college, for whom she’d left her businessman husband and brought down on herself a lifelong cold shoulder from her Jewish community, through a lingering death from cancer. Despite her protestations, the woman knew about pain, but concluded it was an experience that offered nothing meaningful to her. She was, as a matter of fact, an ardent atheist, having been raised in the Ethical Culture Society in NYC. What she was rejecting was my claim that, in effect, suffering could be redemptive. She was rejecting knowledge she did not herself have because she had not gone through an experience as I had, to get its meaning.
An additional point about Helen; though she possessed a PhD in English literature and was for many years an adjunct at the college where her second husband had been a charismatic and popular instructor in literature she chose the life of being married to the genius, not of following her own. The difference is everything here, and I say this with compassion and not judgment; had she not denied the desire of her own soul that led her to value a literature professor above any other man, such that she could be impelled to leave her marriage and overturn her life, had she claimed that exalted goal for herself, unworthy and lacking in comparable talent as she no doubt deemed herself to be (as all of us whose ego work is to keep us small, so deem ourselves), she might have gained the understanding of suffering as transformational. And at this point, though she might still reject God, she would certainly have known her own spiritual dimension and thus would not have spurned the efforts of a younger woman to give voice to the ineffable.
When he was asked by an interviewer in 1961, shortly before his death, for his idea of God, archetypal psychologist C. G. Jung replied, “ To this day God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or for worse.”
I think that Dr. Jung, speaking in relation to himself, was speaking of someone who did not avail himself of the many palliatives to the pain of experience that we today routinely enjoy, the willful innocence that is supported by a wealth of distractions, by prescription drugs, by fascinating technology and social media, by the dream of progress, or, as in Helen’s case, by simply, puritanically, avoiding the task of taking up her own destiny, or, put even more Romantically, the path of enchantment.
As a society and nation, our very addiction to the hopeful, the sunny side of the street, the pleasanter more beneficent (or at least not evil like the Terrorists) version of our own national identity, as pointed out eloquently in a recent CounterPunch piece by John Steppling (The Violence of Silence, 2/8/17), has much to do with the current crisis that more and more resembles the condition of No Hope. Taking off from Dr. Jung’s “definition” of God, the resolute and dogmatic insistence on a benign America of essentially virtuous purposes, boils down to an adamant, reactionary, unconscious refusal of the spiritual dimension, over which we have no control and which can be counted on to make its entrance in a way that is unwanted, if not downright terrifying, violent, brutal by our nicer politer standards. I would suggest that, rather than the cure to our crisis being declared in rationalistic-atheistic rejection of religious mumbo-jumbo, the cure, or at least the prospect of healing the terrible divisions in our nation, should be sought, especially by those most emphatic in their rejection of religion’s claims, in daring to want God back.
The insane insistence on rosy hope, destructive as its consequences are, isn’t optional for those who are pathologically suspicious of religion, who hate it and fear it. Dr. Jung’s strange terrifying God – whether you are atheist or devout – is the most perfect antidote conceivable to the banal passivity that for so long has characterized the middle class, liberal, educated left in America. To respond in the usual way that, well, God doesn’t exist so why talk about it anyway, shows that response to be, in my view, just plain convenient. What does it take for us ever-so-over-that religophobes to contemplate the crucial imaginative power that may be lost when people not only are convinced they personally don’t believe in God, but that God does not exist and what’s more, religions are an affront to thinking people everywhere.
The deep longing in the human soul, including Helen’s longing as a young woman to partake of the mysterious beauty of the world opened up for her by her college literature instructor, is for God. If I change the word “God,” to make it more palatable for religophobes, the fact remains: the desire for the experience of wholeness, completeness, of exalted being, ecstatic union, whatever, comes with the organism. Over time, over generations, we have so persistently learned to reject the organic pull of erotic longing in favor of serving the materialistic pseudo-dream we’ve become pushovers for adapting our human being to the project of increasing dehumanization. The writings of D.H. Lawrence, for instance make up one long lament over this trend he saw so clearly taking over everything.
Because of this ever more perfected ability to repress our deepest self, we become so without hope that we cannot bear any suggestion of the dark and despairing bleakness of our real situation. This is why we increasingly resemble zombies to each other, making an ever scarier human environment. That is what keeps us following lesser evil leaders like Obama or the Clintons: they – or their subalterns – know and exploit our craving for hope at any cost, our incapacity for facing despair.
‘Twas a bad bargain; inasmuch as we reject the direction of desire, the common-sense sense that what we want, what we dream of as being right and good for our being, is right and good, we to an extent gain a safe island from life’s terrors, its trials and suffering, we’re “pretty lucky I guess.” We more or less successfully condition ourselves right out of knowing what the real conditions of human life are. As conditions laid down not by Capitalism, but by Nature, life being what it is, though I may remain successfully aloof from my suffering, someone is going to suffer!
I’m with Dr. Jung (not that he said it like this): What we must dare to want, instead of hope, is the God we dread, Jung’s God, the God of our experience that will show us doubters irrefutably that Nature is bigger than we are. This understanding, though repulsive to the rational mind, is perfectly acceptable to the soul. The soul, empowered by imagination, is equipped to handle crisis, loss, pain, suffering, failure, oppression, death, despair. What we want in this time more than anything is to be pushed to need our imaginations, to hear and respond to the call to be artists. Not anymore a call to particular geniuses, but a call to each one possessed of a genius which is everyone possessed of a soul. That’s everyone, even Donald and his crew of ghouls. They will not enter this area of risk and peril, but those who do take up the soul’s cause will be the one’s with the capacity, endowed by imagination, to out wit the death-dealers by being alive, even if they lose.
Kim C. Domenico, from Utica, NY, co-owner of Cafe Domenico in Utica, a safe place for human beings.