“He [distinguished mathematician Otto Nicodym] disliked what he called “careerism” and “careerists,” scholars eager for fame and recognition who would play politics within universities … to advance themselves. He likewise disliked what he called “sham,” superficial appearances of excellence not founded on real truth and virtue.”
— Eugene Paul Nassar, “Otto Martin Nikodym: a Personal Reminiscence”
“To resist radical evil is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society is a failure…It is to be a lifelong heretic.”
— Chris Hedges, The Price of Resistance
For people who do not introspect, I am not sure I can make persuasively the case that the main motivator in the liberal world today is not love or compassion (this should not come as big news!), not even anger, nor even fear, though there is plenty of that….but shame. Shame, low self worth, crippling dispiritedness rule the minds and hearts of the best, unbeknownst and unopposed.
The kind of shame that dogs us today was well known in the ancient world; viewed as one of the seven deadly sins it was called acedia, commonly referred to as sloth, or apathy. This was not laziness in the simplistic way we think of it, and in fact does not mean the refusal of gainful employment, but rather, a failure to keep in mind that something was expected of the man or woman who is a child of God. Implied in the sin of acedia was a prior love, or at least a prior being seen, that one was answerable to. When this relationship to deity is simplified and rigidified by exoteric religion into “obedience” to a Father God who carves His commandments into stone, the best response is probably disbelief; this is certainly the answer to ‘the God problem’ for most modern secular men and women. The thought that the bathwater we threw out so self-righteously with the discredited theism may have contained the ‘baby’ of our vitality occurs to few.
With the marvelous way the mind has to help us adapt to changing conditions, to assimilate and thus to physically survive, we have learned a whole set of habits and behaviors that assist us to live with a semblance, a “reasonable facsimile” of energy and vitality and purpose without that problematic relation to the mythic layer in ourselves which also is the means of access to genuine human vitality. With the passage of generations, with the habit of repression that goes on even in a single lifetime, the memory that there is some other reality existing “beyond” or “behind” or “above” or “below” this one (all words translatable to interior space) has been so effectively banished that its practically vestigial existence has become menacing. Nobody wants to “go there;” we have many effective ways to ward off the few openings the society provides to the spiritual dimension with its contemplative requirement, mainly not challenging assumptions such as that poetry is boring; that psychotherapy is a bunch of cranks, expensive, and “doesn’t work for everyone;” that devotion to an art is nice but better have a plan B, etc. Very effective in this regard is the practice of keeping our high school youth super busy with extracurricular activities, and the graduates in debt!
The most widespread and pervasive tool for discouraging genuine vitality is unquestioned religiophobia, and its necessary companion, our obsessive way of keeping busy and distracted, mindlessly obedient to the old commonplaces about “idle hands” and “keeps me out of trouble.” By and large people on the secular left, that is, liberals, are as rigid in their aversion to the realm of the “religious -” which includes interior reality, the invisibles of relatedness – as people are on the religious right to insults to the flag, or to homosexuality.
In the absence of the authoritative relationship with theos that’s been thrown out with religion, the reality of relationship – the invisibles connecting us all in nature – is uncertain, a matter of the mind only, a matter for “convincing,” and conviction pressured from without can always be overturned.
The consequence of this rigidified, reflexive refusal of serious spiritual reality, is there can be no spirited defense of the relationships that connect everything; the relatedness is not felt. The natural world – everything outside my own head – is as if dead.
Recently I was reminded of how this shame, this dispiriting worthlessness, shows itself in relation to a certain kind of concern with cleanliness. Watching a young party host work diligently at a spot of spilled wine on her beige carpet, using club soda to bubble it up, discussing methods with a guest versed in stain removal, hearing her say I never give up, the thought came to me she must have been a popular guest at parties in the days before her marriage! As I mused, it seemed to me the person who will come in and get rid of the stain performs a symbolic act of purification, not just an act of cleaning up a mess. Gone then – banished – is the shame accompanying the consumption of alcohol, a shame hardly diminished by the regularity with which it is consumed, at least here in Utica.
Historically I guess this hatred for the stain comes from Catholicism; from that notion of the soul as a pure white sheet that we then proceed to mess up with stain after stain until after a point we’re lost; there’s no point in trying for righteousness ever again. I know personally few people, even among Catholics, who’d subscribe to this belief literally anymore. But I see it alive and well in the excessive love of cleanliness in the by now thoroughly secular world. Considering this, its a wonder we do not pay our cleaners better!
When it means more than simply the absence of dirt, cleanliness brings a kind of redemption from shame. I suppose it may have meant this to the ethnic women, vulnerable to being shamed by the meddigons, who were so uncompromising in the cleanliness of their homes. Spotlessness is also a mark of bourgeois respectability. For cleanness to mean so much, there must be a “dirty.” The cost to individuals and to the world of so many of us carrying the underlying sense of dirtiness that is never consciously faced is immense. The cost is our spiritual energy – the only human drive that is more powerful than hate.
In his blog on the TruthDig website Chris Hedges quoted Reinhold Niebuhr who said of traditional liberalism that it “lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be a force in history.” I found an echo of this idea in the words of Emma Goldman in her autobiography, Living My Life. Writing of her year in prison as a 25-year-old, the atheist Goldman mentions the young priest who was the “most interesting” person she met there. She calls him “devout, entirely consecrated. He observed every fast and he would lose himself in prayer for hours…My own ideal, my faith, was at the opposite pole from his, but I knew he was as ardently sincere as I. Our fervour was our meeting ground.”
Fervor, enthusiasm, passion, fanaticism, zeal, ardor; all highly colored words that so easily can cause disturbance in the soul of the liberal committed to the workings of reason. This is because the unconscious liberal has no contact with enthusiasm; deferential always to the civilizing voice which exacts enormous amounts of repression in order to “succeed’ in this world, ( i.e., to score high as possible on SAT’s and LSAT’s), these words today conjure mobs, lynchings, bacchanals, DWI’s; never the exalted condition of happiness, the reality of the gods that are constituent in the souls of men and women.
Recently a student from neighboring Hamilton College sang at our little nonprofit Utica arts space during an evening dedicated to instrumental musical performance. She, lovely and African American, was indeed exceptionally talented. Her scatting rendition of There Will Never Be Another You elicited oohs and aahs from all of us. We learned she is going on to some sort of marketing or business career. Clearly we were seeing yet another talented young person do the reasonable thing, sacrifice talents to the career, curbing her passion, fervor, enthusiasm, in the name of deference to authority. She is well on the path to becoming a liberal, to, though I pray not, joining with the soul-murderers in the socially condoned practice of animacide.
Harsh sounding words, even to me. But it is exactly that spark of passion that is being unquestioningly sacrificed, for who will advise her to court failure rather than aim for success? And in taking that turn away from the expression that feels wonderful, that service to a god of joy one might say, or at least to the god that wants your/my singular voice, we make righteousness impossible, and firmly embed shame into our being. In taking up the career we will forever be forced to be deferential to those with power over our fortunes and to abandon the intuitive voice within that is our only access to a living god or gods and a life of passion, fervor and enthusiasm that connects us with other beings.
By silent agreement we act as if we do not know that in the eyes of this corporate-dominated, secular reality that has replaced the old repressive God, each of us is a loser who must prove her/himself to be a “winner” by going to “their” schools and adopting “their” priorities, subverting our indigenous dignity as surely as any first nation child sent to the government school. Those of us who cannot meet this challenge will fall by the wayside one way or another; these losses will be judged as evidence not of the evil of the system but of the personal weakness of the person who failed to “make it.” If the liberal progressive is going to regain her/his passion and energy, which must happen for resistance to be possible, this intrinsic sense of worthlessness, which is private but also in common, must be addressed. Though I have enough solid accomplishments to my credit that I might get a nod from St. Peter when my time comes, I never have been able to banish the powerful voice of shame in me. In my unworthiness I ascribe to others qualities, talents, gifts I do not have – even if in fact I do have them. Always the pendulum swings back: I am worthless and you are worthwhile (excepting of course those who are my inferiors!) This unconscious, unseemly, base struggle for one-upmanship, essential for all class systems, stratifications, pogroms and wars, camps out in our being, its efforts to undermine inherent worthiness ceaseless. Like rust, like capitalism, it never sleeps. Its sole opponent is the inherent dignity of the righteous man or woman, impartable only by means of the invisible soul.