How do we make our separate realities intelligible to each other any more? Though public discussion is usually focused on LGBTQ people, racial minorities and immigrants who must deal with being cast into “otherness,” in my experience in this neoliberal world, one difference is more “other” than all the others; this is the otherness made by genuine moral sensibility. Based no longer in top-down rules from religious systems or family/community tradition, I suggest the definition to use for this waning moral aptitude is the capacity to think about the impact on the 7th generation of the choices we make today. It is the capacity to deliberate, in particular, about our personal choices, the uses of our “freedom” that constitute our way of life. This, as President ‘Dubya’ announced, remains non-negotiable for Americans, including the ones who criticized him for saying that.
While emphasis on identity differences is heightened, the difference moral reality makes has caved into prevailing nihilism. Nobody is more marginalized than a person suspected of having a moral sensibility, abandoned to inhabit a social space that has no words, no possibility for discussion. Friends strongly express their umbrage that president Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, but their decisions to vacation in Prague or Barcelona or Hawaii when air travel is now the leading cause of global warming is neither more nor less than a personal choice. A friend of mine who takes spiritual reality seriously, as I do, but gets her news from MSNBC, increasingly brings me to this place without words. She is intelligent, cognizant of the terrible condition of the world, at home among artists, poets and eastern spiritual consciousness, but she and I cannot really broach what I’m calling moral reality. I cannot suggest for instance that TV is itself a moral problem. Raised Catholic, it is as if she lost the words with the faith, as if the moral universe does not apply to personal choices.
Recently she spoke of her longing for a “paradise” that led her (with her late husband) to own some rural properties in upstate NY and in Canada. She told me how she drove around the countryside grieving the sale of the property that had most meant “paradise” to her. I could think of nothing to say.
Not that I cannot relate to her dream. My own longing is for a beautiful Victorian home – of which there are still so many here in Utica NY, with room upon room of lofty spaces made interesting by the architecture of a different, more romantic and fantasy-satisfying era. As well, I have a dream of living by the ocean, left over from a childhood of summers spent at idyllic, rustic cabins and reclaimed farmhouses my artist father rented or bartered for on the coast of Maine. Such longings are not to be morally condemned, but what is the meaning of their fulfillment and just when do the responsibilities of interdependence kick in?
I cannot accuse my friend of a lack of depth. As a psychotherapist specializing in transpersonal psychology, depth is her milieu. But I am afraid that there is a problem when the longing of the soul for beauty, suppressed over generations in order to achieve our civilization’s aims, is unconnected to the need of civilization for conscious self-correction. No longer can correction be aimed only at the pathology at the top, at tyrants, dictators and arch capitalist anti-labor fiends and war profiteers, or exclusively at the ones whose wrongs are so easy to see and articulate, i.e., Trump if you are blue state, Obama if you are red, but the one in ourselves that has accommodated to the system, whose right to achieve one’s (commodified) version of paradise, adamantly resists challenge.
Although my original reason for living in a diverse urban environment was positive – I wanted to live closer to social truth in a way my upbringing had denied me – in part I live here stubbornly as antidote to the very kinds of dreams that bring people to their private dream fulfillments; to me, every private wish fulfilled contains a danger that one will be oblivious to full impartial truth. However, staunch refusal to live a suburban kind of lie, while allowing me to make a valid point, does not alone make for the condition I could call “happiness,” or even satisfaction or peace. Though part of me resists the notion that truth is sordid, neither history nor my surroundings in Utica bear me out on this!! Sometimes I think I am just unequal to the often depressing reality around me; I would prefer a little less of it and more of “paradise!”
Since by temperament I’m more artist than community organizer, I was perhaps not ideally suited to take on social reality; still, I thought, better to live here and make a tiny difference, keeping up our end of a declining neighborhood, mixing in some middle class diversity. Sadly, most of the children in the neighborhood likely aspire to the “reality” brought to them on their TV screens, and too often cannot reach beyond the horizon of their peer-driven social environment. This came home to me when a boy we’d known as a grade school kid during the years he lived next door, a gifted singer whose aunt had him singing in the church choir, at 17 was shot and killed by a 17-year old gangster aspirant whose life potential, too, is wasted.
Awareness of such horrific incidents, as we all know, which pile up one after the other as we read or watch the news, does not make us more humane; it does not strengthen moral sensibility and may rather damage it; one becomes saturated and nearly indifferent to the fate of ones’ fellows that one can do nothing to affect.
Because I am someone who is convinced of spiritual reality, the reality of exuberance and elation, I cannot be satisfied living a ‘hair shirt’ or ’embracing-the-leper’ type morality of self-denial. So this is what has happened to me as consequence of living for many years with my family in proximity to the lives of poor people, those invisible to the majority of white Americans living in all-white suburbs and enclaves. It has forced me, like the real presence of death itself, to come up with a way to remain human. Though not the reason I picked up and practice an art, increasingly it has made sense both to my own poetic temperament and to my relationships with all other beings, including my neighbors struggling in various ways with poverty and/or racist society, that I expand my humanity, the humanity I am responsible for, to its true creatively possible dimensions by practicing my art.
In doing this, I am not unlike the blues musicians who practiced an art that incorporated the true pain of living that could not be denied or vanquished.
Up to now, white America, with our preference for avoiding dark reality and our naive belief that dark truth can be escaped – has preferred the blues coming to us via white performers. But perhaps now history has brought us to a place wherein we can appreciate the universal nature of the blues. Because we too, and not only the black man and woman, the native people and indigenous people around the globe, are deeply into catastrophe we are ready to understand that art-as-blues, practiced religiously, is essential to retaining our humanity. We are now in position to take in the reality we’ve long deemed unacceptable – which is life itself. With its endpoint of death life has always placed human beings in the catastrophe; simply, it is now time to live consciously of the fact once again.
The blues is a non-violent, creative way to be in the catastrophe without succumbing to its demand for anger and violence in retaliation. In these times of ever more whopping doses of barbarity to our battered consciousnesses, the proper tonal response of human beings who insist upon retaining our human dignity is to choose to make art, to inhabit the natural majesty of the blues. The blues is simply art made from life that is painful. D.H. Lawrence, whom I quote often, wrote from a “blues sensibility,’ his consciousness darkened from an early age by the premonition of death.
The call to become blues artists is by no means about becoming subservient, submissive, acquiescent or passive in the face of unjust authority. Liberal America already is that! It is a call to commit: to integrate, localize, grow roots, go deep, incorporate the pain of being alive knowing preposterous death is your end, and in so doing to learn to live joyfully enough that one actually has something to defend! Among other pluses, such lives will never be banal, and will be – in experiencing the true bonds of affection – antithetical to corporate manipulation and control.
People are alarmed at the disappearance of truth in public life, fake news and the rest, as if just now we are losing our bearings. How are we to know what is truth? The fact is, we forsook truth generations ago, when we insisted on living on fantasies of progress, material betterment, unlimited growth on a finite planet. We were fed lies and ate them greedily, lured by the promise of sharing an affluent middle class lifestyle. It has been a long time since we were properly suspicious of the “truth” fed to us by snake-oil salesmen of every variety, we were indeed the suckers P.T. knew us as. That’s because we forsook the truth in its whole, given, and unacceptable reality, which, had we taken the advice of the philosophers we love to quote but not to heed, such as Socrates or Jesus, would have saved us from the lot of suckerdom. We thumbed our surgically enhanced noses at death, piling up material goods as if their substance must tell us about our immortality. We lost any kind of initiation, as if the consciousness of the child who reasonably does not think about death can be suitable for middle age when death is now apparent up there on the road ahead. With refusal that death be our teacher, we lost our moral bearing and became incapable of considering future generations in the choices and decisions we make today. Just because marvelous, wondrous things are manufactured that enhance our lives in ways that make miracles common place, does not mean we have to own them; we do not have to continue being suckers. Without a moral standpoint, no criteria for decisions exists beyond that which we can do; without the depth of the death-conscious perspective, without a blues consciousness, we can only be stupid and cruel, albeit unintentionally.
To practice the blues art, one does not have to physically move to the inner city, though such moves, made respectfully towards those who live there, could benefit our declining cities. Rather, consciousness must shift from being identified outward, with mass consciousness, to the inner man or woman. One has to switch from ego-orientation that keeps us “securely” in that death-denying belief in whiteness, always above life rather than in it. The switch must be to a consciousness centered in that darker ‘other’ within oneself, the creative imagination, the alive center, and to live as much as possible upon the wisdom of that other. The blues is as much a tone, a voice, as it is lyrics and melodic patterns, and when we are pursuing that, a process of being as much as doing, our resistance to war, injustice, abuse of our mother the earth will be authentic and powerful, whether or not we win.