I’m not like everybody else.
I’m not like everybody else.
– The Kinks
Whatever other people reprove in you, cultivate; it is you.
– Jean Cocteau
Why is it that every liberal impulse ends up a neoliberal prop to keep capitalism in place? The answer’s simple, really. A human being is, by design, not supposed to be just “like everybody else,”as the famous Kinks manifesto proclaimed. And yet, in the land proclaimed to be free and democratic, and believed in with a rock-like faith, few achieve distinctness. Few achieve freedom. Few seek the inner roots that insist on their singular expression; in the end, it is much safer to be “just like everybody else.” This is the shallow but prolific bed in which neoliberalism flourishes, stifling individual identity to the point where it is more natural to follow consensus neoliberal “wisdom” than the wisdom alive in one’s heart.
How has this thorough squashing of natural anti-authoritarianism come to be the norm? Speaking personally, well into my thirties I continued to be afflicted by a felt lack of something – a kind of legitimacy or authority or more solid identity. I imagined the hole could be filled only through more education. If anyone had suggested to me back then that a “higher education” wasn’t necessary to achieve what I felt I lacked, to fill the hole I had not yet, by means of a Bachelors degree and a Masters of Divinity and a putative career as a minister, managed to fill, I could not have imagined what they might possibly be suggesting. No friends I talked to about it admitted to feeling this way. This modern problem of identity, though it has been addressed by philosophers and intellectuals for decades in this anxious, soulless, fragmented, suburbanized, air-conditioned nightmare in which we are left to contend, persistently appeared to meto be a problem in my own head.
To be fair, my husband, the more genuinely working class of the two of us, encouraged me to forget about obtaining another degree. Though he had his own post-graduate degree, he remained stubbornly skeptical about the value of more college, either for obtaining a better job or for my vaguer purpose of boosting a precarious identity. In part I agreed, in part I believed he was being miserly, controlling, and conspiring against my aspiration to be somebody. Though I could not have articulated it at the time, my lingering doubt was due to the fact that he could give me no better idea as to what I was to become. He could provide no satisfactory reason as to why this was not the proper route for me to take. Looking back on it, I can see his opinion had an authentic anti-authoritarian basis, but neither he nor I could then imagine, much less fulfill a positive anti-authoritarian vision. I did not know then, that the ”better idea” for my life’s purpose could only come from myself, a notion as foreign to my liberal upbringing as joining the CIA or voting for Reagan.
For middle class people who are allowed to consider – however superficially – life goals other than the job,identity is supposedly achieved by means of the educational institutions (with the luckier sort ending up at Yale or Princeton and the rest at state colleges). But liberal education, I found to my dismay, since at least the 1990’s is heavily invested in“identity politics;” it is incapable of providing conditions that would encourage individual dissent from its own orthodoxy. In the 80’s, within Unitarian-Universalism, the consummate liberal denomination in which I was ordained, many people, including myself, designated ourselves “seekers.” Though a glimmer of an idea existed that identity involved a spiritual quest – such quests were frowned upon by more traditional liberals as the “me-generation’s” retreat from the “real world.”
The constant, then, in much of my first half of life was an aimless anti-authoritarianism that lacked, always, a positive basis for identity to accompany my reflexive rebellion against “blind obedience.” Never did I imagine the problem of my irresolution as lying with the materialist society that powerfully propagandized for the conventional direction against my own weak, but undeniable resistance to following that way. There appeared no way for me to to be on the side of that feeble nay-sayer existing within me, making me always a fish out of water in whatever context I found myself, never able to enter wholeheartedly into the given project, including even the anti-project of being a hippie drop-out! The 70’s so-called “counter-culture,” with its taken-for-granted consensus we were all on the same freaky page, left me miserable but still clueless. Always, self-diagnosis came up with the same conclusion: something was wrong with me, and indeed I became sicker as the years went by.
After completing 3 years of Divinity School and a year internship with a large congregation in Connecticut (by this time, involving a hefty investment in time and borrowed money!) I went before a professional fellowshipping committee that convened in the Brahmanic heights of Boston. There I was informed of my problems: a psychological test indicated I had difficulty relating to the outer world as compared to inner (I suppose this was a way of calling me an introvert – hardly a difficult diagnosis!) and, based on frictions with my senior minister, that I had a problem with authority.
That I cannot remember the precise language of their assessment does not matter for my purpose here. On their end, these leaders in our ultra-liberal organization were clueless as to how to encourage a severely challenged anti-authoritarian (i.e., healthy) spirit, or could do so only to a point. Alhough engagement with liberal causes such as civil rights, LGBT, women’s rights, or peace activism was expected and supported, the cause of my deeper, deeply creative, anarchist self – and this in a religious organization – was not part of the agenda. Am I, I wonder, too pie-in-the-sky? Is this too unrealistic a point to make, unfair of me to suggest it? Is anti-authoritarianism by its nature something that is beyond the purview of education, something like a talent for hitting a baseball, some have it and some don’t? I am on shaky ground here, and don’t myself know if I have a case to make or am just unwilling to admit my own failures. But there is a question here – are we on the Liberal left responsible to each other’s “otherness,” or is our best use found in reinforcing the dominant, survival-of-the-fittest ethos? Frankly, I think this way loses us many of our finest, most sensitive, most imaginative people, lost to the forced hardening, or to suicide, mental illness, addiction etc.
Luckily for me, I concluded I was unsuited for parish ministry. Eventually I committed with my husband to projects here in Utica – our coffeeshop, the non-profit arts center – that mightily resemble an unconventional ministry. For the past 7 years or more, a group of from 8-12 people come to our little arts space to hear my semi-regular Sunday “Temenos Talks” that, in brief, advocate for the reality of the soul. If I drop the talks for a month or two because I’m overwhelmed with demands and cannot find the time, people ask me when I will start up again. The religion I preach is entirely and thoroughly gnostic. The liberal churches are not interested in my talks and rarely hire me to speak because, so I believe, Temenos talks lack the element of self-congratulation – the “hurray for our (liberal) side” – that I learned and practiced during my brief stint in the parish, and which now I wish only to puncture at every opportunity.
I hasten to add: this puncturing of progressive pretensions is not for any sadistic pleasure, though I can easily be made to feel brutish for, for instance, not being sensitive enough to the fear that kept liberals from voting for Ralph Nader rather than for Barack Obama. At bottom, liberals, church-goers and atheists alike, are crippled as I was by an absence of support for that native anarchist self within, that has been proscribed from an early age for most everyone. They cannot hear my “preacher voice” as a supportive voice, because they are thoroughly alienated from that which I am supporting; they have learned what the dominant culture has taught them, i.e., that little rebellious voice, never satisfied with the “choices” given it under capitalism ( either to disappear or adapt), never happy, is WRONG! We should Be Happy! Life Is Good! Etc. The trouble with this socially approved position is that the spoilsport, never-happy voice is you, in the fullest sense of there being a you – or a thou, for that matter. To bea thou, one must stop being a collaborator against thethouof one’s own soul, to regard it, address it, and dare to speak for it as a thou, through creative work.
The realization asked of people by a “liberal-puncturing” message” such as mine is not “oh dear, my life has been a mistake, the world is hopeless, I must at least entertain the notion of suicide.” Rather, I’m saying, go off wherever you need to go off to, somewhere “Over the iPhone Screen” to find that true voice within you; for gods’ sake heed it, cultivate it and continue to look around for others who also are in the struggle to remain human. If none can immediately be found, be patient. Patience, and all the other traditional religious virtues will come to be seen as valuable tools – as bona fide gifts from the otherwise disgraced Dead White Ancestors – once one serves one’s anarchist, pro-human self!
Living as we must amidst the constant assaults on human dignity in the shared late-capitalist, neoliberal context, personal knowledge of the soul’s reality is the only way to proceed with at least a minimally protected heart, Trump or no Trump. Protect one heart (your own), express the peculiar reality of one soul, and there’s a chance to make peace that is real, as long as you stay in the ring, that is, in the nearly abandoned human context of family, community, locality and the promises that bind us along the invisible lines of relationship. Though it will not make me popular, I emphasize, staying in the ringincludes marriage. Nuptial vows make a sacred contesting space wherein opposites – two anarchistically distinct others – meet and learn by means of that intensity to reconcile the irreconcilable, and experience peace that’s not an abstraction. Here I part with 20thcentury anarchism to claim that anarchism is the basis for building the stability and security necessary for healthy generatively human life, by means of the traditions of community, family, and worship. This social agenda must not any longer be left to the religious fundamentalists who are driven by their fear of the absenceof top-down paternalistic authority to promote an authoritarian family ideal!
If liberals in America cannot find their way to the deep authentic, anarchist authority within, liberalism cannot be anything but the hypocrisy it currently is. In the neoliberal, media-dominated society that structures our lives and spoon-feeds us itsmeaning, the free, anti-authoritarian self, for those on the political left as well as the right, is not supposed to be. The first duty among those who proclaim a commitment to peace, justice, the environment, etc., is to turn to the habitually stifled, bothersome voice within, refuse to take part in its repression, respect it as a Being with rights, and become its means of expression. Such a practice of genuine dissenters’ worship (i.e., “worth-shaping”) would be a positive, visionary departure from most church worship in America that is in effect idolatry of capitalism; it is also a positive departure from radicalism made impotent by its denial of its spiritual identity.