“I didn’t realize racism was still such a serious problem.” My elder brother was quoting an old mutual friend, Sean, when he spoke to me last week. Then came Gary’s own confession: he, too had been taken by surprise by the George Floyd murder and BLM protests. He was conveying his surprise at realizing that racism, like Vietnam & anti-war outrage, had disappeared from his consciousness with the past of 55 years ago. Back then (1964-68), on the University of Chicago campus, though himself an Upstate NY naif, Gary was at an epicenter of race activism. Now he lives quietly as a small-time contractor, his work steady due to the affluence in his rural part of the county, disciplining himself for weekly hiking or x-country skiing in the Adirondack woods. Orin and I often seek his advice for tips on hiking trails; he’s a resource for this kind of information.
Sean, now in his early 70’s, made a career for himself in the field of indoor air quality. I’ve known him since the early 1970’s, when those in our “crowd,” still under the spell of 60’s idealism, were uniformly anti-war/anti-nuke, pro-civil rights, cooking vegetarian, reviving old artisanal skills, back-to-the land, home-made music, etc. He was the “eccentric genius” among us back during those late hippie-era days; around 1980 he started a business building solar homes and green houses – hiring Orin among others to help him – that made him a kind of celebrity figure among us. His life took a turn in the late 80’s when he fell in love with a woman other than the woman he’d married back when both were still in college. The ensuing crisis brought him into 12-step Codependents Anonymous meetings, where our lives intersected once again.
I mention such details to delineate the sort of person I’m talking about: sensitive, creative, very smart and personally honest, willing to go through the crisis resulting from such a switch in his affections, rather than denying it as others might do.
When my brother relayed this information about Sean and also himself, something clicked for me. Here was direct confirmation of what I’ve always known but that’s not been corroborated by others: the difference it makes as to your choice of home place. That is, we hear from rebels who’ve thoughtfully moved themselves to the country, going against the flow of population towards the urban centers that’s been dominant since the Industrial Revolution. But its rare to hear of any who move in the opposite direction for idealistic motive – that is, not for the metropolis’s abundant opportunities but to get closer to society’s true mix of people, in effect sacrificing an aesthetically satisfying and spiritually supportive nearness to nature for social honesty, refusing the ‘white flight’ option.
To be fair, both these men live in their country places at least in part because this is where their parents had lived – their choice being to “stay in place,” rather than join the upwardly mobile professional career crowd. Neither my brother, nor Sean, settled with any thought of there being a privilege to it, neither would say or think it was a good thing not to know about the ongoing reality of America’s racism. But living in the all-white communities where they’ve chosen to live they cannot know about it. I ask, is this not-knowing the very making of banality, which is, in Hannah Arendt’s sense the defining characteristic of evil in our time?
Avoidance of Existential Wrestling
Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the [ personal growth influencers] we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that… [faith has] wrestled with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?
– Leigh Stein, Influencers Are the New Televangelists, 3/6/21
A recent OpED in the NY Times by Leigh Stein engaged me with her critique of a phenomenon previously unknown to me: the proliferation of “personal growth influencers” on Instagram who’ve found their spiritually deprived and hungry audience in the twenty-two percent of non-religious-affiliated millennials (dubbed “nones!”) Nones, like everyone, suffer the (ever-intensifying, pandemic stress-added) pains of living, traditionally ministered to by religion and its representatives over the millennia that preceded the millennials. But, I learned, their screens open them to a different, less establishment-church-oriented, 24-7 available solace. In the world freed from the bondage of religion, young people can find junk religion online, a message that’s affirming, validating – and addictive! – offered by women who’re good at messaging optimism, received enthusiastically by those desperate to have their pain alleviated.
According to Ms. Stein, combating injustice is part of the influencers’ message, thus they draw in many young committed activists. She notes perceptively “the social media industry relies on keeping us outraged and engaged.” Ticklish as it is to say it, this suggests to me that none-ish activism – the resistance so needed! – can at the same time be a defense against going deeper within for the roots of identity (a defense from which social media then benefits financially). That is, in performing a socially approved, even esteemed behavior calling for idealism and courage, activists (white activists in particular) can avoid self-knowledge and its dark companion, pain. Unchallenged, the defenses that keep people mentally, imaginatively and spiritually limited make possible unwitting participation in the very evil that produces the injustices in the first place.
Millennials are not the first generation to avoid wrestling with the “fundamental questions” that, in turn, force an acquaintance with the deeper self, its pain and its joy, its poetic truth concentrated long ago in Judeo-Christian tradition into “God the Father.” By now, we’re many generations in to the new “processed” way of existing that doesn’t actually address pain and suffering! People desperate for relief and/or solace continue to find snake-oil salesmen who promise relief, sometimes from physical suffering, but, more crucial for society, from the suffering in the soul that’s consequence of the cruel deprivation of meaning in a purely materialist world. Other people, more pragmatic perhaps, worship the God of Capitalism, that is, Money, and none can gainsay them. In society now, avoidance of existential wrestling is so general, effortless (and well-rewarded for some), we can miss entirely the fact that the avoidance isbanality.
The question we face thus appears to me more than that of, in Stein’s mother’s words, how to “make the best use of your life;” posed in such general terms, that could mean a lot of things. Banality makes it possible to think one is doing good when one is doing evil; the more difficult truth is we cannot but do both at the same time. Even the Tin Woodman knew that if a person steps upon a beetle while walking, harm has been done! The dilemma calls for consciousness, not “solution.” Being not banal, life – not just the life of hurry, getting and spending, but biological human life itself – isn’t possible without cruelty; in fact, life is cruelty and kindness ”woven fine.”
I’m saying nothing new. Spiritual wisdom has long counseled that consciousness brings with it a demand for deeper wrestling. Living in denial, ego defenses unchallenged, avoids both wrestling and the capacity to stand against evil. Inasmuch as religious myth is about coming to consciousness, its wisdom is needed. But we who’ve been “unshackled” from religion have also been alienated from our naturally mystical “nature,” the heart to which myth speaks as truth. Without this mystical, imaginative capacity I’m powerless to protest on behalf of my embodied, biological humanity against the common “machine fate” liberal-rationalist-technophilic society assumes I’ll fit into.
Moreover, the perspective of myth corrects the mistaken idea that change – whether personal or social – is a matter of performing a penance, a hairshirt-donning, the “diet” approach, that will make me good. Rather, this “humanization/transformation” story is entered not through correcting the bad in oneself, but is desire-driven, civilization’s problem being, as D.H. Lawrence saw, too little eros, not too much.
To us muddled, anxious people, obedient to bourgeois conformity, separated from our hearts and the longing of the soul, what we desire may be obscure. Some will have to trust me when I say its not desire for sex, money or even “freedom” that launches one into the myth. Desire’s “end goal,” – if I can be forgiven for generalizing – is the most basic human, in-common, common conditions and circumstances that can reassure us in our humanness, of which we are now almost totally bereft and thus anxious. They are summed up in what we call “community,” a word I use cautiously for it has been demeaned almost beyond saving.
A Narrow Way
Lost to us in the absence of an informative myth is the fact that community – a commons – is made, not given, a process, not a stasis. Its essence is in imagination, that is, in the archetype of interdependence carried in the soul. Thus, among human beings who have learned, via the Enlightenment, to exist as separate individuals, the necessary means for realizing the commons is living in accord with the invisible bonds, the first and foundational bond being that with the personal, creative soul. Are those bonds real? We cannot know without testing them, which is living them, the goal being to bring that wholeness predicated in the heart ( the “heaven”’ that’s real in imagination !) into the social world we’re in. (Quite obviously, this task is so enormous, it must be restricted to small proximate communities of others.)
This may sound like spiritual yadda yadda, and, worse, like elitist exclusivity!! But pray hang on. I use words like “heaven” and “God” advisedly. The capacity to commit to one’s creative soul is up against formidable foes, namely, the learned mistrust for subjective knowing and the collapsed imaginations conditioned in Enlightened liberalism. A mental function is needed without which the bottom-up, soul-rooted consciousness that singlemindedly yearns for inclusive community (justice), hasn’t a chance. The function of God (as distinct from that old Patriarch!), is solelyimaginative; it enlarges the mental space squeezed so excruciatingly by anxiety and anguish, making it possible for me to “breathe,” to assess my alienation from myself as “not real.” At the same time, however, the source of this neurosis in early childhood, as Freud discovered, is real, and must be made conscious (named) to expose its illegitimacy. That is, the function of God makes possible loyalty to truth (i.e., I feel this pain because she/he/they did this to me) so it can overcome the overwhelming fear bound up in old, childhood dependencies.
This childhood wound to Being is inescapable. For those who are areligious, can’t afford psychotherapy (or wish to avoid its dependency traps), either we eternally punish ourselves for the wound, or we can transcend it (neither escape nor denial!) by allowing God God’s function. The act of truth-telling, renouncing the de rigueur cover-up for Mom/Dad/society, at the same time frees white imagination from neoliberal banality. The snake oils and life-rejecting defenses that have left us weak and servile to parentally authoritarian, top-down, racist totality can be declined.
The “bottom-up” path back to a human-supportive culture, of community and joy (home) is narrow, a path made up of “tight spots.” The traditional social “tight spots” accompany life in communities bound by affection but also rife with unavoidable conflicts. Made optional in liberal reality, they no longer can be optional. The conflicts, however intense but short of actual harm, must be resolved intra- and inter-personally, not in courts nor by the higher wisdom of social science.
Moreover, western civilization, after centuries of racist expansionism, colonialism, imperialism, its way paved by unwavering faith in manifest destiny and progress, has brought us to a highly threatened place humanly, socially and planetarily. Commitment to our humanity, to account for this endangeredness, must include living unobtrusively and respectfully as neighbors to the people from whom most white people live distantly by design, in the “tight spot” of their darker urban turf, not our whiter, pastoral one.
Conscious community is about something other than liberal, conscientious inclusion of representative people of color in our Boardrooms and elite schools. Seen from lowly soul perspective, the unconsciousness that keeps individuals obedient to illegitimate parental authority is expressed socially in racist oppression, projecting on black people the soul white people are conditioned to despise. The trials and testing black Americans have undergone, an excessively cruel “tight spot” because unconsciously ordained, we now must take up ourselves in a positive spirit.
Contrary to what it seems, the path for overcoming white supremacy, because it is continuous with the myth-informed humanization process, is driven by desire for relatedness, not by guilt. Think: the music that over our lifetimes has given white Americans the very sounds that have assured us through its joyful expression, of the non-banal meaning and depth our lives lack, is the music that kept human souls alive under centuries of barbaric oppression. This attraction is not trivial! The joy that Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, the Staples, the divine Sarah, Nina Simone, Etta Jones, Miles, Coltrane, Monk, have made us dance to and feel is real. If one were to admit this deep attraction to soul, this bond of affection that comes from our own rejected souls, one could hear and respond to the call to move closer, back into the abandoned cities, neither to gentrify nor colonize, but to once again pick up each person’s basic task of becoming the human being one was intended to be, while inhabiting as neighbors the human-scale version of the ragtag kingdom of God that includes each of us.