An Episcopal priest who writes for the NY Times Op-Ed page (5/2/22) conveys a message that entirely resonates for me. In our current “crisis of loneliness,” exacerbated by the long pandemic, she encourages people to let go of their screens and “reconnect with material things: nature, soil, and other people.” Well, almost entirely, for her solution misses an important part of the problem: we are addicted to those things with which we replaced the relationships to “material things.” It’s no simple matter for us to return to those relational bonds of yore that we know are healthier for us!
Many of us can hear her message only as, “Oh, Rev. Warren is right – the good and right and healthy thing for me to do is to slow down, smell the lilacs, hike in the Adirondacks or walk in the city park, dig in the soil, go out and join with people in church or social cause, etc.” But then, when doing the good thing provides no permanent relief from anxiety, we will blame ourselves or something else and return to the substitute sources of relief we know and trust.
It would be a harder essay to write, and less “NY Times-ogenic,” but what has to be addressed if we’re to get anywhere in bringing people back to relationships embedded in the material, embodied, interdependent world, is how profoundly, existentially unsafe people feel. Partly this is because we live in objectively Apocalyptic times. But, moreover and crucially, this is because most of us never felt emotionally safe in the first place and continue on untreated for our existential anxiety. We’ve lived with that deeper fear for so long it has become indelibly “in charge,” forming the unspoken basis for many of our most important decisions. Decisions based in fear not in strength (i.e., “vote for a Democrat!”), are mainly conforming; the main object being to assuage that dread without ever actually looking at it, like the way you handle a Medusa.
The name “Medusa” is apt; this profoundest fear, justifiably dreaded, fuels the compulsions and obsessions that for individuals, cancel or severely inhibit their freedom. Located in Unconsciousness, it can be negotiated, but not by the rational mind; religion, which we have discarded as superstition, used to handle this terrifying Unknown for people in a way that allowed them to retain the zest for life, even nasty short and brutish lives. People could still eat together, dance together, tell stories, sing together, weep together. They could participate in rituals addressing this “mysterious” psychic realm, and be comforted! Thus it is that the apocalyptic terrors coming at us from the outside world, from habitat loss to mass extinctions, from nuclear holocaust to rising fascism – partake of two kinds of realities: they’re objectively real (for those of us who believe they’re real!), but, mixed with baseline subjective terror that is somehow more real, we remain “stone” – caught in self-limiting compulsions instead of being free to have and follow vision. We vote for Democrats and the horrors multiply.
In the grip of this terror people cannot contact the real courage and strength that come with serving unified consciousness. We cannot act consistently for the social good of solidarity and peace (the best sort of anti-fascism!). In fact, having little-to-no relation to our poetic/mythic mind, we act mostly in ways to make ourselves feel safer. We carefully follow food labels and investment advice not just or primarily to ensure longevity or build equity but to convince ourselves we’re personally safe. In a toxified biological environment and a money-toxified socioeconomic environment it makes sense to be informed, but informed consumerism by itself is not courageous. Moreover, information supplied by industry is more fictional than we suppose; our “informed choices” an act of faith against our fear.
Medusa reality cannot be escaped. The stuff of nightmares and fairytales in childhood, it’s possible “She” cannot be confronted until middle age. But those of us middle-aged and older can take seriously the work of restoring that central reality of safety/connectedness. We can free ourselves to act on behalf of the inclusive social world as something real to defend. We can seek community with others upon that real spiritual basis that we defend together against human-engineered Apocalypse by living locally, in stable relationships over time, counter-culturally.
“This Is what the Future Looks Like” read the headline of our Utica paper on 4/27/22. Reading on, one realizes that the reason for the prominent placement of the article is not because it is local news but because of an event that connects us to the wider context of inevitability. Being celebrated was the Governor’s presence in town to attend the grand opening of the new “chip fab” plant, which has put our Mohawk Valley in position to vie with the Silicon one!
Though at its peak it will employ at most 600 people, many of them probably imports to take on the specialized jobs, and though it has taken 2 decades and at least one high level chiseler involved in the plan to be sent to prison for the feat to be finally accomplished, we’re now part of the technology wave of the future! That is, whatever “downsides” there are to chip plants and electric cars, we will have to go to alternative news sites to find out, for no one who wants to retain his or her job is going to give one peep about that! As our Utica print newspaper no longer carries an opinion page except Sundays, we cannot even hear possible skepticism about this triumph from thoughtful members of the community.
Predictably Governor Hochul pointed to Upstate NY being the place with “the most hardest working individuals…that value education, their families, who understand long-term commitments to an employer who takes care of them.” She wasn’t thinking of the plant closings and jobs lost over several decades that turned us into the rust belt – or was she? Moreover, did the hardest working work force really have anything to do with the decision to move the plant here? My guess would be its because of tax breaks, and, if anything to do with our our work force, it’s because many of us are desperate for work no matter what kind.
In this way, the people who really control our destiny remain both unseen and irreproachable. Those who control the media control our perception of the inevitable and make the future precisely that which is inevitable. Are silicon carbide chips going to make electric cars more workable? The industry people tell us so, but will electric cars make the difference for the rapidly deteriorating climate and overall environment? Will they, besides allowing us to retain our non-negotiable way of life, bring more happiness and well-being to all people? Once something has become inevitable we don’t bother to ask such questions, which is just fine for those who make the profits.
There is no way out of this inevitability produced, in the traditional way that allies material success with the blessings of Providence, by people so rich they cannot help but vainly confuse themselves with gods. No way out, that is, except for people who can say No! to the entire project we’re just supposed to go along with because its…well…inevitable! And here’s precisely where the inevitability manufacturers have us “by the balls.” So long-accustomed to fear as baseline reality are we, we cannot interpret feelings of uneasiness as possibly being the voice of conscience just waiting for us to pay heed to it! We don’t know – having not been taught it – how to acknowledge the fear and still act – the way a soldier is trained to act on the battlefield. But we are not on the battlefield. The soldier gains courage from the larger cause he/she serves, or from comradeship under shared danger; from where will we gain courage to be steadfast for peace and the common good? Our way barred by fear we cannot look at, we cannot locate the deeper truth that would encourage us to resist the inevitable. We’ve heard, and it sounds right, “perfect love casts out fear.” But “Perfect Love” (i.e., love which obligates unqualified allegiance) is an experience not all of us – other than the “Born Agains” – have had!
Two instances of people wrestling with fear vs. love came to my attention recently. A young mother, Carla, raised with many of the same kind of liberal, pro-education middle class values as I, chose, with her husband, to defy conventional (white) wisdom in a couple of respects: a) by choosing to live in the city of Utica rather than the suburbs, and b) buying a home in not quite the “best” neighborhood. Her son, a first-grader, attends the public elementary school in her neighborhood and not Utica’s “best” (most suburban-like) one. Only now, post-pandemic, as she takes her children out to participate in extra-curricular activities such as a theater group, soccer and dance lessons, is she meeting and talking with parents who made the more conventional choice, either suburbia or parochial school, following the SAT scores. Suddenly she is pricked by doubt. Convinced she was doing right having her children schooled in the real, diverse world so they will be comfortable in it ( a decision premised in the irrational utopian vision of “perfect love”), she’s now assailed by fear she’s making a terrible mistake. Even her own parents might not be able to reassure her; she cannot be reassured except by someone who has “been there.” And maybe not even then.
Diversity is something we want, but, according to the doctrine of inevitability, not where we live! Quite obviously it takes diversity to be diverse! But decisions are made in the individual soul, where fear holds powerful sway. Carla’s is the kind of soul-wrestling one avoids by staying in inevitability.
A male friend came to me with a different dilemma. His 21-year-old son is looking for an apartment and wishes to stay in the municipal housing he now lives in with his mother, a woman who has never quite left the welfare system. To gain a place in line for a spot in public housing the son must testify that he is unemployed (he’s not) and, what’s more, his father must sign a document that he is paying his son a stipend for living expenses (which he’s not). The part of this friend’s story that particularly interested me was his confessing the moment his son brought him this document, his stomach twisted up, sickening him. This message from his own body could not be interpreted. He might know it as”fear” but he believes he fears the mother and her power to take his son from him. In fact she wielded her legal “mother-power” vengefully and cruelly for 18 years, but no longer.
The reason he was indecisive in this situation is not because he cannot understand moral right! But profound, “irrational” feelings of unsafety stand in the way of all other considerations. Though clear to me his fatherly role (premised in that ideal, perfect love) is to refuse to have a part in assisting his son to start “playing the system,” this clarity was impossible for him individually, his true strength unavailable.
Individual, trauma-based fear, far commoner than we think, is based in and triggered by intimacy (relationship). From experience I know it will only ever be overcome in relationship, in commitment to the ideal of love and its process, however imperfectly we realize it. However, necessary it may be to leave an abusive partner, however felicitous the new one, the encounter with Medusa is merely postponed. She will be in control, and we succumb to stone-like inevitability until fear is cast out by perfect love.
So, provided you accept my premise, the question logically follows: how might we have for ourselves that experience of perfect love that will “melt” stone? How can I know I’m safe? The answer lies in the very area of relatedness we’ve made relative. According to conventional understandings, relationships are what we have with things and people outside oneself, objectively real. For poets and those with expanded consciousness, trees, fields, stones, lakes, rivers, etc. are included. However, caving to inevitability, we may not understand any of these relationships as compelling our allegiance. The one relationship that contradicts this contingency, traditionally the relation to God – the relationship that contains all relationships – exists in imagination and as an otherness.
Thus, the relationship fundamental for all others is with an immaterial, invisible otherness against which modern rationalist consciousness has built a formidable wall. Erected against the irrational, the wall saves us from meeting the Medusa, but locks us inside our subjectivity, leaving us with self-limiting neurosis, addiction, conformity. How were we to know our existential isolation can be remedied only by a spiritual otherness that in turn gives the material world – including persons – its otherness, (i.e., sacredness)? Sacredness did not disappear! But in post-religious society, the wall must be transcended without intermediaries – directly, by means of creative expression, art.
To let go of the fear-constructed context of inevitability is a duty. Call it the duty of peace. If we’re to “put down our screens and reconnect with material things,” we must first find the sacred. The call to art-making is the call to the sacred and it is universal, its universality lying in the fact that even I am called! Properly understood, art-making is transgressive; it breaks the rule of inevitability which has decreed who is to be what. Creative work places us in counterculture where our “wrong choices” will be right, where never again will we delude ourselves we oppose evil by “voting Democrat.”
Postscript: Shocked as we are to learn that Roe v. Wade, the bedrock cause celebre of feminism, may be revoked, perhaps we middle class liberal white women have something to learn from it. In order to maintain credibility in the dominant culture of inevitability, mainstream feminism chose to be realists, not poets; they’ve not taken“goddess religion” to its full, “even-I-am-called,” inclusive truth. When we fail to protect sacredness itself, perhaps more than we can know, we make Christian Fascism inevitable.