“I did not realize that friends or people with an actual backbone and completely stable and standing in their truth would be so rare as I got older.”
– from a local young woman, a Counterpunch reader, to Kim
We know at this stage of our evolution that there dwells in us a force of awareness, truth, love and commitment to service that will not be shaken….Our (the authors’) vision of resistance and activism does not depend on hopeful outcomes….[but] only on a resolute commitment to uphold…and implement the dignity and consciousness of interrelationship that arise from the Self.
– Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker, Savage Grace: Living Resiliently In the Dark Night of the Globe
If there is no ritual that people believe in—and ritual in this context means undergoing a [psychological or spiritual] death, a period of being in the dark hole of chaos, followed by a rebirth—then people don’t truly grow up.
– Psychoanalyst/author Marion Woodman, quoted in Savage Grace
“Is the human race worth saving?” Surely the anthropocenic damage that’s been done and still being done at a furious rate to the earth, its creatures and the biosphere is unforgivable, with or without Mother Earth’s retaliatory threat of mass extinctions through climate change. Must not everyone contemplate her/his answer to the question? Otherwise, from where might the spirit for seriously wanting to save ourselves come? Judging by the failure of those well positioned to influence society toward the goodness and other-regard humanity is capable of (i.e., the “lesser-evilist” liberal class), it may appear the species is determined to prove itself not worth the effort.
What smart liberal people seem incapable of getting is to answer the question responsibly comes down not to what is our answer, but to the individual who will answer it first on her/his own behalf. Not as in, Is my neck worth saving?, but as in, Do I have confirmation I can believe in, other than my personal terror of non-existence, that my life matters? Without this question being answered individually, as it only can be, leftward calls to collective action may be as dangerous, in their way, as calls to Make America Great Again.
How can this be you ask? It’s so because, in the dominant liberal reality, individuality is never tested; rather, it’s taken for granted, assumed not actual. Under this assumption that everybody’s an individual, strangely enough, self-interest (following inward desire, not the same as ego-gratifying desire) is self-canceled, never to be an issue. A few artists and thinkers make their way toward their bliss, but most of us do not. Thus the sacrifice any sincere collective actions must ask for – i.e., of a personal destiny, a dissenting independent voice – is meaningless! The interest is the cause! Without that singular identity by which each human is assured of her worth in her distinct otherness – the identity confirmed in her soul – collective action risks continuing the cancellation.
One alternative exists to the pre-emptive cancellation of self. It is to take on inward, spiritual transformation as an intrinsic and necessary part of social transformation – i.e., to be an elder. From an activist point of view, this gives pause: transformation does not call for action, but inaction, the goal “not the outcome of our efforts, but our innermost intention.” (Harvey & Baker) It is change over a lifetime, the process of becoming human, slow, not fast. Atomic and climate scientists keep reminding us time is what we do not have. Until we can experience time differently, so we’re not being bullied into hurry-hurry – we’re stuck.
“I’m an animal, you can see that I’m an animal. I have no words, they haven’t taught me the words; I don’t know how to think, those bastards didn’t let me learn how to think. But if you really are –all powerful, all knowing, all understanding—figure it out! Look into my soul, I know—everything you need is there. It has to be because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want—because I know it can’t be bad!”
This remarkable soliloquy is spoken by the character Reddick Schuhart, at the end of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s strange dystopian sci-fi novel, Roadside Picnic (1972). Desperate and pleading as the words are, ugly and desolate as the “post-(Alien)Visit” world in which the novel is set, I hear in the first two sentences something that might be said by any of us in contemporary liberal reality were we in Red’s position, facing our existence honestly. For we who’ve adapted to domination under a ruthless for-profit ethic and thus are shorn of the belief that my human life matters, were we to speak honestly, his despair could be ours.
Not convinced? Taking Red’s despairing self-accusations one by one, let me ask you: Is calling oneself an animal too far-fetched for us whose good job and benefits keep us from being treated like animals like those at the bottom? Do we imagine we’re less discardable in neoliberal reality?
As for having no words, if I cannot express myself – my reality – in my own words, I have no words except secondhand ones. Though wrought and re-wrought in the ancestral soul, words need a thinking individual to bring them to life in an act of creation. And how many of us – be truthful! – know how to think? Frankly, life in liberal reality, even a very good, decent one, does not call for the arduous work of thinking, and in fact would be impacted negatively – i.e., shaken up with doubts and uncertainties – were a person to think “too much.”
In desperation, having lived the life of a bottom-feeding scavenger, Red reaches out in this very Russian novel to the God who doesn’t exist, challenging Him to see into his soul and to see what’s there. Man of questionable virtue though he is, he’s confident his soul exists, indestructably, neither “good” nor “bad” but a “force of awareness…” Having lived outside the respectable world, even knowingly having led a man to his death, but never having lied to himself, Red’s acquainted with his darkness. And still, he knows his soul “can’t be bad.”
This recognition on Red’s part is to me a starting point for answering that question of human worth. Thanks to the westward transmission of eastern spiritual practices, to transpersonal, archetypal psychology, and to increased awareness of indigenous rites of passage (initiation), informed people know the soul can be known. But to know the soul one also has to know as Red does, the unacceptable in oneself, i.e., precisely that darkness which liberal reality exempts us from knowing, instead allowing us to deny the reality of evil, ( i.e., with prisons to tell us who are the bad people, with newscasters to tell us the Russians are evil, with “others,” especially poor others and brown others, who don’t live where I live and thus remain different, “problem solved!”)
Serious inwardness, in its rigorous honesty, has an unparalleled bonus: it makes possible the letting go of denial. In the liberal world freed from belief, denial is as much the determining factor as its material and technological triumph. In denial, with the soul’s wholeness – it’s dark “Dionysian” nature as well as its “Apollonian” light – refused, people cannot act in unison, but only hierarchically, in domination or submission.
Back in the 1980’s people in self-help recovery groups learned through the honest admission of powerlessness, that denial is adaptation to the unspoken rules of the family of origin that grew up around the family secret (of addiction). They did not learn, more politically, that denial is obedience to the (secret) tyranny that rules peoples’ lives distantly and invisibly which, in our modern 21st century case, is (neo)liberalism. Compliance with liberalism’s implicit rationalist supremacy, keeps denial impregnable; we liberally free people fail to use our precious individual freedom imaginatively, to “replace” religion-processed knowledge of the soul with direct, unprocessed knowledge of the soul’s individuality and wholeness (initiation). Minus initiation, non-indigenous, non-grown-ups cannot defend the living conditions (the local and sacred) the soul must have for the maturation of fully alive, creative persons (whose dissenting non-conformity would be antithesis to capitalism!)
Far be it from me to declare one kind of resistance to be “the way.” But elders are those who will bring themselves to discover how they can live – be alive – while being honest about the darkness within and without. This process is the means by which to know the soul – its aliveness – cannot be bad. If one is paying attention, this means that one must live – can only live – in close relation with that soul, the prize without price. The soul does not want to be traded off to meet the demand of making a living, even though it is always vulnerable to greediness and even though livings must be made somehow. The soul cares only about being creatively alive, which is why we can feel ours in dance, in poetry, in song, in painting, in weaving and quilting, in cooking and in gardening, in making or listening to jazz improvisation, all the actions of the body in unison with the soul which, though they may bring in a living, are never done in order to receive a wage.
Of course, and not accidentally, living in liberal reality demands the opposite; one must think first of one’s employability. Even a job that calls for creativity and imagination or for caring for patients, or for teaching children – will wear down the soul that must serve a non-hierarchical, all-inclusive truth. To the extent the soul’s perfect truth has to make way for relative truth in the dailiness of living, as it must, it is temporarily eclipsed. A corrective kind of “doubling” is called for. The teacher, for example, though he may influence some students to aspire idealistically, inasmuch as his duty is to his soul that does not serve hierarchy he must know his complicity in a system that is evil. This is the cross we hang on in liberal reality if, unlike Reddick Schuhart, we make a living respectably.
The cross, then, is our existential condition, for which prayer and meditation, contemplation and study, ritual, song and dance, are needed if eclipse is to be temporary and partial, rather than total. In liberal reality such soul-strengthening activities are at best seen as stress relievers, as hobbies, peripheral like the liberal arts in so-called liberal arts education have come to be. At worst they’re dismissed as harkening back to hippie peacenik excess, not as fundamental to the maintenance of human aliveness. The impending reality for the soul now, as the world careens toward extinction, with potential leaders/elders in continuing denial, is total eclipse.
Twenty years ago, after nearly a decade of intensive inner work, Orin and I launched our coffeeshop in Utica. Our quixotic thinking was influenced by soul-prophets like Dr. Jung, Robert Bly, Joseph Campbell, as well as poets, jazz musicians, etc. Finding ourselves at mid-life in a time of burgeoning “new life,” we were drawn to a group of young poets on the scene in Utica, genuine Dionysian enthusiasts, bohemians, engaged in reading philosophy, writing poetry, giving public readings, and staging creative events. They were an energizing presence at protests; when Dick Cheney came to Utica, they added music, puppets, and various kinds of agitprop to the event. Reminiscent of the countercultural East Village in the 1960’s and 70’s they charmed Orin and me.
Shortly after our coffeeshop got started, a group of them established an arts Center in downtown Utica in an old abandoned retail space. It was in its anarchist way splendid, but lasted just a few years. When it was becoming clear the Center was going to fail, seemingly because of lack of skill at balancing financial demands with anarchic spirit, Orin and I believed we could remedy that problem. Our second project, The Other Side, a non-profit storefront dedicated to the creative arts, next door to the Uptown coffeeshop, was intentionally a recasting of the downtown arts Center.
By the time The Other Side came into being, the younger poets were unraveling. Each one of them, our comrades in spirit in those pre-cellphone days – like us, treating creativity as their obligation – fell rather dramatically, even tragically. Addictions were part of the problem, a couple of them landed in jail, none of them able, in the end, to sustain both the creative life and the building of the anarchist alternative in Utica.
Like the coffeeshop, The Other Side is a mid-life offspring, an elder’s project, not youth’s. Due in part to the changed times, it has never reached either the poetic madcap heights or the joyful anarchism of its predecessor. In that way, it pays an emotional price for its continued existence. Until recently its financial basis indeed has been sound, relying mostly on local, non-corporate benefactors and grants from NYSCA funds However, having to so often negotiate with the non-anarchist, liberal world, its established artists and scholars, I’ve often felt uncomfortably compromised in our anarchist vision, especially in the joy that is its most potent means of influence.
On the other hand, I’m coming to see that it’s not the case there must be either anarchist poetic imagination/or liberal totality-buttressing denial. Elderhood rises from that cross upon which those being honest are hung; its meaning is imagination-based but never delusional. As elders our significance is in relation to youth, in answer to a question – like the question I began with – that for the most part the young people can’t even frame. The woman who wrote me that she didn’t realize when she was young that “people…stable and standing in their truth would be so rare,” unknowingly gave me a glimpse of the question, and allowed me to know I can only be the answer, not give one.