Darkened Saints and Neoliberal Innocence

Music takes me to God, to the heavens.  Life without music is a mistake.

– Sadiq Fitrat Nashenas, exiled Afghani musician (age 88) NY Times

[Healing of the wound to the soul takes] realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself/from the endless repetition of the mistake/which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

– D.H. Lawrence, Healing (paraphrased)

At dinner last Sunday, the Bobby Kennedy candidacy came up, as well as the controversies surrounding it!  Daughter-in-law Kate, sounding a note of openness in Kennedy’s direction, said, “If we could just have Presidents who weren’t war criminals!”  Yes, without endorsing anyone, I ask: is it now possible to have a moral discernment that distinguishes between boldly libertarian, personally messy, even selfish, offensive, and creepy behaviors, and war crimes?

The great problem for white liberals that has led to the moral crisis we’re in is we’re stuck in the innocence of our liberal assumptions that relativize morality – and there’s no way out.   That is, an “outside” to liberal reality doesn’t exist.  Liberal reality excludes any consciousness  but the egoic “I,” and for us, only things with consciousness are real. Other than those who believe in a kind of definable eternal reality (God), white liberals, because they cannot grasp it with the rational mind, can at best respect the belief others have in an alternative (spiritual) reality,  while respectfully declining it for themselves.  We remain “doubting Thomases,” and cannot honestly be anything else.  This predicament leaves us stuck in the one paradigm – materialist, rationalist, all values relative,  no power “higher” than oneself – the flattened out universe that rules out the power of imagination and thus immobilizes us morally.

This problem interests me, because it’s mine too: how white liberal people can find that alternative basis for knowing so we can stop being an impediment to the change that’s necessary to save our humanity, to protect our mother the earth and the people who depend on Her, regardless of how worth – or not worth – saving we conceive human beings to be.  Like D.H. Lawrence, I hate the thought we must all become machines – robots – that this is the direction technological evolution – and progress –  is taking us in.  It seems to me, rather, we must take up the cause of being human as if human beings matter even if we believe they’re hopeless and even if, in some embittered part of ourselves, we believe they’re getting what they deserve.  (But not the real  innocents – my grandchildren, yours – whose protection clearly is our obligation!)

How may we “grow back down” into our humanity, so that we can identify with it, and defend it “as if our life depended on it?” To be successful at this, one must find not one’s love for others, but one’s love for oneself.  I mean not in the Ayn Randian sense, but in the sense of love thy neighbor as thyself, as if thy self were the first other one must love in order to love others!  I’ve found one must have what to the rational mind is an exaggerated sense of the worth of “myself,” so that when one defends humanity, one is defending a “highness” that’s real.

Is love, then,  really so complicated?  I say, yes.

Another way to think about this “growing back down into our humanity” is, weird as it sounds,  the process of becoming a saint. This idea came to me after Orin’s brother in a recent email called me a saint.  To be called a saint, is, for me, cringe-worthy.  I believe he meant this more about his brother, to whom I’ve been married for 46 years, (LOL) than about me.  For, assuming his brother is impossible in all the ways Phil describes him,  how have I survived more or less intact, including to the extent that I personally encouraged Phil and his wife to come for Thanksgiving and thus interrupt the estrangement between brothers that could have gone on to the grave?

What makes being called a saint cringe-worthy is neither personal modesty nor guilt-riddenness. It’s not just the triumph of secularism in liberal reality,  not distaste for sacrifice and martyrdom. When neoliberalism is properly understood as an inner colonization as much as outer, the discomfort with saints and sainthood is an ego defense.  For  neoliberalism is defeated in an individual who has an ideal that is ultimate (i.e., for which one is willing to die).   I suggest the ideal that calls souls today is not, foremost, world peace, universal justice, saving the environment, even feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but the call from within to realize the magnificence of oneself. The call is to what society has long seen as religious, but/and is actually a matter of a kind of very deep selfish concern; the desire to be united with that “other” in oneself that is one’s soul.  In other words, the call is to be a creative artist, author of one’s imaginative being.


Recent developments in the science of psychology tell us that in our civilization based on capitalism’s dehumanizing priorities,  few if any escape trauma, that is, injury to the “psyche” or soul.  Subtler forms of this damage come from being essentially unwanted as who one is, a message distributed equally through society independent of income level.  Some who are more sensitive may be more obviously crippled by it, expressing it in mental illness, psychopathies, sociopathies, addictions, masochist vulnerability to exploitation by sadists, various kinds of physical auto-immune disorders that are now known to be related to trauma of the soul. The poor get to know their discardability consciously.  They live it, some managing to be admirable despite the grind of living on the bottom, others succumbing to the negative identity of crime, drug addiction, etc. to which they would seem – with no other, contradictory sign available to them – to belong.

Naturally, the ones whom white neoliberal reality favors will seek to retain their innocence.   This means neoliberalism cannot be defeated in the liberal soul until the individual comes to grips with the real trauma, a process that has been described as a journey, a process, of soul recovery or retrieval, trauma being the disturbance necessary to launch the journey, to wake up from the death trance of neoliberal reality.

The artist, Patricia, a vigorous 80-year-old, giving her talk at The Other Side on a Saturday in early December  tells the story I’ve heard her tell before.  In her twenties, married with small children, she developed severe anxiety, such that she often could not leave her house.   She signed up for an art class, a kind of last resort.  She dreaded attending, but went.  As she tells it, there she saw the teacher painting, splashing paint around, getting paint on himself, wiping it on his clothes, and she went to work.  End of class, the instructor tells her she could be a watercolorist.  As she tells it, these words, plus the freedom she saw embodied by the painter, changed her life.  More than 50 years later, she’s still painting, and has taught classes hoping to help heal the pain of others as hers was helped long ago by that instructor (my father).

The recognition of the need for healing is, as they say in 12-step recovery circles – step one.  It opens one to spiritual reality. Because she is an observant Catholic, for Patricia, the Healer in this art therapy process, is God.  “End of story.” The aim of conventional therapy it would seem is a kind of transformation that allows one to fit back into the existing reality, allowing one to protect innocence in relation to “normal” neoliberal reality.

Mine is also a story of mental healing, and the discovery of joy that comes with it.  But, differently from Patricia, I found I could not fit in that normal.  After all the psychotherapy, all the temporary homes I found in churches, the realizations arrived at in transformational workshops, I ended up knowing I did not fit in any of these as a permanent home.  Having experienced spiritual reality directly,  in my healing process,  the representation of that “Other Power” by the church and its tradition, much of it so beautiful and imaginatively rich, was no longer helpful.   At the same time, I  felt closer to religion than I had ever before in my life because religion addresses that same awesome inclusive reality.

Even for those who’ve had the transformative experience, it matters absolutely how individuals will interpret it if it is to become the catalyst, the leverage for replacing neoliberal “normal” with the imagined better world,  two realities that cannot be reconciled.

That leveraging of one’s reality out of the “normal” and into the different, dreamed world, is a politicizing change outside of  party identification and thus outside neoliberalism.  This politics takes the imaginatively real as real and authoritative. It charges one with planting seeds for the new world, setting you (non-violently, respectfully) against this one.  For me, this has meant using my practice of writing to conjure the imagination-based “other”  that authorizes utopian reality.

Strengthened thus, I had confidence – against reason,  but in sync with the process of healing – to build with Orin and our daughter, Molly, our Café business, and its arts-oriented companion, The Other Side.  To keep such idealistic local entrepreneurship going in the economy that favors the corporate calls for constant battling at the level of sheer survival.   Caring for our Café, we’re in the place of the desperate poor, of workers faced with loss of their jobs, of knowing what life on the bottom feels like.  It demands, without exaggeration, a stubborn, tattered, “darkened”  heroism that could qualify as a kind of “saintliness.”

Our friend, film maker Lech Kowalski, tells us that in France, when local cafes in small towns and villages were closing down due to the trickle-down effects of globalization, the French government began to subsidize them in recognition of their contribution to the health of the community.  That is, the  French don’t have to defend cafés as “visionary,” or “sacred,” but simply as necessary for health.  In America the take on health is different.  (Community health?  Isn’t that about jobs,  and road construction and corporate hospitals, and the new chain store opening in the mall? )


This November, the Cafe’s finances (not for the first time!) became so impossible that in order to pay a creditor, we – Orin and I, borrowed $1000 from The Other Side. In an email, I informed the Board of our intention.  About the Board I will say this: through no fault of their own, mostly they are innocent of knowledge of what it takes to keep small independent businesses going. Though I understood how it could have looked to others, this wasn’t arrogance on our part, but an act of desperation and, as well, a relatively simple matter since I am  functionally the treasurer and paymaster  for this very informally run little organization. Run, as one board member said, more like family than like a non-profit board.

Reacting to the email, the Board seemed to have acquired a sense of its separate identity from Orin and me – perhaps a step out from innocence!  They called a meeting independently of us. The night of the meeting, Orin was ill; I occupied the “hot seat” alone. In the go-round discussion, with rules for respectful engagement laid down for us by our attorney who’s also a licensed yoga instructor, people spoke about feeling betrayed by our action, their trust “broken;” the word “stolen” was used at least once.

As the go-round continued,  several people confessed how the Cafe and The Other Side had changed their lives, influenced them to stay in Utica, etc.  There were tears.  Jean, a former member and one of the non-profit’s oldest and most active friends,  prefaced her remarks saying that, as a single mother, she had known well the “ups and downs” of financial struggle.  Turning to the subject of the Café, she said, “The Café is sacred.  This place is sacred.”  Not a wealthy woman, she promptly wrote a check the next day to repay what remained of the Café’s debt to The Other Side.


In my Utica-based life, there is little contact coming from the outside,  few-to-no outsiders whose knowing can reinforce my own; I often feel my soul suffocating.  Last month my prayer (though I had not known I was praying) – was answered.  Orin and I attended a local production of  Tennessee Williams’ “The Two-Character Play,” in a little community theater north of Utica.  This was an astonishing occurrence here where local amateur theaters mainly offer lighter fair in order to fill their seats.  That such an aberration should occur was due to collaboration between two people, Jerrod and Julie, both of whom have lived elsewhere (he in Brooklyn she in the Boston area), been involved in theater elsewhere, and returned to their home region to live and to practice theatrical arts.  Both of them are sufficiently led by vision that they can only imagine doing “serious,” or great theater.    I understand.

I sensed their nervousness in doing the Williams play; originally it was to run two weekends but due to disappointing early reservations, they pulled back to one.  The play is dark.  The two characters, siblings, survivors of childhood trauma,  inhabit a tormented reality of “entrapment and despair” within the American reality, specifically, the American South.  This, I thought, is art functioning properly, interestingly, against the bland banality of mainstream American innocence,  liberating souls from the dominant, unnourishing, suffocating reality.

Like the Café, art is essential for health.  But in neoliberal consumer-based reality health – like joy – is a kind of threat.   Government  is not going to save cafés, nor small local productions of Tennessee Williams, Chekhov, or August Wilson.  But maybe this leaves room for Americans to learn something valuable.  I predict Jerrod and Julie, if they are to stay with their visions to produce “serious” theater here in Utica, will run into the demand they give up innocence, become “saints.”

Cafés heal because they embody the sacred truth of interdependence; thus our Café cannot be Kim and Orin’s concern alone. Its existence calls people to the risk of belief, forsaking the innocence of doubt. In regard to The Other Side’s current crisis, we realize we cannot demand that people enlist in the brigade of saints or that they do so on a certain timetable! In the interim as the dreamers grow downward, the takeaway from French culture may have to provide the legitimacy: it’s saying, the Cafe’s struggle is everybody’s.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.