philosophers


I recently finished reading Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel about the near future. It took me nearly four months, and would have taken longer if I had not had extra time on my hands as I recovered from surgery. Reading the middle third of the book was like wandering through a wilderness; I kept going out of sheer determination, but it seemed like I was getting nowhere. There’s some satisfaction at having persevered to the end, but mainly there’s relief.

One of the reasons I initially decided to read the book was that I had seen the DFW interview movie The End of the Tour (2015) when it was first released, and that movie (which I discussed here) had made me curious about DFW’s analysis of the struggles those of us living in modern (or postmodern) USA have with living meaningful and genuine lives. As I read IJ, I paid attention to anything that shed light on this issue. There is of course much more to the novel than this, and I don’t want to suggest that DFW wrote primarily to offer advice about how to live with American entertainment, excess, and irony. I do want to focus on that issue in giving my thoughts about the book, though.

Just a couple of caveats before I begin. I have no particular expertise at literary analysis and only limited knowledge of DFW’s life and works, so readers are likely to find more astute information about IJ elsewhere. I’m merely sharing some of the thoughts the novel prompted in me. Also, I haven’t taken especial care to avoid spoilers, so if you’re reading IJ and don’t want to know what happens, it may be best to wait until you’re ready for such information before you read what I have to say.

To start, then, this post will focus on one feature that stood out as I read, namely that IJ portrays a world in which human desire is prevalent and problematic. Pretty much everyone is pursuing something they yearn for, usually something they hope will make them whole, or at least better. These desires aren’t a sufficient guide for life, though. In fact, they are likely to make life worse. In one of the two main settings for the novel, the Enfield Tennis Academy, the pre-adolescent and adolescent students all begin with a desire to make “The Show,” the professional tennis circuit. Not reaching this goal is problematic, but achieving it is even more fraught with danger:

“It’s possible that the only jr. tennis players who can win their way to the top and stay there without going bats are the ones who are already bats, or else who seem to be just grim machines….” (p. 437-8)

Thus Schtitt, the head coach of the academy, is as interested in helping his charges avoid the perils of success as he is in helping them succeed. As one of the staff explains,

“The point here for the best kids is to inculcate their sense that it’s never about being seen. It’s never. If they can get that inculcated, the Show won’t fuck them up, Schtitt thinks.” (p. 680)

In the other main setting, Ennet House–a halfway house for recovering drug addicts–the residents had desired what they thought drugs could provide, be that pleasure or escape or peace, but eventually they were always disappointed. More than this, they became trapped. For example, one of the residents, Joelle van Dyne, attempted to kill herself by overdose just because she had been imprisoned by her addiction. Here’s where she found herself:

“It is the cage that has entered her somehow. The ingenuity of the whole thing is beyond her. The Fun has long since dropped off the Too Much. She’s lost the ability to lie to herself about being able to quit, or even about enjoying it, still. It no longer delimits and fills the hole. It no longer delimits the hole.” (p. 222)

Desire is dangerous; it’s likely to become our master. DFW sounds almost as pessimistic as philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer here, sharing with him the idea that what motivates human beings is primitive, illogical desires that can never be satisfied. Many of the characters in the book are caged in some way; typically this is the result of having pursued desires that seemed to offer bliss but end up causing harm.

Schopenhauer thought all we could do to mitigate the force of desire was to lead very constricted lives; fortunately, Wallace is more hopeful. I’ll discuss where he finds hope in a later post; let me close here by noting that for him at least one path to release could be found in addiction recovery organizations such as AA or NA. That this approach works is a surprise even for those in recovery. At one point, Don Gately, a staff member at Ennet House, reflects:

“Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do. And then this goofy, slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons…and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’s had and then lost, when you Came In.”  (p. 350)

We all could use a little help; the trick is to figure out what will genuinely provide assistance and what promises to do so but ends up harming us instead.

 

wrote recently about the old stone ruins our group saw during our recent tour of Israel. As I said in that post, seeing ruins built by different people groups separated from each other by thousands of years showed me that my historical sense is simplistic and our culture’s claims to uniqueness are totally inaccurate. I also described another lesson the ruins taught: we are very much like fortress-building ancients in our desire for security. I have a few more reflections about the ruins we saw, and they will be the subject of this post.

Our first encounter with the ruins of an ancient city occurred at Tel Gezer. While there, Tim, our tour guide, made the point that, just as the city of Gezer was situated strategically, on a trade route between Jerusalem and the coastal plain along the Aijalon Valley, we are placed strategically as well, located in a particular location in order to achieve a particular purpose. It’s not only Gezer as a whole that was located with a purpose in mind, but each stone within it was intentionally placed in such a way to form its walls, houses, and other buildings. The same can be said of us.

Peter describes Christ as a cornerstone, the stone put down first around which the rest of the wall or structure is built. Peter tells his readers, “ you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (I Peter 2:5). As a living stone, I’m meant to be part of a structure built around Christ, the cornerstone. If I was a stone standing by myself somewhere, I would accomplish nothing. Just as the stones of Gezer provided protection, shelter, and privacy only when arranged to form walls and buildings, we accomplish something meaningful only when we join together to make a larger whole.

Massebot at Tel Gezer

Massebot at Tel Gezer

At Tel Gezer there were a number of massebot (the singular form is massebah), or memorial stones. My son Elliot wrote a nice reflection on massebot  here. As with the massebot, memorials have been built by many different cultures to commemorate something thought to be worth remembering. Our age doesn’t sufficiently appreciate the memorials raised by previous generations. I recently read The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth. Bendroth suggests that one of the key features of modernity is that we disregard the past and consequently are stranded in the present. Modernity is characterized by a belief in progress, and thus is future-oriented. We think that previous generations have nothing to offer us. In consequence, we ignore the stone memorials they built and the living memorials that their lives provided.

In contrast with the modernist dismissal of everything before the present, Bendroth advises us to instead cultivate an appreciation of the past, recognizing the “infinite array of personal experiences and convictions, talents and achievements, sins and failures that make up the human race across time and space.” She calls such an appreciation “righteous remembering.” The trip to Israel was a step towards practicing righteous remembering. Believers from long ago can be massebot for me, memorial stones teaching me about the life of faith. I can also be a massebah for someone yet unborn. It’s useful to think of my life in that way.

The ruins found at archaeological sites we visited provide a nice metaphor for this process of learning from the past. Those who built on a previously used site didn’t just level the ruins and build something new atop them. They often searched the rubble for useful building materials. Thus, stones were sometimes taken from old walls or buildings and incorporated in the new structure. In some cases, this resulted in rather odd-looking walls patched together from salvaged materials.

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She'an

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She’an

Whether or not we realize we are doing so, all of us scavenge the past for materials we then re-purpose. I’m struck with how often ideas people express as if they are original hark back to a whole range of thinkers from the past, from the Greeks and Romans through Augustine, the reformers, and the Enlightenment all the way to Freud, Nietzsche, and existentialists. I gained an appreciation for how much we all draw on such previous structures of thought from Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Becoming aware of where our ideas came from is an important step toward freeing ourselves from the prison of unexamined assumptions.

We build from the past, and are ourselves building materials that, like the stones in ancient tels, can be re-purposed. As a psychologist, I am always hoping that my clients will take something I’ve said and incorporate it in their lives. I’m essentially hoping to provide rubble that others find useful. Often they do so in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The church, the followers of Christ who are the living stones to which Peter alluded, is such a rebuilding project. We don’t look so much like an assembly of fresh-hewn, straight-edged blocks as we look like a collection of salvaged souls that are jagged and uneven but, remarkably, stand together to form a structure that God himself inhabits. It’s remarkable what he has done with a bunch of old stones!

I’ve been writing recently about my recent trip to Israel. My last post had to do with experiences that helped me better understand the divine nature of Jesus. This post will have to do with his humanity.

Jesus was ” truly God and truly man,” said the Council of Chalcedon in response to heresies that denied one or the other of these aspects. The idea that Jesus was fully human didn’t fit with the Gnostic idea that matter is evil. In line with Gnosticism, the Docetists thought that he was pure spirit and his physical body was an illusion. The modern emphasis on spirit and spirituality can easily take on a neo-Gnostic tint, viewing the physical world as unimportant and, by extension, downplaying Christ’s physical nature in preference for his spiritual and divine aspects.

Going to the places where Jesus spent time helped me appreciate both the physical and psychological aspects of Christ’s humanity. We went to Capernaum, the home base for much of his ministry. Ruins of the town’s living quarters have been excavated. The foundations of the houses are nearly all identical, low stone walls demarcating one house from the next, each house essentially a single long room. Looking at the residential area, it occurred to me that Jesus in all likelihood lived in one of these houses. He wasn’t just an ethereal figure who spent his days on the mountaintop and floated into town now and then to dispense some wisdom. He lived right among the townspeople, sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, one of them. And he taught in their synagogues.

Synagogue in Capernaum

Synagogue in Capernaum

Capernaum has the remains of a fourth-century synagogue, probably on the site where the previous synagogue stood when Jesus spoke there. We visited the ruins of first-century synagogues in the nearby towns of Chorazin and Gamla. Since Jesus was essentially an itinerant preacher, going from town to town, he may have spoken in those places. I imagined a Sabbath long ago, the local community of Jews gathered for worship. Jesus and his disciples walked in, and Jesus started to teach (perhaps after reading from Scripture, as in Luke 4). Everyone was amazed. Not infrequently, though, his message evoked resistance, even rage–again, see Luke 4. Of course, he knew exactly what he was doing, slaughtering sacred cows in order to replace them with something more faithful to God.

Synagogue in Gamla

Synagogue in Gamla

I tried to imagine myself walking into a synagogue knowing that what I had to say would evoke a furor, and I immediately felt a visceral resistance. I couldn’t have done what he did! Is that because he was God and I am not? I  think instead it is because he was more truly human than I am. My humanity prompts me to seek approval from others, to fear offending anyone, and to lack confidence in myself, especially when doing something that is difficult or that provokes opposition. In reacting this way, I am living in only a portion of my humanity, the self-protective and cowardly part. I am being inhumane, since a humane response to others would be to have such compassion for them that I would have the courage to tell them what they least want to hear.

In Habitation of Dragons Keith Miller wrote of his temptation during speaking engagements to say only what gains approval: “I unconsciously tone down the unpleasant aspects of that which I am saying and accentuate those things which affirm the group’s existing beliefs and prejudices” (p. 172). He recognized where that led him: “So for that night I became what the Scriptures call a ‘false prophet,’ more interested in material approval than in speaking any creative, freeing truth God had given me” (p. 173). I admit that when it comes to speaking the truth I am more likely to behave like Keith Miller than like Jesus.

Another way of describing the difference between Jesus’ humanity and mine is to say that he is willing to fully be himself, and I’m not. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that we are all in despair because we want to be a self, but don’t want to be the self we are. Maybe I could walk into a gathering and upset everyone with my message, but only if I was a better me, a me who had all my issues worked out, who was sure of himself. In contrast, Jesus was entirely confident in who he was. In becoming human, he not only took on flesh but was more comfortable in his skin than anyone who has ever lived.

So, in this and other ways (such as his relationship with his disciples and his relationship with God), Jesus showed us how to be human. I hope that I will continue to learn from his example.

Kelsey Hamilton, who blogs at Musings of a Mad Woman, recently wrote a post asking why society views bipolar disorder as a joke. As evidence of society’s view of bipolar disorder she alludes to media fascination with such  bipolar casualties as Amy Winehouse. Kelsey also mentions movies such as Silver Linings Playbook that provide a humorous take on characters with mood disorders. Elsewhere, there’s plenty of humor directed at bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions; consider this Pinterest page, for example.

Why is there a fascination with bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, ADHD, and other mental health conditions? There isn’t a similar fascination with physical disorders such as diabetes or arthritis. Kelsey mentions one possible explanation for this preoccupation, namely the suspicion that these conditions aren’t real disorders. Possibly that contributes, but there are probably other factors that also play a role. One such factor might be our fear that bipolar disorder represents something that is wrong (or might go wrong) with us.

We all have doubts about ourselves. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Marti Horowitz describes us as having desired self-schemas and feared self-schemas. Our desired self-schemas are who we want to be; our feared self-schemas are who we are afraid we are. Each of us have our own individual fears about who we might be–an incompetent bumbler, a greedy ingrate, an emotional cripple. I suspect that some feared selves are common to all of us because they relate to larger societal messages about what sort of people we are supposed to be. I wonder whether the two most serious forms of mental illness–schizophrenia and bipolar disorder–besides being actual disorders that afflict millions, are manifestations of fears that we are not the selves we ought to be.

Here’s a vast oversimplification: over the past four hundred years, the two most important intellectual developments affecting how we view ourselves were 1) the  Age of Reason beginning with modern science and culminating in the 18th century Enlightenment and 2) Romanticism, a reaction to the Age of Reason emphasizing emotion and nature. Each of these is, as philosopher Charles Taylor described in his dense and detailed book Sources of the Self, highly influential in shaping our identities, filtering down by means of popular culture even to those people who don’t read books and have never heard of the Enlightenment or Romanticism.

So, what sort of self did the Enlightenment encourage? An independent self capable of carefully observing the world as would a scientist. An eminently rational self that reasons dispassionately and is free of bias.

What would be the feared self of someone pursuing the enlightenment ideal? A self characterized by ignorance and superstition, incapable of careful observation. A self unable to think rationally or objectively because it is beset by massive biases.

What would an extreme version of this feared self look like? A person with schizophrenia, whose hallucinations prevent any sort of accurate observation and whose delusions so bias thinking that rational or objective thought is impossible. (Actually, most people with schizophrenia are rational most of the time; I’m speaking here of lay perceptions, not reality.)

The Romantic Self: Looking Deep Within. Portrait of Romantic Poet Adam Mickiewicz by Walenty Wankowicz

The Romantic Self: Looking Deep Within. Portrait of Romantic Poet Adam Mickiewicz by Walenty Wankowicz

And how about Romanticism, what is the desired self according to that system? A self that experiences and expresses strong emotions, and sees deeply into reality as a result. A self that benefits from relying on imagination and intuition. An artistic self that is authentic and true to one’s inner nature.

What would be the feared self of a Romantic? A self in which emotions, rather than being a sure guide to truth, mislead the person. A self whose internal gaze sees chaos and confusion rather than one’s authentic nature. A self in which imagination misfires and intuition misleads..

And what would be an extreme version of this feared self? A person with bipolar disorder, prone to episodes of extreme emotion–mania and depression–that distort rather than reveal the truth about oneself, conjuring up fantasies of grandiosity or nightmares of extreme inadequacy. (Again, this is the popular perception, not the lived everyday experience of most people with bipolar disorder.)

So, this may be what fascinates us about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Perhaps they represent our feared selves, the flip side of the desired selves that the Enlightenment and Romanticism tell us we should be. I’ve noticed that over the past forty years or so we’ve become progressively less fascinated with schizophrenia and more fascinated with bipolar disorder. Maybe we are less concerned than we used to be with achieving the Enlightenment ideal, but more concerned with being good Romantics. That change may or may not be for the good, but it’s the world in which we find ourselves.

Tomás Fano/flickr

Tomás Fano/flickr

Is it hard to be alone with your thoughts? French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that ”All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” That seems like an exaggeration, but there’s recent research confirming the idea that we have a hard time sitting by ourselves with nothing but our brains to entertain us.

A team of researchers led by University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson had research participants sit alone in a room for anywhere from 6 to 15 minutes. As reported in The Atlantic, over the course of 6 studies, 58% of the participants rated the difficulty of the task above the midpoint on a numerical scale, and 42% rated their level enjoyment below the midpoint.

That still means that a substantial number of participants ranked their enjoyment at or above the midpoint. Nonetheless, there is additional evidence that many people found the task unpleasant. Participants rated activities such as reading magazines or doing crossword puzzles far preferable to sitting with their thoughts. When participants were assigned to do the task at home, 32% admitted to cheating. And, amazingly, some participants preferred electric shock to their thoughts.

In the study involving shock, participants were hooked up to a generator and gave themselves a jolt of current before having to sit alone with their thoughts. Taking only the data from those participants who said they would be willing to pay money to not experience the shock again (thus presumably culling out the stray masochist from the sample), a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men gave themselves at least one shock during the period of time when they were alone with nothing to do but think.

Is the inability to sit quietly and reflect just a problem for Instagraming, Tweeting, Facebooking Millennials? No: enjoyment of the task was unrelated to either age or social media use. Perhaps our discomfort with such stillness is a modern phenomenon, but, if so, it seems that it is a feature of Modernism in the broad sense, going back at least to the 17th century, when Pascal penned the above comment.

“Be still, and know that I am God” the psalmist wrote (Psalm 46, NIV), suggesting that stillness is intimately associated with knowledge of God. Many of us desire to know God, but, if we are infected with the restlessness of the age, we may have difficulty sitting quietly enough to sense God’s presence. Perhaps, if we could make it our habit to sit and enter our interior space, we would find that we would plumb not just our own depths, but the heart of the ever-holy, ever-faithful, ever-loving One. We would then sense a power that electric current can’t hope to emulate!

In a recent post about my plans to leave my current life and help my parents, I quoted Simone Weil as follows: “We should do only those righteous actions which we cannot stop ourselves from doing, which we are unable not to do.”  On first impression, Weil seems to be justifying avoidance of desirable activities we find distasteful.  (The term ‘righteous’ in the quote I take to mean not so much abiding by some absolute standard of morality but fostering right relationships—with others, oneself, or God.)  I manage to avoid many such activities without qualms.  At my church recently, someone was signing up participants for a walk to reduce hunger, with each walker pledging first to solicit sponsors.  It is a tragedy that so many in America and worldwide are hungry, and it would be good to raise money for the cause.  What I thought of when asked to participate, though, were other commitments I have and the hassle of trying to get sponsors.  I walked away from the table.  This was a commendable action that was easy to stop myself from doing.

Weil herself didn’t shirk from acting righteously, though (see her life story here), so it’s doubtful she was looking for excuses.  The sentence quoted above concludes as follows:  “but, through well directed attention, we should always keep on increasing the number of those which we are unable not to do.”  The idea, then, isn’t to passively wait for irresistible impulses to perform good deeds, but to direct one’s attention in such a way that such impulses come more and more often.

Most of the things I’ve done that might  be thought to have some element of righteousness in the above sense came about initially because my attention was captured by a need, and I then reflected on it until I felt I had to respond.  Thus, I’ve supported and helped some students not because I sought them out but because they walked in my office despondent or anxious or confused.  I participate in Kairos prison ministry because I was asked to do so and, after first trying to get out of it, had an inner sense that I had to say yes.  I’m informally co-teaching a Sunday School class because I attended a few times, saw they were floundering, and I couldn’t stand to let that happen.   Not every problem or need I attend to results in an impulse to respond with some form of help, but enough do that it’s become clear that paying attention to human need is dangerous to my complacency.  The events described above that prompted a sense of necessity weren’t needs I sought out but ones I thought about after they were brought to my awareness, seemingly by chance.  How many more events would prompt action if I were to be more intentional about attending to people and places lacking in shalom?

Besides people and places, there are other things we can attend to that might prompt action.  Many faith practices direct attention in some way: prayer, worship, and meditation all refocus attention from the mundane to the sacred.  I write this after returning from a Good Friday service, the culmination of Lent, that season of the year when attention is given to Christ’s passion.  Constantly attending to Christ’s suffering and death is like camping in a firing range: round after round may explode with no apparent effect, but finally a round lands near at hand, surrounding the person with fire and thunder.  The worshiper enveloped by the blast of Christ’s passion goes from that place changed. As often as not, something has become necessity that wasn’t necessity before.

I recently read Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition by Brian J Mahan.  The book is based on a series of courses the author taught, first to undergraduates at the University of Colorado and subsequently to seminary students and high school seniors at Emory University.  The book seems geared mainly to achievement-oriented young adults. Mahan questions his students’ assumption that life should be lived by pursuing ambition and self-interest.  He encourages them to be receptive to vocation, which he describes at one point as an “interior consonance between our deepest desires and hopes and our unique gifts as they are summoned forth by the needs of others and realized in response to that summons.”  He notes that, even among those who reject the idea that life can be centered on vocation, many have had “epiphanies of recruitment:” experiences which have drawn them outside themselves and invited them to live a different sort of life.  He takes these experiences as evidence of a “shadow government” of compassion and idealism found even within those who have banished all outward signs of such a regime.

I do not think of myself as an ambitious person.  I am not pursuing promotion or greater recognition in my job, I’m not trying to make a name for myself in professional circles, and, at this point of life, I don’t see myself as in competition with anyone.  However, Mahan has convinced me that there is much more ambition in all of us than we recognize.  Following William James, he points out that all self-seeking—even “spiritual self-seeking” is egoistic, and, as such, partakes in ambition.  He points out the strategies—such as self-justification, rationalization, and strategic inattention–we use to subjugate our shadow governments of vocation and compassion.  He notes our tendency to use invidious comparison in order to maintain a sense of self-worth.  I admit to all of these.

Mahan’s ideas aren’t new to me, but the examples he uses certainly enrich my understanding of how such mechanisms work.  Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich provides an excellent case study of how striving for power and social recognition can lead to a life that is a lie but that, even as death nears, resists strenuously the dawning awareness of folly.  Nixon’s lawyer John Dean serves as a more contemporary example of lying to oneself in order to continue on a course aimed at achieving power and success.  Mahan also effectively describes a number of his childhood attempts to construct a sense of himself that is grander and more noble than what is warranted.  In the most memorable of these, he is entranced by an episode of Captain Midnight in which the good captain used a high-tech device that projected his image onto the clouds overhead so his companions could find him.  The device was offered for sale to the listening public; Mahan eagerly placed his order, but was of course disappointed in the outcome.  He reflects “I still try to project my image onto cloud banks,” but sees some progress in himself:  “Sometimes—a little more often than in the past—I simply watch the clouds as they pass by.”

Mahan recommends exercises from both Christian and Buddhist traditions to foster giving up the exaggerated self of ambition and strengthening the shadow government of compassion and service.  The two strategies he suggests the most are formative remembering and spiritual indirection. In the first, the reader is guided in selective recall of past experiences, both to better understand the nature of his or her self-strivings and to recollect epiphanies of recruitment.  To me, this approach seems to be a useful addition to what narrative psychologists write about constructing and revising one’s life story.   

Spiritual indirection, the second strategy Mahan recommends, consists of studying aspects of the self that interfere with living as one wishes, so that, having recognized them, it is possible to move past them.  Some of the exercises of spiritual indirection are derived from Walter Percy’s “self-help” book Lost in the Cosmos.  For example, Mahan quotes a passage in which Percy has his reader imagine that a neighbor had an incredible string of good fortune, to which the reader says, “Great, Charlie, I’m really happy for you.”  “Are you happy for him?” Percy asks, then goes on to suggest ways we might have liked to see Charlie’s good fortune diminished.    As with Percy, the understanding of the self Mahan presupposes seems permeated with Kierkegaard’s ideas.  In particular, they hearken to Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, a book that explains with exquisite insight the dilemmas that result from seeking a self but being dissatisfied with whatever self we have.   The one fault I find in Mahan’s book is that he doesn’t acknowledge this debt to Kierkegaard or expand his ideas about the ambitious self using Kierkegaard’s concepts.  I do recommend the book as an excellent guide to self-examination and discovering vocation.

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