Sunday, September 21, 2014

On Showing Your Hand, or Consolation Unfixed

My teacher Appa was my appa, a “father” in more than figure or authority, he loved me and I loved him so.  I'm confident I will never “get over” his premature death, no amount of soporifics will create the promised blessedness.  The loss and the pain far too real for that, the harvest of experience that I reap is the hope I still cherish as a gift of mortal birth.  There can be no nourishment without toxicity, no medicine without unforeseen implications or unwanted vulnerabilities.  When there is love there is terror, the certainty of losses and the fear of fear.  That rage of fear is the bedfellow of love’s rage.  There is nothing more dangerous in life than certainty, especially when it’s certain.

We look for ways to make our endemic humanity a richer ground for reflection as we traverse the territory of outrageous fortune.  There is no denying slings or arrows even for those whose religion promises, well, what exactly does it promise?  Most spiritual paths invite some kind of palliative and consolation, even claims to exemption, immunity, and transcendence.  Let’s add mystery to that and if we put it in capitals we might feel all the more Mystery.

Who is more famous for offering consolation than Boethius’s (De consolatione philosophiae) where all misery defers to a higher source, our human love mimetic but incomplete in comparison to Platonic form or God’s mysterious Love.  More Capital Letters.  More affirmation that limited human experience seeks not just more of limitation but something more that is Else and More.

Nunc fluens facit tempus,
nunc stans facit aeternitatum.
The fluent now makes time,
The remaining now makes eternity.

We pick and choose our consolations but my inner historian reminds that Boethius is not conforming to my preferred readings but rather making his case.  And I would not deign to deny him: we all prefer our boats to float than be sunk in a tempest of criticism or, dare I say, evidence to the contrary?  Being dissuaded of our needs is tantamount to declaring another’s consolation unsound.  But religions do this all the time; it’s one of those things that make religions so sure of themselves.  Even religions that validate others’ experience don’t maintain the Other is just as sound, because sound means really true and who holds an opinion he doesn’t think is true?  True in that sound kinda' way. We can be offended and dissociate from dogmas and we can interpret privately to suit ourselves but religions prefer to claim things whole even when every interpreter---be that institutions or individuals-- is by equal terms picking and choosing.  I’d like to say that a spiritual life invests in making one’s own picks and choices but that would be denying that religions are somehow not doing as much, notwithstanding their claims to completeness, certainty, and finality.

Do recall that most forms of admitted incompleteness refer to an unfinished project: you are not yet liberated or enlightened or you can rejoice for your reward will be great in heaven.   The word “faith” now appears and you’ll notice that this is a preferred way of describing someone’s expressed preferences for private experience.  We call them “faith traditions”---think of how American politicians try to talk about religion this way.  I want not to be annoyed at another's claims of faith, their prospects or promises made but I can’t help myself.  I see them as a con game, a scam, a grift, a hustle, a bunko, a swindle, a flimflam, a maneuver, a wheedle, a honey trap, sweet talk, sing along string alongs, a get around, a gaffle, a racket, hornswoggle, a bamboozle, a caress made of mere blandishment.   Shall I go on?  This too takes us, again in decidedly American First Amendment terms, to the invitation to be hands off, accommodating, opinion-free, in a no disenchantment zone because we confer the dignity to the Other no matter what we might be thinking.  I may well have already offended because what’s at stake is another’s experience---to which no other human has access and so is without claim--- and it looks like I just called that out.  Called out always feels insulting or diminishing; no one likes to be shown wrong and how much less brought to account for what she or he feels and told is subjacent to another’s version of reality.

But this private-only club of experience begs the question: what do we share when we say we share a personal experience?  If it’s that personal then there’s nothing left to say because there’s no way your feeling is my feeling.  Peace at last?  Tolerance doesn’t mean we agree, it means we agree to disagree without talking (more) about it.  The damage has already been done.  What we do about those feelings matters aplenty.  When does our inner forbearance become acquiescence, the sort of phlegmatic, groggy compassion we tell ourselves keeps the peace but maybe doesn’t feel so peaceful?  I confess I prefer vexation with tolerance because that’s the emotion that comes with not knowing, not being able to know, and wondering how another could feel so differently.  Or just apparently so.  How would I know?

It was Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia who wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  Jefferson was making a case for taking private belief out of certain public domains, a kind mind your own inner business zone for the State’s common weal.  We all know how that’s working out these days.  We humans seemingly tolerate Other’s religions only so long as they conform to ours.  The ideal of a secular politics has never been so manifestly forsaken as in our recent American experience and never been more conspicuously banned nearly everywhere else.  There’s no getting ‘round the issue that convictions remain a topic of conversation despite efforts to spray non-toxic tolerance on the leaky crannies of intolerance.  We offend and are offended.  It comes with the territory of having experiences, not just opinions or even well founded opinions, the kind with evidence and reasons.  The alternative peace is not merely silence but permissive inaction.  How we doin’ with that?  Not working out so well, is it?

In a world of powers sought and inflicted we all seek some form of personal authority.  This is one of those frightening things about delegating and deferring, about being cajoled, bullied, or determined by the will of others.  We all succumb to the vicissitudes of time, pain, and death, well, unless we tell ourselves otherwise.  How do we choose to live taking on such powers when our experience tells us there’s no way to have it only our way?  Running from is running into.  Run hard.  Then relax enough to run again.  Appa taught me that.