An antidote to cynicism
The boy who never built a castle in the air will never build one on earth. – Thomas Wentworth Higginson
The Twitter vitriol poured on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (29) and Greta Thunberg (16) reminded me of Wentworth’s quote.
Striking, yet unsurprising, is the lack of alternative solutions proposed by their older critics who I imagine sitting on bleachers – seething in the green muck of their envy and shrunken under the tepid sun of their cowardice – while these two young idealists dare to enter the arena with the audacity and courage to imagine a better, saner future.
The attacks echo the slurs against Rachel Carson after the publication of her 1962 seminal book ‘Silent Spring’ which conceivably pulled us back from the brink of environmental disaster:
Radical, communist, disloyal, unscientific, hysterical!
A book reviewer for Time characterized Carson’s argument as “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic.” He traced her “emotional outburst” to her “mystical attachment to the balance of nature.”
In other words, Carson was deemed by her critics to be irrational.
“Who’s to say that certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs?” asked 12 year-old Adora Svitak in her 2010 Ted Talk.
“Maybe you’ve had grand plans before,” she said, “but stopped yourself, thinking, ‘that’s impossible,’ or ‘that costs too much,’ or ‘that won’t benefit me.’ Kids aren’t hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. Kids can be full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, like my wish that no one went hungry, or that everything were free… kind of utopia. How many of you still dream like that and believe in the possibilities? In many ways, our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility.”
In 1968, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) asked Dr George Land and Beth Jarman to develop a highly specialized test to effectively measure the creative potential of NASA’s rocket scientists and engineers. The duo came up with an unorthodox test rooted in the process of divergent thinking: the ability to look at a particular problem and propose multiple solutions. The test worked so well at identifying the best candidates that Land and Jarman decided to administer it to 1600 five year-olds.
What they discovered was astonishing.
Out of the 1600 kids that took the test, 98% of them scored at genius level!
Excited by this incredible finding, the team decided to turn this test into a longitudinal study and tested the same group of children five years later. By then, in grade school, the children’s level had declined to just 30%.
By age 15, it had dropped all the way down to 12%.
Disturbed, but still intrigued by this fascinating study, Land and Jarman decided to conduct this same test on adults aged 25 and up (with an average age of 31). After numerous studies, what they found was that less than 2% of all adults scored at genius level!
Once bitten, twice shy.
As life batters us with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” we become less creative and more risk averse. As we age, we shift our mental calculations toward what we stand to lose, rather than what we stand to gain and our courage to dare is weakened by our fears — of loss, rejection, judgment, and criticism; fears which gradually wrap us in an armor of cynicism which we deceptively label practical or pragmatic.
Ironically, William James, founder of the philosophical school of pragmatism, had this to say:
Man’s chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities, — his pre-eminence over them is solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants, physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary. And from the consciousness of this he should draw the lesson that his wants are to be trusted; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life and will lead him to issues entirely beyond his present powers of reckoning. Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.
If we had limited ourselves to what appeared possible, safe, and practical, we would have never become bipedal.
English journalist Caitlin Moran cautioned that “cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas.”
“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” said U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. “There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder.”
It would be one thing if those without the courage to dare greatly were to remain shut in the dark and malodorous space of their dispirited lives. Quite another is pouring the acid of their fecklessness on the hide of those who do dare.
“Ah! I have known noble ones who lost their
Highest hope. And then they disparaged all
Then lived they shamelessly in
Temporary pleasures, and beyond the
Day had hardly an aim.
Then broke the wings of their spirit.
Once they thought of becoming heroes;
But sensualists are they now.
A trouble and a terror
Is the hero to them.” — Friedrich Nietzsche ‘Zarathustra’
At 57, I have harvested enough disappointments — in love and enterprise — to make even the fiercest gladiator never want to set foot again on the arena of life’s slaughterhouse. My hide is black-and-blue from the pummeling fury of fortune’s mercurial temper. Yet, I have not ceased to ask myself: “What if? or “If only…” I still yearn to quell the storm and ride the thunder… still believe in impossibilities. It’s the reason why I side with those like #AOC and Greta Thunberg and cheer their valiant efforts to challenge the status quo. They are no trouble and terror to me, but an inspiration, stirring the same hopefulness I felt when watching the young man block the advance of a column of tanks on China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“The truly decrepit, living corpses,” said Henry Miller, “are those middle-aged men and women who are stuck in their comfortable grooves and imagine that the status quo will last forever, or else, are so frightened it won’t that they have retreated into their mental bomb shelter to wait it out.” You can avoid reality, writer Ayn Rand warned, but not the consequences of reality.
When we operate under fear, we use a smaller part of our divergent thinking and stifle our capacity to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Convergent thinking, focused on coming up with the single, well-established answer to a problem, begins to come up with all sorts of reasons why it can’t be done.
Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome. — Samuel Johnson
The new generation is inviting us to dare to dream the impossible, to awaken the genius of our inner child, who, full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, is not hampered when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. We should either accept their invitation or get out of their way.
Society is not a bond between the living, said philosopher Edmund Burke. It is a bond between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to come. As it stands right now, it appears that the generation currently in charge is assuming the stance of comedian Groucho Marx who once scoffed: “What should I care about future generations… what have they ever done for me?”
At the recent Austrian World Summit, Greta Thunberg ended her speech with this indictment: “For too long, the people in power have gotten away with basically doing nothing to stop climate and ecological breakdown. They have gotten away with stealing our future and selling it for profit. But we young people are waking up and promise we will not let you get away with it anymore.”
How will we respond?
Will we rise to the challenge or cower inside our mental bomb shelters to wait it out, hoping for a savior?
“Our world needs fierce men and women,” writer Sam Keen urged, “who must deal with the darkness at noon, the failure of our success, the impotence of our power, and the waste products of our creativity. It needs spiritual warriors who are alive with moral outrage and who enter the arena to wrestle with the mystery of evil. Fierce individuals who still have thunder and lightning in them; not dispassionate spectators or cynics.”
As for the world, the same applies to our lives.
I suspect many of you, despite age, circumstance, or accumulated disappointments, still wonder what your life would be like if you had the temerity to build castles in the air; to give voice and impetus to your “irrational” dreams, yet you deny them out of fear of judgment, discomfort, failure, or loss. In the end, however, should you cower, the day will come when you will have to face the most terrifying judge of all: yourself.
Hell is found, said writer Paulo Coelho, twenty seconds before you die as you look back and discover that you did not dignify the miracle of existence with a life of purpose. Heaven, he added, is the realization that, while you erred, you gave it your all.
Dare to be irrational! Shatter the status-quo of your existence! Think not of what you stand to lose but what you will gain by breaking free from your self-imposed prison… more time for joy, deeper and more meaningful relationships, ardent desire, wonder and delight.
If each new day — as our human life unfolds itself like the pages of an illuminated fairy book — is not a caravanserai of marvels, a ship of treasure, an island of enchantment, with its own sun and moon and high particular stars, what, in heaven’s name, is the value of being alive at all? Nature intended us to be exquisitely happy and when our happiness ebbs it is because some phobia or mania or inhibition in ourselves. — John Cowper Powys
Trust your wants. Prune not your extravagance. Become uninhibited, zany, expansive, voracious and wild. Seek through the fire of your enthusiasm and idealism to make your clay statue incandescent at last!
Having answered the call to adventure, I assure you that a day sailing wild and pathless seas is worth more than an eternity spent safe at harbor.
As you move into authenticity — your true story — you will unleash unsuspected powers which not only will blow on the embers of your dreary, sputtering life, but will incite you to respond to the calling of our time.
Let those tepid souls, who sit in the bleachers, rot in the dunghill of their timidity.
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When our individual stories are rightly embedded within a vaster narrative and deep mystery, we might comprehend that our role and purpose is to ensure we don’t spoil it with our arrogance, rapacity, dogmas, and petty fears, aims, and lamentations.
I mean besides genealogy, ethnicity, culture, or nation. Farther back I mean…way back…all the way back to the beginning of space and time.
If we don’t know where we come from, warned author Terry Pratchett, then we don’t know where we are, and if we don’t know where we are, we don’t know where we’re going.
A quick glance at the current state of the world tells me we haven’t a clue.
The phrase ‘hark back’ was used in hunting to describe the act of returning along a path to recover a lost scent. I like to imagine what the world would be like if our “once-upon-a-time” stories harkened back 13 Billion years to the moment of the Big Bang.
Might we recover our lost scent?
Would a visceral understanding that we’re all stardust feeding off starlight help us develop a universal sense of kinship with all forms of life?
Might knowing we only arrived on stage but a few seconds ago in cosmic time deflate our human hubris?
Would we properly humble and then be rapt by awe and wonder if we allowed the fact to sink-in that there are more stars than grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth?
Would our anxious, plundering rapacity cease if everyone knew that our planet is a living organism that creates and sustains life and that our species was doing just fine as nomadic hunter-gatherers for 99% of the time we’ve been on stage?
If we worked on harmonizing with the fundamental laws written 13 Billion years ago instead of trying to force the Universe to conform to our designs, might we not usher-in a golden age?
If we understood, for instance, that the heat and light of stars is only possible by the implacable resistance imposed on their desire for exuberant expression by the force of Gravity, would we continue cursing when encountering resistance to ours?
Death would not seem like an unfounded rumor if we knew it was woven in the cosmic fabric with the thread of entropy from day-one. No longer, then, would outrage or dismay be our default reactions to decay and disorder, but calm acceptance and mature resignation.
“All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even part of science testify to the unwearing effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.” – John Gray
Our cherished preeminence would crumble with just a cursory understanding of the ‘Many-Worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics. ‘The Web of Life’ would finally acquire meaning when learning about the enchanting entanglement that occurs between subatomic particles separated by billions of light-years of space.
We’d surrender our insistence on immutability once we appreciate the fluid nature of the stellar story in which we find ourselves. You want nothing to change? Show me stasis in nature and you will have shown me a frozen or dead system. If you suffer from insomnia, try reading a novel where nothing changes.
Realizing how improbable our presence is on Earth; the many accidents and near-misses, the coincidences and lucky breaks that preceded our arrival, would we ever curse our fate or bemoan our existence? Would we dare utter the phrase ‘Sunday night blues’?
Allowing ourselves to be stunned by the fact that every star, snowflake, seashell, tree, flower…each and every one of us is one-of-a-kind; an inimitable entity in the unfolding story of the Universe, would we continue struggling to become someone else?
Knowing that the ethics of moderation, prudence, bravery, and reciprocal altruism are encoded in our behavior as in all animals, would we continue searching for moral guidance in dusty libraries, yoga retreats, therapy couches, pews, stone tablets, or up in the heavens?
We might develop a healthy skepticism of our vaunted rationality knowing that the frontal lobe of our brain is of recent occurrence in the evolution of our species and that we had no trouble feeding ourselves and navigating the world before then. This realization would encourage us to reconnect with our bodies, our senses and instincts, and repair the rift we’ve caused between ourselves and the natural world.
A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies.
I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers
In the ocean wind over the river boulders
I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,
That breed like mouthless mayflies darkening the sky. – Robinson Jeffers
When our individual stories are rightly embedded within this vaster narrative and deep mystery, we might comprehend that our role and purpose is to ensure we don’t spoil it with our arrogance, rapacity, dogmas, and petty fears, aims, and lamentations.
Knowing that there is no one like us among 7.53 Billion humans should be enough to divert us from debilitating and fruitless emulation, rouse us from apathy and conformism, from spiritless cowardice and escapism, from selfishness and greed, and make us stake our unique claim and contribute to the magnificent symphony which began before space and before time.
“Every aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.” – Carl Sagan
As it is, we are but sorry violins discarded in the moldy attic of our past. With strings slack, broken tuning pegs and cracked bouts, we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize, so can’t play our once rightful part within the concert hall of the Cosmos. When we insist, it is shamefully obvious we’ve forgotten the musical score, so we play off beat and out of tune. With humanistic conceit, we willfully ignore that should we vanish tomorrow, the concert hall would remain open and the show would go on.
It’s time to relearn the score.
Let’s retrace our steps along the path and recover our scent before it’s too late. The Universe will be glad to be rid of us if we don’t.
What they teach us about death
“Although everything we love, can, and likely will be taken from us, the radiant vestiges those loves leave in the soul are permanently ours, and the only permanence we’ll ever know.” – Maria Popova
Maria’s words ring in my mind as I sit by my father’s bedside at the hospital after returning from California where I spent Christmas and New Year’s with my daughters. It was on the eve of the new year that I jotted down the first lessons from the stars.
Dad broke his neck before I left, and now lies helpless, fed through a tube, and breathing through an oozing hole in his trachea. Not the way he wanted his story to end; his life- force sputtering in a sterile room flooded with ghostly light, the stench of urine, and the bedeviling sound of monitors displaying the flattening line-graphs of his vitals.
I am glad the Universe foiled my early plan to move to Mexico, and, instead, cast me to his side where I have been for two years. Glad, because such twist of fate allowed me to know my father deeply and prompted me to capture a vivid snapshot of his unconventional life inside the amber of my Memoir.
In ancient Egypt, to be forgotten was one of the worst fates the soul of the deceased could suffer.
Like a town-crier, Dad has been predicting his death for longer than a decade. From the marks of agony and despair furrowing his countenance right now, I am certain there will be no escape this time.
A few years ago, in response to yet another email predicting his near demise and raging at the prospect, I told him to: “Rage, rage for sure, but not about your dying light. Rage against it not blazing as does a star during the final spasms of its annihilation, its self-devouring. Rouse that inner energy to exit the stage in one radiant burst…a luminous climax. Like a Supernova, there are surely some elements you can scatter as you implode.”
In Part One of this Series, I talk about the gifts bestowed by giant stars when they die in a Supernova explosion. The elements in your body, the billions of neurons in your brain firing your thoughts and imagination, all the life-beats of your heart – all the stuff which makes you, you – shaped by the atoms scattered during a giant star’s final act.
Your aims in life, the intensity of your desires, the might of your struggles, and the impact you have on those you encounter on your path will determine whether you blaze like a Supernova, shine like the Sun, or end up like a brown dwarf – halfway between a planet and a star – whose mass, or life-force, is insufficient to spark thermonuclear fusion.
“Death should not concern us,” said Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. “Death is concerned only with our self and not with this world. The world never loses an atom; it is our self which suffers. Men wish for permanence and not perfection. They forget that the true meaning of living is outliving; it is ever growing out of itself.”
Play it safe, snug in your cocoon, and your life will follow the path of a brown dwarf. Dare to risk everything to fulfill your unique destiny and you’ll shine like a star, a giant one perhaps, even if you fail.
Man’s worth lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage. God makes us grubs, and we, by our own efforts, must become butterflies. Like the flying fish, leap out of safe secure waters and enter a more ethereal atmosphere that is filled with madness. Defy the First Cause to overdraw you like a bow without caring if it breaks! – Nikos Kazantzakis
With a nauseating gurgle, a nurse draws brown gunk from my father’s trachea as I keep replaying his life which blazed like a candle lit at both ends until the age I am now, but with a dimmer spirit thereafter. What caused such diminishment, such ebbing of the flame? I wonder. Rather than defying the First Cause, it’s as if he had made a pact with it to stop overdrawing his bow for fear it would break. Perhaps the frenzy of his early years swirling in the chaos of manic-depression had exhausted him and made him seek solace, ensconced for three decades in the quietude surrounding his property tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, there to live the remainder of his life undisturbed, released from the messy and often distressing entanglements to which a human life is subject.
While I willingly accept the inevitable price paid with the currency of anxiety, stress, heartache, and ultimate loss for remaining entwined with the world and the people I love, I have no problem with anyone wanting to live a quiet, simple life. In fact, I am on this path myself, seeking that sweet spot between being in this world, but sufficiently removed from it to avoid being drowned by the currents of its meaningless agitation. In other words, in this world, but not of it.
Ancient Chinese culture revered the yinshi, the recluse, who chose to leave the world behind to live more simply. “The tradition,” says philosopher Alain de Botton, “began in the 4th century AD, when a high-ranking government official named Tao Yuanming surrendered his position at court and moved to the countryside to farm the land, make wine, and write.”
Yuanming explains why:
It was in my nature to love the hills and mountains.
Mindlessly I was caught in the dust-filled trap.
Waking up, thirty years had gone.
The caged bird wants the old trees and air.
Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream.
I plough the earth at the edge of South Moor.
Keeping life simple, return to my plot and garden…
Too long a prisoner, captive in a cage,
Now I can get back again to Nature.
Like a flying fish, Tao Yuanming leapt out of safe waters and entered a more ethereal atmosphere. Yet, despite living the life of a recluse, he left behind his poems, gifting us with a renewed sense of wonder and enchantment with the natural world.
Most of us will never be Superstars like Yuanming, or Christ or Buddha; giants whose bursts of creative and purifying light still shine on us today. But I see no reason why we can’t emulate our neighboring star, the Sun, choosing a smaller arena on which to pour the gifts of our unique talents; bending our bow to the breaking point for a cause in which we believe, and shedding joy, warmth, light and love to the living beings in our immediate orbit. It does not have to be something spectacular to be meaningful; a poem, a mended heart, or restored patch of Earth will do.
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain. – Emily Dickinson
As I see Dad’s haunted and fearful glance fixed on the white wall of his hospital room, Dickinson’s poem reminds me of the time I visited him in New England as he and his wife scouted the area for their permanent move. He had booked two rooms at a shabby roadside motel, and on one of those early, cold winter mornings, I heard a knock on my door. At its threshold, Dad balanced a pink cardboard box on one hand and held a steaming cup on the other. “I brought you donuts and coffee,” he said, as he walked in.
Years later, I came upon a poem by Robert Hayden whose last stanza echoes in my mind every time I recall the tender memory:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
To most, my father’s donut-and-coffee gesture might not sound extraordinary, but given his austere nature and meager displays of affection, the light and warmth he brought into my room that morning touched me to the core and still brings tears to my eyes when recalled. He became the Sun, and his offering will remain like those radiant vestiges Maria speaks about; permanently mine, never forgotten.
Equally touched were the lives of his grandchildren, leaving behind these indelible soulprints evoked by memory and rendered in their voices:
“You’re the only grandpa I ever had in my life but the only one I ever needed. You taught me how to fish and possess the coolest man cave I have ever come across.”
“Catching my first fish together which we later skinned and cooked, spending countless hours mesmerized by all the trinkets in your dungeon, the walks with you, whether on a late winter afternoon or summer day…such memories only ever remain so perfectly clear when they have meant something truly special to your life.”
“You fostered my intellectual curiosity and love of a good yarn. I can’t tell you where I’d be without these two qualities, but I know my life would be much smaller.”
“I like to think I get my sense of adventure from you.”
“I think back to the stories you told me about being in the army and how you used to eat light bulbs and put soap under your feet to make yourself pass out. To me, you are and always will be Indiana Jones, Dirty Harry, John Wayne, Han Solo, and every other action hero, adventurer, and explorer.”
“It is difficult to place into words the impact you have had on me. Through good and bad there has always been an adventure! Adventure of pretending to trek through the jungle or explore the deserts of New Mexico. For any kid, it would have been just another day, but it was you and your imagination that helped transport me to some of the most cherished memories I have.”
“You taught me to spot birds, about forests and streams, knives, and kindling fire with nothing but flint. Your stories made my imagination whirl, from carving ‘Pinocchio’ with broken glass shards, to catching monkeys with coconut shells down in Panama. In my boyish mind, you were the embodiment of a dream boyhood. Part pirate, part cowboy, part rock-star, part soldier, part grandfather. You were tough as nails, dressed the part, and encouraged an unquenchable curiosity (if not a bit of rebellion) which made my heart and imagination soar.”
Alex Haley was right in saying grandparents sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.
I place a cold, wet cloth on Dad’s forehead, slide the thin covers of his hospital bed up to his shoulders, hold his hand, and watch him fall asleep.
Once his light is out, I will be next in line.
“Just as a book is bounded by its covers, by beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death,” wrote philosopher Stephen Cave. “You can only know the moments in between; the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”
We are on this Earth but briefly, I mumble, as I turn off the overhead light and walk out. There really is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion.
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What they teach us about adversity and our destiny
“Your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
So that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.”
Rainer Maria Rilke’s words resonated in my mind as I looked up at the night’s sky on New Year’s Eve.
Standing on a small wooden deck at my daughter’s farmhouse set on a vineyard in Northern California, the relative absence of light pollution allowed a clear view to an arching parade of constellated stars against a backdrop of lightdust spangled on the black sky-vault with openhanded extravagance. A brisk wind soughed somber as it combed the charcoal outline of a barren apple orchard and moaned across the wires holding the scraggly branches of vines.
I felt blocked-in; had written little in the past month, and feared I had done something to upset Polyhymnia, the Muse of eloquence, to the point of never again being favored by her gift.
My life felt like a stone in me, pressing down on my embryonic aspiration to become a writer with a massive weight of implacable resistance. I panicked, wondering what would become of me should I never recover the power of my creativity. I was about to turn 57, relatively penniless, and had just received the thirty-third rejection to my Memoir. Like the horn of a Ram, I was wound tight in a Gordian-knot of anxiety and flailed in the searing soup of my laments while the stars looked down on me with frosty indifference.
Fixing my gaze on the constellation of Orion, I spotted Betelgeuse, the supergiant star pinpointing one of the shoulders of this giant hunter. At six hundred times the Sun’s radius, Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in our galaxy. Trailing behind were the constellations of Canis Major and Canis Minor: Orion’s hunting dogs. The former contains Sirius, the largest and brightest star ever discovered, and a billion times bigger than our Sun. In our Milky Way galaxy alone, there are over two hundred billion stars; there are over one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. There are more stars than grains of sand on Earth.
Such sublime and staggering scale made my human tribulations seemed petty in cosmic terms. I had to laugh, feeling akin to Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa who once mocked his own trivial distress by recognizing he was shipwrecked beneath a stormless sky in a sea shallow enough to stand up in.
How true, I thought, what psychologist James Hillman said, that it is not our stories which affect us, as much as the way we choose to recount them. We often dull our lives, he said, by the way we conceive it. We should never accept that we are only the effect of the blows of hereditary and social forces. Otherwise we are reduced to only a result; our biography becomes that of a victim — the flip side of the hero.
Awe, humility, and perspective were the first lessons I learned on the eve of the new year.
It was good to know my affliction had less weight than a grain of sand, but not enough to dispel my anxiety and rouse me from my creative rut. I needed to read deeper into the night sky to wrest more practical wisdom from the stars.
From what my father had taught me about the cosmos when I was a young boy, I remembered that close to Orion’s sword is the famous Orion Nebula.
Stars begin their journey inside clouds of dust and gas called nebulas: a star nursery where millions of new stars are born. Turbulence deep within these clouds gives rise to knots with sufficient mass that the gas and dust begin to collapse under their own gravitational attraction. I equated turbulence with the excitement I felt writing my first stories when I was eight years old, and thought of the gravitational attraction as the allurement of love; Eros, or ardent desire, calling me onto the path of an artist.
As the stellar cloud collapses, the material at the center begins to heat up. Known as a protostar, it is this hot core that will one day become a star. If a protostar forms with insufficient mass, it will not burn hot enough for thermonuclear fusion to begin and will end its journey as a brown dwarf, halfway between a planet and a star. Was I destined, I wondered, for such an unimpressive fate?
Stars are fueled by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen which forms helium deep in their interiors. Every second, fusion at the core of a star generates the explosive force of a billion nuclear bombs. The reason it doesn’t blow apart is due to the dynamic standoff between Gravity, which wants to crush the star, and the energy of the fusion process that wants to blow the star apart. And that tension, that balancing act, creates a star, and keeps it creating heat and light.
What hydrogen is for stars, our deepest desires are the fuel only we can transform into light. If our desire is too weak, we will not burn hot enough, sharing the fate of a failed, brown dwarf star.
But having a desire (to be a writer, to heal the sick or the planet, to fight injustice or alleviate hunger, etc.) is not enough. The first dynamic of the Universe is resistance. The existence of stars arises out of the constraints placed upon the energy of its fusion process, i.e., its desire. If they could continue without meeting resistance (Gravity), no star would ever emerge. Mountains are formed by this same dynamic process. Fifty million years ago, the robust resistance of the Eurasian plate pushing against the colliding Indian subcontinent crowned the Earth with its highest tectonic achievement: Mt. Everest.
We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies —
I recalled Emily Dickinson’s poem as I heard a flock of sheep bleating in the distance and the clang of tiny bells as they huddled closer together for warmth.
Two years ago, I thought I heard a call bell for me to rise; to move out of my humdrum existence and move towards a life of greater intensity. Fueled by my desire to give voice to my personal cosmology through writing, I shed my previous life and slid towards a new adventure like a snake sheds its scaly envelope to allow for further growth. Ever since, the resistance pushing against my desire has been formidable. I mentioned this to a stranger with whom I crossed paths on the first part of my journey on Mexico’s Pacific shore. He said the more urgent a call is to the soul, the greater the resistance. Said it with such calm conviction, that I named him my Mexican Yoda, after the legendary Jedi Master from the movie ‘Star Wars.’
Very often though, as my dear friend Mary Reynolds wrote in her extraordinary book ‘Reclaiming the Wild Soul,’ one may need a cataclysmic event to crack open, just as Bishop Pines require fire for their seeds to fly open, like tiny stars in the night.
Could it be, I wondered on that cold starry night, that I was at the threshold of something momentous, about to crack open and spill my unique gifts on the world?
Like snowflakes…like you and I, each star is a one of a kind. What a stirring, but daunting realization! To know that upon birth, a new possibility is born with us, a new desire, a seed of potential that is up to us, and only us, to make sprout. An opportunity that is ours to actualize or deny according to our resolve.
Someone once said that the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. The poet Annie Dillard offers one possible answer: “To give voice to your own astonishment,” she said. To astound, from Latin: “to thunder!”
At the stroke of midnight, nearby firework flashes and thunderous explosions heralding the birth of a new year reminded me of a Supernova: the single most violent event in the Universe.
I lifted my gaze back at Betelgeuse, the giant star many scientists predict will be our galaxy’s next Supernova and wondered what wisdom I could extract from its looming fate being broadcast by its light traveling at a hundred and eighty six miles per second.
Giant stars live fast, burn bright, and die hard. Once out of fuel, the epic battle is won by the crush of Gravity over their desire to keep expressing their radiant selves. But from their destruction come the seeds of life itself. We owe our existence to such a Supernova billions of years ago — our Cosmic Mother. Evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme named her “Tiamat” after the ancient Babylonian goddess of primordial creation and eulogized her in ‘The Universe Story’:
“Tiamat found herself pressed to the wall, exhausted by the effort, helpless to do anything more to balance the titanic powers. When her core had been transformed into iron, she sighed a last time as collapse became inevitable. In a cosmological twinkling, her gravitational potential energy was transformed into a searing explosion, a single flash of brilliance. When the brilliance was over, when Tiamat’s journey was finished, the deeper meaning of her existence was just beginning to show through. Out of the spectacular tensions in the stellar core, Tiamat had forged calcium, a new presence that would one day support both mastodons and hummingbirds. Tiamat had forged phosphorus which would one day enable the majestic intelligence of photosynthesis to appear. Tiamat had sculpted oxygen and Sulphur which would one day somersault with joy over the beauty of the earth. She vanished as a star in her grand finale of beauty, but the essence of her creativity went forth in wave after wave, tossed into the night sky with the most extravagant gesture of generosity.”
Without Supernovae, there would be no us. We are made of carbon, of oxygen; there is iron in our blood. All those elements were generated in the womb of a star. We are made of star stuff, said astronomer Carl Sagan, something Walt Whitman, the poet, already intuited a century before when proclaiming that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Every atom deep within the dormant soil of the dark fields extending in front of my gaze; those inside the apple trees, the grapevines, and the huddled sheep, as good belong to me. I had received a lesson of reception and kinship.
Perfect love, said ninth century Mohammedan mystic Sari-al-Sakadi, exists between two people only when each addresses the other with the words: “O myself!” On what grounds, then, dare I deny, discriminate, or diminish the life of a fellow human simply because his atoms choose to express themselves through a different color, language, or custom?
In the presence of the ‘Other,’ the proper stance is celebration and curiosity, not disdain. I further realized that every violent act against Earth, or against any of its multifarious expressions, is a form of self-annihilation.
But those were not the only lessons I learned from a Supernova.
I sensed my desire to become a writer was not burning hot enough to prevent the implacable resistance from crushing it. I was allowing my fears — of rejection, poverty, ridicule, obscurity — to gain the upper hand, and, as Brian Swimme warned, someone who takes as a central life project the avoidance of suffering will lead an ephemeral life. Like our Sun, whose mass (desire) is not sufficient to become a Supernova, I risked exiting life’s stage with a whimper, not a bang.
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” — Jack London
Throughout history, our firmament has been illumed by human Supernovae like Jack London, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Socrates, Nietzsche, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., or Rachel Carson who wrote her revolutionary book, ‘Silent Spring,’ while dying from cancer – giants whose bursts of creative light still shine upon us today. Like our Cosmic Mother, they scattered the essence of their genius in wave after wave with the most extravagant gesture of generosity. I saw no reason why I could not emulate them. Like Orion, I needed to pick up the sword again and charge ahead, warrior-like, toward my chosen destiny. I had to look at my fears straight in the eye so they would feel afraid and run away.
Each beam of starlight makes an epic journey travelling at six hundred million miles an hour. Most stars are so far away their light takes hundreds, thousands, even millions of years to reach us. Light from Betelgeuse has been travelling since Columbus discovered America. The light we see today from Eta Carinae left that star when our ancestors first farmed the land eight thousand years ago. That from our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, began its journey at the time our ancestors had just begun making tools over two million years ago. For all we know, all those stars might have perished already.
This august scale of time and distance gave me comfort. The thoughts I consign to these pages might not touch anyone in the present, but one day, far in the distant future, might inspire someone, who, like me, will be contemplating the firmament.
As the New Year’s fireworks ended, I took one last look at the scattering of stars and remembered that the Universe will eventually run out of fuel and go dark. Sooner or later the stars will begin to blink out until the last star burns out. In the face of such bleakness, we are prone to nihilism or despair. What is the point of such exuberant creativity? one is inclined to ask.
“In music,” said philosopher Alan Watts, one doesn’t make the end of a composition, the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest [or] who only wrote finales.”
A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning. — David Steindl-Rast
The same with dance, Watts adds. “The whole point of the dancing is the dance.”
“There is no goal,” wrote Nietzsche, “we are always already at it. The fulfilled moment does not lie in the future but is always there already. Life does not follow the principle of linear accumulation and progressive enhancement but revolves in a cycle of expiring and expanding. For this reason, life is always already at its goal.”
Our wish for security, immutability, eternity, or to arrive at ultimate meaning seemed to me at that moment but futile illusions. It is necessary to shake them off and yet remain passionately in love with life even after its great futility has been revealed. I learned that I am not here be consoled, but curious and enthralled by the unfolding story of the Universe, and to contribute my unique gifts to its dazzling, unfolding spectacle.
Coming back into the house, the only word I could think of to describe the goal of life was “Rapture,” and as I settled into bed on the first day of the new year, my life no longer felt like a stone in me, but like a star.
What about love? What do stars teach us about the affairs of the heart? Read Episode II (exclusive content).
What about death? (free content).
For future flashes of stellar inspiration join my mailing list.
How two famous erections are partly to blame.
Since I began this series, at least forty men, in entertainment, media, and politics, have faced allegations ranging from inappropriate behavior to forced sexual misconduct to rape. The list continues to grow and has caused the downfall of many powerful “men”. It has sparked an entire movement (#metoo), and led Time Magazine to name ‘The Silence Breakers’ as 2017’s Person of the Year.
It’s encouraging to hear young people such as comedian Sarah Silverman say we need to understand what’s behind all this, or watch actor Justin Baldoni give a poignant TED talk on why he’s done trying to be “man enough”.
Both are choosing the hard and long road of empathy, rather than the easy one of judgment and condemnation.
While my exploration of this issue has revolved around Millennial Men, it is not a stretch to imagine that they could well be on the road of being the Harry Weinsteins, Al Frankens, Roy Moores, or Matt Lauers of the near future.
In my mind, they all share one thing in common: they are uninitiated men, or more precisely, wrongly initiated into what it means to be a man.
Former NFL defensive lineman and coach, Joe Ehrmann, had this to say in the documentary ‘The Mask You Live In’:
“My earliest memory is my father bringing me down to my mother’s basement, putting up his hands and teaching me how to throw jabs and punches. It was there that he gave me those words: “Be a Man”. Stop with the tears. Stop with the emotions. If you are going to be a man in this world you have to learn how to dominate and control people and circumstances. I left the room in tears, feeling I wasn’t man enough. Football became a tremendous place to hide. You can hide inside the helmet. You can hide behind the roar of the crowd. You get to project this façade, this persona of what it means to be a man in this culture. I thought if I could manifest this hyper-masculinity, somehow, it would validate who I was. Certainly, my father would respect me; see how powerful…how strong I was. Then he’d give me the love and attention that I desperately wanted. I ask every man to think about what age they were, what was the context, when somebody told you to Be a Man. That’s one of the most destructive phrases in this culture, I believe.”
This issue not only impacts gender relations, but spills over into our politics and the sustainability of our future on this planet. It is why I am investing so much time on it. If my words – my voice – can be heard by more and more men (women too), and through them, I manage to prevent but one instance of sexual assault, I will have done my share.
In Part I and Part II of this series, we’ve listened to several young men explain why they often objectify women. We’ve talked about the holes in their psyches, and explored ways in which they can begin to heal. We’ve listened to their fears of rejection, intimacy and vulnerability.
They have shared their sadness stemming from a sense of being split from their right-brained essence.
We’ll now deal with Ethan’s answer to why he sometimes objectifies women through pornography. We can as well substitute the word ‘objectify’, with harass, exploit, or rape.
ETHAN: “When I use porn semi-frequently, I do so whenever I am disconnected from myself. Because I feel disconnected, less present, less in my heart, and less in my body.”
This has everything to do with two very famous erections.
Meet Priapus, the John Holmes of ancient mythology
The God of Lust and Fertility, Priapus was the son of Aphrodite, which means that every hard-on is mothered by love and beauty. So far, so good.
Until Hera came along.
Hera is the queen and mistress of heaven. Brought up in a domesticated and orderly household, she is also the goddess of marriage and the family. Suspecting her philandering husband, Zeus, of being Priapus’ father, Hera deceptively offered to help Aphrodite’s delivery of Priapus. With just one touch of her finger on Aphrodite’s belly, Hera caused Priapus’s ‘deformity’ and unshapeliness. Horrified, his mother rejected her son, and banished him to a mountainside on Earth.
What does the myth point to?
We’re back to that eons-old, tug-of-war I talked about in my post on why monogamy is so damn difficult: between our desires and conventions.
As Goddess of Marriage, Hera likes only one kind of erection: the procreating kind within the bounds of conjugal love. To her, Priapus is living testimony of philandering. Therefore, indirectly, she made sexual imagination ugly and shameful, and banished it to the mountainside – our modern day Red Light District, Pornhub, Las Vegas, etc. In his lecture, ‘Pink Madness’, James Hillman said that the Hera archetype is what causes us to see Priapus as deformed and distorted.
Then came this guy, St. Augustine.
I wonder why he doesn’t look as happy as Priapus.
When he was sixteen, back in 370 C.E., he went with his father to a public bath, and there, had an involuntary boner. He called it inquieta adulescentia, or restless young manhood.
Imagining himself a soon-to-be grandfather, Dad was pleased.
Mom, a pious Christian, and the Hera in this story, wasn’t.
“She made a considerable bustle,” Augustine wrote in his ‘Confessions’, “to ensure that you, my God, were my father rather than him.”
A year later, when Augustine was sent to study to Carthage, his father died. Commenting on Sarah Ruden’s translation of ‘Confessions’, Stephen Greenblatt wrote in The New Yorker:
“If the grieving widow also felt some relief at his death—given that he was a dangerous influence on her beloved son—any hopes she might have had that Augustine would embark at once on the path of chastity were quickly dashed.”
“I came to Carthage,” Augustine wrote, “to the center of a skillet where outrageous love affairs hissed all around me.” (Sounds like Vegas)
Within a year or two of what appears to have been a period of feverish promiscuity, Augustine settled down with the woman with whom he lived.
But his mother was still not satisfied. When Augustine was getting ready to leave Carthage to take a teaching position in Milan, his mother, Augustine writes, “was hanging
onto me coercively, trying to either stop my journey or come along with me on it.” Lying, he told her that he was only seeing off a friend, and persuaded her to spend the night at a shrine near the harbor. “I got away, and got away with it.” A few years later, his mother sailed from North Africa to join him, and once settled in his household, sought to change her son’s life by getting rid of his mistress and finding him a suitable Catholic girl for him to marry.
In little more than a year’s time, Augustine had converted to the Catholic faith.
Then something really weird happened…
In the Roman port of Ostia, a few days before setting sail for Africa, Augustine and his mother were standing by a window that looked out onto an enclosed garden, and talking intimately. Their conversation, serene and joyful, led them to the conclusion that no bodily pleasure, no matter how great, could ever match the happiness of the saints. And then, Augustine recounts, “stretching upward with a more fiery emotion,” he and his mother experienced something remarkable: they felt themselves climbing higher and higher, through all the degrees of matter and through the heavenly spheres and, higher still, to the region of their own souls and up toward the eternity that lies beyond time itself. (Here comes the creepy part) “While we were speaking and panting for it, with a thrust that required all the heart’s strength, we brushed against it slightly.” It is difficult to convey in translation the power of the account, Greenblatt writes, and of what it meant for the thirty-two-year-old son and the fifty-five-year-old mother to reach this climax together. Then it was over: “Suspiravimus,” Augustine writes. “We sighed, and returned to the sound of our speech.”
Fast forward forty years or so, and Augustine still can’t get over his inquieta adulescentia, or unruly adolescent boner:
“But when it must come to man’s great function of the procreation of children the members which were expressly created for this purpose will not obey the direction of the will, but lust has to be waited for to set these members in motion, as if it had legal right over them.”
And this ardor, Greenblatt adds, to which Augustine gives the technical name “concupiscence,” was not simply a natural endowment or a divine blessing; it was a touch of evil. What a married man and woman who intend to beget a child do together is not evil, Augustine insisted; it is good. “But the action is not performed without evil.” True, sexual intercourse—as Augustine knew from long experience with his mistress and others—is the greatest bodily pleasure. But the surpassing intensity of pleasure is precisely its dangerous allure, its sweet poison: “Surely, any friend of wisdom and holy joys . . . would prefer, if possible, to beget children without lust.”
(Surely, if you say so)
Augustine’s tortured recognition that involuntary arousal (or hard-on) was an inescapable presence—not only in conjugal lovemaking but also in what he calls the “very movements which it causes, to our sorrow, even in sleep, and even in the bodies of chaste men”—shaped his most influential idea, one that transformed the story of Adam and Eve and weighed down the centuries that followed: originale peccatum = original sin.
This idea became one of the cornerstones of Christian orthodoxy.
Augustine went on to shape Christian theology for both Roman Catholics and Protestants, and to bequeath to all of us the conviction that there is something fundamentally damaged about the entire human species. There has probably been no more important Western thinker in the past fifteen hundred years. [Greenblatt].
He also shaped the beliefs of Puritans.
And that, Dear Ethan, is our legacy, in two erections.
“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” – H.L. Mencken
What happens when our natural lust and sexual imagination are banished by the touch of Hera’s finger, or by Augustine’s touch of evil?
We repress, and become ashamed and exiled from our sensuality; “disconnected” as you said: less in our hearts, and less in our bodies.
And then we look for substitutes, ‘toxic mimics’, as Barry Spector calls them in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’.
Is anyone surprised then that the states with the highest viewership of pornography are located in the Bible Belt? Or – as if pointing the finger back at Hera and Augustine’s mother – by the fact that the two most popular porn terms searched for by men include the word “Mother”?
“The insistence to obscure the true nature of our species’ sexuality leaves half our marriages collapsing under a tide of swirling sexual frustrations, libido-killing boredom, dysfunction, confusion, and shame.” – Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá: ‘Sex at Dawn’
Our insistence on opposing spirit and mind to both nature and sexuality, makes us become split (disconnected, in Ethan’s terms), and at war with ourselves and our instinctual appetites. Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed, gave Eros poison to drink.
Pornography is now an industry worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide. According to Pornhub, in 2016, the human race consumed enough hours of porn to last 5,246 centuries! Porn, says James Hillman, is the return of the repressed.
“Our sexual tastes are much more psychologically deep, even tender and sensitive than is currently imagined. Crucially – in all cases of addiction, it’s never that we are simply greedy or lusty or depraved. The real reason is always more poignant and more worthy of sympathy: we get addicted because we’re sad.” – Alan de Botton
Sad, because, like Priapus, we have been exiled from our natural sensuality, so we now look for it through fantasy.
The problem is that the fantasy starts becoming more lifelike than the real, and we end up, as Alan Watts cautioned, “bestowing more metaphysical and aesthetic value to what is lifelike to what is life”.
Reality begins to disappoint us. (e.g. the movie ‘Her’)
In 2016, an all-new term shot into the top searches on Pornhub: ‘Overwatch’, in reference to the popular video game released earlier that year, known for its fast action and overtly sexualized characters. It appears that the trend is moving more toward fantasy than reality. ‘Generic’ porn is being replaced with fantasy specific, or scenario specific scenes.
Losing our Senses
My friend Theo, who I’m currently helping navigate across his own love and existential tumult, wrote this to me as he entered the wilderness after many days sitting in front of his computer:
“Ninety percent of our human story as hunter-gatherers, forgotten. We’ve retained all the fears of the Savannah, but none of the skills. Instead of stars, we now can’t find our way without a GPS. The world’s shrill cacophony roaring in our ears makes it impossible to listen to silence. The bark’s rugosity, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff, the silk of a leaf…unfamiliar. Our sense of smell and taste blunted by exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality. We now rely on labels to tell us what will nourish us. Our sight, bleared by glaring and flickering blue light, misses the forest’s secret clues and diminishes its rich depth…diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred daily by a lightning storm of histrionic images and voices that incite us to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage, and fear – soon losing their effect, requiring more potent doses to keep us hooked – have made it impossible for us to know what exactly it is we are to do with ourselves in stillness. No wonder we’re always bored. Like a violin, discarded in the dusty attic of our past – strings slack, tuning pegs broken, and cracked bout – we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize, so can’t play our once rightful part in the concert hall of Earth. In that state of alienation, rather than attuning ourselves to her symphony and harnessing her power, we now are bent on her domination and destruction.”
Exacerbating our state of exile, our increasingly virtual world is pushing us deeper into Plato’s Cave.
In the allegory, Plato likens people to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets – the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are only the shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. The prisoners mistake appearance for reality. They think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) are real; they know nothing of the real causes of the shadows.
In its truest sense, Alan Watts suggested, American culture is the most ‘immaterialist’.
In his blog for ‘The Stone’, Richard Kearney asks if today’s virtual dater and mater is not more like an updated version of Plato’s Gyges, who can see everything at a distance, but is touched by nothing. “Are we perhaps entering an age of excarnation,” Kearney asks, “where we obsess about the body in increasingly disembodied ways? For if incarnation is the image become flesh, excarnation is flesh become image.”
Pornography, he adds, is paradoxically a twin of Puritanism. Both display an alienation from flesh – one replacing it with the virtuous, the other with the virtual. Each is out of touch with the body.
In his book ‘De Anima’ Aristotle pronounced that touch is the most intelligent sense, because it is the most sensitive. As such, it is the most universal of the senses. In this pronouncement, he not only was challenging his own previous conceptions, but the dominant prejudice of the Platonic doctrine of his time, which held that sight was the highest sense. Aristotle did not win. The Platonists prevailed, and the Western universe – our universe – became a system governed by the ‘soul’s eye’. Western philosophy (our ideas) thus sprang from a dualism between the intellectual senses, crowned by sight, and the lower animal senses, stigmatized by touch [Kearney].
We’re back to the battle between spirit/mind vs flesh/nature; Psyche vs Eros; between the ideas of the Myce and the Minos I talked about in Part II.
Enter the weeping, pre-Platonist philosopher, Heraclitus.
This guy is best known for his aphorism that one cannot step into the same river twice. But his more important doctrine, in my mind, is his commitment to the unity of opposites, whereby no entity, or person, can occupy a single state at a single time. While Heraclitus did not coin it, the concept of ‘enantiodromia’ has been attributed to him.
Enantiodromia (Ancient Greek: enantios – opposite, and dromos – running course), basically means that the superabundance of any force, inevitably produces its opposite. It is similar to the principle of equilibrium in the natural world, in that any extreme, is opposed by the system in order to restore balance. When things get to their extreme, they turn into their opposite. (For an example of this dynamic, between the interplay of male and female energies, read the excerpt of Elizabeth Zioga’s blog, included in Part II).
In analytical psychology, enantiodromia means that something that is repressed (a man’s natural sensuality, or instinctual appetites, for example), shapeshifts in the unconscious into something powerful and threatening. To wit: St. Augustine’s natural erection turning into the touch of evil.
Carl Jung had this to say about it:
“Enantiodromia. This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time, an equally powerful counterposition is built up, which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control.”
How do we heal this split caused by Hera and St. Augustine?
Enantiodromia also refers to the process whereby one seeks out and embraces an opposing quality, internalizing it in a way that results in individual wholeness. This process is the crux of Jung’s notion, called the “path of individuation”. One must incorporate an opposing archetype (or essence) into their psyche to reach a state of internal completion.
“Mental or physical symptoms appear when we have forgotten something essential. They arise from the underworld – or the body – where they have been exiled by the mind. We convert neurosis (stress, depression, anxiety, or obsessive behavior) into authentic suffering, through active participation or soul-making. Illness indicates the need to establish a relationship with a particular deity” says Barry Spector, in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’.
Enter Hedone, Goddess of Sensual Pleasure, Enjoyment, and Delight.
Hedone was the daughter of Psyche (spirit or soul) and Eros (god of love and sexual attraction).
Sensual pleasure, enjoyment, and delight, are therefore, the products of the union and healthy balance between spirituality and sexuality, between mind and body.
Hedone is the deity with whom you, Ethan, must establish a relationship.
Full humanity, Richard Kearney says, requires the ability to sense and be sensed in turn: the power, as Shakespeare said, to “feel what wretches feel” — or, one might also add, what artists, cooks, musicians and lovers feel. We need to find our way in a tactile world again. We need to return from head to foot, from brain to fingertip, from iCloud to earth. To close the distance, so that Eros is more about proximity than proxy. So that soul becomes flesh, where it belongs. Such a move, I submit, would radically alter our “sense” of sex in our digital civilization. It would enhance the role of empathy, vulnerability and sensitivity in the art of carnal love, and ideally, in all of human relations. Because to love or be loved truly, is to be able to say, “I have been touched”.
The Road Back to our Hearts and Bodies
If you’ve been paying attention, Ethan, you’ll know right away that I am not going to suggest that we return to the sexual liberation of the 1960’s; to an unbalanced plunge into carnal pleasures. Enantiodromia, remember?
Though I am suggesting that we all flip St. Augustine the bird once and for all.
Meet Apollo, representative of logos, mind, reason, and intellect.
I know…not as impressive as Priapus’, but that’s not the point.
The point, as Alan de Botton said, is that the statue of Apollo gives greater prestige to a very important ideal. It pictures someone very successful, very admirable and competent – who is also highly sensuous. This ideal was meant to be in people’s minds as they grew up, as they judged themselves and others. The Greeks were presenting Apollo as someone who could combine being sexual with being clever and accomplished.
So, how do we find our way back to our natural sensuality?
I asked Theo this question and this was his prescription:
- Learn to Tango, the most erotic dance in the world. You will shed, as the female poet Kapka Kassabova said, the crippling binary neurosis of Western modernity whereby in matters of body and mind we are either intellecting, or having sex.
“Never give a sword to a man than cannot dance.”
Just take a look at our current political mess, and you’ll understand what Confucius meant by that.
Or, if you prefer the French, here’s playwright Moliere:
“There is nothing so necessary to man as the dance. Without dancing a man can do nothing. All the disasters of men, all the fatal misfortunes of which history is full, the blunders of politicians…all this comes from not knowing how to dance.”
- Read poetry every single day. Start with this selection. Then move on to Rumi, or Neruda, or Mirabai. Heck! Even the Bible’s ‘Song of Songs’.
- Learn to cook, and when you do, use your hands to mix, blend, and knead, as if you were caressing a woman’s or man’s body. As often as you can, cook by an open fire.
- Play music and sculpt.
- Go out often into the wild, but go alone, and without your electronic appendages. See everything…smell everything…touch everything.
- Give yourself permission to be who you are. Authenticity is a powerful aphrodisiac. Switch your existence from a mode of ‘having’ to one of ‘being’, and do not squander all your erotic and sensual energies in feverish pursuit of money, career, fame, and power. In Chapter 6 of my journey, I recount a personal, blissful experience of this kind.
- Have the courage to be vulnerable. One of the reasons why eroticism is dead in our world, as Alan Watts suggested, is because of our culturally-ingrained discomfort with vulnerability which we try to overcome by perfect self-control which is tantamount to a state of total paralysis. Control is a degree of inhibition, and a system, or person, that is perfectly inhibited, is completely frozen.
- Fall in love with your body, no matter the shape it’s in. Fall in love with your lover’s body, and in its presence, assume it’s virgin territory, and you, a daring, sensual explorer. Discover it with your five senses, every time, for the first time. You’ll always find a new, adorable freckle.
- Before lovemaking, do as Napoleon did, who once wrote to his wife, saying: “I’ll be home in three days. Don’t bathe.” Our natural scent is intoxicating.
- And, finally, when you and your partner meet, in love, recite this to each other:
In the 4th installment of this series, we will wrestle with Arturo’s response to why he often objectifies women:
“The women I typically objectify are the hardest ones for me to understand completely. The thing I notice, is how easily such a mysterious woman can [match] the ideal partner that I subconsciously created as a child.”
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 In his essay, ‘Big Red Son’ written in the late 90’s by David Foster Wallace, he added this footnote to his coverage of the Annual Adult Video Awards:
“Dark’s and Black’s movies are vile. They are meant to be. And the truth is that in-your-face-vileness is part of the schizoid direction porn’s been moving in all decade. For available, more acceptable, more lucrative, more chic – it has become also more “extreme”. In nearly all hetero porn now there is a new emphasis on anal sex, painful penetrations, degrading tableaux, and the psychological abuse of women. In certain respects, this extremism may simply be porn’s tracing Hollywood entertainment’s own arc. It’s hardly news that TV and legit film have also gotten more violent and explicit and raw in the last decade.”
 Enantiodromia. (2017, August 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:52, December 10, 2017.
A Winter Solstice Meditation
I write this on the Winter Solstice when the sun reaches its lowest point and darkness prevails over light.
For the past five years, on this day, I perform a simple ritual: I sit in quietude, light a candle, and read the words of Jesus.
Does that make me Christian or Catholic ? No more than reading Buddha’s teachings makes me a Buddhist. Does it matter?
It seems to me that walking away from a banquet because you do not like the way the table is set or disagree with the prescribed table manners makes you lose out on a wonderful meal; you throw out the baby with the bathwater and go hungry. That baby is Jesus’ message, now lost in the bustle of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays on the one hand, and on the other, co-opted and distorted by religious dogma into petrified historicity, or rarefied into divine balderdash, making his words as insubstantial and malnourishing as communion wafers. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that his message goes mostly unheeded.
My ritual is my way of finding a space to my own at the table, in a quiet corner, away from both the commercial din and the sorcery. Once there, I eat with my hands, sink my teeth into Jesus’ flesh, and suck the marrow of his wisdom. I require no intermediaries to partake in the banquet; no miracles or High-Priest authority; no translation necessary. His words, like a loaf of bread, are simple, yet all-nourishing.
A ritual is the enactment of a myth: a symbolic image or narrative of the possibilities of human experience. By participating in the myth, I am put in accord with that wisdom.
The Winter Solstice marks the day when to sun ends its southernmost decline. Tomorrow, it will turn back north and begin its ascending cycle making light prevail over darkness once again. That is why, on December 25, ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti: The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.
It never ceases to amaze me that, right around this time, the tiresome debate about the exact date of Jesus’ birth is renewed, further drowning his message under pointless calendrical calculations or by those who try to debunk the Nativity narrative by pointing at the presence of sheep at the manger claiming they would have been corralled and not left out on such a cold night in Bethlehem.
Again, does it matter?
By focusing on the factual, the symbolic meaning is lost and we deny ourselves its gifts.
I like to think of December 25 as the birth of what is possible in human experience; of the greater light we can kindle in ourselves to shine upon the world.
Among Jesus’ teachings, I am always drawn more strongly by this one:
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This is the good news! That the highest peaks of human transformation are within our reach, and not in some remote place at some distant point in the future.
When some Pharisees asked Jesus when God’s kingdom would come, he answered: “God’s kingdom isn’t something you can see. There is no use saying, ‘Look! Here it is.’ or ‘Look! There it is.’ God’s kingdom is here with you.”
In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas be elaborates: “If those who lead you say: See, the kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: It is in the sea, then the fish will go before you. But the kingdom is within you.”
It is the same notion contained in the Sanskrit phrase ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ occurring in the sacred Hindu Chandogya Upanishad (c. 600 BCE): ‘Thou Art That,’ meaning that the Self, in its original, pure, primordial state, is wholly or partially identifiable or identical with the Ultimate Reality that is the ground and origin of all phenomena. You’re it! basically. Or as Carl Sagan famously said: “We’re all stardust.”
The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi once said that an ordinary Christian won’t be satisfied unless he is told that God is somewhere far off in the heavens, not to be reached by us unaided. If he is told the simple truth, that “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he is not satisfied, and will read complex and far-fetched meanings into it. Only mature minds can grasp the simple truth in all its nakedness.
After Jesus delivers that simple truth, he offers the keys to this inner realm: “change and become like little children.”
Spanish poet Antonio Machado put it this way: All your words, Jesus, were one word: “Wakeup!”
I take it as an invitation to return to my primordial state; back to the way I was before the blank slate of my essence was carved with the “thou shall’s” and “thou shalt not’s” of the world; back to the time I could take a boy by the hand and not find it unseemly; when neither race nor station dictated who I would play with; when I was quick to anger but quicker to forgive; full of passion and compassion; when I could cry without shame or compunction; when my days were eternal because my gaze apprehended only the present; when everything appeared new and I lived in a constant state of awareness and delight; when I did not understand money so simple things gave me joy; when I was trustful, accepting, open, unselfconscious, and had not lost my capacity for wonder.
The world and distorted reality we’ve built around ourselves often impede our way back into that realm by cloaking it under what I imagine as the dark veil of an unchanging Winter’s Solstice – the darkness of our prejudices, intolerance, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, and vanities. The sun will never ascend if we do not clear its path from all that junk.
A sensitive and honest-minded man, said writer Fernando Pessoa, if he’s concerned about evil and injustice in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life.
That’s the reason I light a candle during my ritual: to illume my way back. And that is why, on December 25, I will celebrate Jesus’s birthday.
And you, wherever you are, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and invite you to sit at the table and feast.
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